[Essay] Altar

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

by Melody Greenfield


“I want to worship your body,” my husband says to me. It’s a line that’s come up repeatedly over the years, not that I mind the repetition. But, if Eric hadn’t married me, he’d likely be worshipping in a monastery’s chapel instead: big and little golden Buddhas, candles, incense, photographs of beloved monks, and fresh flowers adorning the altar. In a picture that I found recently of Eric’s favorite monk, I could make out the faint outline of a vase behind him. Red and orange daisies—picked, I presume, from an on-site garden—and other green filler flowers for depth burst from the vase as though coming from his head. What struck me most was not this optical illusion, funny as it was, but the way the monk—eyes crinkled, lips lightly parted and curled upward—seemed to be smiling. It was clear that both he and the daisies were tended to, cared for, happy.


As a young boy in Canada, although my husband never aspired to be anything in particular (doctor, firefighter, vet), he did—and perhaps still does—fantasize about the monastic life. “Ochre’s my color,” he sometimes jokes, knowing it’s nobody’s color. Still, he’s drawn to it—that burnt, orangy brown—because it symbolizes a belief system he found virtually on his own. “Think about monster trucks,” an older neighbor boy had instructed him when Eric was in elementary school playing basketball and then, suddenly, pretend meditating. A young E, who grew up without religion, closed his eyes and did as he was told. He found a sense of calm in the neon green of the imaginary trucks and, later, at the bookstore, in the spirituality section. He visited the bookstore every weekend, hungry for more. He desired to pray. To know a god. To be at peace.


At twelve, Eric spontaneously got down on his knees, palm to palm against his heart, and addressed some higher power. Never having attended Sunday school, he learned this move, he believes, from television. In the ’90s, Full House’s Stephanie Tanner was known to put her hands together in prayer position from time to time, and so were Homer, Bart, Lisa, and Marge. (Although he belonged to no church, Eric—a devout fan of The Simpsons—watched the series religiously.) When he prayed as a boy, imitating these TV characters, he asked for life to get better and felt instantly at peace, but life wasn’t improving. His father, Bruce, would soon be sick with cirrhosis, and eventually he would die.


By his senior year of high school, my future husband discovered his love for Siddhartha in English class. The experience reaffirmed his religious leanings and was a high point in contrast to Bruce’s declining health. Alcoholism had left his dad sallow—or, as Eric once put it, “a deep-fluorescent, piss yellow” on account of jaundice. Liver failure, job loss, license loss, and multiple rehab stints and trips to the ER followed. Eric, now in his early twenties, was often the one scooping his bleeding father off the bathroom floor or calling the paramedics.


That’s when E started his own version of self-medicating: attending a weekly meditation group in Toronto and going on silent retreats in Rochester, New York, where he ate clean vegetarian meals, slept on a simple cot, meditated in two-hour stretches, and did chores such as weeding the sprawling estate grounds. There were no mirrors to be found there—just quiet. (Vanity is at odds with the monastic way of life.) In that mirrorless quiet, Eric explored the Thai Forest tradition—which he still practices to this day and calls “the Orthodox Judaism of Buddhism” for its seriousness—but he’d previously dabbled in Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, too. He’d even once gone to hear the Dalai Lama speak. In Rochester, just after dawn, he would rouse his fellow retreaters by ringing a bell. Time for morning meditation, the bell chimed. Time to escape your messy home life and clear your mind, it called—he felt—specifically to him.


In that way, we were the same. Mom and Dad’s on-again-off-again relationship was the poison I was trying to escape. At ten, when my parents were going through a divorce on which the ink never fully dried, I broke up their nightly fights—mostly screaming matches, save for the one time Dad threw an empty water bottle at Mom’s head. At twelve, with the two of them separated, I played confidant to my mother, listening to tales of her dating life. At nineteen, with Mom and Dad seemingly reconciled again (or so I thought), I learned secondhand of their divorce, which was a surprise to me since, at the time, they were still living together. In fact, they continued to cohabitate for years before selling “The House” and, even after selling, went out on dates, had sleepovers, and took vacations together. They often brought my younger brother along: the three of them forming some newfangled family with their own rituals. Twice weekly, they’d go out for dinner at their favorite local spot, then watch a movie back at my father’s place, often all falling asleep on the same bed. One time, I ran into them at the Chinese restaurant where they were regulars while I was grabbing kung pao chicken takeout. The restaurant owner, knowing us separately, turned to my parents in disbelief: “You have a daughter?” That comment stung worse than the Szechuan pepper I’d accidentally swallow later that same night. By my early thirties, at my graduate school graduation and wedding, I watched my mom and dad avoid one another expertly; Eric and I were exchanging vows, and they never exchanged so much as a pleasantry. Now, in my late thirties, I’m accustomed to their animus: so thick, you could spread it on toast. To this day, despite both having loving, longtime partners, they remain enmeshed—embroiled in a vicious, ongoing lawsuit over a joint piece of property. So often, I feel ten years old all over again, caught in the middle of yet another battle.


In the midst of so much family upheaval, it’s no wonder I turned to religion, even if religion-lite. (I’m a Reform Jew.) Religion spoke to me, as it did Eric. It provided an out even as it required that I tune, and turn, in. As a child in Los Angeles, I fantasized of becoming a cantor—a congregation’s singing religious leader—and I did all of the necessary things: went to Jewish day school, then Hebrew and religious school, followed by confirmation; sang twice weekly at synagogue. But solos made me anxious. My voice quivered. My hands sweat. My body shook.


While we no longer make sacrifices at or bring offerings to an official altar, modern-day Jews do still have the altar-adjacent bimah, the pulpit where our rabbis stand and our Torahs are housed. We have no candles or incense or statues to speak of either, but we do often have flowers—vibrant, colorful bouquets that signify the beauty of our tradition; the beauty of the sacred words inscribed on sacred scrolls that we safeguard behind an ark. Judaism, in the way in which I practice it, is a living religion, and so are the flowers that both our traditions’ altars, Eric’s and mine, share. They must be maintained, refreshed—the roses kept red, the peonies pink, the lilies white—lest they wither and wilt. The flowers, like our ancient rituals or four-year-old marriage, cannot be neglected. With that in mind, we keep showing up to our respective houses of worship: these days, E to his yoga mat (eyes closed, palms to the ceiling) and I to my computer for Shabbat services on Facebook Live—each of us ready to do the work of beautifying our sacred spaces so we can beautify our souls.


We keep showing up for each other, too. Among our regular refrains are “How was your day?” “What can I get you?” and “Good night, I love you.” These words, especially during this topsy-turvy past year, have nourished and sustained us in the way that water and Floralife feed our temples’ flowers.


Of course, there were stretches of time, especially as we came of age, when Eric and I took a turn from piety, as we dabbled in less-than-pious extracurriculars. For him: drugs. For me: sex. Yet, even as we conducted ourselves like the unenlightened teenagers we were, we kept returning to our faiths. During our courtship, E sought out his god in the avocado orchards of the Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, where his most beloved monk resides. He reported back about the silhouette of avocados trees, endless and vast, against the howl of coyotes, and how the moonlight, both gorgeous and terrifying, amplified both. I grew up with an avocado tree in my side yard. I, too, remember its distinct outline, not against the sky but the venetian blinds. (To my younger brother, its branches looked like monster arms.) I’ve even published a poem about my love for the fruit, and to this day, Eric and I consume them nearly nightly.


But my god was not in that orchard. Nor was he accessible to me in food or in nature. Instead, I found him through song. If I let my mind wander, I can picture an alternate universe in which stage fright didn’t make my cantorial dreams an impossibility, and my husband and I are not together but separately leading pious existences, worlds apart, tethered to very different belief systems. It’s clear we both feel a pull of sorts when it comes to our religions of choice. And still, the pull to be together is equally strong.


When we first met, Eric was my conflicted, late-twenties boyfriend dealing with the recent passing of his father. For him, the conflict was wanting to be with me all the time and simultaneously wanting to run away to a monastery and take a vow of celibacy and silence. “I have fantasies about disappearing into myself. Into monkhood. It’s where I feel the most at home,” he told me then, as we drove down the 401 highway toward the Mississauga suburb where he lived. It was wintertime, and he’d turned on the windshield wipers to clear off fallen snowflakes.


I felt most at home with him.


Another time, when we were in new-love, and new-love chemicals were clouding his brain, E said he’d convert for me. We were in his car again, this time driving by the religious school where I was a teacher. Built in 1856, making it the oldest congregation in Toronto, Holy Blossom takes your breath away with its imposing stone edifice and magnificent stained glass: the blues and greens reminiscent of the watercolor ketubah—part marriage covenant, part art piece—that now hangs framed in our kitchen. “Isn’t it stunning?” Eric asked rhetorically as he pointed to the windows, and it was, truly, as lovely as our ketubah’s painted pastel swirls, but he can, and does, find beauty in everything.


“Look at those mountains,” E says on a drive through Topanga Canyon or a walk up to Mulholland. “Aren’t they beautiful?”


“They’re mountains,” I answer. “Very brown.”


“What about the ones covered in green after a rare Southern California rainy season?” he asks.


“Those are better,” I say. “Green is better than brown.”


In the desert, he points to cacti, completely taken by them.


“Succulents are like a monochromatic outfit. I just don’t see the big deal about them,” I confess to his horror. “They’re colorless.”


Awestruck on a drive from Santa Barbara to Solvang, he motions toward the “rolling hills” of Santa Ynez.


“Do you want me to drive so you can stare?” I’ve been known to ask. “I’m not getting anything out of this, and you’re clearly missing out.” He’s rendered nearly speechless by the view and doesn’t understand why I don’t—can’t—see the beauty.


My standards of beauty are impossibly high, higher than the hilltops. Narrow, too. The Redwood forest, I’ll admit, was majestic. We made the trip when I was a kid, during one of my parents’ on-again periods. A Pisces, I’ve always found the ocean captivating and calming. But I’m a city girl at heart—not an outdoorsy creature. (Too many bugs.) So, while I can and do appreciate colorful, fragrant flowers, like the ones that adorn our respective altars, or a memorable sunset, I envy the way my husband looks at the natural world with wonder. It’s as though he has different eyes. What he sees, I’ll never understand. I hope he finds as much beauty in me.


Given his propensity for beauty hunting, it’s no wonder that Eric was able to practice gratitude even during this past year in quarantine. In fact, the pandemic allowed him to experience the monastic existence he once fantasized about while also cohabitating with me. He got the cloistered life with his wife, and whenever he wasn’t on Zoom or praying at his own altar, he prayed at mine. In hindsight, this makes perfect sense: Through my diligence with Pilates (my job), I’ve made my body into a temple of sorts, and temples are Eric’s playground. My Pilates practice is a ritual I attend to daily in order to achieve the desired architecture of long, lean lines. The same is true of E and his meditation practice, only the desired result isn’t toned inner thighs, but inner peace. I’m careful, too, to eat an apple a day, except my apples are actually the aforementioned avocados, which I slice up into salads. Through my work and workouts, I’ve found centering, which is a principle of the mind-body movement modality I guide others through every day. Likewise, Eric has brought centering into his job as an elementary school teacher. “It must have been hard for you to stay calm while all of us weren’t paying attention,” a sixth grader recently wrote to my husband in a teacher-appreciation letter. “You are a very patient and smart teacher.” And he is—the calm part a direct result of his own diligence and perhaps, also, his beloved baths.


Eric says he does some of his best thinking in the tub, and when he was in grad school, working on his master’s thesis (on Jew-by-birth philosopher Baruch Spinoza, of all topics), it’s true that I often caught him working out complex theory in there. But it’s my personal belief that he simply loves the feeling of hot water against his skin, being that he hails from the cold.


“I know it’s not the popular opinion to bandy about, but I’ve had a great year,” he mused recently, sinking deeper into his Epsom salts until he was fully immersed, save for his head. “Do you think that’s wrong?” he asked me. “You know, when 2020 and 2021 have been so awful for so many people?” There he was, finding beauty and still being protective of others’ feelings.


“I don’t think it’s wrong, no,” I said, putting the toilet seat down to use it like a chair. “You’ve helped me to find the beauty in this time too—brown hills aside,” I added, to which he chuckled, and I smirked. Even after seven years together, we can still make each other laugh. “I’m thriving in my Pilates business, and I never even have to leave the house. No more days spent on the road, driving between studios.” I reached out to turn the bathroom fan on so the steam would dissipate. “You just got a promotion at your teaching job and an inheritance from your late grandmother. We have more money and more time to spend together…” He already knows this. He’s the one who brought the subject up, silly. Still, he didn’t tease me, as he sometimes does, for liking to hear the sound of my own voice. Instead, he made some crack about us still managing to enjoy each other’s company.


“I guess I should get out soon.” He frowned, inspecting his pruning fingertips. If it weren’t for that, he’d live in the bath.


“Great, because we have Hilary in ten minutes,” I reminded him. Hilary is our yoga nidra teacher. While Eric isn’t giving up his eastern meditation practice any time soon, he has humored me this pandemic by lying beside me on adjoining “rest nests” while Hilary guides us into stillness. Aside from lights-out sleep, this yogic sleep time may be the only hour of the day when I’m not yammering away, as is my habit. Perhaps that quiet—Hilary’s self-professed “dulcet tones,” punctuated by spaciousness and silence—sends Eric back to weekends in Upstate New York with no noise at all, save for the birds chirping, leaves rusting, and plates clanking in the mess hall.


A quintessentially neurotic Jew and the regimented keeper of the schedule to E’s the-best-plans-are-no-plans mentality, I live most often in the future, anxiously thinking about what might or might not happen next. Either that, or I dwell in the past—especially on past hurts. Without macabre intentions, my husband, whether because of his Buddhism or his dead father or both, thinks about death and what follows it, often. Suddenly, when sheltering in place, we were all confronted with death and dying. Personally, I was forced to take stock. I found that, despite the constant fear I felt lodged in a throat that once longed to sing, I could stay more in the present when I took a page from Eric’s playbook, when I allowed him to be my teacher. With a pillow under my head and knees, Hilary in my ear, and sometimes even Eric’s hand in mine, I began to find the kind of inner peace, lying on the living room floor, that I’d once felt as a girl, listening to the Hashkiveinu prayer while sitting on faded-maroon pews.


Although he never took on my religion like he once offered, Eric has helped me to find beauty in the unexpected: a walk around the neighborhood, the smell of jasmine in a nearby planter, a shared lunch, or even glance, stolen between video conferences. More important than converting to Judaism, he’s converted through gestures, large and small: wearing a kippah and breaking the glass while standing under a chuppah at our wedding, “attending” virtual services with me all pandemic-long, and even humming Shabbat melodies in his favorite place—the bathtub—though Hebrew is still foreign on his tongue.


Today, despite hailing from Canada, he fancies himself an American. Despite his introverted leanings, he’s a proud married man, and despite being an ascetic minimalist, he even tolerates decorative pillows and tissue box holders and ruffled shower curtains in our home, not to mention an imposing Pilates reformer that nearly blocks the entryway.


When it came to choosing, he picked couplehood over solitude, the marriage chapel over the monastery chapel, me over monkhood. He chose, and worships, us. As do I.



Melody Greenfield, who writes both CNF and poetry, has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. She has been published—both under this name and another—in Brevity; Lunch Ticket; Annotation Nation; The Los Angeles Review; the Los Angeles Review of Books; Meow Meow Pow Pow, where her flash piece was nominated for a best small fiction award; the Pup Pup Blog; The Manifest-Station; Poke; Neuro Logical; The Erozine; Moment Mag; Sledgehammer Lit; Screenshot Lit; Pink Plastic House; Impostor; Jewish Literary Journal; Potato Soup Journal; and forthcoming in Rejection Letters, Drizzle Review, and HOOT's Cookbook Anthology. Melody lives in LA with her Canadian husband and—when she's not reading, writing, or singing—teaches and practices Pilates.