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Altars can bring beauty, meditation, remembrance
The Chronicle & Dhamma Times

San Francisco -- I make altars to connect the creative with the spiritual. I usually have at least three in my home and one at my office. Depending on the season, I arrange a revolving altar on the mantel in the living room.

Most of my friends also have altars in their homes for beauty, meditation, remembrance of the dead or anything that requires focus.

As an interior designer, I try to gently encourage my clients to place altars in their homes when they remodel. It is a slow process.

Altars allow us to focus on different wishes, needs and spirituality. They shouldn't be permanent. One of my friends encourages her guests to add to her outdoor altar at her Stinson Beach house. Occasionally everything gets blown away or buried by sand.

Altars can be used as affirmations. When my daughter was traveling in England, I had a picture on my bedroom altar of her and me, along with one of her drawings that said she loved me and little things to keep her safe.

When I'm struggling with a situation in my life, I modify an existing altar or make a new one to reflect on things I should think about.

At my office, my altar features Kwan Yin, the Buddhist goddess of compassion; also oranges, pomegranates and lemons, Mexican money icons, plants and flowers, Virgin Mary candles and cards and other symbolic items that concern success, money, but also guidance and generosity.

A simple ritual can direct one's attention to the meaning of the altar. If I go to work and can't concentrate, I burn some candles and incense and sit for a minute. Afterward, I usually know what I should do.

A seasonal altar can include the family in its creation and celebration. For the winter solstice, my daughter and I arrange candles, sparkling items, evergreen branches, Christmas tree decorations, fake snow, glass fruits, anything that will light up the night.

The altar in my art studio has different deities of creativity and items for inspiration. When our backyard landscaping is finished, I will arrange an altar to bring peacefulness into the space.

I made an altar for my father when he died last year. Since he died on Nov. 1, an important time of year for Mexicans, I also put Day of the Dead items on his altar.

A few weeks ago, my stepmother came to visit for the first time since his death. Our family was going to gather at my house and I decided to make a big pot of spaghetti and a salad.

As I began to prepare the sauce, to chop and saute, it occurred to me that I was enacting a ritual. For years, my stepmother would grow tomatoes and my father would make a very spicy, wonderful sauce. It would be frozen and eaten in the dead of winter when any of us would happen to visit.

I began to feel my dad's presence as I continued, both his encouragement and his criticism of my cooking. I stopped and gathered up some items, a candle, some pictures of the Virgin Mary, a few mementos and built a quick altar to honor my father and the process of cooking a nurturing and loving meal for my dear family.

My stepmother tasted it the next day and said it smelled and tasted like my dad's and I told her of the altar and his presence during the preparation.

I love visiting homes that have altars. They are so comforting and show attention to spiritual matters, a part of life that is often overlooked as we try to keep house, make a living and be a success.

There is a simple pleasure in arranging an altar. It does not have to take up much space, but it can give you a focus, as well as joy and peace. And to me, it's really a work of art.


Updated: 21-8-2001

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