By Cassandra Landry Oct. 24, 2019 (SFchronicle.com)
Melissa Graeber (left) and Helen Tseng at the S.F. studio where they host the “Astral Projection Radio Hour,” a weekly radio show about astrology, spirituality and witchcraft.Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
It’s a Tuesday, and I’m standing on the curb outside one of San Francisco’s remaining magic portals.
An errant pigeon, buffeted toward my head by a sudden gust of wind, thrusts out its scaly talons like an airplane seeking a runway. Iron gates screak and clang, a bus wheezes as it rumbles past. The air is all hot pavement, ghosts of cigarettes past and cinnamon. There’s a wet, formative gurgle as someone down the block hocks a magnificent wad of phlegm into the street. (Ah. The incantations of the city!)
Through this portal (another clang for good measure), up a flight of stairs and down the burrowing hallways of this gallery-treehouse-work space, I’ve arrived at the heart of the Secret Alley, the cozy Mission headquarters of community radio station BFF.fm. I’m here to listen in on its witchiest DJs: Shewolfe (“lupine shapeshifter and spatial conjurer with advanced degrees in talismanic magic and sacred geometries,” reads an early bio) and Beatrix Gravesguard (“snackstrologer, scholar of ancient curses and head counselor at the home for wayward witches”).
Helen Tseng and Melissa Graeber, respectively, have hosted the station’s “Astral Projection Radio Hour,” a show devoted to the playfully occult and mystically inclined corners of life, every week for the past five years. The duo are also co-authors of “The Astrological Grimoire: Timeless Horoscopes, Modern Rituals, and Creative Altars for Self-Discovery,” which came out in the spring.
The book is less of a collection of horoscopes and more a choose-your-own-adventure guide to intuition organized by astrological sign. It’s well-designed, expansively considered and approachable — yet it still emits a low hum of mystery when you page through it.
Astrology “has re-entered popular culture as an inclusive and intersectional tool for self-reflection, as part of a growing DIY spiritualism,” the book opens. “In an era where few things remain constant, the night sky is a reliable presence with a powerful narrative, eternally reminding us of the vast and awe-inspiring mysteries of the universe and our deep subatomic kinship with its beginnings.”
This — the spiritualism created in our own image, the search for a toehold of understanding in this crazy world — is why I’ve come to the Astral Projection doorstep. That search may not be new, but it has begun to feel urgent.
Helen Tseng and Melissa Graeber work at the Secret Alley in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, October 1, 2019. They are the hosts of the Astral Projection Radio Hour, a weekly radio show about astrology, spirituality and witchcraft that records at the Secret Alley in the Mission.Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
Nestled in the BFF.fm studio — half activist bunker and half library of your quirky great-uncle with eclectic tastes — Tseng sits at a soundboard, bathed in bright light from a desk lamp. “I think spirituality redefines itself as needed,” she says. “And the search for self (is) prioritized now. A lot of my curiosity comes from fear, and wanting to be in control of a situation that I know I can’t control. Maybe spirituality is making peace with that … making peace with not being able to know.”
In earlier iterations of the show, when the term “witch” was beginning to take on empowering connotations in the mainstream (2013 was declared The Year of the Witch by Vulture-ordained “Terry Gross of witches” Pam Grossman), the two put on a kind of performance as they chatted between music sets. They adopted new voices and read tweets from the 86-year-old Official Witch of Salem, Laurie Cabot.
“It’s Tuesday, wear yellow,” Graeber intones, imitating their past shows.
“Keep a ball of lint in your pocket,” Tseng says.
As the weeks passed and the episodes racked up, their shared curiosity around tarot and astrology (and cats and environmental dread) became natural avenues to explore. “We both work in creative fields. You kind of hit those ruts where you just need to shake your snow globe,” Tseng says. “Reframe, refresh.”
On the day I’m sitting in, they discuss menopause narratives, the resurgence of the “monstrous feminine” and a recent article about Millennials who moved in with nuns in Burlingame. Graeber, who has been fascinated with astrology since she was young, writes the show’s “snackoscopes,” bite-size horoscopes that suggest snacks, as well as soundtrack moods to pair with the movements of your personal universe. They’re peacefully encouraging and a little cheeky.
“I think we had this two-pronged fear of both ‘the real astrologers’ and the people of science and reason writing us off forever because we made a thing that’s based in this kind of hokey pseudo-science,” Tseng says, of publishing their book. “But it’s not meant to be a counter to rational thought or science: It’s meant as a separate way to see the world.”
Stressful times can lead to seeking solace outside the mainstream. When the mainstream is the stressor, something like astrology, which offers observations and analysis based on the position of various planets at the time of your birth, can be a balm. A cosmic “Hang in There” cat poster.
And maybe the Bay Area still digs a little mysticism. Dropping your sun sign into a conversation about work-life balance doesn’t seem so out of place in 2019. Over the past year, I’ve come to expect it.
So why exactly have these rituals, pulled from astrology, tarot, reiki or general “witchiness,” become so alluring? Have we grown more open-minded? Or simply more desperate?
“We’re in a period where we’re hungry for archetypes and narratives,” Graeber says of the larger embrace of mystical calling cards. “Astrology, tarot, the Enneagram, they all offer us stories. Historically, when we’re collectively in uncertain or unstable times, those kinds of paths tend to pop up. People want answers.”
And as with anything, when we want them, we’re usually willing to pay for them.
In April, the New York Times described Bay Area venture capitalists hovering around the “$2.1 billion ‘mystical services’ market,” betting on the surging popularity of astrology apps and Instagrammable tarot decks.
Crystals, touted by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, have found their way into skin care and water bottles and fueled exploitative mining operations in places like Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Paired with dwindling affiliations to conventional religions, our relationship to astrology has evolved from a parlor trick into a very real road map to self-improvement and a way to cope with our current reality.
“Plenty of times, I’m like, tarot’s bulls—,” Graeber says, slipping her headphones back over her ears. “But then I pull the same card three times on three separate occasions.”
She shrugs. “If it works, it works.”
The Mission District studio where Melissa Graeber and Helen Tseng host the “Astral Projection Radio Hour.”Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
My version of staring into the existential snarl of my own soul usually involves ruminating about normal life things, Googling them in increasingly specific phrasings and realizing that a) not only am I the only one who can answer what I’m asking, but b) the answer might not even exist.
At the end of last year, I had begun to, well, flail. Nothing that couldn’t be explained by low-grade burnout, or politics, social media consumption, boredom, or any combination thereof. I was approaching 30 and amused to discover I had become a surly who-am-I-what-is-life cliche.
Around this time, a very smart friend mentioned that she’d been for an astrology reading. Apparently, there was what amounted to a celestial rave going down in my sun sign. (Shout-out to my Capricorns.) I booked a reading and found myself in the neat, sunny San Francisco office of a woman named Sarah Fontaine.
We went through my birth chart, a printout featuring a wheel with a little spirograph at its center, studded with numbers and signs of the zodiac. We talked about habits, meditation and the aforementioned flailing, which I learned could be mostly thanks to a planetary transit dubbed the “Saturn return” — a cosmic rite of passage often associated with upheaval or personal change, marked by Saturn’s return to the same spot it held when you were born.
This will sound dramatic, but it was as if I could see the gears of self grinding away for the first time, like the Philip K. Dick short story “The Electric Ant,” where a man discovers a record of his subjective experience unspooling from a machine within his chest. Not only could I see the threads of my own life, I could see how long it might take for them to untangle. Did it tell me what I wanted to hear? Absolutely. I floated out of there, beatific.
I wanted to know what it was like to watch people have this realization, so about six months later, on a morning when Ocean Beach is swathed in fog and everyone’s hair is a little fuzzed from the mist, I visit Fontaine at home.
Astrology “has been a part of the way I look at the world since I was a teenager,” she says. “I don’t feel like it’s a belief system, really. I feel it’s the most nuanced modality for understanding the complexity of a person. It’s a hypothesis that I’m interested in working. As long as it works or I find it to be useful, I’ll use it. As soon as it doesn’t, it’s not like I’m wed to this thing.”
Fontaine avoided overtly advertising her readings until about five years ago, relying instead on word of mouth to generate clients while she ran a preschool out of her home and taught in high schools around San Francisco.
“I started asking bigger questions about my life as I approached 40,” she says. “What (did) I want to do with my time? When I got really honest with myself about that, it was helping people connect to themselves, and the mystery of all that is larger than themselves.”
These days, she’s a full-time translator to the skies, offering classes on both astrology and mindfulness meditation in addition to chart readings for individuals, couples and even families. (She’s also on Patreon, where she delivers horoscopes and essays on various topics.)
The growing popularity of astrology and mindfulness has brought in new clients, people who’ve never had a reading before and are open to it for the first time.
“It feels like more and more people are embracing a new simultaneous scientific and spiritual approach,” she says. “You see reflected what you need to see, but that’s not a bad thing. To me, it’s just another way of finding your own wisdom.”
Helen Tseng works the sound board at the studio.Photo: Yalonda M. James / The Chronicle
You’d think even a modest sampling of internet personality quizzes would put you off them forever, but I couldn’t quite resist the Enneagram. That mostly had to do with the way people talked about it — like a hallowed Myers-Briggs personality test with an eye toward spiritual growth instead of making your boss understand why you hate office pingpong tournaments.
A brief Enneagram primer: Nine interconnected “types” (ranging from the Reformer to the Peacemaker) span a spectrum of identities and form the diagram from which the model takes its name. Its origins are murky (some theories ascribe its foundation to the work of a fourth century monk), but the term “Enneagram of personality” is credited to a Bolivian philosopher named Óscar Ichazo in the post-WWII era. Interpretations of the theory flourished throughout the 1980s and ’90s and became a popular catalyst for discussion in Christian spiritual practice.
A test can be easily found online to determine where you best align, but most people can tell with just a quick glance of the summaries, which highlight the dominant fears, desires or motivations of each type.
“I don’t think we necessarily want to be put in boxes, (but we do) want help communicating who we are,” says spiritual director Dani Scoville. “Things like the Enneagram actually help move us beyond that ‘one size fits all’ mentality. It’s almost like the gateway into therapeutic work, a way where you can be empowered on your own to explore it.”
Scoville trained at the Spiritual Direction Institute at the Mercy Center, a ministry and retreat in Burlingame run by the Sisters of Mercy. Though she was the lone Millennial in her three-year program, she says the center’s broad, all-encompassing approach to spirituality is actually deeply in line with the way Millennials tend to think.
The best way to understand spiritual direction is to imagine therapy: Scoville’s directees, as they’re called, usually meet with her once a month and spend the hour examining different aspects of their spirituality through things like prayer, meditation, hiking, yoga, exploring their Enneagram type or astrological sign, or pulling a tarot card. It’s all good, and it all counts. Most of her clients are women, and all of them are Millennials. Many are “post-Christian,” Scoville explains, and looking to discern their spirituality outside of a rigid or conventional church setting. Often it’s the Enneagram, which remains popular among Christian communities, that forms a bridge.
Vibing with Enneagram types can feel, as Scoville puts it, like seeing your brain printed out for the world to see. It can be a shock, even an embarrassment, depending on what you feel it reveals about your world-view. (There’s a whole host of Instagram meme accounts devoted to this feeling. My personal favorite is @RudeAssEnneagram, run by a self-described foul-mouthed chaplain.)
“Everyone wants to know what they’re good at. Sometimes people approach the Enneagram like it’s going to be like Strengthfinders,” says Scoville of a management tool popular in Silicon Valley that highlights your strengths. “The Enneagram’s not a really great party trick because it ends up exposing how you’re protecting your ego,” she says. “You can’t go like, ‘Hey, so what’s your core fear? Being in love, being a failure, being worthless?’”
While my Enneagram type pegs me as both driven and image-conscious, with a dash of competitive hang-ups, it also provides insight on how I might channel those impulses into something more productive. (Or, in my case, loosen the death grip.) Once I began to see the same patterns, I couldn’t stop.
“For a very long time, I had this idea that working on myself was selfish. But doing the interior work is part of showing up well in the world,” Scoville says. “Maybe this is my very hopelessly optimistic heart, but I feel like when people are doing their inner work and they’re coming from a place of whole, abundant self, then they can think about showing up for other people.
“It’s a lifetime of work. It’s not a BuzzFeed quiz and now you’re this transcendent person,” she adds. “That work is hard, but it’s thrilling.”
It’s thrilling, I think, because so many of these rituals can be a form of sincere play (which people forget to mention when scoffing at their validity). It’s fun to think about your tiny, singular mark on the cosmic calendar, or how you relate to the elements. It’s fun to pull an ominous looking tarot card and guess at what it could mean in your story. And yes, it’s fun to realize you and your closest friends share the same crippling self-doubt or deeply held passion.
I do far less existential Googling these days. Not because I’ve had some kind of transcendent breakthrough, but because of the big answer at the heart of every one of these practices: The questions are the point.
Cassandra Landry is a freelance writer. Email: email@example.com