I often write here about the astrologer Virginia Bell. In addition to being a terrific translator of the heavens, she’s a trusted mentor and a lovely friend–the kind of person I aspire to be. To celebrate International Women’s Day last week, we sat in front of a voice recorder and a heaving board of snacks and discussed Venus Retrograde, the divine feminine, this spring’s forecast, how astrology is affecting the Trump coup, and her new book, Midlife Is Not a Crisis: Using Astrology to Thrive in the Second Half of Life. What follows is our unabridged conversation. I’d pare it down except Virginia’s words–articulate, generous, and peppered with her own wisdom as well as the wisdom of others–are too precious to cut. Consider this a primer in how to make astrology and aging work for you rather than against you.
Lisa Rosman (doing an unfortunate Julie Andrews impression): Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. How did you get into astrology?
Virginia Bell (politely ignoring unfortunate impression): I’ve been practicing since the 1990s but my interest began when I was 14. I asked my priest what he thought about astrology and he didn’t miss a beat. He said, “It’s the devil’s work. (Laughter). Right then and there, I decided, “I’m an atheist and I’m interested in astrology.” Of course, I came back to the church in the sense that I love all the saints.
LR: They’re like goddesses and gods.
VB: Exactly. And astrology was always following me. Exactly. And astrology was always following me. In my 20s, I was living in Italy and working in film. And one day I was talking to my friend, the director Alberto Lattuada, in whose film I had just had a part and the screenwriter, Tullio Pinelli. I was trying to decide whether to stay in Italy or go back to the states. Senor Pinelli (who was one of the screenwriters for Juliet of the Spirits) sent me to a group of alchemists living in Torino–they had advised Fellini when he was filming Juliet of the Spirits. So the next week I was on the Rapido to Torino, but the whole city was empty because it was the middle of August; everyone in Europe takes off during that time! I really am not good with details. But I found an astrologer, Doctore Arno, and he said I had “Molto futuro!” in Italy. Afterward, I was walking back to the hotel with the trees overhead–
LR: Like that scene in The Godfather where he’s walking with Apollonia’s family–
VB: Yes. And I thought, I need to get back home. So I went back to New York and opened a restaurant after consulting another astrologer. The restaurant was a success and I decided to open a second one in the Berkshires fourteen years later. But then That’s when I discovered Steven Forrest, who wrote The Inner Sky, just as I was losing all money on this second restaurant that was too seasonal. Again, I really wasn’t good with the details.
LR: But you’re a double Taurus. How can you be bad at details?
VB: I have a lot of Gemini in my chart too. Otherwise I’d never leave the house. (Laughter.) I always like to say, How far, how high, failure overleaps the bounds of low success. Anyway, I had always thought astrology was about predictions–I’d gone to an astrologer who’d eaten at my restaurant in exchange for readings–and I’d ask questions about what was going to happen next. But with Steven’s book I learned astrology was also a tool for self-discovery.
LR: I’ve known you for 12 years. We met when you were writing an astrology column for Us Weekly and I was the peon assigned to research your column. You were already patient and wise and kind. Do you feel you’ve gotten even better as you’ve gotten older?
VB: Thank you. My experiences have been wonderful–the film, the writing, the restaurant especially. They taught me how to work. But astrology brought it all together. I have found that if you continue to do the inner work honestly, you continue to grow.
LR: Do you think earth sun signs in particular get better as they age or is this true for everyone?
VB: Your sun is your identity, your life force. You take care of that, and you stay healthy. Take good care of your moon–which represents your feelings, your mother, how you mother yourself and others–and you also do well. Paying attention to your planets helps keep you happy.
LR: One thing you and I talk about is that every astrological aspect is an opportunity for growth. Even the ones that seem like a pain. Starting March 4, for example, we entered Venus Retrograde. I thought it would be interesting to talk about what that means.
VB: Venus Retrograde only goes retrograde every 18 months, it returns to the same sign only every eight years, and it goes retrograde in only four signs in our lifetime–Aries, Scorpio, Gemini, and Leo. It dips through other signs, like this time it’s Aries-Pisces. And like with all retrogrades, the planet appears to be moving backward though it actually is not. Retrogrades are not bad, but the planet behaves differently. It’s unavailable. It acts like it’s on sabbatical, or when your boss is on vacation; you’re left doing everything on your own. You may screw up but you learn during these times about what you rely on the planet for, and what patterns have been set.
LR: So Venus governs beauty, matters of the heart, creative projects. And money, though I’ve never understood how.
VB: Venus governs wealth, as does Pluto. Venus governs two signs–Taurus and Libra. Taurus is the second house, which rules money and values. Resources, essentially, including talents and skills. If you have a talent you can make money.
LR: So it’s connected to money as a currency for monetizing how you shine at something?
VB: Yes, it’s like Taurus’s connection to the second house, a measure of self-worth.
LR: So if you have a prominent planet in Taurus or Libra, would you be more impacted by Venus Retrograde? I’m asking, of course, because I’m Libra moon, which I often find a cross to bear.
VB: Yes, and I think we’re all a mixed bag in that way. Every chart has challenges and some easy, flowing aspects. That’s what makes us juicy. We’re here to learn, after all. The trines and sextiles are easy, flowing aspects. The squares and oppositions are challenging ones. Go to any bar, you find the trines and sextiles. Go to AA meetings, you find the squares and oppositions. They’re the ones who work on stuff.
LR: So this Venus Retrograde starts in Aries and ends in Pisces with a conjunction with Chiron. Incidentally, I think it’s no coincidence that the main character of Moonlight is called Chiron, since Chiron is the wounded healer and that character has that archetype.
VB: Oh, exactly.
LR: To me this set of aspects means we start this retrograde looking at our relationship with ourselves, since Aries is such a me-first child. It’s such a “leap, then look energy.”
VB: I always think of Samantha from Sex and the City.
LR: I love a good SATC reference. Then I think of Pisces as old-soul, reflective, as connected to the divine as to planet Earth.
VB: Yes, and Venus was in Pisces back in January, and then it dips into Pisces in early April, going direct at 26 Pisces. And then Chiron has a conjunction right around there. This does seem meaningful, since it speaks to healing yourself.
LR: Activate that self-love mechanism, right. So what do you think people might experience specifically in this Venus retrograde, then?
VB: Well, it’s a unique opportunity to practice rituals of self-care. Radical self-love, radical self-forgiveness and self acceptance. Make yourself beautiful meals, go to spas. Venus is connected to sugar too, though you don’t want to overindulge in that area.
LR: That’s so funny because I don’t eat sweets or any sugar but for this meeting I went out and bought you two cookies in addition to the regular snacks I offer guests.
VB: Very Venetian. (Both laugh.) This period reminds me of that David Whyte quote, “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.” He also says, “The world was meant to be free in.” And that’s Aries. Aries is pushy, aggressive, sassy. But when Aries is where Venus is retrograde, and Venus rules its opposite sign, Libra, this means you need to take action in a diplomatic way.
LR: That’s so not Aries.
VB: No, and that’s the lesson. We have to take action in a tactful way. We have to be kind and caring warriors. Fighting not with the sword but with the shield. We bring the two together.
LR: So you’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting other people. You’re saying, I want to bring truth to the table but I want to do it in a way where I am not going to leave you with wounds.
VB: Right. And when Venus slips back into Pisces in April 2, that will be a gentler time. It will go direct there in April 15, and will reenter Aries April 28, the day after the Aries new moon. That will be powerful.
LR: So what will that mean?
VB: Well, retrogrades are all about the prefix “re.” Rethink. Revisit. Reclaim. So while Venus is retrograde, we are revisiting and renegotiating relationships. We’re all having a 40-day relationship workshop.
LR: Including our relationships with ourselves.
VB: Yes, we’re all doing this. Venus Retrograde can reveal old patterns.
LR: So you address the pattern while you are in the retrograde or wait until it goes direct?
VB: Honey, if it comes up, you gotta do it then. You either use retrograde energy or it uses you. You have to adjust to it. So if you’re trying to do business as usual, you’re going to have trouble. But if you say, I’m going to give into it, I’m going to accept these larger lessons associated with what this planet governs, it can be a fertile time. In terms of relationships–all kinds of them–this can be healing. Delays happen with retrogrades, and that also can be valuable.
LR: Especially now, when people’s courtships are generally about 20 minutes long. When you can just swipe on your phone and get laid—
VB: Right. There’s not enough support in the world for waiting, for pausing. Retrogrades give us an opportunity to stop and look within. I mean, stillness is very radical and much needed. When you’re younger you don’t want to take that time. But as you get older, you don’t mind.
LR: Right, now that I’m in my 40s, I am pleased to slow down and look at patterns. The six weeks of Venus Retrograde used to feel like an eternity but now I’m glad to stop and put some of my relationships under the microscope.
VB: Yes, and it’s also a good time to take a look at your finances.
LR: I find it funny taxes are due during this retrograde. We have no choice but to look at our finances.
VB: It’s also like that book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Let go of baggage.
LR: So it’s a better time to clear out your closet than buy new stuff.
VB: You don’t want to make major luxury purchases or big financial investments. You don’t to get cosmetic surgery. A redo of a surgery maybe, but not the initial one.
LR: This is petty, but in the last Venus Retrograde, a man I was interested in moved in with another woman and when people asked if I was upset, I said, Nope, it won’t last because he did it during the retrograde. And I was right! It lasted like five months. You’re not supposed to make major relationship moves during this time.
VB: Someone at my bank is getting married during this retrograde and I thought it was okay because she’d known this man since she was 6 so it was not exactly starting a new thing.
LR: I think that’s what interests me about Venus retrograde taking place during Aries, which is all about new starts.
VB: Yes, Aries is all about go-go-go, and the retrograde says slow, slow, slow. It puts the brakes on, so it’s an opportunity to see what got left behind, including creative projects.
LR: I guess it’s time to correct the areas where your self-love is impaired since Aries is about the relationship with self. And yes, right now we have “expect the unexpected” Uranus in Aries, and Mercury in Aries.
VB: And there’s a Mercury retrograde coming up in Aries, too. It overlaps with the Venus retrograde, starting on April 9. No rest for the weary! (Both laugh.) There’s also a new moon and sun in Aries on March 27.
LR: Oh my God. I’m going to die. You know I find Aries a trying energy, all that foot-stamping.
VB: And we had that solar eclipse on February 26 in Pisces, which governs film, and then a cluster of planets in Aries, so it was disruption. And that was around the Oscars! Hence the big upset. We said something was going to break through, and it did.
Overall this spring could be a breakthrough for a lot of people. On the 25th of March, Venus and the Sun are conjunct. That’s like a new moon, a power point. It’s a time to break free, refresh. Like the heat of that sun is burning away old baggage. This can be a crisis or a breakthrough rather than breakdown if a person has already been doing the work. So on March 25, do a ritual of some sort. Make an altar for Venus. Use flowers.
LR: I often tell my intuition clients this is a good time to focus on their female ancestors. If ancestors are alive, get in touch and thank them and ask them what they need you to know. If they’re not alive, focus on their legacy, thank their spirits, create an altar for them or even go their grave if it’s accessible. Tell them that you’re receptive to any constructive information. I say constructive because I’ve found you have to be clear that about the need to stay positive. Just because people are dead doesn’t mean they’re necessarily hyper-evolved beings who have it all figured it out.
By the way, don’t you think it’s meaningful that this Women’s Strike is taking place during Venus Retrograde? Do you think we’re feeling International Women’s Day so much more because we’re living under a regime that does not honor female energy and the divine feminine?
VB: Yes. The strike is such a great metaphor for Venus Retrograde. With Venus pulled back, we pull back too. And I love that we’re paying attention to our feminist history so much more because it’s necessary. Going back is also very Venus Retrograde. I love that the suffragettes are all over Facebook right now. I don’t remember any other time when it was like this.
LR: To me, the fact that history is so available is a huge advantage of the Internet. On one hand, we have this retrogressive government but on the other hand we have the retrograde, in which we’re going back and finding the power in the women and women-identified people from the past.
VB: Yes, and we have the goddesses, too. We have Hera, Athena–she was born in full armor from Zeus’s head–and we have Artemis. There’s Vesta, the goddess of the flame. We don’t think of retrogrades as being a transformational aspect but the Venus retrograde in Aries can be. When it moves into Pisces, it will have a softer feel.
LR: God knows I’ve been experiencing that uprising. I’m an outspoken woman who takes up a lot of space on every level so I really push the buttons of anyone harboring latent misogyny. Man, is that happening while the retrograde is in Aries. I’ve had men come up to me and just yell at me about who I am and what I say on Talking Pictures. I’m looking forward to the Pisces part of this retrograde for a break.
VB: I think retrogrades definitely get easier as you get older. Everything gets easier. You’re less hormone-driven. There’s a feeling of “been there, done that.”
LR: How do you think the Venus Retrograde is affecting politics?
VB: Well, there’s a volatile energy to this one, as we’ve been saying. It’s not just Venus in Aries; there’s also Mars, Uranus, Mercury and Eris, the goddess of discord. And it’s all about home security, people being stripped of their self-care–I mean, the stuff with health insurance! There’s so much anger, so much paranoia-the blaming game that’s been happening. The fact that Trump actually accused Obama of wire-tapping.
LR: I was amazed Obama overtly lost his cool, at least according to reports. One thing that distinguished his presidency was his unflappability–sometimes to a fault.
VB: Yes, that cluster of Aries planets that’s happening right now is so explosive. The other thing in terms of politics is this is the Chiron return of the mid-1960s. When Uranus and Pluto came together and blew up open Pandora’s Box, everything that was suppressed–civil rights, women’s rights, drug sex and rock and roll! -came flying out. Now, 50 years later, the two planets make their first aspect after the mid-1960s. That’s a full Chiron cycle, 49-51 years. The square was exact from 2012-2015.
LR: And that’s when movements began to grow. Look at Black Lives Matter.
VB: Yes. So right now what we’re seeing is an echo of the 1960s. Look at the marches, the demonstrations. We’re in a different time but there are similar themes.
LR: If you think about it, in the short term, the radicals won but in the long term the conservatives did. By the 1980s we had Reagan repressiveness–look at how he responded to AIDS. But that created a real revolution in the queer community. I’m not sure if we would have legal gay marriage if we hadn’t already organized for AIDS activism. Everyone was forced to come out and stay out. It’s always a pendulum.
VB: The divide in our country has rarely been this pronounced. The first time was the mid-60s.
LR: I feel lucky that we have elders who were present for that round. My friends in their late 60s are saying, “Dude, we’ve been here.”
VB: I wasn’t doing that much then, but yes.
LR: I think maybe this retrograde is an opportunity to sit back for a second and assess. How can we do this for the long haul? This Trump Coup isn’t going anywhere, though I wish I were wrong, so how are we going to pace ourselves for four whole years? The initial shock of the evil of this regime has passed and now we’re having to do deeper strategizing.
VB: It’s like that Rumi line: “Don’t go back to sleep.” It would have been great if we’d all been this active all along but we were asleep. And if the Trump regime were any less evil–and evil is the word–that there wouldn’t be this reaction.
LR: I have this feeling sometimes that Americans are like teenagers. We liked to complain about our leaders like they were parents, but we didn’t want to take responsibility for our government. That luxury is gone.
VB: At the Sister Giant conference, people kept saying, “We’re in a tomb time. But soon we will be in a womb time. And we cannot have a resurrection without a crucifixion.” Right now we’re in the dark but there will be a new beginning. How long the crucifixion is up to us but because of the extremity of the Trump Administration this is causing dramatic swift changes. With Hillary or Bernie, there wouldn’t be such extreme change.
LR: It’s true. Unfortunately on the human plane, we’re oppositional. So sometimes we need something to rally against in order to rally at all. In New York we had Sandy, we had September 11, but this is a million times worse. What is happening in the public arena right now is affecting people’s daily lives in a way that rarely has happened in this country and it is forcing us to consciously be the grownups. Those us who had to take care of ourselves as kids because our parents could not or would not are uniquely prepared and also are totally having ancient wounds be triggered. There’s that V.R. once again.
VB: I think a lot of people are having these old issues, these traumas, being brought up. This is serious.
LR: Yes. But again it’s an opportunity to step it up. It’s forcing us to be something bigger than the wounded child who unconsciously repeats patterns. Right now we have to be conscious and active or things will blow up worse.
VB: This is the shadow of America. Talk about the swamp. Trump may be a figurehead but he didn’t start this. He rode the wave that started in the 1970s with the Koch Brothers.
LR: Dude, he’s riding a wave that started with slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. The European imperialism.
VB: Yes. He jumped on a surf board and crested on the wave of all that.
LR: Yep. I’m thinking about how Ben Carson called the slaves brought over here “immigrants.” It was insane and abhorrent but also telling. I mean, even when I was a kid, we still had Cowboys and Indians where the Indians were the bad guys.
So many Americans do not want to deal with these shadows constantly hanging over our land. The reality that many of our citizens were brought here in shackles or were native people robbed of their land and their lives. People don’t want to deal with this legacy so they resort to euphemisms and lies. The whole thing about how racists don’t like being called racists. And underneath it, we are seeing that a frightening number of Americans who’ve traditionally held power still believe they are better than others, deserve more human rights. Trump is emboldening them to express these feelings loud and proud. The entitlement is almost bottomless. It’s a nightmare.
VB: It’s all coming up now, hopefully to be healed.
LR: Okay, let’s talk about your book, Midlife Is Not a Crisis. Did you mean for it to be coming out right at the tail end of this Venus retrograde and the beginning of the Mercury retrograde?
VB: No, that was my publisher. But it all works the way it’s supposed to. You use the energy or the energy uses you. There are good astrological aspects for me personally and many of the books have already been sent out.
LR: Well, reading is great during retrogrades. It’s writing on deadline that’s rough. So people should be happy to have this book as their aid. I just received it so haven’t read it yet, but it’s about important astrological passages, starting with Saturn Return, yes?
VB: Yes. It’s about these cycles and how you can thrive in each one of them. How you can use them positively.
LR: So let’s get one thing on the table. Americans seem to think you have fucked up if you have aged. As if there were a preferable alternative.
VB: It’s sort of like being prejudiced against your future self, like an auto-immune disease. Like that phrase, “Oh, I had a senior moment.” Or the assertion that our metabolism slows as we get older, which, by the way, is not true for everyone. I ask people to use the phrase “in my opinion” when they talk about these things. Let there be no embedded commands.
LR: What inspired you to write about this topic?
VB: I had the idea a long time ago but maybe it’s good that it’s taken this long to write it, because I’ve learned a lot more by now. It was only in my 60s that I started being happy. Before that, I would say, “Happy? What the crap is that?” I was doing a lot of part-time jobs in my early 60s and I thought, I need my work to be more of a piece, but I have so much overhead. So I sold my house in the Hamptons, which was hard because I loved it. It was such a sanctuary. But I knew a risk was called for–I knew about the astrological passages by then–and selling the house did free me up. I realized the sanctuary was within me.
LR: That’s beautiful.
VB: After I started doing astrology and writing about it, life wasn’t perfect, but it was integrated. I was happier. And then I noticed people in my generation were aging differently than the ones before them. I decided I wanted to write about it. So in the book, I go through all the decades of life. I’m interested in the generational cycles we all share at the same age. They’re like initiations, power places. So we start with Saturn Return at 29. Then mid-life, which peaks at mid-40s and may be the biggest, most important passage, since it involves four planets and lasts several years. Then we have Chiron return between 49 and 52.
LR: Wasn’t Chiron discovered fairly recently?
VB: Around 1977.
LR: So we were having the return before then but just didn’t know it.
VB: Exactly. When a planet is discovered, there’s usually something going on in the collective consciousness that allows it to be seen at that moment. There is a consciousness to receive its specific energy. In the late 1970s, for example, the consciousness was opening to the Chiron energy; it was a time when words such as self-help and healing became popular. Chiron is associated with the archetype of the Wounded Healer. As a cycle, the Chiron Return is one of the most important times to heal old wounds.
LR: So, if you have kids, that’s around the time when your kids are probably showing signs of the wounds you have instilled in them, too. How your shit has landed on them.
VB: Yes, the Chiron Return entails addressing a lot of family issues.
LR: It reminds me of something the mystic Jill Purce used to say to me during sound healings. “You must heal your family lines.”
VB: Yes, and it’s about healing yourself. After that, is the second Saturn return.
LR: Oy vey.
VB: Double oy vey! The second Saturn return is very different. In the first one we’re young and pushy and trying to get things in the world and become who we’re supposed to be. In the second one we’re becoming an Elder–not an old person, but a member of the older generation. It happens around 58. What will my legacy be? What is my gift to the world now? With our first Saturn return, we take on a big challenge, we get serious, and this defines our 30s. With our second one, we need to think, “What project or task do I have? It’s like what Maggie Kuhn of the Grey Panthers says: “At every phase of your life you must have a goal.”
LR: I think it’s an innate need of every person to be of use, like the Marge Piercy poem says. Things get very messed up when we disconnect from that mandate.
VB: I agree. Then you have the early 60s: Uranus squares itself. “Expect the unexpected.” It’s a second wind. I call it the “showgirl must go on” because Bette Midler at age 62 went to Vegas to do a two-year residency, alternating with Cher, who was also 62. I loved that. That’s Uranus Square. If there’s something you want to do, be, or have, it’s the time to do it. Then, though there are no real passages in one’s 70s, I wrote about that decade because I liked the idea of there being seven generational points.
LR: In the book, you call that phase “Real Problems, Real Possibilities.”
VB: You called it “the Decade of Consequences” that time we were in the teashop and I used it! I wrote that chapter based on what I learned in my own life about how to take care of myself. Then at 84, we have Uranus return. Uranus has connected with every planet in the Chart by then so it’s a coming-home. Your early 60s is the time to take a risk because the decisions you make at that age determines what kind of older person you will be at the Uranus return.
LR: You describe the cycles as ending at 84. But what happens when you live beyond that? I’m a Jew and you know my people are too stubborn to die young a lot of the time.
VB: There’s a big Saturn return in your late 80s. That one is about spiritual reckoning, because it’s about being comfortable with death.
LR: Do you have a spiritual practice?
VB: I do. It’s just for me and it’s a combination of things. I think all good paths are connected to all other good paths.
LR: Me too. My practice is a pastiche that’s deeply personal and it anchors me. It reminds me that it’s never only about me, that I am always part of something bigger.
VB: Yes, exactly.
LR: This may sound indelicate, but do deaths clump around those astrological passages? Look at the “age 27 phenomenon.” If you can’t handle your Saturn return, if you can’t handle the rigors of adulthood, you check out around then.
VB: Absolutely. Look at all the people who die around their Chiron return. Whitney Houston, for example. Or Michael Jackson and Judy Garland. Prince died last year around his second Saturn Return. Jupiter returns are peaceful passages, actually, since Jupiter is benevolent and the planet of peaceful long-distance travel.