July 1, 2021
One of my favorite books as a child was It Could Always Be Worse. I remember the first time it was read to me. I was probably six or seven years old at Sunday School at Temple Emanuel B’ne Jeshurun in Milwaukee. The synagogue is owned by the university now. I haven’t seen what they’ve done. The sanctuary could be a library now, for all I know. But then the library was on the lower entrance level and I remember sitting with a group of children, all of us on the floor of the library, and hearing the synagogue librarian read the book to us. You know the story. You know how it goes.
A man and his wife and mother-in-law and four or five unruly children live in a one room shack in a forlorn shtetl somewhere, and the man, he’s beside himself. He can’t get away. Children here and there. Too much work. Too much. Not a moment’s peace. He goes to see the rabbi. Rabbi, he says, I can’t take it anymore. The rabbi tells him to take his chickens and bring them into the one room shack with him and his wife and mother-in-law and children. The chickens will live with him now. He does it. Life gets worse. He goes back to the rabbi. Life is impossible, he says. The rabbi tells him to bring his goat into the house. Then, a few days later, his cow. Finally, the man’s sanity hangs by a hair. He begs the rabbi: Save me. The rabbi tells him to take the animals out again. The man does. And the story ends with a last visit to the rabbi. You’re a miracle maker, the man says. What a joy – my life! What peace. Thank you, rabbi.
As a child, I remember focusing on the animals. In the version read to us at the synagogue library, the goat was drawn especially well. The artist captured the goat’s backward kick – I think it was kicking the kitchen table, toppling it, spilling dinner. I remember feeling thrilled and horrified by the image. Can that happen? Can a goat storm through a home? Can dinner be spilled? That was my life, my perspective. I came from a stable home in the suburbs and dinner never spilled, not much, anyway. We owned no goats.
As an adult, I read the story differently. I see the rabbi as our better angel, the loving, curmudgeonly, seasoned part of ourselves. Getting older means we are beat up by the years, yes, but we are also able to sit in the one room shack that is our precious life and see it for the blessing it is. The chickens, the goat, the cow – these are the years, the ambitions and fears, the losses, the dreams, the mistakes, the summoned courage. The kicking goat, the spilled dinner – this is the only life there is, the one ride on this rock, the disaster, the dance.
The book is sandwiched between other children’s books on my daughter’s bookshelf. I could find it if I wanted to. But I’ve moved on to thousand page novels. She’s reading dystopian fantasies. The children’s book waits. We’re too young for it yet.