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.

Venus'stin

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.

origamicranes

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.

boxfulofbutterfliesbutterflyshrine

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.

happyshrine

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Heavy Metal Memories, or Being a Lady in the ’80s

One of the great things about being a military brat is the ability to transform yourself when you move somewhere else. A lot of people live in the same place for all of their elementary, middle, and high school years, and they might get pigeonholed for a few standout events that they didn’t even intend. Then they’re forever known as the brain, the athlete, or the burnout. With the military, my sister and I were able to make ourselves over every couple of years or so because we would move to a place where nobody knew us. Nobody had ever met us; it was a clean slate.

I think my favorite metamorphosis happened, though, when my dad was out of the military. I was a freshman in high school and so shy and awkward that I could go for days without speaking. I wrote poetry that rhymed and hung out in the art room during lunch painting so I didn’t have to interact with others. I owned a pastel-pink sweater and wore it proudly.

Now, my younger sister, Kristi, was in junior high and having a hard time with school authorities, who thought she was on drugs (she wasn’t). She was into metal, had a thing for Blackie Lawless, and wore leopard-print spandex with her hair dyed black and cut in a Joan Jett shag. Her world revolved around music, and the heights of ecstasy came when she was able to go to concerts.

My parents were pretty liberal, but they had their limits—one was Kristi could not go to metal concerts by herself. My mother accompanied her to a few, but I imagine nothing can be more embarrassing than having your mom in tow at a Mötley Crüe concert. That’s how I came into the picture. Kristi wanted to go to a KISS concert but without Mom and Dad, so she leaned on me. It wasn’t too hard to convince me. Concert tickets were still pretty cheap then, running around $20, which I could easily afford with my babysitting money.

Before we went to the concert, Kristi insisted on dressing me. She said I would look out of place, so I let her. She ratted my virgin hair, so thin it couldn’t hold a bobby pin properly; did my makeup with lots of black eyeliner; and dressed me in some of her clothes—a red-and-black striped shirt, black tank top, black spandex, and black high-heeled boots left over from my Madonna Desperately Seeking Susan phase. I was a woman transformed and felt completely weird and freaked out. It was like I was in a costume. I never knew my hair could go so high.

Waiting on line to go through the metal detectors, I got pissed at Kristi as I surveyed the crowd. Barely anybody was dressed like us; they wore jeans and T-shirts and looked comfortable. They could blend. Me, I was now more than six feet tall with my high-heeled boots and teased hair, and so … glittery. People stared and I hated it. Once we cleared the metal detectors, Kristi ditched me to hit the floor, telling me that was the best place to be because you could get up close.

I was mad. I wanted to hide in the bleachers and just get the whole concert over with. I went and picked out a seat all by my lonesome, sat down with my arms crossed, and just glowered, hating everybody. Now, usually when I pulled my pissed teen routine, everybody just ignored me. Not this time. This time it seemed like people were afraid of me, giving me wary glances, and though the place was packed, I had a semicircle of space around me until the last minute. And even then, rather than ignoring me and plunking themselves down like they usually did, people asked me first. “Excuse me, miss”—gesturing toward the seats—“are those empty? Are you waiting for your friends?”

I think I shrugged my shoulders, afraid to speak, but inside, I thought, Holy shit! People are afraid of me. This is genius! A transformation came over me: I sat up taller, I straightened my shoulders, and when the band came on, I stood up with everybody else and stayed on my feet the whole night. It was cathartic seeing these loud bands, knowing the lyrics and being able to sing out loud without worrying about anybody commenting on my off-key voice, and having beer spilled on me. I liked Gene Simmons with his tough-guy look but not Paul Stanley so much with his idiotic stage patter between songs. He said the band had been in Madison, Wisconsin, the night before, the dairy state, and he could tell because all the girls had huge breasts. Immediately that set off a douche bag alert, and I hated him for the rest of my metal days. Gene Simmons was a little more reserved back then. Had he opened his mouth, I’m sure I would have hated him too.

After that, I had my metal metamorphosis. I liked the music because it was angry for the most part, which was how I felt inside. I loved the fashion associated with metal because it set me apart. I already felt like a freak, but putting that on display made me become braver than I would have ever believed. My hair went from blonde to red, then redder and redder, and high—how high I would tease it. And the wardrobe was pretty cheap. From thriftier times in our family, my sister and I had learned how to use scissors and a needle, and we were able to transform plain T-shirts to cropped tops and so on, though Kristi was always better at it than me. She had a pair of artfully frayed jeans and had sewn a snakeskin scarf in as a back panel. How I coveted them. Of course, my ass was always an inch bigger than hers so I could never borrow them.