Eleven years ago, I walked into a smallish office in Cambridge, Massachusetts, not far from Harvard’s main campus. There were six or eight people working inside, but it was uncannily quiet: just a constant thrum of computers and clicking of keyboards, no spoken words. I introduced myself to Rosalie, the owner of the business, and after a brief chat I joined the silence. I gathered up a cassette tape labeled Demo, sat in a small cubicle holding an old computer running Windows 95, and joined the chorus of clicking, plugging someone else’s words into the text-based Word Perfect v. 7.
I had stumbled upon this job rather serendipitously. I was a grad student with a double major, newly pregnant and living with my fiancé in a tentative and uncertain relationship. My classes were all scheduled in the evenings, so I was able to work full-time during the days. I had been doing temp work through an agency, but constantly being somewhere new and often being asked to do things that were completely unreasonable (“Hey, could you just, like, retype our entire company’s employee handbook into Microsoft Word, since you can type fast and you know how to make a table of contents? Oh, and, we need it by 4:00 for a meeting of the Board of Directors. Thanks!”)… it had gotten old.
I decided to stick with the typing-speed thing, and opened up the yellow pages (remember those days, when phone numbers came in book form?). I called the first place listed under “Transcription,” and was told that they didn’t have any openings, but I should try Rosalie, they heard she was hiring. So I called Rosalie, and 24 hours later had a job.
For the first six months or so, I worked in the office at an hourly rate; not top-dollar, but considerably more than minimum wage and also more than I’d been earning as a temp, so that was fine by me. I learned how to use macros and keyboard shortcuts, and my spelling and understanding of grammar improved dramatically… even when the people speaking on the tapes didn’t have the faintest clue about syntax and word usage. Or not talking with their mouths full.
After I had Emily, I spent the summer home enjoying that special chaos that comes with one’s first baby. By the fall, I was feeling a bit restless and wanted to contribute something to the household’s income, but what I was earning would be almost completely sucked up by the cost of daycare… not to mention that “restless” did not mean “ready to be apart from my baby.” So I called Rosalie again, and offered to buy my own equipment (tape recorder with foot pedal, headphones, software, etc.) so that I could work from home. She agreed. There was much rejoicing. (The rejoicing became even more boisterous when I was allowed to receive payment by the number of pages worked instead of by the hour: now there was an extra incentive to work fast, and when I measure income by the page I earn significantly more than that initial, hourly wage. Like, three times as much.)
Over the years, my work there has waxed and waned: sometimes I would simply be too busy to do anything extra, so I would take several weeks off to focus on my schoolwork. Then, when the rest of my life settled back into a routine, I would call Rosalie again, et voila! I was typing again!
Then March happened, and suddenly my focus was on things like wound dressings and doctor’s appointments and not dying. My attention span, in the first several weeks following the coma, was comparable to that of a flea, only shorter. My fine motor skills were, quite literally, shaky at best, due to the tremor that was a gift to me from my cerebellum, in protest of over a week of no movement at all and several more weeks of very limited mobility. I didn’t think I would ever be able to work again, and I steadfastly refused to linger on that thought because I really, really didn’t like it. I briefly looked into disability benefits, got depressed and angry, and stopped.
Slowly, though, things improved. My health, my manual dexterity, my attention span… my general outlook on life. In September, I called Rosalie. There was a bit of a delay, as she didn’t want to start me in on any tight-deadline jobs right away (for which I am grateful: both her insight and the lack of pressure), but then came an email: “Come down to fill in some new tax forms, I’ve got work lined up and ready when you are.”
And so it is that I’ve returned to the same job I’ve held for eleven years now. There is a comfort in that, in being already familiar with the routines and vibe of the place, in knowing exactly what is expected of me. There is a pride in that, in being able to contribute to the bank account, on any level. And there is a bliss there, too, in doing a job and doing it well, when I’m certain that everyone around me would forgive me, in an instant and without question, if I were to choose, instead, to curl up on the couch and nap my days away a little longer.
The title is from an Elizabeth Barret Browning poem… one I didn’t understand much, when I first read it, partly because I’ve never been especially moved by poetry and it’s just easier to read prose, and partly because I felt like, “Really? You want to work?? Would it be better to get leave to vacation on a permanent basis??” But, having spent time completely unable to work at all, with long stretches where I was fairly certain I would never work again, I get it now. The chance to work, to be productive, to contribute in some small way – whether it’s for the betterment of the world or just the betterment of our bank account – that’s important stuff. I understand, I’m doing hard and important work by raising my children, but there’s just something about receiving a paycheck. I’m very, very grateful to have this job waiting for me, always, through the years.
Get leave to work
In this world — ’tis the best you get at all
For God, in cursing, gives us better gifts
Than men in benediction. God says “Sweat
For foreheads,” men say “crowns,” and so we are crowned,
Ay, gashed by some tormenting circle of steel
Which snaps with a secret spring.
Get work, get work;
Be sure ’tis better than what you work to get.