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.
I am in ontological crisis. I seem to remain in ontological crisis. For years now I’ve contemplated my snug position in this state of being. And for years now I’ve assumed it was temporary, that once my life began to “fall into place” this feeling of crisis would recede, never to be felt again. I no longer believe this to be True.
I’m beginning to understand that such a state never really resolves itself for those of us who strive, at even the basest of levels, to live deeply fulfilled and examined lives. It’s difficult because it often feels as though the only consistency is the teeter-tottering of what’s important and necessary for me. Some days I feel as though I don’t need anything more than a creative binge, a good film, or outstanding conversation that runs the gamut from fluff to something more somber and philosophical. Even just learning something new about life, humanity, and the people I love suffices. All of these things, alone and in sum, help me to feel and intuit the truth of whatever life is, and they cost nothing. Other days I require the world, and that costs everything.
It’s tough, too, being of a creative mind. To create something out of nothing–to capture the depth and complexity of an idea, an experience from the mind and transform it into something that is both tangible and abstract at the same time and also perfectly primed to take on the infinite depths and experiences of others–is even more exhausting than it sounds. It is exhausting in a physical but not physical way: blank. empty. exsanguinated.
For my thirtieth birthday I received a copy of my favorite poem (Spelling, by Margaret Atwood) printed on paper that looks as though it has been carved out of the sky on a fair day: kyanite blue with cumulus clouds. I read it almost daily and remember that ‘a word after a word after a word,’ is not just power, but what I love to do. And to know so intimately what I love to do is priceless because it is, perhaps, one of only a few constants in this experience that is mine alone.
The fact that I’ve come to understand this while still underemployed and deeply unsettled about everything that comes with that, not only strengthens this belief, but also assuages some of my present anxiety. Where there’s no strife and struggle, there is no growth. And where there’s examination and contemplation, there will always be strife and struggle.
And so now, I suppose, instead of fighting the pulling, pushing, and gravity of this ride, I’m concentrating now on breathing through it, enjoying it, and no longer calling it crisis, but
I lie awake in the dark,
My eyes expressing warm silk ribbons of tears.
I stroke your hair: long, coarse, unkempt.
A veritable nest of the day’s activities
And of the day before
And of every other day before this one.
I scratch your scalp gently, lovingly
And I am not surprised that even in your sleep
You are capable of filling the most miniscule of voids:
Beneath my fingernails is the purest of grime.
A concoction of dirt and dried skin
Saturated in sweat and sunlight.
I pull you closer to me,
Careful not to pull you back into me.
I can smell your hair now,
It’s sour, earthy—like the way it smelled
After playing in the rain that summer evening.
while I’m cleaning my own body,
Washing and braiding my own hair,
Cleaning your skin,
Washing and braiding your hair
Will be my intention.