When you become a parent, you are allowed back into a world that you long ago left behind—that place of possibility, which I've mentioned in my previous entries.
One delicate way parents are reinitiated into that world is through the ritual of reading bedtime stories. I spend more time with children's books now than I do with The New Yorker or the latest novel. As Jack is now eight, we've happily moved into the realm of the chapter book. But I'm afraid that he will have to wait a while before we launch the Harry Potter series or other popular titles because, for now, I choose the stories I read at night. And, for now, he doesn't mind.
My favorite books are titles from my childhood: Charlotte's Web (E.B. White), The Borrowers (Mary Norton) and The Bitter Green of Willow (March Cost), an obscure, slender volume of short fiction given to me by my sister Mary when I was 10 years old. Reading these stories again as an adult is like picking them up for the first time. Reading aloud gives the stories more dimension because the language in each of these books is so beautiful and rich and filled with artful description. Often I find myself pausing as I read a sentence and rereading it again, each word so carefully plucked to fulfill its purpose in the tale. These are the books that taught me how to write, gave me my meter and even inspired some of the antiquated vocabulary I use today.
But there is one contemporary children's book that has made it into my all-time favorites: Zen Shorts (John Muth). Jack selected this book from the bookstore one day because its cover boasts a very large, very kind-looking Panda named Stillwater. This Panda is a Zen Master and he gently teaches three children Buddhist principles based on the everyday adventures they have together. (If you are looking for the perfect Christmas gift for a child, now you know what to buy.) There are three simple lessons in this book, each quite profound, but the one I like best is the retelling of an old Buddhist parable about the wise farmer. If you'll indulge me, I'll retell it here, because if you have not heard it, you should. (And if you want the full effect, read it aloud to yourself.)
Once there was a wise farmer who lived with his son in a remote valley. Nearby lived a nosey neighbor who liked to take stock in all things. One day the farmer's prize stallion broke free from his stable and ran away. The neighbor, seeing that the horse was gone, went to console the farmer. "Oh, I am so very sorry," he said, "I see that your wonderful horse is gone. What bad luck for you, my friend!" The wise farmer smiled, shrugged his shoulders and replied, "Who is to say? Good luck or bad luck?"
The following day the stallion returned to the farm and brought with him six beautiful mares. Upon hearing their neighing, the neighbor ran to see what had happened. "My friend, you now have a herd of horses, what good luck for you!" he said. But the farmer just shrugged and said, "Who is to say? Is it good luck or bad luck? I do not know."
Soon the farmer's son, in whom he relied to help him on the farm, determined to tame the most spirited and graceful mare. No sooner had he climbed on the horse's back than he was thrown to the ground, his leg broken. The neighbor, upon hearing the cries of the boy, came running over. "Oh, no!" he cried. "What bad, bad luck for you!" But as the farmer knelt to console the boy and he only replied, "Who is to say?"
The next week, a war broke out in the neighboring land and soldiers came through the countryside consigning all the young men into the army. When they came to the wise farmer's home, they saw that his son was lame and therefore passed the boy over for service. After the soldiers departed, the neighbor came running over to see what had happened. "Oh, how fortunate you are my friend!" he said. "Your son has been spared from the war." The farmer simply shrugged. He thought to himself how his son might have been a good solider and protected many lives. "Good luck? Or bad luck?" he asked. "Who is to say?"
I've thought of this fable often over the past months as events in my life have unfolded. I see clearly now that some things which I originally perceived as tragedies—being laid off from my job last year or even the death of my father—have opened possibilities and given me strength that I never before fathomed. In the end, it is in our limited perception that we dub something good or bad. Buddhist practice provides no judgment, only an openness to see that within any life-altering event we have the ability to find the good. Buddhism also teaches that all things change. The prize that we hold dear today, may very well turn into our darkest nemesis tomorrow. And just as surely, that ill-fated circumstance may open up opportunity we never imagined. Who is to say?