Tiger’s Eye Mala

The prayer beads that saw me through a feverish midlife crisis

Lauren Groff
Máté Pintér, Magnification of Tiger's Eye stone, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Objects of Desire is a new column in which we invite a writer to meditate on an everyday item that haunts them.

Every morning I stumble upstairs with a cup of coffee in the dark so that I can start the work of fiction while still dreaming. My inner editor has a voice like Grace Paley’s, wry and skeptical, and it’s best that she remains asleep while the work is still tender. I close the door in my study, which is the room where my younger son spent his babyhood. His own newborn dreams still drift like jellyfish across the walls; all I have to do is reach out a hand to touch one sliding by. When I sit down, I pick up my tiger’s eye mala. I can’t see it there in the dark, but it is cool to my hand, and the noise the beads make when I lift them is drowsy. I meditate on the beads, my breath sending me deeper into my dream state, but now I’m lucid and in control. When I reach the tassel, the scenes I am working on that day have somehow opened up to me in my subconscious, where the true work of writing is done.

My mala is, like all complex and interesting things—like all interesting people—a source of ambivalence. By this, I mean that I feel strongly about it in opposing directions. The physical object is endlessly beautiful to me, the beads a warm brown shot through with changeable gold, interspersed with delicate filigreed gold beads, finished with a fine silk tassel. I love it so much that I often have the urge to put it into my mouth and suck on it. The desire to bite a baby’s fat thigh, to squeeze a puppy, is called cute aggression, and I often feel it toward things I find so beautiful that I know that I am unworthy of them. I once stood in a church in Umbria, looking at a Piero della Francesca painting, and had the extreme impulse to either smash a chair across it or to slowly lick the face of its sorrowing Madonna.

Tiger’s eye is a rooting stone, said to provide clarity, to focus the mind. While I love the physical object, I’m embarrassed that I have suckered myself into believing my necklace does exactly this to me, that elements as ancient as gemstones would have anything to do with anything as ephemeral and slight as human emotion. I am also ashamed that I paid a stupid amount of money for the mala. The objects true to the spirit, it seems to me, should not be bought and sold; the objects true to the spirit should be given and gladly received. Still, the mala made me buy it one weekend when I was a literary guest at a spa in the Arizona desert that’s so expensive the beds are clouds, and I had my own private hot tub from which I watched the purple dawn on the distant mountains, smelling the wakening sage, watching the javelina trot about in the plains below. It was a working weekend, but all I had to do was give a talk on a book I’d written, and in return I was given three days of luxe.

I love my mala so much that I often have the urge to put it into my mouth and suck on it.

In truth, such luxury tied me into another knot of ambivalence: all mixed up together was my joy of those silent early-morning hours, the gratitude at being invited into this place where I didn’t belong, the annoyance at watching all the rich people tottering about in puffy white robes like giant swaddled babies. My simmering irritation rose to a boil every time I had to walk by the artificial river that ran through the spa, because it sickened me to think of all that water in the drought-struck desert evaporating into the air. I have always been uncomfortable with how luxury in our time requires breathtaking waste; I was even more uncomfortable with how much I loved it all. My inner Grace Paley would not be muted. At the end of the weekend, I was dragging my suitcase to the airport van, when, from a table full of far more precious and vivid gemstones, my mala looked me dead in the eye, and said, You’re mine.

The mala has been beside me every day the five years since; it has accompanied me to countless cities on book tours; it carried me through the pandemic and saw me through a strange feverish midlife crisis after a year of sequestering, when suddenly the smell of the roses was so bright I could taste it, when the sunlight felt like passion, when, had I not counted the beads every morning to ground myself, I probably would have stolen a car, had an affair, licked every Madonna in every church in Italy. I am, my mala tells me every day in the dark as I rise out of sleep, the flawed and difficult and contrary person I am, not the better person I desire to be. But that’s all right; perfect people would have no need to make art. The mala is the object of my heart, the thing that allows me to wait patiently, breathing, in the darkness until, in the window, there comes the first slow flare of dawn light.

Lauren Groff is a three-time National Book Award finalist and author of the novels The Monsters of Templeton, Arcadia, Fates and Furies, Matrix, and The Vaster Wilds and the short story collections Delicate Edible Birds and Florida. @legroff
Originally published:
May 22, 2024


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