From Hamlet to Csík: Bring the Bringa!

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My laptop is still in repairs (I should get it back tomorrow), so I am writing on the phone. To make this easier, I wrote a draft on paper first, a good idea in general. The pen is a kind of mediator, the typewriter too. The electronic keyboard somehow shirks this role. Moreover, the pen and typewriter are messy in an enjoyable way. You get to cross things out, squeeze things in.

First of all, congratulations to everyone who took part in the Hamlet performance—three scenes and discussion—at the Verseghy Ferenc Könyvtár on Friday! I was sitting next to Katalin Cserfalvi, who works at the library and made this event possible. At moments we gaped at each other in awe. These scenes came alive, not only in the actors’ expressions and gestures, but in their rendition of the language. Last year’s performance was full of spirit and enjoyment, but this year’s reached a new level.

This took long and intense work. We have been rehearsing for about two months (mostly in class, and not in every class session), but before that, we read the entire play and then reread a few scenes multiple times. The students who weren’t in the performance—who served as audience members during our classtime rehearsals—deserve commendation too, because without their attention, listening, and comments, not only would we have been unable to rehearse, but we would have missed some of their insights. Also, the two students who introduced each scene at the performance, Luca Regina Gazdag and Dorina Kata Nagy, helped out in numerous ways behind the scenes, as did Petra Rónafalvi, who provided some of the costumes. When putting on a play, even a few scenes, one becomes aware of the different kinds of work that go into it and the importance of each.

After Hamlet, I went upstairs to hear a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son): stories and songs alternating in a kind of dialogue. There seemed to be connections between Zsolt Bajnai’s stories and Marcell Bajnai’s songs; while not explicit or obvious (to me), they brought the separate works togethet into something new. I didn’t understand everything—some songs were familiar, some not, and I had read just one of the stories, the wonderfully satirical “Korrupcióterápia,” but I loved the different tones and the atmosphere of enjoyment in the room. Next time, whenever that may be, I will understand much more. (I didn’t take pictures, but there should be some coming from the library soon; when they appear, I will add the link.)

One exciting thing: the last song that Marcell played was one I hadn’t heard before. I was so taken by it that I tried to find it online later (by looking up the few words and phrases that I remembered). I had no luck, so I wrote to him to ask about it. He replied that he had written the song a week before and that this was the first time he played it in public! I now realize that he said this when introducing the song, but I didn’t catch it at the time. I hope to listen to the song many times.

All of this would have been enough for me for a weekend, but the festivities continued at full tilt. Yesterday, late in the afternoon, after a quiet day at home, I took the teain to the nearby village of Zagyvarékas for the Margaréta folkdance festival, followed by a concert by the band Csík. One of my students, an accomplished folk dancer and a member of the Rákóczi dance group, was in three of the dance performances—and I was eager to see them all and hear the band. It was my first real folkdance event in Hungary. I have seen a few short performances here and there, but nothing like this. I eas moved not only by the dancets’ skill (in singing as well as dancing), not only by the colorful costumes, not only by the gorgeous rhythms and melodies, but by the vitality and “nowness” of it all. Folkdance in Hungary is not some relic of a dying tradition; people of many ages put their hearts and lives into it.

What to say about the Csík concert? It was fantastic; they played so many instruments, and combined musical styles with such ease and in such interesting ways, that I wanted to rush home and start playing too. Their music opens up possibilities. The audience adored them (except for one disgruntled drunk man on the sidelines who ranted in a few brief sputters about how he wanted pure Hungarian music, not music from all over the place). Many songs were the band’s own, others by others; many had folk motifs, while others had a jazz, blues, rock, or other feel, or a mixture. One song I had heard before; Marcell Bajnai had played it in his recent solo concert, at the very end. It was exciting to recognize it and hear it in these two different ways.

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Mosquitoes were swarming all around—it has been a bad few weeks, mosquito-wise—and audience and musicians alike were getting bitten every split second, from every angle. But we stayed until the end and beyond, cheered for an encore (which they played), and kept on applauding after that.

It was a long journey home (but a pleasant one, except for the mosquitoes). I had made the uncharacteristic mistake of leaving my bike at the Szolnok train station (or rather, train stop), thinking that the Zagyvarékas train station would be near the village center. Wrong! They are about four kilometers apart; in fact, you have to leave Zagyvarékas and then enter it again. The walk didn’t feel long, but on the way back I just barely missed the train I had hoped to take and had to wait an hour for the next one. Lesson learned: bring the bringa!*

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*”Bringa” is one of many Hungarian words for “bicycle.”

P.S. On top of it all, this evening I went to Pest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event, which brings Roma and non-Roma, economically advantaged and disadvantaged children together from all over Hungary to dance to music played by the orchestra. This year, the BFO played Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7; in the final movement, the children performed a dance. This Beethoven symphony, and especially the outdoor performance, brought back strong memories of playing it in high school, at Tanglewood—the thick summer air, the feeling of being in the middle of the music, all of this came back—but the performance made me hear the work in a new way. It is hard to describe, but I have it in my ears. The dancing worked so well with the fourth movenent, the children danced with such glee, that it turned into something more than I can name, something that goes with the rest of the weekend. We do not have to hold back in music, stories, poems, dance, plays. So much is waiting to be created, performed, and heard. So much is already here, in the air, on stages, in books and notebooks, in the feet and hands, in the mind. The train back to Szolnok has stopped, the window is open, and I hear the loud wind in the leaves. They are there too, the  songs..

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Expectations and Their Excesses

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In my ninth-grade Civilization class, students have been giving speeches–a sometimes daunting venture for them. At the tail end of class yesterday, a student delivered a trenchant speech on expectations. I won’t repeat it here—it was intended for the classroom and not the internet—but I will lay out some thoughts that it inspired.

Expectations are standards we set for the future: the things we hope (and sometimes demand) of a person or situation. They may be rigid or loose, low or high—but if they are not met, we experience some kind of disappointment—in others, ourselves, or the general state of things.

There’s hardly an angle through which some expectation will not eventually come whizzing. Teenagers face expectations from teachers, parents, social media, peers, and themselves; adults vie with their own share. It isn’t just the number of expectations that matters; it’s the way they play out in our minds. (I say “our,” but I recognize that each person deals differently with expectations; it’s a private, often ineffable struggle.)

Children and teenagers may have the hardest time with expectations, because they often lack the authority to say “no” or to put others’ judgments in perspective. They (or many) want to be accepted, appreciated, approved, encouraged, and loved; at the same time they fear that such goods will prove conditional. Acceptance is exhilarating and menacing by turn: exhilarating because it seems a dream fulfilled, menacing because it demands a piece of the soul. Sometimes they (and not only they) break expectations just to show that they can—that is, to hollow out some room for themselves.

Adults have these pressures too, albeit in different ways. We donate doles of our lives to the workplace, which, no matter how congenial and humane, expects us to play a certain role. Outside or work, we have still more roles to play. They may all be genuine–but even so, they leave many of us wondering: are we allowed to be ourselves? Or is concealment the cardinal expectation?

Expectations can also enliven and refine us. Many teachers, principals, and other educators (myself included) believe, and have seen, that “high expectations,” articulated and supported properly, will bring good things out of their students. Yet even the most carefully articulated expectation is not always correct or appropriate: for instance, an essay-writing rubric can encourage and reward dull prose.

Yet if expectations seem wrongheaded at times, their absence is far worse. I have heard bitter stories of people whose talents went unnoticed, who were treated, early on, as though they had no prospects. Or else they were told that everything they did was great. Nobody pushed them; no one seemed to believe that they were capable of more. Expectations csn make life more urgent and fruitful. So where do they go wrong?

Perhaps they go wrong when they lose their sense of liberty. I may see promise in another person. I may say or demonstrate this. But the other person chooses what to do with this–whether or not to pay attention to it, believe it, adjust it, act on it, etc. If I accept this liberty, then my expectations are well placed. But if I insist on my own will, the other person receives the message: Cease to exist, or at least pretend to cease.

They should also contain some humility, some acknowledgment of possible error. My expectations are not always right—in themselves or in context. If I know this, then I can respond to supposed failures more generously.

Even when the expectations carry respect and thoughtfulness, they can go wrong. For one thing, they accumulate. A person might not mind one or two. But eventually they become too much. We end up in situations where we’re bound to let someone down, possibly ourselves.

Also, they do not always translate correctly. Many of us imagine expectations that do not exist—or we misconstrue real ones. Some of us have a vague sense of letting others down no matter what we do; this might come from some past experience or from something in our character. Others seem blissfully unaware that others expect anything of them at all; or if they realize it, they do not seem to care much.

There is no final message here. Expectations can do good or harm; the difference lies in their source, intent, and quantity. But even the kindest and most generous expectations should step back at times. It does not hurt to ask: what am I asking for, and why? Do I dare to hear another person’s “no,” or even my own?

 

I took the photo in Veszprém, at the Davidikum Kollégium, where we stayed. Also, I revised this piece substantially after posting it.

Different Kinds of Rest

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Rest will be scarce over the coming months (or plentiful, from some perspectives), so I will be looking to make the most of it. I have three different translation projects ahead and am excited about them all. I am participating in two literary events in the U.S. in October: the ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a series of events at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture featuring two of my Hungarian colleagues (more about that soon!). In addition, I have a few writing deadlines, will continue my synagogue responsibilities as usual, and may hold another event at the Szolnok Gallery/Synagogue in September. The event on May 23 went beautifully. The audience was enthusiastic, everyone joined in the singing, and the acoustics lifted the voices.

Yes, and there’s the upcoming Hamlet performance and discussion–by some of my tenth-grade students–at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library on June 14! They will perform three scenes from Hamlet, followed by discussions and interviews with the characters. We are now heading into our final rehearsals.

All of this is in addition to regular teaching, which is in an irregular state right now, since I am meeting frequently with seniors to help them prepare for their oral exams.

The next few weekends will be packed. Next Saturday I go to Esztergom to enjoy the Comedium Corso festival–where 1LIFE will be performing–and explore the surroundings, which look stunning in the photos I have seen. (I will take my bike on the train so that I can explore more easily.) From there I go to Budapest to lead Szim Salom’s Shavuot service on Sunday. The following weekend, we have the Hamlet performance on Friday; right after that, also in the library, there will be a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son)! On Saturday, June 15, I plan to attend a folk dance festival in Zagyvarékas; one of my students, Dániel Lipcsei, will be performing in three groups, and there will be many more groups from all over the country. Some of it might look and sound like this:

Then on Sunday, June 16, I go to Budapest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event. Later in the week, Szolnok’s Tiszavirág Fesztivál begins; I look forward to its concerts–including an acoustic show by 1LIFE–and other festivities. The following Shabbat (on June 22) I lead a service–with a bat mitzvah ceremony–in Budapest; on June 30, I leave for the U.S.  I will be teaching, for the ninth consecutive summer, at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers; this year we focus on tragedy and comedy, as we always do in the odd-numbered years (the even-numbered summers are devoted to epic). Those will be an intense, focused three and a half weeks, with lectures, seminars, panel discussions, films, and more. A few days on either end for visiting people–and then back to Hungary on August 5!

Back to the topic of rest: there are different levels and kinds. One of the reasons that I find Shabbat challenging (and important) is that it takes me about a day to wind down from the week. Resting on Friday evening and Saturday takes planning, focus, and determination (and I don’t always succeed at it). On Sunday, a greater calm sets in, but by then it’s already time to gear up for Monday. I have found it difficult, even in “free” time, to read books unrelated to my teaching, projects, and other preparations; several books have been waiting for months, not because I lacked time for them, but because my mind would not fit them in. I have now returned to The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie; this time I hope to stay with it instead of letting more months go by. It gets more and more interesting as I get farther into it; I will have more to say about it later. I am also overdue with Cynthia Haven’s biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire, not to mention books in Hungarian, which I read especially slowly.

Reading a long book (for pleasure and interest) takes a particular kind of  restfulness. It’s different from reading a poem or short story; while these require intense focus and attention (and time), they tend to take less time on the initial reading than a novel or nonfiction book; thus you can reread them many times. I enjoy rereading more than I enjoy first-time reading, because of the new understandings that come with the repetition. To come to know a long book, you have to be willing to dedicate many hours just to the first reading. This is especially true for slow readers like me. I know people who can read a 350-page book in an afternoon or two; I am not one of these.

So there’s the rest that involves unwinding and the rest that makes room for reading. What other kinds are there? Writing, playing music, and other creative activities require stretches of time for trying things out, going back and revising, etc. There’s also the rest that comes through exercise: biking, for instance, over long distances. There’s the rest that comes from spending time with others: laughing with them, playing music with them, sitting down for a meal with them. There’s the rest that comes from doing something different: going somewhere on vacation, for instance. There’s the rest that comes from attending a concert, reading, or other performance. There’s the rest that comes from sorting things out in the mind: reflecting on the week, remembering important things, and putting less important things in their place. Then there’s the rest that comes with pure laziness: puttering around, doing what you feel like doing, whether or not it’s productive. There’s the rest that comes from sitting quietly and doing nothing. There’s structured, time-bound, hallowed rest, such as the rest of Shabbat. Finally, or near-finally, there’s sleep, and, at the end of life, death.

These all overlap, yet they are distinct, taking different forms and playing different roles. Yet each one can be well or poorly carried out. It’s all too easy to compromise rest, to try to make it serve something else. To rest well, you have to rest with all your heart. Or maybe that’s what makes something restful in the first place: doing it with all your heart, instead of pulling it this way and that.

I end with Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight“:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

Falling and Rising (in One Day)

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Last night I remembered something about a Sportnap (Sports Day) taking place today; drowsily checking my messages, I realized that I was supposed to sign up to help with one of the activities. Oops! The biking excursion looked just right; I enjoy biking, as readers of this blog probably know, and we would return in time for the award ceremony for winners of regional academic competitions. (Three of my students won first, second, and third place, respectively, in one of the English competitions.) So I signed up, heard my conscience sigh, and went to sleep.

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In the morning, when I got there, a large group was ready and eager to go. My colleague took the lead, thanked me for coming too, and explained where we were going. She asked me to hold the rear, since she knew the exact route. We took off, crossed the street, and headed northward along the Zagyva (on my usual route to and from school). I thought I’d take a photo as we were going along, and I did, while bicycling. But I didn’t realize that someone was directly in front of me and someone else coming in my direction. As soon as I saw them, I slammed my breaks so hard that I got thrown from the bike (even though I was not going fast at all) and felt my nose hit the ground. One member of the group, Gábor, waited for me, but the bicycle chain had come off the gears, the front brake was stuck, and the bike wouldn’t move. I urged him to go on ahead, since I needed a minute or two to fix the bike.

It took about ten minutes; when I was done, I continued northward, pedaling as fast as I could, but could not see the group anywhere. I continued for a few meters onto the dirt road, only to find it muddy from the rain. Mud caked my bike, immobilizing it again; with some digging and pulling, I managed to get some of the big clumps off so that the wheels could move. Now I headed in the opposite direction; I remembered that my colleague had mentioned Széchényi, so I tested out those environs. No one familiar in sight. I also remembered a mention of the Marcipán cafe and cake shop; when I reached the place, I saw almost all of them standing outside! (A few were inside the cafe.) I hope they weren’t waiting for me, or if they were, I hope it wasn’t for long. I joined for the second hour of the trip, which was fun. I felt bad about missing the first part and not helping out, but there was some victory in fixing the bike, finding the group, and biking with them for an hour. This time, when I took photos, I stopped first.

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But why did I fall from the bike? I think there were several reasons or causes. First, I was trying to take a photo while biking (not a good idea, especially in a crowd). Second, I am not used to biking in groups or biking slowly. Third, I am a bit exhausted from the drama festival and the week; and fourth, these things just happen sometimes.

After that fall, it was all upward. The award ceremony featured several musical performances by students (several choruses and a xylophonist) and many, many awards. For each award, they announced both the winner and the teacher(s) who helped him or her prepare. Both the student and the teacher would go to the front of the auditorium; the student would receive a certificate and flowers and would then present the flowers to the teacher. Thus a colleague and I received flowers three times: when Szabina, Laci, and Fanni received their awards. Many other students from our school won awards–including my former student Gábor Kozma, featured in the Szolnok TV video of the event. Then came a reception with some delicious pastries; in one of them, the sour cherries (meggy) tasted so fresh, they seemed to be from this year. I haven’t seen sour cherries at the market yet, but they’re around the corner, and I watch for them every day.

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So it turned into a good day, with more rising than falling. Now it’s almost time to fall again (asleep).

Song Series # 1: Dylan, Waits, Sparks/Denver, ERQ

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Since birth, more or less, I have had songs in my life, whether through hearing them, singing them, playing them, dancing to them, teaching them, writing about them, writing them, trying to remember them, seeking them out at record stores, or carrying them in my mind. Songs are some of the first things we hear in the world. So why start a song series on my blog?

When teaching certain songs in English and Civilization classes, I have realized that students really take to them (flopped lessons aside) and often haven’t heard them before. I want to keep track of a few of the songs I teach (or hope to teach) and give students a way to find them again. For each song, I will post a video or recording and the lyrics. Your comments are welcome!

Here are four songs that I taught to several classes this week (we sang them, and I played cello accompaniment): “Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan; “Today” by Randy Sparks, sung by John Denver and others; “Come On Up to the House” by Tom Waits (I include both his recording and Sarah Jarosz’s cover); and “More Bad Times” by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities.

Here’s a 1963 live performance of “Blowin’ in the Wind”:

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
How many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they’re forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Yes, ‘n’ how many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, ‘n’ how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, ‘n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind

Here is Tom Waits’s “Come On Up to the House” (first his own recording, and then a wonderful cover by Sarah Jarosz):

Well, the moon is broken, and the sky is cracked.
Come on up to the house.
The only things that you can see is all that you lack.
Come on up to the house.

All your cryin’ don’t do no good.
Come on up to the house.
Come down off the cross, we can use the wood.
You gotta come on up to the house.

Come on up to the house.
Come on up to the house.
The world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.
You got to come on up to the house.

There’s no light in the tunnel, no irons in the fire.
Come on up to the house.
And your singin’ lead soprano in a junkman’s choir.
You got to come on up to the house.

Doesn’t life seem nasty, brutish, and short.
Come on up to the house.
The seas are stormy, and you can’t find no port.
Gotta come on up to the house, yeah.

And now for “Today,” as sung live by John Denver:

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I’ll be a dandy, and I’ll be a rover
You’ll know who I am by the songs that I sing
I’ll feast at your table, I’ll sleep in your clover
Who cares what the morrow shall bring

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
‘Ere I forget all the joy that is mine, today

I can’t be contented with yesterday’s glory
I can’t live on promises winter to spring
Today is my moment, now is my story
I’ll laugh and I’ll cry and I’ll sing
Today….

And finally (for today), a beloved song by Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, “More Bad Times,” as performed at the Rat in Boston. (The lyrics vary a little from version to version.)

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never had rabies
You never gained weight
You never came home with a scar
You never drank poison
You watched what you ate
You never so much as put a scratch on my car.

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never got measles
You never had gout
You never threw up at parades
You never got dizzy
You never fell out
You never picked up any live hand grenades

So many things did go wrong
But the list is not long enough
Not enough bad things to fill up a song

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

You never lost contacts
You never leaked oil
You never fell to sticks and stones
You never drank cleanser
You never ate foil
You never choked on any big chicken bones

You twisted your ankle, I carried you
You got a divorce, so I married you
You fell off a cliff, so I buried you
I wish there were more bad times to see you through

And that wraps it up for the first installment of the song series. More to come, over time!

Image credit: House on the Hill (1902) by Pablo Picasso, courtesy of http://www.PabloPicasso.org.

Were our mouths filled with song as the sea….

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In all the world’s stress, danger, and fear, it is easy to lose sight of the extraordinary beauty in our lives: the things that rise up, against all expectation or dread, and show us a different way of perceiving and living. When I came to Szolnok at the end of October 2017, on my very first day, I walked to the synagogue (and also got a bike across the street). I knew that it was now a gallery; what I didn’t know was that there were people in Szolnok who treasured its history and worked to keep its heritage alive. Nor did I know that one day I would attend an event devoted to the synagogue’s history, and then, a few days later, hold an event there devoted to the sounds of Shabbat.

But yes, these things happened and are about to happen: On Sunday I attended a day-long event commemorating the synagogue’s 120th anniversary. The hall was packed; a warm and eager audience listened to speeches, presentations, and music (a chamber group from the Szolnok Symphony, and later a klezmer band, whose singer, Judit Klein, began with a solo rendition of “Szól a kakas már“).

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The day was marked with festive and joyous moments: a champagne toast, a delicious kosher lunch, and a special visit to the little synagogue a few meters away, next to the Tisza Mozi movie theatre. (Szolnok once had three synagogues: these two and a third one where a memorial now stands.)

I was left with a desire to hear more: in particular, I hope to hear the rabbi and scholar Alfréd Schöner speak again.

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Tomorrow evening I return to the synagogue, this time to lead an event. I will teach three “songs”–that is, one piyut, one psalm, and one zemer–that have a profound role in Shabbat: “Lecha Dodi,” Psalm 150, and “Eliyahu Hanavi.” The first two I will teach with more than one melody (three for the first and two for the second). I hope that this, too, will be a beginning–but of what, I do not yet know.

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The title of this blog post is a quotation from the Nishmat.

Oh, a Rhinoceros!

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In just nine days we (seventeen students, a parent, and I) leave for Veszprém. We will spend three days there as participants in the National English Language Drama Festival; the students will perform Eugène Ionesco‘s Rhinoceros and their own (completely unrelated) Rhinocerosn’t. Here’s a short clip of a recent Rhinoceros rehearsal.

 

We have three rehearsals (including one twelve-hour one) and an in-house performance before we go; the twelve-hour rehearsal will include a session with guest director Kata Bajnai, author of Farkasok.

The in-house performance will take place on Wednesday, May 22, at 3:30; it will be a dress rehearsal, but with an audience.

The festival itself will be chock full of performances and workshops; it doesn’t get a whole lot more nonstop than that. Much like the rhinoceros itself! (Unless the latter is plural, in which case, “rhinoceroses” and “themselves.”)

I made some edits to this piece after posting it. The video is posted and shared with the students’ permission.

What Lies Ahead?

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What lies ahead? A question as old as humanity, as far as I know. To find answers, we (people across the ages) have consulted oracles, sacred texts, almanacs, sages, 8-balls, tea leaves, wrinkles in the palm of the hand, weather reports, inklings, and animals, while reminding ourselves vigorously that we cannot know the future. But to a great extent we do know it; that is, I know that graduating students at Varga will be taking English exams today–best wishes to everyone!–and that at 10:30 a.m. I will have an appointment at the immigration office for renewal of my residence permit. Granted, an extreme circumstance could change either of these events, but I can trust, more or less, that they will happen.

Then what? Students will know, more or less, how well they did, but they will have to wait for the official results, which, combined with the results on their other exams, will determine which universities and programs they can attend. As for me, I am confident that my residence permit will be successfully renewed; once I submit all the needed information, I will just have to wait for the card to arrive in the mail.

That is where the predictability ends. Well, not quite. Those heading on to university have a vague sense of the coming year: where they will live (if they are admitted to the schools they hope to attend), what kinds of classes they will take, and so on. Those in the ninth, tenth, eleventh grades have an even more precise idea of the year to come. So do I; I know that I will continue teaching English at Varga, and I suspect that I will be involved with literature, drama, and music as well. I know when and where I will travel, at least in the fall. Speaking of literature, some exciting things are unfolding, about which I will say more in the coming weeks.

But within those outlines, the unexpected plays its heart out. A lesson leads to a project; a work of literature opens up; a friendship forms. Disappointments, mistakes, and losses have their say. Perspectives and urgencies change.  Something you thought you couldn’t live without turns out to be the very thing you have to give up; something that seemed remote or unthinkable sallies into your life. This is what makes individual lives so interesting: that each one has its particular mix of patterns, surprises, and creations.

Then there are larger shifts–changes within a country or region, changes in the world–that affect thousands or millions at once and continue to show their effects over the generations. Everyone’s life is affected by history, but some more than others; for some, historical forces have determined what they could or could not do. This is one thing that I will come to understand more about Hungary: how history has shaped the lives of the people around me. The other day I finished reading the story “A régi kazetta” (“The old cassette”)–a bit more difficult for me than the previous two–in Zsolt Bajnai’s collection Visszaköszönés. A girl discovers a cassette in her home and wants to know what it is. Her mother puts it in the tape player and plays it; it turns out to be an interview that the mother conducted with her own grandmother, the girl’s great-grandmother, during the two days that they spent together, the only time they met in their lives, while the mother (who had grown up in the United States) was an exchange student in Hungary. The grandmother tells of her bitter life–two unhappy and lonely marriages, World War II, the Soviet occupation, a deserter son (the mother’s father), and the lack or absolute narrowness of choice. Her grief is so intense that during the interview, the mother asks her grandmother several times whether she would like to talk about something else. But the conversation continues. I do not want to give spoilers here or misrepresent the story–there may be details that I didn’t understand correctly–so I will leave it at that. But the story reminded me how much there is to learn about this country.

People ask me what my plans for the future are. For now, I intend to stay here. I am placing no time limit on it, because I would like to become fluent in Hungarian, and that will take a while. I feel at home–in a particular sense of the phrase–in Szolnok, at Varga, and at my synagogue in Budapest, and I have much to do here, over time. Toward that end, I have an errand to accomplish and must end this post now. More on home, and a sense of home, another time.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it. I took the photo yesterday on my way home.

Graduation, Giving, and Form

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For a high school teacher, graduations happen year after year. But a few stand out; you know, then and later, that they will bring something out of your life and work. This was one. Last week, on Monday and Tuesday, three different classes serenaded me before their last class with me, according to tradition. For some students, this ritual may feel awkward, but they take part in it anyway, knowing that it has meaning. For me, it was one of the most moving events (a threefold event, in fact) in all my years of teaching and beyond. Being sung to, being recognized through song, for those few minutes, does not go away when the songs are over.

Then, in the evening serenade on Tuesday, the teachers sang to the students and vice versa. The school’s drama teacher, the homeroom teacher for class 12A, sang a Transylvanian folk song to her students (with a stunning voice); as she sang, she walked around from student to student, with dance in her step, singing directly to them and looking into their eyes. When I spoke with her afterward, she said she would teach me the song.

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On Thursday we had the school ballagás (farewell ceremony, similar to graduation in the U.S. except that it precedes the final examinations), with singing processions, speeches, and awards–flowers upon flowers, song upon song. First the senior classes walked hand in hand, singing, through the hallways, visiting one classroom after another; then we all went outside into the courtyard.

Yesterday was the citywide ballagás; we weren’t sure whether we would get to have it outdoors, since the weather seemed in between this and that. In the case of rain, we were to listen to the event through loudspeakers at school. But when we arrived around 8:30 in the morning, the sky was showing good restraint. Except for a few drops, it held back throughout the entire ceremony: the speeches, the performances, the procession through the heart of Szolnok, and the release of the balloons.

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Before the ceremony began, parents and relatives greeted their children with flowers, kisses, and photos. Then Marcell Jankó (the MC–and the bassist of 1LIFE) announced the beginning of the ceremony and introduced each speaker and performer. There were three speeches–Gábor Medvegy’s 11th grade farewell speech, Marcell Bajnai’s 12th grade farewell speech, and an Headmaster László Molnár’s address; a poetry recitation by Frida Hajnal; and a flute performance by a student whom I have heard many times but whose name I do not know. In his speech, Marcell Bajnai asked, “Mit adhatok?” (“What can I give?”) This question set the tone of the ceremony and filled the day. I was asking myself a similar question, a question of many years, in a different way; I will get to that later.

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Then came the procession through the city: the seniors in the middle of the street, with two cordons of students from the ninth, tenth, and eleventh grade, walking hand in hand, on either side of them. On the flanks (the sidewalks), parents, relatives, teachers, and friends pressed along. It was crowded; toes got stepped on, and mud occasionally got stepped into. But that was part of the meaning of it all: walking together, for that short stretch, before going our different ways.

 

 

 

Soon we approached the bridge but did not cross it. (There is no symbolic significance in that; our itinerary took us leftward.) The crowd seemed more crowded; the graduates, more graduated.

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Then came the releasing of the balloons.
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Graduations happen all over the world, year after year, and with all their differences and details, they share a similar form. Given the repetition and multitude, what makes each one beat out its beauty? Why the crowds, the waving hands, the swells of emotion?

In a way, the answer is easy; it’s a rite of passage, and rites of passage matter, no matter how many millions of times they take place. For the families, this is a momentous occasion: seeing their children, siblings, grandchildren, step out into adulthood, into the next stage of their lives. For the teachers, too, there is a kind of family joy; most of the teachers at Varga are parents themselves (or soon to become parents), and so they are not only seeing their students off, but remembering, anticipating, or sometimes directly experiencing their own children’s graduation.

In the past I felt somewhat peripheral and extraneous at graduations, because I have no children and will not be able to have any at this point. I was happy, overwhelmingly happy, for my students but felt a little like an uninvited guest. Over the past year or more, I have come to know things differently. True, I wanted children but do not have any; the reasons and causes are complex and cannot be traced to one particular thing. (Those who say “you can always adopt” are mistaken; there’s no “always” here. Time really does run out, and adoption is no simple matter.) But I have something to give just as I am; I am not a perfect teacher, but I have given something to my students, and they have given something to me too. Moreover, I can give things that no one else could give in the same way, just as others have their own ways of giving.

I was fully part of the graduation ceremonies this week–not in the way that parents, or teachers with children, were part of it, but in a real way nonetheless. I cheered, sang, walked along, felt awe, bumped into people, congratulated people, met parents, and walked home along the river when it was over.

Understanding this, I see that the act of giving has a form, which resembles release. When you give something, you let it be no longer yours; you don’t cling onto it or stamp it into the ground. The recipients may then take it as they wish. For instance, the best advice is given without insistence; the person giving the advice does not try to control the outcome. Everyone has a different form of giving, but the forms have this release in common. I have been thinking and thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish,” which ends (please read the whole thing),

Like medals with their ribbons
frayed and wavering,
a five-haired beard of wisdom
trailing from his aching jaw.
I stared and stared
and victory filled up
the little rented boat,
from the pool of bilge
where oil had spread a rainbow
around the rusted engine
to the bailer rusted orange,
the sun-cracked thwarts,
the oarlocks on their strings,
the gunnels—until everything
was rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!
And I let the fish go.

It takes time to find one’s form of giving, and the finding isn’t final; sometimes the form comes undone or gets dislodged. But once it’s found, the giving does its work, seemingly without end. How do you go about finding your form? For some it is easier than for others; parts of it I learned early, and parts have taken all my life so far. I think it has to do with participating in the common forms and all they hold, walking along for that short stretch, again and again. That, and taking your own way, daring to differ, and learning from the bravery of others. Yes, and knowing how to let things and people go.

My best wishes to the graduating class–and thanks to everyone for these beautiful days.

 

Photo credits: I took all the pictures except for the second one, which appears courtesy of the Varga Katalin Gimnázium website.

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

On Imperfection

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When saying goodbye to my senior classes, I talked with them about the imperfection of the year (and, for two of my classes, two years). We had not had a sparkling procession of perfect lessons; some had gone better than others, for all sorts of reasons. But the imperfections, especially my own, helped me understand the students and the subject better. An imperfection is an incongruity between some ideal and reality; sometimes the ideal is clear in my mind, sometimes not, but I know that I (or the situation) did not match up to it. So I ask myself, what went wrong, if anything? Sometimes nothing went wrong; the ideal itself was at fault. But if something did go wrong, I try to understand why. Usually it’s that I expected one thing from the lesson, and the students expected or needed something else. The phrase “the students” is a faulty generalization, though; rarely do all students respond in the same way. The differences help me see what is going on.

I think of a recent tenth-grade lesson. We meet twice a week and have been alternating between Hamlet and activities such as debates. For this lesson, I had chosen a debate topic often found in textbooks and exam practice workbooks: “Mobile phones should be banned from schools.” Some students made eloquent arguments and seemed fully involved in the imagined controversy–but I saw a few problems. First, I had not framed the topic especially well. What does it mean to ban mobile phones from schools? Can they be used in emergencies? Second, I saw that a few students appeared dissatisfied with the debate. I spoke with them afterward; they told me that the topic did not interest them. One student simply didn’t like it; others found it trivial, since they do not see cell phone use as a big problem at the school.

So I remembered the importance of choosing and defining a topic carefully, together with the class. Not everyone has to like it, but we can figure out what it is and discuss the reasons for debating it.

Imperfections do more than help me see how to improve a lesson. We have limited time together (at school and in general), and it goes by faster than I think it will. When the end comes, it isn’t all wrapped up and tidy. The ceremonies bring grace to things, but there is always this or that unfinished matter, a goodbye unsaid, a missed appointment, something that didn’t get done. This year I understood that this unfinishedness had a place too: that, first of all, it gives us the impetus to keep trying for better, in whatever form or way we do, and second, it can give us some generosity. We don’t expect others to be signed and sealed, since we ourselves are not.

I don’t mean that I or anyone else should stop striving to perform beautifully, make lasting things, fulfill responsibilities, or reach goals. That is where the imperfections come from; without the striving, there wouldn’t be imperfection, just mediocrity at best. But imperfection, besides being here to stay, allows us a glimpse of each other, ourselves, and the things we have set out to do.

Along these lines, I wrote a graduation sonnet today (except for the last line, completed on May 2). It is dedicated to everyone graduating from the Varga Katalin Gimnázium this year. At one point it  slight echoes Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Graduation Sonnet

Now that we have a cloudy day of rest
between the serenade and ballagás,
the year and all its windings come untressed,
like threads unweaving from an heirloom sash.
So tight our warp and woof: we stretch and strive
for tapestry, for colored silken scenes,
but when our longed-for patterns come alive,
they uncombine; the end unties the means.
There starts the joy: for what else can you do
but sing and sing again, and fuller sing,
as time runs thin? The music weaves anew
but without claim; air made of everything,
it gives back all we thought was gone, and more,
and leaves the leaving richer than before.

I took this picture yesterday on my way home after the evening serenade at school.

Thanks to my friend Joyce Mandell for inspiring this post.