“Ta Bahare Delneshin”

IMG_3281This has been a beautiful quest! On May 19, in Istanbul, I heard two musicians play a song that kept coming back to my mind. (I recorded a video, so I was able to learn the melody). It felt subtle and melancholic; I understood none of the words but was enchanted by their sounds.

I hoped to hear the duo again, but during my many walks, I did not run into them. Then, on May 26, my last day in Istanbul, I saw them standing right where they were before. They played a different song; when they finished, I requested this one by humming the melody. When they played it, people gathered around and sang along. I recorded it and learned their names (but not the name of the song). They are Sherko Hoseini and Fali Talebi.

Back in New York City, I tried to look up the song by googling some of the phrases. I didn’t know how to spell them; some of the vowels and consonants sounded different from their counterparts in any languages I know. Also, I wasn’t sure of the word divisions. I tried different possibilities (“tava hare teleshin,” “trova har e teleshin,” etc.), again and again, but nothing came up.

Then I decided to do the simplest thing of all (which I’m often slow to do): ask. I wrote to Sherko last night; this morning I received his reply. The song is “Ta Bahare Delneshin” (or simply “Bahare Delneshin”) an old Persian song. He sent the lyrics too; I will  give them below. I looked for translations; this one (from someone named Afsaneh) seems particularly careful. I have included only the verses that are in Sherko and Fali’s performance (and have kept Sherko’s transliteration). What a beautiful poem and song.

Bahare delneshin
(The Pleasant Spring)

Music: Ruhollah Khaleghi
Poem: Bijan Taraghi

Ta bahare delneshin amade soye chaman
since the pleasant spring had come towards the grass

Ey bahare arezo bar saram saye fekan
oh the spring of wishes spread your shadow on me

Chon nasime nobahar bar ashianam kon gozar
like the breeze of the newly come spring visit my home

Ta ke golbaran shavad kolbeye virane man
so that my ruined cottage would be showered by flowers

Baza bebin dar heyratan beshkan sokote khalvatam
come and see me in astonishment, break the silence of my solitude

Cho laleye sahra bebin bar sine daghe hasratam
see my sorrow on my hot face which is like a lonely tulip

Ey roye to ayineam eshghat ghame dirineam
oh you, whose face is my mirror, your love my old grief

Baza cho gol darin bahar sar ra beneh bar sineam
in this spring come like a flower, put your head on my bosom

Here are the lyrics in Persian:

تا بهار دلنشین آمده سوی چمن
ای بهار آرزو بر سرم سایه فکن
چون نسیم نوبهار بر آشیانم کن گذر
تا که گلباران شود کلبه ویران من

تا بهار زندگی آمد بیا آرام جان
تا نسیم از سوی گل آمد بیا دامن کشان
چون سپندم بر سر آتش نشان بنشین دمی
چون سرشکم در کنار بنشین نشان سوز نهان

تا بهار دلنشین آمده سوی چمن
ای بهار آرزو بر سرم سایه فکن
چون نسیم نوبهار بر آشیانم کن گذر
تا که گلباران شود کلبه ویران من

باز آ ببین در حیرتم
بشکن سکوت خلوتم
چون لاله تنها ببین
بر چهره داغ حسرتم

ای روی تو آیینه ام
عشقت غم دیرینه ام
باز آ چو گل در این بهار
سر را بنه بر سینه ام

listenersThe lyrics seem to match what I heard and saw. When people gathered around and sang along, I sensed that this song was special to them. They didn’t respond the way people do to a recent hit; they were held in a dreaminess for a little while. So was I, though differently.

There is something astonishing about the poem: the way seemingly opposite words come close together, even joining at times: images of brokenness and renewal, sadness and rejuvenation, solitude and love. The sounds hold many textures: I can follow them now, from word to word.

I am glad it took me some time to learn the name of the song; through searching for it, I found myself returning to it, refusing to give up the question. Even now that I have a translation, I realize there is more to understand in the images, phrases, allusions. Something has been opened here, not closed.

Partly through its difference, the poem reminds me of Petrarch’s sonnet “Solo et pensoso i piú deserti campi”:

Solo et pensoso i piú deserti campi
vo mesurando a passi tardi et lenti,
et gli occhi porto per fuggire intenti
ove vestigio human l’arena stampi.

Altro schermo non trovo che mi scampi
dal manifesto accorger de le genti,
perché negli atti d’alegrezza spenti
di fuor si legge com’io dentro avampi:

sí ch’io mi credo omai che monti et piagge
et fiumi et selve sappian di che tempre
sia la mia vita, ch’è celata altrui.

Ma pur sí aspre vie né sí selvagge
cercar non so ch’Amor non venga sempre
ragionando con meco, et io co llui.

And in the English translation of A. S. Kline:

Alone and thoughtful, through the most desolate fields,
I go measuring out slow, hesitant paces,
and keep my eyes intent on fleeing
any place where human footsteps mark the sand.

I find no other defence to protect me
from other people’s open notice,
since in my aspect, whose joy is quenched,
they see from outside how I flame within.

So now I believe that mountains and river-banks
and rivers and forests know the quality
of my life, hidden from others.

Yet I find there is no path so wild or harsh
that love will not always come there
speaking with me, and I with him.

I took the first photo on Eurovelo 11 in Hungary; the second, while listening to Sherko and Fali. For a short video playlist of Istanbul musicians, go here. Also, Sherko pointed me to Ali Zand Vakili’s recording of the same song.

What Is a Photograph?

A challenge, when coming home from a trip, is to decide what to convey to others and what to keep to oneself. Some of this isn’t a matter of choice; there are aspects of a trip that you can’t convey if you try. Or rather, in conveying it, you alter it a little. For instance, if you tell someone about wandering alone in a city, you have already changed that aloneness.

Also it isn’t always clear how many pictures people want to see, how many stories they want to hear, etc. One doesn’t want to try their patience. On the other hand, a well-told travel story, or a few well-chosen pictures, can bring something to others’ lives. I have vivid memories of other people’s visits to the Hebrides, South Dakota, Vaucluse, and other places.

When taking (and assembling) photos, I do not emphasize standard tourist sites, no matter how important. Hundreds, even thousands, of such photos already exist, and most are better than mine. My photographs are usually of places and things I found or noticed on my own (or with someone else).

Then there is the question of “outtakes.” After I select photos for a slideshow, after I put them all together, I find photos that I left out, photos every bit as beautiful, even more so, than the ones I included. In fact, it’s that second glance that brings back the trip. Why? Maybe because those “outtakes” hold the little diversions that are the soul of the trip. A dog running down a street; railway workers waiting for the train to pass; kids playing football in the school courtyard. Or maybe it’s something along the photo’s edge: a tail, a branch, a chair.

That leads to the title question: what is a photograph? It looks inward as well as outward; it says something about the photographer (or amateur picture-taker) as well as the external scene. But more than that, it conveys the relation of an instant: maybe a passing relation, maybe a lasting one, but a relation all the same. At its best, it is mutual; in a split second, you and the scene capture each other and let each other go. This happens rarely, but it happens.*

So here are two “outtake” slideshows, each with eighteen photos: one of Istanbul and one of my two-day biking trip in northern Hungary.

 

*A paraphrase of the ending of Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Nose.”

The Millefoglie of Success

graduation 2017

Yesterday the fourth graduating class of Columbia Secondary School did what a graduating class is supposed to do: graduate. Heralded with cheers, a mini-orchestra, thoughtful speeches, and a gathering on the steps of the Low Library, the students passed from one stage of life to the next. Yet I sensed that many of them had already done this internally; while relieved to graduate, they had already entered college in their minds and plans. For others, the ceremony may have held some sadness; maybe they had no family there, or they knew they would miss their friends. Still others went into the ceremony with great pride. Most of them, I imagine, had layers and mixtures of these and other emotions.

Success is not understood simply; maybe it is like a millefoglie in motion, with the “thousand” layers sometimes coming together in elegant pastry, sometimes flying past each other, sometimes jumbling in a heap. Any given moment holds more possibilities than can be grasped. Even out on the steps, congratulating and saying goodbye to students, I felt and sensed changing mixtures of elation, pride, affection, melancholy, distance, memory, dignity, hilarity, impatience, restfulness, and more, inside and outside myself. Yet all together they made up something beautiful.

It is a CONTRARIWISE piece from two years ago that brings the millefoglie to mind: “Carpe Diem” by Andrea Sarro, Margherita Pelliconi, Giulia Dall’Olio, Maria Sole Venturi, and Giovanni Mastropasqua. They write that “the millefoglie for dessert is the future, because we have different paths to take as the different pastry layers.” I would add that within each of us there are many simultaneous paths, making for a complex pastry indeed, hard to imagine in time, even less on a plate.

Yesterday, to my great honor, I found that a Rabbi Howard Jacoby Ruben, head of the Jewish Community High School of the Bay, had referred to my article “The Cult of Success” in his moving summer sendoff piece “The Summer Ahead: Looking for Wonder,” which explores the nature of success and wonder through the examples of a mathematician (Grigori Perelman), two musicians (Joshua Bell and Chance the Rapper), and a rabbi (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). The piece is rich with references; at one point Rabbi Ruben paraphrases Pirkei Avot 4.1, which “urges us to identify wisdom in those who learn from everyone, wealth in those who appreciate their own unique portion, and honor in those who honor others.”

I found myself thinking about the Pirkei Avot passage long afterward. We often juxtapose external and internal success; external success, we realize, often distracts us from what matters. But the passage reminds me that it is we who define external success. We decide whom we will call wise, wealthy, and honorable; those definitions and designations affect those around us. “Societal views” are not just handed to us; we shape them through our thoughts, words, and actions.

As I remember members of this graduating class–whom I taught for two years, and for whom I wrote many college recommendations–I think of their kind and appreciative words for others, spoken many times over time. Seeing the good in others is no meager act or capacity; it influences everything. To see the good, you must also acknowledge that you do not see everything, that what you see and know literally is only a glimpse. The good, after all, comes in glimmers; the cynical dismiss it as illusion, but the courageous see through to its form.

IMG_3279

Images: I took the first photo yesterday (June 22) after the Columbia Secondary School graduation ceremony and the second photo on May 30 on Eurovelo 11.

Ateliers philosophiques et artistiques

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On the website of the Sainte Pulchérie Fransız Lisesi, there is a lovely article about my two weeks of teaching at the school. Besides describing my classes, it mentions some of the school events during my stay, some student honors and accomplishments (including publication in CONTRARIWISE), and more. My gratitude goes to everyone at the school–Dr. Nimet Küçük, M. Alexandre Abellan, students, teachers, and staff–and to everyone involved with CONTRARIWISE.

New Poem: The Swing

cropped-swingset.jpg

The Swing

There stood a swing by the edge of town
that lifted us over our lives.
It graced the ragged grass of a farm,
and the hired hand would pause and watch
as we kicked off into the blue,
one at a time, over the years,
swinging with nothing else in our eyes
but the edge of town and the sky.

This man had seen people come and go
and whole populations go.
Such memories rob your mind, he said;
they steal on you at any old hour
unless you have toils and cares.
So he tended the hens and watched the swing.
It was the swing, he said, that creaked
his ragged mind to repose.*

I came here when in doubt of the world
or in need of a tilt of soul.
Dozens of others have done the same:
we swang and thought, swang and thought
our way into gilded mind.
All of us yearned for an edge of town,
a place to sit in the wind and song,
a place that stood against time.

Inside, the owners looked on the scene
that frothed and seethed in their minds.
It is good, they mouthed, with our children grown,
that the swing has carried on for so long,
but look at the filth and the noise.
Tomorrow we’ll take it down, they vowed.
And so it happened: overnight
a canticle ceased to be swung.

Not long ago I saw a swing
much like the one I had known.
It stood on a farm, removed from the road,
so I watched from afar, and it eyed me too,
as though we were both on display.
I shook my head and headed on.
Speech would have cost too much to repair,
and the hush seemed acceptably true.

*He may not have found the hens as calming.

 

Image credit: I took the photo during my bike trip in northern Hungary.

I revised this poem (in several stages) after posting it. It is now in its final form.

The Cats of Istanbul

Yesterday I learned from David Costanza (Art of Flying) about Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s documentary about the cats of Istanbul! It looks absolutely wonderful; I will write about it after watching it in full.

Speaking of Istanbul cats, it would be a shame not to assemble the photos I took of some of them. Here is a slideshow of fifteen pictures. What moved me was not only the omnipresence of cats, but the love with which they were treated. The first two pictures–of a mother and baby cat inside a restaurant–came thanks to a stranger on the street. He saw me photographing cats and, with hand gestures, urged me to go inside.

While in Istanbul, I sent Andrew Gelman some cat photos in case he wanted any of them for his blog. So far, he has used two; you can see them here and here.

To Have a Home

Last night, at the B’nai Jeshurun Annual Meeting, our rabbis announced their decision regarding interfaith marriage, a decision that emerged from long deliberation and contemplation, including a full year of discussions, lectures, and other events, as well as prayer, thought, and conversation. I quote from their written announcement, which appears on the BJ website:

Beginning in 2018, we plan to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, we will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.

We will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewishness. We are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity. In other words, we are not changing the halahic definition of who is a Jew. As rabbis, we have the space to decide whom we officiate for, and there is no concern about the validity of such marriages in the larger Jewish world. However, we don’t want to put BJ members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community.

We take these steps with deep loyalty to the Jewish past and with unwavering commitment to the Jewish future. We will embrace a renewed sense of inclusiveness toward those who seek to be part of our community.

103 kosice synagogueI listened in wonder. This was not an easy decision; people at BJ and beyond have a range of views on the issue. The decision affects the rabbis’ relationship with the congregation, with other congregations, with Jewish organizations, with Israel, and with Judaism overall. It is not only about marriage ceremonies but about spiritual and practical focus: where to place the emphases and efforts.

What about those who wish to marry but do not wish to build Jewish homes? They have other possibilities, outside BJ. What matters here is that an interfaith couple committed to Jewish life will not be turned away, nor will the non-Jewish partner be required to convert to Judaism for the union to be recognized. Yet traditional definitions of Jewish identity will remain intact. The implications are great but also subtle; they will reveal themselves over time.

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am Jewish. I come from an interfaith (or rather, non-religious) parentage and many backgrounds: Eastern European Jewish on my mother’s side (with ancestors from Ukraine, Hungary/Slovakia, and Lithuania) and French, Norwegian (probably Sami), Irish, German, and more on my father’s. All of this is part of who I am. I just visited the town of one of my great-grandfathers (my maternal grandmother’s father); one day I hope to visit other ancestral places, including the northern reaches of Norway. Nor is ancestry the whole point for me, or even close; I know myself through the things I do and think, the music and literature I love, the friends I make, the things I learn, the changes I undergo, the things I lose, and the truths that stay with me over time.

I have been preparing for teaching at the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute in July; my first lecture will be on Aeschylus’s Eumenides, in which Athena initiates the first Athenian murder trial by jury, bringing an end to a cycle of bloodshed and revenge. Her genius lies not only in the innovation, but in its respect for the hidden layers of society and life. The Furies, who seemed threatening and repulsive to Apollo, become a revered and essential part of the new order–far below the surface, in the depths of the home. In this way, the civic imagination makes room for the seen and unseen, the public and private, the new and the ancient; moreover, it finds beauty in what some would have dismissed as hideous. This is perhaps the foundation of what Edmund Burke and others (including David Bromwich in his magnificent book by the title) would call “moral imagination,” which has to do with seeing things in their depth, beyond their surface appearance or immediate utility. (There is more to it than that.)

I was in the presence of moral imagination last night. How great it is to have such a home.

Image credit: I took this photo on May 29 in the gallery of the Košice synagogue. It appears in my slideshow as well.

I  made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Storks

I saw a storks in three towns in Hungary and Slovakia. At least two of the three nests had babies, which were difficult to photograph. Only rarely did they poke their heads out, and only once, in one blurry photo, do they show up. But I took a few videos too, and they appear in this one. Why does this little clip give me joy? It has to do with the many sounds, the watchfulness of the parent stork, the squirminess of the young, the messy grandeur of the nest, and the entire scene. Also, I stood there for a long time; when something gets you to pause like that, it makes a mark on you. Even the pausing makes a mark.

In the Thick of It (or Not)

midsummerLast night I woke up with the beginnings (or rather the ending) of a poem; within half an hour, I wrote the whole thing. It’s a sonnet, like many of my others.

I want it to begin below this picture, so I’ll go on here for another sentence or two. Why a sonnet? What’s so appealing about this form? I am drawn to the conciseness, the logic, and especially the volta; but beyond that, the more sonnets I write, the better I know their language. I am not sure that sonnets should tell stories, as this one does, and some of my others do–but since this is a story about telling a story, I think the form fits. (Why am I ambivalent about sonnet-stories? That’s a discussion for another time.)

The Misunderstanding

The room was loud, so after spurts of whats
and I-can’t-hear-yous, I declaimed a tale,
doused with illusion, of a bowl of kale
all crinkly somber green, sprinkled with nuts
and lush tomatoes…. where from here? A klutz
with small talk, stumped beyond the pale,
I nailed the salad part, but when the frail
rundown ran out, I flailed in ands and buts.

And while you smiled, and while the windowsill
cracked open into breeze, and I believed
that every nod of audience you meant,
that, just as I poured forth with the intent
of oiling, so with oil was I received,
a fragile evening glittered in goodwill.

With poetry, as with music and other things, I am either in the thick of it or not; when immersed, I have one idea after another–no trouble with “writer’s block,” yet a strong sense of how to improve, where to go from here, what to try, what to refine.  I am not good at “sort of” doing things; I have to be surrounded by the idiom.

When not in the thick of it, I have trouble doing it at all; a poem might come now and then, but scrapingly.

This one didn’t scrape, though. Maybe there will be more soon.

Art credit: Henry Towneley Green, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1895.

I changed two words in this poem after posting it.

“And so it begins, again.”

contrariwise meeting

The above title quotes the “Five Word” (as opposed to last year’s “Four Word”) of the fourth issue of CONTRARIWISE. You can see all four issues side by side on the table. Today I went in to meet with the current and future editors-in-chief (two current, two future) and the faculty advisor–to discuss carrying CONTRARIWISE into the future. The new editors seemed eager to take on their new roles; the outgoing two, Kelly and Alan (who graduate in just over a week), regaled them with good advice.

It is not easy to give up the journal. I handed it over a year ago and stayed out of the production except when someone had a question for me or when I had a specific role to play (such as facilitating an Istanbul/NYC Skype conversation) or contributing to today’s meeting. All the same, I awaited the fourth issue eagerly and often opened up the earlier ones for browsing and reading. I remembered meetings, hours of editing and layout, deliberations, dilemmas, jokes, mishaps, sudden ideas, and uproarious yet serious celebrations.

But in giving it up, each person (the editors-in-chief or I) gave something to it. Others could now take charge of it and carry it onward, and the journal could strengthen its spine. No one left it abruptly; each person gave thought to its editorship and future. Those who took it over–editors and faculty advisor–did a terrific job. At this rate, there will be a fifth issue in 2018, a sixth issue in 2019, and onward, into the unknown. Or maybe the unknown will come first; who knows.

So as far as lettings-go go, this one went pretty well.