Toward Dignity and Beyond

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.

First Principles

Water

It didn’t matter how aggressively the sprinkler oscillated, nor did it matter that the very water stream she chased was more than capable of bruising her supple flesh if she cut through it too close to the source.  No, all that mattered to her was capturing that rainbow and pouring it into the empty jar that, for many days, stood ready and waiting to drink it.  “You can’t catch a rainbow,” I tried to reason with her, “it’s just light suspended in water that’s hanging in the air,” but she was five and unless I was answering a specific enquiry, she never really seemed to hear me.  And so she continued her quest, leaping through the ribbon of water, her arms open and ready to spring shut at just the right moment, seizing the spectrum, once and for all, until it was clear that this victory would fail to materialize and a new approach was in order; a method in which kicking and swatting at the sprinkler, perhaps in an attempt to intimidate the elusive arc into her still parched jar, were key.

“What on earth are you doing,” I yelled from across the yard when I noticed she’d abandoned her attack and was now balanced precariously on one leg, her arms and free leg stretched away from her body in such a way it appeared they would break off and take flight.  “I’m being light water hanging in the air!”

Fire

I don’t remember the day of the week or even the time of the year.  I remember the musty smell of the back of the station wagon mingling with the pungent odor of three generations up in flames.  I was barely a teenager and my brother a child.  We watched in silence, hands and faces pressed against the window, as a soft orange glow enveloped the place we’d called home just hours before.  The glass of that back window was surprisingly cool.

“Why have they stopped trying to save our stuff,” my brother muttered?

“Because it’s being burned into memory,” was all I could muster.

Earth

It was breathtaking, this view from below.  It was a revelation to see that the true axis mundi lay within, as implied, and not in the ubiquitous tethers sent up toward the heavens.  I explored the caverns with the awe and wonderment of a child expecting, at any moment, to cross paths with Gobo, Mokey, and Red or any other number of imaginary subterranean dwellers, except I felt more likely to hang a right at any dramatically lit dripstone and come face-to-face with a massive heart nestled deep within the chest of this planet, beating slowly, steadily, and in concert with my own sanguine chambers.  Probing these depths opened my own to scrutiny because this was, after all, the only inscrutable truth.  There is no denying these bodies, these smells, this earth.  And so it was with great force that melancholy set in upon hearing a passing youth plead:  “Can we please get back to the real world?”

Air

Where does the wind go when it blows?  To where does it retreat once it’s whipped through canopies and incited dervish like dancing in falling leaves?  Does it settle amongst the dusts of time or atop the waters of space like a shimmering fog awaiting dawn?  Perhaps it originates from the first exhalations of the newly born and evaporates with the final exhalations of the newly dead.  Yes, I see it now, these are the only sacred breaths, all others are incidental.  Incidental, yes, trivial no:  if a hurricane begins with the graceful shutterings of a butterfly’s wings, then a new world is born when you blow into my ear and down my neck.

Memory Shifts

One evening my sister and I tussled about on the big bed–the single bed not attached to our bunk beds.  Elizabeth, more recently known on occasion as ‘Hulk Beth,’ pulled me down and flipped me over her leg.  I remain convinced that it was some fancy Judo move she just happened to improvise.  I flew off of the bed and struck my head on the jagged corner of the electric heater.  Immediately I felt dizzy and then I was bleeding.  But, I was relatively coherent so I didn’t panic.  We put an ice pack and a rag over my gash…

No, it didn’t happen that way.  The way my sister tells the story, I launched myself over top of her, my temple aiming directly for that rusty corner, and I never made a sound.  Even after I put my hand to my head and felt the wetness that was my blood, I didn’t speak…

No, what really happened is the story of two little girls who were rough housing when gravity decided to join in.  Once gravity had thrown one of the girls a twist, literally, skin took offense and blood felt the need to comfort it.