The Care and Maintenance of a Shrine, Part II

I’ve used my shrine to help me focus in later years during twists and turns of my life: moving, new job situations, death, and writing. I’ve accumulated many objects that litter the top, and I’m constantly shifting things on and off of it. Permanent things include coins, especially those leftover from traveling overseas; railroad spikes that my sister found; a rusty nail; a metronome that my mother picked up at a garage sale; the ashes of my first cat Venus, who lived to be twenty years old; and one-half of a set of ceramic hands that I like to prop against Venus’s tin so she receives pets into perpetuity. Most of the objects on my shrine have been given to me, and I think that makes them more powerful and loaded with magic.

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For the last couple of years a green wooden birdcage that my mother gave me has been taking up prime real estate on my shrine, and I was slowly trying to fill it with a thousand origami cranes. I did this before in Austin when I was getting ready to move to New York. I found an old rusty birdcage at a thrift shop in Texas, and in the months leading up to my move, I folded origami until my fingers got sore. After that move, the cranes were set free by Valerie, when she was about three and didn’t want to take a nap; she sailed them out our attic window one at a time. I was trying to re-create this powerful surge that came from the move, its momentum, by folding another thousand cranes, but the shrine does not want repeats. It wants something bigger and better than the last performance, and it let me know.

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With spring coming this April, I was noticing an uptick in my energy levels, and I put the changes off on the different seasons, April being my special birthday month, etc., etc. I was having bouts of insomnia and had one night where the ticking of the clock was driving me crazy. For years, I’ve been using an IKEA alarm clock that I bought for $1.99—one of the best investments I have ever made—but its ticking never bothered me before. Sometimes I actually have to hold the clock up to my ear in order to make sure that it’s working. Eventually I was able to get to sleep, but the next night the same thing happened. I felt like the narrator of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” who’s slowly being driven mad by what he thinks is a dead man’s beating heart.

I got up from my bed and discovered that the ticking was coming from a different direction than where I had placed my IKEA alarm clock. It came from my shrine. I turned on my light and located the source of the ticking—a Virgin of Guadalupe clock that had been on my shrine for almost five years. When Sarah and I visited our friend Flannery in San Francisco back in 2008, we found the Virgin of Guadalupe clocks in some store and each bought one. I put a battery in the clock when I returned home and propped it up on the shrine, but eventually the battery died and I never replaced it, having much more reliable clocks. Somehow it had recharged itself after four years.

I’m a big believer in signs, and shortly after this, I came up with a mantra involving transformation, and kept saying it to myself over and over again, waiting and thinking. My birthday came the last day of April and my sister gave me all shrine-themed presents: peacock feathers to help with the all-seeing eye, a Virgin horseshoe for luck, and a grim reaper in the shape of the Virgin of Guadalupe because I had Death as the final outcome in a tarot reading—not a card of literal death, but one symbolizing change and transformation. A friend gave me a few gifts wrapped in butterfly-printed paper, and I carefully saved the wrap, something I almost never do.

About a week ago, I finally realized what I needed to do and took that saved paper and cut out all the caterpillars and butterflies, with a lot of help from Kristi. (She can do some mean scissors work and was actually able to cut out two butterflies’ antennae, which I had given up on.) She also has shelves full of art supplies and gave me a bottle of shellac, with directions that promised a nice, shiny coat after two applications and three hours’ drying time between each.

I cleared everything off the shrine and cleaned the top of it really well. Sarah had sent me some very potent dried sage that she picked by hand off a reservation in South Dakota, which has special associations for me, since my family was stationed there for two years and my sister Karla and brother Randall were born there. I put a little pile in a seashell and burned it to spiritually cleanse the shrine, and then I spent an afternoon turning a boxful of butterflies and caterpillars into this decoupage surface.

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I added gold antennae to the butterflies missing them, and then I wrote my mantra around the corners of the tabletop, signing it Aunt Kathi and drawing an ant. I think the shrine is happy now and has decided that it wants to go to my niece Phaedra next.

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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.