I was doing a Tarot reading this evening, using the sensational Australian Tarot deck, the 7th World Tarot Deck designed by the talented Terry Whidborne, when the Moon card came out in a five-card spread. In the context of the design of the spread, whereabouts it fell, and the client I was reading for, the card made perfect sense, but it just kept reminding me of the old children's nursery-rhyme:
There was an old woman tossed up in a basket
Seventy times as high as the moon.
Where she was going, I couldn't but ask it,
And under her arm, she carried a broom.
"Old woman, old woman, old woman," quoth I,
"Oh whither, oh whither, oh whither so high?"
"To sweep the cobwebs from the sky."
"May I come with you?"
"Aye, by and by."
And looking at the image of an old woman riding the sickle of a crescent-moon as someone else might ride a bicycle, I was whisked fifty years into the past to very early childhood, and to a book of nursery rhymes I had then. I remember the picture for this one clearly: the sky and the woman's face and clothes were many shades of gentle nacre-grey except for her apple-red cheeks, her wickerwork basket not dissimilar to the ones we used to store our toys in back then, and her broom something magical made of twigs. I'd never seen a broom like that, or an adult who looked so warm and loveable.
But it was the poem that enchanted me when I was a child. I longed, oh how I longed, to climb in her basket with her and ride into the sky, never to come back. Because even then, I sensed it was a one-way journey. It seemed so final, and I knew she was no ordinary cleaning-lady. I knew that those who rode in her basket rode through infinity and eternity, looking around and marvelling at everything while she leaned out of the basket cleaning the universe.
I was three. I didn't know the word "psychopomp".
"By and by", she comes back and collects us all. The friendly lady in her flying basket with her broom, or the washerwoman at the ford, or the Ferryman with his flat-bottomed barge, or the giant cat that sucks your soul out of your body, eats it, then leaps above the clouds and away, they are all the guardians of the gateways and the guides we have no choice but to follow when our time comes.
At that same stage of my childhood, I had a strong memory of being an adult. And adult male, no less, who wore a suit and carried a heavy briefcase and walked along concrete streets to get to work. I don't think I'd been anywhere particularly concreted at that age, but I certainly remembered it, and the sense of drudgery. I remember, as a child, marvelling at how different being an adult was.
I used to prise and pick at the edges of this memory, but I never got any more of it. I already knew my mother wasn't to be confided in or trusted, but she really was my only source of information. So one day I found the courage it took to ask her a question. It was related directly to that memory. I asked what it was like to be dead (and I don't know if anyone had ever even mentioned that word around me yet). She told me it was like being asleep, but without the dreams. I was inexpressibly disappointed, and I now knew that I couldn't talk to her about remembering being a man before I was dead.
I taught myself to lucid-dream in my very early school years - I was probably six or seven. I had had one dream of flying an aeroplane (a little cute one, as small as a car and with a steering wheel like our car), and I enjoyed the sensation of freedom and control so much that I learnt how to will myself to get back into that dream. I dreamed it many times over.
I also partly learnt to lucid-dream, because I had a repeating dream - not a nightmare, it was quite enjoyable - about being a little brown bear and gambolling up a gentle green slope with picture-like flowers embedded in it. I'd get to a point where I couldn't see the ground beneath my paws but I'd step out anyway - and fall. And in my body, I'd fall out of bed. After about twenty repeats, I learnt to recognise the sequence, and wake myself up before I took that last step that started the tumble. I never fell out of bed again.
Lucid dreaming is a useful skill. If you are a busy person, it creates magical space and thinking-space in your sleeping hours so that you get much more done in a twenty-four hour period. I use it many times a week. And it's a phenomenally good field in which to meet teaching figures. Some of my most potent encounters with teachers have been while I was asleep: the lesson about the universe being a doughnut and the lesson about focussed intent and ping-pong balls being only two of them. When I meditate, I go into the same between-dimensions magical space that I also utilise when I'm lucid-dreaming.
In the last half-century or so, I've encountered various psychopomps at various times. Sadly, I was an atheist when as a teenager I came closest to dying, so I didn't meet any psychopomps, didn't have a tunnel or a light at the end of it, didn't get met by Jesus or ancestors or angels. I did, however, have an awesome time learning about the mind-twisting effects of time and space when it's an actual reality and not just the theories of scientists.
In 2012, I had two public Samhain rituals to attend on different days as well as a private one, and one of the public ones involved a working shaman I knew who was playing the role of Ferryman for the ritual. For this particular group, more than others I'd been involved with, I'd noticed rituals tended to take on the nature of theatre, entertainment, and were more about socialising, and the food and drink afterwards. I didn't mind, I enjoyed all of that, too. I drove the Ferryman and another person to the ritual, and conversation in the car was light and fun. The Ferryman was robed already, but not hooded, yet.
The moment he was out of the car and hooded, everything changed. He became silent, and the energy around him was dark and sombre, and just didn't feel like him-as-a-person. The people stage-managing the rite were still setting up and there wasn't much for me to do yet, so I wandered around the place, being social with people who in some cases I hadn't spent time with in several years. Twice I walked past him, where he stood by the pavilion, tall and sturdy, his working staff and his cloak built no longer of earthly material but of the very substance of the Otherworld. No one else seemed to notice this transformation, but it was a truism that nobody seemed to see him, either, just as most people didn't notice Death itself until it was too late. The second time I walked past him in this state, I stopped and bowed deeply to him. He returned the bow gravely. I knew perfectly well who was inside that suit and that he had a sense of humour, but I had the certainty that he didn't bow out of humour, but out of respect for my recognition and respect for his current state. Sadly, when the ritual started he was surrounded by and led around people who didn't see, and he became merely himself, wearing a costume and doing what the staging of the ritual required.
During my life I've met the real Ferryman on the barge several times and I've become quite fond of him, and different psychopomps at different times. I particularly remember the time, in meditation, he offered me my own personal get-out-of-gaol-free card: a one-way trip to the afterlife without the pain of illness or accident to get me there. The catch was I had to accept then-and-there - and I had a baby to raise. The old woman in the basket, no, I never met her. The book obviously never survived my childhood and I'd thought the memory of the old woman hadn't, either, but obviously she's been riding the skies of my DNA in her basket, with me and in me all the time.
I remember the picture as if it were open in front of me right now. I remember how unlike all the other pictures for the other nursery-rhymes, it wasn't static and fixed on the page, but actually used to move. I remember that the word Death was never mentioned, but I knew for sure she'd come back for me one day, and then all the pain and problems of this life would go away forever.
She made me a promise, silently but honestly and with commitment. She never rescued me from my childhood and I gradually lost hope in her, but now I know she'll keep her promise and rescue me when breathing gets just too difficult to keep on doing. And I know I won't be met by Jesus or angels, but I equally know I will be met by absolutely the best of friends. And sit by that Beer Spring with at least two of them.