Altared Consciousness: Sweeping the Path by Rebecca Zendejas

“Be grateful to the mud, water, air and the light.” ~Amit Ray, ‘Nonviolence: The Transforming Power’

“Be grateful to the mud, water, air and the light.” 
~Amit Ray, ‘Nonviolence: The Transforming Power

Photo credit: Ellen Wirth-Foster

For the last few weeks, mud has been in my thoughts and frequently on my path.  A slight inconvenience to my daily routine, it’s a gentle reminder of how quickly a familiar route can change; a community impacted by particles of earth surrendering to the flow of water and gravity.

Photo credit: Rebecca Zendejas

Thoughts of mud become thoughts of dried mud, as I remember removing layers of it from centuries-old oak trees in the Ennisbrook Preserve with the Bucket Brigade, after the Montecito Mudslide.  We wore hazmat suits, N95 masks, gloves and safety goggles to protect ourselves from potentially dangerous dust.  As a woodworker and gardener, I had an intimate relationship with dust. I knew its potential to irritate and infect.  Even so, that year my regard for tiny particles increased exponentially. In the months and years to follow, I adapted my methods for removing them from my home and workspace with greater purpose and respect.  Of course, my relationship with dust is not unique.  For countless generations, dust has been associated with nuisance, misfortune, illness and death; approached with intent to mitigate its damage… often with a broom.

“A woman with a broom in her hands stood at the intersection of chaos and order…”
~Louise Burkhart, from Indian Women of Early Mexico 

The importance of the broom and sweeping in Aztec culture recently came to my attention.  The information reminded me of my family members in Mexico who take great pride in sweeping their homes and the entrances to them each day.  Whether my Tía was visiting my home in Santa Barbara or I was visiting hers in Mexico City, without fail she was awake before anyone else and greeted us each morning with a smile on her face and a broom in her hands.  She would tease me, saying that I needed to sweep for my breakfast; although she had already done most of it by the time she handed me the broom.  It never occurred to me that she was handing me a connection to a daily practice hundreds, possibly thousands, of years old.  

“In honor of the gods that they had at home, [the Aztecs] took great care in sweeping their houses, yards, and entrances every day in the morning…”  
~‘The Ceremonies’, Book Two of The Florentine Codex 

The earth goddess Tlazolteotl, holding brooms made of scented herbs, is one of two deities associated with the month of Ochpaniztli, the festival of “Sweeping the Roads'' in the Aztec calendar.  Public venues and streets were swept clean in preparation for an intense community ritual to usher in a new season and maintain cosmic order; with all of the drama, complexity and violence commonly associated with Aztec culture.  Woe to the Dust Bunny that found itself on the street during that month.  

Although she had many roles, as the ‘Eater of Filth’, Tlazolteotl was responsible for the transmutation of waste: physical, emotional and spiritual.  Her presence was felt at the communal compost piles where the refuse from homes, public spaces and streets would be sent to become fertilizer.  The Nahua word for rubbish, ‘tlazolli’ can refer to anything out of balance. In a ritual referred to as ‘Straightening the Heart’, individuals had a once in a lifetime opportunity to confess their personal ‘filth’ and Tlazolteotl would ‘sweep out’ their embarrassment and shame; restoring their moral equilibrium.

With Tlazolteotl in mind, I reconsider my relationship to rubbish, dust and mud.  It’s a relief that I won’t end up on a sacrificial slab to restore cosmic order.  But I am aware of the sacrifice MarBorg employees make when they take away my trash in the pouring rain or a hot summer day.  Each week a street sweeper slowly passes over the gutters of our neighborhoods.  By the end of the year, approximately 1,850 tons of debris will be picked up; most of it dust.  The mud in my path was removed by a bulldozer operator.  But what would Tlazolteotl think about leaf blowers? 

In regards to my personal ‘filth’, I’ll be tending to that on the Spring Equinox. The day will begin as it usually does: with the sunrise, a cup of tea and my Morning Pages; followed by verses, prayers and silent meditation.  After a light breakfast and choosing a Pandora station, everything will be removed from the altar.  Incorporating the ‘Release Ritual' from Day Schildkret’s book Hello, Goodbye: 75 Rituals for Times of Loss, Celebration, and Change, I will ‘find’ the four pieces of paper I ‘hid’ the night before.  I will read aloud the four aspects of myself that need renewal this year; then burn them in a black clay brazier.  The Meditation Corner will be ‘cleansed’ from ceiling to floor.  Surfaces will be wiped down with water infused with essential oils.  I will think of my Tía as I sweep the dust bunnies from corners.   Before restaging the items on the altar, a small amount of dust from the dustpan will be added to the ashes in the brazier; mixed later with soil that will be used to re-pot a plant.  

At the end of the day, I will be grateful for the mud, water, air, light and the dust on the path.

Meet the Author 

Rebecca Zendejas has had a lifelong fascination with places of worship and the creation of sacred space within daily routines. Inspired by the celebrations of Samhain and Dias de los Muertos, in October of 2020 she created a Community Memorial Altar at Paradise Found.  The public was invited to add the names of departed loved ones to the altar. In the years that have followed, it has become a beloved autumn ritual.  As an artist and woodworker, Rebecca designs and creates one of a kind altars for the home, office and community spaces.  She can be found on Instagram @zendohous or contacted by email:

*online sources: Aztec Art in NYC, Curanderismo, Dumbarton Oaks, Mexicolore, Wikipedia

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