A threshold that connects the past and future
Ancestor altars have long captures my imagination. At first it was just a gut resonance. Something about the beauty and aliveness of the candles and array of photos pulled me in. I have always felt that the lives of my ancestors were just beneath the surface and with this altar they could finally be seen and recognized.
Just what an ancestor altar is has evolved for me over time. As I’ve accumulated more and more ancestor photos there is not enough space on our side table to display them all. Those photos are now covering two walls in my office. I realized that I no longer need to be creating a physical genealogy with my ancestor altar. This year I’ve gone more to the heart of the spiritual work within a ancestor altar.
The essence of an ancestor altar
I think of an altar as a threshold. A place that connects the transcendent and material worlds. A place that connects the past and future. An ancestor altar is where we can remember where we came from and connect with the generations to come.
An ancestor altar is a physical space that can help us live intentionally on this threshold between past and future. Sitting in front of it, these are the three important things we can feel or say:
- Thank you. Thank you to all the lives that have preceded ours.
- I love you. Our love is what connects us. Our love also has the ability to heal any wounds or trauma that any of our ancestors have experienced.
- I respect you. Let’s live in a way that honors all the gifts from all our ancestors. Let’s live in a way that honors the dreams of future generations.
(For those of you paying close attention, “I thank you, I love you, and I respect you” are also the words I’ve been taught to sing to the water every day.)
This year I have created an ancestor altar built around the spirit of these three feelings of gratitude, love, and respect. Here is a picture.
We can say thank you to so many dimensions of life that have contributed to our own. For my altar I wanted to express my gratitude to:
- The universe, represented by a candle
- Water, which has carried so many ancestors
- The place where I was born, represented by a grass basket from the Hoopa tribe of Northern California.
- The place where I live, represented by some tobacco I placed in the grass basket for the Dakota, Ojibwe, and Ho-Chunk ancestors of Minnesota.
- My family, represented symbolically en masse with the stack of three stones. They are the foundation on which I build my life. I also have included my mother-in-law and brother-in-spirit, the only members of my immediate family who have become ancestors.
- My lineage, represented by the sacred heart from Christianity.
“I love you”
As All Souls’ Day approaches I will be expressing my love to my ancestors through one of my favorite love languages: food. In so many cultures from around the world people offer food to the ancestors and there is wisdom in this. Make it delicious!
I have also created space on my altar to send love to any being that has become an ancestor through violence or suffering. I have learned through my qigong training that sending our love to these ancestors is a powerful way to heal our world.
I decided to get a little fancy with this area because I need a space to hold all the tragedy around me. I used a clay bowl because it made me think of a healing cave. I put little pieces of paper that represent to me different groups of ancestors needing our love:
- Orange sun: for people who died from accidents or violence
- Black fist: for the assault on black lives
- Pink butterfly: for migrants suffering at our border
- Yellow bee: for the bees, insects, and other species dying or going extinct at alarming rates
- Green tree: for the forests that are burning or are being destroyed
- Red hand: for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women
I rested a butterfly on top of this healing bowl, to expand on a favorite image of energy blockages being transformed and going back to the universe as butterflies.
You could simplify this aspect of your altar by setting out a single item that symbolizes transformation.
“I respect you.”
The future we create will be a reflection of how we are living now. That is why I put a mirror on my altar. It reminds me to act honorably knowing that everything I do affects the planet our great, great grandchildren inherit.
I also set out flowers for the future generations. Flowers are so beautiful and yet they are not an end in themselves; the purpose of a flower is to create seeds. The flowers remind me that the purpose of living a beautiful life now is to create fertile seeds for the future.
Make it Your Own
My altar is in continual evolution as I learn about my family, the world changes, and I grow. Your ancestor altar will also be a living organism. I’ve shared some ideas, but trust you will know what is right for you. Maybe this year you want to set out an elaborate tribute to a beloved relative. Maybe you only want to set out three simple objects. What matters most is your intention and the focus and connection you bring to it.
However you choose to remember your ancestors, I hope that it connects you with unexpected support and resources for living a courageous, creative, loving life.
Consistent support for finding your sanity
Collective practice is like a harbor during turbulent times. You are welcome to drop in any week to Healing Waters Qigong, a Spring Forest Qigong Practice Group, that meets online. Newcomers are also welcome anytime to the Wisdom Dances Circle, based on Laura Shannon’s research on women’s ritual dances, which meets online and outside on alternating weeks.