At the local mall, there is an import shop I like a lot—I think the owners are Nepali (Nepalini? Nepalese?)—but it is, in any event, a collection of all things India, Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet. Brightly colored silks, scarves and skirts, embroidered jackets and cloth shoes, carvings and books and wall hangings. I buy scarves there, and my statues, and books and yoga CDs. I am not a shopping maven—it exhausts me and scatters me to go into a mall, though I have no idea why—and I like to go into the shop to ground myself at the end of an excursion. I wander in and smell the essential oils and incense and finger silks and hold statues of various things and feel much better.
On New Year’s Day, Christopher Robin and I went looking for a golden pig to commemorate a good year, and the man in the store wore a plastic top hat with Happy New Years written on it in sparkly letters. He gave me a small pink bag, probably to commemorate the day though I didn’t ask. It pleased me immensely and I’ve put it in my purse to hold coins.
We didn’t find the pig, but CR found a good knitted sweater with a hood and I liked him buying something from this place on this day, connecting us to the outside world. As he paid for it, I admired the altar on the counter, a dark wood carving of Ganesha, with other smaller gods around his feet, and a pink powder scattered over their heads. I noticed a rolled up dollar bill stuck into one of his hands.
There were other things there, too, all with some meaning I don’t know, and I liked seeing it there, a frank admission of belief in a Higher Power.
As we wandered around the New Year’s Day mall, I started thinking about altars. Every nail shop I’ve ever visited for a manicure has an altar in it somewhere. Some are quite elaborate, waist-high with red houses and bamboo in small glass vases and laughing Buddhas with food at their feet.
In Pueblo the locals celebrate St. Joseph’s tables, which are
enormous groaning altars to the feast of St. Joseph. Yes, that one, the father of Jesus, whose feast day is in March. It came from Sicily, where Joe did something miraculous that I now forget—saved a town from a flood?–but many of the local churches have adopted the tradition and fill tables to truly groaning with competitive baked goods.
Day of the Dead and descansos figure heavily into my current work in progress—and what is a descanso but an altar to a beloved dead one? Descansos, which are everywhere in the southwest, are a main thematic element in LADY LUCK’S MAP OF VEGAS. Day of the Dead altars are spectacular—for pure color and celebration, they’re hard to beat. Sugar skulls! Marigolds, bright orange and so lively! Pink paper and fragrant foods and pictures of the loved one.
In Santa Fe, I once fell in love with an entire world of very old Tibetan altars, antiques with dozens of niches and bright paint and the loving sense of hundreds of hours of prayer imbedded in the wood. It seems such an object could only bring reverberations of peace into a room. I would like putting my feathrs and rocks in the niches. I have often thought of trying to make one, paint one for myself in those bright oranges and yellows. Surely the painting would be an act of devotion.
My books are filled with altars—GODDESSES OF KITCHEN AVENUE is notable because Trudy has them set up around her house, and learning to be herself means taking those secret beliefs from her hidden place into the main house—but they appear in most of my novels at some point or another.
And, not surprisingly, in my real world. I have them everywhere. In my car is a small plastic Virgin of Guadalupe with a rope of rosary beads looped around her feet, beads I made at a Solstice gathering in a drought a few years ago. Each decade is a new color.
In my office there are two, the main one, beneath a beautiful photograph of tulips, with photos of my children and symbols that represent the work, and friends and my life in various aspects, and one that is specifically for the work, with a cigar box altar I made from all sorts of things, and a statue and an orb I found once in a rock shop, a luminescent egg-shaped stone that shimmers blue and black and fits my palm exactly. In the dining room is a mosaic table filled with plants and an open bowl my mother gave me and two candles to represent harmony, and a happy, laughing Ganesha. (When we all began to live in different places, my children and I all purchased Ganesha to symbolize our connection to each other). I like him. He’s a happy guy, so fat and lush.
I find myself lighting candles at the altars, touching the head of that one, putting flowers on another. Sit and offer prayers. Pass by and give up a worry—take care of that, will you? Stop and kneel and think. Breathe. One of my favorites is features an eloquently carved weeping Buddha and a happy laughing one are side by side, reminding me that life contains aspects, and both are holy. (And I realize I don’t have one for running–intriguing challenge!)
It seems altars are a happy thing, like humming under your breath, a way to recognize the sacred in the every day—in writing, in eating, in exchanging goods and services for coins, in driving, and simply being. Why not an altar on the stove or on your dashboard, one to honor your creativity and your husband and your life? Why not?
Edit: I had to do some cover art stuff for a romantic suspense coming out in July, and man, it’s FULL of altars. I should have called it Miranda’s Altars, though that wouldn’t be very genre appropriate.
I love to hear of home altars in particular, and would love to know of those you’d be willing to tell us about. A grandmother, an aunt, one in a shop you visit, or one that’s strange and you don’t understand, or one you built yourself. If you have a picture you want to share, please do.