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Wild Planets

by Kathryn Bonn

While I was writing this, Mercury went into retrograde. Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp all went down. A deadly malfunction grounded an entire class of aircraft. My phone stopped recognizing old friends’ numbers. I had an unprecedentedly bad disagreement with a colleague.

Have you ever had the feeling that everything is going haywire for no apparent reason? Computers crash, travel schedules get discombobulated, odd conflicts kick up? You may have heard someone say  “Mercury is in retrograde” and wonder what they meant.

As it turns out, Mercury’s orbit around the sun periodically does something weird: It appears to go backwards.

Astronomers and astrologers agree on that basic fact. Here’s how StarChild, a website from the The Astrophysics Science Division of NASA, explains it: “Retrograde motion is an APPARENT change in the movement of the planet through the sky. It is not REAL in that the planet does not physically start moving backwards in its orbit. It just appears to do so because of the relative positions of the planets and how they are moving around the Sun.”  (Note: their emphases.)

In our sun-centered (heliocentric) solar system, retrograde motion happens when a faster-moving planet catches up to and passes a slower one in its orbit.  In this case, Earth “passes” Mercury, and makes Mercury seem like it’s going backwards, relative to us. This, some say, wreaks havoc on humans on Earth.

According to  Kansas City-based astrologer Cindy Mckean, who writes extensively about the topic, “In Greek mythology, Mercury is the Winged Messenger of the Gods. In mythology and astrology, Mercury is the planet that rules communication, commerce, thought processes and short distance travel. A Mercury that appears to move backwards, translates to us on Earth like going back on what was transmitted. Computers crash, traffic gridlocks form, misunderstandings happen, as well as lost communication and bad transactions.”

Redman Maxfield, an NYC-based theater, film and television actor, has felt the chaotic effects.  “If you say ‘I’ll meet you on First Avenue at 2 o’clock,’ I will swear you said ‘Second Avenue at 1 o’clock.’ ” He takes precautions.  “I won’t buy electronics unless I’m forced to,” he says. “I’ll wait, since there’s a good chance something will go wrong. But you can’t stop life, so astrologers say if you’re forced to sign a contract just make sure you have crossed every t and dotted every i.”

Astronomers reject such starstruck notions, but many others swear that things can go awry. There’s even a website that tracks the situation: If you search “ ‘Is Mercury in retrograde?’ you will learn that “Something else must be bumming you out” or whether, in fact, it’s time to buckle up for the backwards ride.

However, don’t take drastic steps like canceling a long-planned vacation, cautions Cindy Mckean. “As a professional astrologer and a human, there's only so much control we have over cosmic patterns. When Mercury is in retrograde and you know what to expect, prepare accordingly, but I wouldn't advise you to change your life around it since it lasts a few weeks every time it happens, three to four times a year. Plan for it the same way you'd plan for inclement weather. If you know it's going to rain, you bring an umbrella and add a few minutes to your commute for wiggle room. Same for Mercury retrograde: If you know there's a higher chance of a computer crash, back up your data. Be prepared for possibly redoing a task because of a misunderstanding.”

Happily, there can be a positive spin to the orbital anomaly, reports Maxfield. “Retrograde means return, so you’ll bump into old friends, people you haven’t seen in years, or an old boyfriend will call. If you lose something, it’ll probably come back to you.”  The Farmers Almanac says it’s an excellent time to reflect on the past, since our “intuition can be high and coincidences can be extraordinary.”  

Despite the potential positives, I’m relieved to report Mercury goes direct, or retrograde ends, the day before my upcoming vacation.

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