Daniel Rutstein in Conversation with Mitch Albom
NOVEMBER 14, 2019
DR: Thank you for speaking with me, Mitch. I will keep this interview short, as I know it’s been a very long day for you.
MA: It has been a long day and for you too. You had your play rehearsal that they wouldn’t let you out of tonight.
DR: Right, well, you’ve got to do what you have to do. I’m sorry about that.
MA: That is alright. It’s all good. So, go ahead with whatever you wanted to ask.
DR: I lost my grandmother almost three months ago and I know you have dealt with multiple losses in your life. You lost Chika and fairly recent to that, you also lost your parents. How have you overcome losses in your life and what powers you through them?
MA: I don’t know if you ever really overcome losses. I think you absorb them and they become a part of your heart. There is an old expression that says, “The only whole heart is a broken heart.” If you think of all the cracks in your heart, you realize that those cracks are what makes your heart whole. Those cracks are what makes you appreciate those that you have had in your life. If you had never lost anyone, you also wouldn’t know what it is to love someone. I find that I just have to accept that everything has its time. I’ll have my time. If I have made the most of my time with the person that is suddenly out of my life, then I can hang onto those memories and they are never really gone. That’s why Morrie said “Death ends a life but not a relationship.” That’s what he was referring to- that you have to have had that relationship while you were alive in order for it to go on. Does that make sense?
DR: Yes, and along that theme, I know one of the things important to you, in Finding Chika and in your other books, is cherishing time and appreciating all the moments you have. What does time signify to you? How do you insure you live life to the fullest and appreciate every moment you have?
MR: That is right. I wrote a whole book about time and time is a double-edged thing. It’s a precious commodity but from the moment we are born, we are running out of it. We have a desperate chase through life to hang onto it. The trick is to not focus on running out of it and not focus on hanging onto it but instead, to focus on making the most of it. Like Chika, you may only get seven years. She only got seven years but she lived a full seven years. She touched so many people. She reveled in everything. I’ve had now almost nine times as long as Chika had. I am not sure I have lived it as richly all the time like she did. My conclusion about time is that it is what you make of the amount that you have been given, not how you stretch it or how you desperately hang onto it. Morrie used to say, “Treat everyday as if there is a little bird on your shoulder. You ask that bird, is today the day that I die? Of course, every day of your life but one, the answer from that bird is going to be no. But on the day the bird says yes, today is the day that you die, are you going to be able to say okay? Will you be able to feel ready because you have lived all your days up until now as if the bird were going to say yes?” If you can pull that off, which is a hard thing to do, then you would have kind of mastered time.
DR: I know that Chika was a very strong girl. She was so passionate, lived life the best she could and made a great impact on you. Through Finding Chika, she is making an even greater impact. Children’s influence on our society seems to be becoming more and more important. What impact do you think children can have on the world that others may not have the same ability to offer?
MA: Children are the most precious thing in life. Children’s greatest asset is what they can teach adults. If you could just see them in Haiti… If you came with me to Haiti, you would see childhood in its purest form. There is no television, no internet and no cell phones. So children are just children. What you would see is that there is a curiosity to children, a kindness to children and a vulnerability to children that disappears as they get older or as they get influenced by things like television, the internet, YouTube and social media. If we studied children before they are affected by all [of] that, I think we would find a humanity that they lose once all [of] that stuff gets into [their] system.
DR: I was recently reading Think Like a Freak, which references that and the hidden power of children as decision-makers.
MA: Yes, but I wouldn’t want them to get to decide what I would eat.
DR: There is so much meaning to be found in Finding Chika. What do you feel is the most important thing for your readers to take away from it?
MA: There are many ways to make a family. You don’t have to think of family as only kids that are naturally born to you, or look like you, or come from you. There are all kinds of blended ways to make families and all kinds of stages of life to make families. We are walking proof of that. It is pretty unlikely to be in your fifties and find a five-year-old sleeping at the base of your bed but it happened. We became a family as easy as butter melts off a knife. I was amazed at how quickly we took to it. There are all kinds of families still yet to be made. There are so many children out there in the world who could use a home. There are so many children who are forgotten or who are sick. I would encourage people to consider that there are so many ways to make a family. Even if you can’t take a child into your home, you could mentor a child. There are so many children to love and so many ways to connect. With the people that you love, you can make your own family. That is the number one lesson.
DR: Thank you for helping me with the Judith Yohay Glaser Scholarship Fund in memory of my grandmother. Like you, my grandmother did a lot of things. She was a music teacher. She strived to get an education. She was a feminist. She completed her bat mitzvah in her forties and got her law degree in her fifties. You are not just a best-selling author. You’ve successfully done so many things. What do you feel is the importance of not resting on one thing, of doing more than one thing, of not sticking to one title and saying “I am already this and I can’t be anything else?”
MA: When I met with Maya Angelou, I mentioned to her that she did what you just said. She was an actress, and a poet, and a writer, and a performer. I asked her if anyone ever suggested she stick to one thing. She said “Yes, and it’s the cruelest thing you can ever tell someone.” When I asked her why, she said “because it is like telling a bird that they shouldn’t use their wings.” I never forgot that. If you have the ability to do a lot of things, then why shouldn’t you fly? If a bird has wings, why should it be limited to walking on the ground? I have always looked at my areas of interest that way and I have always encouraged people to do the same. If you are a writer and feel you could be a good musician, then why not try? If you are a musician and think you could be a good doctor, why not? Too many people are into reducing others and saying “I only want to know one thing about you so tell me what you are in one sentence.” The truth is that the answer should be far longer than one sentence. If you are really living your life to the fullest, you should be a lot of things. People may not like that, because they may think it is too long an answer but the problem is then with them, not you.
DR: You and I have a shared passion for sports and you have a lot of sports writing experience. Last summer, I took a course in Sports Business and it furthered my interest in the business end of the sports, in sports media, and in the sports industry. What advice do you have for those starting out, interested in the field of sports, based on your many years of involvement?
MA: I found that the best way to enter the field was writing about small sports and I got a lot of opportunities as a result. My first writings were about track and field and then winter sports: ski jumping, luge, ice skating, and cross country skiing. There weren’t many people covering it. So I got access to the best people in their sport and in the world, and they were happy to talk to me. If I had tried to start out by covering an NFL team at that time, people would have said “Get out of here, there are many more people already covering this who are older professionals, with a lot more experience than you.” I ended up getting an article in the New York Times in my first year of writing anything in journalism because they didn’t have anything on it. So they took it. Then, I had a clip from the New York Times. So, start with the off sports and hone your chops. Get good at writing or broadcasting or whatever you are going to do, because sports are sports. If you can broadcast a dogsled race you can broadcast a football game. The skills that you need to write about them or to broadcast about them are similar; but first, you need to hone them. So, it would be a lot easier to do that in a small paper, a small radio station, a small tv station.
DR: As you know, the mission of the Judith Yohay Glaser Scholarship Fund is to ultimately provide the opportunity for underprivileged students to receive a scholarship, based on merit and need, to attend Brandeis University, the school you and my grandmother attended. What impact did Brandeis University have on you and how has it influenced the rest of your life?
MA: Anyone who had a good college experience, and at Brandeis I did, knows it stays with you the rest of your life. Brandeis was a really good school for me because it was small. So I was able to know most of the people on campus by the time I was a junior or senior. Brandeis also gave me small classes, which is why I was able to get to know my professors, why I was able to get to know Morrie. I would never have been able to get to know him, the way I got to know him, if he had four hundred other kids in his class. So, the close knit environment, the opportunity to just talk to your teachers, and walk around campus with them and have lunch with them, and all of that, ended up bringing me to the seminal relationship in my life outside of my family. That relationship with Morrie, well, just look at what it’s done, even just in terms of my career, and all the opportunities I have had, and things I have gotten to do. That all was because of the close relationship with Morrie and the culture and environment that Brandeis created. I owe Brandeis a great deal because it allowed me to get to know Morrie and it allowed me to become a young man while I was there. So, I salute what you are doing.
DR: Thank you and thank you for everything.