Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Voir Dire

When telling the truth hurts

I’m squirming on a polished pew in the back of a wood paneled courtroom with more than 100 people I have never met before in my life, most of whom have the same goal I have: To get out, quickly, by any legal means necessary. In the room’s center, a massive black shape with white hair—a caricature of a figure called “Your Honor”—has absolute power over our lives for the next six weeks.

Here’s how jury duty works: Everyone seated in this room has a hard luck story. And those with the best (or worst) stories get to leave. People have come prepared—with notes from their doctors, employers, sick grandmothers—documentation of sole proprietorship, of cousins’ weddings, of nonrefundable autumn vacations.

His Honor is not particularly sympathetic to most of them.

As I listen to story after story, my heart sinks. I mean, these people are experiencing hard times that would give Dickens pause! Like everyone in the room, I’m weighing the relative merits of each tale of woe: Potential loss of dream vacation does not equal, on the moral scales of justice, potential loss of six weeks of income at the first job this person has held in two years. It seems that everyone is a sole caregiver, a project manager, the family breadwinner.

One single mother whose state assistance is about to run out stresses that she needs to look for a job, and fast. She is not released from service. But she only has two kids, I think hopefully to myself. And I have four.

The woman who speaks just before me has the perfect pitch: she is leaving Monday on a mercy mission to Africa, where she will work with children affected by HIV, and the trip has been planned for more than a year. His Honor scrutinizes the visa, gravely nods his head. Excused. That one will be hard to top, I think, and for the first time in my life, I’m nervous about the prospect of speaking in public.

I’ve got two angles here—personal, and professional. I can see that my colleagues’ professional narratives just aren’t swaying the crag-faced man in the voluminous robes. So, thinking like any good rhetorician, I decide to tailor my message to my audience, leading with professional (the weaker argument) and ending with the sucker punch personal.

The irony is that I am not aware of just how hard my own situation is to myself until I articulate it in front of a hundred strangers.

After explaining that I’m a key employee at my company (blah blah blah), I say, “And I’m involved in a custody case. I have an evidentiary hearing on September 26. And I’m representing myself.”

Speaking those words, I feel myself collapse on the inside, as if a microcosmic black hole has pierced my heart.  I feel tired, afraid, old. I’m no longer worried about whether or not the judge will excuse me from jury service. I’m worried about my sons, their devastation at their father’s abandonment, my increasing exhaustion as I try to walk the razor’s edge of demanding career and even more demanding family obligations, alone. One slip, and…but I cannot slip. I must not slip.

I don’t know what the judge says. All I hear is, “Excused.” I run to the jury holding pen, turn in my red badge. When I reach my car, I collapse in great gulping waves of tears.

Because I have one of those lives. The kind that get you excused from jury duty. And in a couple of weeks, like it or not, I will be standing in a similar wood-paneled courtroom, arguing, as Robert Frost did, “for heaven and the future’s sakes.” No crag-faced white haired judge can excuse me from the ancient sacred duty motherhood has imposed on me. I cannot bear it. I must bear it.

Voir dire means to speak the truth. And today I think, if asked to speak the truth, Cassandra-like, I would describe life as an infinite series of small betrayals.

At four I learn that bumblebees look soft but sting hard.

At nine, that the petrified forest is not a majestic grove of stone trees, but a pile of broken rocks.

At 19, in my Human Anatomy class, that we are nothing but sacks of meat (we probably taste like chicken).

At 30, in an arbitration proceeding, that the good guys don’t win.

At 35, that love is conditional.

At 39, that fathers abandon sons (Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?)

And I know, as I think about these truths, as I contemplate the overwhelming absurdity of human existence, that more inconvenient truths are in store for me. And I also know that I will survive them, like I survived this day and its awful gut-sucking pain, until I don’t. At that point, I won’t care either way.

Ask any brave explorer or doer of deeds for the truth and they will tell you this: When you’re faced with a trial of any shape, size, or complexity, the only way to go is through it. Unless someone with the power excuses you, as His Honor excused me. Those fleeting moments of grace—those rare times when we are excused—are to be cherished and treasured. Even when the cost is so high.