Dismantling altars

Edifice © 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

A couple of years ago, I took a writing workshop with Dennis Slattery, PhD at Pacifica Graduate Institute. Among the writing “meditations” he had us do, one was called Dismantling the Altar.

As Dr. Slattery wisely noted, we have a tendency to create altars, and other “as if” edifices. Although we create altars to support or even inspire us, they also can entrench us in beliefs, prejudices, and behaviors that inhibit altering ourselves and our environments in ways that fit who we are becoming, or who we could become.

While doing this writing meditation, I was supposed to think of my personal writing altar. I began by remembering the pile of books I had left stacked on my desk at home. But a stronger impression and much larger altar took over my imagination — an altar made of marble pillars, darkened and chipped by time, but also strong and polished, translucent streaks running throughout. These were my imagined “Pillars” of Modern Thought, and they were emblematic of the books I had left on my desk.

Now those pillars would be a bitch to dismantle. They’re meant to stand the test of time, much like the approach to knowledge they represent, which espouses universality and rationality as eternal principles, along with indelible Truths capable of weathering dangerous ideologies and the demagogues who espouse them. And while this altar certainly has made possible extraordinary things like justice and medicine and civilization, it has also marginalized Nature and emotions and the art of living a more ‘accidental’ existence.

Since the task of the writing exercise was dismantling altars, I began to think what it would take to demolish such a large and enduring structure (my desk at home long forgotten). I imagined such a stone edifice would take a great act of violence to destroy. In my mind’s eye I saw sledgehammers, explosions, and people being punctured by flying bits of marble. This didn’t appeal to me at all.

And then I thought: What if instead of being dismantled or destroyed, I accepted this altar as an unavoidable presence — a past within our midst that we can neither escape nor completely ignore? This altar, and all it has stood for, could then become like the ubiquitous exercise bikes and workout equipment littering dens and bedrooms across America, parked there with good intention, but so often repurposed as clothing racks and room partitions when convenience or exigency took priority.

And like those marble pillars, I think of what it takes to heal from traumas such as childhood abuse, rape, and war, and how it is impossible to change the past, but how it is possible to find ways to grow around what happened, not only making due, but also making well.

Still, sometimes it helps to imagine dismantling the past and the altars that continually remind us of what has been. Memories of past traumas often interfere with seeing possibilities and feeling the hope needed to imagine a better future. As we try to imagine all that we are capable of becoming, we often must first imagine getting rid of the memories and fantasies that keep us tied to the past. In the imagination and through art, memories of past traumas and their altars can be safely altered no matter how threatening they might be, like weapons melted down and made into sculptures — perhaps like the faces of Easter Island, sometimes haunting in their silence, and yet just stone.

We may not be able to dismantle all the pernicious ‘altars’ of modernity — the stockpiles of nuclear weapons, the earthen scars of industrialization, or the psychic wounds of colonization, slavery, and other forms of oppression. I fear the wounds are deep and entrenched, and it will take centuries of grieving to weather their hardened defenses.

And then we are all so busy with the tangibles of life — the details, the necessities, and the urgencies. These days, I sometimes imagine walking away from a world built on permanence, although this leaves me feeling defenseless, and as if I have somehow lost. And I feel a need for defenses, not only from all the violence and chaos, but also from my anguish for being born during an era so devouring in its habits and relations that we are destroying the very planet that sustains us, along with each other.

In his thoughtful book, The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau shared a clever distinction between strategies and tactics that sometimes helps me when I feel small and defenseless in the face of seemingly unalterable altars. “I call a strategy,” de Certeau wrote,

“the calculation (or manipulation) of power relationships that becomes possible as soon as a subject with will and power (a business, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It postulates a place that can be delimited as its own and serve as the base from which relations with an exteriority composed of targets or threats (customers or competitors, enemies, the country surrounding the city, objectives and objects of research, etc.) can be managed. As in management, every ‘strategic’ rationalization seeks first of all to distinguish its ‘own’ place, that is, the place of its own power and will, from an ‘environment.’ A Cartesian attitude, if you wish: it is an effort to delimit one’s own place in a world bewitched by the invisible powers of the Other. It is also the typical attitude of modern science, politics, and military strategy.”

De Certeau contrasted strategy — what I think of when I imagine the Pillars of Western Thought — with tactics, for which he claimed,

“It [the tactical] takes advantage of ‘opportunities’ and depends on them, being without any base where it could stockpile its winnings, build up its own position, and plan raids. What it wins it cannot keep. This nowhere gives a tactic mobility, to be sure, but a mobility that must accept the chance offerings of the moment, and seize on the wing the possibilities that offer themselves at any given moment. It must vigilantly make use of the cracks that particular conjunctions open in the surveillance of the proprietary powers. It poaches in them. It creates surprises in them. It can be where it is least expected. It is a guileful ruse. In short, a tactic is an art of the weak.”

De Certeau emphasized the power of the strategic and the trickery of the tactical. And as fate would have it, I have inherited the tactical way of the weak, although I try to avoid its trickery. The art of deception seems necessary only when under attack or if you set your intention on dismantling strategically placed altars. Yet having already chosen the path of the gentle trickster, I look to Nature as a model for my tactics. Like water.

Water is tactical. It’s also a bit of a Trickster — both gentle and mighty, unpredictable and recurrent. It can be slow and repetitious, much like chores on Sunday, washing dirt from clothes, or watering the garden. And after the chores are done, there’s water again to quench the thirst of hard work. This is water working in repetitive and gentle ways. Yet in large quantities, or with enough time, water can erode mountains into pebbles and crumble marble into dust. These bits of past edifices we scatter on garden paths and tended roads, making use of all things, great and small.

Water is often the slowest path of change, yet its effects are everywhere. And when we take care of water, and are mindful of its power, water has a way of taking care of us.

With water as my metaphor and model, I shift from an altar of permanence to an altar that upholds the principles of fluidity and inevitable change. I imagine the lives of the Tiebele or Ndebele women of Africa who paint mosaics on the sides of their homes, attentive to detail and process, all the while knowing what is given loving attention in the dry season may wash away with the rains. And that’s okay. There is peace in living according to the seasons and the wisdom that eventually everything begins anew, and often with a familiar rhythm.

Book Reference

de Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).