Mercury Retrograde: a Review

It’s been a weird few weeks, y’all, and I’m blaming Mercury retrograde. You’ve probably heard of this astrological phenomenon, since it’s sucked up into pop culture in recent years. That may be because it happens fairly often – three times a year, for a few weeks at a time – but I think it’s because it’s really, truly annoying. Mercury is the planet that rules communication, travel, technology, and commerce, and when it goes retrograde (appears to move backwards in the sky) it makes those things go wonky – tech malfunctions, communication goes awry and travel gets snarled.

Retrograde GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

when a planet goes retrograde it appears to move backwards in the sky because of the relative locations of their orbit and Earth’s

The wifi has been in and out of functioning for no apparent reason all morning, here at ALC-NYC, and I’ve been in and out of a not-fight with a friend for three weeks now. On Monday, I got to the train station to find that my metrocard expired, and all three of the machines at my station were only accepting cash. Luckily, I had enough cash for a single ride, but not for the monthly unlimited card that I rely on. When I swiped the card at the turnstile, though, it told me to swipe card again at this turnstile… and then it told me that I had an insufficient fare. I went and argued with the stationmaster about it, and they opened the gate to let me in. Then I went to school, did a whole day, and forgot about it – until I got on the bus in the afternoon. I swiped 2 different (empty) metrocards, shrugged at the driver and got on the bus. When I got to 86th street to transfer to my train, I thought to myself finally, I’ll be able to get my unlimited and I won’t have to deal with this any more. But, of course, none of the machines at 86th street were working either – every one of the (seven!!!!) machines at the station were only selling single rides. Knowing it’s Mercury retrograde helped me find a sense of amusement about it as I bought a single ride, explained what was happening to a tourist, and swiped into the station just in time to miss my train.

Mercury retrograde is annoying, but it’s not just an annoyance. It forces us to slow day, and slowing down things we take for granted makes us notice them – like how I discovered that I could, in fact, hold boundaries with my anxious brain on my Mercury retrograde journey to Australia last year.

I’ve been spending a lot of time, this retrograde, with my old notebooks and past selves – 25 books worth of them. I got sick the first week, and was forced to slow down all the way to a halt. I spent 4 straight days in my apartment, sitting with my changing selves. It is still loud in my head, but not a cacophonous as it once was, I’m noticing.

As I record my present selves – in free writes, in staff check in notes, in journals and reflections on tarot cards, in blog posts – and the data available to me about my patterns piles up, becomes several-cycles-worth of observations, I can see my self getting better at slowing down. I can trace the path of learning to hold my paradoxes: all of my thoughts are valid, even if they are not all as urgent as my brain would have me believe.

It’s a shift that I didn’t notice until this retrograde-review-cycle, but it’s been a seismic one. It didn’t start now, but now is when I can finally feel it: not all of my strongest thoughts and feelings are urgent and need to be acted on. It’s really hard for me to just sit with them – to not go racing down the mental track of contingency plans and what-ifs and hypothetical conversations – but it is possible. When I read my traveling-to-Australia-through-Mercury-retrograde thoughts I can see the buds that are now flowering – I can’t wait to discover the buds under this flower when I check back with this post in a year, or five, or ten…

Astrology I: Why Astrology?

The first thing you need to know about Western astrology is that it is a cycle. The elliptical path of the earth around the sun makes it appear as though there are fixed stars in the sky, called the Zodiac, which occupy the space directly overhead at different times of year in a repeating pattern. Astrology divides that year-sky into 12 equal parts, called the signs, and tracks the movement of the Sun, the Moon, and the planets as they travel through it. Each sign is named for the most prominent constellation in that section of the sky, and has a collection of qualities or traits associated with it – I’ll go deeper into this in a future post. Usually, when people talk about astrology, they’re talking about these 12 signs and their qualities as they are reflected in themselves and others. When someone tells you their sign (“I’m a Taurus”) they’re actually telling you which sign the Sun was in, where it was relative to the skywheel of the Zodiac, at the time of their birth.

Western astrology is a prescriptive schema: it tells us how we are, based on something that exists exclusively outside our selves. We are moving through space; we experience mass and, therefore, gravity. Astrology is not a tool for predicting the future, but it can be a powerful means for making sense of the cycles we live in, and a reminder that the universe, and our selves, are not always in our control. I’m particularly interested in astrology as a schema in self-directed education, because I find that children display the traits of their signs more strongly than adults, whose personalities are steeped long enough in their experiences to complexify, like a soup that’s left to refrigerate overnight and tastes better, deeper, the next day. All the same elements are there, but their interplay makes it harder to distinguish the pure flavor of one ingredient or another.

The Sun is always moving through the signs (it’s in Taurus right now…), as are all the planets and the Moon, and astrology asserts, “as above, so below,” that movement affects our lives. The Sun takes about a month to move through each sign, though these astrological months do not line up with months on the Gregorian calendar, or start on January 1st (this is very interesting to me, but also not a blog post on the comparative history of calendars, so I’ll leave it for now…).The astrological year begins with the vernal equinox (i.e. the onset of spring) and can be divided into four sections representing the four seasons, running from spring equinox to summer solstice to autumn equinox to winter solstice and back around again.

The astrological calendar isn’t perfect (no calendar is perfect) because the year isn’t perfectly divisible; we’re trying to overlay structure on the motion of a rock hurtling through the void, trapped in the gravitational pull of a four-and-a-half-billion-year-old star. Humans are amazing in that we seek to make meaning of that senseless motion, and do, somehow. The universe is vast and unknowable. Schema are a flashlight and grappling hook and rope for splunking the unknown, or a field guide, or an atlas. They’re a language, they’re roadsigns for the psyche. The universe is outside us and inside us too. At its base, astrology is a schema for dividing the year that acknowledges that the motion of the heavenly bodies (the Sun, the Moon, the other planets) have effect on the ways we be here on the Earth. I like to think about their gravity; I think that we are all like planets, or solar systems; everything pulls on itself and that’s why there’s something instead of nothing. We are all representations of constellations of this cosmos in the moment we were born.

I’m into talking about the metaphysical. The why of astrology doesn’t necessarily matter, except that it does to me and you’re reading my blog post. You don’t have to believe all this to be into astrology; I like that it’s a schema that goes as shallow (or deep or vast or miniscule or cosmological…) as you like.

Next time, I’ll give an overview of the signs that make up the astrological wheel (and ramble less about schema and spatiotemporality).