Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Friday, July 27, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Weirdo - Astrology

When I was a kid, nine years old or so, I came down with an illness that kept me out of school for a while, maybe as long as a week. My mother, having nowhere else to put me, took me with her to the grocery store, where she told me I could get something to pass the time, a toy or the like. Being the fledgling nerd that I was, I made a beeline for the book section, such as it was at the time. Mostly it was made up of paperback bestsellers, Harlequin Romance novels, self-help books, and tabloid magazines. Amidst all that dross, however, I still somehow managed to find a book that, in all seriousness, changed my life in a way that few other books have.

The World Almanac Book of the Strange

I brought it too her, eager and probably still a little flushed from my fever. I remember her asking, a little concerned, if I was sure I wanted this book. It was thick, had very few pictures, a plain cover. I was sure. My love of fantasy and all things unusual drew me to it. The table of contents alone were enough to titillate: Strange People, Strange Places, Miracles, Strange Religions and half a dozen other seductive headings. Though the word "Strange" might seem pejorative, this was actually exactly what a burgeoning weirdo like myself was looking for. I'd been reading Tolkien for a couple of years at this point, and had recently started branching out into whatever science fiction I could get my hands on, so I was primed for this kind of esoteric craziness. I knew I wasn't like other kids; I felt strange, and I wanted strange.

My mother, bless her, believed that no knowledge was inherently bad, and that any curiosity should be encouraged. In the past she had actually worked with Swedenborgians, who believe, as part of the central tenets of their faith, that all knowledge was knowledge of God's creation, and therefore inherently holy, even the knowledge of "evil." Seems there might be a genetic component in attraction to weirdness....

So she bought me the book.

In my daily drives with my mother, long drives from our home to the pool where my swim team practiced, I took to discussing Aleister Crowley and the finer points of demonic possession, the Nazca lines and whether UFO's were real.  But the one thing I was really interested in was the section on palmistry, handwriting analysis, tarot, and my favorite of all: astrology.

Here was everything I was interested in.The positions of the stars and planets when you were born could tell you kind of person you were. Not only that, but astrology had insight into the seeming closed book of other people. I found people confusing, their actions and reactions baffling and frightening, but here was a key to understanding why they acted as they did. It also gave me insights into myself, another seemingly locked box that periodically spit out its own bizarre behaviors that I could not control or understand. I didn't know why I did the things I did. Now, something could tell me.

Another appeal was that the stars I dreamed about for so long were not just out there in the heavens, but part of us, affecting us, changing us and making us into what we are. I had just recently been informed that, due to my poor vision, it was unlikely that I would ever become the astronaut I'd wanted to be since kindergarten. Here was a way of interacting with the stars that I would never reach.

I learned about the different Elements and Qualities, the twelve signs and the ten planets (some of which were, you know, stars and moons, but whatever). I learned that Cancers love their mothers and Geminis can talk you into anything, that you should never cross a Scorpio, and that Tauruses can seem all easy going until you push them too far (later, of course, I learned that these things were necessarily contingent on mitigating factors). In a few short years I had a book with an ephemeris and was asking everyone I knew if I could do their charts. Almost everyone wanted to know more about themselves, and it was a good way to talk to girls.

To this day, I still am fascinated with astrology. People often ask me if I think it's true. I have a number of friends who are, let's say, "adamant" in their opposition to anything that smacks of hokum. They find anything non-scientific (religion, astrology, homeopathy and the like) positively affronting, and are very vocal in their debunking.

I feel like there's very little to contradict science in astrology. I know that's a bit of a strange statement, but the way I see it, and in answer to the earlier question, astrology is "true," but not in the sense that there are measurable influences beaming down on us from the stars that some how imprint upon us at the moment of our birth, molding the tabula rasa of our smooth souls into the persons we grow up to be.

A metaphor may be useful here. If we look at the star through a telescope, a certain amount of mental mapping is required to remember that the stars are not actually closer to us. We are seeing things that are not, literally, "there." The light is being refracted through a lens which allows us to see details we might not otherwise be able to see. Now, most of us do this mental mapping without thinking about it. The world is remade before our eyes, and we make the adjustments necessary to accommodate the new information.

Astrology is a psychological art, through which the personality is refracted, that we might see its component parts in a new way. The methods by which we refract are somewhat arbitrary, but because the world is fundamentally interconnected, any method of refraction will offer some insight, provided we have the tools to interpret it. Since it is an art, and not so much a science, there's a certain amount of ambiguity inherent. We have several thousand years of tradition through which to sift to find possible interpretation. So, again, astrology isn't "true" the way that cheeseburgers tend to go "splat" when you drop them. It's a way of looking at the wonder and mystery of personhood that allows one to learn something that maybe one didn't know before.

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