on Death, the Tower, and almost dying

This post was first shared on my Patreon on April 10, 2019.

Relevant PSA: if you work in food service or have people over for meals for fun or just generally prepare or give people food ever, PAY ATTENTION TO LIFE-THREATENING ALLERGIES. The brush with death I mention below would not have happened if my server had taken a full minute to accurately check the ingredients list for a menu item; her negligence literally almost killed me. Don’t be that person.

In 2015, I led myself through the death meditation included in Ana Forrest’s book Fierce Medicine. I’d tried to read that book three years earlier, in 2012, but just before the death meditation section, I distinctly remember reading that one who is not ready should not continue. I returned the book to the library, and waited.

When I was ready, that forewarning was no longer in the book. I’d imagined it, or a smart spirit guide had tricked my eyes. Either way, it was time. As I led myself through the process of vividly imagining progressively-faster disintegration as my body shut down, I considered the questions Forrest shared: What have I done that I’m proud of? What did I not do that I wish I had? Who do I love? Who do I pretend to love?

It was a sobering experience, and one that rearranged my priorities in a pretty stunning way. But imagining death -- even imagining it really, really well -- is not the same as almost dying.

Fast forward to August of 2018 and my first encounter with plant medicine in ceremony. The friend who brought me on retreat had already shared her own experience -- of feeling certain she was dying, but that sensation was only part of the purging process of this particular medicine. I went in anticipating the sensation of dying, and trusting that even if that sensation appeared, it would be temporary; at most, I might experience a death of some aspect of my psyche in need of release, but I knew I would be physically safe. 

For whatever reason, that retreat did not include the sensation of death, though much else was experienced and learned and healed. Shedding what is ready to be shed is not the same as almost dying.

And then, the weekend of April 5th, 2019. Pluto conjunct the South Node, transiting Chiron squaring my natal Ceres, transiting Mars in my 6th whole-sign house of health & illness, of service & slavery. I wasn’t intending to encounter an initiation this weekend. I wasn’t planning on familiarizing myself more deeply with Thanatos, god of Death. I did not intend to eat the food of the underworld. 

As I learned, though, almost dying is the only way to experience almost dying.

The short version of the story of my near-death is simple: because of misinformation, I inadvertently consumed a small amount of a substance to which I am allergic: walnuts. My allergy to walnuts has, without my knowing, worsened over the years, and because of that, I ended up in anaphylactic shock. Thanks to a visit to the ER, I did not die. 

If any number of factors had been shifted, I very easily could’ve died. Bit the dust. Kicked the bucket. Ceased to be.

In the tarot world, there’s a lot of effort made to ensure cards like Death and the Tower mean more than actual death and actual destruction. Metaphor abounds, and with very good reason: these are archetypes that are useful beyond their most obvious, roughshod applications.

from the borderless Centennial Waite-Smith

from the borderless Centennial Waite-Smith


The obvious, roughshod applications are still relevant.

Dying is one of the most banal things you can do, and so Death is a far more quotidien card than people realize. Almost dying is a bit more rare, and depending on how it happens, it very much feels like your insides and your world and everything you know to be true are being torched by a force far greater than you. All of your structures struck by lightning; all of everything suddenly electrified.

There are segments of the tarot world that also try to distance themselves from the future-predicting use cases of tarot. Fortune-telling and seeing potential futures is a tricky business, sure, and it’s something I don’t do much of for a variety of reasons. However, last week, the tarot told me my future without me knowing it.

On Thursday evening, in preparation for the Aries New Moon, I asked my Serpentfire deck what the New Moon would bring. It gave me the Tower, and then the Ace of Pentacles as clarifier.

from the Serpentfire Tarot, 7th edition

from the Serpentfire Tarot, 7th edition

Silly me, I thought this meant I might lose my wallet or spend way too much money visiting Salem -- a financial warning to stay sober and realistic about what I could afford.

Now think of the story I just shared above: a walnut-containing dish nearly knocked me into Hades. A walnut (Ace of Pentacles); a near-death experience (the Tower).

After I was safely under observation at the hospital and no longer nearly-dying, I could not stop laughing about this. 

One of death’s lessons, and therefore one of the Death card’s lessons, is that no matter what accolades you accumulate, no matter how much wealth is sitting in the bank, no matter how many books you read or degrees you earn or lives you change or powers you wield, the flesh of us will cease to be alive; our spirit will leave our happy little meatsacks. We are as dust and unto dust we shall return. Human intelligence lends us no special benefit when it comes to imminent mortality. All of the metaphor-making and meaning-searching in the world cannot fend off the inevitable moment when this incarnation ceases to be.

Left to right: Centennial Waite-Smith, The Brady Tarot, Persephone Tarot 1st edition

Left to right: Centennial Waite-Smith, The Brady Tarot, Persephone Tarot 1st edition

Just as a racist cashier doesn’t give a fuck about where I went to college, Death really does not give a shit about what you’ve left unfinished in this life or what you’ve managed to accomplish. Death will take you when it’s your time, and there is nothing you can do about it.

Almost-dying was a wake-up call to the pernicious, lowkey forms of hubris I’ve been carrying around. Procrastinating on projects -- no matter what the reason -- is assuming that I’ll still be here to do whatever it is later, tomorrow, next week. Not sharing what is mine to share out of fear of ridicule, dismissal, or the feeling of yelling into a void is yet another way for me to pretend that death isn’t part of my future, that with this one wild and precious life, I have to actually live what’s mine to live, or what’s the point?

from The Brady Tarot

from The Brady Tarot

The Tower is a powerful card because in some way, it reminds us of the omniscient omnipotence of Death without actually carrying us across the River Styx. The Tower rearranges our priorities, corrects our focus. It’s Saturn, lord & lady of discipline, approaching collaboration with Pluto, lady & lord of cthonic transformation. Experiencing the Tower frequently fucking sucks while you’re in it, but once you’re out, there’s a new level of gratitude, a new level of resolve, a new level of self-responsibility, a new depth of being.

Decks featured:

Borderless Waite-Smith Centennial
Serpentfire 7th Edition
Brady Tarot
Persphone Tarot, 1st edition