Keeping Time

The winter break was close to ideal. I had two warm invitations to homes, spent lots of time reading, writing, preparing for the Pilinszky event, listening to music, playing cello, resting, and thinking, and went to three concerts (Jazzékiel, Kolibri, and Idegen/Esti Kornél). There were stretches of quiet time with nowhere to rush to, no deadlines to meet except for my own. Many Hungarians assume that a life like this must be lonely. But no, I thrive in these conditions: for instance, right now. I got up at 4:30, and the sun has not come up yet. Two hours, so far, of quiet and dark. I love company too, in good measure.

I came upon the above painting by chance (by Sally Sharp, a painter I had never heard of before) when looking for something else. It reminds me of Cz.K. Sebő’s song “Got Lost” (the first of three interludes on his album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?). I have listened to the album many times now and keep looking forward to the next time. There’s so much more I want to listen to, too, but this is how I tend to read and listen: over and over, and then slowly making my way to other things.

On December 31 I re-recorded the first of my five Pilinszky cello covers. This is the third attempt and the best of the three. I intend to record them all—whether by myself, at home, or with someone else’s assistance. But I like how this came out in terms of tone and mood.

Tomorrow school resumes. I will try to keep some of this restfulness, but the next few months will be fairly intense. I am planning a Shakespeare festival, scheduled for April 22, with the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár (the public library). We don’t know for sure whether it will be possible to hold it, but given that it will be fairly small, we should be able to work it out, unless we enter a new Covid lockdown. The most important thing is to help my students prepare Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs. If we have the content (which won’t be wasted in any case), the rest will come together.

And a month before that, the Pilinszky event will take place! Lots of people have shown interest on Facebook, but there’s no telling until the event itself how many people will attend. In any case, now is the time for me to step up the invitations, in addition to continuing with the preparations. You, too, can invite people. We welcome anyone interested in poetry, songs and songwriting, translation, languages, Hungarian, and Pilinszky himself.

That’s in addition to regular teaching, Folyosó, translations, writing, and much more. On April 12, my translation of Gyula Jenei’s Mindig más will appear! (Publication was originally scheduled for February, but there were some delays.) Also, very soon, six poems by Csenger Kertai, in my English translation, will appear (two apiece) in Asymptote, Literary Imagination, and Literary Matters.

Now the sun is up, though dimly. Time for me to go on to other things. First of all, because it’s on my mind, and because I might not have time or presence of mind for this over the coming weeks, I want to watch the first of Laurie Anderson’s Norton Lectures. A friend has been recommending them for months, but I kept missing them while they were going on. Now they can all be watched online. Happy New Year to all!

Art credit: Sally Sharp, “Walkin Out” (oil/cold wax).

Happy Celebrations

The students of class 11.C gave their caroling performance today, which they had planned, organized, and rehearsed all on their own. All their homeroom teacher and I did was give them time to prepare it; they handled all the rest. In accordance with our annual tradition, they went from room to room, performing it for different classes and for the faculty. I watched five of the performances. They were spirited, well danced, well sung (the singing was recorded in advance, because of Covid restrictions), and full of humor and goodwill.

That was most of the day for me; in the remaining time, I had conversations with my classes, but Tuesday is a short day for me anyway. Then, in the afternoon, we had a lovely faculty celebration. Several faculty and staff members were honored, the principal spoke kindly to us, we greeted each other at a reception, and then we all headed down to the school lunchroom for a tasty meal.

At the end of the evening, there were gift bags waiting for each of us. Each year we receive a gift bag for the holidays, but this one had a special element: a personalized “Christmas passport” made for each of us, with a collection of anonymous positive comments about us from our colleagues. Somehow I overlooked the announcement that these comments were being collected; I would have had a lot to say about others! But the comments I received were so warm and heartening, they give a lift to the holidays and the new year. Thank you, all of you. I am so honored to be working with you.

I think back on 2017 and 2018, when we had our most recent Christmas concerts, organized by the music teacher, Andrea Barnáné Bende, and held in the Református Templom. Those were glowing events, filled with student performances—choral music, guitar, other instruments—and a faculty number or two. Here we are singing “Hymne a la nuit” at the December 2017 concert. It was a great welcome to the school.

In 2018, the faculty song was in Hungarian, “Karácsonyi álom,” and we had a few students singing with us too. I was so excited to do this that I memorized the song and practiced it a lot. But I had no idea that a surprise had been planned. You will see what I mean.

In 2019, everyone was so busy that there wasn’t time to prepare a concert like this. Then came Covid. But this year, even without a concert or live singing, we had celebrations that brought us together. As before, there was a genuineness and beauty to them. Thanks to everyone for this.

The Right to Be Astonished

Lazy days do not come often for me, but I love them when they come. A time for slow movement and stillness. A time to look at the paintings on my wall. A time to think things over. A time to listen to music without having to rush anywhere afterward. A time to go on a longer run than usual. I do have a few things to do today, but with the exception of one assignment I need to create for my students, there’s no immediate deadline. And the winter break (short but substantial) is around the corner.

Thoughts pass through my mind, weaving around each other. I think about an essay that a student wrote about human abilities. The essay concludes (I am quoting with the student’s permission): “In the end we shouldn’t forget that to be amazed by something or give an opinion on it is also an ability. Day after day we keep getting impressed by others. We should keep going like this, and affect the future, who will also have the right to be astonished.”

The right to be astonished! I was astonished by the phrase itself. Astonishment is often put down as naive. People hesitate to show it or even feel it. What a shame and loss. People hold back from astonishment because they don’t want to be embarrassed or look like fools. But the world would be better with such fools. Awe and astonishment are indeed abilities, and they are real. They mean that something reached you, some kind of beauty or meaning, and that you were able to receive it. No single person receives it everywhere, but each of us takes part in a larger perception.

If we hold back out of shame or self-consciousness, the student suggests, we are not only denying our own astonishment, our own ability, but affecting the future too. To say (in words or otherwise) that “this is beautiful” is to allow such things to be said.

A few things have astonished me in the past week, including Cz.K. Sebő’s album How could I show you the beauty of a life in vain?, the Torah portion that I chanted yesterday (Genesis 50:15-26), the Sándor Csoóri event that I attended yesterday (a discussion, held at the Petőfi Literary Museum, between Miklós Vecsei and Gergely Balla, with music by Balla—a song he wrote that draws on nine Csoóri poems), a video premiere of the Platon Karataev duo performing “Partért kiáltó,” and passages in Hamlet, which my eleventh-grade students are close to finishing now.

Then last night I came upon something that topped it all off. A student had posted a new photo of herself on Facebook. (Here it is common for teachers and students to be “friends” on Facebook and even to use Facebook for classroom-related communication, so I see these updates from time to time.) Another student commented, “you caught my eyes just like the pirates caught Hamlet.” (We had just read the scene where Hamlet tells Horatio in a letter about having been captured, and thereby rescued, by pirates.) What a beautiful Hamlet reference! That’s why it’s possible to read Hamlet again and again; there’s no end to what it can evoke, what associations it can form in different minds, lives, stages of life.

Oh, and I forgot one other thing. After the Csoóri event, I had a little time before my train back to Szolnok, so I walked to the Keleti station and had two slices of pizza at a nearby chain restaurant. It isn’t always easy to find good pizza in Hungary (by which I mean pizza with a crackling thin crust and light, fresh toppings), but this place has them, and this time they had plain (tomato sauce and cheese) slices. And those slices were so delicate and delicious that I could have eaten two more, but by then it was time to catch the train, which was just as well, because I also had chicken soup waiting for me at home.

So yes, I claim my right to be astonished, and I will not give it up.

The photo is of three paintings by Cz.K. Sebő. Instead of selling physical CDs, he is selling a series of tiny mood-paintings, which come with download codes (so that they include the full album as well as two forthcoming demo songs). I bought this series of three and intended to give two away as gifts—but love what they give to the room and will not part with them.

“Ez lesz”: Playing Cello at the Eső Evening

About two weeks ago, Gyula Jenei invited me to take part in an event for the Eső literary magazine, of which he is the founder and editor in chief. Eső has been important to me since the fall of 2018, when I first became aware of it; I have many of the issues and have learned about many Hungarian writers by reading it and attending the events. He wanted me to play cello between the pieces, and a thought came to mind: what about playing a few Pilinszky miniatures—that is, Pilinszky poems set to cello? I hadn’t chosen the poems yet, or worked out the cello and singing parts, but I knew I could pull this together.

Gyula put me in touch with the event organizer, the kind and ebullient István Turczi, who had a grander plan: there should be five short Pilinszky pieces and a longer classical piece at the end. I had my work cut out for me for the next ten days or so.

I was going to play everything from memory, but for the classical piece, I needed to practice from sheet music at first, and that narrowed the choices considerably. I chose the first movement of Bach’s third cello suite, with some trepidation, because the piece is relentless and I don’t know that I have ever performed it. In addition, I had barely touched the cello all fall, because I have been working on two translation projects, one of which, the Jászberényi, is now done (a draft, that is).

So, on the days when I could, I practiced two to four hours. For the Pilinszky, I would hum and play rough drafts until something took hold. The five poems I chose were “A tengerpartra,” “Akár a föld,” “Amiként kezdtem,” “Metronóm,” and “Ez lesz.” The melodies and atmospheres did in fact take shape; once I had them in my mind, the real practicing began. Here’s a recording of one of them (it isn’t perfect, and I intend to make a better recording of all five, but it gives a basic idea).

As for the Bach, the challenge was different and in some ways much greater, since there was the piece, written centuries ago, and there were my fingers, not quite up to it. I worked on it from different angles and heard it getting better day by day, but didn’t know if it would be anywhere close to ready by Monday. On Sunday I felt a kind of panic and was tempted to contact István and cancel the Bach. But i didn’t.

Then came the event. Such a warm and interesting occasion, in the lovely Szigligeti Kanapé, a performance space with raked audience seats (sloping upward, so everyone can see), a carpeted stage (great for the cello, no chance that the peg will slip out of place), a great program, and the greatest audience in the world: Varga students, a few Varga teachers, and a few others. István Turczi interviewed the writers (Gyula Jenei, Magor Molnár, and Ahmed Amran), and each of them read from their work; at certain transition points, I played a piece. The Pilinszky went over beautifully, even better than I had hoped; it miraculously worked. I tried to relax in between the pieces and listen to the readings, but this was only partly possible; I was making sure in my mind that I remembered the upcoming piece. At one point I thought I had forgotten the third line of “Metronóm.” What was it? What could it be? Then it came back: “a szálkák mozdulatlan jelenét.” As it turned out, “Metronóm” may have been the best of all the pieces. But two pieces later, Ahmed Amran (a Yemeni author who has been living in Szolnok for about twenty-five years and writes in Hungarian) read his story “A földdombok,” which I had read a few times before, and I was surprised to realize that the very ending was going to connect perfectly with the Pilinszky piece that followed.

Azok a földdombok ereszkednek le hozzá, amelyek mellkasukat nyítottak neki, hogy meglelje gyermekkori örömét és a halal végtelen csendjét.

(Those hills descending down toward him are the ones that bared their breasts to him so that he could land upon childhood happiness and the infinite quiet of death.)

And then, immediately afterwards, and closing the Pilinszky series, “Ez lesz”:

Ez lesz

Oszlás-foszlás, vánkosok csendje,
békéje annak, ami kihűlt, hideg lett,
mindennél egyszerűbb csend, ez lesz.

(That Is to Be

Dithering-withering, the quiet of pillows,
the peace of a thing now chilled, gone cold,
a quiet simpler than everything: that is to be.)

And then, after some closing remarks and memories of Eső contributors who had passed away, it was time to finish up with the Bach. “What will be, will be,” I thought, and plunged in. It went a lot better than I had feared. It wasn’t perfect—mostly because I wasn’t anywhere close to perfect in my playing, but also because the cello needed new strings and a higher bridge, which I didn’t undertake before the evening because of all the adjustments involved (not to mention the necessary trip to Budapest). But I played it all the way through without breaking down or losing momentum, and there were some nice moments along the way. In retrospect, I see that I could have chosen something shorter and simpler. But I didn’t know that at the time. I think it was important to do this anyway, because every bit of practicing helped, and it helped the Pilinszky too.

People loved the evening: the readings, discussion, music, and whole atmosphere. Afterwards a few of us went out to a restaurant to talk for a little while. Someone suggested that I record the Pilinszky pieces. I had already thought of doing it, but now I am thinking of doing something other than a home recording, so that it really comes out well. We talked about this and that for at least an hour, and then Marianna and Gyula took me home. I am grateful that Gyula and István invited me to be part of this, and that Marianna took so many photos. And that we had such a good audience. In some way I feel part of Eső now, and the cello has been yanked back into my life in the happiest of ways.

P.S. Speaking of Pilinszky, do come to the online Pilinszky event (hosted by the ALSCW, and featuring special guests Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly, Csenger Kertai, and Gergely Balla, with me as interviewer and moderator) on March 20! Here’s the informational website, and here’s the Facebook event page.

Folyosó, Translations, Cello, and More

The Autumn 2021 issue of Folyosó came out last week, and it is stunning. Take some time with the contest winners, which address the question, “Life is full of contradictions, but how well can you express this through a story, poem, dialogue, essay, or other written form?” The depth, and range or these pieces will bring color to your late autumn and far beyond. I wish I could introduce Roza Kaplan’s “Raindrops in the Darkness” (the story itself) to Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song itself). I think they would have a lot to say to each other. But the contest is only part of the issue; there are essays, stories, absurdist plays, and an extraordinary long poem with such intricate layout that we embedded it as a PDF (the first time we have done this).

One thing that made this issue unusual was the care and thought that the students put into the writing over time. Several students kept revising their pieces on their own initiative and sending me new drafts. One piece didn’t go in to the fall issue, because it needs some more time, but it’s so remarkable that I will be working with the author and featuring it in the winter issue.

Beyond Folyosó, a lot is happening over here. Asymptote has accepted two of my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems for their January 2022 issue. Two more translations of Kertai’s poems will be appearing in a forthcoming issue (maybe the March 2022 issue?) of Literary Imagination. (Update: Literary Matters accepted two as well—so six of the translations will be appearing in the coming months!)

On other translation fronts, I have finished the full first draft of my translation of Sándor Jászberényi’s story collection A varjúkirály. Now there will be revisions, but that will be easier, since the manuscript now exists. Translating this book in the summer and fall, on top of teaching and other things, made for a rather intense stretch. Now I am turning to some other things that have been waiting.

One of these is music. On December 13, I will play cello at a literary evening hosted by the literary journal Eső. whose editor-in-chief is Gyula Jenei (whose collection Mindig más will be published in my English translation in February 2022, by Deep Vellum in Dallas). At the Eső event, according to the current plan (which might change), I will play five cello/voice renditions of Pilinszky poems, in between the main readings. I am very excited but also anxious, since there are two days this week when I will not be able to practice (I have to go to Budapest on Tuesday afternoon for passport renewal, and on Wednesday afternoon for a doctor’s appointment). But I think the practice time will be just enough. (Speaking of Pilinszky, there has been great interest in the March 20 event! Stay tuned for updates in January.)

This morning something special is happening: I have been invited to visit the Sipos Orbán high school to speak English with the students, who have never met a native speaker before. I am looking forward to that very much.

And concerts abound: On December 16, I will be going to hear the Cz.K. Sebő band play their record release show. This is Sebő’s first full-length solo (or rather, solo-with-band) album, after years of singles and EPs (and along with Platon Karataev recordings). Noémi Barkóczi, whose new album I love, will be opening. I can’t wait. Later in the month I will get to hear Jazzékiel (December 23) and Esti Kornél and Felső Tízezer (December 30). Then, on January 28, Platon Karataev will play their record release show for their third album. I had the honor of attending the record listening party on Saturday. It is an incredible album; I think it will move people around the world. Language will not be a barrier, because it goes beyond language. (It’s their first album in Hungarian; the earlier ones were in English, with the exception of a bonus track.)

We are closing in to the winter break; on December 21, my students in the eleventh grade will give the traditional caroling performance. Although they will not be singing (it isn’t possible under current Covid rules), they recorded themselves in advance and will play this recording as they perform their skit. They have been going about this with ingenuity and cheer.

This is all that I have time to talk about; I must get ready. I have a feeling that I’m leaving something out, but if so, it will come up another time.

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.

Breaking Glass (my essay in The Nation)

Yesterday, for the first time, I had an essay published in The Nation. It’s about the current push in U.S. schools for curricula that reflects the students’ demographic characteristics. I take issue specifically with NYU Metro Center’s Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, which enables teachers, schools, parents, and others to rate their curriculum on the basis of its demographic representation, social justice messages, and inclusive classroom practices. I considered how Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie, which I have read and reread, loved, and taught over the decades, would fare under such a system.

I see diversity, whether in a student body or in the works that students read, as a good or a means toward a good. But diversity is not just demographic; there’s also diversity of thought and character. Nor does it tower above other considerations, especially when it comes to curricula. A curriculum also needs coherence and progression, as well as imagination and substance. When it comes to literature, the works should have room to exist on their own terms: to surprise and challenge the readers, to take them to new places. Literature does not bend to our expectations or squeeze into our categories. Its beauty lies in its way of taking its own way.

Cultural responsiveness is a little different from diversity. It has to do with reflecting the students’ characteristics. Its underlying premise, or one of them, is that students will be more motivated and feel more affirmed if they recognize themselves in the curriculum. While helpful up to a point (self-recognition can indeed be affirming), it runs into two problems. First, students will not necessarily recognize themselves in works that supposedly reflect their own background. Second, students need more than self-recognition; they also need to be challenged and exposed to new ideas.

I remember my disappointment when I first started reading women writers (beyond the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen). I didn’t relate to them more than to male writers; “women’s writing” did not seem particularly close to me. That said, some of the writers fascinated me (and still do), not because they resembled me, but because they were interesting and brilliant in themselves: Flannery O’Connor, Virginia Woolf, Alice Walker (particularly in her short stories), Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and others.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the essay, and if you disagree or quibble with it, that’s fine! And do consider attending tomorrow’s online ALSCW event, “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture.”

Image source: Cult MTL.

Upcoming Events

This is the busiest fall I can remember in years, and there have been quite a few busy ones. Teaching is in full swing, with all kinds of interesting things: Hamlet, utopia projects (my students read a few chapters of Thomas More’s Utopia and are now creating utopias of their own), The Glass Menagerie, songs, grammar, lively discussions, test practice, the usual textbook stuff, and more.

Outside of school, just as much is going on: translations, writing, events. Speaking of events, I have two to announce.

On October 15, I will be one of the panelists in an ALSCW Zoom event titled “General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture,” which will feature an array of speakers, as well as poetry readings by Edward Hirsch and Yusef Komunyakaa. It should be terrific. The full event description and Zoom information can be found here. The event is free and open to the public.

On October 26, I will be the fourth featured guest in The MacMillan Institute’s online Poetry series (open to the public for an entrance fee of $10.00; please register in advance). The previous guests were Fred Turner, Sarah Cortez, and Dana Gioia. I will be reciting and talking about poetry and translation (both my own and others’). One of the poems I plan to recite is Pilinszky’s “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight labyrinth”), both in the original and in the wonderful translation of Géza Simon. To anyone in Hungary: you are welcome to attend, but please know that it starts at 1 a.m. on October 27 here! Fortunately we will be on spring break, so I can sleep in afterwards.

Speaking of Pilinszky, I should have some news, fairly soon, about an ALSCW Zoom event I intend to host in the spring, dedicated to Pilinszky and his influence. Details are still being worked out, so I will say more when there is more to say.

Also, if all goes well, we (my school and the Verseghy Ferenc Public Library in Szolnok) will hold a Shakespeare festival on April 22! We had hoped to do this last year, but Covid got in the way. This day-long festival will feature lectures, workshops, and student performances (in Hungarian and English) of Shakespeare scenes, sonnets, and songs.

Before that, this fall and winter, there will be two new issues of Folyosó. Submissions are now open for the autumn issue; the international contest focuses on the topic of contradictions in life. I look forward to seeing what pieces come in (I have already read a few) and what shape this issue takes!

At Szim Salom, I am leading four services this month. One took place on Friday; the other three will be this Friday, this Saturday, and Saturday the 23rd. In my case, leading the services means singing all the musical parts, all the melodic liturgy, leyning Torah, and leading the congregation through the parts of the service. When I co-lead with the rabbi (on Saturdays), she leads the spoken parts and usually gives a dróse (a D’var Torah, or sermon). This month, the Saturday services will take place in person, at Bálint Ház in Budapest.

There’s a lot more going on, but I think that’s enough. As for other people’s events, this afternoon I am going to Budapest to hear Csenger Kertai (whose poems I am translating) and several other poets: Krisztián Peer, Katalin Szlukovényi, Dávid Börzsei, and Bálint Borsi. Like the event at the A38 Hajó, but differently, this event will combine poetry with music and visual art.

Also, there’s a concert I’d like to hear on Thursday—a double CD release party for Noémi Barkóczi and Mayberian Sanskülotts—but for various reasons I don’t think I can go. I will listen to their music at home, and if it turns out that I can go, I will.

Other things, other concerts are happening this month, but this is enough for now.

The photo is of the Aranytoll (Golden Pen), a pen and stationery shop here in Szolnok. (At least I think that’s what it is; I haven’t been inside yet.)

Running, Radio, and Rest

A busy summer vacation filled with translation, travel, and concerts has come to an end, though the translation and concerts continue. We have a faculty meeting tomorrow morning and will then be officially back on board, though the week is fairly light for some of us. The following week, September 1, is when classes start. I am assuming that nothing will prevent me from going to Fishing on Orfű this Thursday, though that could change. I’m going only for a night, since I have to be back before Friday evening to lead an online Szim Salom service. I will arrive at the festival in time to pitch my tent and then hear the Platon Karataev acoustic duo (Gergő and Sebő) play on the water stage. Then I will find my way to the Fonó Borfalu to hear Dávid Szesztay; I will probably stay there to hear Szeder (for the first time), and then walk around and explore. But to do this, it won’t be possible to bring the bike, unfortunately; it turns out that there are no available bike spaces on the trains from Budapest to Pécs. Instead, I will take the train to Pécs (from Szolnok, via Budapest, without a bike), then take a public bus from Pécs to Orfű. That will also allow me to get back home earlier on Friday.

I am looking forward to the school year; I have lots of plans for my classes, and this year, if we are lucky, we (the public library and the school) will actually be able to hold a Shakespeare festival.

But on to the subjects of this post: running, radio, and rest.

Running is my favorite form of exercise after bicycling, when I am relatively in shape. Recently I have been running a mile almost every day, which isn’t much compared to what I used to do at my peak (five miles twice a week or so), but still an improvement over the recent years. I think I could work back up to five miles, but I have to do it carefully. Anyway, running takes off the excess energy, elongates the body, and just feels great. So much for that.

Now, radio. For most of my life, I wasn’t much of a radio listener. It wasn’t on at home when I was growing up, and while my first encounters with radio were enchanting (I still remember the songs that played the day that I stayed home with a fever and listened), I usually couldn’t take that endless stream of Top 40 hits. Only later did I become aware of independent radio, and even then, I preferred to choose what to listen to. But over time, I came to realize how great a well-run radio show can be. If it’s a good show, it introduces you to music you will want to hear again, maybe music you would never have encountered on your own. The DJ not only knows a lot of music and has an enormous repertoire to select from, but also enjoys selecting and commenting on things.

It takes some dedication to listen to the radio. I don’t work with music in the background—I have to focus on the music, if it’s on—so I pick one radio show a week and stay for the whole thing if possible. Most recently, this show has been WFMU’s Continental Subway, with DJ David Dichelle. It’s a fantastic show. He plays music from all around the world, and knows how to pronounce the names and titles. In the third hour, the “Random Road,” he focuses on one country in particular, a surprise location (because he never tells us in advance). Last Thursday it was Bhutan. The music was dreamy. You can go listen to it in the archives if you are curious.

One of the real gifts of the internet is that it allows people to listen to a radio show from around the world and to type comments. So there are regulars from many different places, and short text conversations take place. Also, David welcomes us to write with suggestions. He is very interested in Hungarian bands, and has played some of my suggestions already: the Pandóra Projekt, Felső Tízezer, and the Sebő-együttes, as well as some Hungarian music that was new to me. It is really fun to have my suggestion played, and even more fun to hear music I don’t already know, and kinds of music I don’t usually listen to. I otherwise like to listen to my favorites over and over again, so this is a good contrast.

That leads to the last topic: rest. It is a good thing. But it has many dimensions. Rest isn’t just the absence of work, or the increase of sleep. It also has to do with the redirection of thought. We have many things that we are used to thinking about; turning the attention somewhere else, even for a little while, can be greatly restorative. That’s part of what happens at the end of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” (one of my favorite stories in the world). The encounter with the baker shocks the bereaved couple out of their train of thought. There is something restful and luminous about the ending.

All of these are luxuries—running, radio, and rest—but luxuries that can be found and built, to some degree, with minimal money. They do take money, but not a lot. That is one thing I love about living in Hungary, where I moved almost four years ago: it is possible to build so much out of a simple life. I don’t have much money at all; my total financial assets, beyond my apartment, would probably get me through one year in the U.S. (if I were careful), and my teaching job pays me the equivalent of thirteen thousand dollars a year, more or less. But not only is it possible to live on very little here, but there’s so much to learn, create, and support. It’s hard to convey this to others, but it’s true: some material possessions are important, but not many. All depends on what one wants to do with them. For me, the apartment, the bike, the books, the musical instruments, the laptop are quite enough, not only in themselves, but in the projects they make possible. So, back to translating for a while.

Time, Time, Time

Getting older (and older and older) is a strange thing; when you’re young, you don’t necessarily know that you’re young (I didn’t, in my twenties and thirties), and then later you see that twenty years went by, just like that, and now you don’t feel old, but for most facts and purposes, and in the eyes of the world, you are. That doesn’t get in the way of much, at least not until the body and mind start to break down, but you know now that you have limited time to work with. That said, a lot can happen during these years: for most of my life I have lived with urgency, but now I do better things with it than before.

But four years go by in what feels like a few months. Four years ago today, and in the two preceding days, I decided to come to Szolnok to teach. I first learned about the opportunity on August 4, 2017—and wrote immediately to Mary Rose, the director of the Central European Teaching Program. In the few days that followed, I looked into it and made up my mind to do it. (I was pretty sure of it that very day, but it was definite, at least in my mind, by August 6.) I had no idea of all the things that would happen over these four years: the teaching, translating, writing, bike rides, music, friendship. What happy years these have been—and they seem like the beginning of much more.

Even twenty years don’t seem so long. Twenty years ago (not exactly, but more or less) I recorded my EP O Octopus at the wonderful analog studio Tiny Telephone in San Francisco. I didn’t release it, because I still had so many CDs from my earlier (homemade) release that I didn’t want to end up with even more boxes. Twenty years later, I think it was actually pretty good; I have uploaded it to YouTube and Bandcamp. All the pressure is off; I don’t have to promote it, but people can listen to it if they like.

Getting older is sometimes easy, sometimes difficult. The easy part is that I have grown stronger over time, with a much clearer sense of what I am doing in the world, and a basic joy in it. The difficult part is that I wish I had at least some of this a few decades ago. I had a terrible lack of confidence—not intellectually, but in other areas of my life, from simple interactions to musical endeavors. Now the confidence has grown, but years have gone by.

This happens to everyone to some degree, but I think my lack of confidence was a bit more than the usual. To others who suffer from that, I can only say: confidence comes from something other than self-affirmation or external praise. It comes from some willingness to be one of billions of people, doing your best and knowing it won’t be perfect: knowing that despite our illusions and fantasies, everyone is filled with imperfections, no one has the answers, and it’s on each of us to do what we can with what we have. But those are rational words, and confidence comes from something else, from daily walking and building. Could it have come to me sooner? Maybe, if I had known what it was.

Not that a person has to be overtly or inwardly confident all the time; there are times of self-doubt, self-criticism, wavering, guilt, regret, shyness. But you don’t have to condemn yourself for these things. That’s really what confidence is about: letting all these things have their place, without mistaking them for the whole. Taking life’s different textures.

I think of the end of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, which I have quoted here before:

Her teaching had a reflex action upon herself, insomuch that she thought she could perceive no great personal difference between being respected in the nether parts of Casterbridge and glorified at the uppermost end of the social world. Her position was, indeed, to a marked degree one that, in the common phrase, afforded much to be thankful for. That she was not demonstratively thankful was no fault of hers. Her experience had been of a kind to teach her, rightly or wrongly, that the doubtful honour of a brief transmit through a sorry world hardly called for effusiveness, even when the path was suddenly irradiated at some half-way point by daybeams rich as hers. But her strong sense that neither she nor any human being deserved less than was given, did not blind her to the fact that there were others receiving less who had deserved much more. And in being forced to class herself among the fortunate she did not cease to wonder at the persistence of the unforeseen, when the one to whom such unbroken tranquility had been accorded in the adult stage was she whose youth had seemed to teach that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.

  • “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)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    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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