Inside and Outside

With the online teaching, I spend most of the day inside, but try to get outside at some point to run an errand or take a walk. Today I might be able to go on a bike ride, if I get the essential things done in the morning. Some combination of inside and outside is important, but the mixture varies from person to person. In July 2012, my dear friend Cybèle Troyan walked and biked with her husband and daughters from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (a distance of 1,500 kilometers); her husband, Bennett Voyles, wrote a book (which I highly recommend) about their pilgrimage. On another occasion, without their daughters, Cybèle and Ben walked from Berlin to Rome. Such a long walk is out of the question for me because of the sun exposure, but I admire it and the love of the outdoors that comes with it. There’s an indoor aspect to such a walk, too; you immerse yourself in the outdoors and are therefore inside it.

I have been thinking about the inside and outside in writing and other art; when and how to speak without reservation, and when and how to hold back. Or what the “inside” and “outside” even are. There is no absolute answer, but I have been influenced recently by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind: an Unruly Living (about which I wrote the other day) and Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I had the fortune of watching online.

Last night I revised a sonnet I had written over three years ago; I realized that it was too enclosed and didn’t end with what it wanted to say. I changed just three lines of it, and there it was.

At other times obliqueness is not only necessary but truthful; the “direct” our “outward” truth will miss the point somehow. Instead, you need to wind around dimly in the dark.

David Brooks wrote a column titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.” While his advice seems reasonable, I find the formula irritating (some magic number, a list, and an assumption that people need this advice in the first place); moreover, I question the concept of “deep” conversations to begin with. There’s nothing inherently superior about discussing one’s private fears and hopes, or the meaning of life, nor is this necessarily deep. What I have learned over time, sometimes the hard way, is that both people have to want to take part in the conversation, whatever it is about. A sustained, voluntary conversation, even on a supposedly superficial topic, contains much more, and goes much farther, than a “deep” unwanted dialogue.

Back in the days when I used to communicate a lot by email (my emails now are occasional, not regular, except when related to work), I found it hard to sense the other person. Some of my correspondences were one-sided, but I would not realize this for a long time, and when I did, it was too late; in a few cases, the person had gotten deeply annoyed. Our current forms of communication run the opposite risk. They are too fragmented. I often can’t stand them. Sometimes people, out of the blue, will send me a link on Messenger without telling me what it is. I just ignore it, since it could contain a virus. But that’s the sort of thing that goes on.

What, then, if you are not having a conversation, but instead writing for readers, whoever they might be? Something similar still applies. You have to consider the person who might be reading. You don’t know who it is, but you have to uphold this person’s trust, by making the reading worthwhile, helping the reader where necessary, assuming intelligence (on both ends), and letting the work take shape between the two of you. It will always be between two.

The other night I took a walk and saw this tree against the sky. Both tree and sky bringing each other out, after dark. Inside and outside, surface and depth. If you go far enough, the outside becomes inside, as in Robert Frost’s “Come In.”

So no, I am not after “deep” conversations, since the sound of a car driving through puddles can surprise me with its depth, bringing back sounds of old rains, of days when I sat inside, watching the evening, watching my words stumble on the line of what they want to say.

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

When looking online for Frost’s “Come In,” I found David Sutton’s website and began reading his poems. An exciting discovery.

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

“It is not easy to become a person”

This isn’t a book about the wind; it’s wind about the book, whirling around the words, through the the spaces. It’s a book that brings you into the wind, the wind that messes up your plans and allows you to relate to others through “deep politeness.” It is The Wind: An Unruly Living by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. When reading it, I had the sense of coming upon a secret treasure, a wisdom quietly waiting but also singing, speaking, bellowing. Taking different forms, circumventing.

I knew the author long ago, when I was a graduate student at Yale and he was an undergraduate. Some of our conversations have stayed with me over the years; one in particular had such an effect on my thinking and understanding that I have returned to it in my mind many times. But I have not seen or spoken with him for over twenty-five years.

The book is not a philosophical tract, though it draws on the Stoics and other philosophers, but an exploration in intertwining forms, like wind itself–ruminating exposition and questioning, journal, poetry, contrapuntal texts, tilted text, etymologies, a passage that you have to turn upside down to read. It is not a self-help book; it offers no steps to follow, no pat answers. It does not sell anything, and in that way it stands out. That is at its heart; the book tears up our notions of self-possession and throws them into the wind. Why do we insist that we possess ourselves? What damage does this insistence do?

But it moves in a direction, even with its twists and loops; by the end I understand something I had not understood before. Something comes together that I had been puzzling over for years. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I will say a little about it right now. The book explains that it is not only possible, but essential to be practical in a true relation with another. We often think of practicality as self-serving, as a way of getting what we want. But to be considerate of another (and the author points out the Latin root of “considerate,” sidus, sideris, which means “star, heavenly body”), one must be practical as a human being: one must have the practices of listening, speaking, circumventing; treating people as people, not as problems or obstacles.

The book is more optimistic than I am about community. Community often makes me wary, so often have been the times that I have felt stifled in it. The best communities, in my experience, are those that do something together, but where the others also let each other be. A community must have respect for solitude, and not many do.

So I do not “agree” with everything in the book, and on the one hand, that isn’t the point; it isn’t a position paper. On the other hand, the disagreement is exactly the point; and at the risk of another little spoiler, I will say that toward the end, the book talks about how disagreement is essential to relation. It gives the two people something to consider together, something to work through. This does not mean that they will come to an agreement; who knows? But at the very least, they will come to understand each other better.

I used to have trouble stating my disagreement with people. I would just stay quiet or nod, since the disagreement felt so disruptive. Over time, I have become more outspoken, but I still have trouble sometimes, in the moment, saying “I don’t see things that way.” I might just let the matter go, which also means, to a degree, letting the relationship go. Two people cannot know each other if they do not let themselves disagree.

And so, as the book reminds us, “it is not easy to become a person.” Things like disagreement can take a lifetime.

Having read The Wind once, I like to pick it up and open it anywhere and read. It is that kind of book; once you know it, you can play with the sequence. The writing is so clear and bold that something will rise up from any passage, something that didn’t before.

I will write to Jeremy one of these days, probably soon. But what a great conversation, right here, with and within this book.

Shalshelet

I think it was in November 2014 when I first heard a shalshelet during a Torah reading. The shalshelet is a particular cantillated melodic phrase, or trop, that stands out from all the others. You know, when you hear it for the first time, that you have never heard it before. It goes rapidly up and down; its symbol (which appears below above the middle letter of the Hebrew spelling of “shalshelet,”) looks like lightning, and it goes right into your soul. There are different theories about why it appears where it does (four times in Torah, seven times in Tanakh), but many commentators believe that it suggests some kind of internal struggle.*

Immediately after the service, I ran up to Shoshi, who was then the cantorial intern at B’nai Jeshurun, and asked her what I had heard. She knew exactly what I was referring to. “It’s a shalshelet,” she said. The young woman who had chanted it also loved it and wore a pendant in its shape. After Shabbat ended, I wrote to a cantor from another synagogue, who sent me a fascinating article about it: “The Shalshelet: Mark of Ambivalence” by Mois A. Navon, published in Jewish Thought, OU Publications, Vol.4, Num.1 (5755-6). The article discusses each of the four occurrences in Torah. I could not wait for the opportunity to leyn a passage with a shalshelet; this happened about a year and a half later, on Shabbat Tzav, March 26, 2016. That is the passage where Moses slaughters the sacrificial ram for the consecration of the high priests, Aaron and Aaron’s sons. (See Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s commentary. Rabbi Sacks died on November 7, just a week and a day ago; may his memory be a blessing.) According to commentators and to basic intuition, this is a difficult moment for Moses because he is about to consecrate his own brother and nephews for a role that he is not destined to have.

Today, at our online Szim Salom service that I led, I got to leyn a shalshelet again–this time, the one in Parashat Chayei Sarah. (The shalshelet can be heard in Genesis 24:12; here’s a recording I made of just that verse.) To my joy, I was asked about it afterward. Also, as it happens, the rabbi’s D’var Torah focused on Jonathan Sacks’s writings; then tonight I found his article on the shalshelet. Many things came together.

Here Abraham is sending his servant (unnamed in the text, but traditionally identified as Eliezer of Damascus, whom Abraham mentions as the inheritor of his possessions in Genesis 15:2) to find a wife for Isaac. According to the sages, the servant has a moment of struggle precisely because he knows that if Isaac has a wife, and if they have children, then he will lose any chance of inheriting the wealth. Indeed, he had even hoped to marry his daughter into Abraham’s family. So after Abraham has given his order, and Eliezer has set off on his way, and then, at eveningtime, made his camels kneel on the ground and begun to pray alone, the text says, “Vayomar….” (“and he said…”). This is where the shalshelet occurs, in this private prayer to God, where everything in him shudders.

But his fears may have a different source. Going to find a wife for his master’s son is no easy task, especially given Abraham’s stipulations: this must be from among Abraham’s kindred, and the mission must be successful. The servant asks Abraham whether, in the event that the woman will not come with him, he should bring Isaac there to meet her; Abraham says no; if she will not come with him, then he is clear from his oath, but he must not bring Isaac there.

Now alone in prayer, the servant asks God to give him a sign, and explains in detail what this sign should be: that when he asks a woman for water, and she says, “Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also,” this will be the one that God has decided on (“hochachta”) for Isaac. According to Navon, commentators in the Talmud and the Midrash view this as an extremely inappropriate request.

But the servant does not even think of God as “his” God; he refers to him as “God of my master, Abraham” (“Elohei adoni Avraham”). Might he not feel helpless, not having a God of his own? Might there not be a more forgiving interpretation of his words?

Couldn’t it be that he wants with all his heart to do this well and knows that he needs help? I am not convinced that he expects to inherit Abraham’s wealth, or that he is even Eliezer of Damascus. If he were acting pridefully here, wouldn’t there be a sign? A hint of a punishment?

It seems possible, rather, that he is acting in faith, even in humility, asking God for a sign that he can recognize and will not get wrong. Especially since this is not his God, and he is not on this journey for himself, he needs this assistance. Not only that, but the sign itself has meaning. The one who gives water not only to a stranger but to the stranger’s camels, knowing nothing about him, must be not only generous but brave. (I am not original in thinking this; many have associated these actions with chesed, or lovingkindness.) In addition, the one who gives water not only to the man, but to his animals may have a long view of what is necessary for survival.

If all of this is so, then the shalshelet could signal that moment of needing help, of being on the verge of asking for help, from his master’s God. The servant (Eliezer or not) realizes that if he relied entirely on himself, he could make a mistake, and then it would all be over; there wouldn’t be a second chance. And not only he, but Abraham and Isaac would suffer.

Indeed, some commentators describe him as the quintessential servant, but maybe that’s a bit extreme. He does employ some trickery: for instance, he changes Abraham’s words slightly when quoting him. Could he be devoted and imperfect, terribly alone in this moment, and in need of help?

It’s a truism that we all need help at times. Of course we do. But there are moments of great importance, once in a great while, where asking for help is both necessary and terrifying. We may ask for it in imperfect ways; that hardly matters, unless we turn to the wrong person or entity. Just before the asking, everything lights up and rumbles, as in a private shalshelet. That is partly how I imagine the servant; that is partly how I hear the verses.

I would normally include Hebrew text in here, but with the new version of WordPress, Hebrew words do not copy correctly; I will have to find a solution.

Art credit: Unidentified artist, Rebecca and Eliezer, lithograph on paper, undated.

According to some scholars, including Joshua R. Jacobson, author of Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation (a wonderful and massive book that I brought with me to Hungary because I could not think of leaving it behind), the shalshelet indicates a particular syntactic structure, not a textual meaning. See Chanting the Hebrew Bible (1st ed.), pp. 105-109.

Solitude in the Pandemic

At this time, as in any time, if you know how to be alone, you are that much stronger. The right amount of time alone will depend on the person or circumstances, but if you can make something of it, so much the better.

The understanding of solitude is different here in Hungary from in the U.S. The approximate translation of “solitary,” “magányos,” generally has a sorrowful connotation; yet “magány” and “magányosság,” the corresponding nouns, have ambivalent and negative connotations, respectively. People often frown upon those who live alone and do things alone. Or, if they don’t frown on them, they have a hard time understanding how such people could be happy.

On the other hand, many Hungarians have a kind of inherent solitude, an ability to focus and think. The people I know are not the whole country, but they tend to think before speaking, to spend time puzzling through things, and to take on challenges that require various levels and forms of solitude. There’s a basic thoughtfulness that inheres in aspects of the culture. (On the other hand, what people think or mutter to themselves may be filled with sarcastic quips, swear words, etc. Solitude isn’t necessarily peaceful.)

In the U.S., there’s much more emphasis on quick reactions, speaking your mind right away, and being part of a team; in that sense, as I discuss in Republic of Noise, solitude is pushed aside. On the other hand, it’s considered normal to live alone, go places alone, etc., at least among the people I know.

So, solitude is both accepted and not accepted in both countries. This makes sense; by its nature, solitude cannot be fully understood by others. It will inevitably be rejected or misconstrued in some way. At the same time, every life contains some element of it. Solitude is difficult to pinpoint; there’s more to it than spending time alone, living alone, or being otherwise visibly alone.

Back to the pandemic: when you have to stay at home, or when events that bring people together are prohibited, this can turn into an opening for writing stories, working on art, tinkering with computer programs, doing home repair, reading, or introspection. Zoom events–while interesting in good measure–do not have to fill up the time. Nor does everyone have an abundance of time to be filled. Online teaching, I find, takes more time than teaching in person, so the little time I have outside of that gets taken quickly. I enjoy having some time to myself, and it does not feel like too much. The one thing I miss is the range of choices, the option of being among others, going to concerts and plays, traveling abroad. But I believe that these will come back before too long.

Online Again, Apparently

This morning I was eager for the day. In my first class, I was going to introduce my students to different kinds of economic systems. In the next two classes (separate sections), we were going to start Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The following class would be devoted to Chapters 22-23 of To Kill a Mockingbird; the next class would be a review lesson, and the final class of the day would be an introduction to the U.S. Constitution. All of this happened, and it went well. But in late morning we read and heard Viktor Orbán’s announcement of new measures to combat the coronavirus–measures that resemble those taken in Austria. Assuming Parliament approves them tomorrow, all high schools and universities will go online from Wednesday through at least the next thirty days.

And that’s only a fraction of it. There will be a nationwide curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. Restaurants will be closed except for home delivery. There will be a general ban on events. Theatres will be closed. Amateur sporting events will be prohibited (professional events can take place). The government will reimburse 80% of the cost of bookings made at hotels for the first 30 days of this lockdown (since no tourists will be allowed to stay at hotels). In return, hotels must not lay off staff and must pay them. Restaurant workers’ jobs will be protected too, through a similar arrangement. Hospital workers, elementary school teachers, kindergarten teachers, and nursery workers will have to be tested weekly; how that will happen, and who will pay for it, I don’t know.

So here we go. I am ready to switch to online teaching, but I long for the day when we can do everything again: sing together, eat together, talk about literature, act in plays, shoot hoops, go to the movies, travel where we want, visit people, without masks, without worries, not just here, but around the world. How strange that ordinary life from a year ago has become a dream. Well, it’s not that strange after all, since it was not that ordinary, nor is life ever, if you take it in.

I took all three pictures today.

Looking Past the Panes

It may seem that I am oblivious to the election and its slow progress, but the opposite is true; I watch the updates continually. People’s thoughts do not always duplicate their speech. I don’t get involved with political posts, as I see little point. I do discuss the elections with my students, who take great interest in what is happening.

Some people are dismayed and bewildered by the lack of a Biden landslide. I voted for Biden but am not at all surprised by the closeness of the race. The problem is not that half the country has cast a vote for hate (and the other half, implicitly, for love). Hate exists, in different forms, on the right and the left. Yes, Trump spews a lot of hateful words, which in turn incite and abet some extremist groups, but many who vote for him are not extremist, white supremacist, or anything of the sort. They simply distrust liberals and believe a Republican will do more for the economy.

I have always voted Democrat. But looking back, I am embarrassed that I took part (even quietly) in the derision that was heaped on any Republican candidate or president. At the time, I thought Reagan was awful, George W. Bush was awful–and now, compared to Trump, they seem decent and principled. I now have no use for deploring the other side except when the specifics demand it. In no way do I consider my own views impeccable. I am long done with scoffing at those who disagree with me.

Most of us, if we look hard enough, find issues we are ambivalent about. Abortion? I am neither an opponent nor a supporter. I would not want an abortion. If, in my youth, I had become pregnant by accident, I would have wanted to have the baby, except maybe in an extreme situation where my own life was threatened. But I do not feel that I have the knowledge or authority to deny a safe abortion to others, given that abortions will occur no matter what. I do believe that there should be stronger alternatives to and deterrents of abortion: education, contraception, a more accessible adoption system, stronger support for mothers. Abortion should not be treated as something you can “always” do. But if a woman is going to have one, better for her to have it safely and legally (and as early as possible in the pregnancy).

Ambivalence is often regarded as a weakness, but it is not. Here in Hungary I find that my students see things from more than one side. Many of them dislike debates (which are part of the school-leaving language exam, and therefore required), because it seems artificial to them to take one side or the other. To me, this is encouraging. For the sake of rhetoric and clarity, it is good to learn how to argue a position and respond to counterarguments. But for the sake of life, it helps to say, at times, “You are right.” Not all the time. But when it is true, yes.

A Quiet Glide into Winter

It’s that time of year when you leave work and step into the dark, and the bakery throws its light onto the street. Not yet cold–just a little chilly–but dark and light everywhere. I think back on my first November in Szolnok, in 2017–going to the basketball game, going to the Kati Nap contest and then the Tablóbál, seeing the mist over the rivers. It’s different this year, because we can’t have the big celebrations, but the oldish memories weave in and out. It’s before all the Christmas decorations start going up, before Kossuth Tér fills up with cider booths–a quiet glide into winter.

Announcing the Autumn 2020 Issue of Folyosó

The Autumn 2020 issue of Folyosó–an online journal by students of the Varga Katalin Gimnazium–has arrived, filled with witty, spooky, thoughtful pieces! Browse through it and let us know what you particularly enjoy.

For starters, here are just a few excerpts.

From “Finding Yourself” by Gréta Tóth:

The Milky Way is made up of many different things. Stars, planets, together with other celestial bodies, dust and naturally other strange, almost unknown particles like black holes, wormholes and dark matter. They are usually in balance with each other, but sometimes they cross each other’s path. Collisions happen between solar systems, stars and planets meet, or black holes absorb anything that comes near them, even time.

This story is about a common world, actually really similar to ours. But whenever a baby is born, a celestial body is born too. They are not independent of each other. They are the same, waiting for the moment to finally find each other and become one. They affect each other’s life and path. Let us start at the most important part of the Milky Way and humanity:  Finn Love, also known as the Supermassive Black Hole, the center of our galaxy. Love is probably the most important cementing force in humanity. His mission is to keep the balance in our Milky Way.

From “All Should Be in Order” by Gergely Sülye:

All should be in order. Of course we never think about that because it is a given in our lives, for most of us. I say most of us because there are people out there, in less-developed places, who live without order. They live per se, but not for long, not without order. Thus their chances of seeing this letter are really thin, making it appropriate to assume that the person this reaches lives in a civilization with successful guidelines. After all, a civilization is fully dependent on an orderly structure with its rules and regulations.

This is what the me of yesteryear would have said.

From “Grandpa’s Stories” by Áron Antal:

– Ya know, you always remind me of the times when I was young, I looked much like you back then. Me and my friends went to Moscow when we were in fourth grade in secondary school. We went there by train and it took almost a week to go there and back. I enjoyed it so much. The underground metros, they were so huge; the ceiling was like fifteen meters high, you could fit a town into there, and those majestic statues… But the place where we stayed… That was a bit nasty.

– I know, grandpa, you told me these stories like a hundred times and….

– You see, the apartment was full of roaches, literally full. They were everywhere. One night we stayed up and slapped them with our slippers. We killed a few hundred, but the next day they were back, hehe…

– I came for meat, grandpa….

From “Danse Macabre” by Lilla Kassai:

Mrs. Mars walked out to the garden. It was her favourite place: the grass was dark green, and every morning it was glistening with water drops. Behind the house was an enormous rose arbor filled with black roses. She smiled every time she peeked at the big, fragrant flowers. She breathed in the air filled with the smell of the roses and sat herself down on the bank under the arbor. The bank was guarded by two gargoyles, which had been sculpted by her husband. Ivory stroked their heads, knowing that her beloved had worked on them from morning to night, to surprise her on her birthday. She wanted to be with him, feel his strong arms around her, while cuddling, listening to his heartbeat, and kissing him passionately.

These were her everyday thoughts, even on the thirty-first of October. The black roses and the deep purple petunias were no longer  blooming. It was autumn; nature was preparing for winter, The leaves of the trees turned brown, red and yellow, and started to fall from the branches. In the window of multiple houses, Jack-O-Lanterns appeared. It was Halloween, Mr. and Mrs. Mars’ favourite holiday. They loved to carve pumpkins together, and always awaited the kids with plenty of sweets and candies, but they never went trick-or-treating.

This is just a small sample; there is much more to be found.

The next issue will feature an international contest, open to secondary school students anywhere in the world. Hajrá!