“Hold on there, Evangeline”

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This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

Three Hanukkah Photos

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These photos are from Szim Salom’s December 15 Shabbat Hanukkah service and celebration. They (and others) can be found on the Szim Salom Facebook page. I look at them and remember that extraordinary evening.

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Singing in Szolnok

I begin with these pictures of mist because this is how the day began. I walked along the frosted bank of the Zagyva and kept stopping to look at the inscrutable river. I think that set the stage, so to speak, for some good listening.

The day proceeded with rehearsals, lessons, a movie (I showed my students Citizen Kane), and cheer. Then we had a Christmas concert in the evening–mostly by students, but also involving faculty. It was a profoundly lovely performance, with joyous musicians (mainly students, but also teachers in two of the pieces); music ranging from classical and sacred pieces to Hungarian folk songs to modern compositions; and a hushed and eager audience, some leaning over the balcony for better sight and sound.

Eight teachers (including our director and our accompanist) performed “Hymne à la nuit.” A kind colleague made a video. My solo begins just after the two-minute mark. I’ll eventually figure out how to fix the rotation of that later part; to see the whole video rotated, go here.

It was beautiful to be in this concert with colleagues and students–to have so much to listen to while being part of two songs. (The other one we sang was Pachelbel’s Canon; there we joined the students.) I have many more thoughts but am in need of sleep, so I’ll let silence have a turn. Here’s a photo I took during dress rehearsal.

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Update: Here’s a closer view and recording of the same performance.

“Le calme enchantement de ton mystère”

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This evening, at the Református Templom (Reformed Church) in Szolnok, students and teachers (including me) will be giving a little concert. I was assigned the solo for Joseph Noyon’s Hymne à la nuit, based on a theme from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s opera Hippolyte et Aricie. I will see whether someone can make a video during rehearsal today; if that works out, I’ll post the video. We have rehearsed daily during breaks between classes. Music dissolves language barriers; during rehearsal, we all understood what we were supposed to do and shared the thrill when we improved. It has been wonderful to prepare these pieces with my colleagues, under the direction of the music teacher, who leads us so generously and well.

Here are the lyrics (by Édouard Sciortino):

Ô Nuit ! Viens apporter à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Si doux est le concert de tes voix
Chantant l’espérance,
Si grand est ton pouvoir transformant tout en rêve heureux.

Ô Nuit ! Ô laisse encore à la terre
Le calme enchantement de ton mystère.
L’ombre qui t’escorte est si douce,
Est-il une beauté aussi belle que le rêve?
Est-il de vérité plus douce que l’espérance?

There are additional lyrics, but these are the ones we sing. The second stanza is the solo.

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I love the willow trees here, especially at night when they pick up the glow from the lights around. This one (not the same as the one in the first picture) has a swing.

Today’s the last day of Hanukkah, so yesterday evening I lit all the candles. Last weekend, in Budapest, I taught Hanukkah songs, led Kabbalat Shabbat service for the first time ever, in a big hall with many people, and then, the next morning, led a cozy Shacharit service, read Torah, and commented on the relation between trope and meaning. All this together was slightly too much but a good plunge; now I have time to learn my way into the role.  The details and subtleties take time. But that’s what draws me; the davening opens up slowly, adding candle to candle, color to color, word to velvet, secret to sound.

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Ways of Walking to Work

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Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I ran down into the grass to take the photo above. You can see the swans right in the middle. I haven’t seen the cygnets since early November; they have probably gone off on their own.

I have been thinking (again) about solitude, the subject of my first book. People speak in terms of needing a lot of solitude or not needing much at all, but it doesn’t come in quantities. It does not translate into “time spent alone.” Everyone has a form of it; it’s these forms that differ.

On the surface, Judaism does not  emphasize solitude; most practices and life cycle events are communal. Yet the texts could not exist without solitude; their authors, situations, and stories have to do, again and again, with standing apart from the crowd, thinking alone, going through things alone, relating alone to God, saying things that others would rather not hear. From Noah to Rebecca  to Hannah to Jeremiah to Solomon, from the Psalms to the Prophets to Koheleth to Genesis to Deuteronomy, solitude fills the words and sounds–solitude in its fullness and with all its contradictions.

How do you find your way in a tradition that is so profoundly solitary on the one hand and so strongly communal on the other? You do just that: find your way. It won’t be the same as another person’s, but it will be founded on the texts and practices. There is solitude (and commonality) in that search and study. Some have devoted themselves to the study of solitude in Judaism (see, for instance, the blog Jewish Contemplatives); others learn about it in passing and repassing.

Solitude may involve long retreats, but it often takes the form of a brief cocoon of thought. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I need to step aside in my mind to reconsider things; this can happen within seconds, but it’s still solitude. Those few seconds can make the difference between understanding something well or poorly, handling something gracefully or ungracefully, or acting wisely or unwisely. Solitude allows us to exist in full dimension.

Some will object that this is just reflection, not solitude, but no, it’s solitude too. You can’t reflect in this way without standing and thinking apart. Solitude affirms that there’s something beyond the first appearance of things, something that calls for introspection, analysis, feeling, creation, and relinquishment, or some combination of these. Solitude wraps and unwraps itself; it retreats and returns.

That’s why it makes little sense to describe someone as “solitary” or “social.” We are all complex combinations of both. Some may seem aloof but have strong daily relationships. Some may seem gregarious but keep most of their thoughts to themselves. For some it depends on context, time of day, and stage of life. But whatever shape our associations and detachments take, they influence each other. It is our ability to step back that allows us to shape our actions, to listen to others, and to protect ourselves from sheer impulse and reactivity.

Some see “thinking” and “doing” as mutually exclusive; in their view, the “doers” are the real people, the ones getting the work done, while the “thinkers” are just inconvenient clods of contemplation. To those people I would say: if that were so, you would not have a house to live in, for there can be no architecture without thought. You may not particularly enjoy thinking (any more than some others enjoy making things with their hands), but that does not mean you can do without it. Someone has to do the heavy lifting, someone the light; sometimes it’s a lifting of planks, sometimes of ideas. Give respect to both, and life will have meaning and housing.

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“But not to call me back or say good-bye”

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My nighttime pictures rarely come out well, but here are three that I like. The first one shows the branches’ reflections and brings to mind Robert Frost’s poem, which I have read many times but now reread (“re-reed” and “re-red,” present and immediate past) in awe. Hence the title of this post.

The second is mostly shadow, but it led me somehow to Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” I am not sure how that happened, but I’m glad.

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The third, taken on Klauzál utca in Budapest, brings to mind Leonard Cohen’s “The Stranger Song,” or maybe it’s just that I want to remember that song (and Cohen, who died just over a year ago).

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These are not exact matches, just associations; the night is limber in that way, bringing things together with ease and by surprise. It has been a full and rich weekend, with Hanukkah, songs, celebration, services, Torah, and more, so today I reveled in a bit of slowness, worked on the book, and took an evening walk. That led to photos, which led to poems and songs, which led to evening daydreams, which in turn will lead to sleep.

Winter Clusters

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Here are a few Szolnok scenes from the past few days. Above, some people gather around a table for a warm afternoon beverage.

Here a dog seems to be enjoying the bank of the Zagyva. Some people accompany their dogs down to the water; others wait up on the promenade while the dog romps down and up the hill. Here there’s no cluster, really, but I couldn’t resist including the photo. If you like, you can consider it part of the Szolnok photo cluster, the Zagyva photo cluster, or the cluster of enthusiastic dogs worldwide.

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And those specks you see in the water below are ducks; they often cluster around the water trees.

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This week has been filled with clusters too: classes, preparations, grocery bags, quick evening hours, bursts of thick sleep.

A Place for a Hanukkiah

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Yesterday evening I thought about where to put the hanukkiah. There is no place near the doorway for it, and the window is more than thirty feet above ground, so I had to look beyond the traditional options. I put on the windowsill after all, because it is lovely there. I had it face toward the inside, since only from indoors can anyone see it in full. No one in the alley below can see it–the balcony blocks the view–but someone walking along the Zagyva might spot the tips of the flames.

I thought about the resilience of the Hanukkah story–the rededication of the Temple, the lasting of the lights–and the resilience that I have found here. People sometimes think of resilience as difficult, exhausting, admirable, even pitiable, but that’s an outside view. From the inside, resilience isn’t always joyous, but when it is, it girds itself with light. It has less to do with toughness or bravery than with locating something that endures. Even that endurance might not be obvious. I find it, for instance, in May Swenson’s poem “Water Picture,” which seems (but only seems) to collapse into itself at the end.

And at school we have a tradition of caroling–so I have been singing Christmas songs too. Here in Szolnok, the festivities revolve around Christmas; Budapest has a Hanukkah celebration on the ice rink, but in Szolnok I have yet to see the word Hanukkah at all. I imagine, though, that somewhere in Szolnok someone else is lighting a hanukkiah. It isn’t too hard, in any case, to bring the holiday into the air. I taught one of my classes “Sevivon sov sov sov” yesterday, along with some Christmas songs, and told  them a little about it. None had heard it before, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday; it has become popular over time mainly because of its proximity to Christmas (it takes place in November or December, depending on the Jewish calendar). Moreover, the earliest written source of the Hanukkah story–Maccabees 1 and 2–is part of the Catholic Old Testament but not the Jewish Bible, and it tells only part of the story that we know today. It is the Talmud that first recounts the miracle of the oil.

Still, minor or not, the holiday has resilient meaning (despite John Oliver’s quip about it essentially “celebrating fuel savings“), not only in the lights’ symbolism but in their reality and our accompanying imagination. When I lit the first candle last night, I thought of people who would be lighting theirs in six hours or so. I thought, also, of the shamash, the lovely “servant” candle that lights the others, and its importance to the entire ritual. On my hanukkiah, which I purchased in Budapest, the shamash stands above the others, which was one reason I chose it (the lions were another). I sensed that this hanukkiah had been used and loved for many years. The storekeeper believes it is over a century old (except for the shamash holder); he doesn’t know where it comes from, but whatever its origins, it has held light and time.

Hag Urim Sameah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Almost-Wintertime to all!

P.S. On another subject: My essay “This Is a Resolution? A Letter on Bellow’s Seize the Day” is now published in Literary Imagination, Volume 19, Issue 3. To read it, please find the link on the News page of my website or, better yet, subscribe to the journal.

Bikes, Rivers, and Challenges

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Bikes and rivers have this in common: they are both good for the soul. Put the two together, and you have a tonic for any time of day. I took this picture last week during a bike ride to school; it takes me only five minutes to get there (or back home), but during those five minutes, I get to see the sunrise (or whatever the skies might hold) while zipping along the Zagyva promenade. A quieting and thrilling commute.

The first month in a new country may hold sunsets and paperwork, but whether it’s dreamy, signature-laden, or both, it’s just the first stage. I am here not for a lark, an extended vacation, a nap in a hammock (see the bear below), or even a sabbatical, but for something more substantial. That means challenges. For instance, I try every day to apply my basic Hungarian to a new situation, but it will take much more practice, study, and experience–and many more mistakes–to learn the language well. It doesn’t happen overnight, overweek, or overmonth; but over time the structures and words will take hold. I look forward to this.

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I took both photos here in Szolnok.

The River’s Neighbor

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The move this morning went more easily than any other I can remember. The people who helped me were full of cheer and good suggestions; we managed to communicate in basic Hungarian and gestures. They not only brought my things to the new place (in one trip, in a truck) but installed all the things that needed installing and brought over the cable technicians to set up the TV and internet. Although I haven’t watched TV at home in years, I think I will start doing it now (I mean, not tonight, but soon), as it will help me learn Hungarian.

After unpacking some things, I biked along the Zagyva to school; upon spotting the swans and big brown cygnets, I parked the bike, ran down the hill, and took pictures. The river is full of birds; you see them in big clusters along the banks or around the river-trees. On my ride home, I heard thick clusters of ducks.

In the morning, all I have to do is step outside, carry my bike a few steps up to the promenade, and take off; it takes five minutes to get to school, unless I take a few extra minutes to run down the bank and see the river up close. I have never lived so close to a river; at night I can step out onto the balcony and see the lights shivering in the water.

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It’s so quiet that I can let my thoughts unwrap. And there’s time unwrapping, too; I look forward to seeing the river at different times of day and year, and setting out and coming home at different times.