Ash and Stardust, a monthly column by artist and writer DHIYANAH HASSAN, explores the intersections of tarot with healing and creativity. These are personal essays and articles sharing experiences of growth as someone who has recently found a deep connection to tarot. You can read the rest of the pieces here.
In the past month, I saw my childhood dream of having a conventionally successful art career – this dream that kept me alive through overwhelming traumas – die off. I made the decision to orphan myself from the biological family because they still couldn’t respect my boundaries. This country I’m in saw its first ever government change in the recent elections and despite the hope sizzling in the air, I still felt like it was trying to kick me out. Hope tends to follow change, it’s true, but so does apprehension.
These were the background noises weighing down on me for the past two weeks, as I worked through illness to meet deadlines, rummaging resources in search of plant-based remedies that could help alleviate all the gross ways stress had affected my body. I was thick in the overwhelm and it felt both familiar and foreign at the same time.
A recent job loss pushed a lot of things into perspective.
After graduating university, I was brought back to Malaysia under the guise of getting help for my worsening health – I was promised one year of rest and recovery before going back to further my studies. None of that came to fruition. I got no rest and the ‘help’ I received nearly killed me, left me with more of a disability than I had before. Though the disability is invisible, my capacity to get from one place to another and to function like able-bodied people have been permanently affected.
I witnessed little remorse from those who had the agency and power to stop my health from getting worse, to do something about what happened, or at the very least to not let me recover from multiple near-death experiences without proper support. The enforced silence around what happened to me the night no doctor thought I was going to make it back alive was more destructive than the actual near-death incident.
I saw this abusive reality echoing itself in the sequence of traumatic work environments where I was exploited, manipulated, or dismissed. It got to the point where I had to leave Kuala Lumpur after an ordeal with a gallery showed me that just like my family’s house, this place could not provide enough safety or support for me to make a living – to gain enough resources to not just survive, but to live a full life with my agency intact.
I’ve learned that in a lot of ways, our creative industries will mirror whatever political mess our country is in. Here, the status quo seemed to have adopted the principles of the government who reigned for 61 years by silencing dissent, rigging hierarchies, and demonizing difference. On a socio-political level, alternative views thrived only in small tight niches, away from the circles of wider, mainstreamed networks eddying throughout the industry, dominating existing channels of visibility. Conversations and discourse happen over drinks with limited follow-up action, or in spaces that felt more like curated dinner parties where invitation and visibility were reserved for those connected or traveled enough to be initiated into inner circles. Misogyny is rife and so are ableism, casual racism, and silenced cases of harassment.
Learning how to make a living in such an environment requires you to keep your head down, to play the role of the struggling artist grateful for whatever bone gets thrown your way regardless of whether your labor is fairly compensated or not, and to adhere to self-imposed silences for the purpose of being accepted. Nothing about this method prioritized the health and well-being of those who labor intensively for compensation that’s barely enough. Nothing about this taught us how to live as one multi-communal whole that’s able to balance, negotiate, and co-exist with our differences while maintaining a levelled sense of security for those who have experienced marginalization.
The craziest thing is, I used to admire people who were able to play different faces for self-serving causes. I saw them as adaptable, able to play the game to get ahead. The glamor they built was mesmerizing. But I started to realize that good work suffers under all that pretense. With art and even advocacy work, when it’s done without genuine intentions, the lie becomes all there is to it – with enough breakage and grace, you learn how to push the veils back. You learn that there’s a lot of space for improvement but no one really knows what to do. The fear that drives this machine is so deeply rooted that most will reject opportunities to see this pattern for what it is – one that perpetuates rather than challenge or improve an existing system.
Like The World in its reversed aspect suggests, there are sometimes resistances towards completing cycles that need to end. Debunking these illusions through painful experiences definitely turned my world upside down – it slowly became clear to me what had to end.
We all come to major crossroads in our lives where we get to choose which parts of us to feed and which parts to let die. And sometimes there’s a very strong, loud calling that follows you everywhere until you answer it.
I have never been good at kissing ass. I don’t apologize if I can’t mean it anymore and if a compromise doesn’t involve reciprocity, it isn’t really a negotiation between opposing forces but rather a power play for control and therefore a waste of energy. I have drafted messages that I think other people deserved as explanation only to realize that it wouldn’t do us any good, so I end up ghosting them not out of avoidance but as an act of creating or reinforcing boundaries.
I have always been harsh on myself about ethics, and with a lot of healing work, that harshness has grown into a brutal, volcanic compassion with one simple rule – if we are not good for each other, then you be on your way and I’ll be on mine. I know I’ve started to reflect this outwards, holding people to a certain standard because I want to see them do better. I also know that, essentially, it’s none of my business to expect anyone to do better. But I do have a say with what energies I allow into my space and what energies I have no space for.
I’m still learning, I’m still trying. I maximize what resources I’m given, prioritizing my capacity. I know now that I work best when well-rested so I rest and make the effort towards having a healthy relationship with my body.
“Here marks a phase, an age, or a portal into a new stage of your life. From this point, you have agency. You believe firmly in your power, despite the potentially negative influence of the world that surrounds you.” – The Magician, from The Next World Tarot guidebook by Cristy C. Road
We are all able to play the roles of victim or villain in each other’s stories, especially if we still subscribe to the good-and-evil dichotomy. With work and with life, there should be clear lines drawn to define what safe, good, ethical practices are. The work environments I found myself in hadn’t even started to dive into the various ways ethics and expectations can be balanced, beyond making a list or manifesto and sticking it on the wall like a novelty motivational poster.
There has been a distinct shift in how I’ve absorbed these past and recent experiences.
With the recent job loss, that cost me funds I’m not sure how to replace and took away two months’ of my income, I’m surprisingly very chill about it. Don’t get me wrong, I freaked out so badly at first and that was when I fell sick. I hated having my livelihood taken away from me, as anyone would! But I understood that what happened had allowed me to move on from past traumas.
Work has always been very important to me. This dream of what my career should look like kept me alive as a frightened child through decades of physical and emotional abuse. As an adult, however, this dream had led me to work that took away my power and my joy. That just wasn’t what I signed up for.
I realize, though, that the dream itself worked. It kept me alive, it led me to become this person who believes in a world that doesn’t yet exist in her vicinity but one she trusts is utterly and absolutely possible. I’m a person who’s a stickler for ethics, radical newness, and boundaries. I’m a person who has been healing myself and guiding others in their own healing processes through my creative work.
It’s done its job and it’s time for me to allow the old dream to retire.
“She represents the end of a toxic past. The end of oppressors disguised as loved ones. She represents that moment where you reclaim your personal power and walk away.” – 6 of Swords, from The Next World Tarot guidebook by Cristy C. Road
The breakages I went through with my biological family and my career trajectory require their own grieving, and that might take some time. Yet underneath this turbulent change of tides, I am mostly at peace with it all. I’m able to express my ease and my chaos with a deeper sense of freedom. I’m able to look inside and see that I am exactly the person I have always wanted to be – and that is probably the most affirming sign of growth ever.
The world, even upside down, keeps spinning. I move forward now with no fixed idea of what my career should look like, but with my ethics embedded in me as the compass for which I strive to base my actions on.
With our Uranus in Taurus, my Saturn Return in progress, and the energy of this Sagittarian full moon, I open myself up to allow my works to be exactly whatever they need to be. I open myself up more fully to the role of an energy worker, the wounded healer, the mystic. While that new and ancient identity blooms, know that I will always be the artist that I am. And I will always be part of Malaysia’s art history, whether or not it includes me on its walls, archives, or databases.
Dhiyanah Hassan is an artist and writer whose works investigate the importance of personal narratives, particularly in the context of healing. She lives in Malaysia and is the Art Editor of Burning House Press. Find out more about her and her works on Instagram, Twitter, and her website.