What does it mean to unlearn sarcasm? What does it mean to unlearn self-deprecation?
And why might it be useful to do so?
It was a few years ago, as I was working on my novel, We Are the Weirdos, that I recognized the need to reduce the amount of sarcasm I directed at myself. I made self-deprecating comments a lot, and I noticed that my tendency toward self-deprecation not only felt like a form of invalidation (making fun of myself before somebody else had a chance to), it also made it difficult for me to write complex teenage characters.
We know the I-Was-A-Teenage-Goth jokes, I-Was-A-Cutter jokes, I-Cast-Angry-Spells jokes, Raccoon-Eyes jokes, I-Was-Obsessed-With-Marilyn-Manson jokes, and on and on. As I began to recognize the ingenious, wonderful, ugly, and magical ways I kept myself alive as a teenager struggling with trauma, invalidation, dysphoria/dysmorphia, poverty, and loneliness, I realized I no longer wanted to be sarcastic, to be mean to myself, about the skills I developed to cope. When I was being sarcastic, I felt like I was doing a disservice to myself/selves, to others who were struggling, and to readers of my work. I want(ed) to change this habit not only for my recovery, but for my creativity, too.
In Pixie’s Tarot, we see a sweet, strange creature handing a large golden cup with bright, star-like lily flowers to a white-mittened, red-hooded figure. Both are smiling. This card can represent the joy that follows from grief, and the wonder of simple, but new, experiences. In Modern Tarot (which I’ll be reviewing in a later piece), Michelle Tea connects the Six of Cups to her process of getting sober. As a sober queerdo myself, I felt recognized and encouraged by her interpretation, delighted to find myself in her words.
She writes about kindness, forgiveness, and pleasure. “After I’d been sober for a while, all sorts of nerdy pleasures became appealing to me: proper dates, game nights, a cozy evening at home. After spending much debaucherous time with many debaucherous people, I found myself attracted to people who radiated a sort of wholesomeness.” She writes, too, of hometown-feelings, unhealed childhood wounds, triggers, and vulnerability.
Last year, as I was contemplating and working with the Six of Cups more and more, I developed a visualization to match this card. Not only did I have conversations with my past selves, but I kept them physically beside me. Often, it was my thirteen and fourteen year-old selves I held onto, the ones who survived abuse, bullying, isolation, and incarceration, the ones who ran away from home, the ones who were afraid. Back then, I wore a dog collar with a heavy metal chain, star-shaped gummy bracelets, and silver bangles. My twin and my friends would walk me. It was fun to play. We weren’t allowed to wear them around family.
So, as an adult, I imagined I was holding onto my own leash, walking side by side with myself. Showing them around the city, showing them the books I was reading, the apartment I was living in, the zines and books I was writing. I imagined what it would be like to see them smile today, to feel their arm pressed against mine as we kept close to one another, finally finding somebody to share our joys and our secrets with.
I even took them to a Korn concert. “Even I wouldn’t go that far!” my twin said when I told her I got tickets. But I would and I did. While I was writing We Are the Weirdos, I spent a lot of time listening to the albums that kept me alive back then. Some of them I’d held onto – Marilyn Manson and Hole, of course – but others I had to re-acquire. Korn, Coal Chamber, White Zombie, Orgy, Kittie. I’d turn it up and press my ears against the speakers, just like when I was a teenager. And it helped bring back many of the feelings, the memories, I needed to engage with to create those messy, complicated, sometimes-unlikeable-but-always-loveable, fictional characters.
Witnessing Jonathan Davis play bagpipes in his much-beloved kilt was a spiritual experience. I’m not ashamed to admit, I almost cried with pleasure during the opening to Shoots and Ladders. I was far from the stage, an outdoor concert, sitting on my purple zodiac picnic blanket, recovering from Rob Zombie’s performance, as Korn began to play. I’d recently seen Marilyn Manson and the Smashing Pumpkins perform at the same venue, and I was feeling grateful to be able to go on so many of the adventures I’d missed out on when I was younger.
Although many iterations of the Six of Cups show a wall of cups, a boundary, a safe place, the Kitty Kahane deck (above right) depicts a three-eyed creature with fishnets and witchy boots giving a cup of five-petaled flowers to a small blue-haired child. A few of the other cups rain down upon them, while two remain upright. If the wall of cups in the other cards represents a feeling of stability and safety, these ones might be a nod toward the overwhelm and astonishment at the amount of joy we’re able to find after grief, the astounding wonder of being given gifts of contentment and creativity in everyday life, the magic of connecting with our younger selves in ways that feel more sincere than sarcastic, more special than shameful.
My drawing skills are not quite what I want them to be, but after the concert, I tried to capture an image of my 30-year old self sitting with my 14-year old self on that picnic blanket, holding onto their leash, listening to them, experiencing all the noise noise noise with them. We listened to Korn unashamed, marveling at their intense lyrics about childhood trauma, abuse, and pain. And yes, they played Freak On A Leash, one of our teenage anthems, a nickname that I now no longer remember if we chose for ourselves, or if the kids at school to it upon themselves to gift us with.
But as I was headbanging for the first time in many years, a beer can flew toward me and hit my feet, rolling across my picnic blanket. Oh no. Oh no. I remembered all the times the kids at school threw garbage at me. I thought of my sobriety. The boy standing in front of me nodding his head to the music, laughing with his friends, turned around and he saw that I was pissed. Freak On A Leash continued. He came over to the picnic blanket, my heavy metal leash invisible to him.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I didn’t see you there.”
I tried to imagine his 14-year old self by his side, everybody’s teenage selves at their side or up on their shoulders, experiencing the show, looking at the nighttime sky and the carnival rides lit up and swirling behind the stage, cotton candy sticky on their fingers, knees wobbly with young crushes in black t-shirts. I wanted to share this vision with the boy who threw his beer can at me, the boy who hadn’t noticed I was there.
He continued rambling apologies, kneeling beside me.
“IT’S FINE, IT’S FINE,” I shouted over the noise, unable to even begin to explain what was happening to me internally, why this moment was so important, my feelings about the song, my misplaced anger at him for reminding me of the kids at school I’d finally escaped. “IT’S FINE, I’M HAVING A MOMENT, JUST PLEASE SHUT UP, I REALLY REALLY NEED TO HEAR THIS SONG RIGHT NOW.”
I’ve noticed that when I tell people my next novel is about queer and trans goth teenagers in 1999, they tend to bring up “nostalgia.” I feel the need to clarify that this work has nothing to do with nostalgia, and that the Six of Cups need not be about nostalgia either. To write of the past, to write of youth, does not necessitate feeling nostalgic, and in fact, I often intentionally write against nostalgia – much of my past non-fiction engages with my feelings around resisting nostalgic narratives to talk about pain, reality, and capitalism instead. There’s definitely something about the atmosphere and the emotions of those years and that age that I’m trying to capture, but I have no desire to return to those times, no desire to live through them again. I find the fetishization and commodification of nostalgia, as well as witchcraft, odd and interesting to examine; it’s something I’ll be exploring in the sequel (!) as the teens become adults (!). In the meantime, I’d like to contemplate the idea of shameless sincerity.
In the Everyday Witch’s interpretation of the Six of Cups a dapper, shaggy-haired fellow in delightfully striped tights hands a three-legged pot of red roses to a young femme. Interestingly, like the three-eyed creature in Magic Mirrors, the taller figure in this card has three pockets on their gardening apron. Multi-coloured roses grow in similar pots around them, and once again, they’re enclosed within a safe space – although, you know me, I’m gonna remind you that that staircase is gonna have a multitude of potential meanings to us disabled folks.
The Six of Cups in Dame Darcy’s Mermaid Tarot appears more romantic than the other interpretations, as her work often does. A mermaid has come to shore, and she accepts the cup of red star-shaped flowers from a figure dressed in a black leather jacket, down on one knee, as if proposing, Fuck marriage, though – I imagine this figure is proposing new ideas, new adventures, and the mermaid is ready to be whisked away. She’s been swimming for centuries and now she’s curious about the land.
It’s not just the goth-years I tend to be sarcastic about, nor is it just the past. It’s my mental illnesses, chronic pain, it’s queerness and punk and abandonment, it’s relationships and friendships, dreams and ambitions, witchcraft and spirituality, desires and creative ideas. Nearly everything. And I know that when others are self-deprecating or sarcastic, I see it as a form of humour, yes, and self-protection and maybe the same kind of self-invalidation I do to myself, I understand it as a way to cope, but it still feels like a barrier to me. I find sarcasm difficult to engage with because I wonder what so-and-so would be saying if they felt comfortable enough to be genuine, sincere, vulnerable. No one needs to be that way in every situation, every conversation, but I do get curious about it.
In what ways are sarcasm and self-deprecation useful? How have they served you? How have they kept you safe? What would you say if you didn’t feel the need to turn your feelings and memories into a joke? What would you do if you felt no shame? What would you write? Who would you talk to? What new feelings would become available to you? What do the cups represent to you, and what about the flowers within? What is the significance of the petals, the mittens, the stairs? What do the implements peeking out of the figures’ pockets represent? Which figure do you identify with the most (or is it both)?
The Six of Cups gives us so many opportunities to question the ways we communicate with ourselves and our environments. Will you take the cup?
Cards shown in this post are from the Radiant Waite Tarot, the Everyday Witch Tarot, Dame Darcy’s Mermaid Tarot, the Kitty Kahane Tarot and a set of 12 tarot cards created for the release of Marilyn Manson’s Holy Wood.