Looking for Self Worth in a Mountain of Beads

Millions? Billions? Trillions of beads at the annual show… and where is my self worth?

It didn’t look like an exercise in self worth, but buttons and beads can camouflage a multitude of sins.

Entering the annual Button and Bead Show in Milwaukee might have felt like the highlight of a religious pilgrimage. Both Julie, my long-time friend and work colleague, and I had spent years expending our creative juices on the selection, manipulation, and threading of beads.

The 2016 Bead and Button Show in Milwaukee no longer had that magical draw for either of us, but it was an opportunity to see an exhibition we’d lusted after in our past. It provided a time to spend time together as she passed through my area and a way to spend a rainy day doing something besides sitting at Collectivo.

We entered the facility of over 185,000 square feet, where the Milwaukee Auto Show convened mid-winter. Instead of Acuras through Yugos there were beads — bugles through shamballas. It was overwhelming.

self worth

This June afternoon, I stood in the treasure trove of Ali Babba. The size of a football field, beads pooled everywhere — beads you could touch, drape, fuss over — with no counters in between or attendants hovering. Beads machine-made or hand-made, beads in the ROYGBIV spectrum, beads of bone, plastic, seed, porcelain, metal, rock, and glass were all in one room in piles, hung from walls, draped around necks. Here offered an opportunity for children to observe what a million? a billion? a trillion? of something looked like.

And with that environment came a peculiar, surprising annoying sense. I felt diminished. My self worth plummeted with this complex, enormous, inexplicable presence of beads. Where did they come from? Where did they go? Who touched them? What transpired? There were no answers — just an immensity of possibilities.

I stood in the middle of the Wisconsin Center overwhelmed.

Where lay my existence in this colossal universe?

self worth

Julie did not notice my liliputian reality, my quest for self worth in this sea. Detailed, specific, she was looking for the perfect bead for the perfect string. Her mind, set to find a synchronized set of seven, turned the options over and over till exactly the right grouping resulted. My patience did not approach hers, and I scurried two or three vendors ahead of her then circled back to ensure I wouldn’t lose her during her search.

My stomach growled with hunger. Our noon arrival slid past my feeding time. Vendors had set their warmed, smell-good lunches to the side while attending to customers. I could smell warmed cheese, baked potatoes, grilled burgers.

I put my hand in my bag to grab my mobile and check the time.


My finger found the straight pin attached to a 1940’s Red Cross pin. My mother had been assigned to an Italian brigade as part of the WWII Red Cross recreation program. When I had left the house earlier in the day, I’d placed in my bag some of the objects that I’d yet to sell on Ebay. I thought perhaps I’d find at the show a vendor willing to sell these decorative objects.

The prick to my finger struck a chord beyond pain. It was an instant reminder my mother: her off-beat humor, her desire to explore the world, her ability to live fully in each moment. She had often questioned her own self worth; to me, she was the most incredible woman I’d ever known.

So there amongst the hoards of mediocre beads, I’d found the ruby.

The memory of mom turned the rhinestone into a diamond. I knew how much I valued her and how much she had loved me. In that brief moment, I saw her own self worth actualized as I did my own.

“Look at these!” friend Julie interrupted my thoughts as she called to me over the mountains of African beads between us. She handed me a set of rough-hewn, translucent sky-blue beads, each 3/4 of an inch in diameter.

To feel them, one couldn’t help but recognize the distinct feel of ocean salt. “They’re beads from Ghana. Each one is formed by putting ground recycled glass into a hand pressed mold, melting the glass in an oven, and, when cool and removed from the mold, polishing each with water and sand against a smooth stone.”

The bead vendor described his visit to one of the villages that produced the beads. It was a tradition from which this village had developed its pride and self worth.

We looked at the rainbow of Ghana’s glass beads, then the tear-drop-shaped ones from Senegal. I could see Julie was still calculating which beads would perfectly add to the necklace she was stringing in her head.

Abruptly and thankfully she said, “I want to visit that vintage vendor across the aisle, then let’s head for lunch.”

YOUR THOUGHTS about self worth? Your opinion is always welcome by scrolling down or emailing johaselhoef@gmail.com.

Judy O Haselhoef, a social artist, story-teller, and author of “GIVE & TAKE: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti,” blogs regularly at her website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.

Copyright @2016: If you’d like to use any part of it (up to 200 words), please give full attribution and this website, www.JOHaselhoef.com.

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