By Shae Davidson
A few items make up my altar: a broad, stout wooden stool, an altar cloth, a pine cone resting in a wooden bowl, and a beautifully carved statue of Budai given to me by my partner.
Except for Budai all of the items have been repurposed. My dad made the stool for me when I was a toddler, crafting it in his workshop so I would be able to climb up to the bathroom sink. He made toys and gifts—including wooden flowers built from collections of ornately carved individual petals—and taught my brother and me how to use tools at a very young age.
After he added a woodburning stove to his workshop, I would spend winter evenings perched on a car lift reading as he worked. Starting when I was about 12 or 13, we would stay up well past midnight on summer nights having long, elliptical conversations. Topics shifted and looped back in on themselves in a swirling mass as frogs sang outside and the occasional car droned down the road in front of our house.
These nighttime talks are the reason my partner, Johanna, says I come by my Monkey Mind a little too readily.
The beautiful red altar cloth started life as a cat blanket. My grandmother made it for my cat when I was in grad school—the same window in time when the pine cone and carved wooden bowl became random living room knickknacks. One side is rich red corduroy, the other is a patchwork of fabric scraps pulled from a collection she’d been saving for decades.
She babysat me before I started kindergarten. After lunch she would tie one end of a ball of twine to the leg of a chair and let me run through the huge Victorian house weaving spider webs while she watched Days of Our Lives. Years later, during a visit as a teenager, she asked me to move a heavy metal glider on her front porch. After I struggled to adjust its position a few inches she nodded and said, “There. Now I won’t be lying when I tell your mom you moved the furniture for me.”
She’d maneuvered the whole suite from a garage at the back of the house up the front porch by herself using an old wagon.
The wooden stool and the old cat blanket are more important than the contents of the altar itself. They remind me of my family—of their warmth and creativity and the moments that have shaped who I am becoming. The bowl and pine cone have a simple, elegant grace, and Budai is a jolly reminder of the connection between contentment, generosity, and joy, but in some ways they are just there to echo other lessons and memories.
Historian Shae Davidson has worked in industrial and social history museums throughout Appalachia and has taught in West Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois. Shae’s past publications have included articles in Turning Wheel and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory.
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