It’s been a long time since I last talked bout my “Decluttering Quest,” or my attempt to sort out the massive amount of stuff that’s accumulated in my life over the years. In the time since my last post about it, I finally finished going through all the keepsake boxes in the basement (which I’ll try to revisit in a future post) and moved on to the final stage: cleaning out my bedroom.
I had a plan for how I was going to go about it. First I’d tackle the piles of stuff taking over the floor, then I’d dust everything off (which I haven’t done since the last time I tried to clean my room, and if the stuff on the floor is any indication, that was two MAGFests ago), then I’d rearrange the books and reconsider everything else on the shelves and side table.
But then I got stuck. Every time I tried to clean the floor, more stuff would accumulate there. Even worse, stuff started spilling over into the space I’d been specifically trying to keep clear so I could access my main altar and akhu shrine. “I’ll start doing ritual again once I clean the stuff off the floor,” I kept saying, but the weeks dragged on and suddenly it was time for a holiday I wanted to celebrate: the Beautiful Festival of the Valley. I wrote about my preparations for this holiday in my last blog post, but when the day actually came I still couldn’t access my akhu shrine.
Let’s clean everything
Even though I managed to reach the offering plate to place the little vase full of roses I’d gotten for the occasion, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t do more. So I took all the dirty clothing that had accumulated in the cleared floor space by the shrine and threw it in the hamper, then washed my hands and grabbed the feather duster.
For the first time since setting it up the previous year I cleaned the akhu shrine from top to bottom, carefully dusting each item and setting it aside, then shook out the altar cloth and dusted the whole area underneath. After putting everything back I lit all the candles (both battery-powered and real) and set down the vase of flowers again.
What surprised me afterwards was how good that simple action made me feel. It felt like I’d finally made an effort to show respect for that long-neglected aspect of my practice, instead of just letting the guilt over doing nothing consume me. Although I still felt nervous about whether I was doing the holiday “right” or not, it finally hit me that in this case, doing it wrong was still better than not doing it at all.
So when I woke up today, I decided to finally do something about my altar. I wrote before about my altar in my post on “shrine envy,” which for the most part was set up by Seventeen-Year-Old Me while she was “basically stumbling along in a New Age haze trying to figure out what the hell she should be doing, basing most of her answers on what people on Neopagan forums had to say.” As a result, my altar – and my spirituality – didn’t turn out so well:
To put it bluntly, this altar is a mess. So much so that I’m too embarrassed to even post a photo of it. It’s like a visual representation of everything that was wrong with me and my practice at the time: it’s completely unplanned, it mixes things from various areas/traditions that have fuck-all to do with each other, and it puts way too much emphasis on stuff instead of the gods I was supposed to be worshiping.
Because my religious practice slipped off its shaky and materialistic foundation a couple years later, I never really made an effort to fix the mess I’d made. When I finally picked my practice back up a few years ago I was living away from home, so I was able to start from scratch with a nice little shrine box instead. When I moved back home I assumed the stay would only be temporary, but as months turned into years I realized that I couldn’t keep counting on moving away to fix my sacred space.
And as I went about dusting my altar and everything on it today – which was way overdue – I started to think about each piece in terms of decluttering. Only this time, I wasn’t just decluttering my room; I was decluttering my beliefs. Did I still need all these random natural offerings? Would putting them somewhere else really change my relationship to the gods that much? And what about all the little Buddhist items I’d tried to incorporate into my altar all those years ago? Did those have any place in my practice now? Again and again, I answered “no.”
After all the unnecessary stuff was gone, I reorganized everything. Keeping the lotus tealight holders was an obvious “yes” for me (because the lotus is an important symbol in the Kemetic tradition and because they looked prettier than bare electric candles), but the way they’d been arranged on the front of the altar made it almost impossible to place any offerings there. I moved a lot of the smaller natural items and ritual objects into a cedar box and placed my plastic sistrum on top so it was easily accessible, and other items and permanent offerings were arranged in the remaining spaces on the sides of the altar. The icons of the gods were all arranged on the antique butterfly tray so they were the new visual focal point.
My new altar looks a lot more “bare” than the old one, with a lot of open space in the front center than before. But that’s exactly the way I want it: now there’s plenty of room to set down temporary offerings, which are a more important part of the way I practice now.
Maybe it’s not as pretty or coordinated as other people’s altars or shrines. Maybe the icons are smaller and don’t look as cool. Maybe it looks like I couldn’t afford all the fancier ritual items other people can. But it works for me, and that’s the most important part. Although the altar isn’t enough in itself – it’s what you do with it that matters – I feel like the new layout will help my practice a lot. If nothing else, now I can focus on the deities I’m supposed to be connecting with, instead of all the other stuff.
More in the Decluttering Quest series:
Part 1: The Quest Begins
Part 2: Staying Motivated
Part 3: School Paper Trail
Part 4: Tackling Collections
Part 5: The First Roadblock
Part 6: Letting Go of Old Writing
Part 8: Breaking the Rules
Part 9: A Matter of Life, Not Death
Part 10: Cataloging a Personal Library