Danna D. Schmidt
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
Master Life-Cycle Celebrant®
Ordained Wedding Officiant
To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.”
Mary Oliver, “In Blackwater Woods”
Saying goodbye to family is heart-wrenching work, especially when those goodbyes come too soon or out of turn. When my oldest brother Tim’s health took a turn for the worse, the family quickly rallied around him. He had been on kidney dialysis for a decade and surgery was not an option for him. He made the difficult life decision to go off dialysis and spent his last couple of days with family holding vigil at his bedside. Tim passed peacefully under the lamplight of a giant harvest moon, surrounded by his loved ones.
In the days to follow, as we were making final arrangements with the funeral home, my mother and niece asked me what they should do about an urn for his cremains. Given that the burial arrangements were to be DIY, on account of his plot being located in a small town cemetery in which my Uncle acted as a volunteer sexton, there were no hard and fast rules or regulations about the type of burial urn to use. So I suggested they go to the local craft shop, purchase an inexpensive wooden chest and have my niece’s boyfriend, Sebastien, aka the family artisan, engrave or decorate the box.
As unofficial son-in-law, Seb wholeheartedly accepted the challenge and admitted after the fact that it was cathartic way to work through some of his early grief. On one side of the box, he etched a pastoral Alberta scene with wheat stalks, mountains, a harvest moon, my brother’s name and birth/death dates. On the top, he engraved my brother’s beloved tow truck and on the back side, he depicted the logos of all Tim’s favorite sporting teams. Not content to stop there, he then attached a locket, gold handles, and gold rope to the sides for the lowering. And because he’s an over-achiever, he also whipped up the wooden plaque showcased to the right, until such time as a more permanent grave marker will be placed.
The day before the graveside service, which I wrote from afar and arranged for an uncle to officiate, I encouraged my family to write notes and letters to tuck into the box, along with photos, trinkets or other mementos.
Despite the cool autumn wind, the day of the committal service proved poignant. My talented aunt and uncle lent musical tribute to the day by playing a handful of prelude, interlude and postlude hymns on the fiddle and harmonica – most notably “Amazing Grace.”
My mother shared a Mary Oliver poem, excerpted above, which perfectly befit the cemetery locale, and following the words of committal, my nephews performed the difficult task of lowering their father’s urn into the ground. Each of the immediate family members then placed an autumn rose in sync with customized litany of remembrance words I had crafted, inspired by the good work of fellow celebrant Holly Pruett. As final gesture and ode to both my brother’s infamous sweet tooth and his nickname, Timmy; the closing ritual was a Timbit (famous Canadian donut holes) benediction.
My brother was not one for ceremony, yet I sense that even he might have approved of our small ceremonial touches, and perhaps especially, the handcrafted wooden urn box.
Looking for a cure for the winter blahs? One indoor activity that offers escape from the rain in these parts or wind and snow in other regions, not to mention a welcome distraction from purging and cleaning, is to create a seasonal altar. Chances are, you already have a corner or space dedicated to this in your home, either formally or informally. One friend I know has been doing this for years. She changes up the wreath on her door, her fireplace mantel décor, and she even switches out her wall art to reflect whatever holiday or holy day she has coming up on her calendar.
Another friend of mine has what I would call little altars everywhere throughout her home and office space. Some of these are curated collections of art on her walls (a collection of cross shrines), while others are corner and feature table shrines. My favorite of her shrines is her egg and nest shrine. Not only is it a gorgeous display feature in her front sitting room, but it also serves as a spiritually-centering altar in this space that is ideal for cozying up with a book or meditating.
I have a handful of altar nooks in my home. I keep two in my office: one of my window ledge and a smaller one in front of my computer screen. My desk altar is my ceremony shrine. I keep my talking stick here, a small bell, and a glass vial with a painted scroll with the word Love inscribed on it. I light a scented candle on this desk altar (even as I know scented candles are carcinogenic) when I’m writing my wedding couple love stories or celebration of life stories, and I place a small photo of the couple or deceased person on this altar to stay intentional and devotional in my writing for them.
My window ledge shrine features items from nature – a nest, Mala beads, rocks, a shell, a feather, a couple of twigs and some fern. And my living room shrine is alive with other totems, ranging from my collection of inuksuit (check out the ‘About Waypointing” section on my website for details on these), to candles to Buddha figures, to mini-framed art, to my decorative tree.
Creating your shrine is a personal and intuitive process. It begins by discerning what intention you wish it to serve. If it’s merely decorative, then your selection of altar items will likely be chosen for aesthetics and nostalgia, as per my first friend. If you intend it to be a space that grounds and spiritual renews you, your altar items will be more spiritual and ritualistic in nature. A seasonal altar is a hybrid of these. You will certainly want to look to the season for color palette and altar item inspiration, as well as the gifts the season offers.
Winter is about darkness and introspection, spring speaks to renewal and growth, summer lends itself to color, light and full-bloom living; and autumn is about bounty, gratitude and transfiguration. Each of the elements factor into how you design your altar. For example, this year I have assigned air to winter, water to spring, fire to summer, and earth to fall; so I will ensure each of my seasonal altars feature a defining aspect of this aligning element. That said, all my altars have a candle and some earth-based and living symbol.
The focal point for my winter altar is my small decorative tree, and the palette that I have chosen is black and white. I hang ornaments, pictures and other symbols from it. My altar also includes a commemorative photo of my father, a clay crow I crafted to hold my fears at bay, a small vase for a single white flower and sprig of cedar, my white Buddha candle, a small Snoopy ornament (Snoopy is my spirit animal) as well as a seasonal SoulCollage® card as wisdom oracle for what the season has to teach me. Check back next month though and it’s likely that I will have played with it a bit.
There are no right or wrong ways to create a seasonal altar. I advocate for looking around at the items you already own and display, and for taking yourself on a field trip to your own backyard or nearby nature space. Which small treasures and trinkets resonate with or empower you? Which ones carry significant meaning? Place those there and don’t be afraid to keep tinkering with your altar until it feels right. There are ample resources on altars. Here are a few to get you started. Start small and simple, and see where it leads!
Weddings will sometimes offer interesting conundrums. Such was the case for one of my couples, Nobuko and Michael. They wanted to tell their unique story, which included an engagement proposal that was a scene reenactment from their favorite cult-class film, Lost in Translation. And by reenactment, I mean that they were sitting in the same seats as Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, at the same table and in the same 53rd floor lounge of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. Not surprisingly, Suntory whiskey figured prominently. Their challenge was how to tell their love story fresh to their many friends and family members who had already heard their story many a time. They were adamant that they wanted the wedding to be cute, fun, interactive and unique. They also confessed that they wanted their wedding to “raise the bar” in terms of inimitable elements. So I proposed that they consider having their actor friend act out their love story as I told it. And so that is what we did. With no less than a couple of dozen props on a draped table and the entire altar space at his disposal, their friend, Alfred, set about miming the more amusing moments from their earlier moments as a couple. Given their mutual adoration of the movie, her work as a Japanese translator, their differing love languages, and the fact that her parents did not speak English, I immediately knew that the ceremony theme needed to be Love in Translation.
With this in mind, I crafted their love story and worked with Alfred to build in cues and appropriate props, which included a Boeing model airplane, a suitcase, light-up martini glasses, laundry, Rilakkuma wedding bears, stiletto heels, and her floral bouquet, to name but a few. When it came time in the ceremony to tell the tale of how they met, fell in love and found their way to the altar, everyone was leaning forward in anticipation of Alfred’s every mime and antic. Suffice to say, hilarity ensued as Alfred enacted my narrated words in a fresh if frantic way, as he attempted to run between the corner prop table and his main spot at the center of the altar, while Nobuko and Michael looked on in amazement and delight. Attendees were able to see Nobuko and Michael’s love story come to life in a silly and superlative way, and Nobuko’s parents benefitted from having the story “translated” through Alfred’s comedic actions.
What began as a request for a simple wedding soon led to a ceremony that was chock full of colorful touches including a communal ring warming, a flowering tea ball “uni-tea” ritual, a pinky-swear/red thread of fate handfasting ritual, communal vows, a bilingual wedding blessing reading, and a cherry blossom branch “tunnel of love” recessional. The moral of the story on how to tell a same old story fresh? If in doubt, act it out!
A gray fall day in Seattle saw the inaugural stones placed and steps walked as part of a small dedication ceremony I officiated to launch an outdoor church labyrinth here in the Puget Sound. A local labyrinth designer, aka the labyrinth whisperer, as I took to calling him, spent time measuring, pinning and staking the pegs in preparation for congregants to then lay the stones. I asked the oldest serving community member to lay the first stone and a young member to place the final ceremonial stone as symbol of the future generation of labyrinth users. The other inaugural stones were placed by a key representative from the various staff, committees, board of directors, and visitors. The intention was that once all the stones were laid and the ground preparation complete, this meditative space will be publicly listed on the Labyrinth Locator map for all to enjoy.
I love working with couples who get it…and by “it” I mean how and why ceremony matters. One such couple was Jessica and Logan. They wanted to honor their love of nature, and so hiring a vegan caterer from Portland, including a tree planting unity ritual, and hosting their ceremony at Glen Echo Gardens outside Bellingham were a few of the ways they chose to express this earthly-love. With this in mind, I chose Love Entwined for their ceremony theme and set to work finding and crafting just the right words for their actual tree planting, which they proceeded to do after the guests had departed. Thanks to the fabulous work of their photographer, Becca of B. Jones Photography fame, their wedding was shortlisted and selected for Seattle Bride magazine’s Reader’s Choice Top 10 inspiring Real Weddings of 2015. Kodak moments and Pinterest touches aside though, my favorite elements of the ceremony remain Logan’s choice to have his grandmother escort him up the aisle and the wedding party’s flawless reading of the poem “Nuptials” by John Agard. One ritual they deferred beyond the big day was their ultimate unity ritual: that of blending their last names into one. Many months and much careful thought later, they have officially chosen and announced their new last name, which is an ideal blend of their two former names.
(Photo Credit: B. Jones Photography)
Make a nesting now, a place to which the birds can come…”
David Whyte, “Coleman’s Bed” from River Flow: New & Selected Poems
In the realm of house and office blessings, it sometimes proves difficult for people to know how to go about consecrating the new space and crafting a ribbon-cutting moment. Should I invite others to bear witness to the moment? Should there be stories? Champagne? An actual ribbon to cut?
In all ceremonial cases, one of my first consultative steps I embark on is to craft a questionnaire for my clients, which helps them get clear on what it is they want for their space blessing. Their answers to those questions invariably elicit a plethora of theme possibilities, ritual ideas and inspired readings.
When my dear friend Carol asked me to create something to mark the official double-French doors opening of her new home-based art space for Little Wing Studio, I didn’t need to dig deep for a ceremony theme. Her art-filled home is filled with bird motif artwork, ranging from egg and nest altars to bird shrines to feathers and wing-inspired art. Her back garden oasis, replete with many bird feeders, is also a sanctuary space for a conference of many-feathered birds. “Blessing the Nest” naturally emerged as the obvious and fitting theme for this ceremony.
And even Jimi Hendrix had a hand in things, as I shared in this excerpted piece from the Building the Nest story I wrote for the midpoint of her ceremony, as a way to tell the once upon a time tale of her creative journey, the birth of the studio and significance of the name, Little Wing:
And so finally, they began to find common ground as they searched song lyrics. Their wall stenciling (and artist mantra if ever there was one!), of “Excuse Me While I Kiss the Sky” helped point the way – and not long after, the name revealed itself. Little Wing, not surprisingly, gives nod to its namesake song by Jimi Hendrix on his Axis: Bold as Love album. It’s a song that speaks of the precious essence called Little Wing and it is an anthem to the Muse herself: cloud walking, a circus mind that runs wild, the most gorgeous and miraculous of creatures and things like butterflies and zebras, moonbeams, fairy tales, a thousand smiles and endless flight.”
Carol shared that she was seeking a celebratory tone and an energetic lightness to the ceremony. In marking this beginning and opening, it was very important for her that it be witnessed by close creative friends and family. After deciding upon the ceremony elements ~ which included writing and telling her creative journey which led to the studio being born, a custom final blessing, and of course, a culminating champagne toast ~ I wove in a nesting ritual as the special moment in the ceremony. To prepare for this ritual, I asked Carol to forage branches from her yard, which she then snapped into small twig pieces. She chose her beloved cottonwood tree as the benefactor for this nesting rite. Following the story piece, I then invited everyone to go around the table, take a twig piece and share their wish or intention word for this new space. These twigs were then placed in the basket of other twigs. A mutual friend agreed to play the role of nest builder, and as I shared the Celtic legend of St. Kevin and the blackbird followed by the David Whyte poem, “Coleman’s Bed,” she began the good work of building the cottonwood nest, twig by twig, in Carol’s cupped hands. After crafting the nest, she then ceremoniously placed a decorated nest egg in the center, as fertile symbol of this becoming and future prosperity. It was a powerful and hushed moment for all to bear witness, in symbolic form, to Carol’s own twig-by-twig creative journey.
After toasting her new space and venture with champagne and the poetic words, “Ching, Ching…to Little Wing!,” we then gathered for a small celebratory luncheon and reconvened in the studio to decorate and write blessing words on strips of fabric, which Carol then tied to a branch. It is a gorgeous art installation and ceremonious reminder that now proudly adorns her outdoor patio wall adjacent to the studio space.
Setting aside a half hour to utter words and enact small yet meaning-filled rites for such life occasions may seem insignificant, but relative to key moments on our vocational path, they prove to be just the opposite. Since opening the doors to Little Wing Studio, Carol now hosts an array of sold-out art retreats, art journaling workshops and creativity classes. And if these excerpted words from the closing Blessing for Wings I penned for her are any indication, all our collective wishes, hopes and dreams for the studio are, indeed, taking bold flight.
May these walls inspire abandon, magic and play,
Whisper peace and possibility,
Privilege practice over product and perfection,
And may they bolster an undeniable urge to be bold.”