Bad Dog! - Selections
Dust and Feathers: An Introduction
I’d been writing this book for several years before I thought to ask why I was writing it at all. And further, why I was writing it in the particular way that I was. Did I expect others to read these words of mine and, if so, why would they want to?
There are two things you can expect in reading this book. The first is that it is essentially autobiographical—though telling my life’s story is not my primary intention. I didn’t set out to chronicle the events of my family and the community in which I was raised. What I set out to do was to share what I had learned in my life that might be worth knowing and passing on to others. And all I really know, after all, is what I have truly experienced and observed for myself. Everything other than that is mere conjecture. So: the pages of this book are written in the first person I, a narrative option best explained by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote Walden in the first person for the very reasons governing my own choice: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” The result in the case of this book is not the story of anyone’s life told for its own sake, but rather a drawing out from that life those incidents that serve to illuminate wondrous redemption, the kind that the old Zen masters knew for themselves and offered to the world. The second thing you can expect in reading this book is that the events described may at times seem harsh and raw with details one might rather not know. Why do I ask the reader to accompany me through such dark passages? I do so because I’ve been there myself and I’ve learned that when the universe offers the gift of darkness and I refuse it, my refusal invariably forfeits the very light I seek. I wouldn’t ask anyone to take this journey with me if it were merely the story of my journey alone—but it’s not. Though the details of our lives vary, we share a common humanity. If I’ve written truly you will find nothing outside yourself in these pages. I hope my story teaches that if we will accept whatever pain or distress life gives us, then that pain summons its own healing. If pain is what you have, embrace it, honor it, and care for it with all your kindness. Truly, within grief is power that transforms darkness to light.
The events of my own life have brought me to be a Zen teacher. But soon after I began teaching I found, as my own teachers had before me, that I had little to teach. Zen has no absolute truths, as such, to pass on. Zen is not something to think about or believe in—and I’m not very good at believing things anyway. I prefer questions to answers. A question opens my mind in a way that an answer shuts it down. Realizing this, I’ve tried to live a life of inquiry rather than one of conclusion. Zen itself draws no conclusions and is too alive to be captured in thought. Having staked out no fixed territory of its own to defend, Zen is free to roam at will, encountering, with curiosity and surprise, the world as it actually is.
As a result, I’ve written a book that seldom takes sides, preferring to remain undecided and watch what develops. If you really pay attention, life itself teaches the suspension of judgment. In life itself, the fiercest anger often issues from the deepest love, courage is discovered in the greatest fear, an unsuspected tenderness is found in the cruelest hand, a sudden clarity is born of utter confusion, and the one light that never dims is wrested from the blackest darkness. Bad Dog! is written in the knowledge that opposites merge in ways that are often contrary to all expectation, and that our perception of things opposing each other may be little more than the consequence of a linguistic convention.
Roshi John Tarrant, one of my own teachers on the Zen way, tells of an evening when his friend’s girlfriend was having a birthday party for her daughter. Balloons trailing pink ribbons, halfeaten bowls of ice cream going soft in the heat of the kitchen, messy gobs of chocolate cake, and lots of chattering, gooey little girl’s faces. When parents had hauled the other children off, the daughter came to her mother complaining of a stomachache. “Honey, you ate too much cake and ice cream,” her mother told her. But the boyfriend, flaked out on the sofa and having never raised a child of his own, told her, “Maybe you didn’t eat enough.” I doubt the gastronomic accuracy of the boyfriend’s diagnosis but I like the way it turns things upside-down. “Maybe you didn’t eat enough” is so contrary that it teases the mind out of its conventional expectations. Bad Dog! is like this, encouraging a tolerance for contradiction that frees us from whatever argument we’re having with circumstance. If I find myself in one of life’s distressing events, I can lobby the universe for relief or I can get curious about what’s being offered. While I may prefer sunshine to the clouds massing overhead, if I’m willing to let fall my preferences, I’m free to explore all sorts of rainy-day possibilities.
One of life’s interesting contradictions is that the best intention is invariably wrong. When I’ve taken the time to notice, it wasn’t hard to see that anything we humans think or do is bound to be mistaken one way or another. “Ten thousand beautiful mistakes,” the Chinese Zen masters were fond of saying. An old Christian story attributed to the Desert Fathers touches on the innocence of this human fallibility. The story goes that a monk asked Abba Sisoius, “What am I to do since I have fallen?” The Abba replied, “Get up.” “I did get up, but I fell again,” the monk told him. “Get up again,” said the Abba. “I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. So what should I do?” “Never fall down without getting up,” the Abba concluded.
Falling down is inevitable; it’s what we humans do. When I acknowledge this it brings me to an unguarded kindness and sympathy. Falling makes us human and, if such a thing can happen, it makes us wise. Abba Sisoius is showing us that the trick of falling is just falling itself and that the only thing we need do is get back up so we’re ready, when the time comes, to fall again. Some perilous falls are taken in the chapters that follow these introductory words, but they are falls that reveal the obvious truth that we can only get up in the place where we fell down. And even more pointedly, it is our falling that teaches us the way back up. “The coin lost in the river is found in the river,” old Master Yunmen told us ages ago.
Bad Dog! is about specific things—the stories, events, and images of things I have known and observed for myself. No one’s life is a generalization. Our lives are singular events that lie right before us in all their curious detail and beauty. I trust things a great deal more than I trust ideas about things. I’ve had my own teachers, Soto and Rinzai Zen masters, and none of them gave me their ideas. They taught me instead to look at the details of the story that life itself was writing, knowing that there alone would I find the teaching I sought.
The old Chinese teachers understood this, and taught by pointing directly to life itself. You could never get these old masters to explain anything. If you asked one of them to teach you about Zen, they might set you to cooking rice or they might reply as Master Gensha did long ago in China when a monk said to him: “I am a novice just arrived at this monastery. Please, master, tell me how I can enter into Zen?” Gensha said, “Can you hear the creek down beyond the gate?” The monk listened for a minute and said, “Yes, I can.” “Enter Zen from there,” was Master Gensha’s answer, returning the student to the intimate journey of his own life.
My way of entering from where the water flows will be to tell you a story. “Tell me a story” is an ageless appetite of the mind so simple and understandable that its appeal requires no explanation. Bad Dog! relies on story rather than lesson to carry its message more to the intuition than to the intellect. It’s not always an easy story to read just as life is not always easy to live. It’s a true story as faithful to fact as memory will allow. It begins with the life of a troubled family where the constant threat of economic failure makes hard work the one salient fact of life, and where mutual safety and affection could at any moment be overwhelmed by sudden fear and violence.
The story begins on a Southern California turkey farm. Imagine a hundred thousand birds, acres of milling feet, the earth perpetually ground to a fine powder of dirt and dried manure that the wind carries up through the barns to the house. Everything in such a world is coated gray—the pickup parked in the driveway, the leaves of the sycamore trees, the lawn chairs, even the lawn itself. Dust piles up on windowsills and insinuates itself into the house, coating tabletops and dressers and lying like talcum on the surface of the piano. And drifting feathers too blow downwind where they snag on every fence line and hedgerow and clump of weeds, and even wedge against the dog asleep in the shade of the barn. The acrid smell of turkey manure, where it piles up beneath the roosts, seeps into your skin and hair. The incessant cackling racket of the turkeys grates like the distant whine of a chainsaw or the droning motor of a kitchen refrigerator that never seems to switch off. The ever-present flies go after your breath and the moisture of your eyes.
We were a family of five. My father, a Danish immigrant whose parents had died when he was just a child leaving him to fend for himself, arrived at Ellis Island in 1923, penniless, ill, and with virtually no command of English. My mother was born somewhere in Montana of a mother who abandoned her as an infant, leaving her to be raised by the Goslees, an elderly couple who viewed the adoption of the child as insurance that they would be cared for in their old age. In time, the Goslees moved to the city of Orange in Southern California, and my father, having found his way there as well, met my mother when she was but seventeen. They fell in love and, before my mother’s eighteenth birthday, they married and proceeded to make a household for themselves and raise a family. Neither of them had ever lived in a functional household under the care and guidance of their own parents, and so they had no model for what they were setting out to do. Not only that but they began their lives together at the outset of the Great Depression of the thirties and were soon to know the added hardship of all poor and immigrant households. My brother, Rowland, was born within a year of my parent’s marriage. I came two years later, and my sister, Evelyn, six years after that.
Whatever my parents had hoped for in the beginning, our five lives together turned out to be a daily enactment of inadvertent cruelty and sudden love that we never quite managed to reconcile. But we were a family whose hunger to love one another could not finally be refused. Understanding and tenderness would arise among us no matter how bad things got, and we found redemption in the very places we hurt most. Sometimes in the midst of the worst anger or accusation or threat, an unaccountable hush would suddenly settle over us. In the momentary reprieve of this unbidden quiet the whisper of our five separate breaths could be heard rising to the high ceiling of the old farmhouse living room. Our chests rose and fell with each breath, and there was a wondrous tenderness in the moment that we all recognized and felt for each other.
From these early beginnings on the farm, the story of Bad Dog! expands into the succeeding years, bringing the insights born of one family’s intimate struggles to bear upon the lives of people and communities elsewhere. The book unfolds in chapters of birth and marriage, school and work, friends and colleagues, coastline, valleys, mountains, cities and towns, love and anger, old age and death. Its seven decades spans the startling losses and gains America has witnessed since my birth in 1932 to my present age of seventy-three.
Don’t be deterred by the sometimes troubled landscape visited in these pages. I have returned to these regions not for the sorrow or pity of it, but for the wonder of how love and beauty take root in even the most barren places. Bad Dog! occupies a world in which people with every reason to misunderstand each other, miraculously meet, and find their lives less lonely. Your consolation and mine is that no matter how difficult life can be, its sweetness is always with us.
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 okay 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. 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.
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.
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 Mr. Post’s dog, Starkey, began killing our turkeys, Father told him about it. And when the dog didn’t quit Father shot it. I saw him do it. Starkey was dragging a turkey from the roost when 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.
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 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. For a 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.
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© Lin Jensen, Bad Dog! A Memoir of Love, Beauty and Redemption in Dark Places (Wisdom Publications, 2005)
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