By Jen Braun
“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”
– Soren Kierkegaard
Often, ringing in a New Year has us thinking about our goals and resolutions for the upcoming 12 months. But sometimes, in order to know where you’re going, it’s helpful to know where you’ve been.
In other words: Stepping back can help us move forward.
As 2023 arrives, we may be glancing over our shoulder more than usual, because both communicator Mercury and action-oriented Mars are retrograde.
The concept of retrograde planets – especially Mercury retrograde – has received some attention from the media in recent years. But what does “retrograde” mean?
When a planet is retrograde, it appears to be moving backwards. This is an optical illusion – of course, the planet doesn’t actually do the moonwalk! But from our perspective on Earth, when a planet turns retrograde, it tends to be a time when we turn inward. It’s a time of slowing down, reflection, and inner processing.
Mercury retrograde times are nothing to fear and are not uncommon – they happen three or four times a year, for about three weeks at a time. Therefore, it’s helpful to think about what the symbolism is and what it means, in order to make the best use of these contemplative periods.
Let’s go over what retrogrades are, what Mercury retrogrades specifically mean, and how Mercury is going to be busting backward moves in the upcoming year!
RETROGRADES IN GENERAL
There are three parts to any planetary retrograde: The “shadow period,” when the planet is treading over ground it will cover during the retrograde and themes begin to emerge (or dissipate, if it’s the end of the cycle); the “station,” when the planet appears to not be moving at all and the energy is considered strongest; and the actual retrograde, or backwards motion.
Of course, a planet typically moves “direct,” or forward. Then, when a retrograde period occurs, the sequence goes like this: direct motion, shadow, station, retrograde motion, station, shadow, direct motion.
The most helpful analogy I’ve ever heard to describe a retrograde planet comes from astrologer Anne Ortelee: Think about driving on the highway, zipping along as you’re about to pass a car. The other car is moving forward, but as you approach it, it appears to slow down, and there’s actually a point – when you’re both side-by-side – that the other car looks like it’s not moving. This is the point that represents the “station” – the still point. Then, as you pull forward and pass, it appears that the other car is moving backwards… which, of course, it’s not. But it appears that way. It’s an optical illusion.
And that’s how retrogrades work: As the Earth journeys around the Sun, we’re doing so in concert with all the other planets also moving around the Sun. And each planet is like a car on the highway, moving at different speeds. We pass each other, we catch up to each other, and so on. This is such a wonderful analogy for how retrograde planets work: We’re all a bit like passing cars on the highway!
In astrology, all the planets except the luminaries – the Sun and the Moon – experience being retrograde at some point, and in fact the outer planets are retrograde for about half the year. The stations, though – when the planet appears still – are when the planetary energy is thought to be most noticeable.
As you probably know, Mercury is the planet closest to the Sun – and it’s also the one that turns retrograde most often.
There’s a purpose to Mercury retrograde times, if we’re willing to open our eyes to it. Often, we dash through our lives, pushing forward and trying to make the next thing happen… to cross items off our checklist, and get things done. Move, move, move. Not much time for introspection.
Mercury represents the way we think and communicate; it also represents travel and business. So when the speedy messenger planet of thinking, speaking, listening, processing, making sense of things, driving and traveling, buying and selling, routines, neighbors, siblings, and local surroundings slows down, we tend to notice it – especially if Mercury is passing over an important planet or point in our own birth chart.
Mercury retrograde periods are best meant for review, clean up, treading over old ground, and reconsideration of past events and people. They’re a nuisance, people say, because Mercury rules communication and travel… so tech tends to get glitchy, trips can take longer with more snafus, people are inclined to misunderstand one another more frequently, and electronic items may break down – because Mercury rules all these things.
But what’s really happening is that we’re being encouraged to decelerate, to take time to mull over what’s transpired, and to rework and redo all of the big and little things that need attention – whether it’s cleaning out your sock drawer, repairing a broken computer or relationship, or sweeping off the metaphorical dust that has collected on your life.
The common astrological advice for retrograde times is to take part in activities that begin with the letters “RE”: reflect, review, reorganize, reassess, repeat, reconsider, recollect, rebuild, and renew. What “RE” words can you add to this list?
Astrologer Elisabeth Grace reminds us, “When Mercury is retrograde, be prepared for travel delays, scheduling screw-ups, mechanical breakdowns, computer crashes, having to repeat what you’ve just said, misunderstandings, the past coming back for a second look, surprise reunions and having to repeat what you just said. Use your FOCUS and double-check important details, like whether the restaurant you’ve chosen for a meet-up is still in business. Or whether it is booked for a commercial shoot or a private party — all of which has happened to me during Mercury retrogrades.”
Do prepare for the retrograde periods as best you can: For example, back up your computers, make sure your car is in good working order, and try to sign new contracts or purchase technical or electrical equipment before or after the stations.
But life doesn’t come to a standstill during Mercury’s retrogrades, of course, so waiting to do all manner of Mercurial activities isn’t practical or realistic.
So if you need to – for example – buy a car, try to do it in the middle of the retrograde period, because Mercury will be moving at its swiftest then. (In the middle of each retrograde period, there’s a point where Mercury joins the Sun – that would be the best day to tackle such items.) If you must purchase a new refrigerator, make sure to buy the warranty. If you have to sign a contract, triple-check the details and have a lawyer or a friend look it over, too.
In other words, don’t trust what you think you know – it’s very possible you’re off the mark. And be aware that projects you initiate during Mercury retrograde times may not turn out how you expect.
Take time to slow down, as much as you’re able. We still need to live our lives of course, but generally the best use of Mercury retrograde is to go over that which needs reassessment, to restore that which is fractured, and to consider what has worked and what has not. How would you like to move forward? What has been the story of your life, and how would you like to shift that story?
If you’re familiar with your birth chart, the house that Mercury is moving through also gives important information about what area of your life may be impacted – so do take a look at that as well!
MERCURY RETROGRADE IN EARTH SIGNS
The sign that Mercury will moonwalk in also gives us information about what the emphasis and themes will be during that period. And in 2023, Mercury will retrograde in earth signs.
Each of the twelve zodiac signs represent the element of fire, earth, air, or water. As it retrogrades, Mercury rotates though these various elements.
In 2021, for example, Mercury backtracked through the air signs, which put an emphasis on technology and communication. In 2022 a shift started, in which Mercury began the retrogrades in air, and ended in earth. And in 2023, Mercury’s retrogrades will occur solely in earth. (Although in December 2023, the fourth one will end in fire – beginning a cycle of Mercury retrograding in fire signs. See how that works?)
Earth signs are focused on the practicalities of life – on sensible plans and realistic, grounded goals. What helps you feel stable and secure?
With Mercury retrograde in earth signs, we’re being asked to consider: What structures support your path forward? What weighs you down? What material items do you need to build your life? It’s a great time to clean your literal closet, to organize your daily schedule in a way that brings you more fulfillment, and to generally Marie Kondo your way forward. What brings you meaning?
How can you recalibrate and realign to that which is congruent with your values, your goals, and your day-to-day life? What can you let go of? What’s no longer working? This is a wonderful time to review your plans, your aspirations, your values, your physical stuff, and how you structure your days.
Now, let’s look at the upcoming Mercury retrograde periods in 2023. Keep in mind that there’s a shadow period of about ten days on either side of the station – a time when we start to notice the themes of that particular retrograde, and a time when we’ll be gifted a hint and called to answer: What from the past needs review?
In other words: How can you go into the past in order to move into the future?
MERCURY RETROGRADE IN CAPRICORN: December 29, 2022 – January 18, 2023
We begin 2023 with Mercury having turned retrograde at 24° Capricorn, offering a chance to ring in the New Year with a look back. It then stations direct at 8° Capricorn in mid-January.
The sensible sign of Capricorn reminds us to be mature, work hard, and persist. I always think of Cap as the school principal’s office in the zodiac: In this sign, we are asked to do our homework, be responsible, have practical goals, and put structures and plans in place to support our calling.
As you reflect on these themes, consider: What’s your personal mountain? What scaffolding can you put in place in pursuit of your goals? What structures in your life are working, and which are inadequate?
The sign of Capricorn is represented by the Seagoat: Sure, it can climb the highest mountain, but keep in mind that it can also dive into the waters of creation with its fish tail. Where are you overachieving at the expense of health and wellness? Where can you dive in?
This Mercury retrograde period is ruled by serious Saturn in community-minded Aquarius: What long-term plans are up for review? What communities have helped you achieve your goals, and how can you help them in return?
At this time, let’s-get-it-done Mars is also retrograde in Gemini – a sign that Mercury rules. In other words, we may find that we’re doing a lot of things twice (Gemini is the sign of the Twins), as our cosmic gas pedal spins in reverse. As the planet of will and the planet of communication review and recalibrate, they’re asking: Do your words, actions, and goals align with your values?
Finally, although Capricorn is an outward-directed, high-reaching, initiating sign, we end 2022 with a look back and an echo from New Year’s Eve 2021: Mercury is joined by relationship-focused Venus and intense Pluto – all in Capricorn, and all near each other. Interestingly, we also began 2022 in a similar way: with Venus and Pluto in Capricorn, and Mercury nearby and about to backtrack into Cap.
Translation: Is there a continuation of a story from the end of 2021 that calls to you, offering a theme based on an important relationship or financial story? The mind and heart are together right now, and the planet of transformation and healing is standing by.
Perhaps the looking-over-our-shoulders Capricorn story won’t finish up just yet: We began 2022 with Mercury backtracking into Capricorn in mid-January. We’re beginning 2023 with Mercury backtracking in Capricorn. And we will begin 2024 with Mercury having just backtracked in Capricorn. The messenger planet is dispatching a persistent memo for us: What will endure?
MERCURY RETROGRADE IN TAURUS: April 21, 2023 – May 14, 2023
Mercury’s second retrograde period happens in mid-April, stationing at 16° Taurus and backing to 6° Taurus by mid-May.
Grounded Taurus offers a focus on money and resources: What do we have and what do we own? This would be a perfect retrograde period to go through your stuff, declutter, and downsize! Do that shredding. Clean the gunk from your fridge and toss what’s expired. What possessions have you outgrown?
Steady Taurus is represented by the patient Bull – dependable but occasionally stubborn. How can you bend without breaking?
The sign is ruled by light-hearted Venus in chatty Gemini. Mercury and Venus have a good connection to one another in this chart, because they’re in mutual reception and house-sitting for each other. What are your values, and which ones still feel aligned with who you are now? What are you worth? How do you silently speak to yourself, and how do you treat others?
Mercury is joined by the sensitive Moon in this chart, as well as unpredictable Uranus. What feeds your soul? In the past, how have you been able to hold steady and ground yourself during unpredictable times? Who or what makes you feel safe?
Finally, this is the first Mercury retrograde that will occur after both Saturn (in Pisces) and Pluto (in Aquarius) have changed signs. This is a big deal, because when the outer planets change signs, it tends to herald generational and societal shifts. (I’ll be writing more about Saturn and Pluto in coming weeks, so stay tuned for that.)
MERCURY RETROGRADE IN VIRGO: August 23, 2023 – September 15, 2023
Mercury reverses once again from mid-August to mid-September, beginning at 22° Virgo and backpedaling to 8° Virgo.
Discerning Virgo is great at breaking something big into bite-sized pieces and analyzing how to get from A to Z. What day-to-day systems in your life are working well, and which need adjustment? If you were to act as an observer of your life to dissect how you spend your days: Are you happy with the results? If not, how can you course correct?
Virgo is represented by the Maiden, a symbol of strength unto oneself and wholeness, placing an emphasis on health. What day-to-day habits have helped improve how you feel? And which have hindered you on your path to healing and wellness?
Mercury rules this sign of service to others, and therefore has a strong presence here. Where have you given at the expense of your own well-being? Or, if you’re someone who tends to sit back while others do the work, how can you contribute, in service of the whole?
How do you spend your days? And if you’re not satisfied with your answer, what can you do to change that?
Mercury will station retrograde near Mars (also in Virgo), and oppose dreamy Neptune in Pisces: What has worked in the past to bridge the spiritual with the mundane for you?
Also, there are several connections of ease that the courier Mercury makes with the Moon in deep Scorpio, Uranus in Taurus, and Pluto in Capricorn: How can you live your life in a way that feels authentic to you? What has worked in the past? The answer, if you dig, might surprise you.
Finally, Venus will also be retrograde in expressive Leo during this time: Relationships, finances, and worth are up for review, at the same time Mercury is treading over old ground. Hold your heart with care during this time, and others’ too.
MERCURY RETROGRADE IN SAGITTARIUS & CAPRICORN: December 13, 2023 – January 1, 2024
The final Mercury retrograde of 2023 happens in mid-December and carries us into 2024. Mercury begins at 8° Capricorn and ends its backward journey at 22° Sagittarius. This will initiate us into a series of upcoming retrogrades in fire, bringing an emphasis on inspiration and creation.
Again, you can consider your goals and life calling while Mercury is backtracking through the sign of the Seagoat in the first half of this retrograde cycle. Here, there is the flavor of a slightly softer Saturn in compassionate Pisces – if we can ever call steely Saturn softened – reminding us that we’re all part of a great whole. Do your aspirations help more than just you?
In the second half of this retrograde cycle, Mercury will be in fiery Sagittarius, offering for review such topics as: broadening your horizons, having an adventure, sharing something you have extensive knowledge of, or diving into something unfamiliar.
But more on Mercury retrograde in fire signs in a future post!
“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
– Maya Angelou
As we step into 2023 with Mercury moving retrograde, we may find ourselves going into the past in order to move into the future. But for many folks, the past few years have been difficult… and so going into the past sounds about as fun as rolling that boulder up the hill, over and over!
Sometimes though, without consideration of the past, it seems there’s no moving forward – and no learning. And although it can be difficult to pick up the scattered pieces of something and reflect on how things got that way, there can be comfort in knowing that – although we can’t always control what happens to us – we can always choose our response.
Mercury retrograde is asking: What’s your response? What’s the story of your life, and how do you want to move forward?
To read the original version of this essay, which includes an excerpt from a manuscript based on the author’s work with teens in foster care, visit Jen Braun’s website.
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