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Catholic women head to nature religions

Altars are as old as water

Durkee's sacred stones. "The stones remind me of the Earth, its power and density." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Durkee's sacred stones. "The stones remind me of the Earth, its power and density."

FOR YEARS I COLLECTED OBJECTS THAT HAD SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE FOR ME, AND I KEPT THEM IN A WOODEN WINE BOX: SHELLS AND CORAL FROM FARAWAY BEACHES AND REEFS I'D VISITED; FEATHERS, SEEDS, STICKS, AND STONES I'D FOUND IN THE MOUNTAINS AND DESERT; TINY SCULPTURES OF BIRDS, SNAKES, AND MASKS;

Maureen Durkee: “By letting go of the guilt, I was able to let go of a lot of the Catholicism."

A MERMAID MADE OF COCONUT AND CLAY, PAINTED BLUE AND PINK; STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL STAMPS FROM DISTANT COUNTRIES; A BUDDHA-FACED EARRING, A STAR OF DAVID.

Few of these objects had any intrinsic value. But for me they were saturated with meaning. The shells recalled my childhood spent near the sea at Coney Island and days, much later in life, snorkeling through coral reefs. And the mermaid evoked the goddess of the ocean, whose spirit carried my ancestors from Russia and Eastern Europe to the shores of the New World and whose mercy had saved me from drowning more than once.

Jo Ann Smith. An inner voice told her to move to San Diego.

The feathers symbolized the great birds I’d seen, red-tailed hawks and ospreys, whose aerial acrobatics reminded me of dreams in which I’d soared, looking down on mountains, streams, and forests. And the stones, incomprehensible and invulnerable, conjured up cosmic beginnings and the mysteries of the still-shaking, quaking Earth.

The seeds stood for memory, birth, and desire. And the snake was the coiled energy that the yogis spoke of but had a deeper significance. Before the birth of my first son, the snakes had brought me a great dream. Through a carved canyon. I’d walked in a desert filled with thousands of writhing rattlers, hissing out a warning in the starlight, a warning about dangers to come.

A few years back, I finally bought a carved box — an old medicine cabinet — and started arranging all my objects on the shelves. I placed the box on the mantel over my fireplace and surrounded it with a medicine rattle I’d made, a kachina my wife and I had gotten from a Hopi artist, and hand-carved deer from rural Mexico. Underneath it all, I placed my congas, djembe, and other percussion instruments.

For a while, whenever friends asked me, I called the whole assemblage a shadow box, in deference to the unsung genius Joseph Cornell, whose mystical boxes, enclosing intimate and hermetic worlds, were an inspiration. But of course what I had made was an altar, an altar to the continuity of my spirit. For everything around connected me in some way to the sacred.

Altars are as old as water. When our prehistoric ancestors painted the caves or carved rocks, they were creating altars — sites of ritual communication to the supernatural. Ancient rock paintings and deposits of bones and skulls grouped together and placed along cave walls may well have been altars to the dead. We can’t know what Paleolithic man thought. But it’s believed by many that he saw his fate as a series of supernatural ordeals that could be affected by'sacrifice and prayer.

Altars can be immense. The Egyptian pyramids, the Sumerian ziggurats, the massive carvings in Peru’s Nasca Desert seen in their glory only from the air — all of these are altars: Dolphin skull places where people appeased the gods. And of course, some altars were sites of ritualized cruelty and barbarism. In the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs sacrificed humans on altars. The victim — a citizen or a slave, a man or a girl — was typically held down upon a stone block by four priests. One priest, or perhaps a king, would then take a flint knife and cut out the heart, which was set afire in a brazier. The head, meanwhile, would be lopped off and held aloft. And the arms and legs would be ritually consumed with maize or chiles.

We think of altars as elevated places, in churches and temples. The word itself is thought to come from either the Latin altare— “a high place” — or ardere, a site where burnt offerings are made. Both meanings are on point. The Catholic altar is an elevated place consecrated to the celebration of the Eucharist. And the Jewish altar is a raised platform where the Torah — the word of Yahweh presented to the nation of lsrael — is read. Both have offerings made to them.

Yet altars need not be raised or intimidating.

Wondrous Afro-Atlantic altars, located all over the New World, wherever Africans were brought over as slaves, are often powerful but simple.

You can find them in headstone cairns in Austin, Texas, in Umbanda shrines in Buenos Aires, as forked sticks or flags in Africa and South America, and in apartments in Havana. Buried in the ground, hidden in bathrooms and closets, erected in the jungles and deserts by kings or pharaohs, altars all serve a divine purpose; they’re places where people realize who they are. And their very creation, repeating cosmogony, aligns us with heaven.

Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of comparative religion, wrote in Cosmos and History that the creation of an altar retold the creation of the world. Eliade was writing about the Brahmanic tradition in India, but his comments could apply to all altars.

"The water with which the clay is mixed is the primordial water; the clay that forms the base of the altar is the Earth; the side walk represent the atmosphere. Furthermore, each stage in the building of the altar is accompanied by verses in which the cosmic region that has just been created is explicitly named.”

My altars aren’t that cosmic or pure; they’re a patchwork of spiritual traditions that have influenced me. One sits atop a wooden bookcase not far from my computer a sculpture of an African woman’s head given to me by a santero; a carved black owl Pachamama stone from the Bolivian Andes used by curanderas— folk healers — for blessings, luck, and prosperity, a ceramic flute from Colombia, with a snake curled around the instrument’s stem; an old black-and-white photograph of my maternal ancestors; a beaded snake made by the Huichole Indians under the influence of peyote; a wooden draydl used during Chanukah; a grinning trombonist skeleton used in Day of the Dead ceremonies; a silver Star of David; and a photograph of my then-two-year-old son Zachary hugging our dog Sam.

Often, I smudge myself with white sage before this altar. The sage, a purifying herb used by Native Americans from this part of the country, centers me, creating sacred space, allowing me to let go of obsessions, fears, and the detritus of the day. Sometimes, before I undertake important writing,

I burn sage or copal, a fragrant resin, and ask for inspiration. Even as I compose these words, pieces of dried sage from the local mountains are burning and flickering brightly, releasing a pungent smoke. And outside, surrounding a garden bed, is another altar: stones from the local mountains and rivers and the ocean. The stones remind me of the Earth, its power and density, and of sweat lodges I’ve been invited to, made possible through the fierce, red heat of burning volcanic rock.

Of course, altars need not be complex. If you go out to an arbor in your back yard or set up a candle in a corner of your bedroom to pray, you’ve created an altar. And if you visit some spot in nature repeatedly — a canyon, stream, or cave where you commune with nature, there too is an altar. Even a computer, if the repository of powerful ideas is set down in a ritualized way, could be sacred. One weekend I went looking for San Diegans who had unusual altars. And I didn’t have much trouble finding them.

This altar is my life in a lot of ways. There are sacred things here that nobody knows about but me. I’ve never talked about this before. But it’s an honor to be asked about it,” Maureen Durkee tells me in the living room of her North County house, where she lives with her golden retriever.

An art therapist and marriage and family counselor, she has sandy blond hair and deep blue eyes that are quick to fill with tears when something moves her. She wears a necklace made of deerskin, turquoise beads, and silver. Dangling from it is a medicine bag. She sits on the floor in front of a low table covered with ceremonial objects, at the center of which is a dolphin’s skull.

“The dolphin altar is a place where I come in the morning or the evening to center and to connect to spirit and the Earth. And because I’ve done that over the years and added things sacred to me over my life, the energy of those prayers and that honoring and the sage burnt is carried in this space. It lives in the wood of this table, made for me by a friend of mine.

“As a therapist, I’ll come home in the evening and let go of what happened with clients. It can be difficult to stay in balance. And I need to stay in balance, so I can be involved in their healing. I truly believe you can only do as much healing on others as you do on yourself. So I come here to connect and ground and ask for help and guidance from the holy ones. All these things symbolize the holy ones: Mother Earth, the universe, stars, the moon, the sun, the birds, the animals, the trees, the fire.

“This is an actual dolphin skull brought to me from the Sea of Cortes and given to me as a gift,” Maureen says, her hands wrapped carefully around the sleek, bony sculpture. “I’ve always felt connected to dolphins. They’re very playful, wonderful creatures. They’re oriented to family and community and very intelligent. They appear in all waters of the world. They meditate. The dolphins know. My spiritual teacher, from a local tribe here in Southern California, teaches the ways of the dolphin. And that’s some of what I’ve been studying these past few years.

“The dolphin has a sacred breath,” Maureen says, and she demonstrates it for me with a sharp, whooshing intake of air. “They take the breath from up above, hold it underwater, and bring the breath — which is spirit — down through the ocean to Mother Earth.

The tribe I train with is committed to teaching people of all races. They believe that the animal world teaches us, and dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals in the universe.”

A stone circle surrounds the dolphin’s skull. A crystal sits at the breath point of the dolphin’s sinus passage. “In the creation story from my teacher’s tribe, the stars came down from the heavens, fell into the ocean in the beginning, and became dolphins. The dolphins taught the turtle the breath. And then the turtles crawled onto the land and became the people.”

I hold the opaque crystal in my hand and run my fingers over its smooth, almost glassy surface. “Crystals are healing stones. They’re very sacred, and they have more power if other people give them to you. They come from the Earth and carry the spirit of the light within them. And they’re just magical. In every culture where crystals are available, throughout time, they’ve been used in ceremony. There’s nothing New Age about it. It’s an old and ancient practice.

“These are stones from our California desert — granite, quartz, and the like, all of different colors. I’ve arranged them how I felt is right. Being Celtic, the stone circles are very true to my heart. The druids used them for solstice and equinox ceremonies and to mark the passage of the sun and moon. Those were times for special blessings, for letting the power and energy of the universe in, to keep their lives moving and going. The druids believed that if you didn’t keep the circle of life and the Earth going, things would not work out well. So the stones were about honoring the path of the sun and moon and the path of the seasons and about keeping the crops and bringing abundance.”

Maureen pauses and picks up a stone. A ray of afternoon light falls on her hand. “I just want to hold one of these stones while I’m talking. Because these stones are very sacred to me.”

Near the stones is a group of perfect sand dollars with their petroglyph-like markings. “These are actually fossilized sand dollars from the Sea of Cortes, on the Sonoran side.” Maureen hands one to me delicately, and I feel the dense weight of it. “These are ancient. They could be millions of years old. They carry not only the energy of the sea and the sand, but also the stone energy and all it took to make them into stone.”

There are other sacred objects on the dolphin altar: an arrowhead and a scraper found in North County and used by the Luiseno Indians; a miniature duck and an owl, contributed by her two little nephews; a pottery shard from the Sedona area, found on a mountain there; a turquoise bear from the Navajo, an eagle sculpture made of ironwood from Mexico, and a picture of an ocelot.

“During a healing session, I had a vision of something coming out of the mud. It started as a frog and became an ocelot. So now I have it on my altar. It’s perceptive, agile, and sleek. And now I’m working with that energy.”

As for the eagle, a gift from her sister and brother-in-law, it represents freedom. “Eagles are the biggest, most powerful birds on Earth. They have that connection to Earth, but they’re almost always in the sky. They nest but fly so high and see so far. And I have some of that, the ability to see very far, to see from high above. And often in situations I find myself seeing the whole situation. So if I’m involved in a ceremony, I’ll find myself feeling the energy of everyone and everything around.”

Maureen has had visions of the Jo Ann Smith future, glimpses of things to come.

“In my altar mediations I’ll connect with the eagle, who’ll take me to my spirit guides. I’ll feel the talons and the beak and the feathers under me. Everyone has that kind of psychic power. But it takes practice. I see visual pictures. But some people get auditory messages, and others receive things kinesthetically. It’s not New-Age. The Native Americans, for example, accept it as a matter of course that we have psychic abilities.”

Like many personal altars, Maureen’s is a mix of things found, gifts given, art created. In this last category is a hand-painted rattle, covered with drawings that remind me of rock paintings. There’s a turtle, a lynx, a snake, a toad, a rose, a llama, a polar bear, a hawk, and a woman at a fire. I shake the rattle and hear the seeds and pebbles bounce around inside, a crackling rush that sounds like corn popping or the ocean breaking over rocks.

“The drawings all just emerged from the coloration of the gourd and what I saw in them. Here’s Simba,” Maureen says, referring to the Lion King character. “Simba had to be on there. I harvested the gourd, cleaned it out, and wood-burned all the animals onto it. The turtle comes out of the ocean, like the creation story I told you.”

My gaze falls on a stick, colored silver, green, blue, peach, and red, with prayer ties and pine needles and feathers on the top: a blessing stick.

“I received it in a graduation ceremony from Sacred Passages for Women.” Maureen pauses, unsure of how much to reveal and conceal. “My teacher, the spiritual leader of the tribe I study with, gave it to me. She’s more than a medicine woman. She doesn’t use the term ‘shaman,’ but that is what she is akin to. She’s a holy woman who comes along every two or three hundred years. It’s a stick that I will actually be buried with. So I’ll keep it for my life.”

Maureen was born in Hicksville, New York, and moved to San Diego when she was ten. Her father was an electrician and her mother was a housewife who raised seven children. Irish Catholicism was the ruling theology. Maureen’s maternal grandmother and grandfather came from Ireland, as did her paternal great-grandmother and grandfather.

“So the idea of sin and salvation was burned into me as a child,” says Maureen. “And there were all these rules. My upbringing was very rigid and strict. I went to Our Lady of Peace Academy High School, Cathedral Girls High School, and University High School, where I graduated. When I was younger I was sort of forced into Catholicism. But I liked all of the elaborate rituals — that part of the religion, I think, really resonated within me.”

Through much of Catholic school she remembers wanting to be a nun. “Probably every little girl that’s raised Catholic wants to be a nun at some point. That’s definitely preadolescent — before you get into boys and that whole thing.”

It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she began letting go of the Catholicism she was raised with. And to do that she had to confront the guilt, shame, and anger that came from being sexually and psychologically abused as a child.

“By letting go of the guilt and letting go of past abuse, which was really interwoven within that, I was able to let go of a lot of the Catholicism as well," Maureen says, her eyes staring down and away. But it wasn’t easy. “It takes a lot to overcome sexual and psychological abuse. A lot of therapy and a lot of soul-searching and a lot of spiritual work. I’ve found that’s been the most healing thing. It created a valuing of myself, because I wasn’t taught to value myself. I was taught the opposite really — devaluing the self, breaking the spirit. But the spirit within, the spiritual part of me, is so strong that I can overcome just about anything.”

For a while she thought of herself as agnostic. But working with the Navajo Nation in Arizona for a year in the late 70s, teaching art and special education to Indian kids, brought her in touch with a burgeoning sense of her own unique spiritual place in the world.

“That sort of began my interest, my conscious knowledge of the resonance that I have with Native American cultures. I began by honoring the land and the beauty of it. And it really made sense to me — the sacred rituals surrounding Earth. I remembered camping when I moved with my family from New York to San Diego. We camped a lot. And those times were really beautiful to me. My mother loved birds and flowers, and she really had a very wonderful, very musical laugh. And my father loved nature of all kinds and would be the impetus behind getting us all out into nature and camping and hiking, carving wood, and climbing rocks. So those are pleasant memories that I sort of now have incorporated into my adult life.” In the ’80s, Maureen became a clinical art therapist and worked with visually impaired adults and with people suffering eating disorders. She worked with families and children. And she underwent many years of therapy herself. She has a private practice in Encinitas. But for personal spiritual growth, she goes elsewhere.

“I worked with a Navajo medicine man for a while and looked around for different teachers. I went to different ceremonies and found that there were a lot of people doing things that they really shouldn’t be doing. I went to ceremonies where I came out feeling worse than when I went in, which is not good. There are a lot of healers and sweat lodges, particularly, where you’ve got to be very careful.”

Eventually, a few years ago, she came to know the Native American teacher she now trains with, a teacher who’s helped transform her life.

“What I love about the indigenous cultures around the world is that they honor the natural changes that, occur in our lives all the time. They honor the seasons, and the day and the night, and the sunrise and the sunset, and changes as people grow and learn. Our culture doesn’t do that so much. That’s essential, a missing piece of our lives.”

She says, as much as possible she doesn’t let the world’s chaos into her life. She has no television or newspaper. New Age music plays softly.

“I kind of protect myself against the violence of the world. Some people might call that denial. But for me it’s so upsetting that it throws me off balance from my path. So I make a conscious choice to keep my environment peaceful.”

Yet the ritual work she does is often bound up with the darkness that overtakes people’s lives. There are certain rituals and ceremonies that require a fire, Maureen says, and for that she has another altar. She walks across the living room to a big cast-iron fireplace that has holes in the sides of the bricks to let the heat out.

Above the fireplace is an Aztec-style needlepoint mandala made by a friend, plus many other objects and plants: white sage, wild lilac, sweet grass, and cedar. There’s a handwoven Navajo bag and pieces of animal fur (coyote, dog, rabbit) inside a shell; a wild turkey feather; a beaded shaft, candles, a bird’s nest, a black-and-yellow hand-painted Ukrainian egg, an ironwood sculpture of a dolphin, a carved jaguar, a pottery shard from Sedona, and small animal bones that Maureen has found on hikes.

“I find you need fire particularly when there’s grief. Fire is wonderful for letting go, because you can actually create things or write things and then put them in the fire to burn. You let the fire transform them, and let the smoke bring your prayers up to spirit. So I like fire for that.

“If I want to celebrate something or am making some transition or asking for some healing. I’ll light a fire here with cedar or sage and call on the grandmothers from the six directions — north, south, east, west, above, and below — and summon their energy.”

Even with clients she sees elsewhere, she may do a fire ceremony or “write a letter to an abuser and then burn that letter. As an art therapist, I facilitate people expressing and changing their feelings. I let the person sort of design their own rituals. Art is a ritual in itself.

“These altars let all my feelings have honor rather than shame. I was taught not to show your feelings. But it’s very sacred when you have powerful feelings of any kind. For me, there was a lot to be angry about. Anger at not having the kind of parents I wanted. Anger at the missed childhood. Anger at not being able to be a child. And anger at all the responsibilities of taking care of my brothers. But it feels really good to be over that.”

On the floor behind the door to Jo Ann Smith’s house sits the squat, primitive figure of Eleggua, a simple altar to the all-important orisha (spirit) of the crossroads in the Santeria religion. His eyes, cowrie shells, stare up at me.

“He opens doors for me. He helps create what’s next,” says Smith, whose hazel eyes are set offby the vintage chartreuse dress she’s wearing. A black-yellow-and-red turban gives her the look of an African dancer. “On Mondays I take care of Eleggua. He’s like a child, so I give him candy, toys. I take him on drives, too). I put him in the front seat of my car when I drive to Los Angeles. So some of my friends have taken to calling him L.A.-gua,” Jo Ann says, and the joke sends her into a musical laugh.

But the key altar is yet to come, in a small, dimly lit breakfast nook that’s been made into a shrine. There, on a built-in counter, is a painted terra cotta statue of Our Lady of Charity, otherwise known in Santeria as Oshun — goddess of the river and the epitome of female beauty and erotic passion. The shell-like ripples of a fan enfold her, and around her is a glass of honey, a yellow candle, a dried sunflower, a mirror, a gold purse, and other intimate items.

“Oshun is my mother, and this is the symbolic articulation of my inner life — a way for me to maintain the integrity of my relationship with my mother Oshun,” says Jo Ann, who’s thin and willowy and has creamy, olive-toned skin that makes her look much younger than 48. “Oshun is the goddess of the river; she’s the goddess of love, of art, beauty, sensuality. She loves honey, she loves fans. The peacock is considered her bird. She loves gold and she loves yellow; the sunflower is her flower, and bells are her sound. She wears them on her ankle, and we know that she’s coming.

“The fan I got at an antique shop in Laguna Beach on one of my trips back from Los Angeles, where I go to college to study feminist spirituality. I usually like to stop and get Oshun a present. I got her this today,” )o Ann says smiling, holding up a gold purse. “My prayer book is kept here. She’s just with me all the time. And Oshun really enriches who I am. This altar symbolizes my spirituality and my particular relationship to her. It really establishes a focal point for me to pray and to continue to develop my own spiritual

At the other end of the room is a table with goblets of water, jewelry, pottery, a shell, and photographs of her mother and brother. This altar, traditional to Santeria, is for ancestors, though the term is construed loosely and includes people without blood ties.

“These are the spirit glasses, and I have the Virgin of Guadalupe and a photo of my brother and my mother. These are objects that would adorn and honor my mother’s spirit. The center goblet represents God. And this liquor is for my French spirit, because she likes that Part of the tradition is to feed the spirit, so whatever I cook at night, they get a plate first. I pour libations here. I honor my ancestors first. I pray, I ask for guidance, I hear things. Then I honor Oshun and say my morning prayers.”

Even before the strange journey that led her on a path toward becoming a santera. Smith was on a spiritual path. She grew up Catholic with her two brothers and one sister in Detroit.

“I went to church every day when I was in school. I was going to be a nun. That was really my only spiritual alternative. We didn’t know about these other kinds of choices. I really wanted to have a life that was spiritual. My first altars were Mary altars. They had flowers and the rosary and the image of Mary. They were always done in blue and white — those are her colors. I have a tremendous holy-card collection of saints. I was a devotee of the Blessed Mother, and Oshun is Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. So it was a very natural progression for me.”

Jo Ann went to Mercy College, a women’s Catholic school, studying to be a teacher. And while in college she considered entering the convent.

“I interviewed with the Mercy nuns. I’ve always had nuns in my life. I’ve worked for nuns. Where I go to school now in Los Angeles, I stay with a community of nuns. I sleep there, I have my little bed.”

After college she took a job in West Palm Beach, Florida, teaching theology in a small school. But one day in 1985, her life took a wild left turn.

“I received this flier ip the mail when I was in Florida to attend this African dance camp in Woodstock, New York. How I got it I don’t know. Nothing in my life pointed to the fact that I should go there. I was teaching religion in a Catholic junior high school. I had to take time off from work and had to make my principal realize why I needed to go. It was like that invitation to dance just snatched my heart. And I think it was the first time I traveled alone.”

The dance camp proved to be rigorous. But dancing eight hours a day for teachers who were quick with criticism. Smith found she was naturally gifted. She loved the African movements, the call and response.

“The drummers played djembes and congas. And when I saw the African dances demonstrated, I could do them instantly. I was hearing the drum and remembering myself.

And I wept. I remember being on the floor, beside myself with both joy and sorrow. People had left there crying.

And when I came back from this camp, I knew that I could just master anything in the world.”

Two years later came a turning point.

A friend asked her to go to Jamaica, where she was shooting a dance video, and Jo Ann accepted her offer.

“In Jamaica we were staying at this yoga center when one day I got possessed by a spirit. I don’t know what spirit it was; I still don’t. But it was so powerful it knocked me down to the ground. Right afterwards I could actually hear spirit voices talking. I heard those voices when I was a child too, though in this culture there’s no community to nurture that.”

With supernatural guidance. Smith was led to a number of different teachers. An inner voice told her to move to San Diego, and she did. Here, a powerful dream came to her.

“I didn’t know who it was, but he was standing at the foot of my bed. I had this vision, and it scared me to death. It woke me up out of a sound sleep, and I was shrieking. And then, within a month, I met him in person. A friend of mine said, ‘You’ve got to come and hear this speaker. He’s here from West Africa.’ So I went and walked in the door, and it was him.”

He was Malidoma Some, a noted shaman, diviner, and teacher from Burkina Faso, who now lives in the Bay Area. For five years. Some was a kind of long-distance mentor to Jo Ann. “He helped me remember myself. He consecrated me as a priestess on New Year’s Eve, 1993.”

One morning that same year, in May, when Smith was praying, a voice said, “ ‘Go to this shop downtown and ask the woman where you can go for a reading.’ I felt so awkward about it. I forgot about it for several days. But I went, and when I got there it turned out to be a woman that I knew from the community. So now I was even more hesitant. But she finally said, ‘Oh, I know you.’ And we started chatting and catching up. And she told me where to go for a reading. She called her padrino on the phone. I was there the next night, and a week later I had my first initiation.”

About a year ago, Smith found herself battling a strange sickness. A darkness enveloped her day and night. Her life’s energy was sapped.

“I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t read. I couldn’t dance and I couldn’t do anything. I was stripped completely of myself, of who I thought I was.” The sickness would later be diagnosed as a clinical depression. But Jo Ann saw it as an opportunity to heal herself and was lucky enough to find doctors who didn’t drug her.

"I just waited to see what surfaced. And these spirit dolls” — she points to hanging, handmade figures — “are part of what came up."

River Woman has an African headpiece. “When I made her, I knew that she was my archetype. And this one,” she says, pointing to a doll with purple yarn and brass and stars, “is Fire Woman. The dolls are made from things I had around my house. My spirit kept inviting me to put this on. Each one has its own special medicine and totems. River Woman has her pot of healing oils and the headpiece, which to me just symbolizes something that you would find next to the river.”

A third spirit doll. Earth Woman, is playing a drum. “That’s her medicine — the heartbeat of the Earth. And this,” Jo Ann holds a doll with a medicine bag, “is Feather Woman. She’s a little bit more ethereal. She has a Native American flavor to her.”

If her altar to Oshun is about love and protection, this altar, which she calls her “wall of justice,” is about pain, grief, and survival.

“I’m a survivor of sexual violence,” Jo Ann says. She pauses, and her eyes, so alive with light a moment ago, darken. “I was raped...eight years ago, shortly after I moved to San Diego. This is still rough around.the edges for me to talk about. As part of my own medicine, to bring healing to my own experience. I made these prayer dolls. As I did, I prayed for the healing of violence as it’s exacted toward women. I still make these dolls, and I find the process soothing and comforting and yet at the same time it extends beyond myself. It includes all women who have been violated in this way.”

In retrospect, the depression was deeply connected to the terrible violence she’d experienced. Never adequately dealt with, the rape had left gaping wounds in her soul. And her reaction was so extreme that she had to be hospitalized for two weeks. Miraculously, she wasn’t given medications by the staff of the clinic she was transferred to.

“The doctor got it. I read a poem to them. And I had a vision. I went deep, to meet the dark goddess in the river beneath the river. When I came up, I felt that I was wearing a necklace of bones and skulls. When I first started my healing, the image of the river woman came to me. I could see myself going across on my elbows into her medicine hut and her taking me to the river beneath the river. I mean, this was all part of the images I was seeing, particularly when I was in the hospital. They diagnosed me as being clinically depressed; I was cut off from my own creativity. But I tended to my wound.

“Oshun is loving,” Jo Ann says, “but she’s fierce, too. You don’t mess with her. She’s a very powerful goddess. Her bird is not only the peacock, it’s the vulture. So she’s strong. I had to do my soul work. Now, as I’m preparing for my own initiations, I’m ready to take on Oshun. Before, I wasn’t really balanced in my own sense of self. My own senses, my own sensibilities were injured. So this has been an intense healing period for me. And when I finish school, it’ll continue, because

I’ll do an internship with a battered women’s shelter in the fall.”

I ask Jo Ann to read something — a prayer, a poem, a story, anything. She reaches for a journal and recites part of a poem she wrote last year:

“We are women of strong medicine. Earth sent. Wind women running wild.'Fluid water creatures familiar with fishes and fetishes. Fire in our bellies, water in our wombs. Mounds of earth shaping my breasts, my thighs, creating our own crevices and canyons. We are women of strong medicine.... The moon swells in our throats, mouths wet with words of wisdom. Plucked pearls from gracious shells. My voice echoes in between the wind and water. My body dances with the earth and the fire. We are women of strong medicine. We roam only to feel our bones sharpening our teeth....”

Her shrine to Oshun and the ancestors is a peaceful, beautiful place. Her altars are places to talk with the gods, to discover who she is.

“To be able to create your own altars gives you greater agency in your own spirituality,” she says. “I can collect symbols that emerge from my life experience and from where my spirituality has evolved. My routine in the morning involves prayer. And sometimes I just sit in here at night and breathe. This is where I do my healing work, too, with other women. It’s mostly for women who are a lot like me, who were cut off from their really essential self early on in life. It’s mostly women who are claiming their own voices again and who are wanting to be in a hand-crafted life.”

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Durkee's sacred stones. "The stones remind me of the Earth, its power and density." - Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Durkee's sacred stones. "The stones remind me of the Earth, its power and density."

FOR YEARS I COLLECTED OBJECTS THAT HAD SPECIAL SIGNIFICANCE FOR ME, AND I KEPT THEM IN A WOODEN WINE BOX: SHELLS AND CORAL FROM FARAWAY BEACHES AND REEFS I'D VISITED; FEATHERS, SEEDS, STICKS, AND STONES I'D FOUND IN THE MOUNTAINS AND DESERT; TINY SCULPTURES OF BIRDS, SNAKES, AND MASKS;

Maureen Durkee: “By letting go of the guilt, I was able to let go of a lot of the Catholicism."

A MERMAID MADE OF COCONUT AND CLAY, PAINTED BLUE AND PINK; STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL STAMPS FROM DISTANT COUNTRIES; A BUDDHA-FACED EARRING, A STAR OF DAVID.

Few of these objects had any intrinsic value. But for me they were saturated with meaning. The shells recalled my childhood spent near the sea at Coney Island and days, much later in life, snorkeling through coral reefs. And the mermaid evoked the goddess of the ocean, whose spirit carried my ancestors from Russia and Eastern Europe to the shores of the New World and whose mercy had saved me from drowning more than once.

Jo Ann Smith. An inner voice told her to move to San Diego.

The feathers symbolized the great birds I’d seen, red-tailed hawks and ospreys, whose aerial acrobatics reminded me of dreams in which I’d soared, looking down on mountains, streams, and forests. And the stones, incomprehensible and invulnerable, conjured up cosmic beginnings and the mysteries of the still-shaking, quaking Earth.

The seeds stood for memory, birth, and desire. And the snake was the coiled energy that the yogis spoke of but had a deeper significance. Before the birth of my first son, the snakes had brought me a great dream. Through a carved canyon. I’d walked in a desert filled with thousands of writhing rattlers, hissing out a warning in the starlight, a warning about dangers to come.

A few years back, I finally bought a carved box — an old medicine cabinet — and started arranging all my objects on the shelves. I placed the box on the mantel over my fireplace and surrounded it with a medicine rattle I’d made, a kachina my wife and I had gotten from a Hopi artist, and hand-carved deer from rural Mexico. Underneath it all, I placed my congas, djembe, and other percussion instruments.

For a while, whenever friends asked me, I called the whole assemblage a shadow box, in deference to the unsung genius Joseph Cornell, whose mystical boxes, enclosing intimate and hermetic worlds, were an inspiration. But of course what I had made was an altar, an altar to the continuity of my spirit. For everything around connected me in some way to the sacred.

Altars are as old as water. When our prehistoric ancestors painted the caves or carved rocks, they were creating altars — sites of ritual communication to the supernatural. Ancient rock paintings and deposits of bones and skulls grouped together and placed along cave walls may well have been altars to the dead. We can’t know what Paleolithic man thought. But it’s believed by many that he saw his fate as a series of supernatural ordeals that could be affected by'sacrifice and prayer.

Altars can be immense. The Egyptian pyramids, the Sumerian ziggurats, the massive carvings in Peru’s Nasca Desert seen in their glory only from the air — all of these are altars: Dolphin skull places where people appeased the gods. And of course, some altars were sites of ritualized cruelty and barbarism. In the city of Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs sacrificed humans on altars. The victim — a citizen or a slave, a man or a girl — was typically held down upon a stone block by four priests. One priest, or perhaps a king, would then take a flint knife and cut out the heart, which was set afire in a brazier. The head, meanwhile, would be lopped off and held aloft. And the arms and legs would be ritually consumed with maize or chiles.

We think of altars as elevated places, in churches and temples. The word itself is thought to come from either the Latin altare— “a high place” — or ardere, a site where burnt offerings are made. Both meanings are on point. The Catholic altar is an elevated place consecrated to the celebration of the Eucharist. And the Jewish altar is a raised platform where the Torah — the word of Yahweh presented to the nation of lsrael — is read. Both have offerings made to them.

Yet altars need not be raised or intimidating.

Wondrous Afro-Atlantic altars, located all over the New World, wherever Africans were brought over as slaves, are often powerful but simple.

You can find them in headstone cairns in Austin, Texas, in Umbanda shrines in Buenos Aires, as forked sticks or flags in Africa and South America, and in apartments in Havana. Buried in the ground, hidden in bathrooms and closets, erected in the jungles and deserts by kings or pharaohs, altars all serve a divine purpose; they’re places where people realize who they are. And their very creation, repeating cosmogony, aligns us with heaven.

Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of comparative religion, wrote in Cosmos and History that the creation of an altar retold the creation of the world. Eliade was writing about the Brahmanic tradition in India, but his comments could apply to all altars.

"The water with which the clay is mixed is the primordial water; the clay that forms the base of the altar is the Earth; the side walk represent the atmosphere. Furthermore, each stage in the building of the altar is accompanied by verses in which the cosmic region that has just been created is explicitly named.”

My altars aren’t that cosmic or pure; they’re a patchwork of spiritual traditions that have influenced me. One sits atop a wooden bookcase not far from my computer a sculpture of an African woman’s head given to me by a santero; a carved black owl Pachamama stone from the Bolivian Andes used by curanderas— folk healers — for blessings, luck, and prosperity, a ceramic flute from Colombia, with a snake curled around the instrument’s stem; an old black-and-white photograph of my maternal ancestors; a beaded snake made by the Huichole Indians under the influence of peyote; a wooden draydl used during Chanukah; a grinning trombonist skeleton used in Day of the Dead ceremonies; a silver Star of David; and a photograph of my then-two-year-old son Zachary hugging our dog Sam.

Often, I smudge myself with white sage before this altar. The sage, a purifying herb used by Native Americans from this part of the country, centers me, creating sacred space, allowing me to let go of obsessions, fears, and the detritus of the day. Sometimes, before I undertake important writing,

I burn sage or copal, a fragrant resin, and ask for inspiration. Even as I compose these words, pieces of dried sage from the local mountains are burning and flickering brightly, releasing a pungent smoke. And outside, surrounding a garden bed, is another altar: stones from the local mountains and rivers and the ocean. The stones remind me of the Earth, its power and density, and of sweat lodges I’ve been invited to, made possible through the fierce, red heat of burning volcanic rock.

Of course, altars need not be complex. If you go out to an arbor in your back yard or set up a candle in a corner of your bedroom to pray, you’ve created an altar. And if you visit some spot in nature repeatedly — a canyon, stream, or cave where you commune with nature, there too is an altar. Even a computer, if the repository of powerful ideas is set down in a ritualized way, could be sacred. One weekend I went looking for San Diegans who had unusual altars. And I didn’t have much trouble finding them.

This altar is my life in a lot of ways. There are sacred things here that nobody knows about but me. I’ve never talked about this before. But it’s an honor to be asked about it,” Maureen Durkee tells me in the living room of her North County house, where she lives with her golden retriever.

An art therapist and marriage and family counselor, she has sandy blond hair and deep blue eyes that are quick to fill with tears when something moves her. She wears a necklace made of deerskin, turquoise beads, and silver. Dangling from it is a medicine bag. She sits on the floor in front of a low table covered with ceremonial objects, at the center of which is a dolphin’s skull.

“The dolphin altar is a place where I come in the morning or the evening to center and to connect to spirit and the Earth. And because I’ve done that over the years and added things sacred to me over my life, the energy of those prayers and that honoring and the sage burnt is carried in this space. It lives in the wood of this table, made for me by a friend of mine.

“As a therapist, I’ll come home in the evening and let go of what happened with clients. It can be difficult to stay in balance. And I need to stay in balance, so I can be involved in their healing. I truly believe you can only do as much healing on others as you do on yourself. So I come here to connect and ground and ask for help and guidance from the holy ones. All these things symbolize the holy ones: Mother Earth, the universe, stars, the moon, the sun, the birds, the animals, the trees, the fire.

“This is an actual dolphin skull brought to me from the Sea of Cortes and given to me as a gift,” Maureen says, her hands wrapped carefully around the sleek, bony sculpture. “I’ve always felt connected to dolphins. They’re very playful, wonderful creatures. They’re oriented to family and community and very intelligent. They appear in all waters of the world. They meditate. The dolphins know. My spiritual teacher, from a local tribe here in Southern California, teaches the ways of the dolphin. And that’s some of what I’ve been studying these past few years.

“The dolphin has a sacred breath,” Maureen says, and she demonstrates it for me with a sharp, whooshing intake of air. “They take the breath from up above, hold it underwater, and bring the breath — which is spirit — down through the ocean to Mother Earth.

The tribe I train with is committed to teaching people of all races. They believe that the animal world teaches us, and dolphins are some of the most intelligent animals in the universe.”

A stone circle surrounds the dolphin’s skull. A crystal sits at the breath point of the dolphin’s sinus passage. “In the creation story from my teacher’s tribe, the stars came down from the heavens, fell into the ocean in the beginning, and became dolphins. The dolphins taught the turtle the breath. And then the turtles crawled onto the land and became the people.”

I hold the opaque crystal in my hand and run my fingers over its smooth, almost glassy surface. “Crystals are healing stones. They’re very sacred, and they have more power if other people give them to you. They come from the Earth and carry the spirit of the light within them. And they’re just magical. In every culture where crystals are available, throughout time, they’ve been used in ceremony. There’s nothing New Age about it. It’s an old and ancient practice.

“These are stones from our California desert — granite, quartz, and the like, all of different colors. I’ve arranged them how I felt is right. Being Celtic, the stone circles are very true to my heart. The druids used them for solstice and equinox ceremonies and to mark the passage of the sun and moon. Those were times for special blessings, for letting the power and energy of the universe in, to keep their lives moving and going. The druids believed that if you didn’t keep the circle of life and the Earth going, things would not work out well. So the stones were about honoring the path of the sun and moon and the path of the seasons and about keeping the crops and bringing abundance.”

Maureen pauses and picks up a stone. A ray of afternoon light falls on her hand. “I just want to hold one of these stones while I’m talking. Because these stones are very sacred to me.”

Near the stones is a group of perfect sand dollars with their petroglyph-like markings. “These are actually fossilized sand dollars from the Sea of Cortes, on the Sonoran side.” Maureen hands one to me delicately, and I feel the dense weight of it. “These are ancient. They could be millions of years old. They carry not only the energy of the sea and the sand, but also the stone energy and all it took to make them into stone.”

There are other sacred objects on the dolphin altar: an arrowhead and a scraper found in North County and used by the Luiseno Indians; a miniature duck and an owl, contributed by her two little nephews; a pottery shard from the Sedona area, found on a mountain there; a turquoise bear from the Navajo, an eagle sculpture made of ironwood from Mexico, and a picture of an ocelot.

“During a healing session, I had a vision of something coming out of the mud. It started as a frog and became an ocelot. So now I have it on my altar. It’s perceptive, agile, and sleek. And now I’m working with that energy.”

As for the eagle, a gift from her sister and brother-in-law, it represents freedom. “Eagles are the biggest, most powerful birds on Earth. They have that connection to Earth, but they’re almost always in the sky. They nest but fly so high and see so far. And I have some of that, the ability to see very far, to see from high above. And often in situations I find myself seeing the whole situation. So if I’m involved in a ceremony, I’ll find myself feeling the energy of everyone and everything around.”

Maureen has had visions of the Jo Ann Smith future, glimpses of things to come.

“In my altar mediations I’ll connect with the eagle, who’ll take me to my spirit guides. I’ll feel the talons and the beak and the feathers under me. Everyone has that kind of psychic power. But it takes practice. I see visual pictures. But some people get auditory messages, and others receive things kinesthetically. It’s not New-Age. The Native Americans, for example, accept it as a matter of course that we have psychic abilities.”

Like many personal altars, Maureen’s is a mix of things found, gifts given, art created. In this last category is a hand-painted rattle, covered with drawings that remind me of rock paintings. There’s a turtle, a lynx, a snake, a toad, a rose, a llama, a polar bear, a hawk, and a woman at a fire. I shake the rattle and hear the seeds and pebbles bounce around inside, a crackling rush that sounds like corn popping or the ocean breaking over rocks.

“The drawings all just emerged from the coloration of the gourd and what I saw in them. Here’s Simba,” Maureen says, referring to the Lion King character. “Simba had to be on there. I harvested the gourd, cleaned it out, and wood-burned all the animals onto it. The turtle comes out of the ocean, like the creation story I told you.”

My gaze falls on a stick, colored silver, green, blue, peach, and red, with prayer ties and pine needles and feathers on the top: a blessing stick.

“I received it in a graduation ceremony from Sacred Passages for Women.” Maureen pauses, unsure of how much to reveal and conceal. “My teacher, the spiritual leader of the tribe I study with, gave it to me. She’s more than a medicine woman. She doesn’t use the term ‘shaman,’ but that is what she is akin to. She’s a holy woman who comes along every two or three hundred years. It’s a stick that I will actually be buried with. So I’ll keep it for my life.”

Maureen was born in Hicksville, New York, and moved to San Diego when she was ten. Her father was an electrician and her mother was a housewife who raised seven children. Irish Catholicism was the ruling theology. Maureen’s maternal grandmother and grandfather came from Ireland, as did her paternal great-grandmother and grandfather.

“So the idea of sin and salvation was burned into me as a child,” says Maureen. “And there were all these rules. My upbringing was very rigid and strict. I went to Our Lady of Peace Academy High School, Cathedral Girls High School, and University High School, where I graduated. When I was younger I was sort of forced into Catholicism. But I liked all of the elaborate rituals — that part of the religion, I think, really resonated within me.”

Through much of Catholic school she remembers wanting to be a nun. “Probably every little girl that’s raised Catholic wants to be a nun at some point. That’s definitely preadolescent — before you get into boys and that whole thing.”

It wasn’t until she was in her 20s that she began letting go of the Catholicism she was raised with. And to do that she had to confront the guilt, shame, and anger that came from being sexually and psychologically abused as a child.

“By letting go of the guilt and letting go of past abuse, which was really interwoven within that, I was able to let go of a lot of the Catholicism as well," Maureen says, her eyes staring down and away. But it wasn’t easy. “It takes a lot to overcome sexual and psychological abuse. A lot of therapy and a lot of soul-searching and a lot of spiritual work. I’ve found that’s been the most healing thing. It created a valuing of myself, because I wasn’t taught to value myself. I was taught the opposite really — devaluing the self, breaking the spirit. But the spirit within, the spiritual part of me, is so strong that I can overcome just about anything.”

For a while she thought of herself as agnostic. But working with the Navajo Nation in Arizona for a year in the late 70s, teaching art and special education to Indian kids, brought her in touch with a burgeoning sense of her own unique spiritual place in the world.

“That sort of began my interest, my conscious knowledge of the resonance that I have with Native American cultures. I began by honoring the land and the beauty of it. And it really made sense to me — the sacred rituals surrounding Earth. I remembered camping when I moved with my family from New York to San Diego. We camped a lot. And those times were really beautiful to me. My mother loved birds and flowers, and she really had a very wonderful, very musical laugh. And my father loved nature of all kinds and would be the impetus behind getting us all out into nature and camping and hiking, carving wood, and climbing rocks. So those are pleasant memories that I sort of now have incorporated into my adult life.” In the ’80s, Maureen became a clinical art therapist and worked with visually impaired adults and with people suffering eating disorders. She worked with families and children. And she underwent many years of therapy herself. She has a private practice in Encinitas. But for personal spiritual growth, she goes elsewhere.

“I worked with a Navajo medicine man for a while and looked around for different teachers. I went to different ceremonies and found that there were a lot of people doing things that they really shouldn’t be doing. I went to ceremonies where I came out feeling worse than when I went in, which is not good. There are a lot of healers and sweat lodges, particularly, where you’ve got to be very careful.”

Eventually, a few years ago, she came to know the Native American teacher she now trains with, a teacher who’s helped transform her life.

“What I love about the indigenous cultures around the world is that they honor the natural changes that, occur in our lives all the time. They honor the seasons, and the day and the night, and the sunrise and the sunset, and changes as people grow and learn. Our culture doesn’t do that so much. That’s essential, a missing piece of our lives.”

She says, as much as possible she doesn’t let the world’s chaos into her life. She has no television or newspaper. New Age music plays softly.

“I kind of protect myself against the violence of the world. Some people might call that denial. But for me it’s so upsetting that it throws me off balance from my path. So I make a conscious choice to keep my environment peaceful.”

Yet the ritual work she does is often bound up with the darkness that overtakes people’s lives. There are certain rituals and ceremonies that require a fire, Maureen says, and for that she has another altar. She walks across the living room to a big cast-iron fireplace that has holes in the sides of the bricks to let the heat out.

Above the fireplace is an Aztec-style needlepoint mandala made by a friend, plus many other objects and plants: white sage, wild lilac, sweet grass, and cedar. There’s a handwoven Navajo bag and pieces of animal fur (coyote, dog, rabbit) inside a shell; a wild turkey feather; a beaded shaft, candles, a bird’s nest, a black-and-yellow hand-painted Ukrainian egg, an ironwood sculpture of a dolphin, a carved jaguar, a pottery shard from Sedona, and small animal bones that Maureen has found on hikes.

“I find you need fire particularly when there’s grief. Fire is wonderful for letting go, because you can actually create things or write things and then put them in the fire to burn. You let the fire transform them, and let the smoke bring your prayers up to spirit. So I like fire for that.

“If I want to celebrate something or am making some transition or asking for some healing. I’ll light a fire here with cedar or sage and call on the grandmothers from the six directions — north, south, east, west, above, and below — and summon their energy.”

Even with clients she sees elsewhere, she may do a fire ceremony or “write a letter to an abuser and then burn that letter. As an art therapist, I facilitate people expressing and changing their feelings. I let the person sort of design their own rituals. Art is a ritual in itself.

“These altars let all my feelings have honor rather than shame. I was taught not to show your feelings. But it’s very sacred when you have powerful feelings of any kind. For me, there was a lot to be angry about. Anger at not having the kind of parents I wanted. Anger at the missed childhood. Anger at not being able to be a child. And anger at all the responsibilities of taking care of my brothers. But it feels really good to be over that.”

On the floor behind the door to Jo Ann Smith’s house sits the squat, primitive figure of Eleggua, a simple altar to the all-important orisha (spirit) of the crossroads in the Santeria religion. His eyes, cowrie shells, stare up at me.

“He opens doors for me. He helps create what’s next,” says Smith, whose hazel eyes are set offby the vintage chartreuse dress she’s wearing. A black-yellow-and-red turban gives her the look of an African dancer. “On Mondays I take care of Eleggua. He’s like a child, so I give him candy, toys. I take him on drives, too). I put him in the front seat of my car when I drive to Los Angeles. So some of my friends have taken to calling him L.A.-gua,” Jo Ann says, and the joke sends her into a musical laugh.

But the key altar is yet to come, in a small, dimly lit breakfast nook that’s been made into a shrine. There, on a built-in counter, is a painted terra cotta statue of Our Lady of Charity, otherwise known in Santeria as Oshun — goddess of the river and the epitome of female beauty and erotic passion. The shell-like ripples of a fan enfold her, and around her is a glass of honey, a yellow candle, a dried sunflower, a mirror, a gold purse, and other intimate items.

“Oshun is my mother, and this is the symbolic articulation of my inner life — a way for me to maintain the integrity of my relationship with my mother Oshun,” says Jo Ann, who’s thin and willowy and has creamy, olive-toned skin that makes her look much younger than 48. “Oshun is the goddess of the river; she’s the goddess of love, of art, beauty, sensuality. She loves honey, she loves fans. The peacock is considered her bird. She loves gold and she loves yellow; the sunflower is her flower, and bells are her sound. She wears them on her ankle, and we know that she’s coming.

“The fan I got at an antique shop in Laguna Beach on one of my trips back from Los Angeles, where I go to college to study feminist spirituality. I usually like to stop and get Oshun a present. I got her this today,” )o Ann says smiling, holding up a gold purse. “My prayer book is kept here. She’s just with me all the time. And Oshun really enriches who I am. This altar symbolizes my spirituality and my particular relationship to her. It really establishes a focal point for me to pray and to continue to develop my own spiritual

At the other end of the room is a table with goblets of water, jewelry, pottery, a shell, and photographs of her mother and brother. This altar, traditional to Santeria, is for ancestors, though the term is construed loosely and includes people without blood ties.

“These are the spirit glasses, and I have the Virgin of Guadalupe and a photo of my brother and my mother. These are objects that would adorn and honor my mother’s spirit. The center goblet represents God. And this liquor is for my French spirit, because she likes that Part of the tradition is to feed the spirit, so whatever I cook at night, they get a plate first. I pour libations here. I honor my ancestors first. I pray, I ask for guidance, I hear things. Then I honor Oshun and say my morning prayers.”

Even before the strange journey that led her on a path toward becoming a santera. Smith was on a spiritual path. She grew up Catholic with her two brothers and one sister in Detroit.

“I went to church every day when I was in school. I was going to be a nun. That was really my only spiritual alternative. We didn’t know about these other kinds of choices. I really wanted to have a life that was spiritual. My first altars were Mary altars. They had flowers and the rosary and the image of Mary. They were always done in blue and white — those are her colors. I have a tremendous holy-card collection of saints. I was a devotee of the Blessed Mother, and Oshun is Our Lady of Charity, the patroness of Cuba. So it was a very natural progression for me.”

Jo Ann went to Mercy College, a women’s Catholic school, studying to be a teacher. And while in college she considered entering the convent.

“I interviewed with the Mercy nuns. I’ve always had nuns in my life. I’ve worked for nuns. Where I go to school now in Los Angeles, I stay with a community of nuns. I sleep there, I have my little bed.”

After college she took a job in West Palm Beach, Florida, teaching theology in a small school. But one day in 1985, her life took a wild left turn.

“I received this flier ip the mail when I was in Florida to attend this African dance camp in Woodstock, New York. How I got it I don’t know. Nothing in my life pointed to the fact that I should go there. I was teaching religion in a Catholic junior high school. I had to take time off from work and had to make my principal realize why I needed to go. It was like that invitation to dance just snatched my heart. And I think it was the first time I traveled alone.”

The dance camp proved to be rigorous. But dancing eight hours a day for teachers who were quick with criticism. Smith found she was naturally gifted. She loved the African movements, the call and response.

“The drummers played djembes and congas. And when I saw the African dances demonstrated, I could do them instantly. I was hearing the drum and remembering myself.

And I wept. I remember being on the floor, beside myself with both joy and sorrow. People had left there crying.

And when I came back from this camp, I knew that I could just master anything in the world.”

Two years later came a turning point.

A friend asked her to go to Jamaica, where she was shooting a dance video, and Jo Ann accepted her offer.

“In Jamaica we were staying at this yoga center when one day I got possessed by a spirit. I don’t know what spirit it was; I still don’t. But it was so powerful it knocked me down to the ground. Right afterwards I could actually hear spirit voices talking. I heard those voices when I was a child too, though in this culture there’s no community to nurture that.”

With supernatural guidance. Smith was led to a number of different teachers. An inner voice told her to move to San Diego, and she did. Here, a powerful dream came to her.

“I didn’t know who it was, but he was standing at the foot of my bed. I had this vision, and it scared me to death. It woke me up out of a sound sleep, and I was shrieking. And then, within a month, I met him in person. A friend of mine said, ‘You’ve got to come and hear this speaker. He’s here from West Africa.’ So I went and walked in the door, and it was him.”

He was Malidoma Some, a noted shaman, diviner, and teacher from Burkina Faso, who now lives in the Bay Area. For five years. Some was a kind of long-distance mentor to Jo Ann. “He helped me remember myself. He consecrated me as a priestess on New Year’s Eve, 1993.”

One morning that same year, in May, when Smith was praying, a voice said, “ ‘Go to this shop downtown and ask the woman where you can go for a reading.’ I felt so awkward about it. I forgot about it for several days. But I went, and when I got there it turned out to be a woman that I knew from the community. So now I was even more hesitant. But she finally said, ‘Oh, I know you.’ And we started chatting and catching up. And she told me where to go for a reading. She called her padrino on the phone. I was there the next night, and a week later I had my first initiation.”

About a year ago, Smith found herself battling a strange sickness. A darkness enveloped her day and night. Her life’s energy was sapped.

“I couldn’t drive and I couldn’t read. I couldn’t dance and I couldn’t do anything. I was stripped completely of myself, of who I thought I was.” The sickness would later be diagnosed as a clinical depression. But Jo Ann saw it as an opportunity to heal herself and was lucky enough to find doctors who didn’t drug her.

"I just waited to see what surfaced. And these spirit dolls” — she points to hanging, handmade figures — “are part of what came up."

River Woman has an African headpiece. “When I made her, I knew that she was my archetype. And this one,” she says, pointing to a doll with purple yarn and brass and stars, “is Fire Woman. The dolls are made from things I had around my house. My spirit kept inviting me to put this on. Each one has its own special medicine and totems. River Woman has her pot of healing oils and the headpiece, which to me just symbolizes something that you would find next to the river.”

A third spirit doll. Earth Woman, is playing a drum. “That’s her medicine — the heartbeat of the Earth. And this,” Jo Ann holds a doll with a medicine bag, “is Feather Woman. She’s a little bit more ethereal. She has a Native American flavor to her.”

If her altar to Oshun is about love and protection, this altar, which she calls her “wall of justice,” is about pain, grief, and survival.

“I’m a survivor of sexual violence,” Jo Ann says. She pauses, and her eyes, so alive with light a moment ago, darken. “I was raped...eight years ago, shortly after I moved to San Diego. This is still rough around.the edges for me to talk about. As part of my own medicine, to bring healing to my own experience. I made these prayer dolls. As I did, I prayed for the healing of violence as it’s exacted toward women. I still make these dolls, and I find the process soothing and comforting and yet at the same time it extends beyond myself. It includes all women who have been violated in this way.”

In retrospect, the depression was deeply connected to the terrible violence she’d experienced. Never adequately dealt with, the rape had left gaping wounds in her soul. And her reaction was so extreme that she had to be hospitalized for two weeks. Miraculously, she wasn’t given medications by the staff of the clinic she was transferred to.

“The doctor got it. I read a poem to them. And I had a vision. I went deep, to meet the dark goddess in the river beneath the river. When I came up, I felt that I was wearing a necklace of bones and skulls. When I first started my healing, the image of the river woman came to me. I could see myself going across on my elbows into her medicine hut and her taking me to the river beneath the river. I mean, this was all part of the images I was seeing, particularly when I was in the hospital. They diagnosed me as being clinically depressed; I was cut off from my own creativity. But I tended to my wound.

“Oshun is loving,” Jo Ann says, “but she’s fierce, too. You don’t mess with her. She’s a very powerful goddess. Her bird is not only the peacock, it’s the vulture. So she’s strong. I had to do my soul work. Now, as I’m preparing for my own initiations, I’m ready to take on Oshun. Before, I wasn’t really balanced in my own sense of self. My own senses, my own sensibilities were injured. So this has been an intense healing period for me. And when I finish school, it’ll continue, because

I’ll do an internship with a battered women’s shelter in the fall.”

I ask Jo Ann to read something — a prayer, a poem, a story, anything. She reaches for a journal and recites part of a poem she wrote last year:

“We are women of strong medicine. Earth sent. Wind women running wild.'Fluid water creatures familiar with fishes and fetishes. Fire in our bellies, water in our wombs. Mounds of earth shaping my breasts, my thighs, creating our own crevices and canyons. We are women of strong medicine.... The moon swells in our throats, mouths wet with words of wisdom. Plucked pearls from gracious shells. My voice echoes in between the wind and water. My body dances with the earth and the fire. We are women of strong medicine. We roam only to feel our bones sharpening our teeth....”

Her shrine to Oshun and the ancestors is a peaceful, beautiful place. Her altars are places to talk with the gods, to discover who she is.

“To be able to create your own altars gives you greater agency in your own spirituality,” she says. “I can collect symbols that emerge from my life experience and from where my spirituality has evolved. My routine in the morning involves prayer. And sometimes I just sit in here at night and breathe. This is where I do my healing work, too, with other women. It’s mostly for women who are a lot like me, who were cut off from their really essential self early on in life. It’s mostly women who are claiming their own voices again and who are wanting to be in a hand-crafted life.”

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