What follows is a work of experimental writing. Adam Elenbaas and I, inspired through our astrological conversation, recently hatched an idea to compose a story about what our lives were like during August of 2014. I wrote “The Pressure Cooker” and he wrote “The Making of Our Vows”; they appear here together, intertwined, his words in bold. As we gear up for another summer of intensity, we hope you find something of value in our double memoir.
The Pressure Cooker & The Making of Our Vows
I needed to get The Ascendant fully typeset by Monday, August 25, if we were to get it to the printer in time for an autumn equinox launch. I needed to get the hell out of New York City. I love New York, don’t get me wrong, but the prior months had been a sheer living hell, and the few days before my final departure, just as Mars joined Saturn in Scorpio in 2014, were the crowning gems in the intensity.
By this point, I had been a nomad for a over a year. After a decade in California, I was leaseless, divorced, decorated with a PhD and living on as many tourist visas I could afford. The chain of countries led back to one of my great home cities, NYC. I found myself living in an illegal basement apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on my way to a move across the country, yet again.
My wedding was less than two months away. August 2014. Mars and Saturn were conjoining in the sign of the Scorpion, which happened to fall in my natal 7th house of marriage, and I was afraid and excited in equal measure. My soon to be wife had just left town for a week long spiritual retreat, leaving to study herbal medicine out in nature, and I was at home stewing in my anxiety about the future. Not only was planning our wedding stressful, but the reality of the vows themselves were weighing heavily on my mind.
Flashback: July 1, first day in the apartment. Cell phone buzzes “extreme weather alert: Flash Flood Warning for Williamsburg”… I can’t turn the thing off. I’d just spent all day moving my things into this little spot. Sawing off the tops of my bookshelves because the ceiling was too low. First unpacking my books, which boasted some rare volumes of early twentieth century German astrological texts. Priorities. Covered in sweat and sawdust, this text is the absolute last thing I want to see when the water starts rushing in through the bedroom window so forcefully I cannot close it. My worst nightmare is happening, and I can do nothing to stop it.
The water begins to spread, a centimeter thick, across the bedroom, into the kitchen, and, no, no, no… the other room where my books are. I’m scrambling, picking everything up off the floor and onto any surface I can find. Everything I brought to Brooklyn with me is in this wet chamber. When the water goes for the books…it actually stops, as though some protective force were keeping it an inch away from the bottom of the wooden shelves. I am finally able to close the window, the flow slowed to a trickle, the seeping stopped, and the landlord arrived with a shop vac. I was completely traumatized.
Go backward in time now: It’s the first week of August in 2010, four years earlier, and it’s another Mars/Saturn conjunction, this time in the sign of Libra. I’m in the process of breaking up with my then fiancé. We had been engaged for almost a year, but things began unraveling earlier that summer and it was becoming clear that we weren’t right for each other. As Mars and Saturn conjoin, I say it out loud for the first time.
It’s unbearably hot in our tiny West Village apartment in Manhattan. We have no air conditioning. The pressures of our jobs, money, and our unsolvable differences are so intense that I decide I have to get out of the apartment and go running. When I leave the apartment I run all the way to the Hudson river and then I follow the west side highway all the way down to the south end of Manhattan, where the ferries leave to take people to the statue of Liberty. It occurs to me when I reach Battery Park that I’m trapped. I momentarily think about hopping on one of the ferries heading out to Liberty Island, as though touching the stones of liberty island will work some kind of magic.
We are dependent on each other financially, co-dependent emotionally, and telling the truth about the situation couldn’t have been more difficult. As I stood there in the park I bent over and struggled to breathe because the air was so heavy and I was out of shape and out of breath. How had it come to this? How had I lost myself so entirely? How had either of us lost ourselves? Because to be clear, we were both feeling trapped. I thought again about taking the ferry out to Liberty Island. Couldn’t some kind of prayer or mantra or magical incantation help us out? Then I heard a small voice. That simple, straight forward, no bullshit, “this is how it’s got to be,” kind of voice. And it said, “you just have to speak the truth and move forward.” I sighed in frustration, lifted my head up, and started walking back to my apartment. I started lamenting the idea: but how will it happen, but when will I do it, but where will I go? Then I heard the voice again: “you need to run all the way home, do not stop, and you need to simply walk right up those stairs and into your apartment and simply speak the truth. If you walk home thinking about it too much, you won’t do it.”
I looked up at the sky, and then I looked back at the ferries sailing across the water toward liberty island, kids wearing liberty spiked head bands made out of green foam, parents looking exhausted while carrying armfuls of popcorn and hot dogs, and break dancers performing freely in the park nearby. Then I started running again, as hard as I could, all the way back to my apartment.
In between the flood and my impending departure, I’d taken two trips across the country and had a friend babysit my books so that, if the place were to flood again, the books would have a chance of surviving. (One of my mantras at the time: How can these books survive two world wars but not Brooklyn?). But by mid-August, everything was coming to a head. I had secured a safe and clean (and non-basement!) apartment in Seattle, and I had to finish up an ungodly amount of work before I left. So on top of planning my second cross-country move in less than a year, I had two weeks to:
—Completely design the layout and typeset a brand new publication: The Ascendant. The Journal for the Association for Young Astrologers
—Write a 3000 word paper on the cosmology of Hellenistic astrology, for a master’s degree program I’d been in for the past few years (yes, after my PhD… I’m a professional student too), after I’d already written two or three other major papers for them earlier in the summer.
—Work for my regular clients, who provide me with a Smörgåsbord of oddball tasks on the regular (I’m used to this quirk flow).
The paper was the first deadline I had to hit. I holed up in my favorite spot of Bobst library, the same spot I crawled in after 9/11 to do all my undergrad work. It was a power point for me. If I could manage to graduate from NYU in three years in that reading room of Bobst, I could go back there and tap into that space/time and get energy to burst through this last paper. It worked. For two days my mind became all of antiquity and I shoved it into a small, 1.5 spaced document.
Time for a break. Lunch with a friend in Brooklyn I will miss when I move. I feel guilty about not working, but, actually, we both do, and we dine anyway. It’s New York.
It took months after I first said the words, “I don’t think we should get married,” but we finally did break up. During that in-between period, in addition to suffering through the pressures of the break up, I started a rigorous daily workout routine. From the day I ran all the way home to tell the truth to my fiancé until the day we finally broke up and she moved out, I kept my focus by working my body as hard as I could. As a result, by the time we parted ways I was feeling better about myself and my body than ever before, and the temptation of another co-dependent style relationship felt like a distant memory. I was confident, liberated, happy, and single. And then, of course, I met my wife.
Once I handed in the paper on Hellenistic astrology, I was clear to work on The Ascendant. I prepped my regular clients and told them I’d be MIA for four days. I went to the local store and got ‘rations’ and then I set up camp. In the damp heat of a New York Summer, I labored in that dark basement for sixteen hours a day, four days straight, sending endless volleys of “what about this” and “do we have the final edits back from them yet?” back and forth between Austin Coppock and Nicholas Civitello, my co-editors. They slept; I barely did.
When a publication has been made once before, many of the design choices are set, so your task in type setting is one of copying the format, and making sure it conforms to the vision. When a publication is nascent, you have to do double duty. If you are aiming for permanent coherence, every design choice you make has permanent effects. Ideally, you do it well, and your design lasts for all time (see the journal Representations, for example. Every single issue coheres with the designer’s original vision). If you don’t, your first issues look sophomoric compared to the later ones. Which is alright, but not ideal. We were aiming for perfection. But it was also futile. Because of the nature of the organization, we realized that we did not want to force future editors to conform to our vision of the journal. So while I made a thousand and one design decisions on the daily, I also knew in the back of my mind that none of them actually mattered for the future. They only mattered for the now. The immediate futility only intensified the drive to make this issue exquisitely perfect in and of its own skin and bones.
When I first met Ashley it was only days after my ex had moved out. I did a birth chart reading for her over the telephone. She was a yoga instructor and herbalist from Maryland, and she was referred to me by another client. I liked the sound of her voice on the telephone, and afterwards we connected with each other through social media and I saw her picture. That’s when my heart skipped a beat. I was immediately attracted to her, but she was also exactly the kind of woman I never would have approached prior to getting in shape and prior to learning the lessons of my previous breakup. She was physically fit, confident, attractive, and incredibly independent. In fact I learned by reading her birth chart that she had three planets congregated in the sign of Aries, at the MC of her birth chart. Plus she was a Sun/Moon in Taurus. Confident, beautiful, spiritual, attractive, stable, accomplished, and most importantly, again, she was incredibly independent. It was the first time in my life I approached a woman feeling seriously terrified but wildly courageous all at once, an equal blend of fear and excitement.
Phone call: I find out my credit card number had been stolen. They trace it back to that Brooklyn restaurant. Damn it! So on the tip of needing to drive as a solo female across the country, I am dependent upon a single card and my debit card. Whatever. I have to get this done. It’ll be fine.
Emails flew between authors, editors, other designers I knew who could provide external feedback. We talked about proofing errors, alignment concerns, font sizes, which images to use where, on and on and on… I began to breathe and live the issue, or, rather it became me, as I sat there, the annoying black flies circling the strange drain at the stairs of my basement apartment door, teasing me with mocking, glinting rainbows shooting off their wings, reminding me that we’re all going to die anyway, and making this journal is just one measly attempt at achieving a semblance of immortality. I hadn’t gone outside for days.
Within weeks we had started exchanging emails semi-regularly and were also talking casually on Skype late at night, though we lived more than five hours apart. She had also just gotten out of a relationship, and although she said she liked me she wasn’t ready to commit to something again. She wasn’t going to dive into another serious relationship until she had taken more time for herself. I criticized her and told her she was being too proud and too principled about her independence when it was clear that we were both crazy about each other. Nonetheless, she rejected me and we went our separate ways. She went on a solo spiritual quest to Peru, and I went on a dating frenzy in Manhattan.
Several weeks later she emailed me. While she was in Peru she read a book that I had written about my own spiritual experiences in Peru. She emailed me and invited me to guest teach astrology and give a reading from my book at a yoga retreat she was leading in the Spring of 2011. She said she learned a lot about herself in Peru, and she said she was glad we were still friends. I agreed, though I was still feeling bitter about getting rejected by her romantically. Truth be told, I was also bitter that she had acted more maturely than I had. Of course it didn’t make sense for either of us to dive into another serious relationship right away.
When I finally met her in person at the yoga retreat, the attraction hadn’t gone anywhere. Mars and Saturn were in an opposition to one another, and I could tell that she liked me even though she was trying her hardest to remain focused on her leadership duties. I teased her any chance I could, trying to put chinks in the armor of her withholdings, but she was completely iron clad and impenetrable. Finally, as we were packing up to leave, she found me in the privacy of my cabin and said, “So, I think we should hang out sometime.” I could tell she wasn’t sure if she was betraying herself, or her principles, or her freedom. I could tell she wasn’t sure she was doing the right thing, and for some reason it annoyed me, and so I said, “I think I need to stay focused on myself for the moment. But thank you.”
In my head on the bus ride home I thought, “That’s right. You don’t need people who think you’re second best.” Then over the loud speaker on the bus, the driver suddenly announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US forces in Pakistan. A wave of cheering and clapping swept across the bus, and a jocular man about twice my size stood up in the aisle and pumped his fists and cried out “YEAHHH BABY YEAH!” He looked right at me, and so I stood up and we chest bumped. He started chanting, “USA, USA!”
I sat down and within ten minutes I felt deeply ashamed of myself. “Why didn’t you just say yes? You fucking idiot. You should be happy that she’s so independent. You’re acting like an idiot.”
And even though I told myself the truth, sitting there on the bus listening to people chant USA, USA, it would still take time for the truth to take hold of the situation. It literally took me several weeks to finally call her and apologize and then ask her out. She obliged and said she was actually coming to New York that very weekend. She said it would be nice to meet up for lunch or dinner.
There comes a time in the creation of a publication where its soul incarnates, and it starts to tell you what to do. You feel it contract into shape, and you move from moulding the clay to applying the glaze. Final printing choices, our paper, our color…we’re so close. I get a text from a dear friend who I will miss, somehow in the middle of all the type-setting my worldly possessions are packed. She wants me to meet her at an art gallery in the Lower East Side. That famous sense of guilt passes through me (but I’ll be on the hook for x, y, z if I go…) But I also think about it in terms of, when I’m living in Seattle, will I be sad that I didn’t say yes? Yes I will.
So for the first time in four days, I get dressed (yes, that’s right), and I leave, passing through the whirl of flies as I ascend back to the surface of the city. I can barely walk right. The light of the summer day shocks me a bit. I hail a cab. The clouds in the sky stun me as we crawl across the packed Williamsburg bridge traffic. I felt as though I was seeing the sky for the first time. Massive bruise colored clouds shrouded the Upper East Side, periwinkle clouds dotted the skyline around Wall Street. The lattice work of steel girders in contrast. The sky was so immense, I felt as Caspar David Friedrich, transported out of that cab and into that forlorn landscape before the ocean, looking on, obliterated. Traffic is so bad I hop out at the base of the bridge and wind my way to the LES gallery. I feel feral. Perfectly New York.
We’re finally sitting down for dinner, and the first thing she says is “I’m glad we’re finally sitting down as friends” She emphasizes the word “friends.” I’m shocked to hear her say this because I’m thinking we’re on a date. “Wait a minute,” I say. “I mean. I should have said yes when you asked me out at the end of the retreat. I was just being stubborn.” “Oh,” she says. “I thought you were pretty clear about your feelings.” The look on her face says, “You lost your chance a-hole.”
“I’m here to see someone else, anyway,” she adds, casually. “I assumed we were meeting up as friends.” I can tell by the look on her face that she’s pleased to be putting me in my place. “Right,” I say. “Excuse me for a minute. I need to use the bathroom.”
I’m standing in the bathroom, looking into the mirror. “Unfucking real. How many times are we going to go back and forth like this?”
The answer was once more. Later that summer she broke up with the guy she was seeing. I knew it hadn’t worked out because I got a text message from her that said, “Thinking of you.” The text included a picture of her sticking her tongue out at me. And even though my heart skipped a beat and I was nothing but smiles seeing the picture, it took all my strength, far more strength than the kind of strength I had built lifting weights for more than a year, to resist the urge to say, “Sorry. I’m not going to be your second best.” But instead I told the truth. I replied, “Will you marry me?” She responded, “Haha. I knew you would say something like that.”
When we kissed for the first time we were sitting in the backseat of a taxi, driving up the west side highway, the same one I had sprinted up and down before saying, “I don’t think we should get married” to my ex. After we kissed, I said, “Well that took us long enough.” And she said, “Good things take a long time to get right.”
Monday August, 25. New Moon in Virgo. I click send. The files are with Austin now. He’s getting them to the printer. Relief. Release. I close my laptop, turn around, and put it in my back pack. Bring the shelves to Jessie, she can use them in her studio, put the boxes in my car, the bins of clothing, my kitchen and bathroom sundries. I’ll have to use my side mirrors on my drive. Final slivers of belongings threaded through. A mere thirty minutes after sending the files and I leave that little basement forever. Driving out of Brooklyn, out of New York State, out of the year and a half of not having a lease to my name. What lies before me: a three thousand mile drive, by myself, across our vast nation. All of the trouble that led up to this moment gave way. The path cleared, and I left a monumental journal issue, a controversial cosmological paper, and a ton of other little unnamable stresses that one deals with as a freelance editor…
In August of 2014, while my soon to be wife was away on her retreat and I was home alone, during another Mars/Saturn conjunction, I contemplated the nature of my upcoming wedding vows, and it was at this time that I realized (through studying past transits) that many of the significant stages of our relationship had come during Saturn/Mars periods. Not surprisingly, Saturn is the ruler of my wife’s 7th house and Mars is the ruler of my 7th house (for those who don’t know, the 7th house is the house of marriage).
When she returned, we planned out our vows and the details of the ceremony, and during that process I shared with her the symbolism of what I had discovered about our love story and all the previous Mars/Saturn transits. Each one had represented a challenge between us but a simultaneous deepening of our honesty, love, and commitment to one another. She asked me, “Does that mean we’re just selfish and stubborn and competitive people?” And I said, “Maybe. But think it also means that when two people take themselves seriously, and take each other seriously, and take their work seriously, really deep and lasting things can be made.”
The first issue of The Ascendant was forged under the pressures of Mars/Saturn, and despite our best efforts, my co-editors and I realize that it may well be that this journal only appears every time those planets conjoin. Expect the next issue to appear this fall.
As Mars and Saturn are coming together again this year, and my wife and I have just become the parents of a beautiful little girl, my prayer is that our vows to each other will continue to deepen.
Feature photo: ‘Ovum Saturnas’ by Tobi Nußbaum, from The Ascendant Vol. 1