Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Sunday Afternoon Philosopher's Club

Elizabeth Spring aka Isabelle CoCroft in "Private Papers of A Reluctant Astrologer"
 The Sunday Afternoon Philosopher’s Club

I returned home, alone, the next day. It was sad—no, it was more than sad—it felt ominous leaving Peter at that moment. I finally felt my heart opening towards him again, and now life would whirl us around in other directions, and somehow…it didn’t feel good or right.

Peter however reminded me that there was no rush about anything. “We’ve healed something between us, haven’t we? So why do you always get so emotional about everything?” He asked.

It’s true. I am impatient, particularly in manners of the heart. But still… it didn’t feel as if he was telling me everything. As he kissed me good-by it was so tender, but so civil, so proper, so restrained…so loving, but without a hint of my passionate need. It had been years since we had truly come together sexually, and maybe if we had done that—! Maybe if we had had an afternoon of luscious love-making it would have been different. But time wasn’t on our side.

I wanted a new beginning with Peter—damn it! I couldn’t understand why he had to stay at this conference so much longer. He said it would be there at least two months more, probably three, since he had volunteered to do work for them there— he reminded me that he was getting free rent and board in exchange for working through to the end of their season. But what about us? Our new feelings and relationship felt so fragile. He was honoring his commitments, but his objectivity suggested he wasn’t feeling any wrenching-away. Was he involved with someone else? Or was he high on patience and low on money? I certainly couldn’t afford to stay longer.

And so I returned to Boston, alone, and was met by Sophie at the airport. No tears here, just hugs. She looked really happy, and I wondered if she was expecting some great news from me, about us. But there was going to be no news there.

Sophie had been living with a friend in Jamaica Plain, just outside the city, and she had “news” to tell me—she had been offered a “better position and a new beginning” working as a waitress in an Irish Pub in Providence, Rhode Island. It was near where her favorite church group met, and she had friends there.

“And look!” She pulled up her sleeve to where the scar on her arm from her accident had been, and there—was now a Celtic tattoo—a circled cross with vines around it. I managed a large smile and an approving nod of my head.

“But you’re moving?” I could feel a lump in my throat starting.

“I’ve already moved. Just wanted to wait till you came back to tell you. Didn’t want to spoil your time with Dad! How was it? When’s he coming back?” She beamed. “Do you have ‘news’—I mean, did you guys decide…?” She gave me a knowing look.

“…waiting. We’re waiting. It was a great time, but, you know Peter, he doesn’t like to rush into things.” Her smile dropped. I tried to pretend happiness.

And so it went. I shared our story of our time together, and Sophie brought me back to my front door, to Charles Street, to my “home.” Then she left. Alone again. No amount of hugs and kisses good-by was going to change anything.


At the last minute, before I rushed off to Lindisfarne, I had asked Thomas if he would care for my cat, Theo, as he was then the only person I knew in the city. And so as soon as I stepped back into my study I felt Theo’s absence. The warm room felt cold and empty. Dead.

And it was Sunday. A gray Sunday. I needed an infusion of happiness. And then I remembered—it was Sunday and almost time for the weekly meeting of the Sunday Afternoon Philosopher’s Club! I could go to Thomas’s bookshop finally!

I hurriedly changed clothes, took out my book bag, threw in a few things and rushed out the door. A heavy mist lay over the rain-soaked city. I turned the corner off Charles St, and started making my way to Chestnut St, but found myself getting out of breath. The uneven brick sidewalks were unforgiving. I tripped. Coming home was like an old black and white movie, or maybe a dream in which you remember the mood but no color.

And then I really tripped—face down onto the sidewalk. The contents of my bag trashed themselves onto the road. As I picked them up, I wondered why this was happening. It felt like the part of the movie when the heroine cries and the music gets poignantly loud. I wasn’t going to succumb to this, I would continue—where else was there for me to go?

I had never been in the bookshop when it was actually open. Instead I had walked by and looked in the window one night after hours and delighted in seeing what I can only describe as an old bookstore, with low ceilings, low lights, and a pleasant disheveledness.

I was actually out of breath by the time I rounded the few street corners, and arrived on the doorstep. I felt anxious… why was I nervous? I wanted to see Theo and Thomas. I wanted to belong somewhere, to some people, to some place. Perhaps I just needed something to come back to…and this was it.

Opening the door with an unsteady hand, I looked inside. I could smell pipe smoke and see the rough-hewn wooden beams across the old ceiling. Books were piled on the sales counter and overflowing in stacks on the floor. Thomas spotted me immediately. As I opened the door, I could see him running his hand through his wild white hair, giving his beard a little tug as if to wake himself up, and ambling over eagerly to greet me. He gave me a long hug. My thoughts shocked me: I love this man—! Is this the way one might feel towards a truly loving father? When I see him I get a rush—a feeling that he wants to protect me, and that he’s proud of me…. and he always has that twinkle in his eye when he sees me.

And there he was again, radiant as always, with his easy manner and quick smile. He seemed taller, and his soft blue shirt made the shock of his thick white hair stand out even more. Yes, I thought, he looks like a French Impressionist painter—if there was such a “look.” His casual clothes hid a strong robust body. When his arms encircled me, the warmth of his bear-like body infused me with goodness…like a shot of whiskey on a cold day. I loved the way it literally warmed me all over.

I think his friends had the sense that he loved each one of them in a special way. He seemed to like everyone…not in exactly the same way, but it was obvious that he genuinely loved people.

“Lovely to see you, my dear! Theo has missed you. I have too.” It had only been three weeks I’d been gone. It felt like three months. “Come over and sit, my dear! What a surprise!”

He quickly introduced me to what he called “the usual cast of characters”: Richard, a retired wine merchant (who looked more like a scruffy street person), Carlos, a young Italian waiter from Starbucks (who exuded testosterone), Meredith, an antique shop owner from the Hill (who was so thin she looked anorexic, but who exuded a sense of propriety), and Phillip, a sociology teacher from Boston University (who had the ambivalent look of both arrogance and vulnerability.)

They were sitting in a circle in the corner of the shop. Thomas, of course, didn’t describe them as I saw them. I was a newcomer to the group, and I wasn’t sure that they wanted another person who might take away part of their personal time with their charismatic leader. Meredith was the only one who actually frowned at me.

But Thomas kept exclaiming how surprised he was to see me, as I hadn’t told him exactly when I’d be back. Then Theo came over and curled around my feet. He had been allowed to wander around the shop freely, in my absence, and he looked more than content. He looked loved and fat. I picked him up and stroked him thoroughly. Thomas made motions for me to sit down, so I did.

Phillip, who spoke with a slight English accent, must have decided to be the one to instruct me: “Isabelle, the topic for discussion today, is—you’ll be happy to hear—from your favorite philosopher, Jung—the section in this book where he talks about how we must hold the tension of the opposites, till the third way appears—what he calls the reconciling third.” Thomas must have told the group a little about me beforehand since Phillip knew I liked Jung. I wondered if they knew I was an astrologer.

I stared out the window, musing how both Jung and astrology were once frowned upon in academic circles. I wondered if I would be accepted in this little group. Carl Jung, was now accepted in academia, but astrology still appears irrational to those of the academic philosophic persuasion, or to those who connect it with the allure of the gypsy underworld. It’s a somewhat private language that appears to give some people power. So those in political or economic power usually choose to either quietly pay for their astrologers, or publicly burn them at the stake.

Jung was one of the first to use astrology in his practice with clients and to explore its symbolism, so he restored a “professionality” to it—although he was highly discouraged in his exploration of the worlds of alchemy and astrology. But he did, and it cost him many close relationships as well as a lot of personal pain. Some say that his closest friend, Toni Wolff, distanced herself from him because she couldn’t stand his delving in these disreputable fields.

Meredith saw me spacing out and filled me in about last week: “Last Sunday we had a fabulous discussion about “fierce grace. Thomas reminded us of how we need to consider whatever happens to us, as a kind of grace. Good or bad.” I wondered what was Meredith’s redeeming grace? She didn’t look like she was in the bloom of grace or health.

So who were these people? Were they really a book discussion group, a philosophy discussion group, or a small gathering of groupies around their spiritual guru—?

Thomas sat down back down in his rocking chair and I couldn’t decide if he looked more like a contented cat or a father on Christmas Eve sharing his beloved books with his children. He was so obviously the hub of the wheel here, the center and guru of this little group. He had a generosity of time to give, and the ability to listen, as well as a propensity to giving away his books. If you were in the “club” and interested in a subject, you’d find a book in your hand by the end of the afternoon, and there’d be no charge.

“Great topics for me!” I bounced out of my musings, and came back into the present moment. “Grace, fierce or not, and patience: something I have very little of!” They laughed. I had no patience with my book writing, nor ‘grace’ in love right now. If only they knew how much I was truly trying to “hold the tension of the opposites” but my loneliness and my hope were pulling in different directions. Peter’s decision to stay away—for an unknown amount of time, and Sophie’s decision to move away altogether, certainly didn’t feel like grace. More like abandonment. Was there a reconciling third? Could be my writing? I needed to come home to myself, and writing could be that anchor. Could I ever—ever—get the book finished?

I took a little package out of my bag and handed it to Thomas. “For you, for caring for Theo—“

“Ah, not necessary, as Theo has been caring for us. He’s been charming the customers and making friends…” The crows-feet around Thomas’ eyes turned upward into little smiles as he opened the package slowly and deliberately. At first he didn’t understand what he was seeing.

I was proud of my gift. I had wandered around the old city of Zurich for hours that last day, in pursuit of the perfect gift for Thomas. Peter had returned to his Krishnamurti gathering in the mountains outside of Zurich, and I was yet again on my own. What I found was a small stone paperweight of the “forgotten stone” carved by Jung at Bollingen. It was square, about the size of a baseball, and carved on each side with Latin and Greek inscriptions as well as astrological symbols.

As Thomas unwrapped the paper, I tried to explain: “I don’t have a cross or a star as a symbol of my spirituality, or any talisman of this last journey-- but this stone mandala comes pretty close. It’s a copy of what’s called the ‘forgotten stone’—the stone that was left at Jung’s house by mistake, by men who were delivering supplies from a quarry nearby to his home. He carved and sculpted it into this. It’s huge actually…and I did see it when I was there….but long story short—he carved it in honor of his 75th birthday, and well….Thomas, I thought of you when I saw it, and thought you might like it.”

“It’s a perfect gift, considering our topic of conversation today!” I wondered if I heard a touch of sarcasm there. Meredith, the antique shop owner, probably noticed that it wasn’t even an antique reproduction, but—heaven forbid—a souvenir of sorts.

Thomas however, looked at it closely, caressing it with his fingers, as I continued explaining the curious cube: “You see on this side of it, it’s a mandala divided into four; the number of wholeness. In the center is a little monk holding a lantern—it’s called a ‘homunculus,’ which in ancient books, meant ‘the little man inside the brain’. And if you look closer, you’ll see that he has the astrological sign for Mercury on his robe.”

Thomas interrupted: “Hermes! This is Mercury, same as the messenger-god Hermes, who’s the one who mediates between the outer worlds and the inner worlds, and between the living and the dead. He’s a hermit-monk- trickster all in one. He bridges “the worlds” and brings people and ideas together—like you, Isabelle!” I thought Thomas was more like Mercury than me.

Phillip looked curious and shot a question to Thomas: “You once told me that Mercury was like a rogue teacher, navigating between worlds, crossing thresholds into invisible worlds. You said he was like me…though I don’t get it.”

Meredith looked slightly annoyed: “We all have Mercury, Phillip, not just you. Some astrologer told me something about where mine was…it was doing something. Oh, yes it was in Gemini, which she said was ruled by Mercury. Ruled! Can’t imagine liking to be ruled by anything?”

I piped in: “Gemini is very curious, and can bridge the gap between things opposites if they chose to do that. You are the communicator of the zodiac if you want to be. And, Gemini is known for having two sides, like two people, so I think it’s more open than most to making an effort to bridge the opposites….”

Meredith lifted her eyebrows with a hint of disdain, and shook her head disapprovingly. I wasn’t going to let her stop me. I took the stone and kept going: “On the top here is Saturn, and beneath him is Mars. These ‘yang’ signs represent the struggle to live on this earth—the resistance of Saturn and the assertiveness of Mars.”

Carlos looked up at Thomas: “I think I’ve got a lot of that Mars energy always being frustrated…” He chuckled. Carlos found a tiny piece of paper that came wrapped with the stone: “Look here—it says the Greek writing around the center says: ‘The man in the center, the homunculus, is the one traverses the dark places of the world, like a star flashing the deep, leading the way to the Gates of the Sun and the Land of Dreams.’ The dark places….”

“Hah—Carlos! Look, it’s not about going into dark places.” Thomas pointed to Carlo’s tight blue jeans. Sometimes it’s like zipping up your fly!” Carlos looked down and “zipped up.” Thomas was the only one who would dare point that out.

“I don’t get it.” Carlos grinned and looked at Thomas for an explanation.

“Astrology is a symbolic system—and confusing at first. But you could think of this Mercury as being a bit like that wee tab of a zipper there—when it goes up, it pulls together what has been separated, and when it goes down it pulls apart what has been joined. Sometimes he’s a teacher, sometimes a trickster.” I chuckled to myself, remembering that this little comparison of Mercury to a zipper was something I had learned from my teacher, a delightful Sophia-like woman, Alice Howell. She was one of those wise women who had inspired me over the years, and now I was impressed that Thomas remembered it. I love how even little nuances and stories continue to live on….

Carlos looked at the zipper on his pants. “Well, when what’s inside the zipper, goes up, well, I—certainly like to join together—especially if she’s pretty! So maybe I should call the little guy, Mercury?” Carlos laughed and looked up at Thomas for approval.

Instead, Richard the retired wine merchant, was quick to reply: “You’re goofy, Carlos! It reminds me of the synapses in the brain, and how certain ‘Mercurial’ chemicals connect to the receptors on each side.” I wondered if he was taking the mercurial “serotonin uptake inhibitor” for depression, as they affect our brain’s ability to zip and connect the chemicals in the brain.

“I don’t believe in astrology, and I think we’re getting off track here.” Meredith snapped.

“But Meredith,” Phillip added, “try thinking “out of the box” for a moment. Think how strange Mercury is—it’s liquid silver! So slippery, yet it’s in a thermometer that can read our temperature…” How interesting everyone interprets things according to what they know and feel, I thought.

“Well, my temperature is getting a little bit hot, Phillip!” She laughed at herself. “I didn’t come here today to talk astrology; but to talk philosophy and Jung. I find astrology to be “pop culture” and I don’t like it.”

Meredith wasn’t going to act from her open-minded “Gemini in Mercury” and I wondered at first if she had a lot of planets in fixed earth signs. Then I had a strong intuition that she was a Cancer—Cancers love antiques and touching into the traditions of the past. And they can be quite moody and cranky when they want to be—looney types even; their sign being ruled by the ever changing Moon. I could understand how she felt. I wouldn’t believe in astrology if I hadn’t studied it, and if it was all just simplified down to “sun sign astrology.” But it doesn’t. I know how complex the chart is with all its signs and houses and aspects, and how it reflects how paradoxical we all are.

Thomas looked tense. I could see him closing his eyes as if he were looking inside for an answer to comfort his children…his students.

“Meredith, could you look at it the way Jung did? He said, somewhere in this book, that we each are like grapes from a vineyard that was grown in a particular place and in a particular year and season in time. And astrology is like that—it uses the birth time and place—so you are like a wine-grape that comes from a section of France perhaps, in a particular year, and therefore you take on the characteristics of that time and place.”

“You mean I’m like a fine wine that gets better as it ages?” The eternal feminine hope, I thought.

“Yes, exactly.” Thomas had come to my defense! I loved it. It gave me confidence to go just a little further--

“Do you see on the right side here, there’s a little monk, the ‘homunculus’ and there’s the astrological signs for the Sun and Jupiter, and over here, is Venus and the Moon. These come together in the “the alchemical sacred marriage” that Jung writes about. You could think of Jupiter as grace, and Venus as love, and Mercury, as what connects them.”

I thought how Thomas was acting like Mercury by creating this group—by getting us together to connect what had been torn apart or separated within each of our psyches. He brought us all together.

If ever I was to connect with them, it would be now. So I took a deep breath and went on: “Together the planets in the four quadrants of the mandala here tell a story. Jung believed all “the opposites in our nature”, even of good and evil, were intimately related and inseparable. He felt God and man needed each other, in a sense, to be whole.” I was surprised I remembered that much off the top of my head.

Thomas touched my hand as if to “second” what I had said. I felt a little unnerved, because I didn’t understand this unspoken gesture. But he simply said: “Go on….”

“Well, that’s it really….” I could have told them more, about visiting Jung’s house, about the Kingfisher’s wing….but I felt as if I had talked enough, and didn’t want to be seen as the newcomer who “hogs all the air time”.

And as the afternoon moved on, it seemed as if everything became a blur. I must have jet lag, I thought, or overtiredness.

I was the last to leave. Thomas gently lifted Theo into the cat carrier, and led me to the door. As he handed Theo over to me, I wished I could have just held Theo in my arms like a baby, but instead something else happened. Thomas tilted his head and looked at me as if he wanted to ask me something.

“You going to be alright, now? You got kind of quiet there after awhile….” His eyes widened and I could feel his concern. I didn’t say anything. Then he leaned over, and with a slight pause, kissed me on the lips. It was a gentle kiss, but long and lingering.

I was shocked and thrilled and unnerved all at once. I felt chosen. Underneath a certain fear, I felt happy, really happy, as if I had finally come home to someone. Was it to Thomas? Or was it to myself because I spoke up?

“Be well, my dear. Be well.” I let my head fall on his chest, and he lightly stroked his hand across my hair. A wave of exhaustion or surrender came over me. Was this the hand of that underworld god, Pluto, urging me to surrender and let go? Or? His hand on my head felt like a blessing. Pluto or not, I didn’t care.

“And now….come by again….soon. Yes?” He didn’t move to close the door, and I didn’t move down the step. I didn’t want to go, and I didn’t want to stay. I wanted to curl up like Theo and sleep…and yet every inch of me was alive and vibrating. At that moment it felt as if Thomas needed me as much as I need him. But there was nothing to do, nowhere to go. It was all just as it was, and it was enough.

I walked the two blocks home in a fog, and set Theo down gently in the green rocker. He seemed to be happy enough. What was I feeling? Theo could be comfortable anywhere, unlike me. I made a cup of tea, and paced around the rooms as if there was some way I could absorb all the confusion of emotion. It felt as if the room had changed. I was here only a few hours ago—had anything changed? My one flowering plant had completely died of dehydration. That would have to wait till tomorrow. But the rooms felt permeated with something, and I couldn’t help but feel it was like a ghost or whiff of love. Something not tangible, yet real. Was Thomas my ‘Reconciling Third?’ I wanted it to come forth from my writing, my work, my family….not another man, not Thomas a mercurial man!

But who knew if “the gods” had another idea in mind for me. Perhaps Sophia—the feminine spirit of wisdom and maker of all kinds of ‘magic’ and synchronicities….perhaps she knew more than I did here. I’d be wise to surrender to her. Tomorrow I would spend the day writing. Maybe Sophia as muse or Sophie as daughter would come for a visit. Or maybe Peter could reach out across the miles and touch my heart in some way. I was open to all possibilities.   (c) elizabeth spring from book: "Private Papers of a Reluctant Astrologer" to be published this fall (archeon press/