Drawing the Death Card at Sky Meadow

Just returned from the Spring 2024 Metamodern Spirituality Lab gathering at Sky Meadow, a spiritual retreat center in Vermont’s beautiful Northeastern Kingdom. The Lab has been a wonderful immersion in Serious Play; restoring an abandoned medicine garden to its original form and purpose, designing and enacting an elaborate welcoming ceremony/pilgrimage for the weekend participants, another memorable sauna night, movement workshops, a dance party and many soulful discussions with fascinating people. Not incidentally, I also made two calls on the wind phone I’d donated to Sky Meadow last year.

One of our group activities was an Appreciation Circle ceremony, in which each participant first draws a Tarot card, without looking at the card face. The other participants then take turns in expressing what they appreciate about that person (and also what they might fear about them), after which the Appreciated/Feared turns their card to see what random chance has to say. Given that the group at that point consisted of about 14 highly articulate people, the ceremony was an often intense experience that ultimately ran about four hours, including some short breaks.

Just before my turn came to reveal my card, my nephew – who has some knowledge of my interest in memento mori philosophy and such, and who was sitting next to me in the circle – joked that I must have drawn the Death card. When I turned the card over …

This was a Duende moment for me, to the extent that – in a daze of wonder – I half-imagined that the draw must have been rigged.

Flashback to early 2020.

I had just returned from a family reunion in New Zealand, where we had celebrated my mother’s 80th birthday and also received the devastating news that my sister-in-law had passed from life into death after a very long illness. Towards the end of the trip, we began hearing worrying news reports about a new coronavirus outbreak; within months of our return to the US, the first wave of lockdowns began.

I was walking the eerily empty streets of our Chicago neighborhood one evening during that warm and ominous Spring, feeling the world change about me; this could have been the 1918 Influenza Epidemic all over again. It could have been the beginning of the End, for all we knew at that time. All non-essential businesses were closed until further notice. Cars were so rare that I often walked in the middle of the road; other pedestrians were very few, and far between. I wore a bandana as a makeshift mask over my lower face and felt like an outlaw ghost.

I decided to walk towards the local cemetery, a route which took me along the shore of Lake Michigan, and spotted a dot of color up ahead, in the chain-link fence separating the sidewalk from the lake. It was a panel from a 1950s-vintage horror comic book, carefully cut out and pasted to cardboard, inserted into the links of the fence by an unknown hand; the image was of a skull-faced boxing referee raising the gloved fist of a skull-faced boxer in victory, and the caption read “The winner and still champion – Death!”

I turned the card over and saw that someone had written on the back, in black ink – “Live in fear, die anyway”.

I’d been telling people exactly that for years, in seldom and sparse conversations that veered philosophical; lacking community and motivation to do otherwise, my “embodied and aestheticized philosophy” had always been an underground, personal thing.

But here was a world suddenly plunged into mass existential crisis. And here I was, having developed, over a course of decades, a practice and perspective that inoculated against existential crisis. The moment I turned that card over, I realized that my Way of Life and Death must – somehow – be made public, on the chance that it might help some people in need. In a Duende daze I wandered home, wondering how to do that.

Turning that card motivated me to organize my philosophy and practices into a form that might be “taught”; since then I’ve offered many talks, articles and courses on kindred subjects through Joanna Ebenstein’s Morbid Anatomy organization. Finding the card under those fraught circumstances also rekindled my longstanding interests in nontheistic spirituality, and I’ve followed up via presentations and writings for Cultpunk.art, OnlySky Media, the Spiritual Naturalist Society and most recently work with the Metamodern Spirituality movement, which brought me to the Vermont mountains and to drawing – disbelievingly, wonderingly – the Death card at Sky Meadow.

Apparently there is a 1.28% chance of drawing any given Tarot card. There are no Signs, except those that we assign.

With heartfelt thanks to Jared Morningstar, owner of the Tarot deck, who so generously gave me the card I drew that night; here it sits, adjacent to the “live in fear” card, upon my Duende shrine.

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