"How many shrines do you have in your house?'' It was an unsettling question from a new acquaintance, the kind of question that lingers long after you think you've answered it.
"None,'' I said, picturing incense and offerings. I assumed he meant religious shrines.
Well, those too, he said, but what he had in mind were personal shrines.
Ah, now, that was different. I thought of the array of Native American pottery upstairs, my collection of world globes in the den, the troop of childhood dolls in a glass case my father made, the handmade textiles I've carried home from markets in Mexico, Guatemala, Peru...
"Four," I said. "Only I just call them souvenirs.'' Even as I said it, though, I knew that word didn't quite cover how much they meant to me.
What brought this back to mind was a pocketful of black basalt pebbles I picked up on a Lake Superior beach one afternoon this summer. When I dumped them out on the kitchen counter at home, they looked like an arrangement of tiny boulders, a miniature Zen garden on the Formica.
They included a surprise: Among the black pebbles, there was a single white one - a chip of snow-white quartz, worn as smooth as the others by years of freshwater surf. I didn't remember picking it up, but now the white pebble stood out as if I'd chosen it deliberately. It made the kitchen counter look like - well, like a shrine.
Since then, I've been seeing shrines everywhere, even - no, especially - in my own neighborhood, on daily walks with my dogs.
Some are permanent - like whimsical gazebos and artfully placed garden walls. Some are seasonal, like the gardens themselves. Others are ephemeral -- quick to appear, quick to vanish again -- like the chalk pictures that neighborhood children draw on sidewalks as soon as the snow melts.
And a few shrines are accidental, like my current favorite, which involved a big pink granite boulder at the street corner where the dogs and I usually turn for home.
That boulder has a shallow dent in its top, like the crease in a man's hat, and one recent morning, a small, flat silver heart lay shining there. I thought it was a bit of lost jewelry that some good neighbor had placed where a worried owner could spot it. I let it be.
The silver heart was still there the next morning, and the next, and the next, and finally I picked it up. It turned out to be nothing of value -- only a dog's out-of-date rabies tag.
As I set it back, something else gleamed from the tangle of grass at the boulder's base. It was a pair of sunglasses, nice ones, that some other passerby must have dropped. I set them on the stone above the heart, and instantly the boulder had a face, a little like one of those old "Kilroy was here'' graffiti, popular around World War II.
The next time I passed by, the face was gone, its elements retrieved, and the boulder was an ordinary boulder again. Except, of course, that it's now lodged in my memory.
It has made me consider other monuments and other places -- like the numbered milestones on old American roads, and rock cairns that mark hiking trails in Britain, and the mani stones and tangles of prayer flags that travelers in the Himalayans place at the crest of high passes. Gravestones too, of course, and roadside crosses at the sites of fatal accidents. And happy memorials, like charm bracelets and scrapbooks and the inch-by-inch pencil marks on so many family door frames, charting the height of growing kids.
There are so many shrines, in fact, and in so many places, that I now think the impulse to create them must be one of our most ancient instincts.
Deliberate or casual, they are all place-savers, reference points, attempts to remember or be remembered, ways of saying - like old Kilroy - "this is where I was - this is the way I've come.'' That makes all of them private landmarks in the geography of our lives, honoring the journey - even when we only call them souvenirs.