I've never made an altar before. Many of my creative and spiritual friends design corners of their homes to inspire them. I like seeing their meditation stations. They have collected such interesting objects to reflect their dreams and prayers – stone elephants, jade statues, gauzy scarves and faded photographs. I like being in their spaces.
Being deeply curious about others, I'm always delighted and a little surprised that I'm allowed into these outward reflections of their minds. I'll ring their chimes and place my fingertips in their incense ash. Then, I go home and imagine what my ideal nook might look like, make a few feeble efforts, and eventual decide that I am much too much of a minimalist for even a holy collection.
For a while, I was envious of people who created elaborate vision boards and had the knack for infusing objects with meaning. I haven't always been the kind of person who gets a thrill from throwing things out. As a teenager, there wasn't a blank space on my walls. Even my closet doors were covered in Mary Engelbreit illustrations. I had tables and bookshelves ladened with dried flowers, stuffed toys, and souvenirs.
Under my bed, I stashed redecorated tea and cigar boxes filled with paper strips baring inspirational quotes. Then, I began to feel suffocated by my personal history. I donated or trashed it all until I had a single box of mementos. I even threw out years of journals – their spiral bindings slicing through the plastic garbage bags.
Ever since college, when people come to visit me, they ask where all my sh*t is. They have a hard time believing that what they see in my room is all that I own. I am not Spartan. I pride myself on having plants, mirrors, and just enough touches to make a room feel complete. Still, a sacred space to me is an empty space – a pause, a breath of fresh air, or the perfectly organized chaos of nature.
I met a young woman recently who is a nomad. Actually, she has a house that she rents out to pay for her travels, but for all intents and purposes she has no room to call her own.
I want to be a nomad. The most amazing discovery travel gives us is the realization that we can belong almost anywhere.
When I arrive in a new place, I think to myself that I could live in this apartment, walk to this store, sit in this park, and write in this coffee shop. I can imagine a million different lives, a million different off-shoots of the current me. If we are honest with ourselves, we are at home everywhere and nowhere.
The same is true of other people. I discover people everywhere whom I know I can love. When I walk around in a place of awareness, I am always struck by how beautiful people are – a woman with wild grey hair surrounded by her four sons in the grocery store, a young man on the airplane with a gap between his teeth, the checker with her nose ring and buzz cut, and the beard man in a tweed blazer.
As we go about our day, our storylines intersect with so many other story lines as we crisscross each others' paths. Yet, the constant buzzing in our own heads keeps up the illusion that we are separate. We stay focused on the people with whom we feel some sense of ownership. The people who seem to flit in and out of our lives don't register as having value to us. They are not ours so we are not interested.
When I was backpacking across Europe (the closest I've ever gotten to nomad status), we stayed in a hostel in Madrid that advertised a free breakfast.
Breakfast turned out to be a jar of Nutella, a loaf of bread, a toaster, a box of tea, and exactly three mugs. Students from around the world huddled in the kitchen rinsing and passing the mugs as we all dug into the Nutella. The combination of exhaustion and language barriers meant we didn't chat much but this is still one of my favorite memories. We simply stood around sharing space.
This may be a strange confession for a writer, but words do fall short.
In middle school, I had the entire New Testament on tape. Our church went through a phase of selling these collections, and being a life-long type-A person, I set out to make myself a better person through learning. I rode my bike around the block while occasionally stopping to flip over the tape in my Walkman. After all that study, I still felt closest to God while in our backyard.
My family's backyard has always been a mingled mess of my dad's attempts at jungle gyms, vegetable gardens, and other landscaping ventures. As my brother taught himself flips on the trampoline, I walked around and around a tree hidden behind the house. I stepped from rock to rock in the ring marking our extensive pet cemetery. I imagined each beloved creature decaying in a shoebox – the bright green scales of my iguana, the curved shell-like beak and blue feathers of my brother's bird, and the delicate skeletons of guinea pigs. Some evenings, as the streetlights flicker on in the violet dusk, my mind went blank. For a moment, I no longer feared losing my form to growth, change, and death.
Reflecting on childhood memories, I begin to understand that the details of sacred spaces are not as important as the permission they give us to ruminate.
This is why I hate texting. True communication happens between the words. The words “hahaha” will never come close to the tones in someone's laughter or the sheer joy you experience when sharing that moment of release with them.
Texting and instant messaging always make me feel like I'm being crammed into someone's day like I am just one more thing they're multitasking between laundry and TiVo. Talking on the phone isn't much better. I need to see a person's face and read their body language but most of all I just want to take up space with them. I'm obsessed with porch chairs, hammocks, firesides, open roads, and sunset walks.
As a child and a teenager, I spent long hours lying on the carpet with friends. Adults feel the need to plan a meal or event or at least turn on the TV when guest are over. I wonder how strange people would find me if I asked them to come and lie on the carpet with me now. Or if I invited a ton of people into my kitchen and offered only a few mugs and a jar of Nutella. Or if I stopped strangers in the streets with bizarrely detailed compliments – mini poems about their inherent beauty – and then walked away.
We can get so caught up in the trappings, the details, the building of alters, the planning of dates, the constant chatter of instant connection, and the quest for ownership that we forget to make space.
Don't put it on your to-do list. Don't berate yourself for not doing it right. Don't rush off to book some time at a lakeside cabin. Simply notice the moments of quiet and gently prolong them. Give into the impulse to linger. The gardens I loved the most were neglected and chaotic. They reminded me that beauty happens naturally and needs no control or planning. All it needs is room to sprout, grow, blossom, die, and decay – over and over again.