Little Altars Everywhere

Long before Rebecca Wells published her book of the same title in 1992, I knew what "little altars everywhere" meant, because I'm a Southerner, and because I've had altars all over my house, all my life, long before I understood the meaning of what I was doing or had a name for it. I'll bet you've got little altars everywhere, too. I was thinking about altars this morning, as I began finally, here in March, to put away the ornaments on the little tree I put up this Christmas as an adjunct to the big green one; the little tree that became an altar to my three Christmases in Atlanta, or was it an altar to family, or love, or to a chunk of my past I could arrange by Christmases?

The picture above is what the tree looked like in December. In January, I moved it to my bedroom and put it on my dresser, so I could admire it a little longer. This morning I decided it was time to put these ornaments away until next Christmas, when I'll bring them out and they can surprise and comfort me all over again.

Every ornament tells a story: Here's the sax player I bought in New Orleans in December, when I was visiting Coleen, here's the nurse bell that made Hannah and me laugh so much we had to buy it, here's the clown that reminds me of Jim, here's the orange ball I couldn't say no to, here are the pine cones that said "us," here is.... you get it. There are also a couple of very old glass ornaments -- a bell, a ball -- that my former mother-in-law gave me one Christmas. They mark another period in my life -- and in hers, long before I came into it. I like to think of that. Then there is one glass icicle I bought when I was married years ago to someone else... the icicle represents those years, not because it is cold, but because it is beautiful -- you can see it, with it's blue/green/red tip. The years this icicle represents had their icy elements, I'll admit, but mostly, I am learning to love what those years brought me -- all those years and all the messy glory.

I have learned that I am the sum total of all my life experiences and all the people I've met, and I want to honor that, somehow. Ram Dass says that he has little altars everywhere, too, and that he has a picture of George Bush on one of his altars, to help him develop compassion for him! I am not nearly that highly evolved, but I liked what this said about learning to love, because it's what I'm trying to do, too. I'm learning to love as well. Aren't we all?

So I'm trying to integrate all my life experiences instead of accepting some and pushing away others, so I can see that it's all necessary, as Uncle Edisto says in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS. Uncle Edisto calls it "the messy glory," and says "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!" to which Comfort replies, "I don't like messes." That's me, Comfort, not wanting messes or surprises or pain or hurt or disappointment... but of course, it's part of life. I have to learn this again and again.

"It is what it is" sounds loony, but somehow I get it in a way I didn't yesterday or last year or ten years ago. Something like that. So onto my ornament tree go reminders of times and even people that weren't always the most comforting, but that are now integrated into my days and my history, and so, are precious to me. Even the pain is precious. If that makes sense.

As I started to wrap each ornament in tissue paper and box it away, my eye caught the trinkets on my dresser -- jewelry, I suppose it is, but mostly it's not fancy-enough to be called jewelry... still, these are the few pieces I own and love to wear now and again, especially when I'm traveling and working, because it's as if I take a little piece of my life with me on the road.

I took those pieces and hung them on my ornament tree this morning. Look closely and you can see, on the bottom left, the charm bracelet my mother gave me the year I turned 12, and the C-141 Starlifter jet charm -- my father flew C-141s into and out of Vietnam for two years; before 141s, my dad flew C-130s. Right above the C-141 is a heart carved with my initials and a boy's, a boy who liked me so much more than I liked him -- there is a story here. Next to the charm bracelet is a bracelet featuring shoes from a museum exhibit that my editor Liz and I attended in Philadelphia one year while at a conference. Liz bought me the bracelet as a gift, insisted I take it, said it would remind me of that day, and it does. I wear it (the day and the bracelet) and take Liz with me to Las Vegas, Chicago, San Franciso, and beyond.

Right in front of the white button necklace is a bracelet handmade by Kate Fortin, a best-friend of my daughter Hannah. To the upper right of the button necklace is a bracelet given to me by the Brandon, Mississippi librarians, at a dinner that Harcourt hosted while I was on tour for ALL-STARS in September. These librarians say they are my biggest fans; I am their biggest fan, that's what it is, and I wear this bracelet so I can take them on the road with me, too.

Here's a clearer view, maybe... do you see the watch near the top left? That's a bracelet that my husband, Jim, gave me on his high school graduation night. Even though, after we went our separate ways, I would not see Jim again for 30 years, I managed to keep this watch (and that was a feat, considering the path my life took when I was a young adult). It no longer works, but I still wear it.

Here's a photo of the other side of the ornament tree. You can see that button necklace - bought it just recently on a day's outing with Hannah, and will remember that day when I wear this necklace.

See the pearls? They were my mother's. I wore the brown string bracelet near the bottom to San Antonio IRA a couple of years ago, where my editor friend Allyn put it on while a little gaggle of us sat outside with on a balmy May day after the conference. Margaritas decorated the crowded table. Allyn admired my bracelet for a moment, sat back in her overstuffed chair, and said, "So, Debbie! How's your life?" and we all swapped stories. I take some of that day, some of those Harcourt folks, with me, whenever I wear that bracelet. And believe me, given the cataclysmic changes at Harcourt this past year and how much I miss my friends, these memories are precious, precious... and some of them are held forever in this bracelet.

Likewise, when I wear the necklace to the right of my mother's pearls (I wonder if you can see it; it's a dark silver square on its tip, right in the middle of the mirror), I think of how my cousin, Carol, came to be with me at the MLA -- Mississippi Library Association -- in Tunica two years ago. She took good care of me. It was the first MLA since Katrina had devastated Mississippi libraries, and I was delivering a speech to my librarian friends, and I wanted it to be meaningful. I had titled it, "What Have You Lost?" I was nervous, and I was so glad Carol was with me.

"HERE!" Carol said, as she squirted something-or-other into my palm so I could try and tame my out-of-control hair just before we went downstairs to the convention and speechifying time. "Keep it," she said, handing me the bottle. (Hmmm....) Then, as I was agonizing over what to wear -- nothing would fit -- Carol gave me that necklace to wear and told me to keep it. I considered it a talisman. It calmed me (especially as I discovered that Catherine Nathan had figured out how to print my speech for me, and Ellen Ruffin could jiggle the slide presentation).

That necklace represents more than a moment, of course. It represents a lifetime of years in Mississippi, many of them with cousins and aunts and uncles, especially with Carol, and all those childhood summers.

For the moment, I have made an altar of these jewelry stories. I was going to post today about personal canons, and share with you some stories of books that have informed and influenced me as a human being and a writer, ask you about your canon, and I will do that soon. I am interested in influences, in altars, in stories. I'd love to hear about yours. I'll bet, if you looked around with intention, you would find that you've created little shrines, little altars, everywhere. I challenge you to write about them, about their importance to you, or about why you choose the altars you choose. Take one of your little-altars-everywhere and write about it, just as I'm doing here -- you can jot down your thoughts in your notebook, or write it out longhand, if it suits you, take pictures, paste them in your notebook, share with a friend, discover the connections.

In HANG THE MOON, the 1966 novel in the Sixties trilogy that I'm working on now, I have a character named Partheny, a very old woman, who teaches 13-year-old Margaret about little altars everywhere, because she has them -- literally everywhere. At some point, Margaret realizes she does, too. That everyone does.

What's important to you? Where are your altars? Are they "official," like the ones in churches? Are they tiny? Hidden? In your heart? Over the moon? Inside? Outside? And... why? Why do you choose to combine certain elements in certain ways, thereby making an entirely new story out of them? That's what we do as writers; we take a little from here, a little from there, and we craft a story. Somehow, elements that did not make sense together, come together beautifully -- the way all the different elements of ALL-STARS make a novel, for instance: baseball, Walt Whitman, dance, Jackie Robinson, friendship, Sandy Koufax, a dog named Eudora Welty, "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder, soap operas, little girls in tutus, and an old recluse with a secret.

THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS is an altar full of so many things I loved about the world, so many things I didn't understand, and the questions I had as a ten-year-old child. These elements come together in a structured way within the pages of a book, just so, in much the same way I hung the trinkets on my ornament tree. In much the same way I try to capture my days in my journal, or keep a list in my notebook.

We catalogue our days by telling our stories. We collect our trinkets, we fashion them into movement, song, art, words, work, play, memories. Then we give them away, because, in the end, that is all we have to give: our stories. Little altars everywhere.