Senior project

During my final semester at Ithaca College, I am taking narrative journalism, a course in which, after studying the literary journalism greats, each student delves deeply into a subculture and wrote about it. I chose a local astrology group in Ithaca, NY. My story is below. Thanks for reading! 

What’s Your Sign?

Local astrology group brings new meaning to the age-old phenomenon

“So, Aaron: what’s the ascendant?” Meghan asks, pointing to a spot halfway down the left side of the circle on the whiteboard.

“Self,” Aaron says.

“Right. Self, so, selfhood. So this is why people choose this point—” she jabs at the spot again with her marker — “to start with. I could choose any point, really, because up here are all of the points. The circle contains everything,” Meghan says.

She scribbles more notes on the board propped up against the bookcase. It’s covered with maybe 20 tiny magnets, each with a symbol that may look vaguely familiar to the average person but wouldn’t mean much. The circle made of black electrical tape is the backdrop of the board. The thick black lines divide it into 12 exactly-equal subsections.

“So, it’s by convention that the ascendent is right on the left hand sign of the circle?” Carolyn asks. It’s her first week.

“Correct,” Meghan says. Carolyn adds this to her notes on the back of her birth chart.

“It’s also called your rising, your ascendant” Tim adds.

“Wherever there’s a point,” Meghan says, moving around some magnets, “there’s an opposing an equal point, right? So if this is self, and the ascendant, then what’s this?” She points to the right-hand side of the board, 180 degrees away from the other point. “For those who have come to class, but not Aaron.”

“The descendant?” Susan tries.

“Yes! And what does that mean?”

Meghan is met with silence.

To Meghan and Tim and Uriel, each little squiggly magnet and the exact spot Meghan moves it on the board is heavy with meaning. The fact that the blue Cancer symbol sits on my chart’s ascendant means so much for my past, present, and future, giving me something in common with everyone else with that placement. I don’t get it yet — few do — but all of us sit there eagerly for someone to answer, pencils poised for note-taking, hoping these little pictures will grow to mean something to us too.


 

The sign taped on the door — “After Hours Astrology” printed in bold on neon paper — tell me I’m in the right place. I follow the voices inside and walk up the stairs. I am greeted by a sock-footed man with a long gray ponytail and glasses at the tip of his nose. He reminds me of a hippie Ben Franklin. His name is Tim.

I tell him I am Alexa who emailed him and fiddle with the zipper on the inside of my boot. “You don’t have to take your shoes off. Emily and her friends will be here soon.” He says this to me, a thirty-something blonde woman with clad in Ithaca Roller Derby paraphernalia, and a man about her age wearing a thick sweater over a collared shirt. They are our other two astrologers, Tim tells me, Meghan and Uriel. I immediately feel more comfortable with Meghan here. She doesn’t seem warm, but she is a woman, allowing me, a girl in a room with mostly older men, to lower my alarm for stranger danger. Meghan’s presence is why I tell Tim the location, date, and time of my birth when he asks, information that seems highly personal but also harmless. He needs this info to print out my birth chart, which is a visual of where all the planets were in the sky the exact minute I was born, and I think that’s so cool I can’t hold back. IMG_6593

As Tim carefully types on his iPad, Emily bounds up the stairs with two other younger women. She, for one, pulls off her shoes unquestioningly when she sees Tim’s outside the room. Emily knows Tim, the Ben Franklin guy, from working together at On the Street Pita, a restaurant off of route 13, and has brought Staci, her roommate, and Susan, her friend who just heard about this class from Emily today. The room fills with a mixed scent of cigarettes — Susan’s, I’ll learn — and potpourri, but the potpourri may have been here already.

Tim says he was hoping he and Emily’s coworker Marcus would show too. Emily looks unsurprised by his lack of attendance, but tries not to show Tim that.

“He’s a Libra, Leo rising, Virgo moon,” Tim says with a nod to the other astrologers. They nod, understanding. I wonder how he knows the birth place, date, and time of the guy he works with at the pita place.

I make eye contact with Staci, the only other person who looks confused by what Tim said, and she shrugs. I watch her eyes as they travel to the tapestry on the wall. It stands out in an otherwise dreary room: it’s brown and black and white and truly looks as if it’s been made from the pelts of some hunted animal.

Tim takes everyone else’s birth information too, except Emily’s, which he already has from talking to her at work. While he’s printing the others, we all peek at hers.

“You have to be looking for shapes,” Uriel says. “The shapes and lines between the planets — that’s how astrology works. It’s all about the relationships.”


 

It’s 9:30 at night and, for the second week in a row, every student is late to astrology class.

“Emily and her friends — they operate on Indian time,” Tim says. He keeps talking about Emily’s chronic lateness until he feels the intensity of Meghan’s stare.

“Indian time,” she says, reclined on the couch, making hard direct eye contact. “You can’t say someone’s on Indian time. That was fucking racist and I don’t appreciate it.”

Tim takes it well. “It’s just something I used to say,” he says.

“Well, you can’t anymore.”

Uriel turns toward the board, fiddling with the magnets.


 

Today we are learning about nodes. There are two: north node and south node. They are represented by symbols shaped kind of like headphones, but one, is upside down of the other. North node is the one with the headband part of the headphones facing up.

Many astrologers will say north node is more meaningful. First of all, it’s called “true node,” which sounds way more important. But it’s also the one of the two with a symbol on our charts printed from astro.com. We have to find south node ourselves by tracing our fingers through the center of our papers to 180 degrees away.

North node is about karma, Uriel says, where you’ve been, and south node is about evolution, or where you’re going.

“There’s sort of a way to accord to how you want to look at karma and how you want to look at evolution,” she says.

IMG_2237We look down at our charts, struggling to place south node where it belongs, eager to find out what it means. I learn that my chart is weirdly similar to that of Margo, the girl directly across from me seated on the floor. She started coming during the second or third week of class. Margo is hard for me to read: she is warm and kind, but seems constantly anxious, on the verge of breaking. She’s wearing a sweater she told us she got in Japan at a place selling clothes printed with nonsensical English phrases. “I don’t think it means anything, though,” she says with a wave of her hand when Tim asks her if it means anything. She grabs two corners and pulls it away from her chest. The sweater is knit, black with white writing, and reads: WHOSE THING IS HIS HEART.

Margo and I both have lots of placements in earth signs. (Three signs each are governed by one of the four elements; Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn fall under earth.) My sun is in Taurus (I am a Taurus, you might say) and so is my south node, and Margo, a Virgo, finds a node in a fellow earth sign as well.

“It’s so wild!” she squeals. Tim and Meghan and Uriel move around the room to make sure that everyone’s found their nodes’ placements.

After helping Susan with her chart, Uriel moves some magnets to reflect her sun and nodes on the small whiteboard, and asks her what she sees in her nodes.

Susan recalls when she first found her nodes on a chart and went to one of those “fake astrology” websites — Tim rolls his eyes — to see what they meant. She read them to her housemate, and her brother. “My brother said, if I could sum you up in two paragraphs, that would be it,” she says, almost breathless.

“They are a very compelling picture of us,” Uriel agrees.

We discuss experiences, and how they can reveal our actions, and choices. But the right ones aren’t random; they’re governed by our north nodes.

“That north node place is kind of like an internal beacon,” Meghan says. The north node is “soul level” —  a term all three astrologers use to describe certain observations and connections — it reveals something central to who a person is at her core.

But at the same time, Uriel says, we can’t expect those observations to completely tell us what to do.

“Knowing that your soul can never reach its full level while you’re alive is kind of an important thing to know,” Uriel says, not realizing the gravity that has hit the rest of us as we look around the room. I watch Susan and Staci’s eyes drop down to the carpet. I feel my face twist into the grumpy contortion that I can’t hide when it strikes. Meghan sees and smirks.

But Emily looks like she’s been struck with a wave of calm. She’s our Aries rising, Taurus moon, Cancer sun, always willing to acknowledge these contradictions. She knows how to sit in her ambiguity in a way that maybe an earth sign like me — or maybe just a girl like me — hasn’t quite figured out. She will say more than once over these few weeks: “Sometimes, I feel like I go so far out, I come back in again.”

So much of astrology is about possibility. It’s both humbling and disappointing, though, when we see its limits.


 

Sue Schwartz is 40 years old, about 5 feet tall, and exactly nine months and two weeks pregnant. I used to volunteer weekly in her creative writing class at New Roots Charter School, but I haven’t seen her in almost two years. She looks substantially different.

Sue and various other faculty and staff from local schools are here for the free chart readings Tim and Uriel are hosting as a part of Ithaca Loves Teachers’s Winter Recess, a yearly event where local teachers can get passes for free events and discounted items during their mid-February week off from school. When I get to the room on Aurora Street on an unseasonably sunny Thursday afternoon, it’s packed, and people are getting grouchy waiting for their charts to be read. I’m overwhelmed by the knowledge that everyone is here because they want to learn more about themselves.

Sue is offered one of the few chairs in the room and tells me she’s mostly here because she already knows Tim and Uriel.

“I’ve known them for a while, so I trust them,” she says. Astrology isn’t new to her, but Tim’s passion for it has increased her interest.  

She stares straight ahead as she speaks, with her hands on her stomach. Sometimes I see them moving without her moving them, being kicked or punched by what’s inside. I cannot stop staring. But it’s not a problem, because with every move of her stomach, her eyes shoot straight down to her hands too.

“I’m really about to become a mom any day now. Maybe any minute, although I, like, really doubt that it’s going to happen right here,” she says. “That’s why I’m here. I’m a little anxious just because I’m about to have this major life transition, and I think anything negative, I don’t really want to know about it.”

“How far along are you?” asks a woman wearing a sari.

“Two weeks overdue,” Sue says. Tim looks up from the chart he’s reading and smiles. “You said he was gonna be a Pisces, so it’s your fault!” she says. Tim nods sagely.

She says she knew Tim was right, though — she expected a third water sign. There are 12 signs, and each is associated with one of the four elements of fire, earth, air, and water. The elements go in that order as one follows the wheel of the chart counterclockwise starting with Aries. Each element is associated with certain attributes. Water signs, Sue says, are most associated with being emotional.

“So my sweetie pie — my husband — well, you’ve met David — he’s a Cancer. Then I’m a Scorpio and this kid’s going to be a Pisces…” she sighs. “It’s like one emotional family.”


 

I learn about astrology around the same time I learn about dialectical behavioral therapy, or DBT. One major goal of DBT is for patients to be able to hold more than one truth in their minds at the same time. For example, a person can feel proud of themselves for choosing not to self-harm, but also feel sadness or grief for not using the behavior.

IMG_2227Astrology, it turns out, is just like this. Whenever one part of a person’s chart screams something about their personality, there’s another point in quiet contradiction. Even one spot can hold so much meaning. It’s in how each twelfth of the chart is called a house, and each reflects certain attributes; each house is governed by a sign, which has its own characteristics; and then there’s the special sign an individual has in that house. How can I expect for anything to make sense when the end of Cancer pokes into my first house, which is ruled by Aries and the planet Mars?

It’s because astrology, not unlike therapy, is all about interpretation. According to PsychCentral.com, two of the three DBT skills that could benefit “everyone” are at play here: taking a nonjudgmental stance, and accepting reality (assuming that astrology’s become a part of your reality.) Looking at my chart and being annoyed to see Cancer on the horizon and thinking, I’m totally not that emotional — that’s not going to help me. I can’t pick and choose which parts I want to identify with: I have to accept all of what’s there if I really want to move further into learning.

As Tim says more than once during our time together: “You have to hold the paradox in your head.”


 

It is during week four that someone makes someone else cry at astrology. We are finding our rising signs on our charts. They’re right on the “horizon,” a straight line horizontally of the perfect circle. When Aaron says he found his history of depression his chart, everyone looks up. We’re not prepared for a statement like that.

Meghan’s chart shows her she’s a homebody. My chart says that I’m focused more internally than externally. Uriel’s shows his passion for teaching in its many capacities. But does it show that someone’s brain might be telling them to kill themself?

Because where your placements are is based totally of your birth date and place and time. Some people have a smattering all over their chart; others have placements of significance showing up in only the fire signs! or only the water signs! This observation, like most of astrology class, is what you make of it.

Aaron’s sun is in Gemini — he is a Gemini, someone less schooled in astrology would say — but so is his rising sign, aka his ascendant. Having his sun, his rising, right on the horizon with his ascendant, shows that balance between internal and external life, darkness and lightness both metaphorically and literally.

Meghan looks the most wary. Uriel facilitates Aaron talking through what Aaron himself believes is a grand epiphany.

Staci keeps raising her hand, but, consumed by listening to Aaron, the three teachers don’t notice. She mutters to Emily: “This can’t be why I’m like this. I’ve been like this since I was three years old. I’ve had panic attacks since I was three years old.”

She trails off as silent tears begin to stream down her face. Emily reaches across the small folding table between them and squeezes Staci’s hands in quick pulses.

I want to squeeze her hand too, to run across the room and whisper, “That’s not why we’re like this.”

Whether Aaron sees Staci’s distress or not, he doesn’t feel the building tension in the room, and keeps talking. I pull my knees closer to my chest. Margo’s focus on the carpet is of incomparable intensity.

It’s up to Uriel and Meghan and Tim now. We all look to them as they look to each other. Tim is patently silent, tapping his pencil on his other hand. Meghan is calculating, brow furrowed. Uriel is grasping at what he has in the stars to placate everyone while remaining as honest as possible.

“You can’t always peel apart cause and effect in astrology,” he says.


 

Tim walks over at the end of the first class I’ve been to at Meghan’s apartment. I haven’t been there in a few weeks, not since spring break, not since the time and location moved. After the six-week drop-in intro course, the astrologers decided to pursue a deeper course for students who had become more serious about the material. Tim had reached out that they missed me there, and I realized how much I missed them, too. It is a much farther walk, but Meghan has cats, which is a more than worthwhile trade.

Tim sits in a chair next to where I’m cross-legged on the floor. He rifles through the binder where he keeps all of our printed birth charts and pulls mine out. “I was wondering,” he says slowly, “have any of us ever read your chart?

I shake my head. “I don’t think so.”

“Well,” he says, “I wanted to let you know if you feel like things have been hard recently, life, it’s not always going to be this hard. It’s not always going to be like it’s been this past few years.”IMG_2233

Any attempt of the poker face I was attempting disappears with that last sentence. “Past few years?!” I squeak.

“Well, yeah, of course.” He points to the tiny P in green on the outside rim of my chart, at the bottom right of the circle. “Pluto moves slowly.”

Tim explains I’ve had two transits in my chart over the past few years – Pluto has transited over the moon, which he says is more significant for me than it might be for certain other people, and Chiron (something we’re not covering for another number of weeks) has transited over Saturn.

According to AstroLibrary.com, “Transits are, in effect, aspects between a planet’s current position up above and its position in your birth chart.” Aspects are the relationship between the locations of two planets, measured in degrees. AstroLibrary continues: “As the planets continue moving, every once in awhile, they come into aspect with the planetary positions on your birth chart.” Certain aspects are expected based on your age, based on how long it’s been since your own birth, but others are more idiosyncratic.

Tim says both of these transits can happen at various points in a person’s life. “So for you, they both happened kind of early.”

When we’d been discussing the attributes of the houses today, I was struck by how Meghan explained the 8th house, which is ruled by Scorpio, a water sign. It is the house associated with intimacy (sometimes sex), rebirth (more accurately, death), and most importantly for me, transformation.

Well, if it has been years… I let myself take a step back, and for the first time in all of these Thursdays, explore my own mind. I compare the board, covered in Meghan’s scrawl of notes, with my crayon drawing of the most basic astrological aspects. I ask if there’s any connection from all this to the 8th house.

Tim looks at the binder, at my crayon drawing, at me. “Well,” he sighs, “that’s where you’d be doing the work.”

Which just gives me a sliver of hope, despite my occasional skepticism, that these things pass.


 

The three Thursday-night astrologers have a weekly radio broadcast on WRFI each Sunday evening. Usually their friend Margaret comes too — “We need her to balance us out, or we can get too bogged down,” Uriel says — but she’s out of town.

In the chilly cramped radio studio, the three of them make quite a group: Tim with his long gray ponytail extending from a tight pink knit hat, Meghan’s trademark koru-type earrings and perpetually crossed arms, and Uriel’s name being, well, Uriel. They don’t look at all like they’d all be hanging out together, and I definitely don’t look like I’d be hanging out with them. Their one similarity is just how much they love astrology.

Tim is saying how “we all have jerks inside of us,” how astrology helps us confront them. Meghan agrees, but is more concerned about what we do once we’ve admitted those flaws are alive in us.

Uriel smiles. “But I like people who know that they have jerks inside of them. That’s why you’re two of my best friends in the whole world.”