I want to tell you about broken glass. About the blue orb wrapped in cloth that my husband crushed with his heel at our wedding ceremony, just before the kiss. I want to tell you about a Jewish tradition meant to invoke a demolished temple. Meant to remind us that joy should not override attention to the world’s disrepair. Meant to remind us that a marriage lives always under the threat of a heel.
I want to tell you about symbolism, about retrieving blue shards from the floor beneath the wedding canopy and placing them into a tiny glass tube alongside Hebrew prayers on parchment. A personalized mezuzah. According to Jewish law and lore, hanging that finger-sized mezuzah in one’s doorjamb ensures long lives for all inhabitants and wards off evil. My husband and I placed the mezuzah on a shelf by our apartment door and meant to hang it up, but then our son was born and we were consumed and amid the consumption the mezuzah got knocked to the floor and our wedding shards became wedding slivers.
I want to tell you about romance, about how my husband recovered what pieces he could from the jagged mess and glued them to a little board and put the little board in a little frame and gifted the whole thing to me for our anniversary. I want to tell you, too, that we meant to hang it by our apartment door but then our second son was born and we were consumed and amid the consumption the frame with the broken mezuzah with the broken glass got knocked to the floor and our wedding slivers became wedding specks.
I want to tell you about surrender. About how my husband and I decided not to frame the broken frame with the broken mezuzah with the broken glass.
Did we believe the universe was sending us a message? Did we know what the message was? Did we really think that in a galaxy with thirty billion planets, and on a planet with over seven billion people, energy from outer space traveled millions of light years to Earth and to the United States and to New York, that it slipped into the windows of our third-floor Brooklyn apartment and whispered in our ears and asked us to listen?
I want to tell you, Yes.
In the Manhattan office of Dr. S, someone who has saved me from anxiety’s shape-shifting intrusions countless times over a dozen years, someone with whom I discuss how DNA informs experience and experience can alter DNA, I describe a circumstance as “written in the stars.” I have just returned from a summer trip to Greece, where I am part of the faculty in a writing program. For weeks I listened to colleagues discuss ancient myths and knit them into poetry. I hiked to a seaside cave where sailors left offerings to the Dioscuri—twins immortalized in the constellation Gemini—for protection at sea. Each evening, I ambled home beneath an enormous, shimmering sky, pausing every few steps to tip back my head and marvel.
My psychiatrist cocks her head. If you want to talk stars, she says, you should call this astrologist. She lifts her iPad, scrolls for contact info, adds, She will blow your mind.
My mind is blown already. My go-to authority on neurobiology and psychopharmacology and evidence-based practices not only condones consigning one’s fate to the zodiac, but recommends it?
But, I say, you’re a scientist. As if she were unaware.
Dr. S nods. Science is crucial to understanding ourselves, she says. But it’s not sufficient.
Summer 1993. Carnival Day at sleep-away camp. I was in the oldest unit and we were helping to run afternoon events. A natural dramatist, I signed up to play fortune-teller. I wore a kerchief on my head and large hoop earrings and sat on a tie-dyed tarp inside a tent. When younger kids stopped in, I flipped their hands over, ran a knowing finger along their palms. I pointed to life lines and love lines and—my own addition—camp lines, which anticipated the tenor of their summers. I prophesized Banquet dates and Color War wins and soccer successes. I told one boy he would father eight children. Told a girl she would master a new skill. I spoke as if each trellis of fleshly grooves was encoded, as if I bore the gift of decryption.
They all knew I was a fellow camper, a charlatan, a fictionist. Still, I would swear that for a few blinks, I saw their eyebrows lift into the promise of my predictions. I felt the current of wonder under their skin. What if?
Maybe I was the susceptible one. A few years later, a college friend’s offhand comment would cast an unshakable shadow. He was a business major, a practical person, good with assessment.
That’s us, lounging on a restaurant patio close to the undergrad dorms.
You strike me as someone who has bad luck, he said between sips of beer. In memory, the comment hinged on nothing I’d said or done that suggested misfortune. My stomach sputtered. I was nineteen, permeable, my fingernails colored with paint. I wondered if he was reading the world in a way I didn’t know how.
I tried to bury this judgment but it kept resurfacing. When I was hospitalized the following year because of a reckless misdiagnosis. When my apartment flooded and turned a box of handwritten journals into blue-blooded mush. As I ricocheted between acrimoniously divorcing parents, and when my laptop was stolen in Baltimore and my wallet in New York, the words bobbed to the surface. You are a person who has bad luck.
My life, like most lives of relative privilege, is not unlucky. It is an amalgam. It has love and pleasure and stress and sadness and hard work. I didn’t believe my friend’s judgement, not really, but I couldn’t dismiss it either. A scrape that didn’t hurt, but wouldn’t heal. Maybe it’s because, while I heed provable data, I also respect how much of existence we cannot explain.
The astrologist my doctor recommends is a critical theorist. She has been reading birth charts on the side for twenty-five years because she thinks they hold surprising accuracies and weird perceptions. Her modest Brooklyn apartment transmits Victorian vibes: dark woods and deep reds and gold-framed paintings. I place her in her sixties. She wears a headband.
I tell her I’ve never met with an astrologist. She explains the practice’s origins, the Greeks and Egyptians who studied nighttime reflections in buckets of water, who observed patterns on high. Whenever Mars trafficked into the constellation of Scorpio, she told me, there were accidents at sea. That’s how they came to associate extraterrestrial energies with Earthly dynamics.
I nod, take out my notebook, write: “energies, accidents.” I do not think: mezuzah.
I am here because I believe in my erudite psychiatrist, and she believes in this erudite astrologist.
Astrology, Dr. S has said, gives destiny a role. It gives us a way to exist on Earth that’s judgement-free.
I don’t admit this outright, even to myself, but I want to be converted.
Dr. S: It can be liberating—a relief—to realize we’re not in control.
It is the kind of thing she might have said about my limited influence as a parent to two sons who move in their own orbits.
I want it all, liberation and relief. I want to trust that a bout of insoluble chest pain and shallow breaths isn’t just because of insufficient sleep or disordered thinking or defective biochemistry but because of planetary behavior. I want less self-blame. More cosmic reassurance.
I have sent the astrologist my birth data via email. At her mahogany dining table, where we sit, she hands me a printout of a circle divided into twelve sections. Each pie piece is tagged with a zodiac sign and filled with tiny graphic planets. This, she says, is what the sky looked like the moment you were born.
Astrology interprets the energies of the sun and moon and celestial bodies as human needs, she says. It’s like having ten children. You must attend to all of them.
That’s me, nodding and taking notes so I don’t miss a thing.
You have three planets in Cancer, she says. This roots me firmly in the traits associated with my sun sign—one about which I know practically nothing. Cancer, she says, is ruled by the crab, an animal that traffics between the sea and the shore and the sea and the shore and the sea and the shore. Her repetition emphasizes the tenacious zigzag. It also proves entrancing. For Cancer, she says, the project is bringing the stuff from the sea onto the shore, the stuff from the sea onto the shore, the stuff from the sea onto the shore. There is something about this language and imagery—of legs scuttling to and fro and lapping waves—that turns me into a child listening to a story. Still, I don’t know what she means.
What shore? I ask. What sea?
The astrologist pauses, closes her eyes, holds still. An unusually long moment passes during which I try not to move; I don’t want to break her concentration, her commitment to clarity, precision. Her lids and mouth open simultaneously. The imaginal realm, she says.
Imaginal? It’s not a word I’ve heard.
She nods. The nature of Cancer is bringing stuff from the imaginal into the real.
Sometimes I imagine my funeral. In quiet moments or when I’m upset, unsolicited images may arise of peopled pews and a wooden casket and my husband addressing a crowd. Often I can hear him, as if from a distance—muffled flatteries, his voice cracked with grief. The scene has changed through the years. Aged. Now my small sons sit in the front row kicking their legs with impatience and incertitude, unaware of how this loss may reverberate.
In the aftermath of these visions, I hug and kiss everyone in my lived life with extra fervor. As if to apologize. As if to supply comfort for a time of would-be need. I wonder about the role of such a fantasy and why it recurs, especially since it frightens me to consider causing pain to those I love most. Perhaps it’s a warning to invest in my health. A subconscious push to be a better partner or mother so that I’ll be remembered as such. Or maybe it’s a perverse way of managing anxiety. As if by naming a worst-case scenario, by immersing in it, I can reach around and measure its dimensions. I can be relieved, in some tiny way, of uncertainty and the discomfort it kindles.
I want to tell the astrologist that my life’s work is translating amorphous, indeterminate imaginings into concrete prose, that I invent whole worlds into existence. But she has moved on.
There’s something that can be challenging in your chart. She points to Mars, situated in a pie piece marked Virgo. Mars has an antenna for problems or difficulties, she says. When Mars is attached to Virgo, it creates fear.
I watch her finger the red line connecting Mars to Neptune, God of the Sea. She wants to know if I’ve seen Cast Away, the survival drama in which a man’s plane crashes in the South Pacific and leaves him stranded on an island.
I don’t tell her I’ve seen the film several times, even though I’m not fond of most Hollywood fare. Nor do I describe the scene which makes me sob most. It unfolds when the character played by Tom Hanks is improbably rescued after years of starvation and solitude. Back home, he learns there was a funeral for him and discovers that his beloved, played by Helen Hunt, has married someone else. They’ve had a kid. Helen’s character is beside herself: stunned, crushed, guilt-ridden.
Can you imagine? I say to husband, through tears and snot, when we watch the movie together. I can’t tell who I’m crying harder for, Tom or Helen. Probably their mutual devastation.
Maybe it evokes the beach trip my husband and I took when I was six months pregnant with our firstborn, how he decided to go for a quick jog along the shore—twenty minutes tops, he said—how after thirty minutes he hadn’t returned and I lifted the back of my lounger, put on my glasses, how after forty minutes I stood and squinted down the beach, how I saw only laughing strangers, how I rubbed my belly and refused to entertain thoughts of an accident or a disappearance or to forecast what it would be like to have this baby alone, how after forty-five minutes I willed every distant shape to transfigure into his body and how one of them complied, and when he finally emerged, slightly sunburned and glassy with sweat—I found some cool shells, he said—I stumbled toward him in the sand, knees wobbling.
Can you imagine, I say to him during the movie, burying one life and commencing a new one, only to discover your first love, maybe your true love, is still alive?
The astrologist’s question has nothing to do with star-crossed lovers. Rather, she tells me, the positioning of the planets suggests a terror within me. When you have Neptune on the ascendant, she says, you have the capacity to imagine in any moment all the possibilities of that moment. It’s like you’re taking an accounting of everything to be frightened of.
I want to tell you that I became a convert in this moment. That my doubts about astrology receded like the tide. I want to say that every appraisal she made in this meeting resulted in my staring into the cavity of myself and nodding with vigor. I want to.
I want to tell you, too, about storytelling. How my drive to bring the imaginal into the real is accompanied by a fondness for narrative, for beginnings and ends. How I delight in transformation, not only in characters on the page, but as a writer, as a reader. How I can feel pulverized and remade by stories—a glass orb into a pile of shimmering shards into a framed work of art. How I seek this experience in real life, too.
Part of the project of life, the astrologist says, is to live in concert with our vulnerabilities, even as we live with our gifts.
I want to tell you all of her insights are this astute. That through her reading I am rebuilt. Made anew.
She moves her finger around the page, says, There’s an orderliness to how you think.
I am an associative, scattered thinker. I think the way I clean my apartment: while folding laundry I notice my son’s inhaler on the shelf and walk to the kitchen to place it in the cabinet, whereupon I notice dishes in the sink and begin to scrub them.
I bite my lip.
You feel torn, she says, between your profession and your partnership, between work and family. You have to figure out how to navigate those conflicting needs.
I consider all the working partners and parents I know. I wonder for whom this isn’t true.
She tells me that part of me is a homebody and another part of me in the world.
I feel suddenly emboldened, say, Is that not the case for everyone?
Oh god, no, she says. For some people, feeling safe is about getting on a plane and going somewhere.
She must detect wariness; my face always gives me away.
Like I need beauty to feel nurtured, she adds. I would check out of an ugly hotel room if I had to stay there for any length of time. I just can’t bear it. I feel unsafe.
I try to look as though I understand. I do not understand. She feels threatened by decor? She would squander the cost of a hotel room because of it?
I want to tell you about the placebo effect. How research shows that our belief in a treatment’s benefits makes it more effective. How this phenomenon applies to prescription medication. Scientists have demonstrated these results over and over again.
Every time you ingest a pill, Dr. S has said, it’s an act of faith. You are accepting the possibility that you can feel better.
I want you to know that the reverse applies too. That doubts about one’s treatment will make it less effective.
The astrologist tells me I have a really lovely chart and a lot of gifts. As I ride the elevator to the ground floor, I imagine myself as a crab, sinking into the sea.
That night, I look up my sign. I learn that Cancers are linked to Artemis, daughter of Zeus, a huntress. Legend says that immediately after Artemis’s own arrival, she helped with the birth of her twin brother, Apollo. Various astrologers consider Cancer the most maternal and nurturing of all the signs. I think of my beautiful sons. I think how I want to own this association, want to devour it, want to possess it. Also, I want to know whose company I keep. I Google other people born on June 28. Fellow nurturers. I learn that a man born on this day in 1491 became king. I share a birthday with Henry VIII.
Lately my son Oliver, age seven, has been trying to influence his lot.
During board games, just before he rolls the dice: I never get any points.
On our walk to the bookstore: They definitely won’t have what I want.
Sometimes I fall for his setup. There’s a huge kids’ section, I say, I’m sure we’ll find the book you’re looking for.
No! He widens his eyes. Whenever I say that something won’t happen, it does, he says. If I say it will happen, it doesn’t.
Oh right, I say. I bet the book’s sold out.
I want to tell you a story, one you’ve probably heard before. It’s about someone who loses the will to live, and dies. It’s about someone else who insists on life, and lives.
I want to tell you about my maternal grandmother, paralyzed after a stroke, who wanted to call it quits. My number is up, she told me months into her suffering, but nobody will call it. It’s about how her body persisted, emaciated and diapered, against her will, for ten long years.
I want to tell you that stories impose order onto chaos. Offer control over our lives and destinies. And isn’t control a kind of salvation? This, I think, is what we seek in astrology and therapy and mezuzahs on doorposts. All of us just want to be saved.
Maybe the key is devotion. Maybe the route to relief is in whatever you believe.
I tell Dr. S about my session with her astrologist. Some details seemed apt, I say. Others, not so much.
Says she: I believe more in the concept of astrology than the practice of it.
I am perplexed. Wasn’t the astrologist her suggestion? Also, though, I know what she means.
Dr. S asks my sign, nods when I tell her, as if the information makes sense. As if she does believe in the practice, despite her claim. As if she believes and disbelieves at once.
Cancers are healers, she offers. The Dalai Lama is a Cancer.
I ask her what I have in common with the Dalai Lama.
You’re a writer, she says, as if I’m unaware. Practitioners of the aesthetic arts connect us to each other and offer a context for pain.
I want to tell you I believe her. I want to. I do.
From Spilt Milk by Courtney Zoffness, published by McSweeney’s Books. Copyright © 2021 by Courtney Zoffness.