Five years ago, I wrote a short piece about my experiences in NYC during 9-11 for my friend Lisa’s blog (SatsumaBug) to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the attacks. It is difficult to believe that fifteen years have elapsed between that fateful Tuesday and now. There was a time in my life I felt as though I would think about that day every single day for the rest of my life, or that I could never enter into a romantic relationship with anyone who was not also there because we would never be able to relate to one another on the deepest levels that “being there” changed me. But those things are not true. Everything has faded. I only remember what it smelled like to live below 14th Street in the aftermath when I actively think about it. And I have had amazing relationships with people who were worlds away from Manhattan that day. Rather than pen a new response revivifying what I lived through, I’ll share what I wrote for Lisa with you here. Continue reading The Night Before Sept. 11, 2001
On the day of its release, Werner Herzog’s latest film, Lo and Behold: Reveries of a Connected World, launched not just in theaters, but online as well. I felt it fitting to choose to stay at home alone and “rent” the movie right away. As the pixels on my laptop flickered with Herzog’s visions, I reveled in the juxtaposition of my solitude while consuming this film whose subtitle espouses connection.
Midway through the film, as if on command, a colleague from South Africa sent me a message. How apt. My solitude has been penetrated by a message from half a world away. I tell her to watch the movie because halfway through it is already stunning, and she brings up her own perception of the irony that we are communicating while this film is streaming into my life. She mentions something about telepathy at the very same moment the film begins to discuss the possibilities of telepathy and that soon we will be “tweeting thoughts”… “It is already happening,” I think to myself. I tell her about the synchronicity, and she replies, “weird.”
The bond, thick and thorned. Our youth intertwined, inextricable. I do not miss whoever he is now. I don’t know him anymore. I miss him as he was. I miss what he was for me when we met, that dark mirror.
His good friend Z brought it back to me, his sense of humor. They grew up together, and working with Z on a forthcoming publication for Revelore Press this past winter, I saw contours of it, of that thing, the thing that made me find myself again, that stopped me from continuing down a wrong path, a path that compromised the very spark that lights me up, that powerful “I-was-born-to-do-this” work. He saw that spark in me like no one else had. And against that vision, seeing where I had taken myself, how far I had gone off my path, I knew my entire life had to change. Right there and then.
The second annual Viridis Genii Symposium took place this past weekend. Herbalists, alchemists, magicians, all fellow walkers on the green path, descended once again upon the Still Meadow Retreat Center in Damascus, Oregon to share their knowledge of plant magics, folklores, and customs – related here all in the plural to acknowledge the multiplicity of (human and nonhuman) people, positions, and practices that compose these realms.
A few friends and I carpooled from Seattle, and when we arrived at the venue, I felt a new temporal frame emerge around me. “What have you done since last year? Since the last time I saw you?” These questions floated through my mind as we crossed the tree-lined field to register and find out where our sleeping quarters would be. This sense of framing became more acute as I learned I would be staying in the same room as last year, and even in the exact same bed. In a very real way, I was back home. And more than that, I was with my family of North American plant people. Having just come back from an intense month in South Africa, a month I didn’t want to leave behind me, seeing my friends at Viridis Genii again assuaged any homesickness I had for the rural magic of the Transkei.
As the Friday Sun climbed down the sky, Dan Riegler of Apothecary’s Garden held court, and reminded all participants of where we are as a community. Academics often say, it is the mark of a young scholar to answer questions, researching and creating new knowledge, but it is the mark of a seasoned professor to pose new questions, shaping the ways those very questions are answered and the knowledge their answers produce. Riegler’s decades of experience in plant magic and alchemy have shown him, and through him us, where we need to be looking, where we can grow, that we need to learn not just about the plant lore itself, but that we need to coordinate and situate it and ourselves in larger frameworks of sustainability. As he says in his keynote published in the Verdant Gnosis anthology for this year:
How deep, how vibrant, how intimate and close is our relationship with the intelligences we work with? How well do we understand them, their physical and energetic needs, as individuals, as a family, field, or forest?
He sent us off with a refreshed awareness of the importance of the weekend ahead of us, “we are not only stewards of the earth, the green, and the planet, we are stewards of our collective ancient wisdom and technology. Nothing is lost that cannot be gathered up again and applied with new insight and direction.” With the Sun firmly behind the horizon again, the stars accompanied deep conversations with friends.
Astrologer Freedom Cole, from Grass Valley, CA along with Wonder Bright and Kent Bye from Portland, and I all discussed the various natures of time, and the ways we all appreciate and study the quality of time and temporal cycles from various traditions, old and new. Freedom shared that it would be Saturn’s birthday in a matter of hours, based on where we are in the soli-lunar cycle. When I asked him how old Saturn was turning, he said, “Saturn always turns 75.”
Throughout the weekend, while I played around with Facebook Live video to share the energies of moments such as these, Kent performed audio interviews with presenters and other persons of interest for his Esoteric Voices podcast. Together, alongside participants taking photos, and Rubedo Press’s production of Verdant Gnosis, which contains articles by the presenters, we all worked to capture the spirit of what was happening around us. Putting the Viridis Genii Symposium in a digital bottle to spread it out to our larger networks, and bring them into the fold, even if only through #FOMO. The event, only in its second year, has room for a slew of new friends to join our conversation and community. We want you. Come.
The talks are all held in a “sanctuary” room, which really feels like a secular chapel. We must remove our shoes inside all buildings on site, and so we are physically opened, grounded, as we merge our minds with the thoughts of the presenters. Corinne Boyer opened with a very moving transmission about the folk uses of funerary plants, and I performed a mental catalogue of my own experiences with these plants, if I had any at all, and reviewing my own beloved dead and the mourning I’ve gone through.
For me, these talks are somewhat different than the usual participant at the conference because I also edit our anthology, so I see firsthand how the presenters refine and revise their work and alter it for actual delivery. The enhancements made throughout the editing process have led to consistently high quality in the lectures given during the weekend. Sarah, a new friend, remarked that it was surprising that all the talks were fascinating and well put together, which wasn’t her typical conference experience. It’s a pleasure for me to see how our work behind the scenes before the conference circulates and distills the knowledge a number of times before it is circulated and further distilled with the input of the larger community. Each year, it seems, is reaching out and into future years, increasing the quality of everything it comes into contact with.
Between talks, I like to mill about and check out the wares on offer by the vendors. I kicked myself last year for not getting some things from certain people. The products on offer here are usually not for sale in stores, or even online.
There’s a delight in the transaction made. I can meet the maker, speak about their process, the ingredients (learning more perhaps that I can put to use in my own workings), and then I leave with a heart connection and a product of superior quality. And I know the money being spent goes directly to the individual making their work. It is commerce driven from the heart. Next time I’ll save up more money so I can make sure to stock up on items that I can only obtain a few times a year. This year I got some resins brought back directly from Central Africa, some spagyric medicines, and some handcrafted talismanic oils. Gifting is also common, and gifts of a Devil’s Club stalk and a special oil were also shared with me.
Saturday evening Witch Bottle took to the stage, set up inside the same sanctuary where we listen to the talks, and I melted in the majesty of Bree’s saw playing. I thought at first it was her voice echoing into the darkness outside, but upon entering the incense-filled room, I saw her holding an antler affixed to a saw blade nestled between her knees, a bow in her other hand, caressing the metal into song. I didn’t think anything could top Soriah’s Tuvan throat singing from last year, but Witch Bottle hit the mark.
I cuddled with friends on the floor and competed with Katie to take a better picture of the band. Conversations extended until 3am, and I snuck, minx-like, back to my room so as not to disturb my three-and-a-half other roommates. Rousing a pregnant woman from much needed sleep was not on my late night agenda.
Early Sunday I read a message from Johannes, who was reviewing Verdant Gnosis 2. His review was live. I read it even before getting out of bed. Before caffeine. I am used to people reviewing works I’ve edited, but it is a whole other thing altogether when someone reviews your own writing. My heart rate increased, pre-coffee!, and it beat so fast, it almost leapt out of my chest. Hidden in the Rootdoctor’s review, in the section on my piece about astrological considerations for plant magic, he says,
this is the kind of article that, in 50 years, many people will scout global antiquarians to find and pay hefty sums to get.
Then my heart DID leap out of its cage. And I hadn’t even delivered my talk yet! Last month, while sitting in the depths of the transkei, meditating on my creative projects, I felt the call to expand this article into its own book. While writing I got the feeling that I didn’t have enough space to fully say what I want to say. Yet, feedback from others suggests I packed too much in, as Johannes himself says, “Halfway through the article I find myself aching, sweating and breathing heavily in effort to keep up with Zahrt.” The book will be more expansive, will give the reader time to follow along without breaking into a sweat, will provide more context, examples, and space to put the ideas into practice. Ultimately, I desire to see how my colleagues work with these ideas and what results they provide for facets of magical practice I alone have no access to. Together we can grow and learn. That was my joy in sharing my work in this venue. Empowering my plant family with my own corner of expertise so they can take what they find useful and apply it to make their work better, just as I can work with what they share with me to improve mine.
Sunday afternoon, I participated in Dan Riegler’s distillation workshop. All weekend long workshops were held in various side rooms throughout the Still Meadow venue, and this particular one took place at the same site as last year’s spagyric workshop with Robert Allen Bartlett. The students huddled underneath a tent, avoiding the harsh Sun as well as the myriad love bugs that had been fucking all over everyone’s wares and clothes and hair in the heat wave. Participants passed around their handcrafted Red Cedar oils and other hydrosols to keep the bugs and heat at bay, as Dan passed along the wisdom he’s gained as a distiller of essential oils.
Eric Zvonchenko brought amazing lab equipment, and most of us had little envious orgasms watching the still at work. It was made of copper, so clearly Venus was present for this orgy of resin, water, steam, love bug, handcraft, and knowledge transmission. We distilled Frankincense resin (a solar material) during the day and hour of the Sun. The oil flowed plentifully, becoming darker yellow as time wore on, and we all passed around the resulting oil/hydrosol mixture, intoxicating ourselves in the revelry of the bounty. Resins are loaded with essential oils, so for those of us used to extracting from plant matter with 1% yields, this was quite a boon. I can’t help but think our timing also had something to do with it. The specific form of Frankincense was called Frankincense neglecta, and Dan had brought it back from Africa himself. A true distillation of essential oil with this resin would take 6-8 hours, but we only had 3, so at the end of the workshop, Dan poured the resin/water mixture into the grass. As I watched the steam smolder from the sticky brown clod, he said “You can still use that as incense.” I made a mental note. Come back later and gather. If it’s meant for you, Jenn, it’ll still be there. But it had to cool down, and I had to get back to the room and prep for my own talk.
Presenting somewhere new always gets me nervous, so I was trying to find ways to center myself and get into the zone. As my talk began, rays of sunlight pierced the window and hit my face like a spotlight, reminding me of an important moment during my PhD research. Spontaneously, I chose to lead my presentation with a story:
In 1920, Hans Poelzig, a famous architect, did the set design for Paul Wegener’s film, Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam. Now, this was early in the history of cinema. All the special effects had to be created manually. The problem of getting specific rays of sunlight, as shown in Poelzig’s drawings, to register on film was great. The most powerful lights at the time, aptly called Jupiter lights, couldn’t achieve the task. After a period of experimentation, Carl Boese, who was responsible for organizing the special effects, realized that the Sun itself would be powerful enough.
This meant they needed to build the set oriented toward the ecliptic at a specific angle, and, as he relates in a document preserved in a film archive in Berlin, because of the movement of the Sun, they only had about a two hour window to film. When the rays streamed through the window, they threw fistfuls of mica (silica) into the air and rolled camera. This entire exercise is akin to when people wait for certain planetary hours and alignments for their work(ings) to have the right quality. And here was a palpable example literally shining on my face as I began.
So there I was, in the thick of it, presenting some hardcore astrological and hermetic lore to a room filled with some of my favorite people, Sun perfectly entering the ceiling window and lighting up my topic. The same cadence and comedy returned to my body that I used to get when I taught German at Berkeley. Astrology is a foreign language for most people. My skills at teaching German to beginners have translated to good use in my efforts to teach astrology to people unfamiliar with its nuts and bolts. I could see people in the room light up with insights. Our question session flowed around the room. Rich nuances on the topic unfolded and spread out before us. By the time we ended, I was nostalgic for the days on UC Berkeley’s campus, when I would walk out of the classroom into the campus greenery, filled with the energy of a class gone well – I used to light up like a neon sign for the rest of the day. (This is why I prefer to teach in the morning. It’s better than any other stimulant I know!).
Conversations that Sunday evening went well into the midnight hour. We sat, ensconced in the silent, darkening green of the Still Meadow forest with a canopy of stars above us. Again, the topic of the strong spirit of sharing emerged. Everyone I spoke with that evening seemed to be filled to the brim with new ideas and feelings of joy with what they’d learned. It was impressive to see the spirit of connection and openness flowing freely, but not entirely unexpected. Catamara and Marcus have held space for a genuine community to emerge, filled with authentic craftspeople dedicated to respectful work and sharing. I’m deeply grateful for their vision, their follow through, and their heart.
On Monday morning I went back to collect the liquid gold that Dan Riegler had poured out. It was still there, disguised as a heap of dirt. My thankful heart brimmed as I filled the 12oz coffee cup with this treasure. The clods of resin contained bits of grass, soil, and dew from a day and night on the grounds. The resin I brought home with me is no longer just Frankincense neglecta, it is now also Frankincense viridi.
I am already eager for next year, penning presentation proposals in my mind, and working out how to nurture my small contribution into a larger one. I hope you are inspired to join in what we’re building.
Feature photo: Dan Riegler distills Frankincense neglecta in a gorgeous copper still.
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
Image adapted from: Flickr/geckzilla+worldskillsteamuk w/ CC.
Quick and dirty post here. But worth noting:
When people say they use astrology as a diagnostic tool, not for prediction, they neglect to note that diagnostics is predictive. When a doctor looks at evidence, the diagnosis is an informed best guess at what’s going on. Some things are clear as day, but many illnesses exist that medicine still has no explanation for. They cannot diagnose (read: predict) what is wrong. Similarly, telling a stranger what their personality is like is an act of prediction. The chart tells the astrologer the likelihood of a person being like this and not like that, of liking this and not liking that. But if you truly do not know this person, you are predicting that the information in the chart applies to the person. You are predicting what their personality is like, using your astrologically informed best guess.
If you want to avoid prediction and astrology you have to use it forensically, not ‘diagnostically’.
Think about it.
As the planet Venus edges up to a conjunction with Pluto, and Adam Elenbaas waxes lyrical on the nature of love under this configuration, I’m reminded of a ritual I designed and performed three years ago . . . Even when you ‘consciously uncouple’ in the most amicable and tender way, divorce takes its toll.
In January of 2013 after living on my own for over a year after the end of my nearly four year marriage, I noticed that Venus was edging up to a conjunction with Pluto. I checked in with myself. What needed to happen now?
At this point, my ex-husband and I had exhausted our need to talk. We spent the final half year of our time together discussing the end of our relationship with the rawest of honesty. We coined these discussions ‘DeepCons’—deep conversations. These DeepCons and our ability to stay present and patient with one another through them confirmed the strength of our relationship. They almost made us question why we were divorcing, but we both knew it was time to part ways. We sat together, face to face, and shared all that we needed to share so that we would be able to begin our next lives without any residual drag from this relationship. One day, we found ourselves naturally speechless, having said all that needed to be said. We recognized that we had reached the end of the line, so we both got off the train we had built and parted ways into the night. It was one of the most sublime moments I have ever shared with anyone in relationship.
Despite our care with one another, and my exhilaration to be on my own again, something tugged still. I realized that I needed more closure—closure with myself, not with him. I decided to hold a private funeral for my marriage.
After a day of work, I ran home to get some symbolic items to bury. I wanted to time the funeral with the setting sun and the sinking conjunction of Venus and Pluto across the western horizon, the point of the sky that symbolizes marriage and the ‘other’. The sun sets early in Northern California in January, so that left me with only a few moments to scoop up some nickels, hex-nuts, and other small trinkets, before I hopped into my car and fetched a good friend I had asked to attend my funeral. Somehow I felt that it would make things more concrete for me to have someone else witness it.
We sped off to the Albany Bulb, a part of the Bay Area colonized by artists and the homeless, built on the wreckage of an old landfill. It was a spot I had visited during my first months in Berkeley, and where I had also interred all of my college ex-boyfriend’s gifts to me after our relationship ended. This space became the proper burial grounds for these old relationships. (Venus/Pluto, art made on a landfill!).
We climbed to a part of the land pregnant with meaning to me, an amphitheater of sorts laced with rusted steel rebar, cracked tile mosaics, destroyed plastic dolls, and other makeshift sculpture. She stood by as I burnt some sage to clear the immediate space around us. I said some lines about my deceased marriage, gave it a proper send off, and began digging a tiny pit at the edge of a large sculpture of an angel. My fingers spread the earth open, and I prepped the little items I had taken with me for burial.
Nickels for me held the power of the number five and the gravity of currency. Literal buried treasure. Not much, but enough to be significant as actual money. Hex-nuts are (still!) my personal good luck charms. There is a specific logic to me about how they come into my life, and I rarely, if ever, give them away. But here I was saying goodbye to these dear objects, feeling what it felt like to put my luck back into the ground in an act of witnessed finitude.
As my fingers pushed the three nickels and five hex-nuts into the dirt, I started to cry. I realized that what I needed to mourn wasn’t him; it was my investment in the relationship itself. I spent eight years devoted to someone who couldn’t give me what I needed. The immensity of my misplaced investment of resources (love, energy, time) hit me. Three nickels, five hex-nuts . . . one item per year. Eight years gone. Buried.
We climbed another part of the peninsula, past other remnants, trash heaps, overgrown detritus. Venus, under the Sun’s beams, was just as invisible as Pluto to our naked eyes. But we watched as the sun sank lower, and the color drained out of the sky.
Walking along the pathway back to the car, we spotted a Rubik’s cube painted onto a rock. Perfectly aligned.
I’m grateful to Adam for reminding me of this potent moment. Where are our love contracts? Are they being upheld honestly? Are our love agreements being honored (with partners and ourselves)? What are our terms, negotiations, positions? As Adam said, “love me little but by this love may some greater accomplishment be made.” Sometimes that means fully letting a loved one go, acknowledging the death of one form of relationship in order to enable a deeper love to flourish.
This past week, I had the pleasure of spending quiet hours with my friends Al and Mal in New York City. They exhibit the most exquisite kind of love I think I’ve ever seen two people express toward each other—a sureness, a trust, a gentleness. Being around them feels like a balm on my soul. Perhaps, I thought, some of their love would rub off on me? Through osmosis? I feel thoroughly lucky to have spent so much close time with them.
Over the course of our days together, we talked about love, often. What’s the secret? What are the rest of us missing? But their answers came less in words and more through action. Rather than expose my friends here, though, I mention their capacity for love as a backdrop to share something that Mal expressed to me this morning.
After spending nearly two weeks in the frozen New York City clime, feeling warmed by the furnaces of friendship and fidelity, I returned to my Cascadian home, which is still wet, lighter now, with the solstice behind us, and teeming with that held breath before spring gives way. I too had held breath, felt anticipation, and sudden sadness. A sadness I do not often reveal publicly. Yet there it is. Still here.
I asked Mal why it is we encounter certain obstacles on the pathway of new love. Among her responses, she revealed a hidden gem:
early love, like early spring, is colder and more uncomfortable than we want it to be”
Those words floored me. Of course. She’s so right. As a child, I grew up moving every single year. I had to learn how to make friends faster and more furiously than most children. And, as a likely consequence, I fall in love faster and more furiously than most I know. The jump to immediate intimacy becomes necessary in a world that can be pulled out from under you, nearly as regularly as the earth goes round the Sun.
I always interpreted this ability to connect quickly as a gift. How nice it is to be able to make friends everywhere and without hesitation. You have nothing to lose because your reality shifts constantly outside your control. (This is actually always true, but most people forget about it. Readers of Nietzsche tend to stay closer to the chaos). When faced with this kind of uncertainty, might as well show up fully, forging eternal summers in each moment. (Those were the days of pen pals, maybe a reason why I love postcards so much, carries on the connection just that bit longer).
But in German, gift (das Gift) means poison, and the flip side to instant openness is investing in people who are not actually suited to you, who claim to love you, but don’t, can’t, or who are otherwise, in the end, entirely unavailable. Eternal summers are an illusion. You cannot rush the seasons, no matter how much you may want to.
So Mal said it. Early love, early spring.
Just imagine, Werner Herzog, narrating to you: After a crisp sunny day, the wind still stings. As the ground stirs to life, newly germinated seeds drown in pools of rainwater. Earthworms, crushed underfoot, litter the wet sidewalks. New flowers unfurl and are silenced by frostbitten dawns before their prime. We think of it as the start of a new voluptuous season, but, really, its onset is fraught with terror. Winter persists in its attempts to annihilate the coming of new life. We pick desperately at our scabs, hoping to make the wounds heal, but really, we’re only smearing our new lovers in pus and wondering why they don’t like it.
Ok, Werner. Enough.
So now, in 2016, alone, on the frontier of an entirely new chapter, I wish to love in a new way. I wonder how to move through this uncharted space. Flashes of connection rise and fall, feeling alternately close and entirely foreign. Tiny raindrops fall like needles into my skin. My eyelids, plastered in transparent petals, are opening, ever so slowly this time, to a landscape I’ve never seen before. Terrific and terrifying…