Thursday, April 26, 2007

Impromptu Book Altars

I've seen several sites recently about travel altars, which have caught my imagination. Within Druidry there is the idea of the "nemeton," or sacred space, that can be either the space within a cast circle, ritual area or grove, or the "personal space" that naturally surrounds an individual and can be extended and made porous, opening a person to the interconnection of the wider universe. However, there is still something moving and provocative about the physical central altar itself. It provides a focal point, a clear demarcation or frame into which can be placed objects of special meaning.

For this reason, the idea of a "travel altar" that can be set up anywhere, at a moment's notice, and provide such a focus is very appealing to me. On the other hand, it often seems that a "working altar" can be cluttered and clumsy, all the more so if the tools (chalice, cauldron, wand, incense or athame) are of miniature size. I have often found that altars designed along a simplistic and minimalist theme work best in guiding me into a meditative state. And since a mini travel altar is more likely to be used as part of a moment of reflection or devotion, rather than complicated magical workings, I have developed a version of the "travel altar" idea that I call the "impromptu book altar."

This idea came about largely by accident. Because I'm a bookworm and a writer, I always have books with me wherever I go. On several occasions, I have been out in the park, on a walk, or sipping coffee in a local cafe--always with book or journal in hand--when I'll slip into a meditative state, or suddenly find a small object which sends me off into spontaneous prayer or contemplation. On these occasions, I've found that an open book placed on the ground or table in front of me actually becomes a kind of "textual" altar upon which the subject of my meditation can be placed. Even the play of light and shadow on the page, and the text itself, can become objects of focus and contemplation. Best of all, an open book is discreet and not unusual when out in a public place, and a dreamy gaze into the distance that seems the result of a good book is far less likely to be interrupted with questions like, "What exactly are you doing?"

I'll share two examples of how this idea works in practice, first with a notebook, and then with a novel. Last summer, while vacationing on a small island off the coast of Maine, I carried a small, blank notebook and a pen everywhere I went, brainstorming ideas for my current book project. One foggy afternoon, I went for a picnic on a beach, well known for its scenic views of the ocean and its rumbling tides among the rocks. I sat for a time, watching the people wandering along the shore and the birds drifting in and out of view among the mists, as I jotted down pages of notes and free-association ramblings. I had written several pages of notes and ideas when I turned a page and, suddenly feeling overwhelmed by the gentle thrumming of the ocean waves on the fog-strewn, rocky shore. I wrote simply, "Narration is unnecessary." Then, unable to think of anything else to say, I set down the book and pen and just sat in meditation for almost an hour. During this time, the blank pages of the notebook and the untouched pen themselves become meditative objects, an "altar to silence," which helped to reaffirm for me the ineffable and nameless beauty of the depthful ocean and all of creation.

On another occasion, I was sitting in a local park, reading Ursula K. LeGuin's Tales from Earthsea, when a very similar event occurred. Minding my own business, enjoying a story about young love and the difficulties of romance, suddenly into my lap fell a pear! All right, I was sitting under a pear tree, so I suppose this wasn't all that unexpected--still, it interrupted my reading and gave me pause. I picked the pear up and examined it, feeling its texture, experiencing its smell and feel and, yes, even its quiet song... Eventually, I placed the pear on the open page, then sat quietly and meditated for a while, rolling around ideas about the nature of love, attraction, and self-sacrifice. The pear became, for me, a sacred symbol of how the seed of life and creative generation often surrounds itself in appealing forms, offering itself up to be consumed and digested, literally or figuratively, and providing nourishment and pleasure so that it might also find the nourishing and moist earthiness it needs in order to take root. It also struck me how human relationships, far from being simple and mutually-supportive, are instead confusing, difficult and often painful, as in the story I was reading. After my contemplation was over, I offered the pear back to the grasses, with a larger gratitude.

Both of these times, I made quite effective use of the open book as an altar to thought and focus. The page was transformed from merely a vehicle for text, to a sacred space itself within which objects and ideas took on focus, importance and deeper meaning. The art of Sean Kennan (photographer) and the writings of Jorge Luis Borges, combined in the beautiful and inspiring book, The Secret Books, takes up this subject from a more metaphysical and aesthetic point of view. People interested in the idea of impromptu book altars might want to check it out.


Incidentally, both of those meditative times led to me writing rather long poems, as I later returned to these memories and tried to articulate the ideas I had contemplated. But the pear meditation also gave rise to this quirky quartet:

Simple Instinct

I wish I were something attracted to pears,
the way burrs are attracted to animal hairs
and particular flowers seduce every bee,
I wish you were something attracted to me.

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