“Find joy in the camps.”
The author, Shalom Auslander, recently inscribed these words on the cover page of Hope: A Tragedy, a book of his I’d not yet read.
I’d purchased the book, and stood before Auslander as he put sharpie to page and scribbled his inscription, for Norman, one of my best and oldest friends. This past spring, Norman’s East Village apartment exploded. A gas leak in the basement, created by what is thought to have been the building owner’s illegal tap of a gas main, was the apparent cause of the explosion. The explosion was so fierce it took out four apartment buildings, nearly destroyed a fifth, and left two people dead.
Since the explosion, Norman has wandered. First, to a hotel, then to a friend’s apartment, then to spending time with his family.
I hadn’t attended Auslander’s talk with the intention of getting an inscribed book for Norman. But as soon as Auslander began to speak, my buddy immediately came to mind.
For a start, Auslander is a writer, an edgy, hilarious, irreverent, moody writer. Norman, too, is a writer, an edgy, hilarious, irreverent, moody writer. And just like Norman, Auslander seems at peace with humanity’s hopelessness; by that, I mean, he doesn’t devote himself to fixing our lot, to propelling us towards some messianic future, where, baptized by water or war or fire or pharmaceuticals, we see the light.
Auslander cracks jokes in the dark, tickling us until uncomfortable, aroused, ashamed, we can’t help but giggle.Then, when we’ve lost our breath, Auslander presses his face close to ours, so close we wonder if he’s about to plant a kiss, and whispers questions. Questions that have no answers. Questions that keep us unsettled and exasperated. Questions that can only end in one of three ways—acrimony, artifice, or belly laughs.
“Find joy in the camps."
I am not sure if he intended this invitation to be read as I now read it, but Auslander’s wise enough to know that his words no longer belong to him, not after he’s sharpied them to the page. So I mail these words in Hope: A Tragedy, to Norman, to a fellow wandering writer, to my friend whose home’s turned to rubble, his every worldly possession destroyed. Norman struggles in shadows. Of loss. Of uncertainty. He’s not at Auschwitz, but, as Auslander kvetched, why must the everyday hardship of everyday humans be discounted because, once upon a time, there was an Auschwitz, a camp of camps, the hardest, most horrible place on earth. Why, asked Auslander, don’t the losses of our own lives count? Don't we have the right to weep when, dancing endorphins still bubbling in our post-workout bodies, we come home to find a chamber of gas in our basement, our life turned to ash?
And can’t we, in this camp where things fall apart, can’t we also find joy? Hope may be a tragedy, but joy and laughter are very real. And, like Auslander, like Norman, we can search for them, even in the camps.