The Death Card, Spaghetti and Ghosts

The Death card is one of those scary Tarot cards that no one wants to see in their reading.  As one British writer put it, “This card usually sends the wind up people . . .”  

Death . . . eeeew!  Creepy.

We should talk about that . . .

I’ve attended a weekly bereavement support group since my life partner died.  We get together once a week – on Zoom, since Covid happened – discuss the grief process, check in with each other, and offer emotional support to members who are hurting.  At one of the meetings a new member whose husband had died a few weeks earlier asked, rather hesitantly, “Um . . . have any of you had any experiences with . . . like . . . ghosts?”

Every hand in the room went up.

Every single one of us had experienced strange messages or pictures of our loved ones inexplicably falling off of shelves or lights that flickered on and off when we mentioned the names of the people who had died or books that we hadn’t taken off of the shelf lying on the floor opened to passages that comforted us.  

Every single one of us.

And here’s an odd thing about that:  even though a LOT of people have these experiences, “normal people,” (and by, “normal,” I mean people who aren’t in the grief process) don’t want to hear about them.  Oh,they try to reassure the person who’s grieving that their dead person isn’t, somehow, dead. They’re well armed with the standard, trite phrases.

“I’m sure he’s right there with you.”

“She’s looking down on you from heaven.”

“You have a new guardian angel watching out for you now.”

Still, they really don’t want to hear about how the dead person is RIGHT THERE in your living room turning lights on and off and leaving books out for you to peruse.  Because, you know, that’s kind of spooky.  

And, yes, spooks ARE spooky.  When you’re cooking spaghetti and you get a flash of someone who’s dead sitting at the kitchen table, it does tend to pucker your pasta.  But it happens all the time.  Ask anyone in any grief group.  

So why don’t people want to talk about it?

Well, there’s probably a primal fear of the dead that’s hard wired into our bodies and minds.  The horror story genre is built straight out of that energy and authors like Stephen King know exactly how to evoke it and make the hair on our necks stand up.  

And, of course, there’s all of the religious crap that our culture embraces:  dead people are supposed to be in heaven eating pancakes with Jesus or they’re supposed to be in hell roasting marshmallows with Satan,  but they are NOT supposed to be reclining in their favorite barcalounger playing with the cat.

There’s also a certain amount of it that flows out of good old fashioned denial.  The more we focus on death, the more we have to acknowledge that someday we, too, are going to be dead and, by golly, that’s just plain depressing, doncha think?  We even have a word for people who want to talk about death, “too much,”:  morbid.  According to the Cambridge dictionary, that’s, “too interested in unpleasant subjects, esp. Death.”

(LOL – if you’re going to die – and you are – how can you be, “too,” interested in that?)

And there’s the strong atheist/empiricist current that flows through our culture.  If a phenomenon can’t be plopped onto a scale, weighed, dissected, and held with our hands, it doesn’t really exist, and you can’t weigh a ghost.  By that standard, or course, rainbows and emotions don’t exist, either.

I think, though, that there’s a further element involved here and that’s the day to day implications of ghosts.

A huge amount of human culture is built around this simple question:  what happens to us when we die?  HUGE.  All of our religions are really premised on that one idea: something happens to us after we die.  What is it?  Is it good?  Is it bad?  Is it horrible? How can we massage that outcome from this side?  How many Hail Mary’s do I have to say to end up in heaven instead of hell?  How much incense do I have to burn and how many incantations do I have to chant to have better karma?  

European art and  culture in the Middle Ages were almost entirely devoted to those questions.

Morbid, right?

Ghosts, in a very real sense, are where the rubber meets the road in religions and spirituality.  They are the interface between this world and whatever happens to us when we die.  They are a constantly repeated phenomenon that has occurred throughout all of human history.  The story of Jesus appearing to his disciples after he was crucified is, essentially, a ghost story, right?

If we really accept the fact that ghosts and ghostly phenomena do exist – and millions of perfectly rational people attest to that existence – then it shifts a lot of our thinking and our sense of being in this world.  

If the person we love HASN’T ceased to exist, if they are somehow still here in some other form, then grief doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?  It’s more like a dear friend deciding that they’re going to move to Europe.  It might make us sad.  We might miss them terribly.  But we don’t have to throw ourselves on the ground, sob, and rip our clothing.  They’re still here, but they’re over-there/here, instead of here/here.

And, what exactly does, “here,” mean?  If someone’s dead, they’re supposed to be WAY, “over there.”  You know . . . in heaven or hell or zooming around the astral plane on a portable golden throne.  But if they’re sitting in your kitchen watching you cook spaghetti or they’re in the barcalounger playing with the cat, then they’re, “here.”  But they’re also, “there,” because . . . um . . . they’re dead.  Maybe the truth is closer to what some Native American tribes believe and the dead aren’t gone at all – they’re still walking around with us in another dimension that we just can’t see.

I don’t know the answers.  But I know it’s a conversation that we ought to be having and we ought to be having it outside of the confines of bereavement support groups and pastors offices.  If Uncle Bob is dead but he’s hanging out in the den watching television, that’s important.  Maybe instead of throwing white sage and holy water at him and telling him to, “go to the light,” we ought to just say, “Hey, Bob – what’s up?”

Maybe he’ll tell us.  

Tarot Readings, Archetypes, and God-Fearing Southern Women

I recently heard a very nice woman describe herself as, “a good, God-fearing Christian.”  And it really gave me a bad case of the creepy-crawlies because it’s such a death blow to any true spirituality.

I spent a substantial portion of my life in the Southern United States, so expressions like that aren’t anything particularly new to me.  Many people in the South are not only God-fearing but they also have a lot of things, “put the fear of God,” in them. God, for them, is a pretty scary dude.

I didn’t really think much about those sayings until recently, when my life took a drastic turn toward the worst and I had to reassemble the jigsaw puzzle that my incarnation had become.  When confronted with the death of a loved one and the financial disaster that ensued, I began a spiritual quest of sorts, trying to put some meaning back into a life that had become dangerously Meaning-Less.

The Tarot was a big part of that quest.  In reading after reading it provided a basic framework for understanding where I was in life and where I wanted to go.  It was my touchstone through the darkest times l’ve lived through.

One of the most profound lessons it taught me was, “don’t be afraid.”  The readings were . . . well . . . readings. It was like, “Okay, THIS is happening in your life and THAT’S happening in your life, and in order to move forward you need to do THIS and then THAT.”  Or, to put it in more concrete terms, “Okay, the Death Card is in your life right now and so is The Tower, so you need to channel The Hermit and retreat and heal and then you’ll get the spiritual lessons of The Hanged Man.”

It was a road map, really.  Or, perhaps more accurately, a sort of a spiritual GPS system that kept telling me, “Okay, now turn right and go 12 miles more . . .”  And I learned to see that everything that was happening to me was a necessary step on the road.

I learned to trust.  To trust in the process of life and in the Universe as a loving, benevolent energy that was always there and always supporting me.

That’s a necessary pre-condition for any serious spiritual quest.  You have to believe, deep in your heart and mind, that you are ultimately safe and that you are moving toward something or someone that loves you.  Otherwise, why would you do it? Why would you deliberately seek out something that could harm you?  Something that’s scary?

Let’s look at the way that we, as Westerners, usually view the whole God thing, whether consciously or not.  We see the universe as a sort of a triangle or pyramid. God sits at the very top of the pyramid and everything – all the energy and forms in the universe – flow downward from him/her to us, who live very close to the bottom of the pyramid.

In most mystical traditions and many non-western religions, God is seen as a sort of pure, loving energy that flows down to us, but becomes more diffused and faint as it enters the physical realm where we exist.  The quest for the holy grail, then, becomes a quest to bring ourselves more in alignment with that pure, loving energy and to expand its presence in our lives.  

We may use a variety of means to get there – meditation, psychedelics, yoga, loving/kindness, etc. – but there is a basic belief that the underlying energy in the universe is love.  That it nourishes us and completes us and comforts and guides us through the dark times in our lives. Conscious contact with that energy heals us.

But . . . then we have the Judeo/Christian/Islamic model of the universe.  It’s still a pyramid with God sitting at the top, but God is a sort of a psychotic, abusive, completely unpredictable father.  And not only does love flow down, but a LOT of punishing, sadistic shit also flows down. This God is, a “jealous God,” a, “fearful God,” a God who claims to love you but is perfectly willing to pitch you into eternally burning flames if you even question what he tells you to do.

This is a God who blows up cities because there are gay people living in them.  Who tells Abraham to tie his son down to a stone altar and thrust a dagger into the child’s heart.  Who destroys Job’s family and his bnlife over a casual bet with the Devil.

This is one sick puppy.

There is no, “God Card,” in the Tarot.  We don’t think about it but it really is a curious omission.  The Major Arcana contains nearly all of the archetypes that blow through our lives:  death, love, luck, rebirth, judgement. But no God. And God IS kind of a major archetype, right?

Historians tell us that the first Tarot decks emerged in the 15th century, a time when Europe was absolutely obsessed with and dominated by the Christian God-Model.  The scary, crazy dude who you kind of hoped wouldn’t notice you and do something awful to you. That may be the very simple reason that the creators of the Tarot decided to just leave the God-Model out of the deck:  because a malevolent, harmful God is a complete short circuit to the spiritual quest.

If there’s no belief that you’re moving toward love and healing, why would you go there?  And if your God is a foul tempered narcissist who is off of his medications, why would you think there’s any genuine love flowing out of that?

The model of God emerging out of the Middle Eastern religions – the angry, hateful, capricious, male god of war – has been an absolute spiritual disaster for the Western world.  We have been deeply wounded by it and we need to KNOW that and begin to consciously heal our hearts and minds. And the way to do that is to move toward love.  

Always.

The Death Card – Signs, Symbols and Candles Burning Bright

“Mortality is not kind, and do not let anyone tell you it is; if there is such a thing as wisdom, and I have serious doubts about its presence in my own life, it lies in the acceptance of the human condition and perhaps the knowledge that those who have passed on are still with us, out there in the mist, showing us the way, sometimes uttering a word of caution from the shadows, sometimes visiting us in our sleep, as bright as a candle burning in a basement with no windows.”

James Lee Burke – “Robicheaux”

I love that sentence, not just for the incredible poetry of Southern writing, but especially for the last part:  “as bright as a candle burning in a basement with no windows.”

If someone you loved intensely dies you know that feeling of being in a basement too well.  Suddenly they’re . . . gone. All of their magic, all of their thoughts, their words, their touches and glances, have disappeared forever.

No matter what your spiritual beliefs may be – and I personally believe very strongly in an afterlife – the physical body, the material presence of the person you loved is gone.

There is, I think, a natural reaching out which most of us do after a death.  Trying to somehow contact the other person, to imagine them and how they are. Are they confused and disoriented?  Are they blissful and satisfied? Are they finally out of the pain that they were in and experiencing peace? There’s just that burning need to touch them, to feel their spirit one more time.

Religious people will tell you that they’re in heaven having pancakes with Jesus and, by golly, they have REAL maple syrup in heaven, not Mrs. Butterworth’s.  Spiritual people will tell you that they’re on, “the other side,” and dancing on rainbows or cruising through the astral plane. Psychic mediums may be able to give you very detailed descriptions like, “She’s in the garden and she’s wearing a white lace dress and your dog Skipper who died twenty years ago is there with her.”

And it’s all very comforting and sweet, all of those well intentioned words and Hallmark cards, but what we really want is to be able to see our loved ones for ourselves.  Instead, it’s like we’re, “in a basement with no windows.” We can’t see up and we can’t see out. We can’t see them.

If you actually talk to people who are grieving a death you’ll find an amazing number of them HAVE felt or seen some sort of a contact from their loved ones.  Maybe a pair of earrings suddenly appear on a bedside table, or a long lost note from them falls out of a book, or the lights flicker on and off whenever the dead come to mind.  There are signs and signals from them and, yet, we can’t quite get through to them. No matter much we miss or desire that contact we just can’t touch them.

It feels, of course, like a great big Cosmic Door has been slammed shut.  We’re on one side and they’re on the other. We may hear a faint murmur of their voices but we can’t get past the door.

Oddly, though, Death can be the start of a journey that will take you to much greater heights than you could have ever imagined.  Getting through that goddamned door can become a Quest.

The Sioux tribes believe that people who are grieving over Death are closer to Spirit World than normal humans.  That the veil between the two worlds is thinner for them, that the Spirits hear them more clearly, and that their prayers have greater powers. Certainly deep grief feels that way.  It’s as if you exist in a world apart from ordinary life and you see and feel things that others who are aren’t grieving can’t see and feel.

In other words, people who are close to Death – either their own or a loved one – are existing in a Sacred Space.  There is no other time when we are more likely to ask the right questions and get the right answers than when we are in the presence of Death.

Death leaves clues and symbols for us that point to a higher, Spiritual realm. What we do with them is up to us.  We don’t have to understand them at first, we just need to acknowledge that they’re real.  Yes, those earrings DID appear out of nowhere. Yes, it IS odd that a note from my husband fell out of a book just as I was thinking of him.  Yes, the lights DO flicker on and off for no reason when I talk about my dead child.

And, yes, it’s entirely possible that our departed loved ones are still here, “as bright as a candle burning in a basement with no windows.”