Friday, July 21, 2006

The Terminator


"All but Death, can be Adjusted—
Dynasties repaired—
Systems—settled in their Sockets—
Citadels—dissolved—
Wastes of Lives—resown with Colors
By Succeeding Springs—
Death—unto itself—Exception—
Is exempt from Change—
"
-Emily Dickenson

What does that card image say to you? Hi, I'm Death, right? It's all there, the human skeleton, the scythe, cutting a swath through the remnants of human affairs. The lives of noble and peasant alike laid waste: the artist, the scholar, the kings and queens, the laborer, all meet the same end. The great equalizer: Death. Is there anything in this image suggesting rebirth? Fun things on their way? I don't see it, do you? Call me a party pooper, but Death means end, finale, termination. "Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore." This card is from the Classic Tarot deck, a reproduction of a Milanese deck, dated 1835, but it's a very typical, historically accurate portrayal of death symbolism in art since the early Middle Ages.

So why do so many tarot readers insist this card does not mean what it clearly portrays? That look of terror in a client's eyes in the middle of a reading is one reason. Nothing can cast a pall over a for-entertainment-purposes-only tarot reading faster than having Joe Black make an appearance. Readers are quick to say, "Oh no, Death doesn't mean literal death, it's symbolic, you see, calm down...have a mint." Soft-peddling death is a natural reaction. We don't like death. It's unpleasant. It hurts. It's scary. However, no matter how you candycoat it, death represents an end. True, that end doesn't have to be the literal end to someone's life, but it certainly means an end to an aspect of someone's life, be it a relationship, a career, a phase or way of life. It's an ending that cannot be resisted, it's going to happen, like it or not, and the attending grief likewise cannot be avoided.

Much as we'd like this card to represent transition, I don't believe it does. Sure, the potential is always there for new things to come to fill the empty space left by death, but this card isn't talking about that, not yet. First, we must sit with the emptiness, grieve the loss, and accept it. Generally, we don't like to do that, in our own life or with others experiencing loss. The tendency is to rush through the painful to get to the other side. Get over it. That's understandable, but unproductive. If there's one thing I've learned about grief is that it will haunt you until you face it. It dogs your every step until you finally sit down and just weep and wail and hurt. Then and only then are we free to move on past the loss and begin again. That's precisely the time period this card is portraying. Right there in the hollowness of those skeletal eye sockets is the emptiness we feel in the wake of losing something, or someone, significant to us. Death invites us to wait, to sit a while in that place, let it wash over and through us because denying it is as useless as thinking we can outrun Death at the end of our lives, too.


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