A few weeks ago I realized it was coming: Mercury Retrograde, the name given to the three or four times a year when the planet Mercury passes by Earth, creating the illusion of backward movement. I don’t remember exactly where I was, but let’s say I was in my bed, because that’s where I usually read my horoscope in the mornings. Let’s say I sighed dramatically, because that sounds about right, too. I’m always upset to see it coming, but the worst part about this particular episode was that it was set to take up the better part of October, my favorite month.
It began on the 4th. Maybe you noticed. I will be honest: I did not, at first. Sometime between making note of the dates it would occupy (October 4-25) and the day it actually began, Mercury Retrograde slipped my mind. That morning, a Saturday, I met two friends for breakfast. The cafe where we planned to meet has two locations, it turns out, and I went to the wrong one. My friends, already running late, agreed to come to mine. Everyone was pretty polite about it, but we were all annoyed. The mix-up, the pouring rain we all had to walk through to get there. The day ran a little off course right from the start.
"Mercury retrograde seems to be the one thing that can make the hardcore skeptics a tiny bit less anti-astrology."
After we ate, we went into a four-hour movie, during which time another friend texted me, noticed I was uncharacteristically unresponsive, and became worried that I had died. I came out of the movie to find a series of increasingly panicky texts. I responded that I was sorry, and still alive. (A relief for us both.) A little while after that, though, we got into one of those all-encompassing but non-specific arguments. The great thing about text arguments is that sometimes seeing the other person typing throws you into unmitigated panic about what they might say, and you start jabbing at the letters faster and faster in hopes you’ll be first—just to kind of head things off—and soon enough you’ve sent each other a whole bunch of unintelligible sentence fragments you then have to correct.
Anyway, it was fine and sorted well before bed, and maybe I wouldn’t have thought any more about it if it weren’t for Twitter. But when I scrolled through my feed the next morning (also from my bed), I noticed a tweet from one of the astrologers I follow, reminding everyone to be cautious with our communications now that Mercury was in retrograde. And that’s when everything that happened the day before made sense.
ASTROLOGERS CALL MERCURY THE “messenger planet,” ascribing to its movements the ability to rule our communication. While most (if not all) astrologers concede that Mercury does not actually reverse course during periods of retrograde, the commonly held hypothesis is that this is a cosmic event responsible for confusion, misunderstandings, and mishaps. Ophira and Tali Edut, also known as the AstroTwins, told me by email: “[Mercury] is closest to the Sun, so it speeds around, gathering information and disseminating it to the rest of us, like a cosmic news bureau. During those three-four times a year when it passes the Earth and appears to go in reverse (like the 'doppler effect' of two trains passing), all the signals get scrambled.”
If you check your horoscope during Mercury Retrograde (or maybe just before), you will be warned, without fail, to back up your hard drive, get your oil changed, avoid signing contracts, to speak softly and carry a big stick. It’s not a good time to start something new, we’re told. In fact, it’s often a time for dredging up the past. The Edut sisters advise being on the lookout for texts from long-dormant exes or former friends, as well as untimely friend requests on Facebook.
Of course, you may not check your horoscope at all. Belief in Mercury Retrograde presupposes at least some degree of belief in astrology at large. But more and more Americans are granting some level of “scientific-ness” to astrology—55 percent said that astrology was “not at all scientific” in 2012, compared to 62 percent in 2010. And in recent years there also seems to be a wider, pop cultural embrace of Mercury Retrograde as an almost standalone concept; see the single-purpose website IsMercuryInRetrograde.com, the growing semi-annual spate of survivalguides, the cautionary reminders from the likes of Katy Perry and Erykah Badu. Write the AstroTwins: “Mercury retrograde seems to be the one thing that can make the hardcore skeptics a tiny bit less anti-astrology.”
So what makes Mercury Retrograde easier to swallow? Friends of mine with similarly selective astrology beliefs say it’s because the evidence just keeps stacking up. “When there is something happening and it affects a lot of people, it's something I notice,” Melanie says. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in that way; we see more and more people talking about it, so we pay more and more attention to the bad or mixed-up things that happen during those few weeks.
And then, too, it’s a perverse kind of fun to resign oneself to short-term cosmic doom. “I'm very open to believing that I am naturally clumsy and it has nothing to do with Mercury,” Reyhan says. “It just feels better to think that the whole planet shares this weird, bad time together.”
If you think it’s all bunk, well, science is certainly on your side. But I would argue that it is productive to believe (or even “believe”) in Mercury Retrograde. You will be moved to back up your hard drive and strengthen your passwords. You will check in on your fellow adherents; you will choose your words more carefully; you will throw yourself a pity party with a time limit. You will feel great the day after it ends.
As long as I was in touch, I figured I’d ask the AstroTwins what I personally, as a Sagittarius, could expect this time around. “Back up everything electronic,” they wrote. But they also told me that with Mercury in retrograde in my 12th house of closure (who knew?), I could be in for an overdue apology—which I am really looking forward to.