Margot Zemach’s It Could Always Be Worse is one of my favorite children’s books. Funny, wise, and illustrated with Zemach’s signature zest. It’s been nearly twenty years since I last read it out loud to my youngest, but the title’s been running through my head ever since. Most especially lately.
It Could Always Be Worse is a re-telling of a Yiddish folk tale. A poor man is at the end of his rope. He lives with too many people in too small a hut.
So he goes to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi has him move his farm animals into the hut, one by one. Which he does.
The cow trampling everything in sight is the final straw. On the verge of madness the man heads back to the rabbi, who tells him to take all the animals out of the hut. Which he does. The book ends on a joyful note:
“Holy Rabbi,” he cried, “you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful… What a pleasure!”
This old story came to mind when my friend Marc Rosen sent me a poem he wrote in response to the coronavirus. Marc is a practicing psychoanalyst and unbeknownst to me a great and insightful writer. Here’s his poetry debut. I love this. Putting it on my list of good things coming out of the pandemic.
It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This
by Marc Rosen
Or the other thing.
Or some damn thing, like a hangnail or a stubbed toe.
Maybe a cold or a stolen car or even getting held up at gunpoint and losing all my credit cards.
Could’ve been the house afire or the dog got sick on the rug. Then rolled in it after he shat himself.
But it wasn’t supposed to be this.
The thick fog of worry.
The horizon blurry and moving away from me.
Where hysteria makes sense and the mad king reigns over chaos.
It was supposed to have been my grandmother’s soup tureen slipping from my wet hands after a disastrous dinner party where best friends became sworn enemies.
A tear on the lapel of my one and only bespoke suit, a tear right next to the hole the cigar had made.
All things equal, it was supposed to be a shadow on the x-ray, an anxious wait for results, a dark relief brought on by benign results.
Not one long night where the dark hides every menace we know.
Not the wary looks from those who never noticed us.
Not the suspicious eye I cast on some stranger I might have otherwise ignored.
It shouldn’t be the tickle of worry about everything and everyone.
Nor should it be so damned quiet—motors silenced, no buzz saws or grumpy workmen, no neighbors shaking hands, leaning in, happy to see each other.
The post-mortem and every encounter a pre-mortem inventory of who’s next.
The maps, the counts, the graphs, the lies, the firehose I’m drinking from with the four-way streams.
It shouldn’t be like this, seeing our loved ones, our liked ones, our livelihoods on screens, staring into an ether one foot away and ten states away.
One should not ache like this to want to touch the doorman’s shoulder to say “thanks guy” or to be ignored by a surly, sneering waitress.
No, what it should’ve been is losing my favorite money clip, thick with bills and never finding it.
I really wish it had been two flat tires and 5% battery left and my AAA card stolen by the guy in the fourth line.
That’s what it really should’ve been, it should’ve been just like that.
Just like hot coffee on my keyboard and my front door splintering in half for no god damn reason.
This soup is lukewarm, unpalatable, the broth thin and watery.
It tastes like worry and helplessness and impotence and rage.
Bitter, bland and banal.
Not like the thick, rich stew we served in my grandmother’s antique tureen, with the chunks and morsels so memorable that we’ll never forget how good it tasted to lose the tureen and our friends all in one night.