In the past year I've read about or seen a variety of personal altars. These altars represent a way for (usually) women to collect, recollect, and reflect.
According to Nancy Brady Cunningham, "an altar can be used in many ways: to say thank you to the powers that be, to celebrate Mother Nature in all her guises, to seek spiritual wisdom, to honor the ancestors, to offer up struggles, to receive creative inspiration, to dialogue with the deeper part of her being, or to honor her body."
Personal altars are common in Hispanic cultures, in Feng Shui, and in goddess and/or pagan worship. Mine came about as a combination of Feng Shui, the altar described in Sue Monk Kidd's The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, and a collection of items I wasn't sure where to place in my new home. The heavy influence of spirituality in Santa Fe was certainly a factor.
My altar pays homage to all the key influences in my life. Let me tell you what's there.
At the left in the back row is a picture of my Dad, a physics professor at an Ivy League university, and a huge influence on my life in so many ways. In the center is another photograph of me with my mom--I was an only child until I was 6, and my Mom and I spent a lot of time together--this photo is from that era. At the right is a framed "Lessons from Geese", which was presented to all the faculty/staff at the college I used to teach at when the president retired (which happened to coincide with my own "retirement"). Sample: "The geese flying formation honk to encourage those up front to keep up their speed. We need to make sure our honking is encouraging. In groups where there is encouragement, production is much greater." The 9 years I spent college teaching were an incredibly formative period for me--I learned so much about my discipline, and from my students and colleagues.
In the center, to the left, is a clock that was presented to my by a former client--this represents my years in the corporate world. The stemmed glass in the center has the logo of my undergraduate college on it. Many friends from my college years are still a close and important part of my life. A small framed poem was presented to me by a Brazilian woman I used to tutor, and concludes with the message: "These words show what you were in my life and what you mean to me. God bless you always." To the right is a photograph of me with my brother, 2 sisters, and sister-in-law (third sister!) at my brother's wedding. My siblings are a huge and constant part of my life and support system.
In the front row is a small glass apple that was given to me by my colleagues when I won a major advising award at the college. To me, it represents both the work I did to win the award, as well as the value of supportive co-workers. Next to that is a brass "1", which I won in a road race at the Executive Park where my office used to be located. It represents the value of fitness and sports (especially running) in my life.
Over the bookcase where my altar lives is a retablo which I purchased in Santa Fe in 2002--several years before I moved here. It is by the artist Arthur Oliva, whose family has lived in New Mexico for hundreds of years. It is an image of "Nuestra Señora, La Divina Pastora", which translates as "Our Lady, The Divine Sheperdess." After growing up in an East-Coast Catholic culture, and seeing so many identical representations of Mary as a white lady always dressed in blue and white Renaissance robes, I was charmed by this image which shows her wearing a red wool gown, a black brimmed hat, and a tunic made of lambs' wool. This represents both my Catholic heritage and my life in Santa Fe.