Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Excerpt from "Saturn Returns~The Private Papers of A Reluctant Astrologer"

And it was Sunday. A gray Sunday. But then I remembered—yes!—it was Sunday and it was the time of Thomas’ Sunday Afternoon Philosopher’s Club! I could go to the meeting and bring my beloved Theo home as well.

I hurriedly changed my clothes, threw a tiny box into a bag, 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 on the curb. And then I really tripped—face down over an upturned brick and fell onto the sidewalk. Damn!

Everything in my bag threw out onto the road. As I picked them up I kept thinking this is the part of the movie when the heroine cries and the music gets poignantly loud—or maybe like an old black and white movie. But there was no real drama here, just a trip-up. Get over it, I thought.

I had never been in Thomas’ 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 the quintessential old bookstore, with low ceilings and a pleasant disheveledness. It was the kind of shop that is almost extinct, but it was, and here I was… I was actually out of breath by the time I 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 needed something or someone to come home to…and this was it.

Opening the latched door with an unsteady hand, I peered inside. I could smell pipe smoke and see the rough-hewn wooden beams across the old ceiling. Books were piled on the sales counter as before and overflowing in stacks on the floor. Thomas spotted me immediately. As I pushed opened the heavy door, the door chimes announced my arrival.

I could see Thomas 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 deep blue shirt made 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—it literally warmed me all over.

And there, sitting in a circle were his friends, the Sunday philosophers. For some reason I couldn’t help but think that each one of them sensed that he loved them in a special way…not in exactly the same way, but in a way that was uniquely special to each one of them. Perhaps I too, was falling under the charm of his charisma. “Lovely to see you, my dear! Theo has missed you. I have too.” It had only been five weeks I’d been gone. It felt like years. “Come over and sit, my dear! What a surprise!”

He quickly introduced me to what he called “the usual cast of characters.” Thomas announced their names and simply what they did for work. There was: Richard, a wine merchant (whose ruddy face suggested he loved his work), Carlos, the young Italian waiter from the corner cappuccino shop who I recognized immediately, Meredith, an antique shop owner from the Hill (whose thinness hinted of frailness and strictness), and Phillip, a professor from Boston University (whose tight collar and v-neck sweater pinched him, hinting of both confidence and vulnerability.) They were sitting on old wooden chairs in the corner of the shop. Thomas, of course, wouldn’t have described them as I saw them. I was a newcomer to the group, and I wasn’t sure that they wanted another person there who might take away part of their personal time with their charismatic leader. Meredith was the only one who actually frowned at me.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.

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 too if they knew I was an astrologer. I stared out the window, thinking how Jung and astrology were once frowned upon in academic circles. I wondered if I would be accepted into this little group. Carl Jung was now accepted in academia, but astrology bears a threatening stamp of irrationality to it—especially to those of the academic persuasion, or to those who connect it with the allure of the gypsy underworld. It’s a somewhat private language that is also disliked by some because it appears to give some people power. In the past, those in political power usually choose to either quietly pay for their astrologers, or publicly burn them at the stake.I mused: I could tell them how Jung was one of the first to use astrology in his practice with clients and to explore its symbolism, so he restored a “professionalism” to it—although he was highly discouraged in his exploration of the worlds of alchemy and astrology. I knew how 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 Meredith saw as her fierce grace? She certainly 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—?

“Grace?!” I exclaimed, as I bounced out of my musings, and came back into the moment. “Grace and patience: something I have very little of!” They laughed. I had no patience with anything 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 writing on Saturn into a finished book?

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 un-wrapped 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 once told me I was like him, but I don’t get it.”

Meredith looked slightly annoyed: “We all have Mercury, Phillip, not just you. It’s all about our style of communicating. Some astrologer told me where mine was…it was doing something bizarre…retrograding and all that. Oh, yes, she said mine was in Gemini, which she said was ruled by Mercury. Ruled? Can’t imagine it.”

I piped in: “Gemini is a sign, but Mercury is a planet. They’re very similar and planets ‘rule’ signs, so Gemini is very curious, and can bridge the gap between “opposites.” They are great open-minded communicators when they want to be. And, Gemini is known for having two sides, like two people, so sometimes you don’t know who you’re speaking with when you’re talking with a person who has a lot of Gemini in their chart…” Meredith lifted her eyebrows with a hint of disdain, and shook her head disapprovingly. I wasn’t going to let her stop me. “Look here—“I said, pointing to the stone, and hoping to move away from the jargon of pop astrology: “On the top here is the glyph for Saturn, and beneath it is the sign for Mars. These ‘yang’ signs are about 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….”

Thomas chuckled. “Hey, I think there’s a little homunculus in there.” He pointed to Carlo’s open fly on his tight blue jeans. “Sometimes Mercury is about zipping up your fly! You know, you’ve got assertive Mars and cautious Saturn both in there….” He seemed to love to tease Carlos.Carlos looked down and zipped up.

“I don’t get it.” Carlos grinned and looked at Thomas for an explanation.Thomas exhaled on his pipe, filling the room with a sweet fragrance.“Astrology is a symbolic system—and confusing at first. But you could think of this Mercury as being a bit like that zipper there—when it goes up, it pulls together what has been separated—like those Mars and Saturn energies--and when it goes down, it opens what has been joined.”

I chuckled to myself, remembering that this little comparison of Mercury to a zipper was something I had once told Thomas, as I had learned about Mercury 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.

Carlos looked at the zipper on his pants. “Well, when what’s inside the zipper, goes up, well, I—certainly like to join together—but sometimes he’s a trickster! So maybe I should call him, Mercury?” Carlos laughed and looked up at Thomas for approval. Instead, Richard the wise-man of wine, snapped back: “Let’s get serious now…really, there’s something to learn here—it reminds me of the synapses in the brain, and how chemicals—anti-depressants—connect to the receptors on each side of the nerve. They zip them together.” I wondered if he was taking “serotonin uptake inhibitors” for depression, or if he stayed with his wine drinking-- another Mercurial substance that loosens the tongue.

“I don’t believe in astrology, and I don’t like drugs. 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…and as a metaphor; I don’t know….”

How interesting everyone interprets things according to what they know and feel, I thought.“Well, my temperature is getting a little bit hot, Phillip!” Meredith laughed at herself. “I didn’t come here today to talk astrology; but to talk philosophy and Jung.” I gathered that she wasn’t going to act from her open-minded “ Mercury ruled Gemini.” I have Mercury in Scorpio, but I wasn’t going to challenge her. 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 either if I hadn’t studied it and used it, and found that it simply worked. If it was all just simplified down to “sun sign astrology” as it is in the newspapers, it would be as valid as a fortune cookie. But the chart is so complex with all its signs and houses and aspects—it truly 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? Jung said, somewhere in this book, that we are each like grapes in 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-- 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….” But then in my enthusiasm I told them about visiting Jung’s house and the mythological Kingfisher bird. It was as if I was trying to understand it all, but instead, 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 stroked Theo one more time: “I’ll miss you little guy.” Then he lifted Theo into the cat carrier, and led me to the door. As he handed Theo over to me, Thomas tilted his head and looked at me as if he wanted to ask me something.“You going to be alright, now? Being alone now and all?” 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. His hand held my cheek. (c) elizabeth spring Chapter Seventeen: The Sunday Afternoon Philosophers Club

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