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  • Writer's pictureLelia

Crabwise: The Wisdom of Cancer

In Lauren Groff’s Matrix, there’s a wonderful character called Nest. From her name to her every action, she embodies the healing, nurturing energies of Cancer. Knowing “herbs and poultices and the balancing of humours,” she becomes the abbey’s infirmatrix. She grows an apothecary garden and even provides healing through sexual release, explaining that “some of the nuns require such expression of the humours more than others.” Her warmth, kindness and work as a healer serve as a perfect emblem for Cancer season.

Cancer is the sign of the Great Mother who invites you to nurture yourself, to create a womb-like sense of safety, a matrix where you’re secure enough to explore your inner world and feel your feelings. Having enormous emotional sensitivity, planets in Cancer need quiet, time alone for introspection and dreaming, shelter from the rough and tumble world, whether that protective shell is found within the walls of your home, through soul bonds with trusted loved ones, or quiet time with an animal companion, in the garden, or in a comfy chair in your living room.

Creating a Sabbath

There are a million ways to live the energies of a sign. If you studied 100 people with Sun in Cancer, you’d find 100 different expressions of that nurturing, heart-centered kindness. Henry David Thoreau is an example. Born July 12, 1817, Thoreau doesn’t immediately bowl readers over with his sensitivity and kindness. He’s no Nest. He advocates quiet rebellion against the status quo. That may be his freedom-loving, out of bounds Moon talking. We hear it in Civil Disobedience, or when he writes, “Perhaps I am more than usually jealous with respect to my freedom. I feel that my connection with and obligation to society are still very slight and transient.”

In a way, he uses that contrariness to create a protective shell around his sensitive nature. We see that sensitivity in his reaction to his brother’s death. When they were young men, Thoreau’s brother John cut himself with a rusty razor, got sick with tetanus and lockjaw, and died 11 days later in Henry’s arms. Devastated, Henry developed the symptoms of lockjaw too, although he’d not been cut by a rusty blade. He recovered physically in a few days, but his psychosomatic illness speaks to a deep sensitivity.

The challenge for Cancer is to feel what needs to be felt, but also to protect its extraordinary sensitivity from being overwhelmed. The house Thoreau builds at Walden pond is a near perfect example of the Cancerian shell that shelters without stifling. As Thoreau writes:

“When I first took up my abode in the woods… my house was not finished for winter, but was merely a defence against the rain, without plastering or chimney, the walls being of rough, weather-stained boards, with wide chinks, which made it cool at night...This was an airy and unplastered cabin, fit to entertain a travelling god, and where a goddess might trail her garments.”

It’s a beautiful image of the imaginative richness that’s available when Cancer feels safely sheltered. As he writes a few paragraphs later, “... I did not feel crowded or confined in the least. There was pasture enough for my imagination.”

There are other ways Thoreau lives his Cancerian nature:

  • He cultivates moments of solitude and stillness. “I love a broad margin to my life. Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sing around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveller's wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time.” (Walden)

  • He attunes to the heart’s whisperings. “I might pursue some path, however solitary and narrow and crooked, in which I could walk with love and reverence.” (“Life without Principle”)

  • He recognizes the importance of boundaries. “We should treat our minds, that is ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention.” (“Life without Principle”)

  • He prioritizes the inner life. “Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip.” (“Life without Principle”)

  • He values kindness. “The finest qualities of our nature, like the bloom on fruits, can be preserved only by the most delicate handling. Yet we do not treat ourselves nor one another thus tenderly.” (Walden)


There’s more to Thoreau than the attributes of Cancer, and to reduce him to the characteristics of a single sun sign is to miss out on much of the richness he offers. But if you have planets in Cancer — or if, while the Sun transits through the sign, you feel the urge to withdraw, turn inward, take care of yourself, tend your garden, etc. — Thoreau’s Cancer wisdom may resonate.

I’ll leave you with one more bit of Cancer inspiration. This comes from a stranger overheard in a thrift store. Synchronistically, I wrote down what she said in the same notebook where I gathered notes on Thoreau.

“My critters love me even when I hula hoop in the kitchen.”

This from a woman who also said she was on a 3-day diet and taking a 5-year break from men. That’s also the wisdom of Cancer: caring for yourself enough to set boundaries and surrounding yourself with companions who love you no matter what.

Sources: Robert Richardson. Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind.

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