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

This is a sampling of sacred texts and statements, listed in alphabetical order by religion, that religious communities have used to engage in the work of public health amidst this global pandemic.
Ms. Moore discusses what an Office of Equity and Racial Justice does, how she and her team adapted amid the pandemic, and how religious communities are crucial partners for social change, connection, and healing.  
"We know that people of all faiths and philosophical traditions hold shared values that can serve as a foundation for a common life together."
How do we fight the evil and darkness during this time? No matter how small or how far we might be from the situation, we could use our voices to speak up, come to stand together as one human kind.
Musa writes an insightful analysis of data at the intersection of race and religion. He writes: "non-Black Americans seem to be fleeing religion because it’s become too political. Blacks seem to be leaving because it’s not political enough."
And as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins, the currently closed museum is highlighting these artifacts tied to Islam on its website's blog.
In light of the urgent need for care within our families, communities, and movements, where can and should interfaith leaders fit in?
In the United States, our laws assure the separation of Church and State. So Sikh and Muslim kids growing up in public schools will never be taught that Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem.
Vaisakhi, which falls April 13 or 14 depending on which of two dueling calendars one follows, marks the day in 1699 when Sikhism took its current form.
The presentation focused on how chaplains and spiritual life professionals can discover and utilize meaningful data to demonstrate the value of their work in higher education.
Still, there were glimmers that Ramadan 2021 could feel less restricted than last year, when Islam’s holiest period coincided with the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ramadan, the holiest month of the Islamic calendar commemorating Muhammad’s reception of the Qur’an, begins on Monday.
"Ramadan can be an opportunity for Muslims in interfaith relationships to introduce their partners to the core beliefs and teachings of Islam, as well as to the ways different Muslim cultures share what is a deeply communal experience."
This year, Ramadan will begin on Monday or Tuesday (April 12 or 13), depending on when Muslims around the world sight the new moon that signals the beginning of the lunar month.
"In the Qur’an, God – Exalted Be He – proclaims that we should ask the people endowed with knowledge…All the experts are saying the same thing: please get vaccinated and do it now."
"Among the topics educators must address to reduce bullying and to ensure representation in the classroom are religion and religious identity."
Whether I am based in Los Angeles, Washington DC, or Kansas City, I remain committed to building bridges of mutual respect and understanding among people of different backgrounds.
Biden said the partnership between the seminary and a community health center is one of many that are happening between religious and medical organizations across the nation.
"All the more so, we need more translators to help us understand what exists before our eyes, yet remains elusive to our understanding."
'Montero' is the anthem of a Black gay man roaring back from years of self-hate caused by anti-LGBTQ+ theologies. As a queer child of the Black church, it’s an anthem that resonates with me.
The rise of the "nones" — people who say they have no religion — is to some extent the result of a shift in how Americans understand religious identity.

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.