April 02, 2008

The High Cost of Justice

When I was in my early twenties, I suffered such a painful falling out with my parents that the estrangement lasted for nearly three years. During that time the three of us spoke not one word to each other. I was accused of an act of which I was innocent. My mother, swayed by circumstances that suggested otherwise, remained convinced of guilt.

I’d returned from my two years military duty in Germany with the intention of making the family farm my life’s work. I’d temporarily moved into the bedroom that my brother, Rowland , and I once shared, planning to move into a place of my own as soon as Shirley Rice and I, to whom I was engaged, were married. Though the date was set for June 10th and we were already into the month of May, it was clear that Father was not pleased with the prospect of having a grown son living back home, however temporarily. But Father’s uneasiness seemed to me to go deeper than his mere discomfort with my presence under the same roof, and I began to wonder if Father questioned whether the farm could expand enough to support another family. I think perhaps he saw that there was no place for me in the business and couldn’t bring himself to tell me so. Land had appreciated so dramatically in Orange County that farms all around us were selling at unimaginably high prices, and soon the forty acres on Harbor Boulevard, which housed the farm hatchery and brooding coops, would be surrounded by freeways, subdivisions, and shopping malls. Perhaps Mother and Father were themselves considering selling out and retiring to the city of Orange where their lives together had begun and where a few old friends lived and Trinity Episcopal Church stood.

Rowland had become the foreman by then and the one who handed out paychecks, so I asked him for an advance of a couple hundred dollars until I could get things in order. I had rent to arrange on a house and car expenses that I couldn’t quite manage. Rowland’s solution was for me to report additional hours on my timecard to be paid back later with equivalent hours of unpaid overtime, which seemed convoluted to me but which he seemed to think would “keep the books straight.” Mother was writing the payroll at the time, and maybe Rowland thought she’d object to the cash advance and so was trying to accommodate me by doing it this way. But when Mother saw my pay card, she knew I hadn’t worked that many hours and believed I was trying to claim money I hadn’t earned. “Stealing” was the word she chose.

I have no doubt that my mother was disappointed and pained by her discovery of what she thought I’d done. I’m certain there was no malice or triumph in her accusation. But I wasn’t stealing, and I told her so. I looked for Rowland to clarify the matter, but he was suddenly vague about the whole thing, simply pointing out that I could pay it back with overtime. I realized that he was not going to help me. Maybe he had overstepped his authority in agreeing to the arrangement and was reluctant to admit his part in it. Did he even remember what we’d agreed to?

My mother’s certainty regarding my guilt brought my father, and even my sister, to the same opinion as well. When I saw how it was, all I could think of was to get away. I left the farm within the hour of my being accused and never worked there again.

I found a job on a remote desert poultry farm twenty miles east of Palmdale in California’s Mojave Desert, and a few days after Shirley and I were married we moved there and began our lives together. But within a year and half the farm went bankrupt and I ended up working at a Chevron station on the outskirts of town. It was there on an August afternoon in 120-degree heat that had so softened the asphalt on the station’s driveway that the soles of my shoes stuck to it, that Mother broke the long silence.

I was literally at the driver’s side door, waiting for the window to be rolled down, before I realized who it was that had pulled up to the pump. Father was at the wheel. He glanced up at my face, startled to see me there. He was obviously unsettled and unsure as to what he should do. Mother said, “Well, hello there!” Her voice reached me, false with feigned casualness, from the far seat. I don’t remember whether I hesitated, took a breath, swallowed, or what. All I remember is hearing myself ask, “Would you like regular or high octane?” Father answered, “High octane would be fine.” I filled the tank, checked the oil and water, cleaned the windshield, took their money, and walked away.

I could barely breathe. I fled toward the rear of the station so as to avoid the others in the lube room. The rear of the station was treeless, the station wall baking in the heat. In the inch or two of shade afforded by a dumpster stacked with discarded tires, I stopped to catch my breath. And then mother was there, her face flushed dangerously red with the heat, which she had never tolerated well. She came up to me where I stood backed against the dumpster. She said, “Linley, this has gone far enough.” She tried to sound firm yet calm like a scolding mother who needs to correct the error of her child. But as she spoke the words, her false teeth (as dentures were more honestly called in those days) slipped a little, causing a clicking sound. Mother, who had always been terribly sensitive about this, brought her hand up to cover her mouth. She had no hat and so she squinted against the sun that poured down on us and reflected off the station wall. Sweat formed in the creases of her neck. Behind the screen of her hand, I could see her mouth work as she tried to press her teeth back in place with her tongue. Finally, all her dignity undone, whatever small pride she had been able to retain compromised, she had to stick her fingers in her mouth to adjust her teeth. When she spoke again, her voice came unguarded, carrying the grief of her three years’ sorrow: “Son, it’s time we ended this.”

Of course it was time. But I saw in her, in the tilt of her head perhaps, or something in her eyes, that her opinion of my guilt was unaltered. What she offered was a mother’s forgiveness; she was willing to let the trespass go unadmitted and unanswered so that she could have her child once more. Her love required this, making its appeal from the pain of its own loss. I saw this, but the error of the accusation, the everlasting injustice of it, made her offer of forgiveness as deadly to me as a drink of poison. In the end, I could say nothing. She tried to hold my eyes, her own imploring me to let the hardness go, but when she saw that I couldn’t or wouldn’t, her chin quivered and she blinked and turned away.

When she was gone, my eyes stung with a sudden rush of hot tears, I vomited all my bitterness into the station toilet. Kneeling on the floor of the stall, afraid that I would be found there, I touched within my mother’s dark pain and my own a love for her more fierce and unchecked than any I had known.

Years later, sitting in meditation at Shasta Abbey Zen Monastery and long after I’d put aside my injured pride and reconciled with my parents, I would come to better understand this thing we call love. We were in the midst of a retreat, and its theme and purpose was to raise the heart of Avalokitesvara, the embodiment of compassion in the Buddhist tradition. She is a mythological figure that represents the capacity for love that resides in each of us. Avalokitesvara is typically depicted as having a thousand arms and eyes, one eye embedded in the palm of each hand, so that the organ of perception is also the organ of action. With her thousand eyes she can see all suffering wherever it occurs, and simultaneously with her thousand hands, she can reach out and aid the sufferer. The idea of the retreat was to call upon Avalokitesvara, and I was doing my best, sitting in the Zendo, hour after hour, with my knees and back aching, asking her to appear.

I don’t know anything about magic, and so don’t put much credence in “signs” or “visions” of a religious sort. But I do know about imagination and its artful power to bring up the very thing that’s needed when the time comes. And what came to me at the Avalokitesvara retreat was not the shining goddess, surrounded by a glittering halo of arms and eyes, but the plain, recognizable face of my father, who, though dead six years at the time, was as undeniably present as the pain in my legs. He didn’t have multiple hands and eyes. He had but two of each. One of his hands gripped me by the shoulder and the other touched my check in a gesture gentler than any I’d ever known of him. His two eyes were simply the eyes of a father’s love, inclusive and without reserve, and he said to me, “Oh Linley, you always wanted everything to be fair.” And then, just before he vanished, he winked at me in acknowledgement of what was understood between us.

There’s not much room for judgments of right and wrong, blame and praise, justice and injustice in matters of love. Love’s not an orderly, unblemished affair of that sort. Father had come to see if I’d figured this out. I had, but his visit brought me once again to consider the waste of those three-year’s alienation my family and I had suffered because I’d insisted that things be fair.

Later, on the evening of my father’s appearance, I told the Abbot what had happened and asked him if that was Avalokitesvara who had finally shown up. He assured me that it was.

[(c) Lin Jensen, 2005. Reprinted from Bad Dog!: A Memoir of Love, Beauty, and Redemption in Dark Places, with permission of Wisdom Publications, 199 Elm Street, Somerville, MA 02144 U.S.A, www.wisdompubs.org]

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