I light candles while the tea pot hums. Nearby is an odd pile of things I’ve gathered on the kitchen table: a photograph I dug out of a box, a lump of clay I bought in San Francisco imprinted optimistically with the word "CALM," a seashell I found at Galveston and a feather from my own backyard.
I begin by clearing space. From the bookshelf in the corner of the living room I move away a wooden bowl. Then I scoot the lamp down to the end. The picture frames get pushed together in a jumbled crowd.
When the going gets tough and the world, or my version of it, starts hurtling off its axis and into the blackness of night, I collect things, make room and get to work building an altar.
My midwife, who had delivered no fewer than a hundred babies before she helped with my son, said I was the first woman she knew who brought a birth altar to the hospital. It was true that along with a mini-cooler of sandwiches for my husband, an extra nightgown and a tiny outfit, we lugged an old clarinet case I’d painted and filled with images of the Madonna as well as photos of my husband’s mother and my own.
Six years later, when our country embarked on this latest war, I gathered images of our leaders, ripped from the newspaper with perhaps more fervor than necessary, and gathered them cozily around a tall candle, forcing them to lie for weeks upon a poem about peace.
As an adult, I first became enchanted with the tiny altars encountered in graveyards. In the South of France, ornate framed photos decorated the marble stones. In Greece, I found packets of blackened cigarettes and sealed bottles of ouzo encased among the monuments. In South Texas, stuffed animals and pink flamingoes guarded the departed. One night I joined a Day of the Dead procession in East Austin that began at the neighborhood Catholic church and ended in a community center filled with altars to the dead — sculptures ordinary people made about their loss. I was hooked. Now at Halloween I prepare a temporary monument to my dead with candles, flowers, skeletons, and tiny pictures of my grandmother and my friend Bill who died of AIDS. Later, I would learn that caring for altars, in the church or home, has always been the work of women. If men knew God, then women knew God’s stuff.
In the Lutheran church where I was raised, the altar was high and distant as God himself. A model of symmetry and order, the altar was flanked by identical candelabras and twin bouquets of gladiolas or mums. In the center, the pastor’s massive service book rose from its stand like a bound version of Moses’ tablets. Later, when democracy and feminism had entered in, the altar was bare as a dinner table after the dishes are cleared away, and still an inaccessible, foreign holy space that I encountered only briefly as the church’s first altar girl, lighting the stair step candles with a long brass pole.
My altars are familiar and available, and my family has learned my ways. The night our kitten lay under warming lamps at the vet’s office, breathing through a slender tube, I asked my son to gather the cat’s things. He returned with cat toys—wands of ragged feathers, a misshapen leopard-print mouse fat with catnip, and a handful of jingle balls in pastel colors. Around the rose-scented Virgin de Guadalupe candle we arranged the tiny red collar, the toys and a tooth-pricked container of cat treats. In the center of the kitchen table, the center of our lives, our kitten altar remained until the kitten himself returned, bouncy and jagged with scars.
Altars mark our celebrations, too. The day I mailed off my first novel to my agent I gathered all the omens I could think of—a candle, my lucky pen, and a tiny doll-sized book. When I was pregnant, plastic babies huddled around the tell-tale pregnancy test.
Altars aren’t magic. They don’t perform miracles. They get their power from their existence outside normal time or space. Having no practical purpose, they resound with meaning and beauty. They change everything, and anyone can make one. An altar can sprout up on a window sill or shelf, in the kitchen or the bedroom, on the side of the road or dashboard. It can contain anything that engages the senses and holds meaning. I like incense and flowers, candles, fruit or cookies, photographs, seashells or stones I’ve collected, postcards, a feather, a bone, a tiny statue. I keep one at work that no one knows about — simply the occasional rearranging of family photos, favorite postcards, and found rocks and shells on my desk. And like life, altars aren’t static — the pear begs to be eaten, the flowers’ water must be changed — it is a living thing, the heart’s living room.
The altar I am making tonight is to wish peace for my best friend and her son who have lost someone dear to them. First, I drape a purple silk scarf I used to wear daily with great joy, defining my altar space. Then I prop up a photograph of them I took last summer when we all last got together. Nearby I lay a Venetian glass stickpin my friend sent me from her trip there. Then a Buddha from my brother, the CALM clay ball, the curving seashell for death, a feather for release. The tea pot whistles and I pour water to make tea, then add my steaming cup to the altar next to a saucer of cookies. I put on a CD and the sound of drums fills the air like a heartbeat. I light the candles and shadows dance around the living room. As I stand before my altar, I look, think and breathe in lemony sandalwood. This part is like meditation, when one lets go of the world. I am connecting in my mind objects before me and the people and feelings they represent. When I am done, I sip the tea and nibble cookies that have been blessed under my gaze.
When sadness overcomes, when good unfolds, I want to stop traffic. I want to shout: Look over here! Instead, I go home and make an altar — a collage of what’s on my mind and in my heart, a path of my joy or sorrow. Sometimes it’s the only think I can do to make a difference, and that’s not a small thing.