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Returning to the World

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

I’m sitting in the middle seat on an airplane flying west over the Atlantic Ocean. My tray table holds a flimsy cup of strong coffee, a pen, a pad, and a book, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: Metaphor as Myth and as Religion by Joseph Campbell. The chairs beside me are occupied, so my elbows remain tucked in against my sides. Only my hands and forearms can move as I gingerly raise and lower the coffee, steady the pad to write, and hold the book up to read. 

Inner Reaches is one of my favorite Campbell books, with its focus on imagination and art. I love the title, too, suggesting the infinite inwardness of the cosmos, and the cosmic reaches of the inner self. I’m reading Campbell’s reflections on NASA’s photo of earth from the moon, an image which “lacks those lines of sociopolitical divisions that are so prominent on maps” (94), when I glance up from the book and notice that the screen on the seat in front of me shows an animation of the airplane’s path as though from above. Not as far away as the moon, but high enough to see the planet’s curve and the contours of continents.

At intervals, this image of the globe spins on its virtual axis, a gratuitous pirouette for no purpose other than to entertain us passengers. Some places are labeled, but the graphic shows no borders. There go Canada and the United States, the Pacific Ocean, Japan, Mongolia, Turkey, Norway, Spain. It’s nighttime over Tokyo, Hong Kong, Delhi, Dubai. In the animation, cities necklace the land with yellow beads of electric light. 

Campbell believed the image of the world from space might bring humanity together and usher in a new myth, a “mythology of this unified earth as of one harmonious being” (xix). The key word here is “being,” an entity possessed of animate wholeness–like a person is. And because beings in myth are so often imagined as goddesses and gods, Campbell could be wondering how a new myth might emerge of Earth as sacred, honored, and archetypal, a deity to be met in heart-space with reverence and awe. But to see a being in a photo of a planet requires a mythic images and a mythic imagination. 

Which brings us to the tarot cards. In the tarot deck’s image-rich major arcana, the last card is the World, number twenty-one. If the Fool begins the cards’ metaphorical journey, the World completes the adventure. In some decks, the World shows a nearly nude figure adorned only with a sportive scarf that floats in undulating waves like Aphrodite’s magical, love-inducing wrap. Fully formed and fully breasted, the person is an adult, not a child. This figure’s beauty is vibrantly alive, suggesting metaphorically the living, loving soul of a living, loving world. Hovering in clouds at the corners of the card are other beings: angel, eagle, lion, bull. The four of them surround the World, who holds a magic wand in each hand as lightly as though about to twirl them. A powerful, ensouled being supported by other powerful souls, the World’s love works magic effortlessly, with both hands at once.

I’m flying to New York after a few weeks in London, where I saw thrilling art and architecture, savored global food and wine, and walked among throngs of people from everywhere who spoke more languages than I could identify. My visit felt like an encounter with the world up close and personal: a fountain of life, a ferment of making, a fertile tumult of blending and reblending earth, air, water, and fire. The creativity of the city seemed spontaneously buoyant, and now I feel replenished with insights and experiences. This radically different vantage point gave my day-to-day world an infusion of fresh perspectives, the way the Earthrise photo gave us all a new view of our shared home. The tarot card’s metaphorical World dances through a massive wreath. It’s an opening bound by an eternal circle, hence an opening into eternity, or a space outside time. The World hovers between realities, suspended between everything that came before and everything yet to come. This card of culmination shows the fleeting, floating simultaneity of endings and beginnings and the infinite expanse between. The World’s immense, generous love creates beauty in those transitions as if by magic. 

My coffee is almost gone. The plane is approaching New York. When I finally stretch my folded limbs and exit the aircraft, stepping out of the doorway I entered only a few hours ago, I will hover for a heartbeat in a timeless space of completion before returning to the world from my brief time away. I will cross the plane’s threshold a different person than when the flight began, different than I was when I left home. And after passing through that portal, I will step into the realm of the Fool again, because when one journey ends another begins. I hope for some of the Fool’s radiant faith, relaxed in the gnosis of what it is that waits at the end of the next adventure. 

Or rather, who it is who waits.

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