La Miseria by Cristobal Rojas, 1886
***The following reading of the Death card is excerpted from the mini lit mag Queen of Cups. This week’s issue can be read in entirety at the link. You can subscribe to Queen of Cups for free. Issues are delivered every Wednesday to your inbox. ***
I don’t usually shuffle the deck and pick the weekly card feeling like I need some kind of guidance or a relevant message. I usually just shuffle and pick, take what we get and set to work. This week, however, I found myself shuffling slowly, heavily. After several stressful, anxious, angry, post-election days, a torpor, a complete lassitude, had settled over me. I shuffled absentmindedly and picked a card about three or four from the top of the deck, without much thought. I was surprised to see the Death card and immediately recognized it as appropriate and powerful. I’m not going to be able to help putting this card in the context of recent events. I would like QOC to be as much of a haven as possible, where we can all think about art, focus on art, read good literature, write a little and have some spiritual/philosophical fun with the tarot, a place to be introspective and centered. But….. Sometimes the complicated and challenging aspects of life intrude, and art can’t really be separated from life anyway, nor would we want it to. Many of us have been knocked off our centers and spiritually dislocated, come face to face with our own fear, anger, and helplessness, and, sometimes even more painfully, face to face with the fear, anger, helplessness and suffering of those around us who we love, respect, and wish to support. Although the appearance of the Death card in B films always portends doom, Death in the tarot doesn’t signify literal, physical death, but a powerful metaphor. Metaphor is another reason I love the tarot. The Death card can be read in both positive and negative ways depending on the context but also because the idea of death as change contains both positive and negative elements. Both readings see Death as an ending, an inexorable force which may feel overwhelming, a time of significant transition and transformation. If we accept this analogy, there is also likely to be struggle, fear and pain. The idea of denying death or forestalling it isn’t really relevant. Literal death is not swayed by either denial or reasoning. This card is certainly speaking to what many of us lived through on November 8th. The election of any new president and handing of power from one to the next is always a mini-death in the metaphorical sense. There’s trepidation as we watch this fragile construct called America enact its every four-year ritual. This year there’s a sense of dread in half the population, and the very fact that the population of our country is literally split in two over its beliefs, ideals and direction is heightening this dread. Half of us are mourning the impending loss of advocacy and care for our environment, health, education, religious freedoms, equal rights, tolerance, liberty, and moral fiber. Many of us feel afraid for ourselves and even more afraid for friends and family who, because of their skin color, or sexual orientation, are more vulnerable to being targeted when hate speech incites violence. I have taken comfort in friends telling friends ‘I’ve got your back’. Not a cliche in this context, but a real promise that’s not easy to make. I’ve got your back, as in: I will call out racism when I see or hear it. I’ve got your back, as in: I will call out misogyny and homophobia when I see or hear it, I’ve got your back as in: if a Muslim registry is established we will all register as Muslim, I’ve got your back: I will use my talents, my energy and resources in the fight against fundamental injustice, I’ve got your back: I will stand beside you because, as many of us know from experience, we’re stronger and safer in groups. We, writers and artists, are in a unique position to use our work on behalf of humanity, for equality, fairness, integrity. Art-making is truth-telling, which in itself is a powerful and subversive act. You don’t have to write activist or political poetry for a poem to send a profound message about the human condition. And it’s also desirable for art and craft to sometimes be a balm, an object of beauty, joy, and gratitude, that allows its viewer to breathe deeply and feel, for a moment at least, that life is going to be ok. It’s alright to feel that in the presence of death. We should offer each other, our readers, our viewers, and ourselves, that empathy. I felt this as I worked on the doll I donated to the Standing with Standing Rock fundraiser I told you all about last week. I created her in the days leading up to the election and half of election day itself. The blog post I wrote with photos of the process received a powerful response. People need art in dark times. They need to make art and interact with art. Some of the warmest, most genuine, and bonded groups I have spent time with were informal ones come together around art, craft and writing. We need to keep doing these things on small and large scales and count whatever good results as more light in the darkness. An ancient and enduring ritual of death is that of sitting vigil, from the Latin wakefulness. A loved one commits to sit, awake, beside the bed of the dying for comfort and to bear witness to the life and death of this one individual. It is a commitment to being present, seeing what has to be seen, feeling what has to be felt and staying put. Sitting vigil occurs in non fatal struggles too, as when we sit with a person severely depressed, heartbroken, in physical or emotional pain, the woman in labor, the loved one betrayed or spiritually bereft. It’s one of the hardest roles to fill and one of the most basic. It is a job that has often been taken-up by women. I have sat vigil in nearly all of these ways in my life. I like to think of sitting vigil as the act of space holding, one person holding a forcefield of safety and love around another who is too devoid of lifeforce, weak, or in pain to do this for herself, but also holding a space of reverence for the hard work of suffering, letting go, being human. I think this is what the Death card is calling us to do. There are days of action ahead, they’re knocking at the door, right now we take time to sit vigil for each other and for the loss of something greater.