On Steadfastness

We change gradually and abruptly, often without realizing it; we wake up to find out that we are not who we were ten years ago, or even yesterday. So steadfastness—not just habit and routine, but commitment—offers a counterpoint to the changes. Having something that you return to again and again, that you practice over time, does not make you redundant, dull, or repetitive. Rather, the repetition set against the changes allows you to see and hear familiar things in new ways. Endless novelty would just be exhausting and confusing. Practice doesn’t make perfect (nothing does), but it does make life more interesting, and it allows you to build things.

I sometimes don’t notice the steadfastness, because I am so caught up in meeting the next deadline, getting through the next day. But there have been some long projects and gestures.

In December I will have been Szim Salom’s cantor for four years. Four years! This morning I let the rabbi know which verses I would be leyning on December 4—that is, chanting for the Torah reading—and as I read them again, they rose up. They are some of the most beautiful verses in the entire Bible: when Joseph sees his brother Benjamin and has to go to his room to weep in private (because he does not want to reveal himself yet). I have had doubts and questions about my Jewish practice: what I mean with it, how strict I want it to be, and whether I want to be part of an organized religion, period. But when it comes to the texts and liturgy, there’s no doubt. I know that I want to be with these verses and melodies.

Teaching has been steadfast too. Even though I left it twice to write a book, I came back. Yesterday I woke up with a puffy face and swollen eye, and imagined a rough day ahead. But it got better and better as the day went on. It even started out well. The first two classes were devoted to caroling rehearsal; the students had a full plan worked out and accomplished just about everything they set out to do. They were appreciative of the time that had been allotted for this. Later, in one of my classes, most of the students were out at a competition, so the few of us who were there talked about various things: first sports, then education, then my experience in Hungary. I got to know these students a little bit better, and was happy for that. And in between and afterwards (I teach seven classes on Wednesdays), each hour had something memorable. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember it, but if I do, so much the better. And this morning I woke up thoroughly rested after a thick sleep.

And then there’s the writing, translating, and music. Too much to talk about, but these things persevere too. The photo at the top is of a concert I attended on Monday, a solo concert by Gergely Balla of Platon Karataev. I was hesitant to take a picture at all, and took just one, quickly. It came out blurry and abstract, but I think that’s how it was supposed to be. The concert doesn’t translate into descriptions. Some do, a little bit, but this one doesn’t. The picture reminds me of the hush in the room, the absorption in the songs.

I will be taking part in a literary evening, with cello—more about that soon! The timing is just right, since this weekend I am finishing up a big translation (the first draft, that is) as well as the autumn issue of Folyosó, and will have time to practice and prepare after that, and even before and during.

The Pilinszky event in March is sooner than it may seem, so mark your calendars and spread the word! Also, this very morning at 7:55 we will be having a short commemoration at school, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Pilinszky’s birth (he was born on November 27, 1821). I will give a brief introduction, and then three students will recite four Pilinszky poems: “Egy szép napon,” “Kráter,” “Egy szenvedély margójára,” and “Átváltozás.” If we record it, and if the participating students give permission, I’ll post the recording here later. And now I must start to get ready.

Update: Here is the video!

Things Not So Readily Understood

Each of us, I imagine, has something, or maybe several things, that others don’t readily understand. We know what they are, because we keep coming up against them. The reason this happens is that no one can step into another’s manifold. It might seem to overlap with our own, but it really doesn’t. “I know what you mean” is one of the most common falsehoods in the world. These misunderstood things, far from being hindrances or flaws, help form the basic compass of who we are.

I can think of three such things on the spot. One is my need for solitude. It doesn’t mean I always like to be alone. But I need room, even among others, to think things out, to take my own directions. And at this point in life, I not only enjoy living alone but need it too, to the extent that it is possible. Hungarians frown upon this somewhat—not all Hungarians, but many. (To a great extent, Judaism frowns on it too.) But solitude and company are always affecting and interchanging with each other, so a person who desires solitude will also desire company. It is a great joy when something feels kindred, something “clicks,” or even when it doesn’t but the conversation or common project fills me with thoughts.

The second point of difference is that I have plenty to do and am not looking for additional work or projects, with very few exceptions. It took a long time to get across that I do not want to give private English lessons; now the same applies to other things as well. My time outside of teaching is scarce and precious, and I need the freedom to spend it as I choose, to the extent possible. I say “to the extent possible” because things come up over which I have little or no control, and it’s good to give in to them at times. But I am not happy when rushing from one task to the next, especially when these tasks come from others. I need, to some extent, to set my own terms. Those terms are my happy terrain, which continually changes and opens: projects come into being, associations form, I find music that I love. I can’t explain this to anyone else, but I won’t give it up either. In short, I have plenty to do, and it’s important to me to do it slowly and thoughtfully instead of cramming my days with more and more. The stretches of time, and relative freedom within them, are much more important to me than money or fame.

The third is that I find politics not only boring, but superficial. Most political arguments, whether on the right or the left, only scrape the surface of things. Some do go deeper, but only when they deal with structures of human relation. Then fundamental questions come up: Who are we, and what are we capable of deciding and accomplishing together for the common good? Where does the common good conflict with individual good? These questions do not run dry, but parlor-talk does. I feel as uncomfortable with left-wing talk as with right-wing talk; and moderates often fall into traps of compromise and equivocation. Most of the time I am left wondering: why so much talk about this stuff? Why the need to have and proclaim an opinion about every current issue? Sure, I have my opinions too, and at times I make them known. But then I get sick of them. Other things I don’t get sick of, no matter how many times I return to them. Why not focus on those? Yes, politics are important; someone has to figure out how our systems will work and who will lead them. But they are not the only important actions, thoughts, or creations.

But these are just some of mine, and I know I am not alone; we all have prickliness of one kind or another, things that stick out, that aren’t exactly what others expect, approve of, or want. I say, live out that prickliness (without being obnoxious about it). Ruffle those feathers, be that jaunty, dreamy bird that struts through the day.

I edited this piece for clarity after posting it.

A Beautiful and Historic Ceremony

This last Shabbat, I had the honor of co-leading a Szim Salom service in which Dr. Gábor Iványi, the head of the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (a church of the Methodist confession), assumed a Hebrew name. As usual, I led all the sung parts of the service; Dr. Iványi and I shared the Torah reading, and he gave a dróse (sermon). Rabbi Kelemen led the spoken parts, officiated the name-giving ceremony, gave blessings, and set a joyous, soulful tone for the event.

As you can see from the photo, the room was full—and would have been much fuller if it hadn’t been for Covid restrictions. Others followed the service over Zoom. The congregation included regular Szim Salom members, members of the MET, members of Neolog synagogues, and others (including Catholics and Lutherans). This was remarkable, given that only two synagogues in all of Hungary (we and our sister congregation, Bét Orim) would have been able to do this at all. Because Dr. Iványi’s father was Jewish but not his mother, neither the Orthodox nor the Neolog communities would have recognized him as Jewish; he would have needed to convert. But members—including leaders—of the Neolog community were there.

His church is devoted to helping those in need. When we didn’t have a place to hold our services, they shared their space on Iskola utca in Buda with us. We would arrive on a Saturday morning just when they were finishing with a Bible study, so we would mingle in the intercrossing. We held services there for about nine months. Here’s a picture of me and the rabbi outside the building, back in March 2018. But that’s only a tiny fraction of their generosity.

As for Dr. Iványi’s decision to assume a Hebrew name (without discarding the name he has had all his life), this came out of years of research and introspection. When his father died in November 2009, a close friend in Israel asked permission to say kaddish for him, “because he was a Jewish soul, after all.” That gesture moved him profoundly; over time, he grew more resolute in his wish to acknowledge his Jewish heritage and identity, without denying or discarding his work as a Christian pastor.

I am proud that we were in a position to give him a ceremony. For at least three reasons, I feel that this was the right thing to do.

First, this will open up conversations and thoughts. Over the past few centuries, during those periods when Jews were allowed to settle in Hungary, many assimilated eagerly and considered themselves fully Hungarian. But Hungarian anti-Semitism—during the Shoah and at other times—took particularly cruel forms, so today many Hungarian Jews, and Hungarians with some Jewish ancestry, have buried their history, whether by choice or by default. Gábor Iványi’s gesture will give others courage to look at who they are and where they come from.

Second, I see it as an act of integrity. Identity is a complex matter; it cannot be reduced to one or two words. A person can be many things, many entities at once; our ceremony affirmed this. This was not an adult bar mitzvah; Dr. Iványi is not making a commitment to Jewish observance. Instead, he is recognizing who he is, who his family is, in full complexity. I sympathize, because while I am Jewish according to Jewish law and my own not-so-strict observance, I too am a mixture of things and know that many others are too. Instead of pushing ourselves to be just this or that, instead of letting others tell us who we are, we can live out the combinations.

Third, he and his congregation have been kind to us, so I am glad that we could do something for him and them too, something with this level of meaning and importance.

But why stop at three? There is more. This service and ceremony brought people together from different religions, different branches of a religion; and while there might have been some discomfort at moments, still we came together, and the joy overrode everything. There is more to this than I can see right now. It will unfold at its own pace.

Photo credit: Szim Salom Hitközség / Aradi Nóra.

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

P.S. See Péter Árvai’s wonderful article about the ceremony.

Too Much Activity

Yesterday morning I listened to a wonderful long Petőfi Rádio interview with Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly of Platon Karataev. It went in many different directions, but one favorite part when they talked about the importance of solitude and about how fruitful the Covid lockdown had been for them (even with many setbacks and challenges, such as Gergő’s fever and hospital stay), and how now, with everything open and available, they have had to set some limits for themselves, not accepting every invitation, not attending (or playing) every possible event, but instead protecting their quiet.

I have definitely been too busy this fall and have had to pull back too. The thing about pulling back is that most people will not understand or accept it. At least they won’t understand your specific choices. In their minds, what they want from you should come first; they don’t realize that you see it differently. None of us has complete control over our lives, but our choices, to the extent that they exist, will never be accepted by everyone.

Yet the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t care what we do; that’s a bit of a relief. Even those we imagine we’re disppointing terribly have other things on their minds. Moreover, pleasing others (completely, all the time) has no point to it; it brings no satisfaction, because it dries up the soul. To exist in a true sense, you need some resistance. Not random resistance, not automatic resistance, but your own particular friction with the world, which you come to know over time, and which can change a little but won’t go away.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Soul selects her own Society” is so well known that it can slip past the mind. But pay attention to the middle stanza:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

The repetition of “Unmoved,” the images of Chariots and Emperor, the sense that both of these are stooping low for her, paying her homage (because they want something), and instead of falling for it, the soul stays upright—that’s something to think on. And then, in the final stanza, Dickinson transforms the initial metaphor of the “door,” turning it into the “Valves” of the Soul’s “attention,” now compared to “stone.” I wonder—this occurred to me just now—whether Wisława Szymborska was thinking of this in her “Conversation with a Stone.”

But sometimes “pulling back” doesn’t require a clap of stone, just a sense of the spaces between the moments or days. That’s part of the meaning of Shabbat (which I haven’t been too good at keeping, but which is on my mind). You just set aside the time for rest, period. Treat it as an obligation, not something you do if you find yourself with time. Also, it’s possible to simplify things on the run, not only in your schedule, but in your mind. Not getting bogged down in thoughts about all the things that have to get done. Just doing them one by one and taking rests in between. My fall break has been quite intense (I attended three wonderful concerts, translated a long story, gave an online poetry reading and talk in the middle of the night, worked on Folyosó, had minor surgery that went well, and lots more), but the last day is rather restful, unrolling quietly before me. And I am not changing that, not rushing anywhere, not trying to squeeze anything in.

The other side to this all is that it’s good, when possible and appropriate, to say yes to things, participate in projects, venture onto new terrain, and so forth. If we could all figure out what to accept and what to decline, life would be simpler, wouldn’t it? But we will never figure it out for good; there is no formula for it. We adjust, readjust, take on, give up, and start over.

Art credit: L.S. Lowry, Going to the Match.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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