by Amie Tullius
A chat with astrologer Christopher Renstrom
Nationally prominent astrologer and author Christopher Renstrom recently relocated from New York City to Salt Lake. CATALYST gets to know him. Also: What’s going on with the economy, astrologically speaking.
The choreographer Twyla Tharp says that creative people tend to express themselves best in one of three focal-lengths, like a camera’s focal-length: close-up, portrait, or landscape; and that the artist true to his or her creative DNA will fall into the focal-length that is most natural. If I were to try to identify Christopher Renstrom’s focal-length, I would start at landscape, but then zoom back farther until I had described a focal length that held the sun, moon and planets, as well as astronomy, astrology, human history, pop culture, current events, and a keen understanding of human nature.
Christopher Renstrom is a nationally published and renowned astrologer who recently moved to Salt Lake from New York when his partner, Adam Sklute, took over as artistic director of Ballet West. We sit down to lunch and an hour zips past. The evidence of its passing is that our soups have gone cold; and Christopher has explained two millennia of astrological history, how we arrived at our current system of sun signs, how the solar calendar was adopted, and America’s contribution to astrology. And he is only getting started.
To say that he is a big picture person is an understatement. There is something about him that puts to mind scholars in the classical sense, the kind of scholar who would be an advisor to royalty, living in a turret library with skulls, candles, a white beard and pet crow. In fact he’s quite young and hip in his handsome blazer and designer glasses, and he has a laugh that’s prone to break into infectious gleefulness. He’s also fabulously charming, which along with his impressive depth of knowledge, might be some of the reason he’s a star in the astrological world.
Advisor to royalty is actually not so far off the mark. Renstrom got his start reading Tarot in the 1980s, and soon had garnered a following of high-powered clients. He was fresh from NYU with a degree in playwriting (before that he had been an acting student at Julliard). He was working in a coffee shop and needed a better way to support his writing habit.
The writing habit and divination merged when he got a call from Allure magazine with a request to start writing their horoscopes. From there his career took off: He replaced astrologer Jeanne Dixon writing daily horoscopes at the San Francisco Chronicle, and then the Chronicle’s online entity SFGate.com. His book, Ruling Planets, was published by Harper Collins in 2002, and reissued in paperback in 2004. In addition to writing for Allure and the Chronicle, he writes a ruling planets forecast and astrology Q&A that both appear on Lifetime television’s website. He’s working on an astrology and also a tarot card phone feature that will launch in iTunes this fall. He hosts a monthly radio call-in show for KTRS out of Saint Louis, and lectures and teaches workshops internationally.
It was while he was writing daily columns for the Chronicle that Renstrom’s unique slant on astrology began to emerge. His book, “Ruling Planets,” details his modern take on a much earlier understanding of astrology. Sun signs, he’ll tell you, are a new way of talking about astrology. “The idea of saying ‘I’m a Pisces’ or ‘I’m an Aries,’ relating to your sun sign, is not even 100 years old,” he says. “It was made up in 1930 by R.H. Naylor as a gimmick in Britain to celebrate the birth of Princess Margaret.” Naylor wrote an astrological profile of the new princess that the paper ran, and the British public went crazy for it. Out of that, Naylor eventually came up with the system that personalized astrological profiles into bite-sized sun sign newspaper snippets.
“Before that,” Renstrom says, “you had the ruling planet. That’s what ruled from Babylon on through. You were born under a lucky a star… under a planet. The idea was that the planet you were born under gave you basic characteristics, talents, foibles-basically, your personality. You would say ‘I’m a child of Mars,’ or ‘Saturn is my ruling planet,’ or ‘Venus is my guiding star.'” But before the 1930s you wouldn’t identify as, say, an Aquarius or a Virgo.
In the 1970s astrology went through some major revolutions in the hands of Americans. “America’s unique contribution to astrology is psychological astrology.” Renstrom says, “America is the first country that says ‘I am my planet, I am my sign.’ What astrology becomes about is not fate or destiny, but about making enlightened choices and following your personal path. Astrology was about fate and destiny,” he adds. “The ancients would have laughed at us.”
“Where did that idea come from?” I ask him.
He sighs. “You mean who’s the culprit?” he asks and raises his eyebrows. “Saint Augustine of Hippo,” he says with a disgusted shake of his head that might normally be reserved for the likes of, say, Donald Rumsfeld, rather than a fourth century Christian theologian.
I ask how he reconciles his understanding of ancient and modern astrology in his practice. “The thing that I follow, or I like to think that I follow in the American example,” he says, “is the astrologer as reader. The astrologer doesn’t know anything, the astrologer reads.
“Astrology was never a religion or a science,” Renstrom will tell you. “It was a calendar: It was a way of telling time.” It let people know when the seasons would change, so they could time when to plant and when to harvest, he says. But it went beyond agriculture. “You planned your planting,” he says, but also, “you timed your wars, you timed your trade, you timed when you built your temple, you timed when you were married, you timed when you had children, and so it was this idea that you would do it within your season.
“It was completely practical. Why does every church in Europe have the 12 zodiac signs on it? Time. Where did the sun fall? Remember it was an illiterate public, so everything is visual. When the sundial falls on Leo the lion, the people know it’s the hot season, and can expect a couple more weeks of summer.” The zodiac signs are like the face of a clock, and the planets are the hands.
I am thinking about this elegant way of telling time, with planets swinging around the sun and creating broad patterns that might take decades or centuries to repeat-somewhat like some African cultures have such complex rhythmic structures to their drumming that it might take hours for a pattern to repeat. And then it strikes me that Christopher Renstrom’s mind itself seems to work in sweeping patterns. As he talks he seems to veer off in tangents, but really he speaks in loops that sweep out to snare a point and bring it back in. Some ideas swing back faster, Mercurial, and then some points seem to leave the conversation altogether, but then come boomeranging back-surprisingly, delightfully re-entering the conversation four hours later; Neptune-like in their weight and importance.
I get the feeling Renstrom’s sense of time is like that, too. Throughout our conversation he moves backward and forward through history in grand loops, gossiping about Cleopatra’s dinner parties and then in the next breath Monica Lewinski. I get a sense that this is partially what it means to be a reader in the sense that Christopher uses it: being a historian and student of both current events and world affairs, and aware of what the planets are up to as these events take place. It is his ability to see the patterns created over hundreds of years that constitutes his unique brilliance.
I ask him what is going on with the economy, for example, and he pauses dramatically and backs up a bit to set the context for me.
“1781,” he says, “the discovery of Uranus.” He tells me about the discovery of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, and starts to-metaphorically speaking-tap out the patterns of the planets. He brings in the discovery of electricity, photography and the rise of oil-and in his telling he starts to weave this wide complex rhythm that the planets have been beating for hundreds of years, so that I get a sense of what it must be like to hold all of this information to the point where you can anticipate the next beats that are coming, where you start to feel how many measures until the next resultant rhythm…(some dancers, they say, feel the beats in their bodies, some count them out, Christopher Renstrom would, I imagine, do both.)
He could tell something was coming in the economy, so he told his clients to watch out for the first week of September because there would be a market correction. “Some market correction!” they yelled at him the next week as banks and the stock market crumbled around them. I can suddenly imagine why astrologers have been historically persecuted.
“Saturn in an earth sign is a market corrector,” he says. “Virgo is an earth sign: Saturn entered Virgo Sept. 2, 2007. That bubble everyone was waiting for was already starting to evaporate so that by the time it turned retrograde at the end of ’07 everyone was talking about recession.
“Pluto and Jupiter were retrograde all through the summer, and then came out of retrograde the same day. This is one of those things where as an astrologer you don’t know what that means, but it means something. How many times do you have Jupiter and Pluto coming out of retrograde on the same day? I think it was September 5th, and then there was a full moon a week later-full moons are always triggers.”
Pluto-the planet that rules over wealth-entered Capricorn in late November. “It first entered Capricorn January of this year, but it retrograded. So it kind of dipped its toe in the pool and then left,” he says. But it’s back. “Capricorn is a sign connected to government and banking. What theme are we reading about every day? Government, banks, and wealth. How is it defined? We’re in the midst of completely re-configuring our economy and markets.
“I don’t make it up,” he says, “I read it.” Which is perhaps another way of saying: Don’t shoot the messenger.
I ask him how he makes his own big decisions, like moving to Salt Lake City, for example.
Again, he knew something was coming. Long before Adam heard about the position with Ballet West, Christopher was looking at a Saturn/Neptune opposition. He could see there was a game-changing life event coming up, and he knew the dates it was going to happen. “We knew that he was up for consideration for artistic director of Joffrey ballet [in Chicago],” he says, “but this was telling us something different because it wasn’t connected to Chicago’s horoscope at all. There was nothing Saturn about Chicago. And what it was getting to was Saturn, Saturn, Saturn… you can see it approaching, but you don’t know what it means.”
And then suddenly Ballet West appeared in the picture. While Adam was out visiting Salt Lake, interviewing and sussing it out, Christopher started researching Salt Lake. It turns out that Christopher shares a birthday with Joseph Smith-they’re both Capricorns, a sign ruled by Saturn. Utah itself is a Capricorn; Salt Lake City was founded under Saturn.”
Adam fell in love with Ballet West. When he came back and asked Christopher’s opinion about it, Christopher said, “Let’s see how it plays out.” He wanted Adam to make his own decision and go through the process he needed to. “But this had Salt Lake City written all over it!” he says. After that he didn’t say anything more to Adam about his findings: He let him go through the steps and make the decision without the bias of inevitability hanging over his head. And Christopher continued to look at other options, too, but Salt Lake just felt right.
During our interview he and I never talk about intuition, and as much as he claims to be merely reading, he also strikes me as deeply intuitive. Maybe it’s because his focus is so wide, and he’s keeping track of so many different rhythms that he can’t help but understand more than seems humanly possible.
When he finally visited, Salt Lake really felt right. He says he loved the landscape from the moment his plane touched down. It was like something clicked into place, like the hand of a clock, maybe, moving to the next hour. “The mountains here are so… you can totally see why a city was founded by a religious group here, because the mystical energy of it-it’s like walking into a Cathedral,” he says.
But for someone with such a sweeping view and big-city background is little old Utah enough? Yes. Christopher says he loves the restaurants here, he loves the religious diversity, and the vigorous dialogue of ideas. His friends back in New York were worried for him when he moved out, but now, he says, “I have friends who get out here and are like, ‘I want to live here!'”
Christopher dove headlong into the Salt Lake culture: he’s looking into teaching astrology classes, he has read for clients locally, and he also got right in and started exploring the visual art scene. He curated a show as a fundraiser for Ballet West, Shoe-in, which features reimagined pointe shoes designed by local artists and designers. “I was just like, let’s see what this town has to offer,” he says.
In the upcoming years it looks like we all get to see what this town has to offer. Christopher says we’re headed for change. “Salt Lake City in the next 5 years…! It’s a Capricorn, Pluto’s moving into Capricorn,” Christopher says. So in the next 15 years Salt Lake’s up for some big changes, “You’re going to see a radical transformation.” With Christopher Renstrom in town, it’s sure to be exciting.
Amie Tullius is a regular CATALYST contributor, specializing in cutlture and the arts.