The Love of the Stage

I love performing on stage. Not just the moment of performance, but everything surrounding it: the rehearsals, the working out of details, the practice at home, the dress rehearsal, the backstage, the different stages of waiting on the day of the performance itself, the performance itself. I love even those times when I think I don’t want to do it, when I can’t wait for it to be over, because that’s just one of the many moods along the way. I love the tension of performance, the relaxation too, the things that come out in the moment. This week I had the great joy of playing cello in the performance of Varga’s drama club (the Varga Diákszínpad) in the gala Ádámok és Évák show, which took place at Szolnok’s big theatre house, the Szigligeti Színház, and featured groups from many schools. This year’s theme was the poet Sándor Petőfi; the performances drew on his poetry and themes. Ours centered around the theme of love. The other musician was the Varga student Brigitta Szabados, who played with me in the Shakespeare festival too.

It was the drama teacher, my colleague Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, who invited me to be part of this. I had seen the Ádámok és Évák performances several times before and was excited to be in one. This meant many rehearsals close to the last minute (since they had put so much into the Shakespeare festival and now had to switch gears rather quickly). Brigi and I figured out the music between us; instead of playing as a duo, as we did in the Shakespeare performance, we traded back and forth. My parts were tiny—a few seconds at a time—but like the Dude’s rug in The Big Lebowski, they helped tie everything together.

Rehearsals and rehearsals: at the Verseghy Library, in the Drama room at Varga, and then at the Szigligeti Theatre, where the performance was to be. The piece, which told a story of the thrills, bitter disappointments, and ultimate promise of love, wove poetry, movement, and ingenious touches together. Streamers, roses, dances, punctuation of words and feet.

The day came. The final dress rehearsal. Then the waiting backstage, the actors getting ready, putting their makeup on. Announcements coming through the speakers, telling this group, then that group, to get ready. Then our turn came to get ready, then to go down near the stage. Another long wait. Then, at last, the stage. The rows and rows of faces in the audience, down below and up in the balcony.

The whole thing swam by, but it looked lovely out of the corner of my eye. I hit what I thought was a sour note toward the end (not out of tune, but slightly dry and squeaky), and felt bad about it, but it seems no one noticed, and in a recording I later heard, that note actually sounds fittingly fragile. It’s in the background, behind the two lovers who are coming together.

There will always be mistakes in performances—but, while no one wants to mess up, the tiny slips here and there can even give something to the show, if the performer stays focused and goes beyond them. The show was beautiful. Afterwards a student told me that he appreciated how I kept on going despite the mistakes. I thought he was referring to my mistakes, but no, he meant his own—and I hadn’t even noticed them.

After all the performances, there was an intermission, and then we all reassembled to hear the jury’s decisions. István Sasvári (in the red shirt, above and upper left corner below) won the award for male lead, and Varga Milla (who played opposite him) won a special prize. Other performances and schools won prizes as well. The prize for best overall performance was carried off by the Tiszaparti Roman Catholic school—but even at the level of awards, the Varga group held its own. Never mind that that’s just one level.

For a little while, I was still worrying: had I let them down with that sour note? But no, they hadn’t even noticed it; what’s more, it was accompaniment, and brief accompaniment at that. And they were so happy to have the cello and flute in their performance and to have pulled this off so well, with so much spirit and grace.

Today the Drama Club had a farewell celebration for its graduating seniors: gifts, refreshments, games, and a wonderful tradition of leaving handprints on the wall. I will leave off with that. We will be receiving a high-quality video of the performance; if it’s something that I can share here, I will add an update later.

Photo credits: The top photo was originally posted by Ferenc Szalay, the mayor of Szolnok. The other two I took.

Forms of Attention

Attention is so vast and varied, its forms may seem to have nothing in common. It can involve alertness or a lack of it, an inward focus, or a focus on something beyond the self. The object of attention may be single or multiple, or it may not be an object at all. That is, you can pay attention without knowing exactly what it is you are paying attention to. It could be something other than what you think. Attention can take you somewhere you didn’t expect to go.

If I had to explain the joy of going to hear Platon Karataev—the duo or the full band—in different settings, different cities, I would say that most of it can’t be explained; it goes far beyond what I can put words or ideas to. But it’s about as far from “groupiness” as you can get. It has to do with the music, the lyrics, the musicians, the attention that fills all the layers of their concerts. The attention within the songs, the attention they give each other, in the moment, the audience’s attention, their attention to the audience. It isn’t all about attention—there’s much more to it—but the attention at any of their concerts becomes part of my life. What I bring as an audience member, what each audience member brings, also takes part in the event and follows us, slightly or greatly changed, out the door.

Yesterday I went to the beautiful old city of Győr—for the first time—to hear the Platon Karataev duo play at the Protestant (Református) church, as part of the Öt Templom Fesztivál (Five Churches Festival), a week of concerts and other events at five of their religious sites: the Evangelical Old Church, the Catholic Church, the Protestant Church, the Synagogue, and the Greek Catholic Church. I had decided to go only if I could get enough done beforehand: I am playing cello in a big citywide student theatre performance this week at the Szigligeti Szinház, and working on a new song, so I needed to practice; also, I needed to make enough headway with Folyosó that the spring issue could come out on Monday (tomorrow). I accomplished both of these and set out by train.

The concert was special: an absolutely hushed audience, not even any clapping except at the beginning and end. Beloved songs, new details that I heard in them, a new song too, warm, large lights that poured out slowly changing color, and an attention that began before the concert, grew and grew during it, and lingered long after its ending.

I took no pictures during the concert, but the picture above is of the keyhole, while I was still outside and they were doing a soundcheck. I was listening through the door for a minute or two and glimpsing the red light through the crack.

Getting there was simple enough: a train to the Budapest Keleti station, then a train to Győr from the same station. The return took a few more steps: a train to the Kelenföld station, a metro to Kálvin tér, a transfer to another metro line (amazingly, the M3 is now in full operation, after five years of repairs), a metro to the Nyugati station, and a slow train back to Szolnok. But it all worked out without a hitch, and I walked home from the Szolnok station and even stayed up a little longer afterward, past 2 a.m.

On the train to Győr, I was rereading Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and came to the sentence (which repeats with variations in the novel), “They felt they were standing on a snow-covered plain, shivering with cold.” The Platon Karataev song “Atoms” (the title song of their second album) quotes it almost directly; I started hearing the song in the novel and vice versa. I thought about the genius of the translator and editor who did not make the mistake of deeming “shivering with cold” redundant and reducing it to just plain “shivering.” If it had been just “shivering,” would “Atoms” have come into existence? Or if it had, would it be anything like the song we know?

We can get caught up in foolishness: dogmatic, mechanical ideas about anything at all, including editing, including reduction. There’s a misconception that writing should be reduced, always, to the minimum words needed; if words seem to repeat each other’s meaning, then all but one should go, according to rigid dictates. But this is wrong; “shivering with cold” is not a redundancy, even after the mention of the snow-covered plain. It adds to the layers of cold; it also suggests that you could be shivering with something else. Also, it’s beautiful. When I listen to it, I know it must stay. It is the song that opened up this sentence to me.

Aristophanes plays with necessary redundancies (which are not redundancies, in fact) in Frogs: in the contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, Euripides chides Aeschylus for his repetitions, but both Aeschylus and Dionysos suggest that he has missed the point. (While the whole exchange is playful, I sense Aristophanes siding with Aeschylus just a little here.) Here is the passage (in the translation of B.B. Rogers):

DIO. Give him another: (to Eur.) you, look out for faults.

AESCH. Be thou my saviour and mine aid to-day, For here I come, and
hither I return

EUR. The same thing twice says clever Aeschylus.

DIO. How twice?

EUR. Why, just consider: I’ll explain. “I come,” says he; and “I
return,” says he: It’s the same thing, to “come” and to “return.”

DIO. Aye, just as if you said, “Good fellow, lend me
A kneading trough: likewise, a trough to knead in.”

AESCH. It is not so, you everlasting talker,
They’re not the same, the words are right enough.

DIO. How so? inform me how you use the words.

AESCH. A man, not banished from his home, may “come”
To any land, with no especial chance.
A home-bound exile both “returns” and “comes.”

DIO. O good, by Apollo! What do you say, Euripides, to that?

EUR. I say Orestes never did “return.” He came in secret: nobody
recalled him.

DIO. O good, by Hermes! (Aside.) I’ve not the least suspicion what he

EUR. Repeat another line.

DIO. Ay, Aeschylus, Repeat one instantly: you, mark what’s wrong.

AESCH. Now on this funeral mound I call my father To hear, to

EUR. There he is again. To “hear,” to “hearken”; the same thing,

DIO. Aye, but he’s speaking to the dead, you knave,
Who cannot hear us though we call them thrice.

AESCH. And how do you make your prologues?

EUR. You shall hear; And if you find one single thing said twice,
Or any useless padding, spit upon me.

“Useless padding” does exist and should be avoided; often, when you strip down a sentence, you make it much stronger and fresher than before. But not always. One must dare the distinctions. Aristophanes’ Euripides seems a bit obtuse in this regard.

This brings up the question of repetition: even very close echoes of a word or phrase can bring something new. So can a supposedly repeated experience, like a concert. You can feel the samenesses and differences mixing. Last night I thought I heard something new at the end of “Lassú madár,” which is sometimes my favorite of all the Platon Karataev songs. It was nothing added or taken away: just (in my ears) a different articulation just before the end, a minuscule pause before the final “gyorsabb az égboltnál.” A tiny detail in the midst of the larger magic.

And this was even with an imperfect sound system; something was crackling here and there in the wires, but this little crackle became beautiful, wrapped up in the whole.

Part of The Unbearable Lightness of Being has to do with misunderstood words, or words that people understand in different, sometimes contradictory ways. “Attention” could be one of these words. People’s different forms of attention can sometimes be confused with lack of attention. When people say, “You’re not listening!” or “You’re not paying attention!” they often mean, “You’re not paying attention in the way that I expect you to pay attention.” One of the most moving aspects of a Platon Karataev duo concert is the way Sebő and Gergő pay such close attention to each other, even while differing (somewhat) in their forms of attention. This could be said about many musicians who play well together, but here it takes a form and depth not quite like anything else.

I leave off with some pictures from the day. The first one was taken from the train window; if you zoom in, you can see a bird in the bare tree. The second was shortly after my arrival in Győr; the third, during my wandering around the old part of the city; the fourth and fifth, as I headed over to the concert (you can see the Platon Karataev duo mentioned on the billboard, and the synagogue in the background); the sixth, after the concert, on the way back to the train station, and the seventh, in Budapest, just before I boarded the train to Szolnok. Now back to the cello and Folyosó.

Update: Here are some photos of the concert, taken by someone other than me.

That Was the Festival That Was

Looking back on yesterday as a whole, after a thick sleep, I would call it a big success. We had a day of inspired performances, workshops (with themes ranging from Renaissance dance to constructing the balcony of Romeo and Juliet), professional performances, a lecture, comments from the jury, and a closing ceremony with special awards and gifts. In the morning, there were a few technical glitches and glitches of space (in one case the technical setup didn’t succeed, and we didn’t have nearly enough seats for the audience), but we recognized the problems and worked them out as quickly as we could, to the extent possible. Even with that, our morning program fell only twenty minutes behind schedule, which meant we still had a substantial break between the morning and afternoon.

My students in Class 10.C gave a delightful Renaissance dance workshop that began with their performance of a shortened version of Act 1, Scene 5 of Romeo and Juliet. For the performance, they were completely on point, and then the workshop part had the whole room dancing, or close.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the day was the way it brought people together: the library and Varga, the various visiting schools and performers (I hadn’t even realized that Gergő Karácsony and his group had come all the way from Szeged), and the audience members (the attendance was large in both parts of the day, and the grandmothers of two of my students were there together). After the festival was over, I enjoyed talking with members of the Híd Színhaz and others.

The Sárospatak group set out at four in the morning to get there on time; they arrived back home close to ten at night. The performance was one of the highlights of the day and was recognized with a special award; the video version, shown here below, won an award in a short film contest and festival held by Miskolc University. It’s a Romeo and Juliet tale of a boy and a girl who go to the same high school and both love to go to the library. They discover, in addition, that they both love Shakespeare. But what is it they love in his work? The Fool and many other characters bring this to life. (The video is in English, as was the performance yesterday.)

For my own relative tranquility, I might try to simplify my role in the festival in the future; it was a bit frazzling to be in so many roles at once: running the festival along with my colleagues at the library, performing in it, directing a part of it. Or at the very least, if directing a piece, I will try to work with a smaller group of students; my group of 33 had numerous requests and needs during the day, and we didn’t even have room for them in the audience in the morning (or the afternoon, for that matter). But they pulled off the scene and workshop with aplomb.

Next year, I hope we will find a larger venue, with a real auditorium and a built-in sound system and projector. We have some ideas. But this year’s festival brought joy and received a glowing review in I leave off with some pictures.

Disguises upon Disguises

One of the most fascinating and moving aspects of Shakespeare’s plays is the employment of disguise. Hamlet suggests to his companions that he is going to affect an “antic disposition”; Juliet, advised by Friar Laurence, fakes her death; theg witches fool Macbeth with their elusive prophesies; Beatrice and Benedick pretend to abhor each other; and so on. Shakespeare understood what Tom in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie would articulate centuries later: “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.” (But in Shakespeare’s plays, the disguise can work both ways.)

Disguise is filled with irony too; Cordelia’s sincere words frame her as the ungrateful child. Iago’s treachery cloaks itself in the guises of honesty.

The plays may lead us to ask ourselves what disguises we are wearing, what layers of disguises. Even the performances involve disguises: not only masks and costumes, not only the assumption of roles, but other wrappings as well. For example, in the beginning, when we were just starting to prepare the scene from Romeo and Juliet, none of the boys wanted to be Romeo—partly, I think, because of all the lines involved, and partly because of his smittenness. So we broke the part in three: one Romeo notices Juliet at the ball, and then, when the silhouette part begins, a different Romeo says the lines while yet a third takes part in the silhouette. Also, we emphasized the dances in the scene, thus taking some of the pressure off of Romeo and Juliet both. They liked this solution and took to it enthusiastically. Capulet is the one who speaks the most—calling for more fire and light, urging the guests to dance, reminiscing with his cousin, and trying to calm Tybalt down. Although he is not in a mask, as host he wears many disguises, trying to tend to others, while also yearning for a successful party, which not only helps assure his daughter’s future but brings back memories of his youth.

All of this leads me to a beloved song in three versions (and possibly disguises): “Disguise” by Cz.K. Sebő. It has more in common with Shakespearean disguises than may seem on the surface, even though, to my knowledge, it is not directly influenced by Shakespeare’s work. The original version, solo acoustic guitar and voice, was released by Cz.K. Sebő in 2015, when he was in his early twenties; versions by Platon Karataev and capsule boy (Cz.K. Sebő’s electronic subproject) followed. The original Cz.K. Sebő song is my favorite of the three; the bareness, simplicity, and vulnerability come together. It comes close to breaking my heart (but doesn’t, because it soars, and also because I’ve been through so much like this). It brings to mind Hamlet’s “But I have that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”

But the next two versions (disguises?) bring something out of it that might not be obvious in the original. The Platon Karataev version not only gives it a big sound, not only makes the guitar part richer, but also reveals a vastness that was there all along. This song is about all of us; we are all wearing disguises, all waiting and hoping that someone or other will talk to us and see us. The Platon version also makes me wonder: what is the “this” in “this is just a disguise”? Even the statement may be a disguise. We’re made of disguises upon disguises; what may seem our deepest, most honest revelation may actually be a mask or shroud, or someone else’s favorite clothes.

Then comes the capsule boy remix of the Platon Karataev version: a return to the origin, in a way (in that Cz.K. Sebő and capsule boy are the same person), but with changes. This electronic version brings out both the terror of the first part (“so please look at me… so please talk to me”) and the possibilities of the second part, which here become downright sweet and playful.

This song is beloved by many because it speaks to our yearning to show someone who we really are. But it also plays with this “really.” Do we know who the “real” self is? Is there one?

I believe that there is a real self, but (as hackneyed as this may sound), to find it we also have to lose it, and it is not discrete but porous, blurry, unbounded. One of my favorite moments of the song is “I am full of yellowness ’cause i was never enough.” The very word “yellowness” is a disguise, because the stress (on the “o”) is different from what I would expect in English. But I love that pronunciation and stress–it sounds like “lowness” and makes a connection between “yellow” and “low.”

I have felt throughout my life that “this is just a disguise,” not because I put on a front, but rather because attention is in short supply. The exceptions are times like now: in the preparations for the Shakespeare festival, it really doesn’t matter what people think of me, as something else is at stake involving many people. We will all be in disguises of many sorts, but through this, we will play ourselves. The disguises enable the release.

“Disguise” is not the most Shakespearean song in the Platon Karataev/Cz.K. Sebő repertoire, but it evokes Shakespeare for me and has been on my mind and in my ears. Platon songs with a more direct Shakespeare connection include “Lady Macbeth” and “Aphelion” (at times I hear “aphelion” as “Ophelia” in disguise; in any case, the song evokes Hamlet strongly) but there are others with subtle allusions and influences—for instance (I think), “Most magamba,” “Litmus Heart,” “Bitter Steps,” and “Light Trap.”

I am moved by my students’ dedication to the project; they have shown openness, excitement, and true attention. One of the challenges, early on, lay in slowing things down: having the opening processional and the later pavane dance be truly slow. Tempo is a disguise in its own right: fast things disguise themselves as slow, present as future, and vice versa. Hamlet says, “There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

Speaking of Platon Karataev, Gergely Balla sent us a wonderful message about the festival:

“Shakespeare drámái az eddigi Platon Karataev szövegekre is hatottak és ez valószínűleg így lesz a jövőben is. Fontosnak tartom a szolnoki Varga Katalin Gimnázium, valamint a Verseghy Könyvtár közös kezdeményezését, mert újra és újra vizsgálnunk kell, hogy mit tudunk meríteni ezekből a művekből. Változatosnak és izgalmasnak ígérkezik a program, mely pont egybeesik két új Poket kiadással (Hamlet, Rómeó és Júlia). Szóval jó fesztivált kivánunk!”


“Shakespeare’s plays have influenced Platon Karataev’s lyrics up to this point and probably will continue to do so. I consider the joint initiative of Katalin Varga High School and the Verseghy Library important, because again and again we must consider what we can draw from these works. The program looks varied and exciting, and it coincides with two new Poket releases (Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet). We wish you a good festival!

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

Shakespeare in the Air

Yesterday Shakespeare was all over the place: in song, dance, acting, reading, planning, and thoughts; in classrooms, the Drama room, the courtyard, Szolnok’s rose garden, the banks of the Tisza. The Shakespeare festival will be on Monday, and not only have we been preparing, but I have tried to expose all my classes to at least some Shakespeare, whether a song, or a scene from Hamlet, or a film. (One of my classes didn’t get any Shakespeare this week, but I’ll make it up to them.)

By no means is this coming from me alone, or anywhere close; the Drama Club has been practicing day after day, the Ferenc Verseghy librarians and staff have been working hard on preparations, and yesterday one of my students had to miss one of my rehearsals because he was also in a Drama Club rehearsal, also for the festival! The students have been dedicated and excited, colleagues have been stopping by to see the rehearsals, and the many flying details seem to have found a common orbital path.

In the video below, some students are skipping in a circle at the end of one outdoor rehearsal; the singing comes from a different group, with me leading. Yet another group sang the same song, and we walked outside to the rose garden and to the river to sing it again. I asked who would like to be in the group photo, and the girls and one of the boys promptly removed themselves, but the other boys proudly stayed. They are holding the lyrics to the song (“It was a lover and his lass,” from As You Like It).

That is all, because as usual, I have to run, and there will be much more to say after the festival on Monday!

The Upcoming Shakespeare Festival

Four years ago, I began discussing the idea for a Shakespeare festival with Katalin Cserfalvi at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library in Szolnok. We had already held two Shakespeare performances, in 2018 and 2019, and wanted to plan an event filled with student performances, workshops, lectures, and more. Twice we had to postpone our plans because of Covid, but the first Shakespeare festival, a joint project of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium and the Verseghy library, took place last year on April 22. It was a delightful day of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, songs, lectures, an art contest, a workshop, and a pogácsa (traditional Hungarian biscuit) for all.

This year, on April 24, student groups are coming from Sárospatak, Tiszafüred, Karcag, and Szolnok; József Rigó, director of Szolnok’s Híd Szinpad, will bring several scenes and lead a workshop; the afternoon workshops will be elective—there will be four to choose from, including my students’ Renaissance Dance workshop; and much more will happen. Amazingly, the festival falls on the heels of the publication of two Poket Shakespeare books: a volume of Romeo and Juliet, in the translation of Dezső Mészőly, and Hamlet, in the translation of János Arany. These will figure in the day somehow (but just how, I can’t reveal yet).

There are so many details to keep in mind and put together. For my students’ performance and workshop, we still need every bit of rehearsal time we can get, but I am confident that they will pull it together. For the rest, I am mostly concerned about giving the student groups dressing rooms, water, a warm welcome—and making sure all their technical needs are met. My school has been very supportive, and the library staff have been working on this event since the fall.

One of the most fun parts of this year’s preparation involves the cello; I am playing in the Varga Diákszínpad (Varga drama club) adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, along with a student flutist. I wrote two of the three melodies that we will be playing; the third is a well-known pavane. My bow gave out just last week, so I had to rush to Budapest to buy a second bow, which I will use while my main one is being rehaired. (I will probably use it at the festival itself; it isn’t quite as good as my main bow, but it works just fine.) The Varga drama club, directed by my colleague Zsuzsanna Kovácsné Boross, was one of the original reasons that I thought I’d like to teach at Varga. It is truly one of the school’s treasures, and it has changed students’ lives over the years. I am honored to be part of their performance this time.

Why Shakespeare, and why a Shakespeare festival? I think the festival itself answers this question. There is so much to be found in Shakespeare—language, poetry, confluences of the arts, insights into human nature, rich characters, translations—and so many ways of considering and performing his work, that a festival of this sort makes infinite room (even in a finite day) for learning, acting, and fun. I hope this will continue as an annual tradition, but first, let’s pull this off well!

I have to rush now, so here is Szolnok TV’s piece on last year’s festival.

A Documentary, a Full Weekend, and Many Thoughts

There are times when I wish I had a few more hours in a day to think about what happened in it. This afternoon, after getting a lot done (I wrote my Hungarian introduction to the Shakespeare festival, as well as a few words for the Renaissance dance workshop), I headed off to Budapest to see the premiere of Nyílnak befelé ablakok, a documentary directed by Zsófi Szász about Platon Karataev. The film presents the musicians in a human and profound way, with many beautiful moments. The artist Emőke Dobos—the inspiration for many of the songs, the creator of Platon Karataev art of many forms, and the wife of Gergely Balla—figures prominently in it too, as do other essential Platon colleagues (such as the sound engineer Ábel Zwickl). I don’t want to say more about it, because it will eventually be available online, with English subtitles.

But as I watched it, and as I listened to the discussion afterwards (the interviewer asked some superficial questions, which they answered thoughtfully and strongly), I realized once again why we were all there: first of all, for their music and their approach to it, second, to see this wonderful film. Beyond that, we have something in common with them and each other. As they themselves said in the interview, they aren’t sure why there would be a film about them in particular, or why their music in draws such large audiences (in contrast with, say, a superb jazz musician who might play for an audience of ten), but they are trying to give both the music and the situation their best. Their artistic directions and decisions are not for the sake of popularity; if people are drawn to their music, that means something to them, but they aren’t striving for big crowds and rave reviews. Nor do they lead glamorous lives; most of their work takes place behind the scenes, at home or in the studio, or in the long stretches of travel, or even when not much seems to be happening at all. Gergő spoke about how important fatherhood is for him; because of this, he would much rather go on several shorter tours than one or two long ones. The musicians shape their work according to what they hold dear and strive for, alone and together.

During this event, a joy wrapped me up, a new way of realizing (as I have realized many times, then somehow unrealized) that each life has its dignity, that each of us has something to do, and that it doesn’t matter how many people notice and applaud it. Yes, it is important to reach people, to have one’s work understood in some way—but this does not mean getting distracted by the numbers, the outward signs of success. The important thing is to make the work better and better, whatever it is—not only technically, though that too, but internally, in terms of what it is and where it goes. For this, our internal life has only our own secret flashlight shining on it, and sometimes not even that. Essential also are the daily habits and practices, which vary from person to person (some thrive with structure and discipline, while some need a little bit of laziness). Most important of all is to shut out unnecessary noise. Spiritual life (which sometimes we ourselves cannot see) lies at the center of it all, even for those who do not believe in God, because each of us has to contend at some point with the question: what is left when the things we take for granted are gone?

The previous day, I came to a concert that I loved: László Kollár-Klemencz with his band and an array of guest musicians spanning several generations. It was such a rich concert that it ran out of time, so unfortunately Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev), the last guest musician, could only play one of the songs he had intended to play. That moment of disappointment was nothing more than that, but it brought up memories. I remember playing cello on a few songs at a beloved musician’s concert, in San Francisco—and at the last minute, she crossed one of the songs off the list. I too have had times where I had to shorten a list, or adjust a program. On the surface, it’s a trifling matter, everyone will survive it, there will be more concerts. But in the moment, the person making the decision, or someone affected by it, including an audience member, can feel dismay. There’s a sacrifice here, a tiny one, but a sacrifice all the same. Sacrifice is nothing to fear, though. Without it, life loses meaning.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my students William Faulkner’s Nobel Banquet speech. It turned out to be very important for them, particularly what he says about sacrifice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Faulkner gave this speech in 1950, when the Cold War was underway, but today too we are beset by fears—not only of global warming, or world war, but of our own insignificance, of not being one of the “important” people. We are fed a daily propaganda that measures people in terms of their numbers, their following. Now, everyone who writes or creates in some way wants an audience. Even outside of creative work, people want to be recognized fairly. But start taking the numbers to heart, start letting them tell you your own worth, and you’re half dead. It’s a big distraction and delusion; it feels rotten. It takes time away from one of the most important things in the world: attention to someone or something beyond the self, which involves everything that Faulkner speaks of, even invisibly.

That will be all for now, because I have to rush off for a full day of school, including a Shakespeare rehearsal. The festival is a week away. May it be good.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, mostly for flow.

Religion’s Two Directions

There are at least two complementary ways of approaching religion: from the outside in, and from the inside out. The two influence each other and are difficult to separate, but the distinction remains. If you work from the outside in, you focus on commandments, rules, expectations, the things you are supposed to do (which shape your internal life as well). If you work from the inside out, you have a private relationship to God and to your faith. The attendant external practices may change over time. They, too, are important, but not as important as the internal relationship.

In Judaism, the external practices (which have deep layers and meanings) often receive the lion’s share of emphasis. This can be intimidating: if you can’t or don’t want to observe all of them, you may end up plagued with guilt and feelings of insufficiency. You imagine others disappointed in you, sorry for you, shaking their heads because you have gone off the derech (even if you were never Orthodox or close).

But this is illusory. The vast majority of Jews, like Christians, find a way that rings true for them (and many are not religious at all). It isn’t static, either; it can change over time. Nor is this flexibility exclusively modern. On the Jewish side of my family, some of my ancestors were observant, some atheists, and some in between. On the French/Norwegian/Irish/Dutch side, some (the French) were Huguenots, from what I gather. I was brought up without any religion at all. So I am not betraying a sacred family tradition. To the contrary: I have been more drawn to religion than most of my living family members, as far as I know, and my ancestors were quite a mixture.

I have been fretting for a long time about not being able (or not wanting) to observe Shabbat and some other holidays strictly, especially when it comes to abstinence from writing. But wouldn’t it be good to think of this differently? Instead of worrying about all the rules I’m breaking on Shabbat (or today, the second day of Pesach, also a holiday), I can do something special instead, something that commemorates the day. I already do this through Szim Salom, but I could have my own ritual too—something that can be done anywhere, so that I can keep it even when traveling.

Once, in New York City, a dear friend and her partner (a Conservative Jew) invited me over for Shabbat dinner. They have a ritual of dancing together on Friday night before the Shabbat meal, and so they invited me to dance too, the three of us around in a circle. It was so joyous. Then, when the challah came out of the oven, they took pictures, happily, without compunction. Technically, on Shabbat you are not supposed to create; pictures count as a form of creation. But isn’t the joy more important here (and the possibility of keeping the pictures for the memories)? I still have those pictures.

I know there’s an argument for not allowing this kind of laxity. Once you start bending this law, you’ll start bending others too, and then the whole house of Shabbat potentially warps beyond recognition. But does it, really? Or does the bending allow some of us a home?

In all my religious quests, I have come to a point where the external expectations (as I perceived them) became too much for me, and I drifted away. I am not inclined to live by a community’s standards, besides treating people decently, fulfilling my basic responsibilities, and contributing something to the common good. Beyond that, I need space to think and act on my own, to listen in quiet to something. The deeper question here is whether I am doing that to the fullest.

There is room here for not drifting away, for persevering and treating religion as a private matter, aside from the parts related to shul, leading services, leyning, etc. This is not hypocritical; I don’t pretend to be anything I am not. Szim Salom is not going to drop me as their cantor because I write or take pictures on Shabbat. (The community does not prohibit this, even at shul; members routinely take notes during Torah study on Shabbat, for instance, and take photos and videos on certain special Shabbat occasions.) They need me and value what I bring. If one day they find someone who can offer more in this role, or if for some reason I can’t do it any more, I will step back. In the meantime, I lead services with joy.

Expectations and religious laws aside, there is something to be said for putting aside writing, picture-taking, and all those things for a little while. Especially in this era of hyper-publicity, where people compulsively “put stuff out there,” it’s good to hold back now and then, or to be able to do so. Yesterday I was a guest speaker in a seminar taught by a friend; we talked about solitude and my book Republic of Noise. Much of the discussion revolved around privacy. What happens to us when we feel that we have to post myriad tidbits of our lives, our work, our thoughts online, moment after moment? When we do it not because we really want to, but because we get some temporary affirmation that way? What happens when we lose the muscle, the consciousness, the resonance for keeping something to ourselves?

Shabbat could be a time for taking one hour away from the phone, computer, social media: one hour for taking things in without immediately crafting a response. Maybe without writing—but the writing, if it did take place, would be offline, in a notebook. An hour doesn’t seem like much, but a lot can happen in that stretch. No one would have to know about it: Shabbat is not an assignment to be graded.

This may sound like “buffet-style” religion, where you pick and choose what you want, but but that derogatory term presumes that things were handled differently in a purer past, which is not so. The past is filled with religious variety and divergences. Official dogma and private practices have always been somewhat at odds, across the religions; and official practices themselves varied and changed. The variety does not necessarily lead to laxity; I still devote hours to preparing for leyning, for instance, and am now teaching others to leyn too. Leyning—which I have been doing for over nine years now—is nothing if not precise; I love the precision and immersion.

Consistency, then? Could one make an argument for a consistent practice, whatever it might be? Yes; there’s much to be said for having a practice in the first place. Even so, something within the practice will change at some point, turning into an inconsistency, and the person will have to seek a new unity.

There are those who believe that this is all too complicated and tenuous and that it’s much better to keep to a time-honored structure. For some, this is indeed the case. But even if you keep to a structure, you will adapt it somewhat to your beliefs and circumstances, unless you are extremely strict, live within a strict community, and plan your life so that you don’t inadvertently break any laws.

Strict observance carries its own joys, freedom, knowledge, and wisdom—as well as intimacy, when it takes part in a family. It is just not everyone’s way. For some of us, going “off the derech” (in some sense) means finding not only our own way, but a resonance within it, an affinity with others. For some (including me), religion is solitary at the center and involves departure from expectations. It is still possible, within this solitude, to participate in services, be among others, and take part in old traditions (we had a joyous community seder on Wednesday night)—but the solitude gives life to all the rest.

Tomorrow, in addition to leyning, I will chant the special Hafatarah for this Shabbat: Ezekiel 37:1-14, about the Valley of Dry Bones. This was the first Haftarah, or any Biblical text, that I ever chanted in shul (in April 2014); I had chosen it because of its intense meaning for me. This Haftarah is filled with solitude, but not only solitude. There is dialogue between Ezekiel and God. There are bones beginning to stir, come back together, join with sinews and flesh. But without the solitude, these verses could not exist. Similarly (but profoundly differently), without solitude, I would not have come to shul in the first place.

So yes, there is room for something better than fretting, something true, something that honors a full and questioning life in its many possible forms.

Happy Pesach, happy Easter to all who observe them!

Prague, Part 2: Walks, Thoughts, Conversation, Return

Waking up in Prague with sore legs from all the running and walking, and a mind filled with the previous day, I heated up water for coffee, had a tangerine and banana (I had managed to get to a grocery store late the previous night), and indulged in a few lazy hours before heading out for more exploring. (You can read about the previous day here—I made some additions to the piece after posting it.)

Those few morning hours were among the best parts of the trip: sifting through thoughts, going through pictures, writing a blog piece. The next time I visit Prague, I will try to stay at the same place; it was so inexpensive, comfortable, quiet, and convenient to everything I wanted to see and hear.

As I mentioned in a comment, the experience of getting lost (on the way to the Platon Karataev show) had become one of the highlights, since it had so much to do with the winding, elliptical, paradoxical city that Prague is. The contradictory directions I received from various people had an absurd touch tot hem—and my panic over possibly missing the show made the arrival joyous, which it would have been anyway, but in a different way. Rushing in the door, hearing “Aphelion” in the background, scrambling to show my electronic ticket, and then joining the enraptured audience.

For the next day, I wanted to visit the Old Town, but without any specific plans. I wanted just to wander through the streets and take things in. That’s what I often like to do when visiting a new place. I finally headed out into the blustery day (at around 9:30) and crossed the Legion Bridge slowly, pausing to look at the circling birds. (I will put together a video later.) When I reached the Old Town, it wasn’t yet filled with tourists, though this would change shortly. I wandered through streets, looking at the architecture, the rain-darkened pastel colors, the street art, and taking in sounds of bells, music, conversation in different languages. The previous day, I had heard Hungarian everywhere, not only at the club, but up near the Metronome and elsewhere. Today I mostly heard Czech, Russian, German (though that was soon to change). I was lucky to come upon the statue of Kafka before people had started crowding and posing around it. A little girl was standing next to it, but her father didn’t seem to mind that I took a picture right then.

As the time to head back to the train station approached, I started regretting that I hadn’t visited a synagogue. Then I looked up, and right there, behind the Kafka statue, was the Spanish Synagogue! I went inside, hoping to take a look at the interior, but they only sold tickets for full tours of the Jewish District. You could take the tour with a tour guide, or on your own with a headset, but there were no other choices. I didn’t have time for the tour (and often don’t like guided tours anyway, since they take the exploring away) and walked around. I saw a few other synagogues, kosher groceries and restaurants, and other Jewish entities. At this point the tourists had started thronging everywhere. I understand people who strategically visit the Old Town when not many tourists are around, because at this point people were crowding around and posing for photos, and anyway, it was just about time to go.

I walked back over the river, up the steep hill toward the Metronome, said goodbye to it, and headed on, upwards, upwards, northward and eastward. I managed to get there half an hour before the train’s departure. On the train platform, I heard Hungarian all around me. The train arrived (a few minutes late); I found my window seat, which once again had a table, allowing me to set up the laptop and resume work on edits to translations, as well as preparations for Pesach and Shabbat.

Speaking of that, some may find it disconcerting that I worked on the train the previous day, on Shabbat. This is where I am in life, both spiritually and practically. When it comes to translations and writing and general, I seize the time that I can find. (In this case there was an extremely tight deadline and lots to do.) On weekdays I am often tired after teaching; I still manage to do a little, but it’s the stretches of time that I need the most. Also, my cantorial responsibilities at Szim Salom make my alternate Shabbatot quite busy (with the preparation, travel, and service-leading), so I feel an even greater need for flexibility on the “free” Shabbatot. I trust that if there is a God, this God does not condemn me. A person can do so much worse. Also, writing for me it is a kind of immersion and meditation, which to me are not contrary to the spirit of Shabbat. Then again, I do lots of other things that are considered forbidden on Shabbat: take pictures, buy food if I need it, travel, play music, etc. There is certainly room for more of a Shabbat structure; I am ambivalent, though, over whether I want that. This is a complex subject for another time; back to the train.

At one point I went to the dining car and had a goulash and Kékfrankos wine. Both were actually quite tasty. The dining car was filled, and the staff overworked, but I had time. The main waiter recognized me from the previous day.

When I returned to my seat, two women (who had boarded in Bratislava) were sitting across from me. We greeted each other (in Hungarian). I had put away my laptop; I now focused on leyning (silently). I noticed that they were studying something together too. Then I heard Hebrew pronouns; one of them was tutoring the other in Hebrew! I looked up in surprise and exclaimed, “héber nyelv!” They asked me if I spoke Hebrew; I showed them the text that I was leyning. The conversation took off. They had been to Bratislava for a day of intensive Hebrew and were preparing for the continuation (online, the following day). We started talking about all kinds of things (in Hungarian). As it turned out, many people on that particular train car were Jewish, some returning from that very session in Bratislava, others not. Cookies, greetings, goodwill, exuberance made the rounds.

The train arrived in Budapest about forty-five minutes late, giving me a good fifteen minutes to transfer to the train heading to Szolnok. The second train ride was uneventful, but that was just fine. Then the homecoming: Dominó and Sziszi ran up to me when I came in the door, and I fed them right away. I sat down at my desk and sent off the edited translations.

Now I have to turn my thoughts to the week and head out the door to school.

Friends Are Not Vitamins

In the U.S. it has become fashionable to seek the number of friends that will do the most for your health. Numerous news articles, research summaries, and opinion pieces aim to help readers find their ideal number. Something is terribly wrong here; I recognize that friends can be good for my health, but I do not make or keep friends to boost my health. Many friendships are circumstantial and helpful, but that doesn’t mean I have to view them primarily in terms of what they do for me. I can at least try to consider the friend’s needs too, and the nature of the friendship itself.

Catherine Pearson’s recent New York Times article “How Many Friends Do You Really Need?” has a bit more subtlety than appears at first; toward the end, she suggests that soul-searching may help you more than research findings when it comes to determining the right number for you. She also suggests that different friends bring out different parts of you—so a question may be whether there’s a part of you that isn’t finding expression. Still, the the article generally presumes that we should be looking at our friends the way we consider our diet or exercise: Am I getting the right amount (and the right kind)?

This is wrong not only because quality matters more than quantity, and not only because people differ in their definitions of friendship and the kinds that they want or need. What the article entirely ignores is the responsibility of friendship. Instead of asking “Do I have the right number of friends?” a person might ask, “Am I good to my friends?”

The exercise of responsibility in friendship might do more good, in itself, than the mere collection of friends. Thinking of a friend, contacting a friend, accepting a friend’s invitation, helping a friend in need, speaking frankly and kindly to a friend, speaking well of a friend, giving a friend space—any of these acts takes attention and commitment (attention, moreover, to someone other than yourself). The article says nothing about this.

Also, the article, like many others in its vein, ignores solitude and what it can do for friendship. Solitude complements friendship in that you can bring something of one state to the other. I learned something from a friend; I bring it into my time alone. During my time alone, I read something, listened to something, considered something from a new angle; this I can bring into my friendship, directly or indirectly.

Solitude also helps a person handle the many levels and forms of friendship. Someone with whom you spend less time is not necessarily less important in your life. Pearson quotes research suggesting that friends need to spend about 200 hours together to be close—but there are important friendships that come nowhere near those hours. If you think you “should” be spending more time together, then you might reject the friendship for what it is. Solitude can give honor to the limits.

Pearson also suggests that friends we feel ambivalent about—for any number of reasons—might be bad for our health (and therefore worth dropping, presumably). That relates to the fad of cutting the “toxic” people out of your life. It is true that some people are so demanding, inconsiderate, and self-absorbed that they take the joy out of a friendship. But those are the extremes. Often an ambivalence is worth living with or working through, because all of us are imperfect. Sometimes a friendship needs time to find its proper form and rhythm; until then, it may go through some awkward bumps. That is not a reason to drop a friend.

I brought the Pearson article to my students, because I wanted to show them how to read it critically. First we read it together, just for meaning. Then I asked them to read it again and identify its underlying assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. Finally, I asked them whether they found any part of it questionable—that is, any of the assumptions, arguments, and conclusions. I stressed that questioning a part of it was not the same as dismissing or debunking it; the point was not to attack the article, but to identify which parts or aspects convinced them less than other parts. Their observations were keen; I hope to do something like this again.

In the U.S. there’s an obsession with continually boosting your personal numbers. There’s an assumption that you should always be on the up-and-up, whether with happiness, friendship, jobs, or anything else. Not only does this tend toward superficiality, but it also ignores the importance of rest: not just sleep and relaxation, but the act of letting something be.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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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