On Worth

What am I worth?

I’m asking this question again as I look for more work to supplement our dwindling finances.

It’s a place of immense privilege to even ask the question, I know this. I have to carefully consider my audience when I talk about how I turned down a minimum wage job offer because the commute and hours were heinous enough to nullify the $125 a week in take-home pay. Not to mention the work promised to be mind-numbingly boring. Those jobs are a good fit for someone, but I don’t think they are good for me.

I took a job last year based on the attitude that any work was worthy and that I shouldn’t value myself beyond my ability to just get a job. The job, when there was work, was stultifying and when there wasn’t (i.e., no customers) I had to pretend I was busy. It was monotonous and tedious and I hated every second I was there. Then I would come home and hate myself some more for not having a better job. Then I would retroactively hate myself for not going to college. Then I would proactively hate future-me for taking another minimum wage and/or stagnate job because I can’t escape the guilt of not being grateful. Because ultimately, my worth seems to be defined by how deeply I can ingratiate myself to anyone willing to hire me.

I’m stuck in a constant argument loop with myself: I don’t deserve interesting or intelligent job opportunities because I didn’t go to college (never mind the fact that many of my college-educated peers are just as under-employed as I am). This sparsely populated, rural area is an employment desert – no one can be expected to create opportunities in a place where most of the population lives below the poverty line. (Economics at its finest – no one can buy your product if they have no money to spend.) If I was smarter/more educated/worked harder I could create opportunities no matter where I was. Well, here I am, at the culmination of my life choices and I can just lie in this bed that I made until my flesh fuses to the sheets.

Every time I email a polished and professional resume to a local listing it is accompanied by a fear and shame so acute as to be nearly debilitating, and is utterly unique to employment searches. I don’t deserve this, no one will notice me, I am a pitiful contestant in this modern game where I don’t know the rules.

Worthless.

It’s not just being frustrated by the lack of choices. It is being certain of rejection. It’s having other people define my worth – not just in an hourly wage but in the kind of tasks they want from me. It is knowing, deep down, that they’re right.

The worst part is having to explain myself to well-meaning onlookers in my life. Explaining to people who are so far removed from privilege that they can’t understand why I’m so “picky”, or those that are so immersed in privilege that they can’t understand why I just don’t start my own business doing something at which I’m embarrassingly incompetent. I’ve been on the receiving end of platitudes, sympathy, even (strangely) political anger and all have been equally unhelpful or even hurtful. They don’t address the core issue – What am I worth?

I just don’t know. And the guilt of not knowing, the shame of suspecting it isn’t much, the defiance of anyone who would try to define it for me is eating me alive. Trying to monetize all of that seems like a horribly vulgar way to determine my worth. And yet, it’s the only way that matters.

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Tattoos and Me

At one point in my rich teenaged fantasy life, I was convinced I wanted a tattoo of a leopard draped across my shoulders. I think this was influenced by a steady diet of Guns-n-Roses videos on MTV and a desire to shock mainstream culture with my internalized misogyny, oh-so-white sexuality. It’s embarrassing what the sheltered think of as shocking.

My first tattoo was less shocking. It’s a palm-sized sprig of Pennsylvania mountain laurel on the back of my left shoulder. When I was 18, a California girl facing the end of a year lived in the completely alien city of Philadelphia and the end of my first live-in relationship, I wanted to mark myself with a visual reminder of everything I experienced in this strange city of brotherly love that was often scarily hostile. The Liberty Bell, with its doomed crack and over-simplified symbolism would have been the obvious choice, but I went with the mountain laurel. Literally a last minute decision, made when I asked the artist what the state flower of Pennsylvania was and he looked it up in the set of shop encyclopedias because that’s how old I am – my first tattoo predates the internet. (Although you probably guessed my age by my reference to music videos on MTV.)

I sat wrong-way forward on an old chair, arms crossed along the top edge of the back and my chin digging into my forearms. My Flashdance-style shirt draped half-way down my back, I asked the artist, a thin, bearded, long-haired man I assumed to be OLD, how long he’d been tattooing. He glanced at my ID and replied, “Oh, about as long as you’ve been alive.” It’s funny to think he was probably as old as I am now. Then he turned on a buzzing like a hundred bees rehearsing an opera, placed a reassuring hand on my quivering back, and began to scar my flesh with ink. I fell down a rabbit hole of introspection and art and found myself in love.

I don’t want to credit Generation X with bringing tattoos into the mainstream (mostly because this is the internet, and as soon as I do, someone will present a thesis on why it’s not true), but some numbers claim the difference between tattooed Baby Boomers and Gen Xers is twice as much. When I was discussing my plans for the elaborate (and painful and thankfully never realized) shoulder-leopard, tattoos were still seen as counter culture, but counter culture itself was seen as a positive influence. Sailors and convicts had given way to rock stars and 70s icons and that was A-okay with us. Between Gen X and Millennials, the numbers increase yet again.

Which is not to say that tattoos are universally accepted. I happen to live in a conservative part of the country (both socially and politically), and have actually been tut-tutted by older people for my arms, which are approximately 60% covered in tattoos. It’s enough to get me second glances. Within tighter spheres of social influence, tattoos can mark me as a rebel (military wives in my age bracket), a liberal (the church crowd), an esoteric, artistic type (upper-middle-class intellectuals), or an instant member (music festivals and the Renaissance Faire). People adjust their attitudes when they notice I have large tattoos. It’s a very human thing to do. Even when they are adjusting for negative prejudice, I strangely feel closer to them – engaged in a social interaction that might have gone ignored were it not for the pictures on my skin.

What my tattoos don’t seem to do is give insight into my personality, which is ironic because I have custom, elaborate pieces that the artist and I collaborated on extensively. I chose meaningful symbols, specific colors and placement to reflect a culmination of experiences – a sort of I Am Here map for my life thus far. The selection of a tattoo artist merits its own post, but suffice it to say that trust in artistic vision is probably at the top of the list. Once the design is set, sitting in the chair and submitting to the pricking of dozens of microscopic needles piercing the skin becomes an exercise in mindfulness. Or at least it did for me. The pain I experienced was less about enduring suffering and more about perseverance during metamorphosis. The picture was already under my skin, coded in my cells – I just had to wait for it to appear. At the end of a four hour session, that waiting can get tedious, but still worth it.

I have plans for more tattoos. Ideas taking shape under the surface, waiting for their time. I have to arrive at the place before I can map it.

The 8th Dwarf

It’s not as though you’re the eighth dwarf, Angry, with just the one trait to define you.

Those words were written to me by a (slightly exasperated) friend who’d been watching me struggle with a decision that I thought would fundamentally change my identity. It probably doesn’t occur to him that over 10 years later that sentence still shocks me into stillness, into silent revelation.

I’ve fallen out of touch with that friend, a fact that makes me sad, nostalgic, mournful – even a little angry. But knowing that it makes me all of those things is his continuing gift to me. The knowledge that I am not a single, volatile emotion. I am not a caricature of myself. I am a complete human, and from that – I am enough.

Where did I get the idea that I was just Angry? Part of it is language. In English, we don’t say we “have” something, we say we “are” something. I am hungry, I am bored, I am scared. I am angry. (German and French, for examples that I have some knowledge of, don’t have this problem.) The other part comes from growing up with a parent who was scared to death of anger. It terrified her in a primitive, vulnerable, damaged place in her brain and she never developed beyond that fear. Seeing the parents she grew up with explains a lot about that, but doesn’t change the outcome.

The outcome is that anger as part of a spectrum was not an idea in my developmental toolbox. The perception of my anger was that it was dangerous, an invader bent on pillaging good sense and reason. I was unmanageable, unlovable when I was angry. I learned to fundamentally misunderstand every interaction where it was present – seeing threats where there were none, attacking without provocation, righteousness and shame inverted.  I learned to fear it, too.

But it was still there, existing on the spectrum even as I shied away from it. Eventually, it refused to be buried. Lacking any tools for dealing with the expression of anger, I let it simmer until a random addition of heat set me to boiling over. Sometime around puberty, I became known for my “temper”. Rather than help me dig beneath it, the people in my life entrusted with my emotional development  retreated behind great walls of disciplinary action. I’m experienced enough now to guess that was a defense on their part, but it had consequences.

At some point, I embraced the label. “Temperamental.” “Bitchy.” “Angry.” I let it off leash at the drop of a hat, my reliable anger there to keep threats at bay. Don’t get the idea that my life was all misunderstood, caring people just trying to get close to me. Sometimes my anger was justified and an effective tool. Sometimes people used it to their own advantage. In a display of internalized shame that still twists my gut, I was proud that I could be used in such a way. My anger didn’t just have value, it was my value. I am Angry, the eighth dwarf – never part of the official narrative, just there to lend uncomfortable realism.

I would like to claim that my friend’s words were the bolt of lightning that changed everything. The reality is more gradual. I was working my way out of that impossibly narrow definition for a while through being a parent myself, through friendships, through unutterable loneliness. I just didn’t have the words (a case of irony so thick it has to be processed with industrial grade machinery). I needed those words to give shape to the struggle – to define new boundaries and light my inner rebellion.

I’m still rebelling. I still find myself trying to listen to all my emotions as they play their symphony on my spectrum. Still trying to reconcile that I have a spectrum. Still trying. I am not the eighth dwarf. I’m not a fairy tale. I’m real, and I get to have all that it confers.