Little Altars Everywhere

Imbuing domestic life with magic

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Hello, wonderful witches!

Tonight, I’m participating in a swifting ritual. I’d never heard of it before. Apparently it’s a way to clear out bad energies and dispel curses, and then turn that energy into something positive. Which seems like it will be good for me right now! Have any of you ever swifted? How did it go?

Today’s article is our catch-up piece from last week, about miniature altars.

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Little Altars Everywhere

By Megan Ross

All the world is an altar. All our lives are an offering.

If life is worship and deities live in the collected buckets of rainwater, in the African fields waiting to be planted out, in the potato plant’s white bloom opening with its soft purple center, then it makes sense to construct multiple altars throughout the home, and transform each domestic space into a channel to liminal spaces.

There’s no escaping the dishes. Or the laundry. Or the healthy, balanced meals you have to cook for your children. No matter how central your career is to your life or what professional milestones you’ve reached, domestic chores will bring you right down to earth with a scrub-the-pan-you-left-in-the-sink-all-weekend moment.

I’ve never really minded cooking but it’s in watching my son grow, and attending to the various meals he needs, that I’ve picked up a fondness for it. Except, while I share the cooking load with my partner, there isn’t much escaping it when I don’t feel like doing it. Which is perhaps why I’ve inadvertently turned my kitchen into an extension of my spiritual beliefs. There, I knead dough and peel apples and grate cheese, yes. But I also get to hum and bring my ancestors closer to me. I get to move my hands in a way that I can’t with a desk job and allow my mind to wander freely. 

As I work from home, I’ve found the sight of unfinished housework super stressful. By virtue of living in a reasonably small house, my “office” is simply an extension of the twenty T-shirts that need washing or the dishcloths that require soaking. So what I’ve tried to do is turn my kitchen into another space for self-expression. As I consider writing to be an aspect of my spiritual practice, it makes sense that I could extend the same confluence of magic and art to the physical space where so much of my family’s life takes place.

As a child I spent literal hours arranging and rearranging my ceramic and porcelain figurines on my desk. I didn’t strike up conversations between the foxes or make the ballerina speak to the tin soldier but in an echo of future part-time styling gigs, I moved and shifted and moved again until each part found its perfect place. Locking them in position was like turning a key to a door that opened up into the mysterious fabric underlying the universe. It let me move through the gossamer curtain between here and there, and access all the mystery and energy that liminal spaces can give us. And it’s this same impulse that compelled me to turn each section of my kitchen into a kind of altar. 

I blame my mother. Specifically (this time), I blame her for my finely tuned sense of wonder. For the tendency to daydream and my habit of asking even the smallest thing to become itself a thing of beauty. I would go so far as to say that the secret advantage of an anxious personality (a title to which I lay claim) is how paying attention to minutiae becomes second nature. And when it isn’t charged with horrible nervous energy, this practice of looking, peeling, picking, and plucking the world around us can also reveal more of its beauty. 

Every section in my kitchen clusters around a particular altar. Spatulas, wooden spoons, and egg-lifters sit in a crystal bowl. Brass pots hold spekboom and mother-in-law’s tongue plants, laundry detergent, and pegs. Consider this shelf in my kitchen: a figurine of Mother Mary, impepho given to me by a fellow witch, two gold-plated candlesticks, and a fresh grapefruit. I may not be able to explain exactly why that is one of the ways I honor the universe for giving us healthy foods, but I can assure you that the reverence is there. Beside the kettle is an Egyptian plate on which delicate ceramic dishes of tea, sugar, and coffee rest. Spooning heaps of sugar into a carefully-chosen mug goes from a coffee-making exercise to something playful and ritualistic. Every item, charged with my intent, seems to channel the energy of this creative household until the finishing of a dish or the end of a load of laundry signals a deeper communion with the numinous. This may seem like kitchen styling, albeit a pretty eclectic, disorganized kind, but in arranging these items around their particular purpose, I can imbue domestic chores with the magic and mindfulness that makes life worth living. 

Granted, the kitchen—my temple—is cluttered with dirty spoons, the odd peanut butter jar, lids to God-knows-which Tupperware, and all sorts of things that do not belong there. But when that’s cleared away, and the kitchen counters are wiped down, and my various bowls and plates and cups are dusted, it still holds its energy. 

When I turn a simple act like cooking a meal into a private ceremony that maybe only I understand, I am reconnecting to the physical world around me. I am returning to my physical reality, to my corporeal self, to my hands which stir and mix and fold. When I hold a wooden spoon and feel its cat’s-tongue-rough softness in my fingers, I am reminding myself that I am alive. As I lean forward to smell the aroma of garlic and onion as they saute, I am tuning into another one of my senses that is ignored when I am at my desk or locked into my cell phone screen. When I play Burna Boy or Tanya Stephens or Smashing Pumpkins I create an altar in my ears, as sound pours through me like spirit. When I spoon a mouthful of soup into my mouth, blowing it on the stainless steel spoon first so as not to burn myself, I am remembering that I have needs: that my body is an actively seeking thing. That it desires pleasures from foods and togetherness and the emotional intimacy found in physical closeness at mealtimes. When I peer through the oven glass to see if the dough is rising and turning the ruddy-gold of my imagination, I am witnessing the magic of chemical reactions, and one of life’s greatest magics: science. As I slice skins of butter and lay them across the insides of the sourdough bread I will serve for my family, I am seeing firsthand that I can make things that all my other senses can enjoy. I am building something and baking something that will bring me to life and help me experience the physical world through every one of my senses.

In this way, warming up a soup I froze two weeks ago, a broth rich with coriander and cumin, warmed by curry powder and heated by chilies, becomes a ceremony. Padding across the wet lawn in the light summer rain to pick fresh basil from the garden is a ritual. And in combining the ritual and the ceremony, in the humble temples of our making, we may just be able to reach the Divine.

Bless this food to our bodies, I prayed as a Catholic child. Now, as a grown woman, mother, and artist, I do a similar thing, except I’m this side of serving spoons. And making food: gathering, chopping, stewing, and then dishing up, feels like an extension—albeit a broadened one—of that childhood wish.

Megan Ross is a writer, editor, and journalist from South Africa. She is the author of Milk Fever (uHlanga Press), as well as the poetry editor of Isele Magazine and lead moderator for Lil-Lets Talk. She currently lives on the Wild Coast with her partner and her exceedingly adorable son.

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Next week, an author interview.

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