The first time I encountered astrology, I was seventeen years old, at a lesbian music festival in the woods of northern Michigan.
A few days earlier, I had spontaneously hopped into the backseat of a friend’s car with a sleeping bag and a vague expectation of acoustic guitar-strumming and shirtless leather dykes cracking their whips. That prediction proved accurate, along with a lot of dirt and tempeh and standing outside my tent in the rain, trying to figure out if the sounds coming from within were sex or just the toss and turn of restless sleep.
Nothing scandalous or remotely exciting happened to me that week, but that may have been because the festivals favorite pickup line was “What’s your sign?” My best friend’s answer, “Scorpio,” received whistles and sultry approval. “Gemini,” said another friend, to laughter and hoots of, “Look out for trouble!” which, of course, he loved. Who wouldn’t love to be preceded a reputation of problematic irresistibility? I wanted to be trouble!
“Capricorn,” I announced hopefully. The older dykes looked at each other. The silence was long. Finally, a more polite, or less inebriated woman, said something like, “Oh, you must be the hard worker.” The conversation ended. I went back to stand outside my tent and consider the possibility that I did not actually like folk music.
Luckily for me, in 2000, astrology was still fringe. After the music festival ended, Capricorn, Gemini and Scorpio returned to their home on coffee mugs and the back pages of free weekly papers. For a while at least, I was free to be judged on my personality traits alone.
These days, it’s hard to find a teenager, much less a queer teen, who doesn’t know their natal chart backward and forward. Recently, I was at a bar with a group of college students who were looking up each other’s charts on one of their phones. “Oh my god,” “You’re so fucked,” and “so lucky,” they exclaimed gleefully over such innocuous placements as moon in Libra or Mercury in Sagittarius.
I am a very annoying know-it-all, but for once I managed to keep my mouth shut. They were having fun. Astrologically-incorrect fun, perhaps, but fun. If I tuned out the words, they sounded like my friends and I had at their age when talking about sex or music or drugs. The things we had said and experiences we’d laid claim to (“Oh my god, she was so high”) had been a kind of language, a way of stating that we belonged to each other, of possessing one another in the form of facts and biographies. It was a way of loving and creating community, and also of figuring out, in public, who exactly we planned to be for the rest of our lives, back when that seemed like something we could plan for.
If you’ve spent much time on this website, you know I love stupid astrology. Sun sign generalizations, while basic as hell, can be hilariously illuminating, so long as you know the big picture is a lot more complex. Why shouldn’t astrology be fun? Why take ourselves so seriously?
Ideally, though, everyone who is drawn to astrology would have access to a good astrologer. There is—and this is not a product placement, just the truth—no substitute for a natal chart analysis by an astrologer with significant experience, performed in real time, with compassion and genuine interest in the human being whose chart is being read.
Read all the astrology you can find online and in books and you will still be misled by your biases and fears when it comes to interpretation of your own chart. We’re social animals. We need other people to see us. To actually see us, in all our imperfect and changeable complexity. A good astrology reading, like a good therapy session, or a conversation with a clear-sighted friend, can do that.
But astrology when misused, or applied by the wrong (for you) person, can cause real damage. There’s just something about the planets. They’re so high above us and can seem so authoritative, so unquestionable–not so different from the gods of many religions.
Any time we give our inner authority up to a power or person we believe to be beyond our understanding, we run the risk of accepting stories about ourselves and the world that aren’t true, or that don’t need to be true. Because, of course, there are almost always multiple truths, multiple valid ways of understanding these lives we find ourselves living. Some of these truths will not be useful. Others, will be useful for a week, or a year, and then not.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I fell in love, hard, for the first time. I had always wanted to meet a soulmate. (I think you whippersnappers are call this a “twin flame”?)
You know where this plot goes. It did not work out. It did the opposite of work out, which is to say, it got ugly, pus-y, oozy, bad. I stayed in the relationship longer than I should have because the story I carried, that we were soulmates, made suffering through an impossible situation seem like my self-sacrificing destiny. It was horrible but also beautiful. I felt chosen.
The break-up happened anyway. The soulmate story stopped feeling beautiful and began to seem like a curse, whispering that I had failed and would never love this way again. Also, it disturbed me that someone who’d been destined to be my soulmate had treated me so badly. Did that mean (I consulted my natal chart) I was doomed from birth? Had something in my spiritual dna asked for it?
I started reading about brain chemicals, endorphins and oxytocin and how neuroscientists theorize love. According to that way of thinking, what felt like destiny was just really great drugs. All the magic drained from my story of the relationship. It was a depressingly bland way to look at love, but also, I discovered, a relief. The relationship had ended, and my ex had turned out to be a not super-nice person, for no particular reason. It wasn’t personal. It happened because that’s how things sometimes happen.
Again, I consulted my natal chart. With a different story in mind, the symbols read differently. There was no birth curse, just planets in signs, in houses, in aspect to other planets. Cut and dry. But also: available to be filled with meaning—of my choosing.
This is the real power of astrology, and also its disappointment. Astrology is not magic, though its curious accuracy can feel magical*. It is not even a belief system. Among the many astrologers I know, there are an equal number of beliefs about what life is for, how much free will we have and whether a god or gods exist.
Many things influence what happens in our lives: systems of oppression, our fallible bodies, our family histories, our personal likes and dislikes, our malleable capacity to withstand stress—including the stresses of internal and external change. Random chance. All of these are, to some extent, reflected in the astrology chart, but none are really predictive. A good astrologer can give you a sense of what’s ahead but be wary of anyone who spells out events exactly, or gives you the impression that your choices don’t matter.
For example, let’s say someone–we’ll give her a 12th house Venus-Sun-Saturn conjunction in Leo, squaring Neptune–fantasizes about being a famous painter. Let’s call her Francesca. Francesca makes collages but doesn’t show them to anyone because she learned from her mother, a professional housekeeper and single mom with a creative streak, that being an artist wasn’t practical. (Really, what Francesca’s mom meant, was that that art was a hobby for the rich.)
Francesca is also a single mom. She has a bad back and can barely pay her bills. Art school is a non-option and Francesca knows her mother was not wrong. The art world is run by and for people with money and fancy degrees. But Francesca is also kind of dying inside. She feels unseen, underchallenged, hopeless.
There are various things astrology can do for or to Francesca, depending on how she chooses to view her chart. It can tell her that her unfortunate situation is the result of past life infractions. It can tell her she has the power to be anyone she wants to be, and that any obstacles she has encountered are the result of a lack of effort. Either of these options may give Francesca hope. They may also block her from seeing the conjunction of classism, sexism and ableism that throw up real and perhaps insurmountable obstacles between her and her dream.
So maybe Francesca sees those obstacles and wants astrology to help her deal with them. She can use astrology to tell her what has happened and what will happen and make her peace with the loss implied in that fatalism. Or she might use astrology as a psychological tool, to dig down into her motivations. Why does she think she wants fame, really? If it’s connection and being seen and valued that she craves—a sense of mattering in the world—how might she get there without a fairy godmother and soon-ish?
Both of these paths will require that Francesa sit with some really uncomfortable emotions and be honest about the world inside and outside herself. She can choose whether to do that, or decide she isn’t ready. Maybe she will be never be ready. There is no right way to live a life.
If Francesca does sit with her feelings, though, and listen to her own conclusions, her choice to do so will have effects. She may start sharing art with friends, giving her the sense of being seen she craves. She may join with other working class mothers to become a community organizer and discover that her actions can and do matter in the world. She may begin opening up emotionally to others in ways that reveal there was more love and beauty in her life than she had thought.
Or, she may find that in seeing her reality clearly, she is more unhappy than before. The stress of change might cause a health flare. Her daughter, responding to her mother’s anxiety, may start acting out at school. All of the above may happen. None of these outcomes is a judgment, or proof of the validity Francesca’s efforts. Our choices do matter, they do have effects, and yet we can’t know what will happen. If the future is written, it’s a rough sketch.
Had I obnoxiously jumped in on the astrology gossip at the bar the other night, I might have said something to this effect: A Mercury in Sagittarius is only something to declare yourself fucked over by if you want to see it that way. A moon in Libra is great, or deviant, or interesting or boring, depending on the eye, and the moment, of its beholder–as well as how the person it describes happens to inhabit it.
If you want to see your chart as a curse or a blessing, no one can stop you. Astrology doesn’t care. Astrology has no comment, it’s just there, for you to use or not, like a hammer, or a bucket, or, perhaps, a map. Is it a language, it is a lens. With any luck, it can help you nail together some boards to get over the next river, or to build yourself a chair where you can sit down and watch the river flow by.
Some might say, that’s good enough.
Images by Luke Dani Blue. Use by permission only.
*I’m using the word “magic” here in the colloquial sense, rather than to refer to a spiritual practice or to astrological magic, which are whole other things–and way outside my wheelhouse! (Also, what is a wheelhouse? Who needs that many wheels??)
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