What does it mean to be alive, to be a human being? A big, universal question, not only in this particular time in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, in the midst of the political maelstrom that has engulfed our country, but at any time, in any place. And, perhaps as important, is there a single universal answer or are there many answers, each as individual as the unique individuals who have tried to answer the question.
I am thinking about this today because of two books that I’ve been reading over the past week or so. One is a non-fiction book, a sort of stream-of-conscious meditation on the general subject by Roger Rosenblatt. His book, “Cold Moon,” is a series of seemingly haphazard, free association reflections on the meaningful events in his life and the things that he finds important at a time when, as he says at age 80, he is entering the winter of his life. This year’s Cold Moon in our calendar will be on December 29th. Also called the Long Night Moon, the last full moon of the year marks the inexorable slide into winter.
Now to be relatively transparent, I should tell you that Roger is a friend of mine. We’ve known each other for 35 years, give or take. We were colleagues and friends for 20 years at the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in its various iterations and have continued as friends in the years since my retirement. His latest book is a reminder of the many reasons that I am so fond of him. It is filled with his loves of jazz and old songs, of his travels to some of the world’s most desperate places at home and abroad, his love of the movie “Stairway to Heaven” that he talked his mother into taking him to see five times in a week when he was five years old. It is filled with his love of language and of poetry, the love of his wife, and the sudden, shocking, inexplicable death of his daughter, Amy, at age 38. Roger, who can seem a charming, obviously smart, convivial companion if something of a personal cipher in public, reserves the expression of his truest, most personal, most revealing self for his books. And so it is with “Cold Moon.”
There is a point to all of Roger’s rambling self-reflection and it is this: “I wander from thought to thought, having learned but three things from my Long Night’s Moon: I believe in life. I believe in love. I believe we are responsible for each other.” The entire book (it’s really quite short), all of the darting and dancing from word to word, from subject to subject, is a demonstration of those three things, of how every part of a life—his life—is interconnected, all those seemingly disparate parts are simply a part of a whole, a demonstration of the truth for Roger of those three things he has learned on his long day’s journey into night. After his daughter’s death, Roger is sitting by his grandson Sam and talking about James, Sam’s brother. “’It’s a wonder how James goes off on his own and takes in whatever he can,’ I remark to Sam. Without turning to me, looking admiringly at his brother, Sam says matter-of factly, ‘He loves life.’” As does Roger.
But Roger’s view of life is not the only possible way of seeing it. I’ve also been reading Varlam Shalamov’s “Kolyma Tales,” a collection of 6 books of short stories about the time he spent in the Soviet Union’s forced labor camps in the Gulag. Imprisoned in 1937 during the Great Purge for being a Trotskyite, he remained there until 1953. He died in 1982. Although his work started to be published in the West to much acclaim in the 1960’s after being smuggled out, it wasn’t published in Russia until 1987.
Here’s a question for you: Which was worse, Hitler’s Holocaust or Stalin’s Gulag? I don’t know how to answer the question. Six million Jews and others were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Twenty-five million (give or take) Soviets were sent to Stalin’s forced labor camps where untold millions died of execution, starvation, disease, and exhaustion. In story after story, we are told of the numbness to life in the camps. For Shalamov and his fellow prisoners, tomorrow didn’t exist, hope didn’t exist. Maybe one would make it through the night but who knows and did one really care? Moving and terrible as these stories are, they pale in comparison to his stories about coming back to life. After all, I have been reading about the Holocaust and the Gulag for most of my life; there isn’t anything new. Or so I think.
And then I read the story, “Sententious.” Told in the first person, I hardly know if it is fiction or fact. Close to death, he writes, “I am moved from the labor camp to the prison hospital. Starving to death in the freezing night, I had little warmth. Little flesh was left on my bones, just enough for bitterness—the last human emotion; it was closer to the bone…I expected bitterness to stay with me till death. But death, just recently so near, began to ease away little by little. Death was replaced not by life, but by semi-consciousness, an existence which had no formula and could not be called life…Envy was the name of the next feeling that returned to me. I envied my dead friends…Love didn’t return to me. Oh, how distant is love from envy, from fear, from bitterness. Love comes only when all other emotions have already returned. Loves comes last, returns last. Or does it return?” Perhaps Shalamov is asking, does love even matter? Does life? Do you even matter? Do I?
No, Shalamov is not Rosenblatt and the Shalamov of the camps could not even conceive of Rosenblatt, could not conceive of a connection to him although Rosenblatt could conceive of such a connection. Here’s something with which both might agree: We are God’s most glorious creations. We are also His most monstrous.
There is a story in the December 2, 2020 edition of the Washington Post. “The Search for the Disappeared Points to Mexico’s Darkest Secrets.” Since 2006 79,000 people—more or less—have disappeared in Mexico. They are all presumed to have died at the hands of the drug cartels. Did you know that it is estimated that 4 pounds of incinerated pebble-sized bone fragments equal a human being? Clearly this is a problem for Mexico. But is it not a problem for us as well? Are we not complicit? After all, the cartels would not exist if they did not have customers. Every needle in an American arm, every line of coke snorted, every drag on an illegally purchased joint, feeds the murderous rampage that ravages Mexico.
Yes, Roger, my friend, we are all interconnected, we are all responsible for and to one another. We all bear some responsibility for the deaths in Mexico just as we do for the Gulag and the Holocaust. Just as we are all responsible for the angry divisions in this country. Just as we are all responsible for the spread of Covid. But we, too, are all responsible for laughter and singing and love. We are all responsible for our children and grandchildren scattered to the four corners of the earth. We are all responsible for Hanukkah candles and Christmas tree lights. We are all responsible for “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Silent Night.”
Life. Love. Responsibility for each other. Things to remember in this holiday season.
Michael Saltz is an award-winning, long-time, now-retired Senior Producer for what is now called “PBS NewsHour.” He is a resident of Hillsdale.