Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
As I gaze upon our lush North Carolina woods, hovering on the threshold of Summer Solstice, this week’s card seems like a surprise. This week, Death comes calling.
Of course, as we prepare to celebrate the longest day of the year, our friends below the Equator have been much on my mind, as they make ready for Yule and Winter Solstice. At Winter’s dark triumph, Death seems obvious.
Here in the Northern Hemisphere, this is the very zenith of our rites of Light and growth. Yet after next week, we will then begin the long descent into the growing darkness.
So it would seem that, as is the way of the Tarot, the arrival of the Death card is perfectly timed after all.
In the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, we have probably the most recognized (and misunderstood!) image in all of Tarot. The skeleton is carrying the flag of the Black Death, also interpreted as the White Rose of the Golden Dawn, or as the symbol of the Rosicrucians.
The king is struck down. The priest faces death, praying for mercy; the young maiden is partially turned away; and the child, completely innocent, faces the grim rider, offering a simple bouquet of flowers.
In the background, a boat sails upon a river, reminding us of the mythological River Styx, upon which a boatman ferries the dead to the Underworld.
There is either a sunrise or sunset (depending on your point of view about death), occurring between two guardian watchtowers that are nearly identical to the ones that appear in The Moon.
Death Of What?
Death comes to us all. How we face it says everything about who we are and what our life has been about.
As I celebrate 45 years of Tarot practice in 2017, I find myself less inclined to quickly call Death “change” or “rebirth” as I once, unfailingly, would.
This is not meant to frighten people, and yes, I still reassure my clients that that it rarely means physical dying, depending on other cards in the spread, or if I am using a deck that calls the thirteenth Major Arcana by some other name, like “Transformation.”
But it is my observation that quite often, Death means some kind of death. Death is, after all, the most decisive fact of life. And, as a Witch and a Pagan, I don’t sugar coat its meaning; after all, it is a natural, vital part of Mother Earth’s wisdom.
Something is going, and going for good.
Yet, it is hard to think about Death in this time when everywhere, life is bursting at the seams.
With skies filled with birdsong, and farmer’s markets overflowing with Summer’s bounty, permanent, irrevocable loss and change is not what we want to think about.
But change is a certainty, like it or not. And this card indicates there is a big transition waiting in the wings.
With the current political dramas unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic, especially, I would suggest that we are seeing another important ending in this bigger, ongoing ending of the era.
Death is our truth-teller and adviser; it is the shadow that makes a clear delineation for our perspective. Whether it applies to us on a personal, private basis, or whether we are considering our global systems of governments, economies, and the environment, Death is the messenger that urges us to get real.
Although rarely a very pleasant occurrence, we can make Death our ‘advisor’ as the sorcerer Don Juan advised Carlos Castaneda. Knowing that each life is sacred, and every moment is precious can do wonders to help us focus our attention and priorities.
A Personal Observation, If I May
Several years ago, here on this very blog, I wrote:
How do you feel about death? How do you deal with it? In many traditions, meditating upon, or even attempting to experience through trance and ritual, one’s own death is a vital pathway to wisdom. And it seems to me that the refusal to comprehend and understand our finite time in this incarnation is folly indeed.
In what ways is Death our liberator or teacher? What, in our lives, is dying now? What is it time to release forever? How might the reality of our own eventual death, or those we love, or the things we care about, help us to make wise choices about what time remains?
For the past year, I have skated along the edges between life and death. My cancer diagnosis was confirmed a year ago next month. But for a few months prior, I already knew I was in grave trouble; I was just waiting for the official exams to inform me how close to that edge I was.
However, my astrologer friends, like Lynn Hayes, had already noticed I had some heavy Pluto transits bearing down on me.
Pluto is the planet ruled by the God of the Underworld, the ancient God of Death and Rebirth. Pluto highlights our cultural and personal struggles to thwart chaos, and face the most extreme loss of control – Death. In Pluto’s hands, all becomes transformed, and the old life is peeled away to reveal the new.
I can tell you that I have been peeled away to within an inch of my life at times. I am stupefied sometimes to still be able to walk, talk, and tell about it, because I grieve for those good souls I met along the way, who live no more.
But at even the worst of times, one golden thread I clung to was the consideration of what I would do, if granted a reprieve for this, my one wild and precious life.
I have made more peace with this issue than I ever thought I might need to, and still live to tell the tale. My encounters with the Reaper appear to be receding, for now (knocking on wood). I grow stronger daily, both in body and in my resolve to wisely and well celebrate what time may still remain for me.
To Be or Not To Be
So.. what about you?
What needs to be pruned off, wiped clean, emptied, released, to make room for new growth? What brilliant edges are revealed by this ever-present shadow?
Coping with the great, vast unknown that lies before each and every one of us is the ultimate challenge, isn’t it?
This is where the buck stops, if we have not drawn that line anywhere else in our lives (I wish our “leaders” were paying better attention).
It is here that our masks and pretenses are stripped away, for good or for ill. We are who we have made ourselves, year after year, thought by thought, deed by deed. And in the face of our mortality, what have we got?
Ultimately, I see Death in the Tarot as a directive that it’s time for us to clear the dead wood and pull the weeds. In that act, we must choose what we wish to see flourish and what we consider to be life-draining. Death demands impeccable honesty.
Yes, Death promises new growth, but only if we do the hard pruning, letting go permanently of what has passed its prime or no longer thrives. Without this, all life would be stunted and suffer. If we shun this responsibility, we sow the seeds of The Tower.
The fruits of Summer do not last, and all too soon, everything must die. So let us savor and bless the sweetness that still is, and let go with grace when it is time.