My plant as an altar

Hecate has written passionately piece about how her garden can be an intensely demanding lover, especially right now, when it never stops needing her attention, and the relationship, I can only imagine, is sweaty and exhausting, and I hope satisfying. I have only a few potted plants on my balcony, so I can’t describe my relationship with my plants in that way, but it made me wonder whether I can think of one of my plants as an altar.

Some time ago, my mother sent me a potted plant as part of a gift. It’s a pretty little succulent whose glossy green leaves have a thin line of contrasting reddish-purple color along their scalloped edges. When I am good at taking care of it, it rewards me with clusters of little red four-petaled flowers. I am not always good at taking care of it, but it’s teaching me, albeit slowly. Plants are often slow teachers, which is good for me when I’m being a slow learner.

One day as I was taking care of it, I found that a sizeable stalk had gotten accidentally snapped off – possibly by the cats, possibly by me pushing it up against the window carelessly. I felt bad about this, and as I hesitated to throw the broken part away, a tiny idea emerged: Couldn’t some plants propagate like this? Actually, come to think of it, I knew that jade plants, which are also succulents, could grow from cuttings, so…what if?

Not quite sure of myself, I got a water glass, ran water in it, and plunked the little stalk down it it next to the big plant, and gave it my best wishes. Much to my amazement, it worked. After just a few days, I could see tendrils of thin, white roots emerging. Over the next several days, I added just a few crystals of Miracle-Gro to the water, figuring that it needed some nutrients. When it put out new leaves, I knew it wasn’t just my imagination; this thing was actually growing!

I had to guess at the right time and sufficient root structure to actually plant it in soil and a pot of its own, but the little sprout is now growing luxuriantly. It hasn’t bloomed yet, but I hope that it will soon. Since it’s still relatively small, it spends most of its time on my desk.

I have a little mini-altar on my desk already: an inkwell, my dip pen, and a few other symbols of the Elements and Powers. But as I was watering my plants the other day, I said something like, “There you go! That should help!” to one of them, and it struck me that the watering could be a kind of offering, a libation not just to the spirits but to the very physical beings of that little corner of earth.

So I think I’m going to try cultivating a relationship with my little desk succulent wherein I regard it as an altar, a place where I come to observe and appreciate life: its, mine, and all. The difference between watering and libation may be as simple as the words I say, and the attitude I foster within myself. We’ll see. If I’m right, and it works, then this plant may become to me, for a time, more than just a plant, being also at the same time a living symbol of some of what I see as holy.

Where do you find or make your altars?

PS: Real gardeners may be horrified by my admittedly blase attitude towards the sprouting experiment. I’m sorry. I don’t even know the real name of this type of plant, and as I said, I’m still learning. Because of my many concerns with the non-plant beings in my life, plants are relatively low on my priority list. This post is about an example of changing that. Which is my way of saying: please don’t lecture me about what I should have done. I’m working on it.

Review: Patricia Telesco, 365 Goddess

Telesco, Patricia. 365 Goddess: a daily guide to the magic and inspiration of the goddess. Harper Collins, 1998. Paperback. No page numbers; approx. 350.

This book is designed to be used as a daily devotional. Each date has a celebration, festival, or other observance listed, a specific goddess, themes, symbols, and a paragraph or two about the goddess. Then there’s a discussion of things the reader can do to celebrate the day, honor the goddess, or otherwise improve her life. It’s a neat idea that is only moderately well executed; some women may like this book and find great value in it and its suggestions, but personally, it strikes me as ill-assorted and rather haphazard.

Telesco’s introduction is solidly syncretic: “The world’s nations depict the Goddess with many different names, faces, and characteristics – but these are really all part of the same potent lady.” She goes on to suggest that the wide variety of cultural perspectives borrowed in this book allow one to adopt a different position and get different views of the one great Goddess – essentially, to draw on the attributes that one needs in order to get what one wants. This approach strikes me as a bit too mercenary and simplistic. Taken literally, this “dial a goddess” approach leads to an extreme form of what Bonewits dubbed “the worship bargain” – “you scratch my aura and I’ll scratch yours.” This inappropriate use of the commerce metaphor oversimplifies and frankly obscures the complex, detailed, challenging process of building a relationship with deity. Now, Telesco avoids the commerce metaphor, (possibly because it is too masculine or patriarchal?) but her casual handling of how to relate to aspects of deity leads to the same potential conclusion.

Perhaps even more than syncretism, the book is founded on an approach of personal change. I appreciate the good this can do, and it’s certainly better for one’s mental health than an approach emphasizing original sin and total surrender of self and agency. But again, taken too far, this risks caricaturing the more complex experience of religion down to a kind of ritualized self-help. Many of the activities Telesco suggests are designed to lift the reader’s self-esteem, and she strongly encourages personalizing them; I can see how they would do a lot of good for some women. On the other hand, I find many of them ill-chosen, only loosely associated with the festival and/or goddess being named, and frankly, assuming a level of ability that means the reader is already not hurting for resources. For the goddess Pomona, Telesco suggests visiting a garden or arboretum, and possibly creating a Pomona oil from flower petals. (16 April) For the Saffron Rose festival of Spain, Telesco notes, “Saffron is the world’s most expensive herb,” and then goes on to encourage the reader to eat some. (28 October) Frankly, Telesco’s directions assume that the reader is a woman with a fair amount of privilege and resources, who has the luxury to worry about things like eating saffron rice on a particular day or sharing a bottle of wine with friends.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on her; Telesco is probably writing from the heart for an audience that she imagines to be like herself. But when she is specifically trying to invoke the mantle of multiculturalism and interest in the world’s peoples, especially indigenous peoples who are likely to be underprivileged, these kind of simple feel-good magics strike me as frankly self-absorbed and tone deaf. Her “Last Words” at the end of the book specify that “Every attempt has been made to put the holidays and celebrations throughout these pages into their proper cultural context and to honor them in that setting. Each civilization has special customs and traditions that we cannot fully understand, because we were not, or are not, there. Nonetheless, if we approach each tradition with the same respect that we have for our own, our understanding of the world and of its diversity and similarities will be enriched.” Unfortunately, that respect is exactly what I find lacking, or perhaps impossible, in the casual and superficial approach possible in just a paragraph of background on a goddess or culture.

The way Telesco went about writing this book seems to be something like this: assemble all the calendars and information about festivals, observances, etc, and assign one to each day of the calendar. Then pick a goddess whose attributes are loosely related to the festival, in Telesco’s mind if no one else’s. Then write about what to do during that day using either the elements of the festival, or the features of the goddess, but rarely both. For example, on August 20th, Telesco encourages us to celebrate the launch of the Voyager 2 and to worship Inanna. Her summary of Inanna’s characteristics focuses entirely on the “sweet” side, talking about Inanna’s “gentle tears” that “wash from heaven, putting out the emotional fires that keep people apart.” Now, I’ve read the translated stories and hymns of Inanna, and I don’t remember anything about her gentle tears putting out emotional fires. I remember a lot about her as a powerful figure, a queen, a priestess, and a woman who demands revenge when she has been wronged. Telesco’s free association here seems to distort Inanna’s essence; her suggestion to make an Inanna wand is, frankly, inane (by all means, make a wand, but there’s no reason to associate that with Inanna), and the waxing poetic about Voyager’s mission of love and peace is hopeful but pretty empty and irrelevant.

Perhaps the best thing about this book is that it might act as an impetus for someone to learn more about a specific goddess (although her bibliography is scarcely a page and over-populated with books about festivals, not goddesses, and certainly not historically accurate sources). Telesco’s creativity in coming up with a wide variety of simple activities is appreciable, although it starts to sound a bit repetitive after about three months, and it is not applicable to many women’s situations, as noted above. If you need the feel-good encouragement, this isn’t a bad way to get it, and it’s certainly focused on Goddess spirituality, but on the whole, this book falls flat.