“Pici koncert” highlights

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The long-awaited “pici koncert“* took place this morning. (“Long-awaited” in this case means “anticipated for two weeks.”) Many students and teachers gathered to listen, out in the hallway, during the long break between the second and third periods. We sang three songs in three languages: “Позови меня” by Любэ, “Maradok ember” by 1LIFE, and “Champs-Elysées” by Joe Dassin. Here is a video of the highlights. (Please note that it is unlisted: that is, viewable only by those who have the link.)

 

Afterwards I was delighted with the concert but disappointed that I hadn’t done better with “Maradok ember” (one of my favorite songs in the world). Its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai, the lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist of 1LIFE; I hope to read and hear much more of his work over the coming decades. I had wanted to play it perfectly but instead said two words wrong, didn’t pronounce things well overall, didn’t play quite in tune, hit a couple of dud notes, and went a little too fast. “Jaj, emberiség!” (as opposed to “jaj, istenem!”). But later I saw things more clearly: we had set out to do our best and have fun, and we accomplished both. The atmosphere in the hall was upbeat: people listened and applauded heartily. Thanks to everyone who took part–performers, composers, and audience! Thanks also to the 9.AJTP class, whose “pici koncert” earlier in the month inspired this one. And thanks to my colleagues Judit Kéri and Nóra Csiffáryné Fegecs, who taught the songs to their students and helped bring all of this about, and my colleague Anikó Bánhegyesi, who recorded the video.

aux champs elysees

*“Pici” in Hungarian means “tiny.” The concert, like the previous one, was called a “pici koncert a nagy szünetben,” that is, a “tiny concert in the big break.” The “big break” is the fifteen-minute break between the second and third periods.

After posting this piece, I re-edited and re-uploaded the video; the new version (embedded here) fades in and out of each segment.

Thank You

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Thanks to everyone who made this a day of songs, good wishes, gifts, help, cheer, and love! I will catch up with the messages in Messenger soon (maybe not tonight), but wanted to report that this has been a happy day indeed. Three of my classes surprised me by singing to me–and they really surprised me, since each class did it in a different way. (True, the last class looked a bit mischievous at the start of the lesson, but that didn’t seem unusual until they burst into song.) A colleague gave me chocolate; another wished me happy birthday in the hallway. Gifts and messages streamed in from family and friends. And then, to top it all off (so to speak), my colleague Nándi helped me get to a dentist quickly. A crown fell off my tooth yesterday, and I dreaded some grievous labyrinthine procedure. But I called the dentist Nándi had recommended (his aunt), made an appointment for this evening, and learned from her that the tooth and crown were both fine and just needed to be reglued together, which she did on the spot. The tooth feels even better than before the mishap; the crown is better situated, like a stable duchy. I would be feeling royal, except for a slight cold and too much to do before tomorrow.

I took the photo in the village of Pácin (I think), during my bike trip. I didn’t realize until afterward that there was a dove flying overhead. It looks like some sort of Photoshop trick, but it isn’t; the bird was there, flying above the ice cream sign, though I didn’t know it at the time.

That is all for tonight. Thank you for the wonderful birthday.

Update: My birthday celebration continued at Szim Salom on Shabbat; I received good wishes, flowers, chocolate, and a delightful (and well-metered) character poem written by János Csonka. Thanks to everyone for the honor and cheer.

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“A legtöbb szünet után mindig jön egy új hang”

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Two days after a terrific Passover seder in Budapest, I was on the train to Kisvárda, my starting point for a three-day bike trip. I read the first two stories in Zsolt Bajnai’s Visszaköszönés. I was taken by the quote at the end of “Dobtoló,” “A legtöbb szünet után mindig jön egy új hang” (“After most breaks a new sound always comes”), because it’s both poignant and funny, with the mixture of “legtöbb” (“most”) and “mindig” (“always”).

As it happened, the previous day I had been trying to make practice recordings of two of the three songs that we (two language classes, two colleagues, and I) will be performing in a short concert at school on Monday. Each time I began recording, or sometimes a few minutes in, I made a mistake. The two songs were too freshly learned and figured out; they needed time to sink in. After about four hours of attempted recording, I realized a rest would be good. And sure enough, when I came back from the bike trip, I recorded them both in a few minutes–not perfectly, but much better than before. I will say more about the concert after it happens!pici koncert 2

The story “Dobtoló” is not about rest, though, at least not obviously; it’s about a boy by that nickname, who is the soul of the band even though he does not play an instrument. He had such a strong sense of rhythm that his two legs seemed like a metronome. You grow fond of him over the course of the pages, but you also realize that people didn’t know much about him, that they just accepted his presence. He was the one who remembered the others’ birthdays; they didn’t remember his. In that sense, the story is about rest, or rather, death: all the things that come together in the memory after a person is gone.

Something about the story (and the previous one too) brought back dim memories of Simon Carmiggelt, whose stories I heard at age ten, when we were living in Holland. I think my father read some of the stories aloud; others we listened to on tape. They leave you wanting to hear or read more stories and tell stories too.

To call the bike trip great would be an understatement, but I gather that understatement can build character, so I will go ahead and call it great. The things that stand out, though, are not the magnificent views, not the downhill slope into Slovakia, not even the pond at sunset–

 

 

–but the slow familiarity with the area (this being my third bike trip there in two years), the recognition of roads, buildings, and farms, the sounds of farm animals in the morning and evening, the kitten I befriended, the thoughts that came and went, the various yet few conversations. All of that, and a turning point on Monday, the day I biked to Kassa (Košice), as I did last year. I had had a somewhat late start, and was tempted not to bike there at all, but instead to spend the day in Sátoraljaújhely and the environs. But then I got on the bike path, and within minutes I was up in the hills. Not only did it seem silly to turn back, but I figured that if I could get to Kassa in three and a half hours (which I did), I would be able to catch the 4:06 train back to Sátoraljaújhely, bicycle back to Vajdácska, and arrive at the guesthouse in time for dinner. The timing all worked out, and dinner was worth every rotation of the pedals.

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There was much more to the trip, in terms of sights and thoughts, but part of the treat is keeping some of it to myself, or maybe holding it for later. One does not have to say everything about everything right away. In most trees there is always a story waiting for its time.

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“While Suzanne holds the mirror….”

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Today I was thinking of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” for its fearless understanding, its way of lilting through the mind. It isn’t religious, but it devotes a verse to Jesus. Its main character, Suzanne, seems a Miriam of the 1960s, a prophet by the river. But Suzanne is in many places; I have known a few people who seemed Suzanne-like, and sometimes I have a bit of Suzanne in me too. What and who is she? She is song itself, and this song in particular; “you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.”

Through the song, you taste “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”; you let her guide you: “And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers / There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning / They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever / While Suzanne holds the mirror.”

“But the song is about a real Suzanne,” some will protest; “she and Cohen really drank tea and ate oranges together!” Yes, that’s what a good song can do: take something from life and wrap it into the music, so that it becomes real for the listener, part of the listener’s life. You think you’ve been there, you think you know Suzanne, but it’s the song you’ve lived and known.

I didn’t bring this song to class on Tuesday (I brought “Story of Isaac” instead), but if I had, it probably wouldn’t have worked any better than the others, because it has to catch you unawares. I remember the first time I noticed it. I had heard it before, perhaps many times, but this time I was having brunch at a friend’s place, and the sun was streaming through the windows, and this was playing, and I suddenly heard it and asked what it was. That was probably in 1993 or so. Since then, it has been in my life.

I am now on the train to Budapest, for the Szim Salom Passover seder, which I will be co-leading. On Sunday I head to Kisvárda (by train, with bike), and then from there by bike to the Zemplén region. I look forward to the return; it will be my third time there with bicycle, but my first time biking from Kisvárda (and my first time in Kisvárda, for that matter, except for the time I passed through by train).

I wish everyone good holidays and a restful break.

“When our deep plots do pall….”

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It is tempting to imagine, in teaching and elsewhere, that the more you plan and prepare, the better things will turn out. Up to a point, this is true, but too much planning can go awry, and a bit of spontaneity can set things right. When you plan too hard for something, and it doesn’t turn out the way you intended, the overplanning is partly at fault. I don’t mean that teachers should improvise all the time–but we should be willing to adjust course. We say this continually but still forget it.

For weeks I had been planning a lesson on poetic song verse (for a twelfth-grade English class). It didn’t go as I had hoped. I had meant it to be part planned, part spontaneous: I would present some songs, and students would too. We would see what came out of the combination. But four students were absent; of those present, only a few offered comments, and no one presented songs. I found myself speaking rather stiffly about the songs I had brought; I don’t think I conveyed much. We have only one class left, and then the students graduate–so I wish I had done better somehow. I understand, though, that they are ready to move on with their lives.

But another class that day turned into song. We went over a test that the students had taken the day before, and then I taught them the song “Today,” which I sang at my high school graduation and which I thought they would enjoy. (I think they did.) Then they asked to sing songs by Abba and Queen, and I happily went along with that (and introduced a couple of songs too). Day after day, we have been preparing for their school-leaving exams, so this was a nice way to spend time with them before the end.

The contrast helps me see something else as well. In the lesson on poetic song verse, I wanted us to talk  about the relation between a song’s lyrics and its music. I thought I had brought memorable examples (Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, and others) that they might not otherwise encounter. I realize, though, that it’s a mistake to talk analytically about a song before actually absorbing it. It’s hard to talk about songs at all, but it’s especially difficult in a rush. The students needed time that wasn’t there. If we had had the semester ahead of us, and if it had been a course on songs, then there would have been time. But we are at the end.

Also, songs have a visceral effect. You can’t persuade others to like them–or maybe you can, but only under the right conditions. I remember how others introduced me to various songs over the years–in class, in conversation, at concerts, etc. Some of these songs became favorites; others I never grew to like. Liking isn’t necessarily the point–but when I share a song with someone, or when I teach it formally, I hope that the person will ultimately find it worth hearing. Even that can’t be guaranteed.

Maybe the lesson went better than I thought. Maybe there was something interesting in it for someone. But if it did flop, it’s partly because I had planned something that didn’t match the situation–and didn’t fully realize this until the lesson was over.

So the lesson is not “don’t prepare,” but rather “don’t stake too much on your preparations” and “attend to the situation at hand.”

Otherwise this was a profoundly good day–but more about that another time, when it is not so late. There is a lot to say. At the end of the day I took part in the Holocaust memorial run–from the sugar factory to the synagogue–and then danced with many others in the evening light.

The Ungivable Advice

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Yesterday was not a typical Saturday or Shabbat. In the morning, in Budapest, I co-led a synagogue service hosted by Szim Salom, Bét Orim, and a the West London Synagogue. It was a great occasion: some people in the room had never met before, while others had known each other for decades. We came together without effort (at least in the moment–there was effort in the preparations), and layers of voices filled the room. If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, I would reply, “Because of the human voice.” It’s only a sliver of a reason, and it’s as hard to explain that as to explain what it means to me to believe in God in the first place (even saying this much gets my words tangled), but even so, there’s something to it. In some way the human voice, especially the singing voice, does not die. Also, voices carry other voices; we bring memories into our singing, sometimes centuries of memories. There are moments in a Jewish service, and services of other religions too, when different levels of the past come together with the present. That’s what it was like all morning–but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was happy to be together with so many people, to be co-leading the service in a way that felt like being carried up and along.

Saying this, I understand a little better what happened six years and a few months ago, when I learned my first words in Hebrew. I listened to a cantor’s recording of the Blessing Before Haftarah, and something drew me in, something more than a beautiful voice or melody. It shook some kind of memory, though of what, I couldn’t say. I don’t mean anything mystical by this; I just mean that a few things happened at once. First, I knew that this was profoundly mine; second, I knew it belonged to many others too, of many centuries; third, I wanted to learn what it was all about, what the words meant, what on earth a Haftarah was; and fourth, there was something about it that went beyond explanation, maybe something mystical after all. All of this together launched the learning that carried me up to the present.

Afterward, after lingering for a little while to speak with people, I walked to the train station, caught the intended train, returned to Szolnok, biked home, dropped off my backpack, fed Minnaloushe, and then biked to the Verseghy Ferenc Library for the events I had been awaiting: a reading by László Darvasi (wonderful–very funny at moments, even to me, though I understood only a fraction of the humor), and then the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club’s performance, in a packed hall, of Farkasok (Wolves), a play by one of their members, Kata Bajnai. Many of my students were in the cast. There too, I didn’t understand everything, but I was taken by the clarity and starkness of the play and by the intensity of the acting. Each word and motion mattered. The audience was rapt. I hope to see it again and hope that the text will be published.

After that, I went back upstairs with two of my colleagues to hear a poetry slam performance. I don’t always like poetry slams (to put it mildly), but this one won me over. The performer, Kristóf Horváth, got the audience to  come up with multi-syllabic words and phrases that fit a given meter. Then he put them together and had us chant the whole improvised poem. People of many ages cheerfully pitched in.

But I was going to write about something else (related, though, in some way, to all of this). I have been thinking about how some of the most important advice is essentially ungivable. There is no way to understand it except in retrospect, and no way to phrase it in time. If I were to give advice to my former self (my teenage self, for instance), it would be something like this: “Do not doubt the worth of that essential, unchanging part of you. That is your contribution to the world; it is supposed to be there.” So many young people (and older people too) wish part of themselves away, especially those parts that stand out, that don’t seem to mesh with the surroundings.

But how do we know which parts of ourselves are essential and changeless, and which parts are changing? This takes time and participation in the world. We learn about ourselves through doing things, getting to know others, making mistakes, making our way through life. Also, the relation between the changing and the changeless is complex. I think I have always been both bold and shy, but over time I have gotten better at acknowledging both. A person does not have to be just one thing. Nor are boldness and shyness inherently good or bad; they can be shaped in many ways.

Moreover, the “changing” part is not necessarily less important than the “changeless” part; there’s vitality and loss in the transformation.

Back to the supposed advice: what does it mean that the unchanging part is “supposed” to be there? Despite believing in God in some way, I do not imagine a divine power creating and watching over each of us. It is likely that through evolution, humans became different from each other; these differences and distinctions gave us an advantage, since we could learn from each other and had to find ways to communicate. So from this standpoint, each person has something to contribute to the whole, even negatively.

But there is more to life than contributing to humanity as a whole. Yes, each of us is a tiny part of an immense field of action, which is in turn a tiny part of a more immense one. But we were given this strange gift of “I,” a self that eventually learns that it is not the center of the universe, but still never shakes its own importance entirely. What is this self for? If we were really supposed to serve humanity as a whole, shouldn’t the self have phased itself out? Wouldn’t we be better off as highly skilled and somewhat diverse carpenter ants?

The self brings with it a paradox: it (the self) prevents us from seeing others fully, but only through the self can any of us see another. Without a self, there would be no listening or speaking. But the self also blocks things out; it’s at once the keenest and dullest of instruments. So it sometimes needs a good shaking. Everyone, having a self, has something to work with and an infinity of things to take in (or not). The ungivable advice is that this is all worthwhile. Or at least some of it is, and that part requires the rest.

I took the photo on Friday morning. Also, I revised the piece on April 18.

A Walk Along the Zagyva

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A photo I took by the Zagyva this morning, and a new poem.

A Walk Along the Zagyva

The jagged margin should suffice as proof
that this here “you” was salvaged from old lore,
a muddy stretch that no one really knows
but for its way of sounding like a stream.
In any case, this isn’t meant for you,
whoever you may be, but if you find
its driftwood to your liking, take your pick,
and walk away the richer. Who am I
to claim such water-tossings? Nobody.
The catch is this: naming the jagged edge,
detaching “you” from you, can I pretend
nothing was cracked and amble my way down
into the matter? I don’t see why not;
since you and I stopped speaking years ago,
these words are pure contraption anyhow,
and purity does not give up midway.
Moreover, what I have to say is not
what you might dread from me—a fisted cry
or penned apology for old debris—
but something harder: knowledge of the law.
Nothing in modern or medieval code
says hearts cannot be broken, but to date
we have no proper cracking place, except
in verse and song; no parliament or court
gives figure to the breach, and prose itself
distorts through grim precision. Even song
forgets sometimes: it isn’t only love
that gets the axe, but friendship’s early drafts,
things said too soon, unwindable, unlike
a fisherman I really saw today
by the vague river. He would toss a line
and wait, then reel it in and shift
his place and try again. But this requires
a general indifference to fish
along with a true love of catching them.
We humans fail at pure indifference;
we lift each other up in difference.
But then we’re clumsy, too—or I, at least,
tossing the mask of “we,” can say I slipped
and fell. No code prohibits even this;
therefore some errors have no legal name,
and all the judges sitting on the wall
(you too, perhaps, though who am I to know?)
hurl follies at the margin’s lilting line.

 

As usual, I made a few changes to this after posting it.

A Library Down the Road

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The Verseghy Ferenc Public Library, just a block away from school, has become one of my favorite places in Szolnok. It brings back library memories but also takes me into new thoughts and the Hungarian language. I have been there many times this year, for poetry and prose readings and for my own book event. I love the luminous room where the readings are held.

Yesterday afternoon I went to hear Levente Csender read from his work and speak with Gyula Jenei. A week from tomorrow, on April 13, I will return from Budapest in time to attend the evening part of a day of literary events: a reading by László Darvasi and, after that, a performance by the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club (Varga Diákszínpad) of a play written by one of the troupe’s own members, Kata Bajnai.

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This is just the beginning; I look forward to many more events and quiet hours. In June, at the library, my tenth-grade students will perform scenes from Hamlet; before then, I hope to get a library card. Yes, a library card is essential–but so far, I haven’t had much reason to take out books, since I read so slowly in Hungarian and have so many books waiting on my shelf.

My life has held many libraries. In early childhood, in Amherst, Massachusetts, I often went to the Jones library; at the time, they catalogued and displayed a little book that I wrote (with pages stapled together) about a rainbow. At the Forbes Library in Northampton, there were weekly screenings of classic cartoons (Donald Duck, etc.); I used to go and laugh. In high school, I loved the school library with its spiral staircase between the two levels. Later on, in college, graduate school, and in between, I worked at the Yale library and did research there; when I later returned to New Haven to write Republic of Noise, I walked to the library almost every day. Other libraries (such as the New York Public Library and the Berkeley library) have also been large in my life. But the Verseghy Library in Szolnok stands out among the libraries I have known. Here I can listen to Hungarian literature–taking in as much as I can, striving to understand more, saying hello to a few people afterward, and leaving with a new book or two in hand and the evening’s language in my mind.

One day, when my Hungarian is much stronger, I will remember these library days and what they held. I will come back to the works I first met there, remembering how they sounded the first time. I hunger for that return, maybe because I will understand much more by then, or maybe because I will get to look back on these bright, dear days.

P.S. I heartily recommend Bob Shepherd’s piece “The Limits of Learning.”

Bonyolult

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One of my favorite words in Hungarian is “bonyolult,” (“complicated, messy, intricate”), which sounds like what it means: all wound up in a bundle. According to Wiktionary, it is the past participle of bonyolul, (“to become complicated”), “an archaic verb which was formed from the bonyol- stem of bonyolít (to make something complicated).” Some linguists trace bonyolít to the Proto-Finno-Ugric *puńa (to wind up, twist).

The photo above (which I took on Sunday evening) expresses bonyolultság well. The stump is full of life: if you look closely, you can see leaves on some of its thin branches. The water looks dark, but in the upper left corner, there’s a hint of pink (since the camera is facing north or north-northeast, and the sunset was not yet over).

I would not say that complexity is the crowning principle of life. It goes along with certain simplicities. Complexity on its own becomes unintelligible, whereas simplicity becomes reductive. Neither one, at the exclusion of the other, can be beautiful, nor does the combination guarantee beauty. Beauty is one of the strangest things in human life: on the one hand subjective and private, and on the other, breaking out of subjectivity; on the one hand, conditioned by society, and on the other, proudly unconditioned. When you find something beautiful, you are all alone and in company, both of these purely, both at once.