Phases and Counterpoints

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Popular psychology often describes human life in terms of stages: the five stages of grief, the four stages of culture shock, and so on. Such formulations are simplistic and untrue, except as general templates. Our lives cannot be chunked; we may go through phases, but they blend and combine and sometimes appear out of order.

Still there are reasons to mark points in time, to honor life events, whether of the past, present, or future, whether our own or someone else’s. The point is not to dictate joy and sorrow but rather to create a counterpoint. My own thoughts and feelings do not disappear during a ritual, but I hear them alongside something else; in this way they turn into something new. Ritualized mourning will not match my own mourning, nor ritualized celebration my own joy; so the ritual lifts me both out of and into myself.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that one can think of Jewish ritual as “the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time.” He notes that the first time that the word qadosh, “holy,” is used in the Bible, it is applied to the seventh day–that is, to time. Shabbat is art and architecture of time in that we ourselves shape it. It is artifice in the best sense of the word; it comes out of intention and imagination.

Jews vary widely in our observance of Shabbat. Many do not observe it at all, many observe it strictly, and many do something in between (or change over time). Differences aside, even an awareness of this day can affect how we go about our lives. It contrasts with our everyday timing, urges, and impulses. Moreover, it is we who have to build it; it has been observed and described for centuries, but we contribute to its structure, not just once, but again and again. We lay down a block or beam; we set a window.

Something similar can be said for other holidays (inside and outside of Judaism). They are ways of honoring and structuring time: not our personal time, but the time of a larger entity.

This Friday and Saturday, as Szim Salom, we celebrated Shabbat Shira, the special Shabbat that includes the Shirat Hayam (the Song of the Sea) in the Torah reading. Shabbat Shira takes place once a year. Traditions vary from place to place, but it is common for the entire congregation to rise for the Song of the Sea and to sing certain verses responsively.

In the cantillation course I took at JTS last year–taught by the wonderful Cantor Perry Fine–we devoted much time to the Song of the Sea because of its importance and complexity. The leader must know how to alternate between regular Torah trope and the responsive melody; moreover, he or she must be steeped in the text, capable of giving it cadence and tone.

800px-Song_of_the_seaFor this responsive reading at Szim Salom yesterday, we made many preparations; on Friday night, after service, we went over the melody and verses; the rabbi spoke about the significance of the responsive verses and their difference from the rest of the text. On Saturday morning, we invited everyone to come up to the scroll to see the Shirat Hayam, which has a different layout from the rest of the text. Before beginning the Torah reading, we reviewed the melody and verses again. From there, things swelled; the reading was truly responsive and joyous. It is not for description here; it happened there and is now wrapped up in memory.

Shirat Hayam (in Chapter 15 of Exodus) tells how Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, which parted left and right for them, and how Pharaoh’s horses, riders, chariots, and captains perished in the waves. While most of the text relates a succession of events, the responsive verses have a sound of eternity. They are part of Jewish (and sometimes Christian) regular liturgy, hymns, and piyutim; people readily recognize verse 15:11, “Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?” and 15:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.”

In this way, right there in the Shirat Hayam, you feel the counterpoint of timelessness and time: a song rising up out of a tale, or a ritual out of history.

As I thought about this, before and afterward, I remembered Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (“That is no country for old men. The young…”) I started thinking about some lines that I had not given as much attention before. When I think of the poem, I usually remember the second stanza first of all:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

All of this I thought I understood. But just a little later, at the end of the third stanza, a phrase takes me by surprise: “the artifice of eternity.”

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

This is supposed to be strange, I think; it goes against notions that eternity just happens. Eternity is created, magnificently created; it opposes nature, which “is begotten, born, and dies.” The speaker yearns to become artistic form and creation; the fourth stanza begins,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,

“Once out of nature”–this phrase is peculiar too. What does it mean? Perhaps “released from the phases of life,” released from the body and its decay. Once out of nature, I will take a new kind of form, the speaker suggests, and it will not be “from any natural thing.” But there are still more surprises to come:

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

There is a lot to say about the repetition of “gold” (“goldsmiths,” “hammered gold,” “gold enamelling” and “golden”) and the sardonic “keep a drowsy Emperor awake.” But it is the ending that catches my thoughts: “Or set upon a golden bough to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come.” How is it that the golden form, “out of nature,” sings of time and passing, “Of what is past, or passing, or to come”? It is the singing that sets it apart; to sing of time is to gather it up.

This singing is not only external; it involves studying “monuments of its [tjat is, the soul’s] own magnificence.” Here, to study is to sing; through study you rise up into form. This poem invites its own study; it seems easy to understand but keeps startling you (as though you were a drowsy emperor). It draws you into a continuous puzzle that, with each solution, brings new meanings to the whole. Its iambic pentameter (with aberrations) both lulls and wakes the ear; the stresses and counter-stresses make the song.

That’s only the beginning, though; if you read the poem along with its companion, “Byzantium,” you understand it in still more lights and tones.

So it is with the phases of life; they exist not on their own, or even in combination with each other, but in counterpoint with the things we read and sing, the time we honor, the words we slowly come to understand.

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Dave Pearson, Sailing to Byzantium (gouache and ink)

Dave Pearson’s Sailing to Byzantium is part of his Byzantium series.

The image of the Shirat Hayam in a Torah scroll is borrowed from Wikipedia. As for the photo at the top, I took it last week on my way to school. The gold behind the trees looks like a sea or a lake, but it isn’t. That morning, there was a straight cloud line that hung low over the horizon; where the cloud line ended, the sun’s rays spread. A few minutes later, this sea of gold vanished, as the sun rose up past the line, into the clouds.

There was a problem with the formatting of this post; it is now fixed.

Books and Things

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This coming month may be one of the busiest of my life, since I have three large projects at once: teaching (and taking care of the remaining paperwork so that I can get paid), leading select services at Szim Salom in Budapest (generally every other Shabbat, but also alternating with a rabbi who comes in from Berlin about once a month), and finishing my book, the final manuscript of which is due March 1. After I submit the manuscript, some of the pressure will be off, but the book won’t be completely “done”; I will make minor changes, review copyedits, and proofread the galleys. I don’t know the publication date yet, but since it should come out about eight months after it goes into production, I expect it to appear around the end of 2018.

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The book is about language; each chapter takes up a word or phrase that has been misused or overused in English-speaking culture (particularly schools and workplaces). I consider the word’s origins, its current use, the implications of this use, and alternative possibilities. There’s a chapter each on the takeaway, the team, “passive” listening, “toxic” people, a “good fit,” the phrase “research has shown,” and much more. There are also many words that I do not take up; once the book comes out, I hope to start an online journal dedicated to words and phrases in need of scrutiny. People will be invited to submit essays and post comments. I am not the only person doing this kind of thing, but there’s room for many more. Language does not run out, nor does the questioning of it.

The title of the book will not be Take Away the Takeaway (since it might be confusing); the editor and I will decide on something once the manuscript is  in. I have a few ideas.

Because I am running out the door, I will end with one more picture. (I took all three yesterday: the first one right outside my apartment, the second on the walk to school, and the third on the way to the pet supply store.)

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The Dare of Beauty

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Over the centuries, many have claimed that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or something similar), but this formulation seems simplistic. If beauty exists only in the viewer, then it has no ability to bring people together, except haphazardly or by persuasion. But beauty does bring people together, and while it can’t always be explained, it has some principles and paragons.

I find the above picture beautiful: not only the only the shapes of the branches, not only the snow, not only the curves of the river against the line of the wall, but the adult pulling the child in a sled, an accident of timing, since a few seconds earlier they were hidden behind the tree to the right. There was also surprise here; before opening the curtains, I thought, “Today I’ll go out on a long bike ride.” Then, when I saw this scene, I reconsidered and took two photos instead.

A scene can change in seconds from humdrum to songworthy. When crossing the river recently, I saw, from a certain angle, a string of lights reflected in the water; when I took a few more steps over the bridge, these reflections disappeared from view. So I backtracked a little and found the reflections again.

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Beauty comes through at certain angles and times. That doesn’t make it transient; once you find beauty in something, you can find it again. Sometimes–for instance, in a favorite literary work or musical recording–you find it every time you return to it. But even then, it demands your alertness–maybe even more, the better you know it.

Alexander Nehamas writes in Only a Promise of Happiness (2007) that “beautiful things don’t stand aloof, but direct our attention and our desire to everything else we must learn or acquire in order to understand and possess, and they quicken the sense of life, giving it new shape and direction.” Some might take this to subordinate beauty to purpose–beauty is important because it gives shape to our lives–but I see it in reverse: beauty demands that I live up to the seeing. Being an audience member is no easy task; it does not stop when the performers take their last bow. I am responsible for everything I have seen.

Perceivers of beauty cannot be dismissed as naive dreamers or timid escapists; they know (sometimes painfully) what this perception requires of them. Whenever you find something beautiful–be it a film, place, or person–someone else is sure to deride it. How do you respond? Stubbornness will not do; if your defense is too brittle, it cracks. Capitulating is no better; you can’t let others dictate what you see, since there would then be no point in seeing at all. Instead, you must be able to hear others while holding your ground. In this way, the beauty draws you into counterpoint; you hear and see more than one thing at once (and more than you did before).

Someone looking at the picture above might say, “Yes, but look at those ugly apartment buildings.” Yes, the apartment buildings look drab (from the outside), but they seem to answer the trees. The same can be said for the picture below, in which people are gathering with sleds. The high-rise has added some lights of its own to the string.

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To honor those amazements, while also learning and changing: that is the dare of beauty. Not everyone will see beauty in everything, but our glimpses go beyond the personal. They add something to human capacity. There are poems, stories, plays, songs I remember not only for themselves, but for the way they were introduced to me. There are people I remember not just for their stories and jokes, not just for their kind or mixed deeds, but for the things they pointed out.

 

I made a minor change to this piece after posting it.

 

CONTRARIWISE Congratulations

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The CONTRARIWISE editors-in-chief have announced the results of the 2017–2018 international and national contests! The winning pieces will be published in the fifth issue of CONTRARIWISE, to be released this spring. Congratulations to all.

International Contest

First Place: Barnabás Paksi (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary), Bug in the System

Second Place (tied): Hakan Urgancıoğlu (Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi, Istanbul, Turkey), White on the Outside; and Gábor Medvegy (Varga Katalin Gimnázium, Szolnok, Hungary), My Journey in the Justice Institute

National Contest

First Place: Amogh Dimri (Columbia Secondary School, New York, United States), The Trial of Sibling Envy

When a Bad Cold Can Be a Good Thing

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For more than a week, I have had a bad cold. A few days ago, I would have said nothing good about it (since it was bad), but now I’m ready to give it a tip of the hat as it packs up and prepares to head out the door. It reminded me of two colds I had long ago, one at age 10, the other at age 14. In both cases, I was living in a country away from home (first the Netherlands, then the Soviet Union); both times, the cold marked a transition.

When you start living in a new country (or when I do), the first few months have their own momentum. Each day, you learn new words and new ways of doing things. There are puzzles to be solved, errands to be run, things to be found; all of this seems as simple as twirling a wheel on its axle.

Then comes the cough and dizziness. The wheel gets stuck in mud; the day drags through the hours. But you still get basic things done, and people feed you. (My colleagues gave me tangerines and tea.) At the end of it all, when you emerge from the cold, it’s as though you entered the country all over again, but on a newly refurbished bike.

Sometimes a cold can even bring things out of you. When not feeling well, I get fed up with my procrastination, so I do a few things that I would normally put off.

One day last week I came home and guiltily locked the bike by the windows on the stairway, as I had been doing all along and as many others do. A month or so earlier, a man had told me (in Hungarian) that I wasn’t supposed to leave the bike there. He said the házmester had the key to the bike room and that I should ask her for a copy. I had been meaning to do this but hadn’t found the words or gumption yet. Now the same man passed by and asked me why I was still leaving it there. I didn’t know how to explain, so I said nothing and just walked on by. But then I decided to resolve this. Through Google Translate and my own adjustments, I arrived at the following: Egy ember azt mondta, hogy ne hagyja el a kerékpárt az emeletek közötti ablakok mellett. Hol van egy jobb hely? (“A man told me not to leave my bike by the windows between the floors. Where is a better place for it?”) I called her and asked the question; a few minutes later, she came over to show me where to put it.

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Along those lines, it’s time to go back to the shop where I got my bike, this time to get a pump, a bell, and a lamp. I had my speech all prepared and tried it on a colleague, who told me that harang  referred to a church bell and that the word I needed was csengő. So here is what I will say: Itt vásároltam meg ezt a kerékpárt, és nagyon szeretem. Szükségem van egy légpumpa, csengő és lámpa. (“I bought this bike here and like it very much. I need a pump, bell, and lamp.”) If this isn’t exactly right, I think my meaning will still be clear. So these are some of the things that can come out of a cold.

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I took these pictures last night in Szolnok when walking home from the train station (after returning from a wonderful 24 hours in Budapest).

On Inconvenience

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I returned today from a week in Israel (two nights in Tel Aviv and five in Jerusalem). It’s too soon for me to tell about the trip; I’m still absorbing it. But it turned my thoughts, in various ways, toward the topic of inconvenience. I will knock my way into that topic; the photos will speak for themselves, except where I chime in.

I usually avoid group trips; I travel alone so that I can take things in and think. But this time I went on a trip hosted by B’nai Jeshurun, my beloved New York shul; it was a profound introduction to Israel, not only because of the insights, meetings, and itinerary, but because of the slight messiness of it all. Some of my favorite memories (right now) involve a minor inconvenience of some kind: waiting for someone, being waited for, using someone’s soap by mistake, trying to understand the revised schedule, finding the bus, relaying what was just said–little things, but all part of being physically among others, in this extraordinary place.

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On another level I felt a great and beautiful inconvenience: the bumping of one culture against another, the walking on my own and others’ holy ground, the pressing up of faith against faith (or lack of faith), thoughts against questions, road against road. Some of us avoid, others treasure these encounters. Or maybe most of us do both.

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On my last day, I met two Bedouin brothers who ran two shops; they showed me dreamy items while treating me to stories, praise, and tea. I understood this as theater and loved it for that; for those few minutes (that turned into more and more), I enjoyed being called their sister and told that I had beautiful eyes; I laughed as they played against each other, each one claiming to offer me the better deal; I admired a silver and garnet mezuzah (that one of the brothers, Hashem, had made) with pomegranate design and Hebrew inscription; and I bought more than I had meant to buy, without regret. Poetry and theater take you out of your way and gather you up, in a shop or anywhere.

As humans, we seek convenience and efficiency; if there are two ways to accomplish a goal, and one way is quicker and easier, we’ll take that way, unless we have reason to want the other. There’s elegance in this. Many inventions offer some form of convenience. My great-granduncle Charles Fischer discovered ways to make daily tasks easier; hence the take-up spring, the book prop, and other gadgets of his devising. When playing an instrument, we seek ease, not difficulty; a bow grip should not strain or contort the hand. That way, the music can come out.

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But take convenience too far, and you’re through with human relations. Instead of “Hell is other people,” the saying becomes, “Inconvenience is anyone outside myself.” To know someone substantially, you must let yourself be thrown off a little (or a lot).

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None of us can handle being thrown off all the time; the other extreme would be unbearable too. Too much stress and uncertainty, and we buckle; too much predictability, and we harden into planks. Nor do convenience and inconvenience come wrapped and ribboned; each one involves the other. If I take the trouble to meet strangers in various countries, I have taken on both an inconvenience and a convenience; we may speak different languages, but our interactions may be fleeting and unencumbered. If I befriend someone who speaks my language and belongs to my general culture, the initial comfort may lead into expectations. “We should really” starts to enter the conversation.

Inequality and equality both carry their conveniences and inconveniences. If I go out of my way, day after day, to help others, I have the inconvenience of attending to their needs but the convenience of automatic moral stature (and possibly escape from other responsibilities). If I relate to others as an equal and devote time to my own projects, I lose both the duties and the moral markers. So the categories break down.

The questions, or a few of many, become: In my combinations of convenience and inconvenience, do I keep enough uncertainty at the center and around the edges? Do I remember how little I know about others and they about me? Am I willing to take on new challenge and ease, not only externally, but internally? Am I willing to live not only intentionally, but with forms that come clear over time?

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This has to do with “aliveness” as described by Sean D. Kelly in a beautiful essay. “There are things that you know must be said,” he writes, “that are necessary, even though you don’t know why. And only later, in your later years, will the necessity and the significance of those statements become clear. Because you grow into them, or they grow into you. Or both.”

Sometimes an inconvenience invites us into something larger than we could explain in the moment; sometimes ease does this too. Sometimes life takes us up in a way we didn’t expect, and we ride the bumps, drink up the view, and later come to understand what we were doing. This is perplexity; this is prosperity. I think of Marianne Moore: not only “What Are Years?” but also “Poetry” and its revisions. Words, even those set down on paper or screen, do not stay still; they turn and glow, catching us off guard. Those startlements hold ease and unease; things seem brilliantly clear, “but man is but a patched fool if he will offer to say what methought I had.” There is simply no saying, yet there is; saying and silence join and then part ways again. For now, that’s all I have to say.

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I took all of these pictures in Jerusalem, except for the second, which I took in Jaffa (of my friends Elenor and Jenny walking together), and the sixth, which someone–Marcy, I think–took of me (in Jerusalem, just a few meters west of the Western Wall).

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