My nurse practitioner—who, in case I haven’t mentioned it, is the BEST EVER—asked me this past week if I was finally really landing in Portland. And I realized, yes, yes, it’s happening. The last years of physical and mental health problems have come to a crisis that is FORCING me in a slow-motion arm-wrestling match, to stop, drop, and heal.
When I move, one of the first things I do is set up altars. Our house is full of them.
We have one for our little household family. Photos of our wedding, our broom, photos of the dogs, and a spiraling philodendron. Julie has one of her own in her office.
For the last chunk of time, I have had two altars, one dark and one light. But it’s come time to change things.
After months and months of IKEA bookshelves languishing in their boxes, we got some help putting them together. The photo to the left is of the current state of one set—two wide ones with a narrow one in the middle. There is a similar set, but just a wide pair, on the perpendicular wall. And then there’s one last single shelf on my desk.
So what’s to be on all these shelves?
Let’s talk about the shelves you can’t see first.
They have makeup, hair products, and spiritual supplies on them. These are difficult categories for me to separate, but I do my best. Truly, I try. So there’s a metal bucket of incense, some lavender in a smudge stick, a pair of wooden sticks from a ceremony at Body Tribal at Four Quarters years ago, a half-full bottle of floracita, seawater, a singing bowl, hair clips and barrettes, pens, ink, paper, perfume. If you’ve been around a while, you get the idea.
But the shelves you see above, they’re a whole different animal.
The Books Hold My Heart
The Qur’an with its lovely green-and-gold dust cover, my father’s copy of the King James Version of the Bible tucked into the case I had made for it (And with his prescription bottle sticker “May Cause Dizziness” firmly glued onto the title page); the Tanakh I’ve had since 1989; my grandmother’s Book of Common Prayer; tales of Inanna Queen of Heaven; two copies (first and third versions) of The Spiral Dance, and a copy of the Book of Mormon I acquired somewhere along the way…these books live all together on one shelf. Robert Alter will be all over the place, I’m sure, especially his take on the Psalms.
My copies of Hindu, Daoist, and Buddhist sacred texts will also live with them as I get them from Julie’s shelf. Perhaps An Examined Faith should go there as a UU sacred Unitarian text? Oh, and there’ll be several other translations of the Bible, I’m sure. At least NRSV, CEB, various Alter books (see above), and probably some older ones I have lying around.
Soon enough, the shelves will be full of theology, biblical commentary (The Queer Bible Commentary, the Global Bible Commentary, Journey Through the Psalms, True to Our Native Land, and the Women’s Bible Commentary are all good), reflections/meditation texts, worship/liturgy resources, and some other religious and spiritual miscellany. In the Service of Life by Ashleen O’Gaea will be by The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, alongside Jewish Pastoral Care and Whence Comes My Help.
I’ve brought a few armfuls of books over, but as you can see, the wide shelves are yet to be filled.
The center shelf now…well, it will require more detail, but here’s some general thoughts about how I put devotional altars together.
From Deep to On High: Stacking Altars
I have always loved altars that stacked somehow.
I’ve had a table with a shelf on top with a little footstool on top of that, for example. For a while, I had a big desk with shelves behind the work space. For a long time, in my roaming days, my altar was a foot locker. It held all my supplies, and I could create or close and move it when I needed to.
Eventually, my dear Maria Alice gave me a table with room to keep supplies beneath. I put the footlocker below and boxes on top in a pyramid. It served for years.
In fact, one of the altars I’m making this week will be on that table. It’s being transformed into my musical space. It will hold my doumbek, shekere, bells, and singing bowl, along with a few candles, shakers, and other little musical doodads.
The other table is being repurposed to work in concert with a whiteboard, in service to ministry.
This time, though, I have hit the jackpot. Truly.
As must be clear by now, I am blessed with an embarrassment of riches in the space department.
The center of my spiritual practice is devotion. The work of the living into “the Ways of the Earth and the Ways of the One God,” as Jonathan said so beautifully at my ordination, is my work. I have tried to turn away from that work over and over again, to serve in only one way. But it is not given to me to do so.
Perhaps one cannot serve two masters, but I do not feel mastered by Those I love, even though I am commissioned into Their service. Ocean and God Herself. Earth and Sky. After all, the One God conspired with Sea and Earth to make Be-ingness, or I believe. The thunder god, the god of wind and lightning, lightning striking the sea, and Life!
The Ancient That is Reborn and the Reborn That is Ancient. Inanna and Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Mithras, and Jesus. So many.
And so the center of my shelves, surrounded by all those books, is my altar of devotion. My altar of things I cannot put into words.
The very top is a candle wrapped in a leafy, wrought iron holder; a ceramic cup made by my dear friend, Charles Hughes with incense holder inside; and a stone chalice.
The next shelf down is pictured to the left.
The Sea Holds My Heart
A fat woman’s body shaped into a Damiana bottle, now filled with blue water, wrapped in beaded necklaces, one made for me by my beloved teacher, Pamela Alexander. The necklace terminates in an inch-and-a-half labradorite cabochon.
Pamela called it the Yemaya necklace, and this shelf is indeed devoted to that powerful orisha. I was introduced to her and to a ritual for her by an ile of la Regla de Ocha (Santeria), and while I have no initiations, I approach the orishas with tremendous respect and admiration.
Yemaya, She Whose Descendants Are Numerous as the Fish, Ocean (the top two-thirds, at least) of many moods. Mother of All and of only some. Fierce love. Fierce moods. Waves crashing on cliffs, shells on the beach, blue and green glass abraded into smoothness. And most of all, the living and dying, consuming and expelling, the destroying and rebirthing of all that is the Sea.
For now this is enough and more than enough. And yet there are shelves to come. There is the veiled shelf below Yemaya. There is the great goddess of love and seafoam. There is divination. There is more to come.
Thank you for sharing this project with me.
And before I go, please do remember — June 12th at 4 pm Pacific Daylight US Time — Facebook Live in The Way of the River Community Group. We’ll be talking about the solstice, what it means for each of us, some traditional or communal celebrations, and the idea of the apex of power leading to repose. Do join if you can!