Happy Hanukkah!

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Happy Hanukkah to all! I dedicate this post to the idea of finding (in ourselves and in the world) the kind of fire that lights and warms things but does not burn everything down. To be able to live among each other, see, appreciate, and honor each other, but not take over each other or force others to be who they are not. To survive and build survival for the future, to do more than survive, to make art, enjoy life, tend the land, pursue science, practice faith or not (according to belief, heritage, and wish), take risks, embark on adventure, challenge conventions, speak freely and boldly–but to hold back from greed, waste, cruelty, and rash judgments, and to embed this restraint in our laws and practices. Special thoughts to everyone in Australia, whose country is burning.

Caroling with Pizzazz

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On Friday, Class 11C (the eleventh-grade Hungarian-English bilingual class) gave spirited caroling performances all day long, visiting one class after another–and, in the long break, treating us to a special performance in the teachers’ room. I had trouble deciding which pictures to include here, but many others took pictures and videos, so anything I post here will be supplemented or superseded elsewhere.

The show was long in the making (they rehearsed weekly for over a month, and then more frequently as the day approached). Three teachers–Anikó Bánhegyesi, Mariann Banczik, and I–worked with them. First, we decided which songs they would like to sing. I taught them a few, and they suggested a few and made the final selection. Then we worked out the underlying story, which was refined over the weeks: There would be a fake Santa and a real Santa; the impostor would tell everyone that they weren’t getting any gifts, and then the real Santa would defeat the fake Santa with Rudolph’s help (but then let him rejoin the group). Then the “Christmas presents” would be brought in.

Then came the choreography, which the students worked out to the last detail. By the time the last few rehearsals rolled around, things were looking and sounding pretty good. Still a few glitches, a few things to figure out, a few things to remember not to forget.

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But I didn’t realize how much thought and care they were putting into their costumes. Everything lit up and came into color on Friday.

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And then the performances began–energetic, beautiful, funny, and full of joy. People enjoyed them so much. There were many ovations, Hungarian style (with the audience clapping in rhythm).

The teachers’ room was one of the highlights. Another was the gym. Each room had its own character and shape; the performers figured out immediately how to make the most of each space.

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Here are a few more photos, for the fun of it. Congratulations to the 11C Carolers!

 

Blasts from the Present and Past

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Yesterday evening, after Shabbat in Budapest, I went to hear 1LIFE open for Kiscsillag in Törökszentmiklós. They had actually played in Budapest on Friday evening, at the famed Akvárium Klub, but I couldn’t go, since the Friday night Szim Salom service (including the kiddush and meal) didn’t end until after 9, well after their concert was over. So I was determined to make it to this one; to get there in time, I had to leave Budapest on the 4:28 train. I had bought the concert ticket in advance and had reserved a room at a guesthouse (the Almásy Vendégház, since there are no late-night trains back to Szolnok. It was more than worth it; 1LIFE played a terrific show, the Ipolyi Közművelődési Központ is one of my favorite venues, and I enjoyed Kiscsillag too. I was left thinking about the differences between the two bands.

Kiscsillag–a famous Hungarian alternative rock band with witty lyrics, zesty musicianship, and many musical influences–drew a crowd of excited, enthusiastic fans who danced, jumped, laughed, sang along, interacted with the band members, and rollicked all around. The atmosphere brought back strong memories of Dieselhed shows in San Franciso. The music wasn’t really similar, but the overall spirit was. Twenty years ago, I loved going to hear Dieselhed; I went whenever I could. Their songs had a mix of silliness and melancholy, their music would stay in and on your mind. Lyrically and antically, the band members wielded irony; the audience had a sense of “getting it,” of being part of the show. By irony I mean (in this case) looking askance at the world, putting a wedge between the music and yourself, so that the audience takes it as entertainment.

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Brilliant as it can be, I am not as drawn to that kind of irony as I used to be (and even back then, I had my limits–I never liked Gogol Bordello, for instance). I can enjoy it a lot–and believe I will enjoy Kiscsillag lyrics when I take some time with them–but I want something else now. One reason I respect and enjoy 1LIFE’s songs and performances so much is that they don’t put a barrier between themselves and the music. They are fully in it. Granted, they are performing; their songs are art, not direct speech. They have many contrasts; sometimes the heaviness of the subject contrasts with the lightness of the music, or vice versa. The lyrics are both clear and enigmatic; you come to understand them in different ways over time. There’s irony in them sometimes too. But the band doesn’t lean on irony. They let themselves say what they want to say, through their songs and performance. Last night they seemed relaxed and revved up, still filled with the experience of the previous night’s concert (which, I gather, was fantastic). They played some of my favorites (with some slight changes and variations) and some of the less familiar ones; several of the highlights were “Sötét van,” “Kopog a szív,” and a song whose name I don’t know but that has a refrain of “Ná–ná ná ná…”

The Kiscsillag show had lots of beauty, probably more than I caught. My favorite song was the one sung by the keyboardist, Dávid Szesztay, “Ott ahol akarod.” I want to get to know their music better; I need time to learn what’s in it.

Different bands (like writers, actors, and others) have different understandings of what music does, what it is for, and what is most important in it. As a listener, you come to know yourself gradually; over time, you get a clearer sense of what you are seeking out and hearing. It’s good to stay open, to avoid writing off any particular kind of music. No matter what the type, there’s something good to be found in it, maybe a surprise or even a revelation. But it’s also good to find your way, even if others don’t understand or agree with it.

All in all, it was a great evening–my first time going to a nighttime rock show in Hungary, and a comfortable adventure at that. There were people of many ages there, from kids to grandparents. The house music–one ear-catching song after another, such as David Gilmour’s “Faces of Stone—made the waiting good. I had a conversation with a young man from Törökszentmiklós who, as soon as I told him I was a teacher, addressed me as “Tanárnő” (literally, “woman teacher,” a respectful form of address) and tried to treat me to a beer (I insisted on a Coke instead). We had a short conversation; he had never heard 1LIFE, but he told me Kiscsillag would be the better of the two. I found that amusing; I told him that I had come expressly to hear 1LIFE but would stay for the later band as well. Then, in between the bands, a grandmother of one of the 1LIFE members (whom I have met many times before) approached me and gave me Christmas cookies! She had brought them for me, knowing I would be there. I was touched and honored. A few minutes before the end of the Kiscsillag show, I left and went back to the guesthouse. At the crack of dawn, I took the train back to Szolnok.

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I made a few minor changes and added two photos to this piece after posting it. Later I edited it some more for clarity.

Pilgrimage in Winter (an old poem, recently revised)

Pilgrimage in Winter

Diana Senechal

Praise for the hill and the cold air over the hill,
the stones on the hill, the stones on stones, the stone
in my hand. The one who moved me over the land,
may you rest well, brave soul; may blessings fall
on those you led from the cruelest fields and those
you helped bring forth. Great worker, receive this stone,
these feet, these tears. I will be leaving soon,
lest figures form or I start taking stock.
I know what Buber meant: measure has fled;
shadow and light have joined. There is no picture.
For a moment (where are its edges?) I was with you,
a moment past the fence around myself.

A fenceless hill it seemed, without a tree
(it had both, but the bareness covered them).
A glittering snow came down later that day
and blessed the stones. By then I had gone home,
but nothing was the same. I mean: the desk
had lost its former purpose. Sitting to write,
I buoyed with words. I took a walk and sang
the snowfall, marveled at the marks of paws,
and thought again of clambering up that hill,
and praised the source of chill around my head.

It happens to you, and you walk alone.
This truth comes over you: this secret that
can never be a secret, as it’s all
that has been known and all that can be known.
No, that’s not true. My speck was just a speck;
against it, an encyclopedia
could still do well, I figure. All the same,
I walk bareminded to the end of love.

Thank you for the company of good prophets.
Thank you for the closed fountain underground.
Here is the weight of all that I have met;
here is the mark of dignity in stone.
Where, though, where are you? Memory wraps up,
unwraps again, and wraps, but finds hard air.

Stones there were many. The one I left behind
joined a sweet multitude but stayed alone.
Music is made of solitudes like this.
Somewhere, in the kindred air, there were songs.

A miracle, your life; a miracle
to meet a speck of it through hill and stone.

Minnaloushe

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Minnaloushe is still alive–this is not an obituary! But she is sick, and I have spent the last two days planning the next steps. Yesterday I took her to the vet, where she had a sonogram and an x-ray, both of which showed a large abdominal mass, probably cancer. The vet gave me an antibiotic for her, just in case the bulge was due to an infection. I am supposed to bring her back next week, but it’s clear that I have three choices: to bring her to Budapest for surgery, to have her put down, or to just let her be (for now). It’s too soon for euthanasia, and the third option seems like procrastination. So I made a surgery appointment for January 2; I’ll come back from my vacation early to bring her in. (My downstairs neighbor, the building superintendent, feeds her while I am away.)

After the appointment, I didn’t have time to bring her back home before my final class of the day, so I brought her to school in her big carrier. That’s probably against the rules, but I saw no other option except to cancel my class, which I didn’t want to do. The students were thrilled to see her and showered her with love. I explained the situation to them; some of them talked about their own pets. During class–a 10th-grade English class that meets with me once a week–we talked about cats and dogs, sang (holiday songs, including a song in Dutch, and the lullaby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), improvised (“A Midsummer Night’s Christmas”), and played a gift-giving game. Throughout all of this, Minnaloushe sat calmly in her carrier, looking on. Afterward, students crowded around again to look at her, talk about their cats, and show me cat pictures. My colleagues were kind about the situation too. I finished a few things and took her home.

But I meant to tell a little about her here. I adopted her in the winter of 2010-2011 from a friend of a friend in Brooklyn. She was a stray; she had given birth to several litters of kittens, had been spayed, and was living in a basement. She has a sweet, friendly, and cuddly nature; when she had more energy, she would run up to people, even strangers, and rub against them. These days she’s a bit slower, but she does come to greet me at the door.

I named her Minnaloushe after the cat in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Cat and the Moon,” which I quote here in full.

The Cat and the Moon

W. B. Yeats

The cat went here and there
And the moon spun round like a top,
And the nearest kin of the moon,
The creeping cat, looked up.
Black Minnaloushe stared at the moon,
For, wander and wail as he would,
The pure cold light in the sky
Troubled his animal blood.
Minnaloushe runs in the grass
Lifting his delicate feet.
Do you dance, Minnaloushe, do you dance?
When two close kindred meet,
What better than call a dance?
Maybe the moon may learn,
Tired of that courtly fashion,
A new dance turn.
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
From moonlit place to place,
The sacred moon overhead
Has taken a new phase.
Does Minnaloushe know that his pupils
Will pass from change to change,
And that from round to crescent,
From crescent to round they range?
Minnaloushe creeps through the grass
Alone, important and wise,
And lifts to the changing moon
His changing eyes.

I named Aengus, my cat who died almost two years ago, after another Yeats poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” Despite this Yeats affinity, the two cats did not get along, although they had moments of gentle proximity. Minnaloushe preferred to be the only cat in the home; Aengus enjoyed Minnaloushe but would taunt her (as soon as he grew big and strong enough to do so). I miss Aengus and think of him every day–but Minnaloushe does not. When she realized he was gone, she exulted.

She has always been a little bit lazy–for instance, when it comes to playing with toys. She never would chase after toys on her own; if I threw one her way, she would catch it (if it was close enough), release it, and wait for me to throw it again. So I didn’t notice big changes in her behavior over the past year. A couple of times she seemed to be waddling, but then her gait would go back to normal.

But then, in the past two weeks or so, she started coughing a lot and breathing heavily. I realized that the cat litter was generating lots of dust; I switched brands and saw a big improvement, but not in her. Her belly looked larger than ever, and she seemed to be in pain. In the past she loved to be held, but now she squirms away after a few seconds.

Yet today she seems perkier: not only did she gobble up the new food I brought her from the pet store, but she played a little and climbed up onto my lap. Maybe the antibiotics (which she detests) are doing some good. So all I can do is help her be as comfortable as possible until her surgery on January 2.

Many times in my life I have heard people describe cats as “aloof,” “disdainful,” etc., but the cats I have known, including Minnaloushe, ruffle the stereotype. When I would home from even an overnight absence, Minnaloushe would accost me with meows and then roll over and over on the rug, purring. It’s hard to know what cats think and feel, but think and feel they do, and they attach themselves to particulars. I bet Minnaloushe has a lot to say, but not in anything like the words I know.

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A Great Tuesday Evening

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I had planned to spend most of the afternoon reading Krisztián Grecsó’s Vera, from which Grecsó will read on Thursday when he visits our school and the library. Before today, I was about thirty pages into it. I figured I would read for five hours or so. But I got home only to realize that I had left the book at school–and I was planning to see the movie Seveled at 8:15 at the Tisza Mozi. It seemed best to go back to school, pick up the book, bike on down to the Tisza Mozi, and read for a few hours at the cinema’s café. I read up to page 109, without a dictionary, and expect to reach at least the halfway point tomorrow. It’s a wonderful novel and–assuming I keep this up at a reasonable pace–the first novel I will have read in Hungarian.

Seveled (directed by Dénes Orosz) was bittersweet and funny, with some intense beauty. I read about it on blogSzolnok and decided to see it. And I understood it! That was a happy surprise, since it was the first Hungarian comedy film I had seen. In some ways, comedy is easy to understand–a comic situation is often recognizable–but in other ways, it’s more difficult than the weightier genres. So it was really rewarding to get the jokes and laugh along with others. There were many good things about this film, but I especially loved the mother character (played by Juli Básti).

And then there was the bike ride home. To return from the Tisza Mozi, I just have to go north on Szapáry (which has a generous bike lane) and then make a few short turns. It’s a five- or ten-minute ride–and where the path is clear, I pedal full speed.

Here is a photo from earlier in the day, on Batthyány Street, where the pet supply store is located (but this isn’t a photo of the shop). I got a few things for my cat Minnaloushe and then walked home in the rain, enjoying this street (I had not brought my bike to school, knowing that I would have some big things to carry home). So, come to think of it, it was a pretty good day–and I haven’t even brought up the teaching, which went well too.

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New Poem: “Celebrity”

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Celebrity

Diana Senechal

Stop, gossips: before your knee-tongues jerk
out into “snob,” consider who you name,
think of her easy gliding up the same
stairway you throng down onto. Try to work

some silence for a change; notice her own,
the way she harbors thought, her gently cold
turn of the head, her shroud. Your overtold
rumors make petty clatter; glancing down

barely, she laughs, not like a brittle queen
weary of her rude realm, but like a boy
who sees his checkmate move. Those who enjoy
solving puzzles may know of her demesne,

which worships only the divinity
of doing well, where art, clothes, syllables
blaze calm through meme and slogan. Dogma falls,
will always fall, against infinity.

I too have wondered how such equipoise
can fill a woman, so that all your names,
rumors, and taunts—even your gilded fames
and praises—fizzle into wisps of noise.

Maybe a brutal grief taught her the cost
of stooping even slightly for the sake
of pleasing. Maybe she turned mistake
into magnificence. But having lost

a thing or two, I want for once to live
up to the dark and say: I do not know.
You say you’ll pay me if I say I know,
but I say no. I want for once to live.

 

(At first, this poem echoes Richard Wilbur’s “Still, Citizen Sparrow”; the echo fades as the poem progresses.)

Goodbye to a Friend

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It had been a while since I had heard from my friend Johnny Strike (John Bassett), so this morning I googled him and found out that he died of cancer in September 2018. I then started reading tributes to him–by people who knew him, people who admired his music and writing, people who remembered him sharply, or all three.

We were initially colleagues in San Francisco, where we worked as counselors. He had been a legendary rock musician back in the 1970s–the frontman of Crime–but by now he had accrued a stately, slightly professorial quality (with a chuckle and a hint of dark wisdom). He, our mutual friends, and I loved to make fun of bureaucracies and buzzwords. We formed a band at work that did just that. Then I joined him in another band (Biff, Johnny, and me, as pictured above, and, in reverse order, below) that he created mostly for recording purposes. We recorded a demo.

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As the bassist, I was definitely not good enough for his band, I lacked the technique and texture, but he never said this; he seemed glad to have me there, and when I left San Francisco, he found someone else. The band came out with a recording and later morphed into a new lineup of Crime.

Once or twice, when I came back to visit, we met up for brunch. In Brooklyn, in 2002, I started a literary journal, Si Señor; not only did he contribute, but he connected me with artists and writers who became part of the journal as well. For the first issue, he submitted a piece on literary rejection. We agreed that it would be funny if I “rejected” it and publish it as a rejected piece, with a satirical editorial comment. So it turned into a combo: his piece on rejection combined with my bombastic rejection of the piece. I will post it here one day after I retrieve a copy from the U.S. (I have them in storage in NYC).

He wrote four novels and a collection of stories. I edited one of them (Name of the Stranger) and briefly reviewed another (Ports of Hell). Many of his tales came out of his long travels; he would go off to Thailand, Mexico, Morocco, and other places for months. I enjoyed his crisp, morbid, funny narration, his imagination, and his way of creating characters that you could hear in the dark.

I miss him as a friend, acquaintance, colleague, and accomplice–someone I could listen to, talk with, and joke with. The last time I went to San Francisco–in November 2016, for 20 Minute Loop’s record release–Johnny said he wasn’t sure he could get together with me, since he was having health troubles. He wrote a few times after that; the last time was a group email, in August 2018, a month before his death. It contained just a link: “Make a Suggestion–Berkeley Public Library.” (The link is broken now.)

I will. But an earlier email contained another link–to his essay “Sunrise Tangier,” which I read too quickly at the time and reread more slowly just now. I am sorry that our correspondence dwindled down to links and silence and that I didn’t understand what was happening. Even less did I know how much was in those links and silences. Now I am catching up, slowly, on my own.

“Self-Partnered”? Or Self-Branded?

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A recent New York Times opinion piece by Bradley B. Onishi posits that many single people are in fact “self-partnered“–in other words, that they are in a relationship, not primarily with others, but with themselves. Onishi seems to see this–including the branding–as a good thing. While I see many joys in being single–and do not view marriage as the key to human legitimacy–I find this argument preposterous. A relationship with oneself is not the same as a relationship with another. Using the term “partner” for singleness creates confusion. But beyond that, I see no reason to justify single life, or any other kind of life, with a big idea.

First of all, singlehood is not a partnership with self. When you’re by yourself, you more or less know yourself. You may question yourself, search yourself, or even argue with yourself–but all of this happens within yourself. In contrast, when you face another person, you are confronted with what and who you do not know, even if in some way you know the person well. Even Odysseus and Penelope call each other “strange.”

Second, no matter what your relationship or lack thereof, you don’t have to justify it with a big idea or catch-phrase. It can exist on its own terms, and it can change. Why would anyone want to be “self-partnered”? It sounds more lonely than not being partnered at all–because the term evades the solitude. Why not let there be solitude, and company, and anything in between? Why not let these things be a little bit wordless, too?

One of the commenters on the NYT piece wrote, in response to my first comment,

Bingo. Everything has to be portrayed as some kind of new discovery of The True Way (same with diets, exercise, our relationships to technology, religion, and so on).
Looking for a ‘soul mate’ has little to do with reality. A partner is something else. Not to say that there aren’t good reasons to live on one’s own; there are plenty. But do we have to call it being your own soul mate?

That’s right, we don’t! Terms like “self-partnering” create the illusion that our choices are equal to any others. In fact they are not. Nothing is complete. No matter which way we choose in life, we give up something else. Some of us wonder what might have happened if we had chosen (or at least allowed for) a different way. Such questioning is fine. We can rejoice in what we have; we can bewail it. But we don’t have to petrify or laminate it in phrases. It can take surprising and changing shapes. I would rather learn from life than sum it up; I would rather work with words over time than scavenge them for an instant brand.

I changed the title slightly after posting this piece.

Nagykörű, Almost

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It has been a while since I went on a good long bike ride, so this afternoon I biked to Nagykörű–well, not all the way into town, but to the outlying farms. Nagykörű is famous for its cherries; I hope to go back in spring to see the cherry trees in bloom. Also, I discovered the northward continuation of Eurovelo 11, which I had been trying to find for a long time. The bike path picks up again about 20 kilometers north of Szolnok (after a stretch of regular road), and it’s glorious riding. If you zoom in on the picture below, you will see a deer standing in the middle of the road. This happened twice–but they disappeared from sight before I got close.

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Besides deer, I saw many birds of prey (maybe falcons and one huge bird that could have been an eagle), a hare, an animal that looked like a fox from a distance (with a long bushy tail), and some farm animals, including the beautiful Racka sheep with their spiral horns. I had never seen sheep like these before.

I turned around after seeing them, because a few began to hurry away as I came nearer.  I didn’t want to bother them. Also, the sun was well on its way to setting, and I wanted to get back before dark. But now that I have found the bike path, I intend to go back and continue farther. Maybe even this month.

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On the way to Nagykörű (or rather, by way of digression), I went to Millér, having read about it on blogSzolnok. I tried to go into the nature preserve, but the dirt road was muddy, and only afterwards did I realize that I had come within meters of the Open Air Water Museum. Another time I will go see both.

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All of these photos are from the bike ride. I added to this piece after posting it.