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As Beatrice to Dante


Galaxy M74. ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt

One day, long ago, the ever-spinning Wheel of Fortune found me sitting at a desk in an open office workspace, my back to a room full of coworkers. Absorbed in a document on my computer, I had just reached an impasse and needed to go ask someone a question. But at that moment a colleague I hadn’t seen for years was striding toward me. He whooshed into the chair beside my desk at the same instant that I whirled around.


Whoosh-whirl—and our faces were way too close together, so close that his leather-and-sandalwood cologne must have mixed up with my jasmine perfume, and I found myself staring deep into unknown eyes without even seeing the rest of this person’s face. 


But I didn’t see his eyes, not really. I saw through them, past them, beyond them into a midnight-blue cosmos where stars explode and nebulae roil with galactic lightning. The whole idea of eyes fell away. I felt like I saw the million invisible dimensions of his soul, its shimmers and flickers spiraling into the indigo infinity. 


“Hello!” he said.


I jerked back to a decorous distance, stammering, confused. This was a person. A literal, rational, breathing human. And we were at work. I couldn’t burst out with an “Oh my goodness, I saw your soul and it’s gorgeous!!” 


Instead, I stuck to convention. “Hello!”


We chatted and caught up, but a part of my awareness remained drunk with awe, high on the vapors of beauty and magnificence. That feeling of altered consciousness lingered for days as I went through the motions of meetings and emails, while the Wheel of Fortune kept turning.


That’s the Wheel’s job, after all. It turns, turns, turns, turns. In the tarot deck, the Wheel of Fortune depicts the ongoing roll of the universe. 


If we didn’t know better, we might think this card was a four of something. Four lines form a compass decorated with four Latin letters, four alchemical sigils, and four Hebrew letters that would spell the name of God if they were all together. Four golden animal powers hover on the muscle of their beating golden wings in four separate clouds while perusing their four books. 


But the card shows important threes, too: three concentric circles around which three cosmic powers ride like a merry-go-round of Egyptian myth. Apopis, the troublemaking serpent, wiggles down into the thick of things. Anubis, the guide of souls, cruises upward and glances at us as though to say, “Buckle up, kiddos, we’re going around again.” And a wise, regal Queen Sphinx rules over it all, unperturbed and unperturbable. 


Of all the beings on this card, there isn’t a single earthbound human. We see gods, forces, symbols, and ideas, but not one mortal. Instead, powers gather here to show the dynamic processes of the cosmos in a productive, creative tension that keeps the wheel turning. 


At any moment, the card says, big things could happen. 


But the card shows something else too, something tiny and yet key to the whole image. If we drew a line from the upper left corner to the lower right corner, and then another line from the upper right to the lower left, those lines would intersect in the center of the card. What do we find there? The center of the Wheel. The hub. The unmoving spot without which the wheel couldn’t turn. This is the stillness required for change, the stillness necessary for new life.


“The New Life,” Joseph Campbell observes in Mythic Worlds, Modern Words: On the Art of James Joyce, “is the life of the awakened spiritual, poetic … relationship to the world through the physical realm” (35). Campbell is referring to Dante’s Vita Nuova and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both of which blossom forth from an experience of what we might call the center of the Wheel, where new life emerges from a revelatory moment of awe. That’s where Dante stood when he saw Beatrice, where Stephen Daedalus stood when he saw the young woman at the beach, where I stood, so to speak, that day at the office when I saw the cosmos in a colleague’s eyes. Campbell calls this experience “a ray of the light of eternity” (19). Once in a while, we inhabit the hub and feel reborn. For Dante and Joyce, the experience inspired singular literature.


“Time and space are gone in the enchantment of the heart,” Campbell continues, and I think he’s right. The Wheel of Fortune’s compass can guide us through the vicissitudes, but the card’s center is the aperture to magic. 


I never told my coworker what happened that day. But I kept an eye on him for a while, in case he turned inside out in a cloud of purple smoke and revealed to everyone the secret that, in the center, you fall in love with everything, anything, and most of all with love itself. 

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