Thoughts on the Death Card

Growing up, I had a friend who was one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. She was brilliant, and wicked, and frankly beyond my power as a poet to describe. She’s like what that one creepy boy in that one episode of Doctor Who once said about the eponymous character of the show: Like fire and ice and rage. Like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. She was, to put it simply, the greatest woman I ever knew, and a mentor without whom I would not even begin to resemble the man I am today.

She is also dead.

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Google Images doesn’t have much useful for “impermanence”, so I went with “wilting” instead.

Obviously, it’s a sad thing that she died, but I should also explain that she died quite a while ago, and that (emotionally devastating though it was) it didn’t come as much of a surprise. She drank like a sailor, swore like a fish, smoked ten months out of every year (and gave lip service to quitting during the other two months), and did a lot of drugs in her younger days. I don’t know many details on that last one, but I do know that she once spent a coked-up weekend with Kurt Kobain in a Seattle brothel. (She was not an employee of the brothel, she was just stopping in for the weekend to visit a friend.) Like I said, she was larger than life.* The point is, she lived a hell of a life, but she always knew it wasn’t going to be a lengthy one.

One of the last times I saw her, she was in a particularly pensive mood. Our conversation turned to the impermanence of life, and, more precisely, of human memory.

“When I was a little girl,” she said, “I kept a notebook. I didn’t write in it often, but every now and then, when I was doing something perfectly ordinary, I would just stop and take note of every detail. How the pillows looked on the couch, what I was wearing, the way my hair was getting in my face, what the room smelled like. And I’d write it all down, just to capture that moment. Because when you start to get older, your memory starts to fade, and those little moments disappear forever.”

Now that she’s gone, I find myself thinking about that conversation more and more often. And–because the universe loves nothing if not irony–I can see it perfectly in my mind. I see the grease stains on the pizza box that we snuck into her office.** I see the late-afternoon light filtering in through the windows, and the black-and-white pattern of her dress, and the yellow nicotine stains on her teeth as she smiled her regret at the loss of her youth. I can hear her voice, as if she were sitting across the table from me now and telling her story for the first time.

I write all of this, as you can probably tell, with a deep, bitter nostalgia and a resignation that I will never be able to explain my memories of her quite the way I want to. But the nostalgia isn’t the point of this post, or at least, not entirely.

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about impermancence, endings, and decay. One of my favorite quips in cocktail chatter is that “It is the nature of all beautiful things to die”. And morbid though that sentiment is, I also think it’s rather an important one.

Humans are temporal beings, and therefore temporary. We’re trapped in the flow of time, and even if we want to pull a Peter Pan (or better yet, a Dorian Gray) and stop the ever-ticking clock, we’re not able to do so. With every breath we take, time moves forward and we grow older: another moment closer to death, another moment far away from the glimmering, evasive memory of the past.

If it hasn’t yet become apparent to you, this post is about the Death card in the Major Arcana. But much like the card, my Death post today is not really about death–or at least, not in the literal, physical sense. Sure, there’s something awe-inspiring and terrifying about the looming gallows, but Death in a Tarot sense is so much more than that.

I find something deeply stirring in the perception of time, not because it brings me closer to the physical stopping of my heart, but because of what it means about my life and about my identity in the here-and-now. Specifically, I’m captivated by the thought that there really is no here-and-now. Time is constantly flowing, never stopping, never slowing, and that means that we as temporal beings can never just sit and be in a single moment of time. As soon as we stop and say “This is the present”, the moment we’ve identified–the this–has slipped past us and is quickly receding on the horizon. Everything we experience disappears into the past the moment we experience it. It ceases to be anything but a memory, growing ever fainter, and if we haven’t made some attempt to document for ourselves, we’ll lose it forever.

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We Tarot readers have a common conceit about the Death card. Probably because it scares non-Tarot people so much, there’s a script that we pull out almost verbatim whenever this card shows up: “The Death card isn’t about literal endings; rather, it’s about a process of change and transformation. Often this transformation can be painful or frightening, but it’s important to remember that any time something ends, it gives way to the beginning of something new.” Blah blah blah rising-sun-in-the-background-symbolizing-rebirth and so on.

All of that is certainly true, but I think it misses out on an important aspect of the Death card. Things end. Period. And yes, new things often begin after that ending, but things do not end in order for a new beginning to happen. They end because they end, because everything ends. Because it is the nature of all beautiful things to die.

When we project onto Death (or, for that matter, onto death with a lower-case d, in the sense of actual physical death) this teleological notion of ending-for-the-sake-of-beginning, we neuter the card and the powerful insight it has to offer. Things end because they end. We are temporal beings living in a temporal universe, and it is the nature of everything temporal to slip away from us, to decay and disappear until all that remains of it is memory, and eventually not even that.

I think there’s a kind of quiet beauty in the acceptance (Tarot) Death. Of Death with a capital D, not just physical death and not just some new-age hippie notion of transformation, but the all-powerful sweep of time that ushers us and the moments of our lives towards an inevitable, unknowable end.

I never adopted my friend’s journaling habit. There are memories that have crystallized for me, and that I will probably hold until I, myself, am gone, but for the most part, I let time pass me by without trying to cling to the present (as it becomes the past). I bow my head and welcome the presence of Death, and all of my dearest memories take on an ethereal, otherworldly quality. There’s something even more beautiful about having precious memories and knowing that they are temporary, knowing that they’ll fade and alter over time. My most cherished friends, past and present, live in a world apart, a magical world of being-and-not-being. I know I may wake up one day in the distant future and not remember them at all. But at the same time, they are made all the more precious to me by my awareness of how fleeting they are.

I live in the land of Faery, the strange place we call the present, which doesn’t really exist and which is somehow outside of time. I am dancing eternity away with my faery companions, and I know that the instant I stop dancing, the spell will be broken. The present will be gone, and I’ll wake up at the dawn of a new day, with nothing but a faint memory, a dream of a time and place that no longer exists. My companions will be gone, and even if they are replaced by new ones, I’ll never see the old ones again. The present is an image in the mist, seen for a moment and impossible to recreate.

There’s something all the more valuable about dancing that dance when I know it’s going to end.

I’m sorry if this post has been rambly or unnecessarily pretentious. Just to ramp up the pretension a little bit more, I leave you with the first and last stanza of Wordsworth’s incredible poem “Ode: Intimations of Immortality“. The poem is too long for me to reproduce in entirety here, but it moves me to tears every time I read it, so I strongly recommend you check it out.

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparell’d in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

[…]

The clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.


*That’s not even the best story. The best story is the bar fight between two one-legged men. Or the other bar fight between an eighty-year-old man and a stripper. Or the pimp named Hollywood. Or the time her macho, potentially violent lover pissed her off and she superglued his feet into a pair of high heels. Or…

**The pizza delivery boy, stoned out of his mind, had been completely unable to figure out how the door-buzzer worked, and I had eventually had to go down and relieve him of the box because of his sheer incompetence at operating a doorbell.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Death Card

  1. I have such a hard time with death. I’m not scared of my own, what terrifies me is the pain we go through when those we love pass. Losing a loved one is like no other pain I’ve ever experienced and stokes countless emotions. When it comes to ‘time’, you are so right. There is no such thing as a moment in time. It does need to be respected and not taken for granted, because it can stop, just like that .

    What an eloquent post and you honored your friend beautifully.

    Like

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