Newly dead, nearly perfect
round goggle eyes still brown, still clear
I find no mark on him.
Only the gray tongue,
flaccid between dainty lethal teeth
and creamy whiskers stiff as quill,
speaks to me of death’s decay.
I lay an altar on his back
five ruffled shells
white feathers, dappled gray
a sea-pierced stone,
green water weeds.
Ripples swirl around us
tugging at him
like stubborn boys
rocking a mired car.
I race the tide
then let him go.
If life chooses to decompose
her masterpiece, the seal,
How can I beg eternity
for my creation?
I came to the making of altars by attending a summer solstice camp for women. The camp emphasized self-empowerment, community living and women’s spirituality. At the time, I knew nothing about Goddess-oriented spiritual practice. My only experience with ritual had been through conventional Christianity. Unable to accept the church’s dogma I had for many years, turned my back on religion. Nevertheless, the artist, the sensualist and the mystic within me missed the rites and sacraments. I often visited churches and cathedrals to experience the sense of the sacred that lingered there. The altar with its ceremonial candles and accoutrements never failed to strike a deep resonant chord of response through heart and spine.
My first day at Summer Solstice Camp, I saw a woman setting out a small bronze bowl, a feather and a blue glass figurine on a purple cloth. Without knowing how I knew, I saw that she was creating an altar. Suddenly, I realized altars were not the sole provenance of cathedrals or synagogues. They could belong to me and I too could create them. It was a profound revelation.
I can’t remember when I made my first outdoor altar. Wherever it was, the moment held the same urgency and numinance it holds for me today:
Walking along with the intention of remaining present to my surroundings, I return from the blindness of thought to notice new growth at the tips of evergreens, the feel of pine needles underfoot, the shape of clouds, a certain shade of blue. Something catches my eye – pine cone, fallen red berry, yellow autumn leaf or brilliant bit of moss. I pick it up, heart beating a little faster, and continue along path or shore at the same pace, relaxing into the rhythm of the walk with a heightened awareness. Now there is no need to bring myself into the present. I am fully alive and guided. My route, my mind, my spirit are in larger hands. I go along, gathering whatever has naturally fallen at my feet and calls to me. As these things accumulate in my hands an idea begins to form and I begin searching for the right place – a stump, gnarled root, flat rock, grassy hollow.
Divine madness strikes. From this point on there is no stopping me. I enter a timeless space of joy; moving, arranging, placing, hunting, until at last, the altar is complete and perfect. Stepping back I close my eyes, then open them to what I have created. I look at it carefully, drinking in the beauty, reveling in the creation. I pray. And then I walk away ‑ leaving this offering to the predation of careless joggers, curious dogs, wind, tide, rain… Joy accompanies me.
For me being a spiritual being means engaging in creation. This is the function of a god. It is the essence of godliness.
I do not always venture out doors with the expectation of building an altar. Instead the possibility shimmers somewhere deep within; sometimes reaching consciousness at the outset, sometimes never glimmering to the surface. The first step is to go outside. The second is to practice being where I am rather than daydreaming, worrying, making up monologues, revisiting the past or anticipating the future.
I have received many lessons from accepting the pieces that are given to me. In the beginning I was sometimes presented with components I didn’t care for – half-flattened pinecones, broken shells, jagged rocks. My distaste for these objects stemmed from a feeling that somewhere there existed a prettier more shapely version of whatever I held in my hand. I carried around idealized pictures, fantasies of perfection, against which I compared everything in my path. It wasn’t much of a leap to see that I brought the same habit of comparing, ranking, and evaluating to my relationships with both others and myself. Since then, I have learned that if, during the initial gathering, I try to reject a piece brought to my notice, it haunts me. I usually find myself retracing my steps to recover it. Often, the scorned object ends up being essential to the piece. Building the altars teaches me to value things, people, myself for what they are.
Sometimes, after the work of placement has begun, I leave out a piece I have gathered or go looking for another element, like an acorn or scrap of bark, to add to my collection. I may decide, after placing a red rock, that I need twelve others and spend fifteen minutes sifting sand to find them. Or, I might want another semi-squashed cone to offset the first. Now, I am speaking my truth, combining my vision with the one granted me in the gathering. I have transformed judgment into discernment and preference – artist’s tools.
This process reflects the magic inherent in the paradox of commonality and singularity that, I believe, drives the life force. We are all the same. We are all unique. This is the great Mystery. By making a point of only using leaves, flowers, shells and seaweed which have already been picked, tossed or dropped by wind, gravity, or other hands, I am restricted to using the same sorts of material again and again. The difference in each altar derives from the mood, attitude, and perspective, which drive me in the moment. I am faced again and again with the proof that every single stick and stone differs from every other.
Finally I must walk away. This lesson is about detachment from outcome. I always fall in love with my altars. I am always astounded that I made another one, that it is unique, that I like it as much as I do. There is no way to keep these altars. Even if I took everything home, I cannot carry the forest or sea into my living room. The altars will not translate; I have no choice but to offer them back. But the sacrifice is always rewarded. Each time, I walk away joyful and at peace.
Detachment from outcome arises from truly aligning with the great cycle of birth, death, rebirth. The altars reflect this by transforming “dead” material into a living creation, which is allowed to decay and dissipate in its own time. There is no end to places, materials or opportunities to build new altars. By not holding on to the altar I have just made, I am free to make another.
The altars combine circumstance and choice. They are tiny in an incredibly large setting and yet they light up and beautify their surroundings. I often think about the other word with the same sound – alter. I alter the forest path and seashore; I move things and rearrange them. By creating the pattern in ritual context, I perform magic. By creating a diversion, I call people and animals out of their paths to investigate. I am reminded that all my actions have consequences.
An altar is a matter of consequence. It is a symbol of consecration, sacred intent, sacrifice and hospitality. In creating an outdoor altar I consecrate myself to Gaia, using her own materials to honor her. Through sacred intent I make my work sacred, giving away my time, my artistry, my creation. The altars remind me that I live in a state of abundance, in a never-ending supply of matter, intuition, and creativity. In building these altars, I constantly re-create my own heart.
This post was inspired by a photo of this exquisite flower collage by Kathy Klein, which a friend posted on Facebook