What to expect when your Saturn returns

The day after I learned about the Saturn Return — a defining and often tumultuous period that occurs every 27–29 years — my boyfriend of four years reminded me of an agreement we’d made a few months earlier: to break up.

We’d made the agreement on Christmas Eve of 2014, while house- and cat-sitting for some friends. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but I do remember the conclusion: this wasn’t going anywhere. Neither of us felt any urgency to act on this revelation, though. We enjoyed cat- and house-sitting together, for one thing. And we had plans to exchange Christmas gifts the following day. Also, we’d already booked a trip to Los Angeles in February, which neither of us felt particularly inclined to cancel. Acting all chaotic — and not going on vacation — would only make things suck more. So instead of picking a hard end-date, we agreed to break up at some point in 2015. That felt like enough time to whatever.

The next few months were chill; our trip to Los Angeles went so well we even talked about moving there together. We were different people in L.A., y’know? Maybe New York was the problem. (I won’t speak for him, but in hindsight I believe there was more than one problem.)

So I was a little caught off-guard when, one Spring evening — a day after my friend Bennett told me I’d started my Saturn Return, and I had no idea what he was talking about — my ex reminded me of our Christmas Eve pact. I knew breaking up had made sense to both of us then, but I had evolved! And what about L.A.?

I have some trouble taking people at their word alone; I can’t help but notice vocal inflection and gut feelings and facial expressions — just, vibes. And vibe-wise, I thought we’d turned a corner. But reality-wise? We’d both meant what we said in December — I’d just changed my mind, and he hadn’t.

While our slow-motion breakup continued to unfold over the summer of 2015, I quit my job at Gawker Media, began freelancing in earnest, and started going to therapy for the first time (rather, it was the first time I went to the same therapist more than once). My ex quit his longtime job about a month after I did, at which point he let me know he still intended to move to L.A. — and he thought I should, too. I had already taken L.A. off the table — if we weren’t doing it together, who would manage all the logistics I’d spent my adulthood actively avoiding? There was also the fact that I’d lived in New York my whole life — and while my entire family had left the city by then, they were still all on the east coast. Plus, I’d never even had a driver’s license (as my five-year anniversary in Los Angeles creeps up, I still don’t).

But he was right: I wasn’t happy in New York anymore. I continued to cling to it because I’d made it part of my identity. I didn’t love the optics of the two of us moving to L.A. in such close proximity, but in my heart I knew he was making a genuine and caring observation, telling me what I couldn’t yet tell myself. That was the entire reason I went to therapy that summer — to figure out why I didn’t trust myself enough to move across the country, despite having some evidence that I wasn’t totally incompetent. My therapist helped me understand that “home” needed to be a place inside myself; it was not a location but a sense of security I had to cultivate and carry with me at all times. It was with that therapist that I meditated for the first time; she also gave me my first birth chart reading.

I went to France that summer, also for the first time. My friend Chelsea had invited a handful of friends — some from the states, some from France, where she’d lived for a time — to stay at a beach house owned by her partner’s family. The trip was special for many reasons, but mostly, for the friends I left with — this was a group I’d vacation with at least once a summer for more than a few years (not this one, though — and I feel it).

Chelsea and I first met in 2011ish, when she was living in Paris; we worked together online for a few years before she moved back to the states. And while we were friendly, we only began to spend significant one-on-one time together in 2015, once she left the job that brought us together (that’s also how I met my ex). I credit that trip, and the ones that followed, with solidifying what has largely been a bicoastal, but very important, friendship.

I moved to Los Angeles on October 1, 2015. By November, I was living alone for the first time, in a massive (for a studio) studio in Echo Park — a neighborhood I chose because it most reminded me of New York. (Old habits die hard.) I made new friends that became best friends. At the end of December, I pulled the plug (temporarily, though I didn’t know it at the time) on Human Parts, which I’d launched in 2013 as a side project. Six months later, I was hired at Medium full-time, as a curator. That was over four years ago.

Why the life story? Well, because it’s not my life’s story — it’s my Saturn Return story. In the post that prompted me to write this, Andrei Burke writes that, “The Saturn Return is a karmic crash course. It’s part nervous breakdown, part personality crisis, and a whole lot of life lessons crammed into 2 ½ years.”

I’d been studying astrology for a few years when I realized I’d never calculated the exact start of my own Saturn Return. While 27–29.5 is the general age range in which it occurs, the milestone actually begins when the planet Saturn makes a full rotation around your birth chart, returning to wherever it was in the sky when you were born. (You can calculate your Saturn Return here.)

Saturn is a slow-moving planet; the experience of this particular transit lasts for about 2.5 years. Transits refer to a planet’s movements though the sky as it makes “contact” — or forms angles — with the planets in your birth chart (which also form their own angles with each other). It’s incredibly rare to have the exact same birth chart as another living person; even twins have disparate charts. Therefore, transits are experienced by all of us in different ways, and at different times. This level of complexity and individuality is impossible to capture in a sun-sign horoscope — which doesn’t render them useless; they just offer less individualized clues as to where you might focus for the coming week or month. (IMO, all that means is you’re better off having no opinion of astrology than one based on horoscopes or sun signs alone.)

Shorter transits made by the “personal planets” (like the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, and Mars) tend to play out on a short-term basis, and they’re always unfolding in the context of longer transits (those made by Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto). Think of the stars as a huge, cosmic clock, one that’s synchronized with all the universe—the universe to which we all belong and are at the mercy of. We seem to understand this when it comes to seasons, or concepts like “day” and “night” — we didn’t get to decide whether these things happen, we only get to decide whether to consider them when planning our lives. And most of us do find them rather relevant. Planetary cycles are like the seasons of our planet; transits, the seasons of our individual lives. They don’t cause things to happen, they simply tell us what time it is. When we know what time it is, we can make appropriate decisions for ourselves. But when we ignore the time, or resist it, maybe the seeds we plant never seem to sprout. Maybe we die of starvation, because the fish we’re intent on catching have already migrated. Maybe we press forward with our plans because we think we know best, meeting resistance and failure at every turn before finally declaring that the universe is against us. (Maybe it’s you who’s against the universe. Ever think about that?)

The beginning of an outer-planet transit is the start of a new season in our lives. It represents an activation of sorts: the birth of a new impulse, need, state of awareness, or area of focus. A time to resolve old tensions or embrace new opportunities. It depends on the planets involved, where they are, and other considerations. But however a transit manifests, this new energy tends to be felt most strongly at the beginning — mostly because, if we’re living on autopilot, this new awareness will feel like a disruption, a wakeup call. As we learn to work with the nature of a given transit — as we accept whatever growth we’re being called to undertake, whatever lessons we’re being called to learn, whatever joy we’re meant to experience, whatever wound we’re asked to heal — the transit lessens in intensity.

As it happens, my Saturn Return began in February of 2015 — when my ex and I first began kicking around the idea of moving to Los Angeles. Almost everything I describe above: the relationship breakup, the job breakup, therapy, learning to meditate, having my chart read for the first time, France, moving cross-country and living alone for the first time — happened within six months of February 2015. It was an emotionally difficult period, but it was also a liberating one. I was due for a change in many areas of my life, and my Return was the alarm bell that woke me up. It prompted me to stop self-medicating my anxiety and depression and try to actually figure out what triggered them, and why. To build the confidence to move and start over, alone, and figure out why I lacked that confidence to begin with. Before my Return, all I knew was that I was good at some things — I didn’t know what I wanted to do about that, or how I wanted to feel, or what needs I had that weren’t being met. I didn’t know I had intimacy issues, or that I sought security from relationships more often than I enjoyed them. I didn’t know the difference between doing something because I was compelled to, and doing it because I thought it was what people “like me” were supposed to do. No part of my life was lived with conscious awareness of who I was, or what I wanted.

The Saturn Return can be challenging, but sometimes we need to be challenged. And it doesn’t always mean complete and sudden upheaval. It’s more like a stop sign, simple accountability, a pop quiz on the first 28ish years of your life: What have you learned? Have you prepared for the future you want? Or do you need to repeat this grade? We probably all know someone who failed to re-evaluate their goals at this time: some remain stuck in careers or relationships that no longer reflect who they are or want to be, others stay at the party long past curfew. Turn down for what? Uh…you’ll find out!

In Cycles of Becoming, astrologer Alexander Ruperti defines this period well:

…the individual finds himself confronted with new situations and new limitations which condition and define his destiny (the pattern of consciousness and character) for the coming thirty years. This is a psychologically critical time since people are acutely aware that something has ended yet barely aware of what lies ahead.

There is a tendency to evaluate the past cycle, not in terms of its value as a learning experience, which is what it is meant to be, but in terms of productivity, which is what the following 30-year cycle is supposed to be. At the time of the waning square (age 21) many people set goals related to their 30th birthday. “If I haven’t made it by thirty…” is an oft repeated phrase among people in their twenties. The unspoken implication is that one will give up if he has not achieved his life-goals by that time. What he will do with the rest of his life if he does not “make it” is not considered.

Fortunately, since most people do not “make it” by age thirty, they still have another full Saturn cycle ahead of them to achieve, to grow, to accomplish, and to fulfill their creative potential. The return of transiting Saturn to its natal position affords an opportunity to reevaluate the dreams and goals of youth in the light of maturity. Many times the ambitions which seem meaningful at twenty-five appear markedly shallow at thirty. This is a time to stop and take a careful look at one’s life before plunging on.

Key to getting through any challenging period is the practice of grace, allowing yourself to evolve. When I reflect on past situations in which I didn’t get what I “wanted,” they all have one thing in common: I was wrong. I thought I knew what was best, what would make me feel better in that moment. But the thing about moments is they pass. When I manage to remember this, to see myself within a greater context, I am less inclined to try to avoid life’s challenges. It’s fruitless, anyway. We can’t avoid the discomfort that’s inherent to growth; we can only repress it, delay it, or redirect it. What we don’t meet now will be waiting for us later, perhaps unrecognizable in form, but always familiar in nature.

Astrology helps me remember this. Time is more than numbers on a clock. It’s a creative process. When I feel lost, astrology allows me to locate myself within this process. When I do this, I can better accept moments that are unclear, or emotionally charged, or unfolding at a pace I find undesirable. The qualities of these difficult moments are inherent to the cycle of life — as are those that bring me great joy, meaning, and growth. It’s only when I try to force a moment — or a person, or a situation — to be something it’s not, that life feels unbearable.

I wrote above about Saturn’s first return (or second cycle), but life-willing, we’ll all meet Saturn again — and each meeting has its own particular flavor. For those coming up on their 60s, the question is one not of productivity, but of meaning. In the west — particularly in the United States — those in their third Saturn cycle will be approaching retirement age, but may not have the financial privilege to retire just yet. While this transit doesn’t require you to quit working forever, it does ask you to shift your mindset and “graduate” to a new way of being — one in which productivity is no longer your primary aspiration. The aspiration of this next cycle is instead, wisdom: cultivating it, giving it room to breathe, passing it down to the producers in their second cycle. If you can afford to retire but love what you do, keep at it — but maybe consider some alterations. Who are you enriching? Who could most benefit from what you have to offer? Meaningful leadership through philosophy, wisdom, and service: that is the theme of the third Saturn cycle.

Since I mostly wrote about the second Saturn cycle, I’ll add another quote from Ruperti about the third that I find particularly apt in light of the pandemic:

If there are so few spiritual leaders in the world today, it is because our society does not really call for spiritual leadership. People have placed their faith in production and technology, and so we have great producers and eminent technicians, products of Saturn’s second cycle.

The collective consciousness is stuck in the second cycle and will remain so as long as the cult of youth is glorified and only productivity is worshiped. In trying to prolong the period of productivity and avoid the reality of age, we are avoiding wisdom as well. Perhaps unconsciously we fear to seek the wisdom which age can bring, because if we were wise we might have to change some of our cherished ideas concerning productivity.

Look up your Saturn Return — what happened in those first six months? And what can you do now to gracefully approach the next one?

former editor-in-chief of human parts. west coast good witch. student of people.

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