I'm Grateful the "Death Card Does Not Mean Death"

The Death Card, from the “The Spacious Tarot,” by Carrie Mallon

Aaron Talley is a writer, activist, and educator who teaches middle school on Chicago’s south side, and a 2020 Interfaith America Racial Equity Fellow. You can connect with Aaron Talley on Twitter and Instagram @talley_marked, follow his IG tarot page on @tarot.forteachers, and read more of his work on his blog Newer Negroes.

This is the second installment in a series inspired by Tarot, you can read the first post here.

 

It took awhile for quarantine to hit me. 

I tend to pride myself on how well I cope with stress. Everyone was swirling with anxiety around me, but for the most part, I was still fortunate enough to be getting a paycheck, and able to teach my students from home. It was annoying of course, but I appreciated the reprieve from the incessant decision-making of classroom teaching. When the news got overwhelming, I turned it off. When I felt restless, I meditated. I prayed. I exercised. I journaled. I Netflixed. I played video games. 

 I thought I was doing pretty good. 

It took a jog on a chilly summer morning for me to realize I wasn’t. 

Sprawling and wooded, Washington Park, is an island of fresh air surrounded by an ocean of concrete on the South Side of Chicago. I went early, since Covid had led to the park getting more crowded than usual by the middle of the day. 

I was jogging on the paved road for no more than two minutes when I spotted it, a single lone white pick up truck parked off in the distance. A hooded figure could be seen near the rear, dressed darkly, with a leashed pit bull near him. I stopped and squinted to see a bit further. My heart beat a little faster. This would’ve otherwise been an ignorable occurrence, but just a few yards ahead of both of us, on the paved out trail, a marker “Start here,” lie written in the concrete, it was meant to signal the beginning of the 2.23 mile run that had taken place a few days prior, for Ahmaud Arbery, one of many commemorative runs that took place all over the country. 

Ahmaud, an unarmed Black man, as the phrase goes,  had been shot jogging by two white supremacists who had pulled up in a pick up truck. 

This was the moment when I realized the effect that all the Black deaths of the summer was having on me. For a split second, flashbacks to the Arbery case stopped me. I had no idea who was in that pickup truck. I felt stunningly vulnerable in the realization that he was doing exactly what I was doing. And just like him, all it would’ve taken is some lone white supremacist, aimless and resentful, to take my life. 

Jumpiness is the simple word for it. What I don’t have a word for is the source of the jumpiness. What I don’t have words for, and what it frustrates me that even liberal White America can’t understand, is the sudden awareness that you could die from a sheer ordinary moment, in a country that places no value on your own life. 

After a breath I kept going. And I soon got close enough to realize that the figure was a Black man, and relief swept over me. I looked down at the marker once I passed it, now breathing from not only jogging, but from trying to put the moment behind me, now curious to see how long I could jog 2.23 miles before running out of breath. 

 

I’ve been thinking about my death more than ever lately. 

Not suicidally, but quite frankly, it’s eventuality. I wish the world could understand what it means to be Black during the middle of a pandemic. Like pulling petals off a flower to see whether someone “loves you” or “loves you not,” 2020 repeatedly showed Black people the scope of possibility for their death. Police. Covid. Trump.  Take your pick. 

“The Death card doesn’t mean ‘death’.”

When doing readings for others new to tarot, I have to offer a series of disclaimers to combat media portrayals. The aforementioned phrase is one of the first to come out of my mouth. People often come to readings with a sense of urgency fueled by superstition, and to see a card like this easily raises a few eyebrows. 

It makes sense, death is the only guarantee in our lives. And people often turn to divination for prediction, so of course, the one thing everyone is afraid of is ironically the only thing guaranteed. 

But the death card doesn’t mean death. 

One of my favorite depictions of the Death card in the Tarot is by a woman named Carrie Mallon. It captures the essential essence of the Death card, it shows two skeletal hands, clearly bewildered and tired, reaching out for a small pink flower, centered in the middle of the card. Here Death actually becomes a sort of revival. A subtle, gentle reach for hope. It’s not a naive hope, you get the sense that the figure in the card bears no illusions about what they’ve been through, they are dead after all, but rather in their death they still find that flower worth reaching out to. 

This image gets at the true meaning of the Death card, which in actuality, is really about rebirth. An Ego death. Transformation. When it appears, there’s usually some outdated part of us that is falling away, whether we’ve been ready for it or not. 

What’s powerful about this card, is that it’s one of the few times we actually get to engage with death in a context that signals us towards renewal rather than anything else. It’s one of the few times, when “death” doesn’t mean “death.” 

Blackness and death is so synonymous with one another in the United States, that I take that reality for granted. The beauty, is that the other side of that reality, what people called Black Excellence, Black Girl Magic, Black Boy Joy, is the innovation, charm, and boundlessness Black people have been able to create when, as Lucille Clifton writes “everyday something has tried to kill me / and has failed.” 

Meditation, prayer, journaling, therapy, exercise, and tarot have all been the tools that I had to enact with a renewed discipline just to keep my sense of sanity. Thankfully, these tools weren’t new to me, but they acquired a new urgency as the spectre of death seemed to blanket over the country this past year. 

Outwardly, the country doesn't seem to be getting much better. The recent attempted coup, while failed, seems to foretell the battles we’ll still face dealing with the most wicked parts of this country. A militant optimist, I decided a long time ago that I would prefer to always look at the glass half-full.

I remain optimistic. I want to remain optimistic. Even though there doesn’t seem to be a flower to reach out to, and no semblance of rebirth coming. As far as ego is concerned, I can’t help but think of the group narcissism of white supremacy. A blob of prejudice so obsessed with itself, that it can’t even see its own self-inflicted harm. 

Nevertheless, in the midst of this, tarot, like many other practices, remains a source of renewal, hope, and grounding.  In a still quiet moment, fanning out a few cards before offers me a sense of peace. An opportunity to hold myself tightly.  The prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba-- states that hope is a discipline. Tarot has become a way to nurture that discipline. 

The argument against optimism is usually the presupposition that it’s irrational. But I decided a long time ago that pessimism was just as irrational. The world is full of joy and sadness, and there’s no true way to quantify either. I’ve decided that it would serve me better to put my efforts, my labor, towards cultivating and nourishing hope rather than fear and despair. 

I am grateful to have this practice to nurture me through the fire. I am grateful for having a practice that soothes me when I’m feeling jumpy.  And I am thankful that it provides the only space in my life, where death doesn’t mean death. 

 

 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

To explore what American clergy are doing to support the vaccine effort, Rabbi Julie Schonfeld interviewed a series of faith leaders about their tradition's views on public health & vaccination & asked what they are doing in the vaccination effort.
His message was clear: For the future to have a chance at all, parts of the past had to be left behind, and all of us have to convene around common symbols.
A survey released by PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute) found that the American public sentiment, across most religious groups, is much closer to the policies the Biden administration is proposing than those put in place by Trump.
The Conversation U.S. asked six education experts how teachers—and parents—can help young people comprehend, analyze, and process what happened on January 6.
"It was an appropriately spiritual beginning to a faith-infused day and what is shaping up to be an unapologetically religious presidential term for Biden, the second Catholic president in U.S. history."
Large majorities of today’s young adults understandably lack confidence in institutions and are inclined toward distrust of others. Yet they exhibit a knack for recasting challenges as adventures and they set out to conquer them.
My cousin and I are Christian, Cuban women imploring for conversation in an effort to present different perspectives, in order to develop our own identities in a society that only seems to value polarization and tribalism.
As a Christian who is also a minister, I live between the Great Commission (sharing the Gospel) and the Greatest Commandment (loving God and my neighbor).
Five Bridgebuilding field leaders--Rev. Jen Bailey, Kalia Abiade, Mandisa Thomas, Simran Jeet Singh, and Branden Polk--came together to discuss the decisive need for action, not empty commitments to change, and how we can impart these principles.
"This moment thus necessitates moral clarity and courage concerning the trajectory of this nation. Too many have followed the path of cynicism and opportunism away from any shared commitment to a common good."
"Both the suffering and the pursuit of justice stand true at the same time. We must hold and be responsive to both."
It is new every year. Watching my students move from multifaith to interfaith. Daring to tear down walls and build bridges to faith traditions and spiritual expressions different from their own.
It is reasonable to believe that King would support holding people accountable for crimes committed, but King also held a higher hope for at least some of those who were part of the mob.
Having recently completed a monograph on the rhetoric of divine wrath, a year ago I led an honors seminar on the way in which an angry deity is presented in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It was the most successful course I’ve ever taught.
The four officially wrapped up their fellowship on Sunday (Jan. 10) with a virtual graduation where they shared the lessons they learned from one another during the tumultuous year.
...But if you follow the evidence from the very start and all throughout, President Trump has thrived in generating chaos and stirring up doubt. Was this a premeditated effort that was designed to create some larger future momentum?
A Biden transition official noted there was significant energy at the meeting created by Biden's promise to overturn President Donald Trump's travel ban, which advocates characterize as a "Muslim ban."
The presence of anti-Semitic symbols and sentiment at the Capitol riot raised alarms among Jewish Americans and experts who track discrimination and see it as part of an ongoing, disturbing trend.
And so this Administration gives me hope that we can rebuild. Or, to use the President-elect’s own transition team slogan, that we can “build back better.”
In too many cases, religious beliefs and commitments have been overshadowed, and even dominated by political and racial cleavages.
To achieve full religious diversity, equity, and inclusion, it is important for the new Presidential administration to establish more interfaith dialogue and opportunities to work together.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.