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LoveFound: The Altar

Written by on March 3, 2023

“LoveFound” explores finding love and making deeper connections to the people, places and things around you.

February marked the beginning of our new series “LoveFound,” where we featured stories from our listeners telling their real-life tales of finding love — and the role Chicago played. When we say “love,” we mean love in all the ways it shows up in our lives, not just romantic love. “LoveFound” focuses on sharing stories of what it means to experience love in its expansive nature, and how love can come from the most unexpected places.

For our final week of the “LoveFound” series, we focus on the story of Jasmine and how her desire for a spiritual connection to the world around her led her to the discovery of the perfect conduit to focus her intentions. 

Artwork for “LoveFound” by Ivan Vazquez for Vocalo.

Ari Mejia: You’re listening to Vocalo Radio. I’m Ari Mejia, and this is “LoveFound,” a mini series featuring Chicago stories of finding love, in all its forms.

My dad passed away in the summer of 2021. He was really tall, had big curly hair like me, and he just had this infallible smile, doing what smiles do best: brightening up every person, every situation and every room. Sometimes, when I look in the mirror and I stare into my eyes for almost too long, I can see his eyes looking back at me. I miss my dad, and that’s not to say it wasn’t a relationship full of complication and difficulty, but he was my dad. He still is my dad. He will always be my dad.

It was Christmas 2018, and he was just at the beginning of his battle with cancer that would ultimately take his life. I sat with him in his den in Louisville, where he lived at the time, one of his cats curled up next to me, and he handed me a gift. It was a watch. Specifically, it was his watch, the watch he wore through the duration of my childhood. He created an heirloom in a moment. I wear his watch every day, and I plan to for all my days.

We live in a vastly material world — which, at times of my life, yeah, I have judged. I’ve thought, “We shouldn’t put stock in things, but in each other. In memories, in love. But nothing is black and white, a big lesson of my 30s, to be honest, and as I grow older, I find that the things we hold dear are important because we have the incredible human ability to fuel them with this energy and power, creating meaning that is sometimes beyond our world. 

This is what today’s story is about. Jasmine sent us her story of finding love in the form of an object she deemed sacred, in a Chicago alley, during a time in all of our lives that we will never forget. 

Here is Jasmine, and what she found.

Jasmine: There are people who believe that you can talk to God the way that we’re speaking to each other. I don’t believe that. But I do believe that there are sort of mediums that can allow us to come in contact with something really spiritual or divine.

I always love the idea that a piece of jewelry or an item for your home can be a way to communicate and commune with something. I think, for me, that’s a lot of what thrifting is, what… vintage or reused items are. It’s just that feeling that it had a different life, and it’s come in my path for a reason. This is some kind of message or some kind of medium or vessel for connection.

I grew up in the Black church. In a very beautiful and rich Christian tradition. And, in my adolescence and the beginning of college, I feel like I had some really demoralizing experiences with evangelical Christianity. By the end of college. I was really trying to heal and really trying to figure out, “What does it mean to feel this deep well of spiritual connection while not wanting to really be involved in religion in any way?”

When protests were happening, the death of George Floyd, all the violence that was happening in the world, we talked about reckoning. But to me, it just felt like a lot of the spiritual wounds of our nation and of just… people were being opened up. Like, there’s wounds that I didn’t even know I had that I’m carrying, that aren’t even mine… They’re ancestral wounds that never had space to heal.

There’s ancestral rage that never had space to rage. There was just so much death and so much fear and so much anxiety. It felt like a very important time to have a strong spiritual practice. How do I design something that’s actually true for me in this moment, and more true than what was before? I was like, “I want an altar.” That was the word that was coming up.

So it was in June of 2020. I remember — it’s very strange. It feels like a fever dream of a time. I feel like that week, at the very end of May, and that first week of June was just like a fever dream. It feels very clear and also blurry. Protests were going on all over the country. I remember just being in my apartment and just hearing helicopters like all the time, every day. And it was so hot and felt like everything was boiling over, in a way.

I’d been just thinking a lot about, “What does it look like to feel engaged in what’s happening, but in a way that’s true to me?” Like, “What does healing look like in this moment? What does it look like to be tapping into a deeper, bigger power, or an ancestral power, in a time when things feel so hopeless?”

Our apartment was really close to the lakefront. We were on like 55th and South Everett, so we were very, very close to the lake. I was just going on my, whatever, daily walk that we were all doing at the beginning of the pandemic, and I walked down the stairs and I was in the alleyway, and I just look, and I saw this really beautiful wood dresser. And it was missing the dresser drawers, which was kind of perfect, because it was just… almost like the frame of the dresser.

It had been used, it wasn’t really broken, it was just missing its drawers. And I saw it and I just, the first thing I thought was like, “Oh, this is it. This is the altar.”

The wood was shiny, it just looked like it had been well-loved. It didn’t feel like it had just been thrown away, it’s almost like it had been emptied for me… It had been emptied for my own things to be put in there.

And then I think I called my roommate, or I might’ve gone back upstairs, and I was like, “Hey, this is really annoying of me to ask you, but will you help me carry this very heavy, oak… dresser up to our apartment?”

It was too heavy to carry alone, but also awkward to carry with another person upstairs. So it took us a while, but we made it up. I left it in the living room for a little, just to clean it so that I could get all the dust and the cobwebs off of it. Each of our rooms was, like, our office, where we went to bed, where we read. It was like our… whole lives were happening in each of our separate rooms. 

And so I put mine in my room in that little apartment. I think even in that moment, I was kind of like, I don’t know even what it really means to have an altar. I don’t even know how to really build one. I don’t even know what I’m gonna do with it. But it just felt, for me, like an invitation to be involved in that moment, in a way that felt accessible to me.

The altar; photo courtesy of Jasmine

I don’t know, I just feel like having that altar in my room, having that piece of furniture, it was like — there’s a million ways that you can be involved, that you can activate, and you’re a resource… you’re not alone. Like, there’s a way to access ancestral power that’s much greater than you.

Over the years, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the elements… earth, fire, water, air, and how to be engaged with those things, as part of spiritual practice. So like lighting candles, lighting incense, doing that every day on the altar. Certain books that feel particularly important to me.

I have pictures of me as a kid, it’s almost like inner child altar energy. A photo, or like a photo of me and my mom when I was a baby, my grandmother in this gorgeous white fur coat. Flowers, I like to put fresh flowers, dried flowers on there.

A lot of what I experience in engaging with and building my altar is the reminder that there’s ancient love that I can always tap into, and also that the love that I have is going to feed and nourish generations beyond me.

We’re taught that romance is this very finite thing, and that it only happens with certain people, in a certain way, in a certain time, in a certain context.

That wood is alive. You know, I think sometimes we feel like objects are dead or transactional and I think about that, the pieces of wood that help to create this. I think about the life it had before, and choosing to polish it and clean it and make it beautiful at an altar. 

The love I’ve been able to experience by, whatever, doing a meditation or a prayer or reflection, but as it relates to my ancestors, my family, it’s a reminder, again, that love isn’t even bound to the physical. It doesn’t even have to happen in this lifetime.

Ari Mejia: This episode, and the “LoveFound” mini series, was created and produced by me, Ari Mejia, Vocalo’s community and audio storytelling producer. Production intern Joshua X. Miller is the associate producer of this series. Thank you to legendary Ayana Contreras, for believing in love and editing this piece. And to Jasmine Barnes, thank you for sharing your story with us, and the world of Vocalo.

Hear more stories of “LoveFound” here.

Produced by Ari Mejia

Special thanks to Jasmine Barnes

Written introduction by Ari Mejia and associate producer Joshua X. Miller

Editorial support from Ayana Contreras and Mara Lazer

Transcription, editing for length and clarity by Morgan Ciocca

Illustration by Ivan Vazquez.

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