The Place With No Name





If you have a neat story that came out of this tragedy and would like to share it, I would be happy to host it here.  Just use the form at the bottom of the page.  I'll give you my email address if you want to send pictures.

The Altar is the story of our family.

Today (September 22, 2004), Virginia and Jeff got on the beach to examine the house and take some pictures.  There was little damage to the building, but the sand loss is astonishing.  

This picture was taken in October 2001.  The house wasn't finished, and no work had been done to the dune.  That's our friend Paulette holding Virginia.  (My daughter, not my mother-in-law.)

This picture was taken last year.  The dune is nice and high, and the restoration work from Opal was going well.

This was taken about 2 years ago. The dune was much smaller.  The sea oats and snow fence had just been put in.  

This was taken today.  (September 22, 2004 by Jeff Kent) What looks like a board nailed to the pilings on the right side is actually the concrete driveway still hanging on the pilings.  In the front, there was nearly five feet of sand loss.  The dune is gone.  All that hard work washed away.  Amazingly, the house is in decent shape relative to some of the other damage.  A facing board is missing from the upstairs deck.  A little water got into the wall on the east side.  The stairways have been torn away, and water got in under the front doors. 

Under the house is totally blasted.  The entire ground level was slabbed, and the concrete has been broken away and washed up by the street.  The storage rooms, showers, and the lattice sides have all been totally blasted away.

The Altar

In order to tell this little story, you'll have to have some background.  Altars are sort of new to me. I've only done them in the last ten years or so. I picked up this practice from my mother-in-law, who was not my mother-in-law at the time. My mother-in-law is an amazing lady. A woman of power and joy. 

Most people think of altars as a big stone slab where animals are slaughtered to appease angry gods. Or maybe as the place in a church where sacraments are taken. My meaning is quite different. 

My wife explains it better than I can on our wedding page. I have quoted the text below. 



As we planned our wedding, Shane and I knew we wanted our loved ones to participate in creating a sacred space with us. The gathering was important, but we also needed a focal point to gather around. Traditionally, weddings commence at some sort of altar, but since our wedding is outdoors, we had to create our own altar. When a person hears the word altar, it usually calls to mind images of pagan rituals, or of churches, synagogues and other places of communal worship or meditation. It hints at divine offerings and religions doctrines whose traditional meanings have long since become like white noise to us. Rarely does one think of what the word might mean on a personally spiritual level. I prefer Peg Streep's description of an altar as a sacred space; a personal place of prayer, ritual and meditation. She feels altars do not 'make' space sacred. Rather, they work by showing us what has been there all along. For me, a sacred space is any space that calls my soul to join in communion with the universe. Such spaces speak to me of connection, rejuvenation and hope. They encourage me to ask hard questions and to become still enough to hear the answers. They call me to participate and to share. 

When I visit the sea with my mother we gather treasure and bounty along the shore. We place shells, stones, driftwood, and seed pods on the deck outside. Holding hands we turn our gazes to the ocean, to the sunset, or to the stars. The waves sing with us as we stand together in silence, or speak softly to one another about our lives. In our hearts we join with God as surely as we join hands with one another and add our voices to the sound of the sea. Thus we create a sacred space and our own 'altar' at which we 'pray'. 

The simple open air structure of the pavilion lends itself perfectly to the creation of a sacred space. Its circular nature inspires an intimate gathering in which each participant can enjoy the play of expressions and emotions felt throughout the ceremony. At the center we will have a table which will hold water bowls, elements and sacred sounds, all of which are described elsewhere. These are the visible props of the 'altar' which we will create together. Of much greater importance is the spiritual element each of us will bring by being a supportive member of our gathering. Your personal thoughts and meditations throughout the ceremony are in many ways more important than the ceremony itself. These combined with the ceremony will serve to create a living altar; a sort of interactive sacred space. We hope the words, sights and sounds of our wedding will inspire in each of you that feeling of connection and spirituality. 

Rebecca Wells wrote a fictional novel called (amusingly enough) Little Altars Everywhere. There is a section, written from a child's point of view, that speaks richly to me about the subject of altars: "Sometime during the summer, I have this dream about Edythe Spevey and me. We're on the swing that hangs from the pecan tree in our backyard. And while we're swinging, its like Edythe's body is in my body. Her legs kick out from my legs, and her head leans forward out of mine. When I move my arms forward, her arms come out of them. We are swinging in this just right rhythm. We are swinging high, flying way up, higher than in real life. And when I look down, I see all the ordinary stuff - our brick house, the porch, the tool shed, the back windows, the oil-drum bar-b-q pit, the clothesline, the China Berry tree. But they are all lit up from inside so their everyday selves have holy sparks in them, and if people could only see those sparks, they'd go and kneel in front of them and pray and just feel good. Somehow the whole world looks like little altars everywhere. And every time Edythe and me fly up into the air and then dive down to earth, it's like we're bowing our heads at those altars and we are praying and playing all at the same time."

Let us create together a sacred space, one which shows us what has been there all along: a gathering of people who are all lit up inside and whose everyday selves have holy sparks in them. Let us join in contemplation, celebration and hope as Shane and I are wed. Let the words and sounds encourage questions and answers. Come, let us pray and play all at the same time. - Andrea 


So, my mother-in-law and my wife showed me what I knew all along.  It's all sacred ground, and everywhere we go, we put up little altars. Little collections of this and that. Leaves and stones and feathers and various treasures. I tend to collect altars of one thing at a time. Last time at Black Creek Wilderness in Mississippi I collected red pebbles into an altar on a blow down in the river. 

It is a way to be mindful of the treasures all around us. Every place is sacred. To spend time to assemble things that are interesting is a kind of prayer. A way to give thanks for the things collected, and the things not collected. Every altar you make is part of you, and you are a part of the altar. It is an interaction with the universe in a very real way. You cannot take an altar with you once you assemble it, because then it becomes something else. It becomes a souvenir. You don't own it. It belongs to the place. 

Altars are dynamic, though. We have them all over the house. Little collections of treasure from here or there. Sometimes I carry something from one to another. When we go to Navarre, my mother-in-law has a large altar on the deck. We find things along the shore and put them there. Sometimes we take things away. Sometimes we bring things home, and sometimes we bring things from home. It is a way to remember the places we go as special places. 

There is, as you might expect, an altar on the deck of the beach house in Navarre.  I don't have a very good picture of it, but I caught it in the background when I took Virginia's picture below.  (My daughter, not my mother-in-law.)  


As you can see, it's driftwood and shells and some glass floats.  It's on the lower deck that directly faces the Gulf of Mexico.  A concrete pelican named Alberto holds mass.  

I will interject Virginia's comment on Alberto:

"His name is Alberto after the first hurricane we experienced on Navarre in 1994 I think, In the old Seahawk unit. It wasn't much more than a tropical storm so we stayed there and practiced boarding up the windows! That was when the "Dry fingernails dry" song was born, inspired by a desperate attempt to entertain two granddaughters by painting fingernails and toenails with several different shades of polish! As I recall we finally gave it up and went outside to play on the beach in the rain! The girls pretended to be seagulls and flew like they were really going to take off! That was before they became sophisticated young ladies! I like to think they will remember what a great time we had!"

Now what's miraculous in all this is that when the Kent's buttoned up the beach house for Ivan, Virginia left the altar out on the deck "to protect the house" while Alberto was put inside lest he be tempted to fly away on the wind.   When I heard that, and saw the track of Ivan, I knew that it would all be blown away, or at least scattered around the deck and shattered if the house still stood at all.  You've seen the pictures of the damage from the wind and the water and you probably expect the same thing - but when she got there today, the altar was still there.  Not a piece out of place.  Here it is on September 22.   (Photo Credits - Jeff Kent)

Even though the stairway and railing have been torn away and washed away, the altar is undisturbed.

Just as it always was, except that the pelican had been given refuge in the house.  

Now what do you suppose my mother-in-law is up to?  

Collecting treasure.  What else?

I intend to spend a lot more time at the altar...

Of course, the universe isn't always content to simply give us little blessings and glimpses of things that make us say 'Coooool.....', the universe also plays at synchronicity.   I got this little story after posting this here, and Patsy gave me permission to put it up.  Here's here email to me.


From: Patsy Lato

Shane, What a moving website! Thanks so much for your dedication. I posted a reply to you on the Navarre bboard about meeting your family. This is my story (somewhat long winded!) about that experience, and the amazing similarities to the story you posted here.

On Wednesday September 22nd, I was sitting exhausted on a picnic table that was nearly in the ocean, the tide rolling up under my feet, waiting on a ride back over the bridge when a pickup truck that looked ready to explode with people passed by. Miraculously, it stopped and a beautiful lady (wearing a charming straw hat) who was a passenger in the cab rolled down the window and asked if I needed a ride. Meanwhile, someone in the bed of the truck was taking my picture. Turns out, after reading your post on the bboard and visiting your website, these folks were your family! Not only was it a miracle that I had met the very people you mentioned here, but I had an incredibly similar experience to the altar you found still intact.

First, a little background. I had evacuated, and was eventually stranded, about 50 miles north of Pensacola to my mother's home in Brewton AL, which was also devastated. We had been without power for several days, existing on MREs and waiting nearly 2 hours in line for ice and water, and even longer for gas. Some of my relatives on Jay Road had power restored before anyone else, so I dashed out to watch some direly-missed TV coverage (thank God for satellite!). The first TV I saw was an incredibly heart wrenching fly-over of Pensacola Beach. My brother, who owns the property on Navarre that I manage for him, lives in England, and happened to be on the phone with me at the time I saw the Fox broadcast. All I could say was, "Oh my God! Oh my God!" while trying to describe to him halfway around the world what I was witnessing on the TV. I told him I would do everything in my power to get a copy of the broadcast so that he could see it when he returns home September 29th. The first day I was able to gas up and leave was the day I returned to Navarre on Wednesday September 22nd.

Back to the beach...I could have kissed the "angel" in that truck who invited me into the air conditioned cab! As I got into the truck, I asked the gentleman in the back if he would send me a copy of the photo he took. Of course he said yes, and on the ride back over the bridge I wrote down my email address for him. Turns out it was the wonderful woman's son.

When we got to the other side of the bridge and everyone was bailing out I handed him my contact info, and he mentioned the fact that he had flown over the island and taken an aerial video. I asked him if it was the same video that had aired on Fox at 11:30pm a few nights earlier. Of course it was, and I told him how moving it was to watch. I was honored that I had actually met the man responsible for such a tremendous undertaking.

The very next day I received an email from Jeff with the photo of me on the picnic table. 

(Photo Credit - Jeff Kent)

I replied in thanks, and mentioned that he must surely be a millionaire by now due to the video he had done so well. I inquired about how many millions I would have to send him to acquire a copy, and told him how grateful my brother would be to see it. Jeff sent a short but sweet reply stating that he would send us a copy on DVD. What a great spirit your family has!

Now for the amazing similarity to your wife's beautiful words about the altar and it's meaning, and the fact that it survived unscathed! While battening down the hatches at my brother's condo on Monday night, I moved as much furniture upstairs as I physically could and removed all the photos from the downstairs walls...all except for one "Seashore Angel" which I left hanging. When I next spoke with him, I assured him the place would be okay because the "Seashore Angel" was watching over it. Soon after the storm, still without power and only a car radio with which to receive any news, I received a call from him saying he had seen internet photos of the condo, and he feared the angel was most likely gone, probably laying somewhere in the bottom of the sound.

I made the trek across the bridge alone, and was afraid to enter our condo when I saw cross-beams broken underneath. But suddenly two "angels" appeared who happened to be engineers and had built many of the homes on Navarre. They discerned it was safe to enter the home, and hoisted me up to where I could enter the front door. I very cautiously entered the hallway, afraid of what I would see or what would rush out to greet me. My breath caught in my throat as I saw glass and seaweed imbedded in the carpet, but when I looked on the wall in the hallway, I began to cry. There, in the exact same spot I had left her, was our "Seashore Angel!" They were tears of joy. If you visit my webshots site , you'll see a picture of her still protecting our home. 

You'll also see that our unit survived much more intact that the others in the four-plex. The only destruction was to the downstairs bedroom. The bedroom door was shut, and appears to have kept the demons at bay. The rest of the unit in its entirety appears untouched, even downstairs, right outside the devastated bedroom door where the angel will forever hang (at least as long as the building stands...unfortunately the damage to the other units and foundation will most likely require that the building be leveled and rebuilt - the entire complex was obviously rocked very badly as our washer and drier are tilted toward the street!). Though some may attribute our unit's survival to being the only unit with hurricane shutters, I will always know what truly protected our home.

Angels are amongst us! I pray they continue to watch over you and your family. God speed! 

Patsy Lato, Pensacola, FL

(Fyi, the photo on the Webshots site of me on the picnic table is not the one Jeff took, his is much better. Another passer-by snapped it for me after taking one for himself.)


Thanks Patsy!







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