The day we landed in Mexico for the first time, we sat in the formal living room in the Mexico City house, cooled by one solitary fan and drank cold coca colas on sticky vinyl covered couches. My legs, made bare by my pretty little sundress stuck to the plastic and I looked longingly at the plush velvet beneath the clear barrier. “Protection”, Juan leaned over and whispered to me, reading my mind. “When something is this precious, we can’t afford to leave it unprotected.”
From my perch on my plastic velvet throne something magical caught my eye. In a living room that was rather sparse, a simple table, a lamp nothing more, the corner exploded in decoration. A waist high table was filled with fresh flowers, plastic flowers, candles burning despite the sun which bleached out the room, red beaded lamps, pictures of saints in gilded frames, ancient toys, figurines carved out of wood and stone. I got up and wandered over, mesmorized. Juan followed me and touched me on the shoulder. “It’s my tia’s altar”, he said. I had never seen anything so gaudy and so beautiful.
Before we left to travel to Oaxaca, Juan’s tia called us over to the altar for our blessing. She pulled out a fresh candle and lit it with ceremony, laid her tiny hands on our heads towering above her. She said prayers for a safe journey and with the saint’s protection firmly in place, she finally let us go out of her watchful sight. When something is this precious, we can’t afford to leave it unprotected.
I was swept up in the mystery of this magical country, I would soon call my second home. I loved, and became a student of the altars I saw built everywhere–in businesses, by roadside stands, in formal rooms and in the corner of shacks. A place for the Virgin to watch over and bless all who labored, loved and lingered there. Yet, the altars struck me as charmlng, antiquated, habits of old ladies with time on their hands, connections to a superstitious fate-based culture, a culture where angels and demons made choices instead of people and gods were arbitrary and mean in how they doled out joy and pain.
When I saw little altars constructed by friends of mine back home, I thought of them as glorious art pieces. A showcase of spirituality. I thought they were things constructed like window dressing to declare one’s love of God. I didn’t judge them, I was enthralled, in love, caught up in them. But I saw them as “extras” as “statements” as artful expression.
That was until the bottom fell out, after that night when Juan whispered to me that he was leaving me. That was until I was plunged head first into the realization that all my expecations and illusions about how my life would play out were dashed.
Night after sleepless night, I found myself whispering prayers in the dark to my tia’s Virgencita, the only woman who I thought might be able to hold my pain. Anxious hands, flitted about while my words poured forth, as though the very emotions, heart breaking needed to make themselves real and physical. One night I woke up and I stumbled into the living room. I suddenly remembered my sister in law, constructing her “Day of the Dead” altar for her young daughter, creating a space to grieve and honor her short life, to give thanks to her children who lived. Old toys and pieces of birthday cake and candy–a celebration of her life, an acknowledgment of her death, a pleading for the safety of her remaining three children.
And suddenly I understood what drove her to create her altar each year–what mad forces drove her forward through tears and turmoil as she laid the table cloth and arranged each item. I found the handthrown clay Virgen de Assumption I had purchased from a local potter in Oaxaca, moved her off her spot in the background of a shelf on a waist high table. I scrambled for a tea light. With a flashlight I went outside and cut wilting flowers from my garden, shoving them into a jelly glass. I found a picture of Juan and I happy and smiling and full of love and hope and bursting with joy at each other’s presence. With tears streaming down my face, I wrote a letter to sweet gods and goddess whoever would listen, imploring them to save my marriage, or at very least to protect my child, my heart, my sense that I would be OK. I thought about all of us flayed and bleeding. My heart whispered to me: When something is this precious, we can’t afford to leave it unprotected. And then I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke, I arose with a new peace. I had found a place to park my grief, to concentrate my dream, to make sacred my worst fears and deepest desires. And suddenly, I had found the strength to go on and to bear life as it unfolded, however it unfolded.
In the last six years, I have constructed countless altars. I take them down and refresh them frequently. When I am going through transition or transformation, their creation guides me. They are not art or window dressing or decoration. They are not a statement about my belief in god. They are a survival skill. An anchor. A thing I do so that I can keep going, despite the chaos and uncertainty and pain and messiness that I experience day after day living life on the edge. I currently have four in my house. Each one is place to hold my fears, my dreams, to learn to trust. I have one dedicated to my community, another to my tenuous and turmoil filled relationship with God and the Universe, my doubts about Her/His intentions, my questions and struggles. I have one dedicated to following my path–where I can park those fears that come up when I listen to my heart. And I have one, tucked away in my bedroom which hardly anyone ever sees, my most private space where my heart dwells. Each one is a place where I can acknowledge, grieve and celebrate. Where I can concentrate my prayers and honor the fears that try to protect me. Each night I light the candles. And then, I can say to my fears, the ones who try and protect me from life’s sorrow. “Stay here and rest, my loves. I must go out and bear life without you in the way.”
On Monday, a young teenage friend of mine set off for the journey of a lifetime. Headed to Rwanda to follow his path, I know his tender heart will see and experience both extraordinary beauty and pain. His mother, so strong, swallows her worry and speaks out loud over and over why this trip is good for him. I too, find myself thinking of him constantly, my prayers of protection, my pleas that he will find mentors to help him process what his tender heart experiences rising up and clouding my thoughts. Sunday night as I wandered through the grocery store, I passed the Latino section and saw the guardian angel candles–the very same ones with their paper wrappers and baroque images of an fair haired angel guiding a child that my tia places on hers whenever we set off from Mexico. The very same ones she lights when we leave her. I bought two, and placed the first on my community altar.
Monday morning, bright and early, I walked to my friend’s house. His parents just back from the airport were upbeat but strains of anxiety showed around their eyes. “This may be corny,” I said “but I brought a candle. To protect your boy. Its a space to hold the fear I know you have. I have one burning in my house for him too.” Furiously we searched for matches and lit it, said a little prayer and then went on with our day. Parking our grief and our worry so we could move on, but knowing full well that our hearts’ love had been concentrated and sent out like a magical golden net to protect him while he walked his new tightwire. When something is this precious we can’t afford to leave it unprotected.
For my dear friends E and K who reminded me this week why I build my altars.
Update: As I finished this sentence my friend just appeared with her phone in hand so I could read the email her son had sent, describing a land that had already captured his heart. I am in tears with joy. If you keep an altar would you light a little candle on yours for a boy, so brave, so wise and so connected to his heart that he left his comfortable life here at 16 to answer the call to love? May he be held up and protected and carried through the countryside by hundreds of prayerful hearts.