Reading, Concert, Translations

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The weekend so far was filled with good things. I led services at Szim Salom, attended “Esőnap,” a literary event in Budapest hosted by Eső and the Mersz Klub (pictured above), and returned to Szolnok in time to hear Marcell Bajnai play a solo concert on an outdoor stage at Kossuth tér, as part of Európa-nap.* I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of these events and was glad to be able to attend them all. At the literary event, I listened to the readings, enjoyed the atmosphere (the Mersz Klub is a great place to spend an evening), met a few people afterward, and later remembered a few titles of works for immediate and future reading. As for the concert, wow. Some of the songs I knew from 1LIFE’s CD–a few favorites were among them–but here they opened up in a new way (“Nincsen kérdés” in particular). Other songs were new to me: some of Marcell’s songs and two (?) covers. A rich selection and terrific show. We in the audience were fortunate.

Now for a slower and slightly lazy day of preparations, practicing, writing. Speaking of writing, I have some exciting news about a translation project–but I’ll say more about that a little closer to the first publication date (in June). A few translations of poetry and prose–my first translations from Hungarian–will soon be published in a literary journal, in two different issues, in June and September. Continuations of this project, as well as new projects, lie ahead.

*”Nap” in Hungarian means “day” (as well as “sun”); there was no napping involved.

I renamed this post from the humdrum though apt title A Good Weekend. Also, I later embedded a video from the concert.

“Pici koncert” highlights

pozovi menya
The long-awaited “pici koncert“* took place this morning. (“Long-awaited” in this case means “anticipated for two weeks.”) Many students and teachers gathered to listen, out in the hallway, during the long break between the second and third periods. We sang three songs in three languages: “Позови меня” by Любэ, “Maradok ember” by 1LIFE, and “Champs-Elysées” by Joe Dassin. Here is a video of the highlights. (Please note that it is unlisted: that is, viewable only by those who have the link.)

 

Afterwards I was delighted with the concert but disappointed that I hadn’t done better with “Maradok ember” (one of my favorite songs in the world). Its lyrics are by Marcell Bajnai, the lead singer, guitarist, and lyricist of 1LIFE; I hope to read and hear much more of his work over the coming decades. I had wanted to play it perfectly but instead said two words wrong, didn’t pronounce things well overall, didn’t play quite in tune, hit a couple of dud notes, and went a little too fast. “Jaj, emberiség!” (as opposed to “jaj, istenem!”). But later I saw things more clearly: we had set out to do our best and have fun, and we accomplished both. The atmosphere in the hall was upbeat: people listened and applauded heartily. Thanks to everyone who took part–performers, composers, and audience! Thanks also to the 9.AJTP class, whose “pici koncert” earlier in the month inspired this one. And thanks to my colleagues Judit Kéri and Nóra Csiffáryné Fegecs, who taught the songs to their students and helped bring all of this about, and my colleague Anikó Bánhegyesi, who recorded the video.

aux champs elysees

*“Pici” in Hungarian means “tiny.” The concert, like the previous one, was called a “pici koncert a nagy szünetben,” that is, a “tiny concert in the big break.” The “big break” is the fifteen-minute break between the second and third periods.

After posting this piece, I re-edited and re-uploaded the video; the new version (embedded here) fades in and out of each segment.

“While Suzanne holds the mirror….”

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Today I was thinking of Leonard Cohen’s song “Suzanne” for its fearless understanding, its way of lilting through the mind. It isn’t religious, but it devotes a verse to Jesus. Its main character, Suzanne, seems a Miriam of the 1960s, a prophet by the river. But Suzanne is in many places; I have known a few people who seemed Suzanne-like, and sometimes I have a bit of Suzanne in me too. What and who is she? She is song itself, and this song in particular; “you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.”

Through the song, you taste “tea and oranges that come all the way from China”; you let her guide you: “And she shows you where to look among the garbage and the flowers / There are heroes in the seaweed, there are children in the morning / They are leaning out for love and they wil lean that way forever / While Suzanne holds the mirror.”

“But the song is about a real Suzanne,” some will protest; “she and Cohen really drank tea and ate oranges together!” Yes, that’s what a good song can do: take something from life and wrap it into the music, so that it becomes real for the listener, part of the listener’s life. You think you’ve been there, you think you know Suzanne, but it’s the song you’ve lived and known.

I didn’t bring this song to class on Tuesday (I brought “Story of Isaac” instead), but if I had, it probably wouldn’t have worked any better than the others, because it has to catch you unawares. I remember the first time I noticed it. I had heard it before, perhaps many times, but this time I was having brunch at a friend’s place, and the sun was streaming through the windows, and this was playing, and I suddenly heard it and asked what it was. That was probably in 1993 or so. Since then, it has been in my life.

I am now on the train to Budapest, for the Szim Salom Passover seder, which I will be co-leading. On Sunday I head to Kisvárda (by train, with bike), and then from there by bike to the Zemplén region. I look forward to the return; it will be my third time there with bicycle, but my first time biking from Kisvárda (and my first time in Kisvárda, for that matter, except for the time I passed through by train).

I wish everyone good holidays and a restful break.

The Ungivable Advice

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Yesterday was not a typical Saturday or Shabbat. In the morning, in Budapest, I co-led a synagogue service hosted by Szim Salom, Bét Orim, and a the West London Synagogue. It was a great occasion: some people in the room had never met before, while others had known each other for decades. We came together without effort (at least in the moment–there was effort in the preparations), and layers of voices filled the room. If someone were to ask me why I believe in God, I would reply, “Because of the human voice.” It’s only a sliver of a reason, and it’s as hard to explain that as to explain what it means to me to believe in God in the first place (even saying this much gets my words tangled), but even so, there’s something to it. In some way the human voice, especially the singing voice, does not die. Also, voices carry other voices; we bring memories into our singing, sometimes centuries of memories. There are moments in a Jewish service, and services of other religions too, when different levels of the past come together with the present. That’s what it was like all morning–but I wasn’t thinking of that. I was happy to be together with so many people, to be co-leading the service in a way that felt like being carried up and along.

Saying this, I understand a little better what happened six years and a few months ago, when I learned my first words in Hebrew. I listened to a cantor’s recording of the Blessing Before Haftarah, and something drew me in, something more than a beautiful voice or melody. It shook some kind of memory, though of what, I couldn’t say. I don’t mean anything mystical by this; I just mean that a few things happened at once. First, I knew that this was profoundly mine; second, I knew it belonged to many others too, of many centuries; third, I wanted to learn what it was all about, what the words meant, what on earth a Haftarah was; and fourth, there was something about it that went beyond explanation, maybe something mystical after all. All of this together launched the learning that carried me up to the present.

Afterward, after lingering for a little while to speak with people, I walked to the train station, caught the intended train, returned to Szolnok, biked home, dropped off my backpack, fed Minnaloushe, and then biked to the Verseghy Ferenc Library for the events I had been awaiting: a reading by László Darvasi (wonderful–very funny at moments, even to me, though I understood only a fraction of the humor), and then the Varga Katalin Gimnázium Drama Club’s performance, in a packed hall, of Farkasok (Wolves), a play by one of their members, Kata Bajnai. Many of my students were in the cast. There too, I didn’t understand everything, but I was taken by the clarity and starkness of the play and by the intensity of the acting. Each word and motion mattered. The audience was rapt. I hope to see it again and hope that the text will be published.

After that, I went back upstairs with two of my colleagues to hear a poetry slam performance. I don’t always like poetry slams (to put it mildly), but this one won me over. The performer, Kristóf Horváth, got the audience to  come up with multi-syllabic words and phrases that fit a given meter. Then he put them together and had us chant the whole improvised poem. People of many ages cheerfully pitched in.

But I was going to write about something else (related, though, in some way, to all of this). I have been thinking about how some of the most important advice is essentially ungivable. There is no way to understand it except in retrospect, and no way to phrase it in time. If I were to give advice to my former self (my teenage self, for instance), it would be something like this: “Do not doubt the worth of that essential, unchanging part of you. That is your contribution to the world; it is supposed to be there.” So many young people (and older people too) wish part of themselves away, especially those parts that stand out, that don’t seem to mesh with the surroundings.

But how do we know which parts of ourselves are essential and changeless, and which parts are changing? This takes time and participation in the world. We learn about ourselves through doing things, getting to know others, making mistakes, making our way through life. Also, the relation between the changing and the changeless is complex. I think I have always been both bold and shy, but over time I have gotten better at acknowledging both. A person does not have to be just one thing. Nor are boldness and shyness inherently good or bad; they can be shaped in many ways.

Moreover, the “changing” part is not necessarily less important than the “changeless” part; there’s vitality and loss in the transformation.

Back to the supposed advice: what does it mean that the unchanging part is “supposed” to be there? Despite believing in God in some way, I do not imagine a divine power creating and watching over each of us. It is likely that through evolution, humans became different from each other; these differences and distinctions gave us an advantage, since we could learn from each other and had to find ways to communicate. So from this standpoint, each person has something to contribute to the whole, even negatively.

But there is more to life than contributing to humanity as a whole. Yes, each of us is a tiny part of an immense field of action, which is in turn a tiny part of a more immense one. But we were given this strange gift of “I,” a self that eventually learns that it is not the center of the universe, but still never shakes its own importance entirely. What is this self for? If we were really supposed to serve humanity as a whole, shouldn’t the self have phased itself out? Wouldn’t we be better off as highly skilled and somewhat diverse carpenter ants?

The self brings with it a paradox: it (the self) prevents us from seeing others fully, but only through the self can any of us see another. Without a self, there would be no listening or speaking. But the self also blocks things out; it’s at once the keenest and dullest of instruments. So it sometimes needs a good shaking. Everyone, having a self, has something to work with and an infinity of things to take in (or not). The ungivable advice is that this is all worthwhile. Or at least some of it is, and that part requires the rest.

I took the photo on Friday morning. Also, I revised the piece on April 18.

More on Cellos

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I am dreamy over my new cello. It plays easily and richly; it has a deep tone and lovely balance. But the old cello is not forgotten; it will have its day again too. The old bow, on the other hand, I will never play again; it lost its tension long ago. For years I was trying to make it work, getting it repaired, etc. But it was ultimately irreparable.

The old cello–the first good cello I ever had, and my only cello from then until now–went through a series of misfortunes. First of all, I now suspect that my parents bought it (from a violin and cello maker in the Black Forest in Germany, after our year in Moscow) when it was just a little too new. The varnish hadn’t hardened completely. But the bigger mistake was to bring it to the U.S. in a soft case. When we arrived and I opened it, I found that the cello’s fingerboard had come off. That was just the beginning of the troubles.

We then got a hard case, but the fuzz on the lining started to stick to the cello’s varnish (maybe because the varnish hadn’t hardened). So I had to wrap the cello in silk before putting it in the case. Then the strap that held the bow in place kept coming off, so the bow would knock around inside the case. Just why we didn’t get a new case immediately, I don’t know–but the expense probably had something to do with it. We were not rich; the cello itself was a big expense, and we didn’t realize how many accompanying costs there would be. I have since learned this about many purchases: consider not only the item itself, but also the upkeep.

Then there were other accidents, including ceiling leaks. Whenever a drop of water hit the cello–and this happened several times–it would take some of the varnish off. We took the cello to someone who restores instruments, but all she could do was patch up the varnish.

The little mishaps continued. I tend to bump into things; this meant that the cello bumped too. I was supposed to change the bridge twice a year–and to adjust the bridge every time it started to warp–but with my astigmatism I don’t have a good eye for that, so I had to take it into a shop. Over time I did this less frequently. I sometimes had to change the strings–and probably threw off the balance just a little each time.

Then, much later, when I was recording songs and playing in or with bands, I made the mistake of using a pickup microphone that attached with adhesive to the tailpiece. I have since removed it, but I would not again attach anything with adhesive. There are other ways to attach a microphone (and it is a wonderful thing sometimes).

But an instrument can be restored–and when looking up the person who made that particular cello, I came upon his grandson’s website. The grandson restores string instruments and has his workshop in Vienna, a short train ride from Budapest. So, when the time comes, I will bring the cello over from the U.S., make an appointment with him, and see what a restoration would involve. I may or may not decide to undertake it–but there could be no better person in the world to advise me on this than he.

Why did it take me so long to do any of this? For years I had a complex relationship with the cello. It seemed to carry so many expectations from others. They didn’t want me to become a professional cellist–that was too hard a life, and it would take extra effort for me to succeed, since I was behind technically–but they always associated the cello with me, wherever I went and whatever I did. They also associated it with classical music; I could see the sharp drop in approval when I started playing other kinds. This question of “approval” plagued me for years; I was showered with it as a teenager, then broke away from it, and then, over time, learned to accept it without letting it define or control me.

I don’t think I’m alone in this ambivalent relationship to the cello; I have met other cello players and professional cellists who went through something similar. Part of this has to do with the cello’s size. It’s an imposing instrument; it takes space and can be difficult to carry around (unless you have a lightweight hard case). It makes big sound, too–great in performance, if you play well, but not so great when you are playing scales and arpeggios or learning a new and difficult piece. People often say, “I love the cello,” but they understandably don’t love the sound of practicing. You start feeling like an imposition. A default apology, or preparation for apology, sets in. There are exceptions, though. When I was living in Brooklyn, I had a downstairs neighbor who, unbeknownst to me, was very ill. (He has since died.) One day I ran into him in the hallway. “I am very angry with you,” he said. Startled, I asked him why. “I haven’t heard you practicing the cello lately,” he replied. He told me that the sound lifted his spirits.

Often I was the one who didn’t like the sound of my playing. Choosing, somewhat by default, not to become a professional musician, I got stuck in an in-betweenness that I could not accept. I hate “sort of” playing; I want to play seriously or not at all. But playing seriously does not mean the same thing to me that it means to others; I like to play many styles of music and create my own too. I love and admire classical music–certain pieces are essential to me, and I continue to encounter and treasure more–but I do not consider it the only worthy music. I love good songs; I consider songwriting as worthy an art as composing a symphony. It may not be as complex musically, but it is full of subtlety. Nor is “classical” music absolutely definable; many compositions cross categories.

Nor do I think that you have to play incessantly to play well. I took pride, as a teenager, in practicing four hours a day, but I doubt that all of those hours were productive. They may have even hurt; I developed serious tension that interfered with the playing. I have since learned the importance of taking a few breaks and staying relaxed in posture. You can accomplish a lot in two hours if you go about it the right way.

Having my own cello, one I bought for myself, carries symbolic and practical meaning: I can now play it on my own terms, having learned from past mistakes and taken the matter (wood, strings, and all) into my hands. I look forward to the new sounds, even with their imperfections.

Image credit: Zhana Viel, Geel Cello.

Why Bring a Cello to English Class?

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I have brought my cello to various classes over the years, and I remember these occasions. But today was one of the happiest of them all. In one of my ninth-grade classes, the students have been practicing songs from The Wizard of Oz for a possible short performance: not a full play, but a little concert of songs.

I promised them that I would bring the cello this week. In between the promise and the fact, I purchased it. It is the first time that I have bought one for myself; my other cello, now in storage in New York City, was purchased by my parents when I was 14. I got a good case to go with it: a hard but lightweight one with backstraps. Never before has it been so easy to carry.

I have been out of practice, so it will take me a few weeks to get back into shape. But that isn’t the point. The sound of a musical instrument changes things in a classroom. Everyone starts to listen in a different way; the room becomes quiet and relaxed. I wouldn’t bring it to every class every day; we have many other things to do, and the lessons are short. But there are times for this. We sang, and then I invited them try the instrument (no one had tried to play a cello before), and then we sang some more.

 

In the afternoon, I brought it to one of my twelfth-grade classes. In the last ten minutes of class, we sang (or I played, or both) “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and then, at their request, I played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

But that wasn’t all. Before the twelfth-grade class, I had a free period, and it occurred to me to find an empty room (in the annex) and play for a while. It has been years since I was able to practice without worrying about bothering the neighbors. That’s essential for a musician, even an amateur;  you need a place where you can play without worrying at all: where you can sound bad if you have to, repeat passages again and again if you have to, and find your way into the music.

 

No Ordinary Song

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The Hungarian band 1LIFE released their debut CD, Nincsen Kérdés (“There Is No Question”), in February 2019. Here are some thoughts on one of their songs, “Maradok ember” (“I will stay human”).* My translations and interpretations are imperfect; fortunately you can listen to the song itself.

As with their other songs (such as “Kapcsolj ki“), the words and music go together well.  Here the lilting, descending melody, simple and repeating, makes room for the musical changes–the pauses, drum patterns, bass octaves, textures–and the wistful, cryptic lyrics. But the lyrics also follow the music, keeping to its rhythm and form. The song begins,

lehetnék hajó, te meg
lehetnél a folyó
úgysem engednéd, hogy benned
elmerüljek én

This translates approximately as

I could be a ship, and you
you could be the river
you would not at all allow
me to be submerged in you

This is an image of possibility: two things that could exist in relation to each other. The music seems to play it out; it is as if the lyrics were the ship, and the music the river. Yet all of this is to occur in the future. The first word of the song, “lehetnék” (“I could be”) is the first person conditional of the verb “lesz” (“to become” or future “to be”) with the potential suffix “-het”: lesz + -het + nék = lehetnék. The song’s fifth word, “lehetnél” (“you could be”) is the second person singular. They suggest becoming and imagination.

The grammar helps to convey the relationship between the two things. The ship is not preceded by a definite article (or any article at all), but the river is. Thus the first image of the pair is not specified–it’s a ship, any ship, or a generic ship–but the second thing is specific, existing in relation to the first. This pattern–of verbs and definite article–persists through the subsequent three pairs of images in the first verse. (At the same time, part of the initial pattern gets broken: the “úgysem” segment occurs only twice. I like this about the band’s songs in general: patterns are detectable but not overdone, and they change at just the right time. “Kapcsolj ki” is likewise outstanding in that way.)

At first the images and even the action seem common: just as people hold each other up, the river will not let the ship sink. I think I have heard this metaphor before. But there’s an ambivalence: is the river protecting the ship from danger and disaster, or keeping it from what it wants to do? Is there some kind of danger and loss in the protection? The next stanza extends the puzzle:

lehetnék felhő, te meg
lehetnél as eső
úgysem engedném, hogy végül
zápor legyünk

I could be a cloud, and you
you could be the rain
in the end I would never let us
turn into a shower

It seems, at first glance, that the cloud is holding things together, preventing the downpour from happening–but the rain is already falling, and so the cloud could be holding back from the action, refusing to join in, refusing to become “us,” even though it is made of the same matter as the rain. There might be some separation, some breakage, in this restraint.

Even here, the meanings have not been revealed; we don’t know what the ship and river, cloud and rain are, except that they express relations of some kind. Things take a turn with the next stanza, where living beings (as opposed to inanimate matter) come into play:

lehetnék erdő, te meg
lehetnél a madár
bújj el bennem, és igérem
itt senki nem talál

I could be a forest, and you
you could be the bird
hide in me, and I promise
no one will find [you] here

This picture seems peaceful, except for the suggestion of a threat: that the bird needs to hide from those pursuing it. It’s idyllic and fragile at the same time. But then the next stanza casts new meaning on what has occurred up to now (or the possibilities that have been suggested):

lehetnék bolond, te meg
lehetnél a király
mondd csak, minek is játszanék, hisz itt
mindenki bánt

I could be a fool, and you
you could be the king
tell me what part I should play, since here
everybody hurts

Now it seems that all of the images from before–ship and river, cloud and rain, bird and forest–are roles being played, like the fool (or jester) and king, and that no matter what part you play, you do not escape the basic pain and your own ability to hurt others. As I understand it, “bánt” is transitive, so the hurting is inflicted as well as suffered.

But then comes the chorus, which seems joyous, almost:

nem leszek több, mint aminek látsz
nem leszek jobb, mint amire vágysz
maradok csendben, maradok ember
nem leszek szebb, mint ez a világ
nem leszek bölcsebb mint az apám
maradok csendben, maradok ember

I will not be more than what you see
I will not be better than what you desire
I will stay quiet, I will stay human
I will not be lovelier than this world
I will not be wiser than my father
I will stay quiet, I will stay human

Is this the true victory: staying human, staying quiet, not succumbing to the pressures toward extremes? If so, this song seems to stand up against the hyperbole of our times, the pressure to be the best, the first, the loudest, the fastest. Or maybe it is not protest, but an admission, a promise, or a hope. (“Maradok csendben, maradok ember” could also be speaking of the present: “I remain quiet, I remain human.”)

The second verse–only half as long as the first–gives a new dimension to the puzzle. It returns to the first two pairs of images, but not the second two. Now, instead of looking ahead at possibilities, it looks back on what has happened.

te voltál a folyó, és látod
én voltam a hajó
vigyáztam de te mégis
partra vetettél

You were the river, and you see
I was the ship
I was careful but all the same
you threw [me] onto the shore

te voltál az eső, és látod
én voltam a felhő
azt mondtad, hogy minden rendben végül
viharrá lettél

you were the rain, and you see
I was the cloud
You said everything was fine in the end
you turned into a storm

All the cautions and protections come to nothing: the ship is tossed ashore, and the rain turns into a storm. Also, the becoming has come to an end; the primary verb is now “voltál”/”voltam,” the past tense of “van.” The phrase “viharrá lettél” caught my attention: “vihar” (“storm, tempest”) is of Slavic origin, and it appears here in the translative case, “viharrá,” which gives a sense of transformation (“into a storm”). From what I gather, the translative case has a slightly archaic or poetic feel. And then there’s “lettél,” the second-person singular past form of “lesz,” the verb I brought up in the beginning. It’s a past future of sorts: in the past, you became.

The forest and bird, fool and king, do not return, but they do not have to; we can decide for ourselves how they end up–how we end up, since we are they. How far do we hide? What and whom do we play? At what cost? To what end?

Then comes the chorus again, several times, along with interjections of “és látod” (“and you see”) and “és hát” (“and well”), and changes of musical texture. What does it mean, staying human? What does it consist of? Maybe being human has to do with two opposite things: protecting each other and yet failing to fully protect or be protected. Or maybe we play parts, well or poorly, while human pain and joy take their own course. Or we lighten our lives and mend the breaks with interjections (“well, you see”).

These words, patterns, melodies, and layers make “Maradok ember” no ordinary song. I sense that these musicians have much more coming, but right now they deserve to be heard.

Image: Marc Chagall, The Enchanted Forest (1945).

*I originally wrote the piece to support the band in an online poll. The winner will open for the Grenma at the Dürer Kert in Budapest on April 27. The band didn’t win the poll, but they did well, and the music transcends this stuff anyway. Also, they have an exciting show coming up: on March 23, when I will be on a bike trip to Szeged, they will open for Belmondo in Törökszentmiklós.

Full disclosure: Two of the band members attend the school where I teach in Szolnok, and one of them is in one of my weekly classes (through April). A colleague told me about their CD, and I purchased it, listened to it, and then listened more. I write about this song because it (along with the rest of the album) has had an effect on me and because I would like others, particularly English speakers, to know about it.

Update: I have made edits to the piece as recently as May 1. Since writing it, I worked out a cello cover of the song, which I played in a little concert at school on April 29; we sang songs in Russian, Hungarian, and French, and this was the Hungarian one. It’s a magnificent song, and I am grateful for it.

 

A Similar Gaze

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Yesterday I received a letter from a stranger (copied here with permission):

Dear Ms. Senechal,

I fortuitously discovered your work and simply adore your thinking, your whole orientation towards education, your perceptions about culture could not be more nuanced, intelligent, and deeply inspiring! I am writing to thank you for your work and also to ask you if you could offer some sort of reading list that might help a reader develop a similar gaze. I love your counter-culture thinking, but it is not dismissive and hostile, but rather critical and informed. You tight-rope walk a very subtle line, and I really appreciate it. Most academic writing is AWFUL to read—-horrid prose, jargons, and not very impressive ideas. Your work is a breath of fresh air, and I would love to read others like you and those who have shaped your thinking.

I thought of writing a response here, because this gives me a chance to recognize some of the writers who have influenced my thinking. But when I started assemble it in my mind, I became overwhelmed by the task. First of all, my thinking is continually changing; I expect the next book to differ from my latest one, and I rethink things day by day.

I suppose the letter-writer was referring to nonfiction, but my greatest influences have been poetry, music, and certain kinds of fiction–as well as nonfiction that has been influenced by these. I am drawn to those writers who have an ear for language–who hear the overtones and undertones of words, who know how to set words to rhythm, who set and break patterns. I love Aeschylus and Sophocles, the Psalms and Koheleth–but if I start listing names, I won’t end.

Nikolai Gogol: perhaps the writer who influenced me the most overall. His sentences are works of art: building up and breaking down, toying with sounds and meanings, and bursting with comedy and sadness.

I grew up on classical music but love rock too, and folk, and other kinds; music can take the humblest of forms and still shake a life. It depends on subtle things.

Of essayists, I am drawn toward the ruminative and the keen (in combination): Ralph Waldo Emerson, Virginia Woolf, David Bromwich, to name just three.

But as long as I can remember, some of my greatest influences have been the people around me every day: colleagues, students, friends, family, acquaintances. Some of them I admire for their work, character, or both; some challenge me in everyday conversation by putting things in a way that I hadn’t considered before. That’s one reason why I hope to continue teaching as long as I can give it full mind and strength.

I don’t think I have fully answered the question, though. The person who wrote to me found something in my writing that differed from the usual jargon. This difference is still building, but even in its elementary versions, it has come with some risk and pain. It isn’t just that I read particular writers, although I do. It isn’t just that I am inspired by those around me, although I am. It is that I took my own way, more than once, and learned what was there. For instance, in the middle of graduate school I decided that I didn’t want to go into academia–that is, to become a professor. I left graduate school, moved to San Francisco, finished my dissertation a few years later, for its own sake, and received my degree. Many people were initially upset that I had turned away from academia, but I don’t regret the decision; teaching high school gives me a full intellectual life, with freedom to move between subjects (philosophy, literature, language, drama, etc.). I don’t have life answers; I wouldn’t advise anyone to take or avoid my path. Each person faces different dilemmas and conundrums, so any advice must be tentative.

Nor have I attained the writing that I am after. Even with blog posts, I keep looking for the right word, rhythm, or mixture. When I finish writing something more substantial, such as a book, I outgrow it it a little; the mind keeps going past the final draft, and I start tinkering with ideas for the next work, whatever it may be. This is not a “process” (dreary word) but a pursuit of something I can barely see and hear.

Back to the question of things to read: I recommend Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Bromwich’s Moral Imagination. Each of these will lift the thinking; if you take them in slowly, they may exhilarate too. I choose them because I return to them again and again.

 

I revised this piece a few times after posting it. The photo shows part of my bookshelf (and just a fraction of my books, since I was able to bring only a few to Hungary); the record cover at the top is of Art of Flying’s Escort Mission.

 

To Perceive Brightly

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This question has been on my mind, off and on, since childhood: Is it good to tell writers, musicians, artists, actors, dancers, mathematicians, historians, carpenters, etc., that you admire their work? Or is it better to keep this to yourself? I have done a range of both and have heard arguments both ways.

Those who favor speaking up will say that these things should be said, that artists often do not know how much their work is appreciated, and that there is nothing lost in the gesture. Those on the other side say that you demean yourself by adulating, that praises get cheapened when spoken out loud, and that true fans don’t dare approach their idols.

All of these points are both true and false. There should be no shame in admiring things openly and ardently. Why cast stigma on this? If everyone went silent, art would wither. But if such admiration carries an expectation or demand, that’s a different matter. Fans may seek approval, even love, from those they admire; this leads to all sorts of problems.

Silence is not inherently superior; sometimes people stay silent not out of respect, but out of a desire to be cool. Sometimes they don’t have anything to say. Sometimes they aren’t even sure they like the art. Ideally, though, silence allows one to take something in without reacting to it immediately or putting it into words.

One thing I can say with confidence: to admire someone’s work out loud is not to disrespect it. To the contrary: good art can stir up courage.

But the word “can” suggests the uncertainty of it all. There is no one right answer. There are times for praising, and times for holding back praise. Not only that, but even mistakes have a role.

I do not regret any of the times I loved someone’s work out loud. I do regret times that I tried to forge a bond with the artist on account of the art, but even this was not always wrong and sometimes opened up into friendship. The reverse happened too: some people who admired my work became my friends.  But this is not owed and cannot be forced; it happens on its own if the conditions are right.

Two opposite actions (or non-actions) tend to be valued in popular culture: standing aloof on the one hand, and flinging oneself at celebrities’ feet on the other. Neither of these, in my view, expresses anything. Admiration is not the same as adulation or aloofness. To admire is to perceive brightly, whether in words or not, and such perception, spoken or unspoken, adds to the world.

So my advice would be: say what you wish to say (if anything), if you can do it without clinging to your words, propping yourself up, demanding anything of the other, or worrying too much. Above all, do not worry too much! And to those on the other end: accept the gesture.

I made a few additions to this piece (and changed its title) after posting it.

On Appreciation

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Often teachers don’t know how much they are appreciated; often students don’t either. Regarding teachers, students have often told me about a teacher who has influenced them, taught them something important, opened them to a subject, inspired them, or shown them kindness; I doubt that many have said these words directly to the teacher. There is a lot of gratitude in the air, but people don’t always know it.

But the same is true for students; they probably have little idea how much they give to a lesson, or to their classmates, or to a teacher’s day, or to a school.

It made my day yesterday (a “szombati munkanap,” or official, government-mandated Saturday working day, one of six in 2018), when I saw this on the board:

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I meet with this class only once a week; I look forward to each time. They bring such cheer and willingness to each lesson. They are learning quickly. Some who said, at the beginning of the year, that they didn’t speak any English are now participating eagerly; others are becoming more expressive and precise.

I remember one day when we had a schedule change; it was the first or second week in the school year. I had thought, incorrectly, that the change would take effect the following week, so I was sitting and working at my desk. There was a knock on the door of the teachers’ room. I opened the door to see two of the students from this class. “We are waiting for you,” they said. I came downstairs and found the students eager to get started. They understood my mistake, and we jumped right into the lesson.

One day in October I taught them “Frère Jacques” in French and English (they already knew it in Hungarian). Here they are singing it in all three languages. (It is posted with the students’ permission. I set it to “unlisted” so that it will be available only to those who have the link.)

 

 

Is the “lesson” from all of this that we should tell people more often that we appreciate them? Yes and no; as I will bring up in another post, I become less and less sure about what the lesson of any situation is. There may be four, five, ten lessons, some contradicting each other. Yes, it is good to tell people good things directly, without fear, but maybe there is an inevitable part that we keep to ourselves. In a school, there is some formality; we do not say everything. Still, there is no harm in saying a good word, if you are strong in it. It brings not only cheer but clarity too. There is lots of muddle in the world, many voices telling us to dismiss or disparage the good. Say a good word, and a quiet rises up around it. The chaos backs away.