Featured Altarist – Jill Doneen Clifton

Jill Doneen Clifton, writer and creator of the Landscape of Mothers book.

When did you build your first altar?  Did you think of it as an ‘altar’ at that time?

I built my first altar in 2006, I was 36 years old with a baby and a toddler at home.  As for the altar, I knew exactly what I was doing. It was desperation that caused me to try to find a new way to think about things.

I often say I had my midlife crisis over the dishes because it was this feeling of deep overwhelm that I experienced washing the dishes one day, with my kids at a little table in the kitchen with me. 

I had, through a series of decisions that seemed small or meaningful at the time, ended up with the profound effect of having given up on my dreams. I had been in school for most of my life working toward the goal of being a professor in Conservation Biology.

Two kids in less than two years and an interstate move left me feeling isolated and totally upside down. Parenting was nothing like academia. Instead it was full of tasks you could never finish, isolation, and intellectual boredom. I had to find a way to survive. And so this day I cried my eyes out over the sink and knew I had to figure out how to live in THIS world, the one with multi-tasking, never ending cycles of things to do, where the needs changed every 10 minutes. 

Jill’s original Altar of Desperation. Hestia and her cauldron on the right.

The kids were playing with playdough, and I pulled out some air-dry modeling clay and sat down with them. I fashioned a simple “hearth goddess” and a cauldron. I decided it was Hestia because so little was known about her.

Apparently she was honored in every household, a goddess everyone knew but no one thought that much about (I could so identify with being needed by everybody but feeling noticed by no one). This meant that she could be what I needed her to be.

I placed the figure and her cauldron on a shelf by my sink. I put a candle on the altar too. And each time I had to do the dishes, I lit the candle and said a prayer for finding the way through. It reminded me that there were parts of this experience I could define and choose.

Do your share your practice with others or do this as a solitary practice?

Mostly altar building has been a personal experience for me. Over the years I’ve built altars for different reasons and they’ve held different functions for me. More recently I have been sharing altar building as a practice in my work with others. It resonates for some, and it doesn’t for some, and that’s fine. 

Look closely. Jill’s altar incorporates a variety of feathers.

What has been an unexpected delight in altar building?

It’s changed my relationship with beauty. The academic world puts heavy value on facts, thinking, logic, and brevity. Building altars has given life to other parts of me that revel in simple joys and beauty.

For me building altars is a slow process, checking in with meaning internal to my own systems, finding the esthetic that matches my feeling or inquiry. Altar building is an invitation to explore my own inner landscape for what is true for me at this time.

An example of an altar using flowers and shells
Camellia blooms and shells stand out in this nature altar honoring boundaries.

How frequently do you build altars?  

I always have altars in my house. Right now I have at least three that are active. I rebuild them when they need it, sometimes that’s after a day, or a few days, or a few weeks. It depends on what the altar is holding and how long it takes to feel complete.

So, I build new altars every month or so, and I tend to them at least every few days. That might mean I feed them (my ancestor altar), or I replace flowers, or I light candles, or I write on slips of paper, or read what already exists.

I often build altars in nature that are very temporary. Sometimes I do this as part of a ritual, other times it is whimsical. I often do this with my family, so we co-create land altars that we recognize as meaningful to us in some way.

What beliefs or ideas influence your altar building?

I guess there is one main idea with two outcomes. My belief is that all of nature is living and sentient, meaning that it contains some amount and quality of life force energy.

One outcome is that I see nature as a resource for guidance, understanding, and being held. Ecosystems have had to solve so many of the problems that come up in relationship and coexisting. The natural world has learned to organize life force energy among individuals to create a system of regenerative energy. They’ve learned how to live together well.

So, when I don’t know what to do I will look to nature for reflection and guidance. My altars often have objects that I have picked up in my nature walks that were meaningful or thought provoking for me. 

The other belief I have is that all living things are infused with energy. I believe that the culture of productivity that most of us are embedded in encourages us to keep moving that energy around, generally to do our work.

Altars provide a container for energy for me. So, when I have an inquiry, I can build an altar to hold that question and the energy can gather around the altar until I can understand it in its fullness. It helps me hold more still, to gather fully, and to cultivate patience.

Jill includes a small jar with messages on paper scrolls on this beautiful altar.

Can you share an outcome or two from using Altars in your life?

The altar I told you about making for my kitchen shelf is still here in 2020. I don’t light the candle as often, and my kids, now teenagers, help do those frustratingly persistent piles of dishes. But it has held me all of these years in my becoming.

It has been steady and persistent when it felt like everything changed every few minutes and I was always trying to catch up. It has been there to remind me to reflect on why I was choosing what I was choosing, and that often helped to calm me into the moment. 

It also helped hold a vision I had that I couldn’t imagine how it would come to fruition. I didn’t have a parent I wanted to model my own parenting after, and so I was inventing my way the whole time. I often felt alone, like I was flying by the seat of my pants, and I had no idea if anything I was doing would work.

That altar held the vision of the kind of family I wanted to be when I had no idea what to do to get there. That altar held me as I broke long family patterns of neglect and tried to build a connected family. It held my wildest dreams of possibility and warmth and happiness.

We’re also a total normal family with lots of eye rolling and crying and frustration. And, we also know we are in this life together, we have each other’s backs, and we’ll always be rooting for one another’s successes. And that’s what I wanted 14 years ago when I built that very first altar.

What items tend to show up repeatedly when selecting what you will place on your altar?

My altars are 80% things I pick up in nature. I pick up anything that grabs my attention and resonates with something that’s alive in me in the moment.

It can be roots, sticks, rocks, shells, moss, pinecones, feathers, or bones. Sometimes these objects initiate an inquiry, or sometimes I have the question first but I pick up lots of stuff as I walk.

I also have a few figurines I’ve gathered over the years. I don’t buy things often, usually I make them or find them. Sometimes some kind of art that I’ve made, or the kids have made, or an object from an ancestor will be there.

Jill and her daughters and husband created this altar of Togetherness

Do you follow the seasons or another system/set of holidays/moon cycles that impacts when and the type of altars you build?

I have a season table that I have maintained in a nook in our dining room since the kids were little. It is the way we honor the seasons indoors.

I also have certain holidays that I celebrate in which I build elaborate altars. The two most prominent are Samhain (Halloween / All Souls Day) and Yule (Winter solstice).

Dia de Los Muertos altar in Jill’s home in Santa Cruz, California

What is your favorite part of building or using altars in your life – personal/work both?

My favorite part of altars is that they invite me back to myself. They are part of my spiritual and personal practice of honoring.

How or does your culture show up in your altar building?

In some ways, for me, it’s the other way around. My altars are a way that I can reconnect with my indigeneity. That is, I build altars and ask questions of nature to restore that connection that has not been transmitted through the people in my family.

Also knowing and holding that the land I live on is not my ancestral land. I am an uninvited guest. And so, some of my altars are inquiries about how I can be connected in the here and now while recognizing that I got moved around by my ancestors and that the people that were here before me were brutally displaced.

All of my known ancestry goes back to mainland Europe. I know that I have one ancestor (my mom’s grandfather’s grandfather) who came from Ireland. So, I choose to pull from Celtic roots, as they moved from inland Europe to the coast around 500BC. It’s the closest extant information that I can get to what my ancestors would have practiced.

I also use what I know of my ancestors who were laborers and farmers and I go back to nature with those perspectives.

A felted figure holds meaning for Jill on her Spring table altar.

What difference do you notice on your physical body when you treat it as an altar with sacred adornment?

My favorite mode of adornment is jewelry. I have many pieces that are purposeful, powerful, and deeply meaningful to me. I will wear them when some part of me needs to be held, wants to be seen, or is feeling particularly potent. They amplify or contain my energy as needed or desired, and many of them have helped me through tough times as talismans and harbingers of hope and persistence.

What is a favorite sacred tattoo you rock on your bodies altar?

Hard to pick a favorite tattoo as I only have two. One is a turtle, which is an animal that has taught me much and is a lifelong companion.

The second is a compass that I got with 11 sisters of the heart. It reminds me that I know which direction to go. Much as that first altar I built held that vision, this tattoo on my forearm reminds me that I have come a long way and I know where I am going still.

What has been the biggest shift for you since building or using altars in your life?

I had a difficult childhood and some deep losses in my early adulthood. It left me hypervigilant, scared, exhausted and sensorially overextended. I didn’t realize it at the time. It had been a slow build over many traumas, I just hadn’t understood the cumulative effects.

Like I said, desperation was why I built the first altar. The intention was stability. And every day since, altars have continued to help me walk in that direction. They have helped me regulate my thoughts, held my inquiries and visions, and now I would say they help ease my nervous system.

They are calming, slow paced, they tend and hold things when I’m not sure I can. So, really, altars changed everything. Not in the big “abracadabra” kind of way. But in the way of the nervous system – slow, regular, iterative, cyclical, repeating, incremental – like the soothing trickle of water over rocks. 

Close up of Hestia and Jill’s first altar helping her with her feelings of desperation.

Your offerings have been shifting and I am really excited for women to learn more about your life as writer and creator of Landscape of Mothers. Let’s dive in.

I’m really grateful that I get to call you sister-friend Jill.  I’ve been able to see some of what you are currently transitioning into and I have already found healing within it and with you.  What can you share with us at this time about Landscape of Mothers and your transition phase with this work?

Landscape of Mothers is a map for navigating our lives, particularly where we are thrust into the unknown and have no other guidelines. I found that to be true for me in parenting, in my own inner healing work, and in relationships of all kinds. The Landscape of Mothers is held by eight Mother archetypes (The Mountain Mother, The Desert Mother, The River Mother, etc.) each with her own gift and her own struggle. 

At this time I have written a book detailing The Mothers and how to work with them. The unique thing about The Landscape of Mothers is that the archetypes do not stand alone, they form a circle, or a wheel, and they work together.

Looking back over the years I spent simultaneously working at being the parent I wanted to be, doing my own personal healing work, and learning to be in community in a way that feels nourishing all the way around, these archetypes and gifts and struggles were under it all. I’m so excited to share them.

The book will be released November 13, 2020. (I will make sure to let you know when the book is available – Julia)

An altar Jill set in her garden for daily prayer and contemplation.

Jill as writer eh? Quite exciting! How do you hope this new role will have impact on women or those wishing to grow and expand their approach to healing and self-clarity?  Do you see it as quite different than the way you interacted prior or still as woman and healer just different deliver method?

I hope that by presenting my map for dealing with the unknown that it will help others find their own maps. When we embark on something we know is important, but we don’t know how it will happen, we can feel adrift, overwhelmed, frightened, and it’s so easy not to do it. If we’re dedicated to changing something, breaking patterns of harm in our family, or in our own psyche, it helps to have a way to orient. Like a real paper map (remember those?) it won’t have everything on it for everyone, but enough to navigate around and find the things that are important.

As we come to this place of balance between light and dark, I am shifting between where I have been and where I am going. — Jill Doneen Clifton

I think I see Landscape of Mothers as a description of how I navigated through the unknown and learning the things I needed to be the mother (and the person) I want to be. Although it’s not written as a memoir, those who have known me awhile will see my personal journey in The Mothers. The archetypes have all of the gifts that I spent time cultivating for myself and my family.

What is a landscape you didn’t envision for yourself?

I think what you might be asking is what landscape in Landscape of Mothers do I least identify with personally? It would be The River Mother. That’s a drive and a focus that is hard for me to maintain. I tend toward The Wind Mother who is a little more freeform, but also wanders and gets off track. The River Mother offers more direction and organization. I know River Mothers though, and I’ve learned a ton from my friends who are River Mothers. I’m so grateful to them for helping me in those ways since it’s not my natural strength. 

What I do have in this arena is persistence and determination. So, I tended to follow the riverbanks of some of my friends with regard to details and organization of parenting (some of them had better models to work off of than I did, either because of their own parents or they were part of a community that provided that kind of structure). 

I’m asking this question to a number of the “Mama” Altarists because I think it is so important that we offer ways to connect for the younger ones coming up the path.  So, for you, how has being a mom influenced your ways of being a healer in the world?

Motherhood demanded change in me. Most of my life I compartmentalized my traumas and difficulties and had created some coping mechanisms. It worked pretty well in a world of adults and in science, because I think a lot of adults manage their worlds this way. It’s definitely a socially acceptable way to ride the line between confronting the difficulties and ignoring them.

I had to learn techniques for tending to my inner self and old traumas, for building the muscles of healthy attachment (for myself first, so I could offer them to my kids), and for soothing and regulating my own nervous system.

When I work with people now, I start with these tasks. The building of the resources needed to enact all these ways that we want our families to be, but we never had given to us.

This is not for the faint of heart. It is the path of owning the landscape you were given, and becoming a gardener in order to transform the generational experience of the family. 

Fresh rose petals add bursts of color on this altar.

We are still in the throes of a Global pandemic and so many are struggling with any number of things – What is one take away or suggestion you could give those reading this – right now – perhaps from the Landscape of Mother’s material or your experience with change and transition – that could help them today? 

The Sun and Moon Mother. Every time. She’s my go to regulator. She is the one that holds us in the tiny steps that get us somewhere over time. She is the one I return to when nothing else seems to be working. 

She is about regulation and renewal. We come back to the needs. We regulate by finding an anchor somewhere that gives us a place to operate from.

Sometimes this really is about focusing on the basics of eating and sleeping. Sometimes it’s about making sure we step outside and breathe the air and feel the sun. Sometimes it’s about more elaborate rituals like a bath with candles and music. 

Jill created a wee impromptu bit of peace with this car dashboard altar

You can begin by noticing that you’re already doing something to regulate yourself. There’s a way to do regulation in a way that is supportive to renewal and there’s a way to regulate that holds your ground (coping).

There is nothing wrong with either one. Here’s my example. My regulation when I’m holding ground is TV, scrolling Instagram, and potato chips. I do these behaviors because I’m tired, overwhelmed, or uncertain. I tend to lack motivation to address whatever is going on. I need a break. Then I find myself with chips watching Netflix. This is fine. There is nothing wrong with this kind of regulation. We’re coping. I think a lot of us are doing this in the pandemic. It’s normal when we’re not sure what to do next. 

The coping kind of regulation isn’t likely to change anything for us. It isn’t meant to. It’s a holding pattern. When we’re ready to shift into something that is more life-affirming, we do the regulation work of finding different anchors. For me they change all the time because my needs change.

Lately, I’ve been dedicated to giving myself a few minutes in bed in the morning to check in with my body. Where am I feeling good, do I need to make sure to take a walk today, am I feeling motivated, do I have emotions that I need to tend to? This tells me how I am.

A sweet altar using pebbles, shells and feathers Jill created along the coast of California

Then, I make my tea and go outside with the intention of soaking up sunlight and breathing in the fresh air. The tea reflects my value for warmth and comfort, and the outdoors lets me feel connected to something larger (without having to read the news since I often find that dysregulating). I know that these actions help my body feel energized for the day while being held in feeling good. 

It’s good to know what we do when we are in the mode of coping. Not to shame ourselves or tell ourselves it should be different, but just so that we can identify where we are. It’s also good to know what kinds of things are meaningful and help us in life-affirming ways. These will be different for everyone, and will likely change somewhat over time.

So, make a list of three things you do when you’re coping, and three things you do when you’re really feeding your internal self. Just find out where you are and begin again each day. (Oh… and I highly recommend building an altar to hold you in the noticing every day!)

Finally, how can women find you locally and online? 

I am in Santa Cruz, CA. I’m usually in my back yard.
Online I’m most active on Instagram (IG). I have a website that is going to be redesigned over the summer in preparation for the book release. If you’d like to know about the book when it is released you can follow me on IG or sign up for emails at the website.

Jill on Instagram Landscape of Mother’s website.

Jill shows us that anywhere and anything can come together to form an altar of delight.

Bonus question if you dare #1
Favorite curse word?

Fuck. And when I’m trying to mask that I just cursed and my kids hate that – I say “fuckadoodle”. Which I’m pretty sure is even worse.

Bonus question if you dare #2
What would you take your younger self by the shoulders and looking straight in the eyes say to her?

My first thoughts were that I’d tell her that she is worth more than she thinks but I would not have heard that at 8 or 14 or 17 or 25. So maybe I’d tell her that it’s really important to build altars and watch the moon. That’s where I learned what I needed to know, and maybe if I’d started earlier it would have been easier. But who knows?

Shells and feathers find their ways in many of Jill Doneen Clifton’s altars. A lovely abalone shell holding dried sage is part of this altar.

All images within this interview are copyright of Jill Doneen Clifton.
Enjoy them, let them inspire you, please don’t share them without honoring who created them. Thank you.

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