Playing the Death Card

1 11 2012

Dia de los Muertos figure, photo taken by Mike Beck in Santa Fe, June 2012

Back in the early ’90s, I was living in a college town full of odd characters and interesting happenings: I discovered a love for beads and beadwork; Sunday evenings were spent at “reading night” (we gathered to read aloud, things we’d written or excerpts, poems, etc. that we loved); if you discovered the location of Secret Pizza your pie was free. It was during this time, one very hot July evening, that I met The Purple Lady.

She was a well-known fixture in town – a profusion of wild gray hair, hippie style, and always purple clothing. My brother, Matt, the soup cook at Great Midwestern (the coffee place in town) had met her and somehow gotten into a conversation which led to him arranging Tarot card lessons for himself, his girlfriend Syndy, and me. On the night of our first lesson, we arrived at The Purple Lady’s place and were invited inside. We sat quietly, while she urged us to send a silent message of peace out from our bodies, encouraging mosquitoes and flies to stay away from us so that we didn’t inadvertently crush them.

We went over the basic information about the cards: the structure of the deck (major and minor acana), and the suits. Then, we began learning the symbolism of the major arcana cards. The lesson ended with homework: over the next week, do a reading for yourself every day using only the major arcana. Also, pick one card a day to study in detail. In this way, we would (The Purple Lady assured us) begin to grow a personal understanding of each card’s meaning and how it fit within the context of a particular reading.

Armed with very little knowledge and a brand-spanking-new deck, I dutifully set about my daily readings. And in every single reading (which I recorded for my teacher) I turned up the thirteenth card: Death. On the night of our second lesson, the following week, I shared my notes with The Purple Lady, who made no comment about the frequency of the Death card’s appearance, and I was hesitant to ask. Instead, we spent most of the lesson talking about the suits of the minor arcana and their meanings within a reading. Again, our homework was a daily reading. However, instead of another class, the third meeting was to be an individual reading and consultation with The Purple Lady. I scheduled mine for her first available time slot.

Once again, I dutifully performed my daily readings. By day twelve, I had turned up the Death card twelve times. I was starting, as any novice might, to grow a bit concerned. Was there something seriously wrong with me?!

Day thirteen was my scheduled reading and consultation. We sat cross-legged on a blanket in The Purple Lady’s backyard as she drew and laid the cards in a traditional Celtic Cross spread. And there, in plain view, was the Death card. “How many times has this card shown up in your daily readings?”, she asked. “Twelve,” I replied (because it sounded less scary than saying “all of them”). After a moment, she said, “And this is the thirteenth time the thirteenth card has been turned up.” I nodded, wordlessly.

“Well,” said The Purple Lady. “You’re probably freaking out about that. People often misunderstand what this card is all about. But the truth is, the Death card is simply a powerful symbol of change.” She went on to say that the major arcana cards represent major life transitions, processes, forces (while the minor arcana represent daily life events). The Death card reminds us that change is both the passing of what has been AND the arrival of what will be. At that point in my life, I was in a time of tremendous personal change, needing to let go of who I had been in order to make room for the person I was becoming.

You may be wondering why I chose to share this story today? I started thinking about it in relation to Halloween and the occult. Which led me to the celebration, today, of both All Saint’s Day and Dia de los Muertos. All of this focus on death – not as the final event in life, but as a symbol of transition to a new way of being. These early November holidays are not about the cessation of life, but about the next life of our souls.

And as I thought about this, I was reminded of a passage from Gregg Levoy’s Callings:

“Eventually, our feelings of inauthenticity and restlessness, our envy of others’ successes, our panic at the passage of time and our own reflections in the mirror, all become like tombstones – they remind us of where someone is buried –and we will measure our fear of death by the distance between our desires and our actions, between the life we want and the life we have.”
 

They become like tombstones, remind us of where someone is buried, because they are the markers of our failure to heed our callings in this life. If we live lives that are wrong for our spirits, says Levoy, we are “lost souls”. Of late, I have especially felt that panic at the passage of time – the fear that I may have squandered too many years and will never get where I hope to be. And then I remember that I have to be willing to let go of the past, of who I was and who I am today, in order to transition into who I will be. And this includes letting go of the idea of “squandered time” – the past simply is. Accept that and move on.

So, whether we’re officially celebrating All Souls/All Saints Day, Dia de los Muertos, or just experiencing a sugar crash from Halloween, this seems like a good moment to focus on our callings and let go of what was. To remember that we have important things to do here before we join the ranks of those celebrated in early November holidays. Let’s not spend too much time, in this life, being lost souls.

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