Playing the Death Card

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.


It had been gray and raining for days, so sunshine on Monday was a welcome sight. Rather than wait and walk later in the evening, after dark (as you will know from last week’s post is my latest habit), I was determined to get outside and walking while the sun was still shining. I took off in the slightly sketchier direction – the one I wouldn’t head in if it were dark and I was by myself – so cheerful there was an actual bounce in my step.

The neighborhood was alive with people: a couple of punk teens with bad-ass hair on banged-up mountain bikes, a young mother trying to wrangle three toddlers out of a leaf pile and into the house, two girls walking slowly down the sidewalk in stocking feet. About two blocks from home, I noticed side-by-side yards. One yard had been meticulously raked of leaves, while the yard next to it was a matted carpet of orange and yellow. The boundary between the two lawns was clearly, meticulously, demarcated.

As I approached, I noticed an older woman raking in the side yard of the well-manicured lawn. She looked at me and broke into a lovely grin.

“Beautiful evening for a walk,” she said.

“Sure is. Looks like you’ve had quite the job keeping up with those leaves,” I replied.

“Right! There’s another rake if you want to join me,” the woman said with a mischievous smile. (I believe her eyes literally twinkled as she said it.)

We both laughed, and I continued on my genuinely merry way. About a block later, I stopped to photograph some graffiti which ordered me to:

but rather than consider the definition of art, as directed, I found myself contemplating an entirely different question. Why didn’t I take the proffered rake and help that woman finish cleaning up her yard? 

In the moment of our brief conversation, I had assumed that the woman and I were engaging in noncommittal stranger interaction. Just a friendly passing of a few congenial seconds. It had not occurred to me to take her seriously and join her at her labor. But as soon as the question came to my mind, I knew I had blown an opportunity. I had declined an invitation.

Lately, I have complained about being at a…pause point…in my life. Near the end of one road but not yet able to set foot on the next. I have been chafing at this, contemplating ways that I can experience forward movement or at least some kind of engagement in the NOW, so I don’t revert to old (nearly lifelong) habits of living in and for the future. I know from bitter experience that when I exist in a future context, I have a tendency to allow inertia to lull me into inaction. Suddenly, I have lost focus and months have passed without movement in any direction (except, perhaps, upward on my bathroom scales).

I have been contemplating different tactics, from purposely stepping outside my comfort zone in some way (um, do I really want to hang out at the biker bar by myself and see how that goes?) to setting up some kind of social experiment (eat for a week on the same amount of money a food stamp recipient receives) to see how resourceful and creative I can be as well as to understand how difficult it might be to live within externally-set limits. Don’t get me wrong, these kinds of activities are not necessarily bad. However, for me right now these ideas are inauthentic. Contrived. Right now, I need grounded and authentic.

In Hymns to an Unknown God, Sam Keen says, “Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” In other words, expect invitations to enter into the lives of others, to engage with yourself and those around you in different ways. Invitations to journey in new directions and to try new things.

I believe these invitations (opportunities, clandestine messages) occur in each of our lives on a daily basis. But I also know I am often so caught up in my own scripts, my own daily agendas, that I easily miss them. I don’t realize something important or meaningful has just been offered. What if I had accepted the invitation to rake with that woman? At the very least, I would have taken a little time out of my day to help a neighbor. At the very most…well, who can say what might have been created in that space?! Either way, I would have been richer for it.

Sometimes, these invitations lead to life-changing encounters. The kind of encounters (with others or with ourselves) that give us pause, offer us insight, allow us to connect the dots from where we are to where we want/need to go. As Gregg Levoy says in Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life, “In whatever form these signal events come to us, they seem to indicate…a way in which events on the outside and the inside work together and match each other. The event and our state of mind become like the two eyepieces of a binocular microscope, they are both looking at the same subject, the same truth.” When this happens, the invitation extended to us is, in fact, a call to become our most authentic selves.

I am grateful for the reminder that I need to be on the lookout for these invitations, these messages intended for me personally. Though they might show up at odd or unexpected moments, it is vital to keep the following in mind : once I’ve received the invitation, the whole point is to accept it. To show up at the party (or conversation, lecture, volunteer site, relationship) – without attachment to preconceived outcomes – and see what there is to learn or to give.

Exposing the Soft Belly

My friend, Emily, wrote a thoughtful and revealing guest post for Jenion a few months ago titled, “Why I Love Tolkein‘s Writing”. In the process of crafting her post, Emily confided a certain hesitation about revealing too much of herself. She didn’t want to feel too exposed. Too vulnerable.

I’ve had occasion to ponder the idea of vulnerability this week for several reasons.

First, I’ve written about vulnerability before (here, for example). However, earlier in the week my feed brought me this piece, from Kathy over at “Lake Superior Spirit” which speaks more eloquently, and with specificity, about the vulnerability of blogging and the inherent dangers of sharing too much before you are prepared for the consequences: insensitive comments, intemperate judgements and labelling among others. I wish Kathy’s post had been available before I published this gem (especially the “gasbag” part) for example. Or before I sent some notorious emails in which I emoted dramatically and diarrhetically. When we’re roiling with emotion is not the best time to write cogently or thoughtfully – that’s a better time to stop and think about how much, or even whether, we truly wish to share.

The second event which has had me ruminating on the idea of vulnerability took place at the Downtown Farmer’s Market on Saturday. While meandering around Green Square Park, we happened upon a demonstration of belly dancing by a local troupe. The group consisted of seven women ranging in age from (I’m guessing) late teens to 60ish. They were not all equally sure of the specific steps in each dance, and on one occasion all but the troupe leader turned the wrong direction and a chorus of self-deprecating sounds came from six embarrassed mouths.

Each dancer was in full garb and make-up. The costumes, as dictated by tradition, bared the dancers’ midriffs. These were midwestern women in the middle of their lives. They all had bellies. My friends and I commented to one another that it took courage to dress that way in front of so many strangers. I heard more than one person suggest that it didn’t do much to forward belly dancing’s claim of whittling the midsection. And while I heard no comments more cruel than that, had I been one of the dancers I would have been sure they were being made at my expense – whispered behind hands or in private, judgmental thoughts.

In spite of their initial self-consciousness, the women kept dancing. And as they danced, their comfort level increased. So did their enjoyment of the experience, easily evidenced by the expressions on their faces and the loss of timidity in their moves.

That is the gift hidden in the choice to expose our vulnerabilities: the experience of openness.

Some of us will risk vulnerability only in small amounts under tightly controlled conditions – with a loved one, for example. Like a cat, we make an assessment of the other’s trustworthiness, and only when we feel reasonably sure that we’ll be petted and cosseted, do we expose our soft core. This is understandable – we’ve all experienced being hurt at vulnerable moments. Sometimes this kind of risk takes great courage, either because of the depth of past hurts in general or because we haven’t learned yet if this particular person is worthy of our trust.

Stepping into a public arena with our soft bellies exposed is risk on a completely different level. In those moments, it is as if we are saying to the world, “Bring it on! Because the joy of sharing my passion, my art, my suffering – the joy of being authentically and wholly who I am – is greater than the possible exposure to hurt or ridicule.” Artists, musicians and writers know this. So do activists and athletes – anyone, for that matter, who dares to share a piece of themselves with the world. As Gregg Levoy says, “We move toward a kind of divine presence because, through our passions, we are utterly present. We are utterly charged and focused. We are oblivious, we forget ourselves, our troubles, our day-to-day…lives.” (from Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life). As we become more present, we experience less discomfort with our vulnerability – it isn’t that it goes away, it’s just less central to the experience than the exhilaration of openness.

It seems fitting to end with some photos of the dancers. I hope you can see, as I do, their progression from hesitancy, in the first shot,  to enjoyment!