The small stone Buddha was meant for the garden, but it was cold and raining the day that I brought it home. Thinking I’d move it outside once the rain stopped and the weather warmed, I found a place at one end of the long bar top that faces my kitchen. Weeks later, I moved a bamboo plant that had been on my coffee table next to the Buddha. It just seemed to fit better there. Over the weeks, a glass heart appeared in the grouping, then a candle and a tiny vase. It’s not that I’d set out to make an altar, but one unfolded anyway.
Most people think of altars in the biblical sense, as a place for sacrifice or offerings. (The root of the word “altar” is Latin and means high, as in a high structure or mound.) Altars are no longer used for burnt offerings or sacrifice, more they have become a backdrop for religious ceremonies such as baptism or weddings, at least in the Western use of the word. But in other cultures, an altar is created as a focal point of the spiritual, an homage to ancestors, or a way to honor nature. Within this later definition, the spontaneous altar at the end of my bar top reflects back to me peacefulness, captured in an arrangement of objects that set a tone. It conjures the image of serenity when I walk by it, like a nod from the universe, a moment’s reminder to ground myself into nobler desires.
Friends have told me that they, too, had altars like this unfold spontaneously. A desk on which a paperweight sits, filled with glitter stars. Next to that, the framed photograph of a dollar bill from a first sale. A credenza, heavy with pictures and art made by precious grandchildren. These altars start with one thing, symbolic of an event, a passage, a love or a loss, Around that one object, other things appear, and suddenly the grouping becomes a reminder of some deeper part of the self that aspires to goodwill, excellence, and joy. Certain longings are revealed in an altar. A strong desire to keep those grandchildren safe or that business thriving.
One day I came back from a hike in the woods harboring acorns, small stones, and interesting twigs in my pockets. They were the treasures from my walk, and I imagined putting them in a carved wooden bowl in the center of my dining room table. As I emptied my pockets, an idea arose—these talismans and touchstones are a reason to pause and say thank you.
And it was not just the altars that I was thinking about, but also the accidental rituals in my life, come upon as if by chance at different times. For example, when I was seventeen, I met a woman from India who told me that her mother woke up every day and said thank you before she even got out of bed. I was so moved and inspired by that daily gesture that I’ve done my best to adopt it, to remain faithful to starting my days with thank you. It’s the first thought I have each morning, a ritual grown from the heart of a very young woman who, like most other human beings, wanted to be a better person.
As I rapidly approach the age of seventy, I find the desire to live more mindfully than ever before. Because I want to love as big as I possibly can—and I don’t have another three or four decades to honor the leanings of my heart. Time has accelerated, and there is an urgency to love and live more fully.
The intention of creating beauty is what the Sufis call the path to spirituality. Rumi, the 17th century Sufi poet, wrote, “Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are a hundred ways to kneel and touch the ground.” There are a hundred ways to say thank you—in boiling kettles and simple chores—let the dog out, prepare the tea.
Rituals in the larger sense are meant to be psychologically and spiritually transforming, but in a daily sense, the simple tasks that make up our lives can become transforming as well. To honor the ordinary with focus and thoughtfulness often reveals the extraordinary.
All around me, there are little altars. They appear on table tops and in gardens, in kitchens and on end tables. They are filled with the gratitude of my life—acorns and candles, sprigs of lavender, collected thimbles, and a carved garden Buddha. More and more in these accumulating years, my physical abilities must slow to perform the tasks I could once rush through without thought. Altars, deliberate or spontaneous, and the rituals that grace us all to a greater awareness grow like vines weaving themselves in and around a trellis—a joyful connection to life’s abundant miracles.