“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
That fun bit of literature is from The Bible. Revelation.
I’m not a fan of The Bible as anything other than literature and I’m not a fan of organized religion because I went to a cult for the first fourteen years of my life and they messed up my head pretty good and proper.
But I do like Revelation, because, lord almighty.
That is some turgid freaking melodrama right there.
True to Wednesday Addams form, I’ve always like the Death (bàs in Scottish Gaelic) card in the tarot.
Lucky card number 13.
I’ve always really liked the number 13 too.
Basically, if it’s supposed to be bad, or bad luck, or undesirable, I tend to like it. Part of that, I’m sure, is a conscious effort to re-enfranchise the unwanted as a precocious youngster. But that’s become internalized, now, and I really do feel a little “aww” sensation in my chest when I encounter something dark or spooky or mysterious or weird or sort of evil.
I love evil.
Everything is fine.
Here’s what Death means, in a nutshell: dismemberment.
Not in a physical sense. In an intellectual sense. The fracturing of personality and identity. This is a card of breaking everything down to the molecular level.
Think of identity like a bag of Skittles.
Because Skittles are more fun and cheerful than dour old basic-ass M&Ms.
Be the Skittle, whenever possible. Don’t be the musty old M&M.
Anyhow, think of a bag of Skittles.
I know, your heart is all warm and fuzzy just picturing them.
It’s going to be fine.
Now, rip that bag of skittles open and dump them out on the floor or the desk or the table or the jail cell bunk in front of you.
It’s a rainbow-licious mess ain’t it, Hoss?
Now. You’re going to pick them all up. And, as you do, you’re going to sort them into color piles.
You got ta Roy G. Biv that shit out, y’all.
Got your piles?
Okay. That’s Death.
The day my husband got arrested…the day my house got tossed like a felon’s cell…the day my life was taken from me and shattered and then handed back to me in pieces, I was that bag of Skittles. Just laying on the floor getting all germy.
It took me a long time to start gathering my shit into piles.
But that’s what Death asks us to do.
Let’s just do a quick analysis of the card’s symbols:
Again, every deck is different, but I’m going traditional and sticking with my Rider-Waites. If you have a different deck, or prefer the imagery or symbolism of a different deck then, by all means, have at that deck.
It’s like religion. It all boils down to the same fundamental component parts, really.
Don’t get caught up in the dogma – or the imagery – of any one deck and you’ll be fine.
Here we have a skeletal rider, invincible and unstoppable in black armor, atop a white horse, bearing a black flag portraying a totally Jung-flavored near-mandala. Behind the yellow-eyed beast the gates to a city are open beyond a flowing river, and the sun shines, bright and unabashed, beyond the skyline. The gates are knowledge. The sun is wisdom. We must gain the one before we are granted access to the other. Before the rider, a bishop pleads, or honors. We can’t clearly tell, but his posture and his body language indicate that he is subject to the skeletal rider Death, without a question. At his feet, an adult lies dead, at the horse’s hoof, precariously toppled on the ground, lies a crown – man’s glory – and on the other bottom half of the card a woman looks away in abject resignation as a child gazes up at the figure in awe. All are powerless against him. He is situated leagues above them, and the woman and child’s place before his horse’s hooves indicates their complete vulnerability. It would be nothing for him to cream them right there, where they kneel, and never look back.
And Death does not ever, ever look back.
While there’s plenty of color going on in the card, the predominant colors are black and white. Absence of color – the purity of white – and the collection of all colors, of all things, in black. Death’s black armor tells us that he is in all things, an inexorable part of life. His white ride indicates the lack of emotion in his errand. It is not vindication, nor is it altruism that motivates him to swing his scythe (a symbol curiously omitted in the Rider-Waite deck but clearly featured in the majority of other decks, just as an interesting aside). Death isn’t bad and he isn’t good. He’s just Death. His intent is pure, straightforward, and easy to read. He doesn’t ride a painted pony, y’all. He’s rollin’ straight outta Compton, with a plate on his grill that says “ain’t fuckin’ playin’.'”
In contrast to the black and white are yellow and blue. Blue, representing water, which is the element associated with emotion, signifies man’s intuition. Yellow, associated with the element of air, which is in turn associated with the intellect element of man’s ego, is well-represented too. You can’t talk Death into or out of a damn thing (intellect) and you can’t guilt trip him either (emotion). There is no getting around him.
What doesn’t appear in much volume is green, which is the color of earth, the bull. Perseverance, stability, physical bounty. This card is about spiritual, emotional growth. Not the other way around.
Maybe I like Death in the tarot so much because it’s so misunderstood. In any spooky movie of which tarot is a trope, a querent inevitably draws the Death card and Miss Cleo gives him a dire warning, in her faux gypsy voice, of the impending doom the card imparts.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Death is a good thing. But you can’t be all westerny about it. Remember last week’s card? The Wheel of Fortune? Remember how Anubis and Set keep going round and round, up and down, into and out of awareness?
You’re going to have to buy into the cyclical process of degeneration and regeneration. Dismemberment and rememberment.
Yes. I just made up a word.
I’m trained to do this.
And those terms, dismemberment and rememberment? They’re important. Put a pin in them, because they’re swinging back around.
“Dis -” as a prefix indicates an undoing. “Re-,” subsequently, is a prefix indicating its opposite. Restoration. Completion. Reversal to wholeness from a state of incompletion. The implication is that whatever you’re redoing you must have undone. Or, to accommodate for the fact that not all disintegration is necessarily our fault (though that does not absolve us of our duty to accept and work with what remains), whatever must be redone has necessarily been undone.
We of more western philosophies are just now beginning to awaken to an era in which the legitimacy of reincarnation, rebirth, and regeneration are acknowledged. For many of us, though, the western belief that death signifies the ultimate end still runs strong in our unconscious minds.
I’m agnostic. I make no claims about whether or not Death is the end of everything or just a new beginning to a new chapter in our story; one that those who’ve been with us this far don’t get to hear. But what I love most about agnosticism is that in so conceding your own ignorance to what you can possibly know for certain, you are given access to the possibility of all things. Not the probability. But the possibility. It’s your job to base action and belief on the answers you come up with to the equations of possibility vs. probability.
With great power comes great responsibility.
For Death – in the tarot as in life – to be anything other than the apex of tragedy for you, you must be able to allow for regeneration.
And if you can do that, then Death is nothing to fear.
It doesn’t mean we have to like it. It doesn’t mean it will be comfortable. Death is not comfortable. Death is the disintegration of all we know, all we are, all we have become, all we ever hope we will one day be, into our most basic component parts.
But it’s not the destruction of the Skittles themselves.
It’s just the reorganization of them.
They’re all still there.
It’s E = mc2 of the self. Matter is energy. Energy is matter.
And matter is neither created nor destroyed.
Death is spring cleaning of the soul, when it comes to the tarot. We humans are pretty routine-oriented. When we are comfortable we tend to like to stay that way. That’s natural. That’s biology. We don’t want to expend energy unnecessarily. And reorganizing oneself requires extreme amounts of emotional and mental energy.
But it cannot be avoided if we are to grow.
Reptiles outgrow their skins and must shed them in order to live on. The skins they molt and leave behind would constrict, eventually crush them, if they went unshed. So often we tend to put meaning in the wrong place. We place value on our external selves. On our looks, our jobs, our reputations, our bodies. On our roles.
When Mike was arrested, I identified with certain labels. Labels I’d always wanted and intended – tried very hard – to wear with pride.
Among the most important of them, to me, was “wife.”
I said from a young age that I would NOT marry more than once. I valued very highly the importance of the commitment undertaken in marriage. I valued very highly the demands of the institution on a person to grow, change, adapt, and intertwine with another person. I valued the focus on “we” rather than “I,” so that both parts of the “we” could grow into their best possible versions.
I value the power of marriage to improve the individual through selflessness, through the intentional putting forth of effort to maintain the team over the self.
Not a dismissal of self, but an admittance that through acting selflessly our selves grow in proportion with our group.
I was never, ever getting divorced.
That’s why, no matter how bad it got – and it got scary bad, toward the end – I was committed. My whole life, I’d longed for commitment and, when I thought I had it, my own commitment exploded exponentially.
Unfortunately, even when it became clear that I did not have commitment in return, I chose to dig in my heels and commit harder.
Anybody remember Boxer? The six foot pile of pure brawn and naivete from George Orwell’s Animal Farm (which I wrote about last week, if you’re interested). Oh, Boxer. Good old Boxer. Boxer kicks ass for Animalism. He works hard, and no matter how hard he works, every day, he wakes up and he openly re-commits.
“I will work harder,” he insists.
But then, after he is compelled, at the Battle of the Cowshed, to kill a stable boy with one kick of his mighty hoof, Boxer spends the remainder of the novella sort of haunted by the fact that, morally, his commitment to a cause of questionable purity has led him to do something that doesn’t quite sit right with him.
And yet, there is work to be done. And he is compelled to working. The faster the Titanic sinks, it seems, the harder Boxer works.
But Boxer – sweet, sweet Boxer – is as dumb as a box of hammers. He is as unwise as he is strong. Horses are well-regarded, their symbolism deeply entrenched at this point, as beautiful, strong, powerful animals; awe-inspiring in both their physical ability to effect change and their emotional, unintelligent, superstitious, and generally flighty, fearful natures.
Horses are big dumb animals in need of a steady hand to guide them to positive consequences of the intelligent use of their powerful bodies.
Oh, Boxer. I truly cannot help but love you.
I just also can’t help but pity you.
And, though I recognize that it is not helpful in the least, I can’t help but pity myself when it comes to the entire subject of my marriage as a microcosm, and what it reflects in the wider picture of my life.
Emotionally-motivated commitment – to people, to causes, and to campaigns of truly idiotic behavior – have neutralized what could have been awe-inspiring spiritual and mental brawn in my life.
Mike’s arrest and the profound change to my life that it imposed, in one swift-fisted sucker punch, is Death’s card personified.
It saw me going full Boxer, and it put me down. And thank God it did. My daughters, this year, are entering their father’s preferred age range when it comes to being sexually attracted to children. He bathed them almost every night until they were two years old.
Imagine if I were still sending them up for bath time with dad today.
That the arrest happened is a good thing. For all three of us – myself and my daughters – it is a good, good thing. A well-disguised blessing, perhaps, but a blessing nonetheless.
The way that these arrests are made needs to change. Some accountability needs to be put on law enforcement to do no more harm than necessary when they swoop into a home, into a life, and crush it. To this day, the anger I feel about the way that search warrant was executed is that it would have been nothing for those thirty cops to have rustled up a mental health advocate and a representative from CYS.
Detectives sat in front of my house survielling me for at least one day before he participated in the raid on my home. I know that someone there knew that I had two children. And whether or not I was involved remained to be seen, I get that, but why would you not hope for the the best and be prepared to offer someone who’s done nothing wrong – even if you find that out after an hour or two into the execution of the warrant – but is being subjected to the most unempathetic, violent and forceful attack on her sense of safety and security just in general, in the world, to orient her from the start, to help her navigate the trauma from within the middle of it? I don’t understand that.
To law enforcement, the family of an offender is a partner in crime at worst. At best, they are an obstacle to be overcome. But at the end of the day, with your home in chaos and your life in shambles, when everyone’s left and they’re all through with you now, and you’re sitting in your living room surrounded by madness – physically in the utter trash heap that they’ve turned your home into and emotionally for the same reasons – you’re just a person who’s done nothing wrong and has been harmed and left to handle the fallout unassisted.
Like a sex crime victim, on the side of the freeway, skirt up over her hips and bruises on her face, wrists bound behind her back with a 30 cent zip tie.
That’s what the first few hours, and the first few days, and the first few weeks, and the first few months, and the first few years after that day, which I’m only now finishing, felt like.
To this day, I carry as much shame as I do rage when I think back on that experience.
It needs to change.
When I interviewed for the job I have now, the inevitable five-year cliché question came up. Because of course it did.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?”
Or some variation of the above.
I told Jon that day that I saw my self advocating for women and children who’d been through what I’ve been through.
I couldn’t have understood at that point that this book I’m goddamn writing, whether my brain wants to let it happen or not, is entirely propelled by that motivation. If I can make one woman, sitting there in that situation today, as I was four years ago, feel one ounce less pain just by letting her know that this experience will isolate her from so many people but that she is not entirely isolated?
If I can get under the skin of one legislator or one person who can insist that, going forward, mental health and children and youth must be on site when a home is raided for reasons like mine was raided, if ten years from now no one would imagine that such a law enforcement action would be allowed to be taken without aftercare being planned, referred for, and executed on site, in real-time, then I will have done what I was supposed to do with this shitty, shitty fucking experience.
If one person going though a life-shattering traumatic event is better able to pick her damn Skittles back up and reorganize herself to more fiercely walk this Earth going forward?
Then Death will have been a positive force in my life.
Death asks us to allow ourselves to be dismembered. But it also asks us to re-member ourselves afterward.
Dismemberment and rememberment.
Death is only the end of it all if we fail to commit to remembering ourselves afterward.
Don’t fear Death. Not in the tarot, and not in your life. Reroute that mental energy of fearing it into anticipation of it instead, and to planning for how you will remember yourself when it’s done with you.
It’s the difference between growth and stagnation. You don’t need to embrace it. You don’t need to jump up and down and celebrate Death’s arrival. But you do need to hang on tight to the knowledge that it is not the end when it swings its scythe on your life, open the door, and allow it to enter in.