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Anatomy of an Altar

A dissection of my sacred space.

There is something about moving that breaks my heart. I’ve done it a lot—from South Carolina to Saudi Arabia to Italy—and I’ve had to make do with some homes and apartments that really alienated me. Maybe this is why, when the day comes to pack up and go, I almost always melt down, saddened by the prospect of leaving a life I’d grown comfortable with for a new unknown.

Six years ago, I was pretty nervous about moving from Washington, D.C., to New York. I worried that NYC would be too loud, chaotic, dirty, and wild. During one of my visits, I expressed my concern to a woman on the subway who had lived in Brooklyn for more than a decade. I asked her advice on dealing with a bustling metropolis where it seemed like everyday life was akin to playing a contact sport. I expected the usual platitudes, maybe something about “if you can make it here…,” but instead she had this simple message: “You gotta just carve out your piece of peace. Find your people, find your spot, don’t worry about keeping up with everybody else, and you’ll be OK.” Her certainty told me that she knew what she was talking about, and that someday I’d stop being the hypochondriac who pulled my sweater cuff over my hands before I held the subway pole.

I also took her advice quite literally, interpreting the idea of “carving out a piece of peace” to mean I should create a physical sacred space—an altar. I was born and raised in the African-American Baptist tradition, but I now define myself as a Christian mystic with a mind that’s open to all forms of spiritual truth. Though I have wrestled with the contradictions between my personal attitudes and the strictness of scripture, I’ve always appreciated the power of sacred spaces. Inside the church, which is often a place of preaching, where religious agendas are communicated and promoted, the altar represents something quieter and more personal. The altar waits for you to come to it. The altar just listens. Now that I don’t attend formal church services very often, I found myself missing the solemn, quiet experience of standing before it and giving it my secret prayers, hopes, and wishes.

One of my earliest memories is asking my parents about the black Buddha statue and Kenyan Maasai artifacts on display in their bedroom. Even though we were Christians, they believed these materials were hallowed and important, and they traveled with us through several homes. I recall picking them up and examining them over and over, because I understood that the stories attached to them were powerful. As a child, I prayed by these objects, and I knew that one day I’d have objects with spirit and stories, too.

I decided to use my apartment windowsill to a display a collection of objects that represent a variety of religious, spiritual, or otherwise meaningful experiences that have inspired me to ask deeper questions of myself, including hand-written love notes tucked under sacred stones for safekeeping to a Bible given to me by my godmother. For years, I kept these possessions in a little red box, where I wanted them to be safe. But suddenly I felt that if I had something in front of me, beckoning to be noticed and engaged, it would be hard to avoid taking time for myself to collect my thoughts, consider some nagging questions, or decompress after a long and challenging day. Maybe I wouldn’t just fall into a routine of work and stress, like I have a tendency to do.

I have since moved it from the windowsill to the top shelf of a bookcase in my living room, to give it a presiding presence. I pass by it on my way to the kitchen or bedroom, so it’s a constant reminder to stay centered. I often meditate or kneel in front of it, and I turn to it whenever I feel hopeless or disoriented. I guess in some ways it’s a grown-up shrine, although I hesitate to call it that, since, in high school, I had a wall devoted to Lenny Kravitz—a rock god in his own right, but not one I prayed to.

Simply put, my altar is the place where I can let my soul breathe. Unlike at work or at school, where I often feel pressured to be perpetually agreeable or guarded, being myself is the only rule, and every time I sit in front of it, I remember who I was, who I’ve become, and the many possibilities in my life. When I moved out of my apartment last October, the altar was the first thing I packed, because I knew that I’d be carrying all of my anxieties with me, and I could not feel at home without it. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but it’s vital to me, and should you want to create one too, here’s a little guideline to help:

Choose a place for it.

Presumably, the most private spot is going to be your bedroom, which is fine, because the idea is just that you see it several times a day. It can be on a shelf or a nightstand or a vanity or a table—you just want to be able to easily access it so you can add to it as needed. Of course, you could decide it belongs in a more public location. Most people who have encountered my altar appreciate it, because they know it is special to me. The contents are symbolic and don’t necessarily divulge any deep secrets, so I’m comfortable with it being on display.

Count your blessings.

You want to include tokens that remind you of your gifts, so when I say blessings, these don’t necessarily have to be divine/from God (but they could be). They could also be anything that reminds you of your own talents, or the beloved people in your life and what they’ve given to you. When I built my altar, I added a beautiful picture of my mother during her youth to remind me of the strength, generosity, and courage she passed down to me, which helps me when I am feeling depleted, scared, or insecure. Her lovely face greets me every morning, even though she lives thousands of miles away.

I also added the pink-and-gold Bible my godmother gave me when I was a child, a heart-shaped container with pictures of my parents and my great grandparents, and my grandmother’s pocket watch with Mona Lisa’s visage on it to help me feel guided, supported, and loved at all times.

Include mementos with positive memories.

I feel like a few of my newer additions to the altar symbolize moments of bravery, accomplishments, and fun experiences that I never want to forget. I have of vial of holy water offered to me by women from around the world during a ritual I participated in at a retreat organized by Women of Spirit and Faith. The water includes droplets from the Trevi Fountain, a Hopi run, the Ganges, and the Great Lakes. There’s also a purple totem flag from a fire ceremony led by my friend and her mother, who runs an organization that educates and builds awareness for the protection and preservation of indigenous traditions around the world. The totem flag carries sacred tobacco that was blessed by a group of women from a variety of traditions—including Islam, Wicca, Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and more—with whom I prayed, meditated, danced, and sang.

Be inspired to aspire.

My altar represents the past, the present, and the future. Feel free to include aspirational keepsakes that serve as deeper symbols for your goals and dreams. One of the things I struggle with is worrying too much about the future instead of focusing on the present, so I added a big Buddha statue to help me be mindful of the only constant in life—change. (Buddhists believe in impermanence, and they link suffering with a need to maintain fixed ideas about ourselves and our experiences.) And since I want to travel more, I also added crystals and rocks that I acquired in Italy, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S. to serve as visual reminders that no matter where I go and no matter what I encounter, my soul is as sturdy and impenetrable as a bright, bold, and beautiful rock.

I adore my altar because it is a place where I celebrate the legacy of my ancestors, honor my truest nature, and draw strength from the supreme presence of spirit, by which I mean love, or God, or just the awesomeness within each of us that I believe guides and supports us in all that we do. My apartment may be small, but my universe is enormous. ♦

13 Comments

  • Abby December 18th, 2012 3:11 PM

    This is soooo great. Even though I think I’m an atheist, this is making me want to make an altar. I think the idea of it just sounds… peaceful and amazing.

  • Amy Rose December 18th, 2012 3:30 PM

    The very first thing I did when I got my first apartment (where I still live) was paint and build an altar for myself, and it was hugely important to my well-being. That feeling was communicated so beautifully here, Jamia!

  • Kathryn December 18th, 2012 3:35 PM

    Amazing and inspiring, Jamia. I love the last line.

  • Stephanie December 18th, 2012 3:42 PM

    So beautiful, Jamia. I have an altar, too. It’s in my office/creative space so I have those good vibes with me when I’m writing.

  • zombiesockmonkey December 18th, 2012 3:51 PM

    such a cool idea and just what I’ve been looking for to help with anxiety and give me something meaningful and creative to work on.

  • doubleshiny December 18th, 2012 5:23 PM

    This was lovely – I realised whilst reading it that actually I have an altar myself but I never thought of it like that. It has candles, pictures of people I love and stones I pick up from everywhere I travel in the world.

  • friendswaffleswork December 18th, 2012 6:27 PM

    So beautiful Jamia! When my family had to put our house on the market I had to take everything off my walls and dismantle my alters. I didn’t notice a big change in myself, but once our house didn’t sell and I was able to put my alters back I felt really renewed and comforted. I hadn’t realized how much power I drew from the presence of my sacred objects.

    I hope you’re feeling at home in your new apartment!

  • farawayfaerie December 19th, 2012 8:03 AM

    Jamia this is so beautiful, you really managed to capture the true beauty of an altar/shrine. When my best friend was diagnosed with cancer she ended up spending the most of 3 years in and out of hospital, as well as moving hospitals and houses in between all that, and then finally even moving city to get the best medical treatment. Throughout this whole time she carried with her a red velvet box that was her portable altar, and offered her a sense of home and belonging no matter where she was. As she neared the end of her life she was sent home because there was nothing more the hospital could do for her, and she stayed with my family for the last week of her life. in that time we unpacked her altar and set it up on the table next to her bed and added candles and incense. Her altar stayed there for months after her death, and now I have a mini alter for her in my bedroom. this article brought up so many of those emotions that I haven’t felt for a year and a half now. thank you.

  • Jamia December 19th, 2012 9:56 AM

    Thank you so much for your stories, your love, and beauty! x

  • Libby December 19th, 2012 12:36 PM

    This is lovely. I’m still learning what my spirituality is, but I love this idea. My room is full of pinboards based around this idea, but the way you have tangible items, rocks and crystals and statues, that you can actually hold when you need something, is definitely something to try.

  • Mary the freak December 20th, 2012 2:38 PM

    AMAZING!

    When I am older, I will live on a beautiful island with fairies and unicorns, and in our house (which will be shaped like a teapot, btw) we will have a gorgeous shrine room with all out obsessions and altars and stuff. This was so helpful and beautifully written! I love this so much!

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Heron December 20th, 2012 2:52 PM

    I’ve had altars for years, places where I can focus and make offerings, where I can ground myself and find clarity/inspiration. You’ve done a great job describing the possibilities of such a space. For me, it is the actual interaction with the altar that makes it so influential, the daily ritual of touching my treasures, dusting them off, remember where each stone and shell came from…the memories are so powerful! I find that it’s really wonderful to do specific rituals for particular reasons: to honor someone, give distinct thanks and so on…Most important: Make a travel altar! I just started doing this last year and it helps SO much with that untethered feeling that moving creates.

  • Jamia December 29th, 2012 5:02 PM

    Thank you! I hope to see pics of your altars–post some links to pics if your heart desires and you feel comfortable. “) xx