Throughout my childhood, I embraced the rituals of Jewish life and found comfort and community in them. As an adult, when my father died, I craved those customs, while also searching for ways to reimagine Jewish rituals for a more modern time.
One day, grieving my father’s loss, I took a long walk. I noticed beautiful stones, leaves, feathers and berries on the ground. I began collecting them and sat under a tree in a nearby park and arranged them into a colorful, kaleidoscope and impermanent pattern. I worked on the design for an hour, but it sped by in what felt like a minute. I realized that I was bringing a sense of order to a time that felt very disordered. It soothed me. I wasn’t just making something pretty; I was making something meaningful.
I began a daily practice of foraging and arranging whatever natural elements I could find, and quickly saw how helpful this ritual could be. Although I continued this practice each day, I found deep comfort in it once again when my mother, who has mid-stage dementia, forgot my name. As you can imagine, the moment shocked me. I needed to do something to mark this milestone on the long, difficult road of losing my mom. That’s when I began writing my newest book, Hello, Goodbye: 75 Rituals for Times of Loss, Celebration, and Change.
For the past 12 years I’ve traveled the world teaching this practice. In that time, I’ve met so many people who have shared the story of their life journeys, whether their milestone is receiving a diagnosis, becoming an empty nester, coming out of the closet, divorce or even if their mother forgets their name, people tell me that they love the practice of creating altars because they’re so accessible. All you need are materials you can find right outside your front doors.
One of my favorite places to teach is Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis, because like my art, Lakewood is all about remembering. Two years ago, at Lakewood, I met a young boy at one of my hands-on Morning Altars workshops. After I introduced the activity, I sent the groups off to create their own impermanent nature altars. When they’d finished, all the creators had a chance to share the meaning behind their pieces. This five-year-old boy took my hand, led me to the altar he’d made, and pointed out several patterns of leaves, flowers and stones all in groups of seven. He then told the group, “My brother died last year and I’m dedicating this altar to him because he left us when he was seven.”
Everyone assembled was moved by the power and meaning this young boy found in these numbers and shapes, all while creating something beautiful to honor his brother.
When I return to Lakewood on Saturday, July 16 and Sunday, July 17, everyone will have the chance to create their own impermanent nature altars and learn how to use this simple and profound ritual to create art with real meaning and mark life’s transitions.
Day Schildkret is a Jewish author and a past recipient of the Helen Diller Excellence in Jewish Education Award, as well as the Frumer Award for Excellence in Jewish Art.