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My Mother Raised Me To Believe In Numbers

Skeptics will tell you that numerology is New Age nonsense. But when my mother and I talk about numbers, we’re really making sense of our own lives.

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I can’t remember when, exactly, my mom first introduced me to numerology. But by the time I was in seventh grade, she was quizzing me in the morning over breakfast.

“What day are you in today?”

I’d do the mental math as I chewed. “2.”

“You know what that means,” she’d say, laughing. I did: detours and delays.

A cursory online search will tell you that numerology is “the branch of knowledge that deals with the occult significance of numbers.” While technically true, my mom bristles at the use of the word “occult.” As far as she’s concerned, numerology is the study of numbers, full stop.

Numerology suggests that certain numbers mean certain things: that there is a correlation between numbers and events, and that numbers can be used to analyze a personality, to identify a pattern, maybe even to shed light on the future. Numerology sees numbers as a lens to examine the arc of a life: who you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going. Skeptics will tell you it’s a bunch of New Age pseudoscience nonsense.

I like to think of it as astrology’s lesser-known cousin. Just like an astrological sign, your “life path” number is the guiding influence over your life, and is determined by your birthday. Modern numerology is primarily concerned with single-digit numbers, so the possibilities are limited to 1 through 9. To calculate your life path number, you add up the values of the month, date, and year you were born, and you keep adding until you reduce the sums to a single digit. So June 15, 1980 (6/15/1980), for instance, is a 3.

Month: 06 reduces to 6. (0 + 6 = 6.)

Day: 15 reduces to 6. (1 + 5 = 6.)

Year: 1980 reduces to 9. (1 + 9 + 8 + 0 = 18, and then 1 + 8 = 9.)

Then you add those three resulting single-digit numbers to calculate the life path: 6 + 6 + 9 = 21, and 2 + 1 = 3.

And like the zodiac, each life path number has distinct characteristics. 2s are drawn to power and prestige, to circles of influence. 6s are natural caretakers and make excellent parents. 5s love to travel. My mom is an 8, and 8s are characterized by their strength (in every sense: physically, emotionally, mentally). This adds up: My mom is one of the strongest people I know. I’m a 4. My mom tells me this means I’m a “cornerstone of society” and a “master builder.” Numerology.com says this means I’m boring, unimaginative — downright stodgy. A number only a mother could love.

Your life path number defines and underscores your whole life, but there are many layers to studying numerology. You can use the month and day you were born to calculate the number of the year, month, or day you’re in currently, in the hopes of gleaning some insight into what’s going on with you — or what might be heading your way.

In a 1 year, for example, you’re likely to spend a lot of time alone. (It is the loneliest number.) For example, I kicked off 2013 by spending New Year’s Day walking around New York aimlessly, feeling alone and adrift. When I told my mom about it on the phone later that night, she listened patiently before kindly explaining that I was in a 1 year now. Chances were that I might spend the better part of it feeling a bit lonely. Better to be prepared; the numbers don’t lie.

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Virtually everything I know about numerology I’ve learned from my mom, who has nursed a penchant for the mystical ever since her own late twenties, when someone first offered to do her astrological chart. She says her curiosity stemmed from self-discovery; she was looking for answers about herself, about her life, about it all. Then a late friend introduced her to numerology — a woman she admired, someone she found wise and charismatic — and my mom found it interesting, and started reading about it on her own.

My whole life, in turn, has been informed by that interest in divinatory studies. She took me to a tarot reading in Sedona, Arizona, when I was 12. She’s been railing against Mercury in retrograde since Y2K. She makes a “new moon list” every lunar cycle. This is the woman who postponed her own C-section as late into August as possible because she “didn’t want to raise a Leo.”

It’s easy to see the appeal: Numerology can be so fun. I cherish the shorthand it’s given us. She says “I’m in an 8 day today,” and I know she means she’s exhausted. (8 days are characterized by hard work.) It’s our vernacular, a kind of inside baseball we fire back and forth. Whenever I tell her about someone, whether it be a friend, a date, a new acquaintance, a celebrity (truly), her question is always the same: “Birthday?” She needs to crunch the numbers.

It taps directly into the truest, most basic human desires: to know more about ourselves and feel known by others.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started introducing numerology into the rest of my life. This is mostly because calculating someone’s life path number is a perfect party trick. It works on several levels: It’s fast, it’s easy to do, and it’s esoteric enough that I’m the only one who’s even heard of it (so no one can tell me I’m doing it wrong). It taps directly into the truest, most basic human desires: to know more about ourselves and feel known by others.

“Ah, a number 9,” I’ll say sagely. “A humanitarian. Very giving. Good for you!” The only hiccup is when I meet a 7. I don’t know anything about the number 7, sorry.

My close friends know that my knowledge is limited. When they have more pressing questions, want more substantive answers, they go right to the source. “Call your mom,” they’ll say. “I need the expert.”

The truth is I’m not always sure how much I subscribe to the mythology. Certainly there have been moments of uncanny prescience in my life: 9 is considered to be a year of endings, and when I graduated from college I was in a 9 year, a 9 month, and it was the 9th of June. It felt a little on the nose. But frequently I’m tempted to dismiss numerology as an exercise in self-fulfilling prophecies or convenient coincidences. The skeptic in me is wary of putting too much stock in it. Or maybe that’s just my stick-in-the-mud 4 attitude talking.

At its heart, numerology is another attempt to make sense of the human experience. So much of life defies logic, marked by things that feel unjust, or arbitrary, or debilitating. Why not diversify your tool kit for trying to understand it?

My mom’s parents were killed in a car accident two weeks before her 5th birthday, which is the kind of profound tragedy that could leave someone embittered toward the world for the rest of their life. But not her. One of the things I love about her is her respect for the inexplicable; there is an open-mindedness and humility in the way she looks at life that I deeply admire. And numerology offers up a source of solace — or, at the very least, a scapegoat.

“I’m tired today because I’m in a 3 day,” she’ll say. “Scattered energy, pulled in many different directions. Tomorrow will be better.”

One of the most beautiful tenets of numerology is that time moves in nine-year cycles. 2016 is a 9 year (2 + 0 + 1 + 6 = 9). Next year, 2017, the cycle will start all over again with a 1 year: a year of new beginnings, of possibility. There is something reassuring, even hopeful, about that.

There’s even hope in the predictability the system offers. Last spring I nearly missed a flight to Europe. I called my mom from the gate, winded from running the length of the terminal, and told her about how traffic had been terrible and the security line was a singular nightmare. She was quiet on the other end of the line.

“Oh no,” I said. “I’m in a 2 day, aren’t I?”

She laughed. I should have known better.

I asked my mom recently why she decided to introduce me to numerology. I expected her to say something about how useful she found it, how she thought she was equipping me with specialized intel, granting me some kind of advantage over the uninformed. Instead, she told me she wanted me to be exposed to it in case it piqued my interest as I grew up. It was something she found valuable and interesting, sure, but mostly she hoped it would be something we could share.

She was right, as usual. The numbers are just a means to an end. When we talk about numbers, what we’re really talking about is my favorite thing to talk to her about: life.

I tell her I’m a little stressed about something before launching into how I plan to handle it. She tells me my approach is “classic number 4!” and what she’s saying is that I’m grounded, I’m wiser than I realize, and that I will figure it out — whatever “it” might be. (Alternately, I tell her I just finished cleaning out and organizing the pantry. Her response is the same.) When she reminds me that she’s an 8, it is to reassure me of her own strength and resilience, as a way of asking me not to worry about her so much.

We talk about the future, how the coming months or years will be colored by their respective numbers, and what that might look like for us. We share, and we listen, and we speculate. And in our conversations, I’m reminded that the span of time is long and gracious. And that there is an order to the universe, even when it doesn’t feel like it.

Maybe numerology is real. Maybe it’s a crock. Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. I don’t know, and I don’t think I care. What I care about is being able to share it with my mom. Because someone has to give me a refresher on what the number 7 means.


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