Internal Landscapes, Part 1: Personal “Shrines”

Wandering the Reading Terminal Market, in Philadelphia, can (at any time) be an exercise in sensory overload. However, during the annual spring flower show, when Philly experiences record crowds in the area surrounding the convention center, the market can be completely overwhelming. Or so I discovered in March when I went there in search of lunch.

After rejecting several vendors simply because of long lines, I finally found the perfect bite: fresh, homemade sausage, tomato and basil pizza. I took my slice (more like a 6×6 inch square of cheesy goodness) and began the search for a place to sit. I came upon a narrow alley between vendor stalls which appeared to be public, yet lacked the crush of people I was fighting my way through in the other aisles. I hooked a left and a few feet later came upon this:

Once I cleared the table and sat down, I could practically reach out and touch the next vendor stall. There were other tables only a couple of feet away. But this little space was peaceful and out of the mainstream enough to feel almost private. Of course the odd little talismans taped to the wall above the table added to the feeling that I was, perhaps, encroaching on someone else’s space. Who had created this iconographic wall display, and why? Was someone having fun at the expense of others (“Let’s see how people react if we tape weird stuff to the wall”)? Or trying to have a place where they could experience a little tranquility in the midst of chaos?

Of course, the answer that appeals to me is the second: that an unknown person, perhaps someone who spends every day in the crush and colorful mayhem of the market, was attempting to create a personally meaningful space. With a little tape, crafting a place where the trinkets displayed give immediate access to the interior landscape of meaning. A landscape familiar only to the person who created the “shrine”. One of the things I love about both solitary travel and walking in new places is the opportunity they offer to notice such spaces. I have no idea how many people, on any given day at Reading Terminal, notice the little wall shrine I ate my lunch beneath. I’m guessing that most leave the market without having seen it, even if they walked down that particular alley.

While it is always a little thrilling to get a glimpse into someone else’s, we all have them, these internal landscapes. Made up of images, archetypes, and places to which we have attached a particular meaning or emotion. And many of us, even if we don’t realize it, have given our inner worlds some form of outward expression. Have you, for example, created a bedroom that, the moment you enter it, speaks to you of “haven”? The photo, below, is one such spot in my house.

In this niche, top to bottom: St. Cecilia, St. Raphael (my patron saints), guardian angel icon, large angel with mermaid. charm against the evil eye, small angel with musical instrument, Frida Kahlo print, carved bulto of unknown saint, terra cotta manger scene, glass angel candleholder.

This nook, in my dining room, contains images which speak to me of the possibility of guidance and protection as I make my way through daily life. Each piece is connected to the others in the niche via my own internal web of thought and emotion. Each also has a story which adds to the piece’s meaning. This same collection of objects would never mean the same to someone else.

To me, they are not religious objects, nor would you ever discover me standing or sitting before the niche in prayer. It isn’t that kind of shrine. What I mean by calling such spaces “shrines” is that they embody concepts or themes which, in one’s personal cosmology, are deeply meaningful, sacred. Is this what I discovered on the wall at the Reading Terminal Market? I don’t know, but I hope it is. I like thinking that someone out there is attempting to carve a little space for the sacred in our hectic and overwhelming modern landscape.

(Note: In part 2, I will attempt to share two maps of my hometown: the real Dubuque and my own, internal, Dubuque. In the meantime, as always, I welcome your comments, or sharing about your own personal “shrines”!)

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