A Return to the Valley of the Moon

Prelude

Like a bird chirping on a branch deep in the forest of my mind, the voice kept repeating the word like a mantra while I walked the crowded streets of New York. 

“Back,” it said. “Back to what?” I demanded. “To where, to whom?” But the voice flew away on the winds of my thoughtstream. Over a period of nine months the phantom nightingale added more words to its lament, until finally, as I lay in Central Park on a summer’s day, it came forth loud and clear:

Go back. Come. To me. Home.

Or, translated from the language of the unconscious, “Come back home to me.”

And so here I was en route for California, roused in the middle of the night by the sudden stillness of the train. As I stepped outside, my feet landed on snowy turf. My sleepercar’s attendant said a truck had flipped on the tracks up ahead. We were somewhere in the cavern of the heartland, where there are neither lights nor mountains, only an endless flatness that suffocates with its emptiness. For, in the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is, noted Gertrude Stein. “That’s what makes America what it is.” 

The delay meant more interminable hours in the tiny Amtrak compartment, which was something like an airplane restroom connected to a closet, a masterpiece of Soviet-style design at its most brutally efficient. I was halfway through my four-day journey from Manhattan’s Penn Station to the end of the line in Emeryville, after 12 years away from home. But now I knew I’d been split apart inside for much longer than that, traumatized by the loss of someone dear. The inability to properly grieve had made me a hollow man cut off from his feelings, from all sense of continuity with the past and from the internal rhythm of my heart and its murmurs of affirmation.

It had been two decades since my mother died, and I was finally ready to face her, to apologize for the mute goodbye that final day on the bench in Rincon Valley that now bears her name, where she stoically endured the effects of chemotherapy before cancer finally sucked her into a coma so it could finish ravaging her insides and shut down her remaining systems. She had faced death more bravely than I’d faced life, and now I was coming home a humbled and enlightened man, cramped on a train with an aching back, microdosing cognac, Advil and Dramamine, the salmon I’d brought starting to smell like cat food. With the obstruction cleared, the train recommenced its clickety-clack towards California, to that never-mourned astrologer-mother whose maternal spirit haunts the night sky in the guise of that lunar luminary that shines over my childhood home deep in the Valley Of The Moon.

1: Written in the Stars

According to Shakespeare, our faults lie not in our stars, but in ourselves. But when you’re raised by an astrologer, you learn that faults in ourselves are faults in our stars. And sometime around the age of 40 you’re forced to realize that playing to your strengths only gets you so far, and that conflicting tendencies, if not reconciled, will eventually unravel you.

The recession of 2008 exposed all my inner fault lines as, one by one, my clients slashed their budgets. I should have gathered my wits and taken action at the first sign. Instead, I decided to ignore what I didn’t like, and followed my sun even deeper into distracting hobbies. Soon the fragile moon, angry at being neglected, took her revenge in the form of anxiety, insomnia and a paralyzing sense of existential dread.

“I feel like the gods are judging me,” I remember saying. My mother would have understood. Before working as Elsie Allen High School’s career counselor, Carolyn Chensvold combined her master’s degree in Jungian psychology from San Francisco State with the ancient wisdom of astrology, mankind’s oldest science. She’d learned it from her mother and her aunt, and then taught classes and analyzed natal charts from our quiet home in Rincon Valley. I had a natural affinity for the family tradition, and found my mother’s wisdom both eerie and strangely logical. I knew my Moon in Virgo made me both imaginative and orderly, but it was only after her death that I discovered that its placement in the First House brings with it a deep connection to the mother. I’d always thought losing her would be the worst thing imaginable, and when her ovarian cancer was deemed terminal, suddenly the unimaginable became real.

When she died, it was as if my nervous system short-circuited and stopped carrying signals from my heart to my brain. Astrologically speaking, it was like my microcosm of a self could no longer properly reflect the microcosm that had stamped it with a unique energy pattern. I swept the grief under the rug of avoidance and forged onward into the world of the marketplace, bartering my skills for money and prestige, both of which were eventually revealed to be as fleeting as moonlight among clouds. In tandem with the rise of the internet, mobile phones and social media, my inner world went from a rich kingdom of the imagination to a ghost town sunken into desuetude, as my once-grounded sense of self was sucked into the digital vortex. 

Until the end, my mother embodied both unconditional maternal love as well as the mythological figure of Sophia, the Greek personification of feminine wisdom in a man’s world. She was her father’s daughter, and raised me to handle bullies, court a lady, seek victory in sport and take my place among my peers. That is, she instilled in me the kind of knowledge that helps a storybook hero discover vital powers that lay hidden within him, and which are shunned by the world of the fathers and their rigid laws. As with Alexander the Great, it is the mother who helps the hero understand his true lineage; that he has not just an earthly father, but a “second father” beyond the stars, whose divine spark glows in his breast.

REMEMBERED  A plaque on a bench in Santa Rosa’s Brush Creek Park commemorates the author’s mother. Photo by Daedalus Howell

2: The Dark Side of the Moon

I don’t like to fly as it is, and online chatter painted an ugly picture of air travel in the age of Covid-19, with in-flight brawls, planes turned around because a two-year-old wouldn’t keep their mask on, flight attendants encouraging passengers to sip beverages with straws beneath their face coverings. I had visions of snapping mid-flight, suffocating and howling about mass psychosis, being forcibly restrained in my seat and arrested upon arrival. Driving would mean10 days of backbreaking tedium, bad food and the constant threat of snow. There was only one way back to California: in my own train compartment, quietly sipping cognac while watching 3,000 miles of the United States roll by across four days of sun and three nights of moon. 

In the wisdom traditions, the moon rules over the body and emotions, the receptive soul as opposed to the active spirit. It regulates the tides of the sea, the human menstrual cycle and the harvesting of crops. In our little corner of the vast universe, the earth’s moon is a femine energy representing the maternal side of creation, the bride of the sun and, like all energies, it contains a positive charge as well as a negative one. The bright side is the light of maternal love, while the dark flipside is the destructive side of Mother Nature, which values the species over the individual. In its mythological guise as the devouring dragon of the Great Mother archetype, what we call “lunar consciousness” reduces all of mother’s children to the same level, washing over them with a tidal wave of egalitarianism that erases all qualitative difference, since all children are equally deserving of mother’s love. All members of society must don the tribal mask to ensure the cohesion of the social unit. There is no place for the individual in a system ruled by lunar consciousness, and universal myths speak of heroes who face “castration,” or what in our digital civilization we’d call “canceling,” for disobeying the Great Mother.

Jungian analyst Liz Greene was my mother’s favorite astrological writer, and in her book The Luminaries, she writes:

“Because the Moon governs the realm of nature, a purely matriarchal consciousness dispenses with the value of the individual, giving absolute importance to family and to tribe, justifying the suppression or destruction of individual self-expression if the security of the group is threatened. There are no ethics or principles in this domain, nor any disciplined use of the will. All is justified by instinctual need and preservation of the species.”

Unchecked by yin-yang balance, lunar consciousness conjures up images of bald men with manicured goatees presiding over rituals of human sacrifice, of orgiastic frenzy with people’s eyes rolling back into their sockets, of descent into dreamlike states and regression into earlier, sub-rational stages of human development—what we’d call mass recollectivization, or in the age of coronavirus, “mask recollectivization.” The solar instinct is to sacrifice the weak in order to maximize future conditions for the young and healthy, while the lunar instinct places compassion above all else and will immediately halt civilization in order to protect the most vulnerable, for it exists in a state of aevernity, the eternal now, in which the future does not exist.

Our response to the pandemic is guided by cosmic forces that stand in complete opposition to one another, squaring off in a way we haven’t seen for 30,000 years. The ancient Greek mystery schools—in which those gifted with metaphysical sensibilities were initiated into knowledge of divine law—taught that the greatest mystery of all is that the solar element must dominate and yet the lunar must be free. This is the great paradox that comes with a universe based on polarity, where the immovable object is met by an implacable force. It is the opposition of night and day, positive and negative, masculine and feminine, and the battleground of the sexes that will cycle through time for all eternity.

3: Moon Talk

Chemotherapy rendered my mother bald and frail, but failed to stop the corruption, which continued to gnaw at her ovaries and uterus before finally marching an assault of the vaginal wall—all the organs that brought me into this world. By the end, she was emaciated and comatose, and her breath rattled like a rusty pipe, until on the last morning it became a desperate chortle as the last living part of her fought for its final breath. She was gone, but the survivors lived on. Mythology teaches us that the cause of a paralyzing wound contains within it the key to healing. In other words, whatever causes one’s fall from grace is ultimately the source of one’s redemption. But one must undertake the excruciating journey into the cavern of the heart, face the pain and redeem it through compassion for one’s human weaknesses, guided by the magical ability of the soul to heal itself with the light of truth, as if it were some sort of ultraviolet medical instrument steadied by the hand of God.

Coming back to California was like coming back to myself. Each passing fragrance wafting in the air—newly mown grass, blossoms from the trees, a fireplace on a breezy night—seemed to recapture a youthful memory I thought was lost forever. The moon governs the world of feelings, and as I worked through my mother’s loss and repaired the inner short-circuits, everything inside began to flow and the background noise of agitation was gradually replaced by one of joy. I began to feel that I’d fallen into a kind of time-travel paradox in which I had to fall apart in order to embark on a journey to understand why I’d fallen apart. To the awakened being, life ceases to be linear and becomes a single pulsing energy field, with the past just as necessary for the future as the future is for the past. Time moves both ways, or, as Kierkegaard put it, life is lived forwards, but understood backwards. This coming-home story, whose focus I did not know when the Bohemian asked me to write it, has now been made clear; an exercise in how we are able to create reality and meaning even in the face of tragedy, or, precisely the kind of lesson my mother would have wanted me to learn.

Now I was ready to finally talk to her. I knew I was ready, because that’s precisely what I was doing. To the sound of dogs barking and children playing, I sat cross-legged with both hands on my mother’s weathered bench. I don’t believe it is possible to contact the spirits of the dead, and my mother certainly never discussed such things. But we can tune our heart’s inner receiver to the channel where all our memories of someone who’s departed are stored. This channel will then vibrate in consciousness, which is not confined to the body, but a field that surrounds us through what the ancients called akasha, ether or numen, and what modern science calls dark energy. It’s that invisible medium through which light and cellular signals travel, and maybe even thoughts and deeds. This is what I believe we can talk to, and so I did. I also shared with my mother a line I’d written years before in the notebook she gave me: “I would not be surprised if the answers you seek are right here in this book, which is to say right inside you.”

There is one little coda to the story of my return to Sonoma County, and that is the matter of housing. While I’d been away the cost of living had grown rather high, and there seemed to be few vacancies. All my old tendencies began bubbling in a sickly stew of despair until I quieted my mind and let the heart lead. A kind of electro-magnetic energy brought a fanciful notion into my head, and I followed it to the apartment complex where I’d stayed briefly in 2009 at the dawn of my crisis, trying to summon the pluck to move to New York. Sure enough, as if waiting for me in this sprawling complex of 60 apartments, was the exact same unit where I’d lived at the start of my inner journey, when I’d felt the intolerable burden of the gods judging me. 

Now it’s clear I was right: the gods have indeed been judging me all along. But I had proven my worthiness through the courage to confront my failings, and so the planets showed me that they are not just malefic, but benevolent as well, and that they giveth as much as they taketh away. Now each day when the sun rises over the hills of Rincon Valley, I see what I want and who I am a little bit more clearly. What I want is to fulfill the potential—from the Latin word for power—of all my stars, for a horoscope is a kind of cosmic fingerprint of everything one could be if they could get all their internal energies working together in harmony, instead of opposition. As for who I am, I’m just like you: a mixture of Sun and Moon, Mars and Venus, light and shadow, heaven and earth. 

And I, too, am my mother’s son. 

Christian Chensvold blogs about the world’s wisdom traditions at trad-man.com/counseling.

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