Why I’m Not an Atheist, Part III – The Stars

So Judy went back to her ex-boyfriend, and anxiety stayed with me. But in addition to the loneliness and hurt of losing her, and the challenge of constructing a life after college, I also felt a new curiosity. Sascha had been able to say things about me that he shouldn’t have been able to see. How could that be?

I was happy to get an internship at the Harvard News Office that summer. The place functions as a public-relations liaison between the faculty and the outside world, and also puts out a weekly newspaper chronicling the university’s events from a point-of-view that is generally friendly to the administration. It also served as a liaison for me, between life as a student and life in the so-called real world. My job was to make sure that the files we had on each faculty member were up to date. That way, when a professor died, our office could disseminate a pretty good obituary.

While walking through the office one day, I overheard a bright, friendly reporter named Marvin talking to a co-worker about astrology. The tone of the conversation made it clear that Marvin, who had graduated from Harvard in the same class as Al Gore, took the stars very seriously.

My experience with Sascha led me to pay more attention to their words than I might otherwise have done. Still, I was still struggling to maintain my scientific skepticism. I had studied under Stephen Jay Gould and E.O. Wilson, for heaven’s sake, and had shared a cup of tea with B.F. Skinner. So I challenged Marvin, playfully: “C’mon, Marvin – you don’t really believe in astrology, do you?”

He looked at me sideways. “Do you know what you’re talking about?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said. “That stuff in the newspapers – the idea that our lives are controlled by the stars and planets and stuff.”

“Good. I’m glad you know what you’re talking about,” he said sternly. He turned his back to me and walked away.

What he was talking about

“Hey, wait a minute, Marvin – hold on,” I said, smiling, walking after him. “It’s just that you’re a smart guy, so I didn’t think – no offense, you understand. But what is it – is there really more to it than what I said?”

“You’d better believe it,” he said.

“Really?” I said. “Because I didn’t used to believe in any of these sorts of things, but I had my coffee grounds read a couple of months ago, and now I don’t know what I don’t believe in anymore.”

“Well, why don’t you tell me when and where you were born, and we’ll see what we can say,” he said.

I knew when and where I was born, but not to the degree of precision Marvin wanted. He said he needed to know my time of birth to the minute. His desire for that much detail intrigued me, but also seemed a little silly.

Nonetheless, Sascha, the coffee-grounds reader, had expressed a belief in astrology, too. He had seemed to know his stuff. If I wanted a true test, here was my chance.

I sent a few dollars to the records office of the state of New York, along with a request for my birth certificate. A few weeks later I was able to tell Marvin that I’d been born at 3:13 in the afternoon. And a few days after that, I went to his apartment to hear what he had been able to make of that information.

Marvin had met me just a few weeks earlier, and he knew me hardly at all. Nonetheless, he was able to speak to me about myself for two or three hours — much longer than Sascha had — in great detail.

Who I am — written on my chart

As I took notes, he told me what sort of women I probably liked (the kind that seem nice at first but then show a surprising turbulence – a pattern to which anyone who knows me well can attest, and one I may well be provoking somehow). He described the sort of career toward which I might be drawn (one focused on communication). He elucidated the kind of relationship I might have had with my father (troubled) and might still have with my mother (deeply confused). He said that a certain amount of luck would follow me, giving me friends and a roof over my head wherever I went, but he warned me against taking that luck for granted.

Sascha had focused on politics when he looked at my coffee grounds, making no mention of writing. The omission had disappointed me. I had little interest in politics, but if that’s what he saw, I thought I might have to give up the whole idea of writing. A psychologist I had seen before I met Sascha had wanted me to give up writing, too.

Marvin, though, used a different measure – the way the planets were arrayed at the minute of my birth. Although he and I had discussed neither writing nor books, he said he saw writing all over my chart. “If anyone is here to write, you are,” he said, in a sentence that meant so much to me that I wrote it down immediately.

What was funny to me then, and still seems a little odd, was the evidence: “Your rising sign is Virgo, a sign of service that is ruled by the planet Mercury. Mercury was the messenger of the gods. You may want to serve people by communicating information to them. Because your moon and Neptune are in Scorpio, in the third house – a house that is also ruled by Mercurian principles – your communication is very powerful. You are sometimes very direct; you tend not to be interested in cocktail banter. Some people may like this about you, and some may not.

“Moreover, you probably remember nearly everything,” he said. “And it seems likely that you rehearse the tapes of what you’ve seen and felt, watching them over and over, obsessively, like a detective.”

That sounded about right. I seem to remember more about old family events, for example, than my siblings do. Once, as we drove through Ireland two years ago, I recognized a song on the radio as an old favorite of my little brother’s. That didn’t seem so unusual, except that he could barely remember it. When I said, “Hey, Col – this was your favorite part,” my sister and mother laughed. Colin said he could see that he might once have liked a part like that, but the actual memory of doing so escaped him.

Even now I can see him in my mind’s eye, as we stood in the back of our house’s TV room, where he played the 45 of Cliff Richard’s “We Don’t Talk Anymore” over and over. That’s where we were when he pointed out his favorite part of the song.

It’s years later now, and his tastes have changed. It may be simply that it’s hard for him to imagine liking such a song.

You know the tune – “It’s so funny, how we don’t talk anymore,” and so on. Come on, don’t tell me you don’t remember it, either . . .

I can remember my parents laughing while they potty-trained me, a fact that even a psychotherapist I once knew didn’t believe. “Did they wait until you were twelve?” he asked. Yeah, he was a real validator, that one.

Anyway, Marvin was addressing things about me that seemed to add up to a unique and accurate picture — things to which I had not really given much thought, but now that he mentioned them, yes, I did have that characteristic.

He never even bothered with the textbook generalizations, such as, “You’re a Taurus, so you like food and sex.” That was the sort of line that had made me look down my long nose at the whole field. After all, I reasoned, what human doesn’t like such things?

After a few hours of Marvin’s analysis, my head was spinning in a way reminiscent of the way I felt when Sascha put down the coffee cup.

“Marvin, what does all this mean?” I asked. “How can you say all these things, without really knowing me?”

He explained that from his perspective, the planets didn’t rule us at all. Instead, he said, they served as a kind of big clock. “You don’t have to look at a clock,” he said. “But it keeps ticking anyway. And if you want to know what time it is, in your life, astrology can tell you that. It can let you know — you’ll be dealing with this sort of issue right about now. And then you can make up your own mind how you want to handle it. If you want to ignore the issue and hope it goes away, that’s up to you – but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it.”

Looking at the odd squiggles from which he had been working, I felt wonder, and a sense that my connection to the world around me might be deeper and more far-reaching than I had ever imagined.

Originally published by The Guy Code, April 19, 2001. 

Comments are closed.