There are two tables in the room where I do my writing. One is my “standing desk,” i.e. a cheap piece from a certain Swedish superstore with two filing boxes stacked on top (it’s hella classy and ergonomic). The other table is an altar.
I struggled with this description for a long time – I called it my meditation spot, my reflection table, my thing-over-there. Lots of people practice meditation or contemplation, people from all sorts of cultural traditions, so that word felt less loaded with religious assumptions. But the second table in my room is not solely a meditation spot. It has tarot cards on it, along with rocks and seeds and bits of bone and other items one might most accurately call icons. So, if I’m being honest, it’s an altar.
The problem with the word is that it implies some kind of belief, and my beliefs are slippery. I’m not a monotheist; I’m not a polytheist. I might be a pantheist, for certain definitions of “pan” and “theist,” which is to say eight out of ten people who give a shit would think I’m not a pantheist. Those people would probably call me an atheist, except I disagree with practically all the cultural meaning that word has been given by strident jerks on the internet. Not to mention my use of tarot cards and scraps and icons, which most atheists would give a vigorous side-eye.
“Altar” isn’t the only imprecise term I’ve dug up over my past couple years of metaphysical spelunking. There’s “pagan,” and “witchy,” and “woo,” all of which bear relevance to the stuff I actually do at my thing-over-there table. But the words don’t fit exactly the way I want them to. Like an itchy sweater with too much fabric around the armpits.
It makes me wish for a philosophical and spiritual equivalent to the term “queer,” which I happily affix to myself exactly because of its slipperiness – flexibility is the point of the word. If somebody wants me to nail things down, I can use other terms, but only with a cumbersome amount of clarification (“bisexual” where “bi” means “genders both like and unlike one’s own;” “pansexual” with explanations of “yes, that’s a thing” and/or “no, poly is different”).
Were somebody to ask me what my spiritual beliefs are, specifically, I can’t begin to imagine how I’d explain it concisely. Or even in a way that made much sense.
Maybe that will change with experience and with better vocabulary. In the meantime, I sit at my little table – at my altar – and throw cards and meditate and light incense. Because these are actions that help me think differently about my life and about the world, actions that have meaning for me. And because my altar makes my beliefs more nuanced, rather than just more easily described.