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Reflections: A Conversation with Lin Jensen
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Monday, July 25, 2011

(Bad Dog!, my current and first posting is purely autobiographical, as true to fact as memory allows. Don't be deterred by the harshness of the early episodes, for they are but a forerunner of an opening toward forgiveness and kindness of heart. Pain summons its own healing. We are made whole and well by our misfortunes. I’m a little surprised that for a first posting on my new blog I’ve chosen a writing of such personal intimacy. I've done so because Bad Dog! is expressive of the way the darkest places give birth to the light. –Lin Jensen)

 

Bad Dog! The Journey Through Shame to Compassion

1.

(Shame is born of betrayal. It matters little whether one is victim or perpetrator, for shame inheres in the event itself, and all who participate are tainted by its presence.)

I am eight years old, my brother, Rowland, ten. We follow Father up the steep wooden stairs to the second story bedroom. He doesn’t say anything. Our steps echo in the hollow of the stairway enclosure. Father holds the lath stick by its end. It’s stiff and splintery and it hangs from Father’s hand almost to the floor. I swallow the words that would beg father, once more, not to do this.

 

In the upstairs bedroom, father shuts the door behind us. A ceiling light hangs from a cord. It shines on the bed, leaving the corners of the room in shadows. Father stands by the bed. He looks at us. Rowland and I stand backed up against the closed door. We don’t move. Outside in the hall, Laddie, our farm dog, scratches at the door. Father looks sad and serious like he wishes he didn’t have to do this. He points toward us with the lath stick, and I hear him ask, “Which of you goes first?”

 

Rowland goes to the bed. He wants to get it over with. It’s worse to go last, but I can never make myself go first. Rowland unbuttons his jeans and pulls them down to his knees. He does this without being told. He knows he has to pull his jeans and underwear down and lie face down on the bed. He pulls his underwear down at the very last because he doesn’t like to show himself. He waits for the first blow. I look away. My body shivers and I feel cold. I hear Laddie snuffling at the door, and then I hear the crack of the lath stick. Rowland doesn’t cry. He holds his breath. He has told me that this is the way to do it.

 

I hear the lath again and then again. Still Rowland doesn’t cry. Laddie whines at the door. I don’t know why father is whipping us. Rowland teased me and punched me behind the barn, and I called him bad names. Did Mother hear us? I had some bad thoughts. Did Mother know them? Mother was angry and then she was sick and lay on her bed and put a wet cloth over her eyes and told us that we would be whipped when Father got home. I got scared and tried to talk to her and make it OK again, but the cloth was over her eyes and she wouldn’t talk to me.

 

Rowland’s turn is over and he gets off the bed. I pull my shirt up and tuck the end of it under my chin to keep it from falling. I pull my pants and underwear down. My penis feels rubbery where I try to hide it under my hands, and Rowland watches me. I hold my breath. The first blow comes. It hurts more than I can stand. My hands stretch back to cover my bottom and I hear myself whimper, “Please, Father, please.” “If you do that, you’ll only make it worse,” Father warns. Sometimes Father says it hurts him more than Rowland and me. I don’t believe him, and he doesn’t say it tonight.

When it’s over, Father goes out. Rowland is in the dark near the wall. I’m under the ceiling light. Rowland can see me wiping at my runny nose with my shirt, but he looks away. We have something wrong with us. We both have it. We do not like to look at one another. It makes us too sorry. In a moment or two, Rowland goes out. The door shuts behind him and I hear him go down the stairs.

 

After a while I go out. Laddie is waiting. He’s glad to see me and wags his tail and rubs himself against me. “Go away, Laddie,” I say. Later, in the dark when I can’t sleep, I slip from my bed and open the door onto the hall where Laddie waits. Clutching him to me, I tell him how sorry I am.

 

2.

(Shame is felt as a failure of love. Its peculiar anguish lies in this perception.)

I am eleven years old. Laddie has done something bad and Father has seen him do it and I don’t know what is going to happen. Rowland says that Laddie killed a turkey. When the Mr. Post’s dog, Starkey, began killing turkeys, Father told him about it. And when Starkey didn’t quit Father shot it. I saw him do it. Starkey was dragging a turkey from the roost and Father shot him. Starkey whined and went round and round in circles until he fell down. Blood was coming out of his nose and pretty soon he died.

In the barn, Father has a rope around Laddie’s neck. When Laddie tries to pull away, Father jerks the rope. It chokes Laddie and makes him cough. Laddie’s fur is tangled and dirty like he’s been rolling on the ground. A dead turkey lies on the floor. It’s torn and bloody and its feathers are wet. “Oh Laddie,” I cry out, “what have you done?” I squat and put out my hand. Laddie wags his tail and comes toward me.

Father jerks him away with the rope. “Don’t be good to him, Linley,” Father says. “Now that he’s tasted blood, it’s not likely he’ll quit.”

“He doesn’t know, father.” I am trying not to cry, but I can feel my face screw up and my voice goes high.

Father hands me the rope tied to Laddie’s neck. “If he kills again, Linley, we can’t keep him. If you want your dog, do now exactly as I say.” I know what to do without Father telling me because Mr. Post tried this with Starkey, but it didn’t work. It’s what everybody does with a dog that starts killing. If we can’t make Laddie stop, we can’t keep him. But we can’t give him away either. Nobody will take a dog that kills.

I tie Laddie by the rope to a post in the barn, and gather the bailing wire and wire cutters and roofing tar that Father told me to get. The dead turkey is covered with flies. Tiny yellow eggs are already stuck to the places where the blood has dried. I take a stick and dab tar on the turkey until its feathers are all plastered down and the torn places are filled and its eyes are stuck shut. This way, Laddie won’t chew it off. I punch the baling wire through its body and wrap one end around each of its legs so that I can tie them around Laddie’s neck. Father says the turkey has to stay there until it rots off because we have only one chance. I’m not supposed to be good to Laddie. He has to learn not to kill.

I take the rope off Laddie. He’s glad to have the rope off and wags his tail and tries to lick my face. “Bad dog!” I tell him, “bad dog!” The turkey hangs from his neck and the tar sticks to his fur. “Bad dog!” I say again.

After three days Mother won’t let Laddie near the house anymore. We are told to keep the yard gates shut. “It’s intolerable,” she tells Father. “I can smell him even here in the house.”

I watch father. He doesn’t look up and he doesn’t say anything.

“It’s not just the smell, you know,” she says. “I can’t bear the thought of it.”

“That doesn’t help any,” is all Father says.

At the end of a week, Laddie quits coming for the food I carry out to him. I find him where he has crawled back into a space under the floor of the storage shed. I call to him but he won’t come. I push the food under to him. I bring a basin of water and push it under too. I do this for two more weeks. Sometimes a little of the food is gone and some water but most of the time he doesn’t eat anything.

Once during this time I see from a distance that Laddie has come out from under the shed. The turkey sags from his neck and drags on the ground when he walks. Even from far away I can see that the turkey is slimy and bloated. “Laddie!” I call. I run to him but, before I can get there, he crawls back under the storage shed. I see him there in the dark. I try to crawl under the shed but it’s too tight and I can’t get to him.

And then one day he’s out. I find him in the barnyard, the baling wire still wound around his neck where the turkey has rotted off. I remove the wire, but he doesn’t wag his tail or try to lick me. I take him to the washroom and fill the washtub with warm water. I lift him into the tub and wash him with soap. I scrub him and rinse him and draw more water and wash him again. I dry him with a towel, and brush him, and I keep telling him that it’s okay now, that it’s all over. I let him out on the lawn by the house where the sun shines through the elm tree, and then I go back to clean up the washroom.

When I come for him, he is gone. I find him under the storage shed. It’s months before he will follow me out to the turkey yards. He never kills again.

3.

(Shame bears within it the source of its own healing, for shame grieves the loss of love. Shame is this very grief whose tears flow from the eyes of compassion.)

I am sixty years old. Father is ninety-three, and he is in the hospital with pneumonia. It is not at all certain that he will survive this illness. Rowland and I take turns watching him through the night. Now it is nearly two in the morning and Rowland has gone to rest. Father is fitful. He’s suffers from diarrhea, and it wakens him frequently in such a state of urgency that I don’t dare doze off myself. Father refuses to use a bedpan, and he is too weak to reach the toilet by himself. He needs me to get him there.

I watch him on the hospital bed where he labors in his sleep to breathe, his thin chest struggling with effort. Father is much softened with age and with grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose innocent loves have reached him beyond his fears. They have coaxed him out of his darkness.

A quarter past three. Father calls. “Linley, I need to go.” He tries to sit up and get his feet to the floor even before I can reach him. I help him up. He has so little strength, yet he uses every bit he has to get himself to the bathroom. I support him as we walk around the foot of the bed and through the bathroom door before I realize we are too late. His hospital gown is pulled open in the back and feces runs down his legs and onto the linoleum where he tracks it with his bare feet.

He looks at me with the most urgent appeal. He is humiliated by what he has done, and his eyes ask of me that it might never have happened. He would cry with the shame of it had he not forgotten how to do so. I back him up to the toilet and sit him down. A fluorescent ceiling light glares down on us. In the hallway beyond these walls I can hear the voices of the night nurses on their rounds. I shut the bathroom door, and when the latch clicks shut on the two of us the sound of it sends a shiver through me. Once again I wait for the crack of the lath stick. For the moment this old man, sitting soiled in his own filth, disgusts me. But in the cloistered silence of the room, his helplessness cries out to me and the sight of him blurs beyond sudden tears. Laddie whines somewhere in the dark. And from that darkness there rises in me an unutterable tenderness.

“It’s okay, father,” I tell him. “It’s okay.” I find clean towels and a washcloth and soap. I run water in the basin until it is warm. I take off his soiled hospital gown and mop the floor under his feet with it and discard it in a plastic bag I find beneath the sink. I wash Father with soap and warm water. I wash him carefully, removing all the feces from around his anus and in the hair on his testicles and down the inside of his legs and between his toes. I wash him until all the rotten things are washed away.

4.

I have written these things out of gratitude so that others might know, as I have come to know, that pain summons its own healing. If pain is all you have, honor it and care for it with all your attention and kindness. In your own grief you will find the power to convert shame to compassion.


Posted by linjensen at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Tuesday, August 16, 2011 1:54 PM PDT
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