Falling and Rising (in One Day)

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Last night I remembered something about a Sportnap (Sports Day) taking place today; drowsily checking my messages, I realized that I was supposed to sign up to help with one of the activities. Oops! The biking excursion looked just right; I enjoy biking, as readers of this blog probably know, and we would return in time for the award ceremony for winners of regional academic competitions. (Three of my students won first, second, and third place, respectively, in one of the English competitions.) So I signed up, heard my conscience sigh, and went to sleep.

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In the morning, when I got there, a large group was ready and eager to go. My colleague took the lead, thanked me for coming too, and explained where we were going. She asked me to hold the rear, since she knew the exact route. We took off, crossed the street, and headed northward along the Zagyva (on my usual route to and from school). I thought I’d take a photo as we were going along, and I did, while bicycling. But I didn’t realize that someone was directly in front of me and someone else coming in my direction. As soon as I saw them, I slammed my breaks so hard that I got thrown from the bike (even though I was not going fast at all) and felt my nose hit the ground. One member of the group, Gábor, waited for me, but the bicycle chain had come off the gears, the front brake was stuck, and the bike wouldn’t move. I urged him to go on ahead, since I needed a minute or two to fix the bike.

It took about ten minutes; when I was done, I continued northward, pedaling as fast as I could, but could not see the group anywhere. I continued for a few meters onto the dirt road, only to find it muddy from the rain. Mud caked my bike, immobilizing it again; with some digging and pulling, I managed to get some of the big clumps off so that the wheels could move. Now I headed in the opposite direction; I remembered that my colleague had mentioned Széchényi, so I tested out those environs. No one familiar in sight. I also remembered a mention of the Marcipán cafe and cake shop; when I reached the place, I saw almost all of them standing outside! (A few were inside the cafe.) I hope they weren’t waiting for me, or if they were, I hope it wasn’t for long. I joined for the second hour of the trip, which was fun. I felt bad about missing the first part and not helping out, but there was some victory in fixing the bike, finding the group, and biking with them for an hour. This time, when I took photos, I stopped first.

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But why did I fall from the bike? I think there were several reasons or causes. First, I was trying to take a photo while biking (not a good idea, especially in a crowd). Second, I am not used to biking in groups or biking slowly. Third, I am a bit exhausted from the drama festival and the week; and fourth, these things just happen sometimes.

After that fall, it was all upward. The award ceremony featured several musical performances by students (several choruses and a xylophonist) and many, many awards. For each award, they announced both the winner and the teacher(s) who helped him or her prepare. Both the student and the teacher would go to the front of the auditorium; the student would receive a certificate and flowers and would then present the flowers to the teacher. Thus a colleague and I received flowers three times: when Szabina, Laci, and Fanni received their awards. Many other students from our school won awards–including my former student Gábor Kozma, featured in the Szolnok TV video of the event. Then came a reception with some delicious pastries; in one of them, the sour cherries (meggy) tasted so fresh, they seemed to be from this year. I haven’t seen sour cherries at the market yet, but they’re around the corner, and I watch for them every day.

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So it turned into a good day, with more rising than falling. Now it’s almost time to fall again (asleep).

Song Series # 1: Dylan, Waits, Sparks/Denver, ERQ

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Since birth, more or less, I have had songs in my life, whether through hearing them, singing them, playing them, dancing to them, teaching them, writing about them, writing them, trying to remember them, seeking them out at record stores, or carrying them in my mind. Songs are some of the first things we hear in the world. So why start a song series on my blog?

When teaching certain songs in English and Civilization classes, I have realized that students really take to them (flopped lessons aside) and often haven’t heard them before. I want to keep track of a few of the songs I teach (or hope to teach) and give students a way to find them again. For each song, I will post a video or recording and the lyrics. Your comments are welcome!

Here are four songs that I taught to several classes this week (we sang them, and I played cello accompaniment): “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan; “Today” by Randy Sparks, sung by John Denver and others; “Come On Up to the House” by Tom Waits (I include both his recording and Sarah Jarosz’s cover); and “More Bad Times” by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.

Here’s a 1963 live performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Here is Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House” (first his own recording, and then a wonderful cover by Sarah Jarosz):

Well, the moon is broken, and the sky is cracked.
Come on up to the house.
The only things that you can see is all that you lack.
Come on up to the house.

All your cryin’ don’t do no good.
Come on up to the house.
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.
You gotta come on up to the house.

Come on up to the house.
Come on up to the house.
The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
You got to come on up to the house.

There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire.
Come on up to the house.
And your singin’ lead soprano in a junkman’s choir.
You got to come on up to the house.

Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish, and short.
Come on up to the house.
The seas are stormy, and you can’t find no port.
Gotta come on up to the house, yeah.

And now for “Today,” as sung live by John Denver:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what the morrow shall bring

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing
Today….

And finally (for today), a beloved song by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, “More Bad Times,” as performed at the Rat in Boston. (The lyrics vary a little from version to version.)

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never had rabies
You never gained weight
You never came home with a scar
You never drank poison
You watched what you ate
You never so much as put a scratch on my car.

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never got measles
You never had gout
You never threw up at parades
You never got dizzy
You never fell out
You never picked up any live hand grenades

So many things did go wrong
But the list is not long enough
Not enough bad things to fill up a song

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never lost contacts
You never leaked oil
You never fell to sticks and stones
You never drank cleanser
You never ate foil
You never choked on any big chicken bones

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

And that wraps it up for the first installment of the song series. More to come, over time!

Image credit: House on the Hill (1902) by Pablo Picasso, courtesy of http://www.PabloPicasso.org.

Thoughts on “Kapcsolj ki!”

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The immediate occasion for this post is a new online vote–and while I don’t trust in online votes or their results, I vote for 1LIFE, because they deserve the chance to play at East Fest–Mezőtúr. (Update: they will perform there on July 27!) I will not get to hear them, because I will be in Dallas for the month–but others will be able to enjoy the occasion. Enough of that; I am here to say a few things about “Kapcsolj ki!,” a song that has intrigued me for months. In particular, I see an interesting relationship between the poetic form–particularly the stanzas and rhymes–and the meaning. Parts of the song are especially difficult to translate–and it’s always hard to convey music in words–so anything I say will be a rough approximation. (The lyrics are by the band’s lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist, Marcell Bajnai.)

The video, by the way, is my favorite of all of theirs, because it’s taken in the studio, and it’s so well put together, from different times and moments in the recording session. Over the course of the video, the recording comes into being, and yet you’re listening to the finished thing all along.

Now for the song: it moves from looking outward toward looking inward (though both are present throughout); it seems to speak, at first, of a relationship where the other person is afraid to notice the speaker–and if only that person were willing to take the risk, things would become possible. But then it shifts; in the second verse and the bridge, the speaker begins to see the obstacle in himself. This gives the chorus (and the entire song) a new meaning. By the end, you hear everything in a new way.

The translation is rough, intended just to give some access to the original. I want to draw attention to the rhyme pattern and its relation to the meaning. The song’s rhythm breaks the lines into stanzas of three, with clearly audible line divisions. The first stanza has a strict rhyme (the “án” sound) throughout; in addition, the three lines sound like a tight unit:

Monoton mozdulatok során,
Zavaros gondolatok taván,
Úgy érzem elnyel az óceán

(In the course of monotone motions,
In the lake of confused thoughts,
I feel the ocean swallow me)

The next stanza has slant rhyme; the vowels rhyme, but the consonants do not:

Hajóm süllyed még egyszer
Engedd meg, hogy megértsem
Ne tégy úgy mintha féltenéd

(My boat is sinking once again
Give me a chance to understand
Don’t pretend to be afraid)

In the third stanza, there is slant rhyme once again, but for the first time, the stanza’s unity is broken, since the sentence is incomplete; the final word, “könnyedén,” leads directly into the fourth stanza (and gets repeated there). This is especially difficult to translate because of the incompleteness of the thoughts; I hope that I have conveyed the overall gesture. (See the first footnote for a comment on “kérdeznék.”)

Tudom jól, ha kérdeznék*
De inkább nem mert én,
Azt is tudom, hogy könnyedén

(I know well, if I would ask
But I would rather not, since I
know too well how easily)

And then, in the fourth stanza, the rhyme falls away, just as it says that “the dream easily evaporates” (“Könnyedén elillan az álom”). So the evaporation of the dream is accompanied by the slipping away of the rhyme–and the breakdown of the stanzas–over the course of the entire first verse. (I took some liberties in the translation to capture the repetition of “könnyedén.”)

Könnyedén elillan az álom
Amit annyira vártunk
Mintha nem is lenne rég

(How easily it turns to air,
The dream we waited for so long,
As if it were not long delayed)

Then, in the pre-chorus and chorus, a new pattern gets set up, that also gets broken slightly, at just the right time.

Valamit akkor is mondanék
Valamit az égbe kiáltanék
Csak hogy te is halld a hangom
Valamit akkor is kérdeznék
Érted bármit megtennék
Csak hogy te is észrevedd

(Something then I would say
Something I’d shout into the sky
Just so you would hear my voice
Something then I would ask
I’d do anything for you
Just so you would notice [me])

It works really well in the ear to have “Valamit” occur three times here but not four; if it were “Valamit” instead of “Érted,” it would be too much, but here it’s just right. Similarly, in the chorus:

Kapcsolj ki mindent, nézz fel az égre
Legyél most bátor, én várok rád
Dobd el a kulcsot, kezedben a sorsod
Legyél most bátor én várok rád
Kapcsolj ki!

(Turn off everything, look up at the sky,
Be brave now, I am waiting for you
Throw away the key, your fate is in your hand
Be brave now, I am waiting for you
Turn [it all] off!)*

The chorus has a series of commands (“turn everything off,” “look up at the sky,” “be brave now,” “throw away the key”), three of them with a different preposition in the verb (ki, fel, el), and one with no preposition at all. But “kezedben a sorsod” breaks the pattern; it’s a declaration rather than a command. This variation, once again, works well in the ear. (See the second footnote for a little more about “kapcsolj ki.”)

Now for the second verse. If the first verse represents a breaking down, the second verse represents a building up, but only in the imagination, in the apprehension of possibility. Here the rhymes and verse structures move in the opposite direction, from dissociation to unity. At first the lines do not rhyme (well, there’s off-rhyme in the first two, but not in the third, unless you listen to the middle of the line as well):

A nap szárítja a könnyeket
Áradnak már a tengerek
De mi lesz ha betörnek a házba?

(The sun is drying up the tears
By now the seas are swelling up
And what if they break into the house?)

Then the rhyme begins to build up: you hear the “o” and “a” sound.

Víz folyik be az ablakon
Hallok egy távoli dallamot
Hallom pedig messze van

(Water flowing through the window
I hear a distant melody
I hear that it is far away)

Notice the difference between “hallok” (indefinite) and “hallom” (definite). Both mean “I hear.” Since it is “a” distant melody, not a specific one, “hallok” is required in the first instance–but in the second instance, something specific is heard, namely, the fact that it is far away; hence “hallom.” This seems just a grammatical detail, but it adds to the musicality and richness of the verse.

From here on, for the rest of the verse, the off-rhyme with the “e” sound prevails. The phrase and line repetitions give a sense of building and climbing, but then, once again, loss and absence. (“Bárcsak most is itt lennél,” “I wish you were here”).

Közelebb nem is lehetne
Akár el is érhetem
Akár el is tehetném

Akár el is tehetném
Többé el sem engedném
Bárcsak most is itt lennél

(It couldn’t get closer
If I could reach it
If I could preserve it

If I could preserve it
I would no longer let it go
If only you were here)

This was by far the most difficult part to translate. I am not sure that I have conveyed “akár” correctly. “Akár… “akár” usually means “whether … or,” but that sounds awkward here. “Akár” can also indicate an emphasis, something along the lines of “even.” But here, in the song, its meaning seems to shift as it repeats, and the best way to convey that, I think, is through a simple “if,” even  though that isn’t as emphatic as “akár.”

Then come the pre-chorus and chorus again, followed by the bridge, which (as I hear it) holds a key to the whole song–somewhat buried in vocal distortion effects, so you have to pay even closer attention than usual. (“Mi van ha tényleg velem van,” “What if it really is with me?”)

Mi van ha tényleg velem van
A baj csak nem látom magam
Szó nélkül elmenni hagytalak
Mi van ha mást is tehetnék?
Rögtön hozzád rohannék
Talán te is megértenéd

(What if it really is with me
The problem is I can’t see myself
I left you without a word
What if I could do something else?
I would rush to you right away
Maybe you would understand)

In more than 1500 words, I have barely grazed the surface of the song. “Kapcsolj ki!” tells itself through the music; one can analyze it up to a point, but from there it takes off. This is probably my favorite 1LIFE song after “Maradok ember” (though there are other close contenders); while I don’t expect to play it on cello, I can’t wait to hear it live for the first time. I may have heard it at the school gala last year, but at that point I did not know who the band was and did not understand any of the lyrics. The upcoming Esztergom show (at the Comedium Corso festival) will be the first time that I knowingly hear them in concert. I wish many others this joy, and I wish 1LIFE many more shows and songs!

*The lyrics posted with the YouTube video–which I take as the official lyrics–show “kérdeznék,” but in the recording and video I hear “kérdezném,” the definite form of the verb. This alters the meaning slightly, since it suggests asking something specific. Also, I am really not sure of my translation of this part of the song. I think there might be something colloquial here that I don’t yet understand.

**(“Kapcsolj ki” can also be translated as “disconnect,” which is both transitive and intransitive. I thought, though, that this translation would distort the meaning slightly, since at the end of the chorus, “Disconnect!” would seem purely intransitive, pointing back to the subject. “Disconnect!” also has connotations that I don’t think are present in the Hungarian. In the Hungarian, as I hear it, “Kapcsolj ki!” still implies a direct object.)

The photo appears courtesy of 1LIFE’s Facebook page.
I made a few edits to this piece after posting it–and added a rough translation of the song, which I subsequently revised in a few places. I will likely continue revising this over time. If you see any glaring errors or misinterpretations, please do not hesitate to let me know.

 

A Perfect Imperfection

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The Veszprém drama festival and the surrounding trip still fill the air; we will be thinking about them, talking about them, resting from them for a while. In the meantime, my thoughts amble back to translation.

Last fall, whenever I had a substantial break in the day, I would go to a quiet café, take out the book, notebook, and thick dictionary, and work on the first draft of a translation (of poems and prose). Over the following weeks, I would revise the translation and begin new ones. The poems are by one of my colleagues, the poet Gyula Jenei; the prose, an essay–about Béla Markó’s haiku, with 21 haiku poems quoted–by my colleague Marianna Fekete. I undertook this project because I admire their work and understand what is involved. In the past I translated many poems of Tomas Venclova; those poems appear in two books, Winter Dialogue and The Junction.

Now the Jenei/Fekete translations, or most of them, are on the brink of publication! My translations of Gyula’s poems “Ahol állnék” and “Sakk,” and of Marianna’s essay, will appear in the spring issue of Literary Matters (in June); three more translations (of “Temető,” “Teasütemény,” and “Zongora”) will appear in the fall issue. These will be my first published translations of Hungarian poetry and prose.

I intend to continue translating Gyula’s and Marianna’s work–and to take on a new project as well. Over the summer, I plan to translate Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok, with hopes that it will be performed at the Veszprém festival next year.

To translate is to seek out a perfect imperfection. You can’t convey the work exactly, so you work with approximations–but these have to sing. You must immerse yourself in the original work: listen to it, read it over and over, and come to know its rhythms and tones. You must be bold and shy: bold enough to undertake the project, take risks with it, and see it through to the end; but shy enough to hesitate, correct yourself, and return again and again to the listening. In that sense, translating is like playing music. You live out the sounds.

“That wouldn’t be conclusive either.”

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Well, last night we all made it back home from Veszprém! It was much more than a trip to a festival, though that would have been full and exciting enough in itself. It was an adventure of several dimensions, a great experience in pulling through together, finding the fun in things, solving problems as they came up. For example, in our extremely tight connection at the Kőbánya-Kispest station, we had two temporary mishaps: on the way to Veszprém, we got separated, so that two students and a parent (the one other adult besides me on the trip) ended up coming on the next train. (But the festival started a little late, so we were all there for the beginning.) On the way back, we were especially concerned about this connection, and in the rush we asked a conductor for the correct track number. He pointed us to the wrong track, and we boarded the wrong train–and didn’t realize this until we had passed Cegléd and a student noticed that we were not passing through the expected towns. We got off the train in Kecskemét, about an hour’s drive from Szolnok. I was dismayed; in my mind, the end of the trip would occur when I saw everyone safely back to Szolnok, and now people were calling parents, coordinating rides… But parents pitched in, and everyone got home. While we waited in Kecskemét, in a park by the station, with some festival going on nearby and warm spring in the air, the students thrilled in the adventure of it all, took a polaroid photo, and Piri, the parent who had gone with me, treated us all to fries. I kept track of who was going home with whom, waited until all rides had arrived or departed, and asked everyone to let me know when they were actually back home. Later in the evening, when the many messages came in and I saw that everyone had made it, I lost all remnant worries but resolved that I would never attempt such a tight train connection with a large group again. Either take a bus, or allow for more time between trains. But everything turned out well. A parent kindly gave me a ride too, along with two students. On the way back, we talked about all kinds of things and looked out at the sunset over the fields.

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What a grand few days! The slight mishaps may have been some of the best parts. On stage, Vargang pulled off a beautiful performance, full of vim and character. They handled the slight mistakes with aplomb, covering for each other and keeping the rhythm. The audience and evaluators loved them. We had many other performances to enjoy too, as audience members; a few of the plays, such as The Danube by María Irene Fornés, performed by a group from the University of Debrecen, have stayed on my mind, and I hope to read and see them again. Then there were the meals, the walks up and down Veszprém’s hilly roads, the laughter, the hundreds of photos, the goodwill, the ways in which each person helped out. In a few days we will receive our certificates (which got misplaced before the closing ceremony), some professional photos, and a video of our performance. But no matter how many mementos we receive, we will remember the trip in our own ways (“separately or together, it all depends”). And no telling of the story will be final.

P.S. There are far too many people to thank, but here are just a few of the people who made this entire project possible: Piri Márton (Madda’s mother, who came with us on the trip and helped in countless ways), Judit Kéri, Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, Kata Bajnai, all the parents, the American Corner Veszprém (and U.S. Embassy Budapest), all the drama troupes, the hospitable people in Veszprém, László Molnár, all the parents, Eugène Ionesco and his estate, Ilona Berkicsné Németh, everyone at the Varga porta, and anyone I have forgotten to mention. Thank you all so much!

Update: The National English Language Drama Festival sent us a video of the performance! You can also view some professional photos of the performance and some of the festival workshops.

Were our mouths filled with song as the sea….

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In all the world’s stress, danger, and fear, it is easy to lose sight of the extraordinary beauty in our lives: the things that rise up, against all expectation or dread, and show us a different way of perceiving and living. When I came to Szolnok at the end of October 2017, on my very first day, I walked to the synagogue (and also got a bike across the street). I knew that it was now a gallery; what I didn’t know was that there were people in Szolnok who treasured its history and worked to keep its heritage alive. Nor did I know that one day I would attend an event devoted to the synagogue’s history, and then, a few days later, hold an event there devoted to the sounds of Shabbat.

But yes, these things happened and are about to happen: On Sunday I attended a day-long event commemorating the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. The hall was packed; a warm and eager audience listened to speeches, presentations, and music (a chamber group from the Szolnok Symphony, and later a klezmer band, whose singer, Judit Klein, began with a solo rendition of “Szól a kakas már“).

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The day was marked with festive and joyous moments: a champagne toast, a delicious kosher lunch, and a special visit to the little synagogue a few meters away, next to the Tisza Mozi movie theatre. (Szolnok once had three synagogues: these two and a third one where a memorial now stands.)

I was left with a desire to hear more: in particular, I hope to hear the rabbi and scholar Alfréd Schöner speak again.

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Tomorrow evening I return to the synagogue, this time to lead an event. I will teach three “songs”–that is, one piyut, one psalm, and one zemer–that have a profound role in Shabbat: “Lecha Dodi,” Psalm 150, and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The first two I will teach with more than one melody (three for the first and two for the second). I hope that this, too, will be a beginning–but of what, I do not yet know.

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The title of this blog post is a quotation from the Nishmat.

Oh, a Rhinoceros!

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In just nine days we (seventeen students, a parent, and I) leave for Veszprém. We will spend three days there as participants in the National English Language Drama Festival; the students will perform Eugène Ionesco‘s Rhinoceros and their own (completely unrelated) Rhinocerosn’t. Here’s a short clip of a recent Rhinoceros rehearsal.

 

We have three rehearsals (including one twelve-hour one) and an in-house performance before we go; the twelve-hour rehearsal will include a session with guest director Kata Bajnai, author of Farkasok.

The in-house performance will take place on Wednesday, May 22, at 3:30; it will be a dress rehearsal, but with an audience.

The festival itself will be chock full of performances and workshops; it doesn’t get a whole lot more nonstop than that. Much like the rhinoceros itself! (Unless the latter is plural, in which case, “rhinoceroses” and “themselves.”)

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. The video is posted and shared with the students’ permission.

Reading, Concert, Translations

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The weekend so far was filled with good things. I led services at Szim Salom, attended “Esőnap,” a literary event in Budapest hosted by Eső and the Mersz Klub (pictured above), and returned to Szolnok in time to hear Marcell Bajnai play a solo concert on an outdoor stage at Kossuth tér, as part of Európa-nap.* I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these events and was glad to be able to attend them all. At the literary event, I listened to the readings, enjoyed the atmosphere (the Mersz Klub is a great place to spend an evening), met a few people afterward, and later remembered a few titles of works for immediate and future reading. As for the concert, wow. Some of the songs I knew from 1LIFE’s CD–a few favorites were among them–but here they opened up in a new way (“Nincsen kérdés” in particular). Other songs were new to me: some of Marcell’s songs and two (?) covers. A rich selection and terrific show. We in the audience were fortunate.

Now for a slower and slightly lazy day of preparations, practicing, writing. Speaking of writing, I have some exciting news about a translation project–but I’ll say more about that a little closer to the first publication date (in June). A few translations of poetry and prose–my first translations from Hungarian–will soon be published in a literary journal, in two different issues, in June and September. Continuations of this project, as well as new projects, lie ahead.

*”Nap” in Hungarian means “day” (as well as “sun”); there was no napping involved.

I renamed this post from the humdrum though apt title A Good Weekend. Also, I later embedded a video from the concert.

What Lies Ahead?

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What lies ahead? A question as old as humanity, as far as I know. To find answers, we (people across the ages) have consulted oracles, sacred texts, almanacs, sages, 8-balls, tea leaves, wrinkles in the palm of the hand, weather reports, inklings, and animals, while reminding ourselves vigorously that we cannot know the future. But to a great extent we do know it; that is, I know that graduating students at Varga will be taking English exams today–best wishes to everyone!–and that at 10:30 a.m. I will have an appointment at the immigration office for renewal of my residence permit. Granted, an extreme circumstance could change either of these events, but I can trust, more or less, that they will happen.

Then what? Students will know, more or less, how well they did, but they will have to wait for the official results, which, combined with the results on their other exams, will determine which universities and programs they can attend. As for me, I am confident that my residence permit will be successfully renewed; once I submit all the needed information, I will just have to wait for the card to arrive in the mail.

That is where the predictability ends. Well, not quite. Those heading on to university have a vague sense of the coming year: where they will live (if they are admitted to the schools they hope to attend), what kinds of classes they will take, and so on. Those in the ninth, tenth, eleventh grades have an even more precise idea of the year to come. So do I; I know that I will continue teaching English at Varga, and I suspect that I will be involved with literature, drama, and music as well. I know when and where I will travel, at least in the fall. Speaking of literature, some exciting things are unfolding, about which I will say more in the coming weeks.

But within those outlines, the unexpected plays its heart out. A lesson leads to a project; a work of literature opens up; a friendship forms. Disappointments, mistakes, and losses have their say. Perspectives and urgencies change.  Something you thought you couldn’t live without turns out to be the very thing you have to give up; something that seemed remote or unthinkable sallies into your life. This is what makes individual lives so interesting: that each one has its particular mix of patterns, surprises, and creations.

Then there are larger shifts–changes within a country or region, changes in the world–that affect thousands or millions at once and continue to show their effects over the generations. Everyone’s life is affected by history, but some more than others; for some, historical forces have determined what they could or could not do. This is one thing that I will come to understand more about Hungary: how history has shaped the lives of the people around me. The other day I finished reading the story “A régi kazetta” (“The old cassette”)–a bit more difficult for me than the previous two–in Zsolt Bajnai’s collection Visszaköszönés. A girl discovers a cassette in her home and wants to know what it is. Her mother puts it in the tape player and plays it; it turns out to be an interview that the mother conducted with her own grandmother, the girl’s great-grandmother, during the two days that they spent together, the only time they met in their lives, while the mother (who had grown up in the United States) was an exchange student in Hungary. The grandmother tells of her bitter life–two unhappy and lonely marriages, World War II, the Soviet occupation, a deserter son (the mother’s father), and the lack or absolute narrowness of choice. Her grief is so intense that during the interview, the mother asks her grandmother several times whether she would like to talk about something else. But the conversation continues. I do not want to give spoilers here or misrepresent the story–there may be details that I didn’t understand correctly–so I will leave it at that. But the story reminded me how much there is to learn about this country.

People ask me what my plans for the future are. For now, I intend to stay here. I am placing no time limit on it, because I would like to become fluent in Hungarian, and that will take a while. I feel at home–in a particular sense of the phrase–in Szolnok, at Varga, and at my synagogue in Budapest, and I have much to do here, over time. Toward that end, I have an errand to accomplish and must end this post now. More on home, and a sense of home, another time.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it. I took the photo yesterday on my way home.

Graduation, Giving, and Form

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For a high school teacher, graduations happen year after year. But a few stand out; you know, then and later, that they will bring something out of your life and work. This was one. Last week, on Monday and Tuesday, three different classes serenaded me before their last class with me, according to tradition. For some students, this ritual may feel awkward, but they take part in it anyway, knowing that it has meaning. For me, it was one of the most moving events (a threefold event, in fact) in all my years of teaching and beyond. Being sung to, being recognized through song, for those few minutes, does not go away when the songs are over.

Then, in the evening serenade on Tuesday, the teachers sang to the students and vice versa. The school’s drama teacher, the homeroom teacher for class 12A, sang a Transylvanian folk song to her students (with a stunning voice); as she sang, she walked around from student to student, with dance in her step, singing directly to them and looking into their eyes. When I spoke with her afterward, she said she would teach me the song.

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On Thursday we had the school ballagás (farewell ceremony, similar to graduation in the U.S. except that it precedes the final examinations), with singing processions, speeches, and awards–flowers upon flowers, song upon song. First the senior classes walked hand in hand, singing, through the hallways, visiting one classroom after another; then we all went outside into the courtyard.

Yesterday was the citywide ballagás; we weren’t sure whether we would get to have it outdoors, since the weather seemed in between this and that. In the case of rain, we were to listen to the event through loudspeakers at school. But when we arrived around 8:30 in the morning, the sky was showing good restraint. Except for a few drops, it held back throughout the entire ceremony: the speeches, the performances, the procession through the heart of Szolnok, and the release of the balloons.

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Before the ceremony began, parents and relatives greeted their children with flowers, kisses, and photos. Then Marcell Jankó (the MC–and the bassist of 1LIFE) announced the beginning of the ceremony and introduced each speaker and performer. There were three speeches–Gábor Medvegy’s 11th grade farewell speech, Marcell Bajnai’s 12th grade farewell speech, and an Headmaster László Molnár’s address; a poetry recitation by Frida Hajnal; and a flute performance by a student whom I have heard many times but whose name I do not know. In his speech, Marcell Bajnai asked, “Mit adhatok?” (“What can I give?”) This question set the tone of the ceremony and filled the day. I was asking myself a similar question, a question of many years, in a different way; I will get to that later.

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Then came the procession through the city: the seniors in the middle of the street, with two cordons of students from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade, walking hand in hand, on either side of them. On the flanks (the sidewalks), parents, relatives, teachers, and friends pressed along. It was crowded; toes got stepped on, and mud occasionally got stepped into. But that was part of the meaning of it all: walking together, for that short stretch, before going our different ways.

 

 

 

Soon we approached the bridge but did not cross it. (There is no symbolic significance in that; our itinerary took us leftward.) The crowd seemed more crowded; the graduates, more graduated.

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Then came the releasing of the balloons.
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Graduations happen all over the world, year after year, and with all their differences and details, they share a similar form. Given the repetition and multitude, what makes each one beat out its beauty? Why the crowds, the waving hands, the swells of emotion?

In a way, the answer is easy; it’s a rite of passage, and rites of passage matter, no matter how many millions of times they take place. For the families, this is a momentous occasion: seeing their children, siblings, grandchildren, step out into adulthood, into the next stage of their lives. For the teachers, too, there is a kind of family joy; most of the teachers at Varga are parents themselves (or soon to become parents), and so they are not only seeing their students off, but remembering, anticipating, or sometimes directly experiencing their own children’s graduation.

In the past I felt somewhat peripheral and extraneous at graduations, because I have no children and will not be able to have any at this point. I was happy, overwhelmingly happy, for my students but felt a little like an uninvited guest. Over the past year or more, I have come to know things differently. True, I wanted children but do not have any; the reasons and causes are complex and cannot be traced to one particular thing. (Those who say “you can always adopt” are mistaken; there’s no “always” here. Time really does run out, and adoption is no simple matter.) But I have something to give just as I am; I am not a perfect teacher, but I have given something to my students, and they have given something to me too. Moreover, I can give things that no one else could give in the same way, just as others have their own ways of giving.

I was fully part of the graduation ceremonies this week–not in the way that parents, or teachers with children, were part of it, but in a real way nonetheless. I cheered, sang, walked along, felt awe, bumped into people, congratulated people, met parents, and walked home along the river when it was over.

Understanding this, I see that the act of giving has a form, which resembles release. When you give something, you let it be no longer yours; you don’t cling onto it or stamp it into the ground. The recipients may then take it as they wish. For instance, the best advice is given without insistence; the person giving the advice does not try to control the outcome. Everyone has a different form of giving, but the forms have this release in common. I have been thinking and thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” which ends (please read the whole thing),

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

It takes time to find one’s form of giving, and the finding isn’t final; sometimes the form comes undone or gets dislodged. But once it’s found, the giving does its work, seemingly without end. How do you go about finding your form? For some it is easier than for others; parts of it I learned early, and parts have taken all my life so far. I think it has to do with participating in the common forms and all they hold, walking along for that short stretch, again and again. That, and taking your own way, daring to differ, and learning from the bravery of others. Yes, and knowing how to let things and people go.

My best wishes to the graduating class–and thanks to everyone for these beautiful days.

 

Photo credits: I took all the pictures except for the second one, which appears courtesy of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium website.

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