Over the past few months, I’ve heard the word dignity thrown around quite a bit. In most cases, the discussion was about poverty. On one hand, the poor needed to have or show some dignity by working harder, by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” And, on the other, the working poor deserve a livable wage so that they can live with dignity. In fact, because I’m finally in a job that uses and tests my education, I now have a more dignified job.
My response, sometimes vocalized, was one of confusion. Is being poor or working a job that doesn’t require a degree or a particular expertise, exclusive of dignity? According to the aforementioned paradigm, yes.
In both instances, a lack of money and capital equates to a lack of dignity. Consciously, subconsciously, and culturally, this language suggests that our bank accounts are intimately linked with how much honor and respect we are given and with which we view ourselves. Yes, living comfortably on the salary of a single, 40-hour-a-week job is a luxury everyone should be afforded, but not living such an existence doesn’t necessarily make people feel less worthy of respect. I hear stories about a middle-class that once existed in this country, a middle-class that prided itself in working hard and earning a living. As those people continue to tumble down the tax brackets, now it appears that they had only dignity in numbers of the populist kind.
It’s unfortunate (though hardly surprising) that something as subjective, personal, and unique as respect has been usurped by a symbolic practice. And until money ceases to be the token for succeeding at life, I don’t see this changing anytime soon. If even the deeply altruistic believe dignity is bestowed with cash, then even the good guys are cogs in a system that must, at the very least, be re-calibrated. Honestly, we’re all just rats the maze. But seeing the dignity in others should have nothing to do with their bank accounts. Unless, you truly believe a person can be paid their worth.
Ages ago, I received my first rejection letter for the book. It read exactly as follows: thanks but no
No capitalization. No punctuation. It was demoralizing. Not because it was a rejection, this I had expected, but because it was so curt. I had spent the better part of three months crafting my query letter and an additional two to three hours tailoring it to this particular agency. And just like that: thanks but no.
Now, after what feels like an eternity of filling out online applications, sending emails, submitting my résumé, making phone calls and spending substantial amounts of time crafting a cover letter for each and every submission and getting absolutely nothing in response, I can honestly say I’ll take a ‘thanks but no’ any day. It is, at the very least, an acknowledgement of my efforts.
Whenever I engage news items meant to put a face to the un(der)employed, I always come away feeling as though the writer has stopped just short of the full experience. The lack of health care, the inability to pay for the basics–let alone any unforeseen and always costly expenses–and the emotional stress that this existential crisis creates is expounded upon in great detail. In a capitalistic society, I wouldn’t expect such articles to be about anything other than a lack of fiscal productivity and its effects on self-esteem. But, there’s another experience that exacerbates the more immediate, aforementioned circumstances: a constant barrage of rejection.
The process of finding a job in a depressed market is proving to be an emotional expedition in its own right. Along the way you shed dreams of living in a particular area. You dismiss illusions of finding a job you’ll actually enjoy. You leave the world you’ve worked hard to break into for the one you’ve always known and the societal rejections and dismissals that come with being un(der)employed. And, as if digesting your new reality isn’t enough, you must take up the active pursuit of rejection inherent in finding a job.
I feel the anguish of imminent rejection most intensely when I’m crafting my cover letters. Like the query letter, a cover letter is the first impression one makes in a situation where, in this economy (the cliché of the decade), the statistical probability of rejection is practically guaranteed. Both letters are appeals to higher powers. Please hire me. Please publish me. Please assess me and find me worthy of joining your institution based solely on this three-hundred word document extolling the virtues you want to hear about most, all so that I may live the life of a productive human being.
Of course I understand the function and necessity of the résumé and cover letter, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. It’s when I’m working on these documents that the entire process of being hired feels unfairly arbitrary. The more I scrutinize a letter, the more it seems ridiculous to me that a couple of sheets of paper determine whether I make it into the next round of considerations. Is anyone ever able to distill their education, experience, and personality into a one page letter that vaguely resembles a fair and accurate summation whilst focusing on telling some anonymous someone what they want to hear? And if I’m going to put the time and thought into doing so, can’t it be common courtesy to acknowledge what I’m putting down, even if you aren’t picking it up?
I try my best not to take the rejection personally. The fact that the economy is in such bad shape eases my pain a little. When I do receive rejection letters in the mail–a rare occurrence–I’m actually grateful someone somewhere took the time to notify me. Mostly, though, I’m just used to it. I try to be systematic about the job search and application process. At the first signs of frustration and depression I ease up and regroup. If that means it takes me longer to find a job, so be it. Because, when it comes to letting this entire process run me into the ground, I’ve adopted a little philosophy I like to call: thanks but no.
I awoke to the smell of coffee; an apropos detail for such a morning. It was a rare occurrence—the aromatic coup of coffee brewed—that signaled your presence in our home.
In the living room my mother anxiously rifles through a box of photographs, searching desperately for a picture of you taken one summer under the big tree in our backyard, surrounded by your daughters and grandchildren. We’re positive it was stolen but avoid naming names. I lament how childish and fucked up things are, but I’m careful not to articulate exactly what is meant by ‘things.’ Instead I bristle at the thought of the memory thief laughing at my mother’s expense—for any reason.
In a final exercise of hope I’m sent to assist my father in procuring more photographs for sorting. I stand at the foot of the pull down latter ready to receive whatever time capsules descend from the darkness. I hear my name and turn my face upward to be met by a rain of latent images. As I stoop to gather the scattered photos I stop to ponder how the molecular structure of a photograph could ever hope to compare to the molecular experience of a memory.
Just before we leave for your memorial I ask why only one of your sons will be in attendance. The answer startles me and I’m inundated with the heavy sense of your humanity twenty-eight years too late. On the ride home I soothe my disappointment by reflecting on the events at home; these were your true memorial not half an hour of gospel.
I awoke to find my mother had gone already to the home you’ve just left behind. She had a list of things she intended to fetch before the home is dismantled, parceled and relegated to memories. I took the lima bean green tea pot from the windowsill, that night I was there and I couldn’t sleep. I wrapped it in my night shirt and tucked it in my bag. By that time, though, I’d noticed things had already been rifled through, boxed, and lost to the world. What was it like to spend your last days in a home that had already begun to breakdown? Did you really need a literal reminder that you were moving on?
I called my mom and asked for a piece of your jewelry I’d admired since I was a child. It was nothing special, nothing expensive, just smart: a string of black and white micro-beads in a candy cane pattern. I breathed a sigh of relief when she called to tell me it was there. When she returned and handed it to me, I was overwhelmed by the scent of roses and I shivered. I understand ghosts smell like roses. But I know you were fond of having little parfum packages tucked in your dresser drawers.
I’m sad now. I claim we were never close and yet I begin to recall the minutest of details, your subtlest idiosyncrasies and every home you’ve lived in that I’ve ever known. I remember in great detail the floor plans, the décor, and the smells distinct to each. I remember the constants: the bread machines, the afghans, the stockings hung to dry in the bathroom, the blaring televisions playing murder mysteries and you. And now, as I sit weeping, I can’t think of single thing more finite than death, an event lonelier than dying, or an emblem more poignant than an empty home.