I stand in the doorway of my office and survey the carnage. Twenty-three bankers boxes sit in the center of the room, a Tower of Babel whose stories continue to creep higher and higher as the day goes on. Around them, my bookshelves have started to become barren. Fiction had disappeared from the walls of the room, as had science, film, and most of the classics; but half of my collection, including all the books of essays, memoir, and literary journalism that had comprised my comprehensive examination list, still waited to be packed away into boxes. I figure that, at best, I have boxed up half of my library. Forty-six boxes, then, by the time I finish. I had bought forty, thinking that I would finish with extras.
“Why do I have all these damned books?” I ask my wife.
“You could get rid of some of them, you know,” she replies.
I recoil in shock, as if she had stabbed me. She smiles, shakes her head, and goes back to packing up her own office. She knows that when I moved into this house, I came with a bed, three bookshelves, and about twenty boxes of books; and in the six years since, I have gone through a PhD in English, a process that tends to result in acquiring ever more quaint and curious volumes. There isn’t a bare space on the walls of my office – from corner to corner, every wall is full of bookshelves. It is strange to think that soon these walls, hidden from sight for years, will soon be bare again.
We are moving in a few days – not far, only about a mile away, but far enough that we still have to pack up everything we own and load it into the beds of our long-suffering friends’ pickup trucks. (Blame our landlord, who wants to remodel and flip the house; he has forced out everyone on our block in his quest to raise the average rent by $300.) We have the usual assortment of furniture and appliances, but the most labor-intensive parts of the move for me are my library and my altar, the two physical manifestations of my mind and its obsessions.
While my back objects to the repeated bending and lifting of packing up the books, ultimately one’s library has a way of returning to form over time; I will set up the shelves in the new house, replace the books in their designated sections, and find that the new room has become a simulacrum of the old one. The books make the library, and as long as there is room for them, they will make the space into their own.
The altar is a different matter. I know some Pagans whose altars are spare and austere, elegant arrangements of a few ritual tools and an icon or two of a favored deity. Alas, I am not one of these; as ever, my preference is for artful clutter. My tastes in ritual spaces come from the altars my parents kept when I was a child, statues of the gods jumbled atop wardrobes and inside of china cabinets, with space for incense and offerings inserted wherever there was room to be found. When I was on the verge of adulthood, I visited the Voodoo Spiritual Temple in New Orleans and fell in love with their ritual space, a room full of altars that seemed to accumulate new features like sedimentary layers. I felt as though I could have spent weeks in that room, scanning every loa’s shrine for surprises.
When I moved into this house, my altar was just a small triangular table wedged into the corner of the bedroom, and I somehow managed to fit all my statuary and tools into that space; over the years it accumulated, grew, transformed. It swapped tables, added a shelf dedicated to icons, spread itself over the walls, until an entire half of the bedroom was filled with diagrams of the Tree of Life, prayer flags, stick-figure reminders of stadha poses, framed prints of Rackham drawings. And true to my vision, every flat surface filled with tiny mementos and dedications, items I had picked up at festivals and sabbats or along trails in the woods.
Nothing about it would have made sense to anyone but me, but then, that was the point – I saw my altar not just as a place to worship, but as a material reflection of my spiritual life. Just as one memory so often triggers another unbidden, so did the little souvenirs littered about my altar remind me of places and people far away. I had a story for every one of them, of how they came into my hands, and how they came to rest on in their spot on my altar.
I will set up my altar again in the new house, naturally, but I can’t help but feel that it will be a new altar, even if it is made of the same parts. All the pieces that came to be by chance and by design part of this altar over the years will be set into their new places all at once when we move, losing their sense of archeological emplacement.
Perhaps I am overthinking this; it has been known to happen.
One of the things that will not be coming with us to the new house will be my collaborators in constructing my altar, by which I mean my house-wights. I lived in this house long enough to develop a fond familiarity with the spirits who lived here before I arrived and will remain once I am gone. We shared food and drink together at my altar, and danced together in the backyard, and sang songs deep in the night beneath the limbs of the honey locust tree outside my front door.
I know many people have lived in places far longer than six years, but it’s the longest I have lived anywhere except my childhood home, and it seems long enough to build a relationship with the spirits of the place. If not for the intrusion of the landlord, I would have been happy to stay here with these spirits for years yet to come. (But then, that’s what landlords have always done, isn’t it?)
There is a bottle of mead on the floor next to my altar; it will be the last thing to leave the house, once all the other boxes are loaded, all the other furniture packed. I will take it out to the honey locust tree and share one last drink with the spirits of the house that is no longer mine before I bid them hail and farewell.