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The Care and Maintenance of a Shrine, Part I

During my family’s last dark days in Germany when my father was getting ready to leave the military and we didn’t know where we would be living, my mother became involved in a hard-core Catholic group called Cursillo. She says they are known as Charismatic Catholics.

The first time she attended a weekend retreat at Saint Wenceslaus, we went to pick her up on a Sunday, excited to see her after having no mom for a couple of days. I could tell the difference that the retreat had made in her right away—she was more relaxed and happy than before she went, like she had gone to a spa treatment (though we didn’t know about spa treatments then, and definitely couldn’t afford it on my father’s tech sergeant salary). We went for a walk around the grounds later, and that’s when I encountered my first shrine to the Virgin. There was a small grotto with a statue of the Virgin inside, lots of lit candles, fresh flowers, and a large crystal.

I knew this was a special place. I had spent a lot of time playing in cemeteries before, finding a sense of peace there, but this was even better. The magpie in me wanted that crystal, and rather than leaving it at the shrine—not knowing the purpose of one yet—I toted it home. It ended up sitting on a desk or a table in a room—probably my first attempt at a shrine.

During those days I used to get terrible headaches, which were diagnosed as cluster headaches, migraine headaches, chronic sinusitis, or a psychosomatic condition, depending on which doctor I saw. My mother had a bottle of holy water from Lourdes that she had either received from her church or ordered away for, and when I was home from school with one of those headaches, she anointed me with the water, hoping to cure me. She said that the sun came in through the windows, shone through the crystal on the table, and projected an image of the Virgin on the wall above my head. Since then, me and the Virgin have been tight.

I think everybody has a little shrine to themselves, though they may not think about it this way. Their shrine is the place on a dresser where they put their wallet, pool change, accumulate movie ticket stubs and sticks of gum, showing what they’re doing in life. I remember being fascinated by my parents’ dresser top and the life I could see reflected there, and soon enough I was accumulating my own self-detritus—there was change, a house key, and other trinkets and treasures that seemed especially precious to me, a pretty rock or a small ceramic figurine of a cat. Later, grooming products were added to this, but the arrangement of items was still not a formal shrine.

The summer before I went off to college, my mother had a very close call with a gangrenous appendix. She was in ICU for a week and in the hospital for more than a month total. When she got out, we did a series of college-shopping trips before I moved on campus, always finding joy when we could score a wheelchair at the Kmart, Target, or Walmart because my mom still tired easily after her ordeal. One of the things my mother insisted on me having was a trunk for college, and since she was buying, I didn’t put up a fuss. I’ve had that trunk for more than twenty years now, and it forms the base of my current shrine. When I was in Texas, I ended up adding another trunk to elevate its tabletop.

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My last year in Iowa, after graduating from the university and in my second year at a full-time job, I found religious candles at a dollar or grocery store, and I started accumulating them, along with various pictures and objects that spoke to me. That’s when I first started formally keeping a shrine. My favorite candles featured the Virgin of Guadalupe and were rose scented, and there was something about her image and what she represented that made me dedicate my shrine to her.

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I was going through a particularly rough year when I started keeping my shrine. I realized that I was stuck in a dead-end job, and if I didn’t do something immediately, I would still be there fifteen years later with a crappy journal of about forty pages, whining about how I wasn’t doing what I wanted and married to a guy at my workplace who was very persistent. So I lit candles, propped up images of artwork that I found inspiring, and waited. Soon Susan came a-visiting from Portland, pregnant with Valerie, and asked me to come out to the West Coast. She only had to ask once—it was the opportunity, the chance, that I had been praying for, and my shrine had been instrumental in helping me focus and figure out where I needed my life to go.

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