The Mala Lady

I met the mala lady today.

I met the mala lady because after taking apart my mala (prayer beads) and re-stringing the beads — like many stories I’ve written — I couldn’t finish it off nicely. The frayed ends of the string stared at me. As a former rock climber, I am well versed in tying knots, so this was especially vexing. As a writer who has trouble with endings, this was fitting and expected.

So I dug out a page I’d saved from the Shambhala Center’s newsletter back in the fall, when I was a religion reporting intern for the Daily Camera. It had an ad that read:

ANTJE’S MALA STRINGING with great tassels/JEWELRY REPAIR and custom-made malas/jewelry. One-day mala stringing, so you don’t have to miss your practice.

Although I didn’t have a mala problem months ago when I decided to save this, I couldn’t help being curious about what my mala would look like strung by a pro with a “great tassel.” I’ve always had a frankenmala, cobbled together by yours truly with a little help from my friends. I got caught in the rain with it once and the string shrunk, sucking the beads too close together. I used to be kind of proud of it, but last night I thought I could improve its homemade, crafty feel. Well, good thing I saved that ad, because I just couldn’t knot it up without having it look like I’d hog-tied my prayer beads.

If there’s ever been a lesson on not being attached to appearances, this is a good one. What does it matter what a mala looks like? To some extent, it should be treated as an object of reverence. But a mantra’s potency doesn’t depend on whether a practitioner’s mala is made of amethyst or sandalwood or plastic, and I doubt a sturdy, if ugly, knot will undo the good intention of my mantras.

Even so, I didn’t want to be that girl with the hog-tied mala the next time I go to a retreat (I’m a slow learner), so I called the mala lady, Antje. I could drop it off at the store she works at, she said, but it would really be better to bring it to her house so we could meet. That way she could get a better feel for what I needed, what would suit me.

“I’m a visual person,” she said with an unidentifiable accent, “and this is important, these are your prayer beads.”

Just after noon, I dropped by her home in North Boulder, which had a realtor’s “For Sale” sign in the yard. Now, my house was a total disaster when we moved. If you’re moving, you just can’t help it. But when I walked into the mala lady’s house, I was still overcome with the feeling that I was back in St. Louis’ South City in my great-grandmothers tiny bungalow stuffed with everything she’d ever owned since the Great Depression. The mala lady gave my great-grandmother a run for her money.

Among all the stuff (oh, the stuff!) was what appeared to be the mala lady’s work area. She moved quickly, whipping out thread for my custom tassel (“Blue? Do you want navy, or a more royal blue? Or more purple? Because the navy will give it more of a gray feeling.”, counter beads and string (“Would you rather have fishing line?”).

I cleared a place to sit as she fired off questions. If I didn’t answer fast enough, she moved on to the next one.

“How much space between your beads? Half a bead?” she asked.

“I don’t know, uh, not too much space, I don’t want them loose. What do you think?”

“Here, this one is no good for a counter bead, it is too close to the size of your other beads, I think we need smaller…which string do you want?”

“Umm…”

“These beads look like horn or bone or something.”

“Actually, they’re made of yak horn.”

“Ah. Well, that’s not traditional, but that’s okay. How close together do you want your beads? Half a bead apart?”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I have no idea.

“Do you want a new guru bead? Because this one, it looks like what you’d find in the seat of your car.”

“Yes, I want a new one.” Finally, I had a definitive answer for something. She dug around in the multitude of plastic trays for a guru bead, which is the big bead at the start and end of the mala. A traditional Buddhist mala has 108 beads, plus one guru bead, and apparently is not made of yak horn. I chose two counter beads and an angular guru bead — $3 extra to drill into it — made of lapis lazuli (traditional?) and several hues for my custom tassel, which will hang from the guru bead.

I know I could have ordered something online, but that’s not the same as meeting the mala lady and getting a custom “great tassel.” I can’t wait.

“Okay, when do you need it? Thursday night okay?” she asked when we were done. Once again, I’m going to leave you with a lousy ending — at least until Thursday night.

UPDATE:

The mala is lovely, and the tassel really is great. The mala lady found two wooden beads on my mala that didn’t belong, so she removed them, substituting with the counters, but forgot to bring them with the mala when I came to her store to pick it up. (She is moving soon, and she was out and about on moving errands, so I picked it up late in the day from the store she where she works rather than her house.) I told her not to worry about the two extra beads, but she was kind enough to call me the next day and double check when she found them at home. The mala lady gets two thumbs up, five stars, six Buddhas (my own new rating system), etc.

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