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Biking to Auschwitz

One man's unusual resolutions for 2009


I always make New Year's resolutions. Not those obnoxiously goody-goody ones about exercising more and being nicer to people. That is far too easy. I insist that mine challenge me to the core. Here's my list of five resolutions for 2009.

1. I will have only one feeling per day. There are clearly far too many unchecked feelings loose in the world today. People confess their sentiments continuously. You hear rampant mixed feelings of the "Dear Abby" variety, for instance whether pets have souls or not. Strong feelings run a close second, pro and contra giving money for Christmas, or who was the worst president ever. Add to these the gently trickling creeks of good feelings about a moving prayer at St. Eugene's and the thank you of a friendly cashier at Ross Dress for Less.  

In restaurants and stores we are forced to witness a cell-cacophony of resentments, bitterness, anger, pleasure, satisfaction, pride and other frenzies directed toward neighbors, spouses, ungrateful children, friends and meter maids. Environmentalists speak of a new noise pollution: the noise private feelings make in public. While my friends are cherishing and displaying their feelings as if they were heirlooms, I have decided to downsize my portfolio of sentiments and only use one per day. Shortly after breakfast, I will choose my daily passion, randomly or guided by the stock market—dread, love, sadness, joy, gloom, bliss, etc.—and stick with it for 24 hours. I am advocating an economical use of emotions.  

2. I will read a difficult book. I have been thinking about the sixth edition of Hardy and Wright's Introduction to the Theory of Numbers or Chemerinsky's Constitutional Law: Principles and Policies. In previous years, I was modest like most people, vowing to reread Shakespeare's sonnets or a translation of an unknown French auteur. For 2009, I am determined to read not only for pleasure and enchantment, but for pain. I think it was Hegel who said that it is only the very best thoughts that hurt. You can imagine how much I look forward to the wounds I will receive from my difficult book.

3. I will have a secret. The young, old and middle-aged are all sharing their received opinions as if they were examples of wondrous revelations. I am not against it in principle; pouring out what's pressing against the inside, however trivial it may be, is a law of nature. But in 2009 I will recuse myself from the ubiquitous urge to share. I will consciously tell nobody about certain naughty thoughts or virtuous facts or exciting stories or sensational incidents. I can't be more specific without already breaking my resolution right here. But I will say this: what I have in mind as my secret for 2009 has to do with hummingbirds, Bach's cantata BWV 36 and the smell of a new horseshoe.

4. I will bike to Auschwitz. Once a year, I take a 10-day bicycle trip to explore a small region in Europe. Mileage is less important than finding a new museum and a hearty meal. I visit places that were still hidden behind the then-so-called Iron Curtain when I was young. Last year, I visited old churches in Stralsund on the Baltic island of Rügen. In 2009, I must come face to face with Auschwitz. You might object and alter the famous quote "Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" to a censorious "Bicycling on a vacation to Auschwitz is barbaric" and suggest I bike to Goethe's city of Weimar instead.

Why am I going? As a personal pilgrimage of moral cleansing, letting the tragedy of the Holocaust play out within myself where until now have only been unspeakable pictures, numbers, biographies? W. H. Auden called it wicked: "To write a play, that is to construct a secondary world, about Auschwitz, for example, is wicked: author and audience may pretend that they are morally horrified, but in fact they are passing an entertaining evening together in the aesthetic enjoyment of horrors." All I know is that I have to go. I will watch myself as things are happening to me. It'll be a long trek, and I need to be fit, therefore:

5. I will exercise more.

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