Secrets Behind the Trees

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The other day, just before reaching home, I saw a young man with his bike parked beside the river wall. He was seated on the wall, gazing out at the Zagyva. I wanted to take a picture but did not want to disturb his privacy, even without his knowledge. So I took a picture in which he could not really be seen. You can just see the bike and a hint of a blue jacket behind the tree. The picture represents part of my life here these days and the happiness I am finding. There is room for thinking.

The picture has another meaning too. As I start to understand more and more Hungarian, as I put together more sentences, read more, and carry more in my mind, I start to see secrets behind the trees, things I would not recognize if I did not know that they had to be precisely there. (This last part, after the colon, is a paraphrased quotation from a poem—a somewhat different version from the one behind the link.) I have discovered that one of my colleagues is a poet and another an essayist and critic; their work inspires me to read and understand. They also run a literary journal, Eső (Rain); the Fall 2018 issue comes out tomorrow. Much more reading lies ahead!

In addition, I find that language sometimes works like constellations in the mind: you have seen the individual stars, but when you recognize the form between them, that is when you know them by heart. When learning how to say certain things, I find that I had some of the knowledge before: maybe the grammar, or maybe the words–but when I put them together, I understand both grammar and words in a new way. Last Monday, I tutored two women in English; after an hour, as we had agreed beforehand, we switched to Hungarian so that I could practice too. I learned how to say things that I had almost known how to say; when they clicked, right there in the sound of conversation, I knew I would remember them.

There is much more to say about this, but I am running late and must therefore run.

On Beginnerhood (Reprise)

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Fall is here at last! Goodbye, for now, to the heat and pounding rays; a hearty welcome to the chill and vigor. I love walking and biking around in the fall: listening to the leaves, watching the trees sway, taking in the pale colors. I also just completed one of the greatest challenges of my life: leading services for the High Holy Days, along with the rabbi. (I led the musical parts; she led the spoken parts.) I spent weeks preparing daily; it went beautifully, and I learned profoundly.

I was so tired afterward, and so overwhelmed with upcoming projects and deadlines, that I thought I would have to give up one of two events this weekend. I had planned to go to a Budapest Festival Orchestra concert on Friday–a Baltic program, featuring works by Čiurlionis, Pärt, and Vasks–and then to the Season Opening Gala, a benefit event for the orchestra’s “Choose Your Instrument” program, which gives children around Hungary the opportunity to do just that. I thought I would have to give up the gala–but then, with a little encouragement, I decided to go.

The Friday night concert was beyond anything I had expected, since Arvo Pärt himself was there! I was first introduced to his work in my senior year of college; at the time, I listened to Tabula Rasa over and over. I slowly became acquainted with some of his other compositions, including Te Deum, which the BFO performed Friday night. His music is so otherworldly that I didn’t initially imagine flesh-and-bones mortals playing it, let alone composing it–so it was astonishing to see everyone together, composer and musicians, in the hall. In this photo, he appears all the way to the left, with a bouquet of flowers; at this point, we had been applauding for so long that he signaled that it was time for sleep.

The concert program consisted of Te Deum (the final piece), Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis’s Miške (In the Forest), Pärt’s Como cierva sedienta,  and Pēteris Vasks’s Epifonia. (The soprano Sylvia Schwartz was the soloist for Como cierva sedienta; the Cantemus Mixed Choir sang Te Deum.)

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I stayed overnight in Budapest, went back to Szolnok in the morning, and then returned to Budapest two hours later for the Gala event. I also had to return to my previous hotel to pick up a book of poetry I had left there. (It was intact.) So now I start to wend my way into the topic at hand: beginnerhood, about which I have written before.

During the reception before dinner, we were all invited to try out instruments; members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra and several children demonstrated the instruments and allowed people to give them a try. (I tried the tuba, horn, flute, and violin; later, during the dinner, I tried another horn and the harp as well.) It was thrilling to be a beginner: to have no expectations except for that starting point, the first note or few notes, however they might sound. But there was more to it than that. As Iván Fischer explained to us later that evening, not everyone is suited to every instrument. Different instruments make different demands of a person; some require an earlier start than others, some favor particular physiques, some have particular logistical requirements, and some get fallen in love with. When children understand this, they have a better chance of selecting an instrument that is right for them.

When you choose an instrument, you do not necessarily sign on for life. I spoke with BFO members who had started with one instrument and then switched to another, who had taken breaks from playing, who had not begun their instrument until their teenage years, or who had studied something else at the university. The paths to musicianship–even toward the highest levels–are not as standardized as people may assume, but no matter when and where these musicians began, they have been devoted to their instruments for years. This cannot be shortchanged. Trying an instrument, you grasp all over again what it would take to learn to play it well. But basic proficiency is just another layer of beginning, amid more layers and layers.

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In that sense, beginnerhood and mastery do not cancel each other out; a master still has chances, at any moment, to play a familiar piece in a fresh way, to play in new situations and formats, and to treat the bare beginners kindly. The evening was full of generosity: musicians giving encouragement and suggestions as guests tried to play clear notes (or any at all), sounds ringing out all over the room, lively and lovely performances over the course of the evening, good fundraising, and conversation in many languages.

In speaking of a spirit of beginnerhood, I do not mean that “everyone is a beginner” or that freshness is everything. Years of practice and repetition allow one to inhabit music, language, or another field; without such dedication over time, a person would stay trapped within the “sort of” (which to me is a sort of hell). But repetition and habit are only part of the work, though an unforsakeable part; musicians, writers, artists, actors must also meet the art anew and anew, with everything they have, with empty hands.

Speaking of that, I have some work that is barely begun, with rapidly approaching deadlines–so it is time to buckle down and overcome this particular beginnerhood, knowing that others and other kinds will follow.

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

The Truth of Seeking Truth

IMG_6704One of the most damaging contemporary dicta is that truth does not exist: that all we know is our own perspective, if even that. According to some, if you so much as mention truth, you have revealed your own outdatedness. The pursuit of truth can only lead farther into illusion, some say; to be with the times, one must admit that there’s no ultimate truth at all.

Were it not for its emphasis on being with the times, the above could seem plausible. Again and again, we think we know what happened in a given episode in our lives, only to find out later that our understanding was just a fragment and that the various known fragments do not complete a whole. Not only that, but even if all of the information were available, we could only make sense of it through stories–and stories require selection, emphasis, and sequence. There is no way to convey a full picture, even if it exists; our language, existing in time, does not allow for such complexity and completeness.

Yet much of our experience is sturdy. The bicycle does not turn into a tractor from one day to the next. The slice of pizza does not become a cherry pie in the middle of a bite. If you go to a concert, and you remember it the next day, so do others; if you teach a class, there’s general agreement, the next time, about what the lesson contained, even if not everyone remembers everything. So consistency of experience and commonality of memory point to some reality outside of us, a reality that can be called true.

Moreover, we are disposed to seeking out truth; day after day, we try to find out what really happened, what was really said, what a word means, where a particular thing is located, what causes a particular phenomenon, and what we think; this pursuit is not all in vain, nor does it follow a set schedule. When you find the solution to a math problem, it stays; when you understand a word, the understanding abides, even if it changes over time. Knowing your own thoughts may be the most difficult challenge of all, since you are thinking them even as you examine them. Even so, we probably all have had moments of clarity, of knowing, at least for an instant, who we are.

That we build justice systems, schools, governments, news publications on the pursuit of truth does not, in itself, prove truth’s existence; looking at the history of such institutions, we can find many deceptions and follies. Still, people coming together in a courtroom affirm that through assembling the evidence, hearing the witnesses, and deliberating, a jury can reach a fairer and more accurate verdict than it would without these actions. In the classroom, anyone can make mistakes, but the very existence of mistakes suggests the possibility of accuracy. In newspapers and on news programs, a story can get distorted, but then, over time, others correct the record. At their best, all of these institutions pursue truth instead of claiming to have it–and demonstrate, through their daily work, that such pursuit is possible.

Literature can hold truth, but it does this through seeking. Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” sounds on the surface like a simple telling of truth, but the truth moves before our eyes, changing color and tone, ambling through grief and delight. Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin plays with deception and dissimulation but reaches a kind of clarity. Eliot’s “Prufrock” seeks something too, in a muted and doubting way. I cannot think of a work of literature (that is, a work that I would want to reread) that does not in some way seek truth, integrity, precision, form, completion, or clarity (and their necessary companions). It may or may not reach an answer, but it takes the reader from one place of understanding to another.

The search for truth does not move with the times; it may go against the passions and predilections of a given culture or group. It follows its own timing; discoveries and insights do not always arrive on schedule, but may come when unexpected and fail to arrive when expected. How many of us have recognized one of our mistakes long after making it; how many dramatic works rely on such mistiming? It would be better to catch a mistake in advance, but short of that, we take insight as it comes.

Each of us seeks some kind of truth: some with enthusiasm, some with weariness, some with direction and purpose, some with open curiosity. To respect others is to recognize that they seek just as I do–not in the same way or with the same timing, but for similar reasons: they want to understand what they do not now understand; they believe, as I do, that there is something to learn.

I took the photo when crossing the Zagyva last week. Also, I made a few additions to this piece after posting it.

Is “Dream Crazy” Good Advice?

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Here I will not be talking about the boiling controversy around the Nike “Dream Crazy” ad–a controversy about the individuals in the ad, not the ad’s message. Nor do I mean to take the ad as a logical argument; its primary purpose is to promote the Nike brand, and its message serves that end. I bring up the ad only because it stands out as an example of a well-worn and highly (U.S.) American idea: the idea that (a) a certain kind of success, involving money and fame, is all-important; (b) the ones who succeed are the ones who “dream big”; and (c) that such dreamers should let nothing and no one stand in their way. No obstacle is an obstacle, no qualm a qualm; the true champion reduces all hindrances to nothing, simply through power of the mind.

“If people say your dreams are crazy,” says Colin Kaepernick, the ad’s narrator, “if they laugh at what you think you can do–good. Stay that way.” So far, I have no objections. Then he continues: “Because what nonbelievers fail to understand is that calling a dream crazy is not an insult. It’s a compliment. Don’t try to be the fastest runner in your school, or the fastest in the world. Be the fastest ever. Don’t picture yourself wearing OBJ’s jersey. Picture OBJ wearing yours. Don’t settle for homecoming queen or linebacker. Do both.” A little later: “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything.” The ad continues for a while longer, and he says a bit more, but this is enough for now.

On the surface, the words of the ad sound profoundly humanitarian. People should not hold themselves back; no one has to be inferior to anyone else, or to a dream, or even to the greatest dream imaginable. Each of us, no matter where or how we grew up, has access to infinity.

Yet this version of infinity gives me qualms. Why should a dream consist of becoming the best at something–not only the best right now, but the best ever known? First of all, to the extent that the best can be identified and measured, it has room for only one person; not everyone can be the best. If everyone’s primary goal were to be the best, life would quickly become “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Or to put it differently: there are people who don’t worry about whether they themselves are the best ever at what they do; it is their work that they want to perfect, something within the work that they seek out. Many fields demand this kind of focus. To be an excellent musician, you must be listening intently to the music, working your way toward what you hear or want to hear in your mind. Thoughts about being the best musician of all time might distract you. For sure, there are musicians who aspire to make a mark in history, who hope to go down as one of the best–but others reach heights without thinking in those terms. How does one determine, moreover, who is the best, even in athletics, where numbers are ready at hand? It is not as easy as it may sound.

Second, if you aspire to do your work well, whatever it may be, without necessarily hoping to become the best ever, this does not make you a conformist or lesser person. Striving for visible superiority is highly conformist; voices from all corners tell you to “go for it” and applaud you if you do so. But there are many successes that do not look like an athlete leaping in the air and hurling a ball; there are successes in finding a phrase, discovering a new angle (so to speak) on a math problem, making a delicious gulyás, teaching a class, raising a child, sitting at a dying person’s bedside. This does not mean that a person should eschew all competition; competition has a place. But not all good works look like athletic championship; not all unusual things look alike.

The third problem here–a problem with “growth mindset” as well–is that such an ideal bids us think only in terms of striving, dreaming, going beyond the limit. Any sense of limitation, any thought of mortality, becomes taboo or at best undesirable. Don’t say that you will die one day; dream and act as though you could live forever. But human immortality is not as great as it sounds. The body wears down; the world gets crowded. An endless life could be miserable. Moreover, as long as we have known, and as long as we know now, every human and animal life comes to an end. Do we have to pretend this isn’t true? There’s something shrill and forced about the dogma of limitlessness; it looks away from life.

I do not mean that people should curb their dreams because they will die one day. But it is possible to live with bounds and boundlessness at once: to strive beyond what we know, to carry dreams of different kinds, but also to admit to the end of things, the need for sleep, the presence of others, the worth of simple acts.

I took the photo at the Gulyásfesztivál in Szolnok.

A Concert in Gyula

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I first learned about the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s synagogue concert series before I even knew about the possibility of teaching in Hungary. I wanted to support it and hoped one day to attend one of these concerts. Yesterday I made it to my fifth–but just barely!

To get to the concert in Gyula (a town in southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border), I needed to take the 3:34 train out of Szolnok. The next train would get me there too late. My last class ended at 3:20, and I would need another minute or two to get out the door and on the bike; biking fast, I could possibly make it to the station in ten minutes, but much depended on the timing of the traffic lights. Just one long red light, and I would miss the train.

In addition, there was no way to return to Szolnok that night; I would need to stay in Gyula and return the next morning on the earliest train, the one that departed at 4:59. (The next one would get me to school too late.) So I reserved a hotel room in advance, not knowing whether I would make it to the concert in the first place.

After my last class on Wednesday, I rushed out the door, got on my bike, and pedaled with everything in me. I cut one corner: on bike, you are not supposed to cross Szapáry Street right at Kossuth Lajos Street but are instead directed to cross halfway up the next block. That would have taken too long, so I crossed right there, along with the traffic, then re-entered the bike path and sped onwards. I got to the train just in time; it left about a minute after I boarded with the bike. The transfer in Békéscsaba went without a hitch, and I arrived in Gyula exactly on time, at 5:07. (The concert started at 5:30.)

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I had a basic idea of how to get there but wasn’t completely sure I was doing it right. I passed through a park where some teenagers were sitting and smoking. They saw me pass by and immediately sensed that I was looking for something; when I explained, three of them came to my aid and explained the directions, telling me to turn left and cross a bridge. I turned left but saw no bridge; I asked a woman on a bike how to get there, and she said she was going in the same direction and would show me. Soon we crossed that bridge and were there: at the Ferenc Erkel Music School, formerly a synagogue. I entered and took my seat early.

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The program was new for me (until the encores): Max Bruch’s string octet in B-flat major and Claude-Paul Taffanel’s wind quintet in G minor. The Bruch allowed me to delight in Rita Sovány’s cello playing and the conversation of all the instruments.

The Taffanel was full of Bach influence, but with Romantic dreaminess and flute (played gloriously by Anett Jóföldi). In its evocation and transformation of a past, it suggested some of the meaning of the evening, as did the Bruch. I was caught up in it from start to finish.

There was a triple klezmer encore, with the full ensemble; two of the pieces I knew from previous concerts, and one was new to me. We the audience listened with hush and clapped with noise.

The full hall, the sounds that seize, the traditions coming together, the musicians’ gifts, the audience’s warmth, and my own joy in being there made this an evening not only of beauty but of urgency. The evening does not translate into a political message; that is part of the point. All the same, it “asks a little of us here.”

The magnificent clarinetist Ákos Ács–who leads the synagogue series–spoke at several points, clarinet and microphone in hand. A delightful rabbi–whom I heard speak once before, at the concert in Szeged last June–spoke about Jewish synagogues. Hungarian is not his native language; I enjoyed the sense of searching in his speech. Another man spoke at length about the history of Jews in Gyula, and then the head of the music school said some concluding words.

The audience seemed profoundly involved; afterward, people lingered and left slowly.

Then came the clouds and downpour. I made it to the hotel without confusion; I just began riding and found it. I took this picture right at the corner.

The hotel had a restaurant, so I had some delicious fish soup and then went to sleep. I left at 4:40 in the morning and got to the train station five minutes later.

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I hope to visit this town again for a longer stretch. But this quick trip was so full and unlikely that it continues onward in my mind.

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You can read my posts about the synagogue concerts in Albertirsa, Baja, Szeged, and Békés here, here, and here.

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