When my friend Laura first started teaching kindergarten, she had something called a “Listening Center.” Each student had their own tape recorder and headphones and a selection of picture books with audiocassettes. Seeing those recorders lined up brought me back to my childhood days and the time I spent at the Huntington Beach Public Library. I would lounge on a bean bag with headphones on, in the library’s “Listening Center,” while my mom browsed in Adult Fiction, two floors away. Those were blissful moments for this nerdy little girl. When I visited Laura’s classroom, I smiled, thinking of the many happy hours her students would spend listening to Green Eggs and Ham and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.
A few years later, my own children were ready for picture books, and I gleefully marched them into the public library, right up to my favorite childhood section, the picture books on tape, rack upon rack of auditory gold.
Although it has been many years since my children checked out a book on tape, there is one story I remember listening to with great fondness. It had a bright yellow cover, with a boy being lifted into the air by a big red balloon. The title was simply That’s Good! That’s Bad! by Margaret Cuyler. It was the story of a little boy floating and dropping, landing and hopping, all over a jungle, filled with wild animals. I remember the cadence of the readers’ voices as they chanted the refrain from the book’s title. The children on the CD would all cheer, “Oh, that’s good,” but the adult reader would quickly correct them, “No, that’s bad.” On the next page, the roles were reversed and what seemed bad would, in fact, turn out to be good. Listening to the book was a pleasure, but the real joy came from my kids’ anticipatory giggles as they waited for the other shoe to drop, for what they thought was so clearly good, to be shown to be so obviously bad, and vice versa.
After listening to that book countless times over the years, you’d think I would have remembered the universal theme: You can’t really judge if something’s good, or bad, until you turn the page. But gosh, that’s a hard truth to hold on to. Life is very much like that story book. Something happens that raises our spirits, and we silently cheer, Oh, that’s good! but it is quickly followed by the realization, No, that’s bad! Of course, the reverse holds true just as often, if not more so. We never really know if something is good, or bad, until much, much later, and even then, we can’t really be sure, because the story’s not over yet.
Of course, I’ve always been on this roller coaster of judgment, but it has really picked up speed since the Fall of 2008. My husband and I own a small retail business and the last three years have not been easy. For the past 18 years, our lives and livelihood have been built around that business. Apart from his family, the ‘shop,’ as we lovingly call it, is his pride and joy. Since the start of the Great Recession, we’ve hit a lot of peaks and valleys. We’ve reinvented the way he works, the way I work, the way the business works, but it still seems like we are often groaning, Oh, that’s bad. However, we keep reminding ourselves, No, that’s good, because, unlike a lot of mom-and-pop stores, our doors are still open and we are still paying the bills, or at least most of them.
It works that way in my personal life as well. I go through my days, attaching too much significance to each and every thing that comes my way. I find myself thinking, “Oh, that’s good,” just to have something occur to me a moment later that has me convinced, “No, that’s bad.” It’s an emotional ping-pong game, and I am always the loser. Whether it is phone calls, emails, invitations, conversations, red lights, green lights, doctor visits, or burned dinners, I wish I were not so hasty to judge whether it is good news, or bad news. I wish I could remember that in life, there is always another page. The story isn’t over yet.
At the end of the children’s book, the boy is dropped back into his parents’ loving arms, where they greet him with a huge kiss and a sigh of relief. The children on the CD, confident that this is the end of the story, shout with all their might, “Oh, that’s good!” But the author surprises them with another twist. You have to turn the page, risking another fall, when she emphatically says, “No, that’s GREAT!”
The last page on the recession and it’s affect on my family and our way of life is still a ways off. My personal last page may come tomorrow, or it may be far away. I don’t have the answer to that. But what I do know is that I can end each day’s story by dropping into the arms of my loving family, holding them close and saying goodnight with a huge kiss. When I leave their bedrooms, teeth brushed and blankets tucked, I give a sigh of relief, knowing, that for now, “Oh, that’s good,” very, very good, indeed.
Afterword: If you are over 40, don’t have children, or think yourself above learning a lesson from a children’s picture book, here is a famous zen koan that imparts the same wisdom. It’s a great story, but not nearly as much fun.
There was an old farmer who worked hard on his little farm. There was never any money left over, but the farmer did have one sturdy, fine horse that helped the man and his young adult son with the farm labor.
One morning the farmer woke to find that the horse had broken out of the pen, and ran away. The neighbors came over, shaking their heads. They told the farmer that he had very bad luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”
The next morning when the farmer woke, he found that his sturdy, fine horse had returned, bringing with him a small herd of wild horses. The neighbors came over, nodding their heads. They told the farmer that he had very good luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?”
Early the next morning, the farmer’s son was out breaking the new horses. The young man was tossed off a wild horse, and his leg broke. It was a bad injury, and the son would not be able to work for months. The neighbors came over, shaking their heads. They told the farmer he had very bad luck. The farmer replied, “Good luck, bad luck. Who know?”
The next morning, the army came through the village conscripting all young men to go and fight. His son could not go.
Good luck, bad luck? Who knows?