“Self-Partnered”? Or Self-Branded?

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A recent New York Times opinion piece by Bradley B. Onishi posits that many single people are in fact “self-partnered“–in other words, that they are in a relationship, not primarily with others, but with themselves. Onishi seems to see this–including the branding–as a good thing. While I see many joys in being single–and do not view marriage as the key to human legitimacy–I find this argument preposterous. A relationship with oneself is not the same as a relationship with another. Using the term “partner” for singleness creates confusion. But beyond that, I see no reason to justify single life, or any other kind of life, with a big idea.

First of all, singlehood is not a partnership with self. When you’re by yourself, you more or less know yourself. You may question yourself, search yourself, or even argue with yourself–but all of this happens within yourself. In contrast, when you face another person, you are confronted with what and who you do not know, even if in some way you know the person well. Even Odysseus and Penelope call each other “strange.”

Second, no matter what your relationship or lack thereof, you don’t have to justify it with a big idea or catch-phrase. It can exist on its own terms, and it can change. Why would anyone want to be “self-partnered”? It sounds more lonely than not being partnered at all–because the term evades the solitude. Why not let there be solitude, and company, and anything in between? Why not let these things be a little bit wordless, too?

One of the commenters on the NYT piece wrote, in response to my first comment,

Bingo. Everything has to be portrayed as some kind of new discovery of The True Way (same with diets, exercise, our relationships to technology, religion, and so on).
Looking for a ‘soul mate’ has little to do with reality. A partner is something else. Not to say that there aren’t good reasons to live on one’s own; there are plenty. But do we have to call it being your own soul mate?

That’s right, we don’t! Terms like “self-partnering” create the illusion that our choices are equal to any others. In fact they are not. Nothing is complete. No matter which way we choose in life, we give up something else. Some of us wonder what might have happened if we had chosen (or at least allowed for) a different way. Such questioning is fine. We can rejoice in what we have; we can bewail it. But we don’t have to petrify or laminate it in phrases. It can take surprising and changing shapes. I would rather learn from life than sum it up; I would rather work with words over time than scavenge them for an instant brand.

I changed the title slightly after posting this piece.

CONTRARIWISE Continues!

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Way back in the spring of 2014, the first boxes of CONTRARIWISE arrived at Columbia Secondary School. I was on alert for the shipment–but when it came, I would not open a box; I wanted to wait until the editors in chief were available, so that they could do the honors. I remember standing nearby as they cut the box open (with a key, I think, or maybe with scissors) and took out a volume–elegant, crisp, and colorful. All the work that had gone into this journal was now in their hands. The rest of the day was filled with signings, distribution of gift copies, sales, congratulations, exclamations.

Soon they received their first review: “NYC Techie Kids Buck Trend, Take On Humanities,” by Cynthia Haven. In May 2014, we had our first CONTRARIWISE celebration, at Word Up Books in Washington Heights. I have a short video of the part where I sang the “Contrariwise song“–based on the Major General’s Song–which I had written just for the event. (Thanks to Mr. Gerald Pape, who shot the video.) After the song, the editors in chief close out the ceremony, and a member of the audience–then in sixth grade–reminds them, “You were supposed to answer my question about time.”

That audience member is now in twelfth grade and—for the second consecutive year–one of the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. I just received a message from him that the sixth volume is at the printer–to be released very soon–and that the contest and writing prompts for Volume 7 are now available. I will copy the prompts below in just a moment. Right now I am contemplating what it took, from many people, to keep the journal going and lively all this time. I initiated it and was the faculty advisor for its first three years. Then Kim Terranova advised it for two years, and then John Beletsky stepped into the role. There have been four pairs of editors in chief: Ron Gunczler and Nicholas Pape, Kelly Clevenson and Alan Rice, Zosia Caes and Melany Garcia, and the current editors, Amogh Dimri and Theo Frye Yanos. In addition, CONTRARIWISE has had an editorial board throughout its history–students who read, discuss, and select submissions, judge the contests, help with sales, and plan events. Beyond that, CONTRARIWISE has been enlivened by its readers–people who buy copies, read them, enjoy them, and maybe even submit an Infrequently Asked Question or two (or five or ten).

Here are the new prompts and submission information, courtesy of the editors-in-chief. Everything except for the first one (the National Contest) is open to high school students around the world. Submissions must be in English. The new deadline is January 20. The information will soon be up on the CONTRARIWISE website (which will be restructured as well as updated, according to my sources).

National Writing Contest (select one) — for students in the U.S.

  • How should crimes be punished in the ideal society, and should they be at all? What is the purpose of “punishment” — an act of enforcing individual justice, or of maintaining the cohesion of the broader society? You may relate your argument to history or current legal systems as well if you would like. (Below is a scenario that might inspire you along this line of thinking.)

    • You have been accused of a high-profile crime, but you have no memory whatsoever of the time you supposedly committed it. Moreover, none of your friends or family believe it is possible that you could have done it because they know you to be a very good person. Supposing that you did actually do the crime, should your punishment be any less?

  • Write about an idea that is impossible for humans to understand or a problem that is impossible for us to solve.

International Writing Contest (select one) — for students outside the US

  • Why do we laugh? Can all the causes of laughter, varying from dark humor, to simple gags, to tickling, all be explained by one theory? In whatever sense you take it, what is the purpose of laughter?

  • Can violence be justified to achieve political ends? If so, why, and to what extent can it be used?

Writing Open Call — for all students

  • Write whatever you want!

Remember, your submissions for the writing contests or open call can be in whatever form you want: reflection, short story, poem, dialogue, letter, or whatever else you can think of! Feel free to take the prompts in whatever way you are inspired to!

Art Contest — for all students

  • Many artists use abstract or surreal art forms in order to express philosophical ideas, purposefully subverting the confines of the real. Make a piece of art that does this. (Below are two ideas that might inspire you on the ideas of surrealism and abstraction.)

    • Surrealism — French writer André Breton: “The purpose of surrealism is to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality into an absolute reality, or super-reality.”

    • Abstraction — Vietnamese monk Thích Nhất Hạnh: “The secret of Buddhism is to remove all ideas, all concepts, in order for the truth to have a chance to penetrate, to reveal itself.”

Art Open Call — for all students

  • Make whatever you want!

Cover Contest — for all students

  • For this year’s cover contest, draw two abstract representations of non-mammal animals. Other than this guideline, be as creative as you want. Preferred width-to-height ratio is 2 : 3.

All submissions are due on January 20, 2020.

  • For writing, please share a Google Doc with editors@columbiasecondary.org. Do not forget to put a title and write out your full name as you want it to appear (or say that you would like it to be published anonymously).

  • For art, if it is digital please send an email with the file to editors@columbiasecondary.org, or for CSS students you can also give physical art to Prof. Beletsky, Theo Frye Yanos, or Amogh Dimri in person, or put it in Prof. Beletsky’s mailbox.

Don’t forget to credit any inspirations or inclusions of other works in your submission! (That is, cite sources and quotes, and credit any works that inspired or contributed to your own work.) An added comment from Diana Senechal: Borrowed/adapted art and photographs can lead to tricky copyright problems (and, in some cases, hefty fees). It’s better if your art is entirely original–that is, created from scratch, not a digital adaptation or direct copy of someone else’s work. But if you do adapt someone else’s work in some way, please provide the source, so that the editors can look into the copyright issues. As for writing, cite your sources accurately and thoroughly.

I hope many students in Hungary–and Turkey and around the world–submit their work!

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Image credits: The photo at the top was taken by Shirley Reynozo at the inaugural CONTRARIWISE celebration on May 18, 2014. The video was recorded at the same celebration by Gerald Pape. I took the second photo at a CONTRARIWISE editorial board meeting (in October 2015).

Loneliness vs. Solitude

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Recently I received a thoughtful, respectful message from a former student (who is now at university). He was curious to know how someone like me–warm, caring, intelligent–would be without a partner, or seem to be without one, at any rate. He understood if I chose not to answer the question. I think I understood why he would ask. For one thing, young people (and older people too) wish to understand the world better, and asking questions is one of the best ways. Also, there are cultural differences at work. Moreover, it’s a question I could stand to ask myself.

I replied that my answer was not going to be anywhere close to complete, but that there were a few things I could say briefly. One was that being single is much more common in the U.S. than here in Hungary. (The difference is marked, actually.) Another was that I truly enjoy being alone–not all the time, but for substantial stretches and for certain things that I do, such as writing, biking, thinking. The third part was that the situation could change, that I was open to the possibility of meeting someone, here or elsewhere, with whom I would want to build a relationship.

All of that leaves a lot unanswered, but it’s also true. How the situation took shape–that’s a much more difficult question. If I were to do it all over, I probably would marry and have kids, and they would be grown up by now, or at least well into their teenage years. But we don’t get to do our lives over; we can only live them from the present onward, or rather, in the continual present, with memories and anticipations, but no choices except for the ones right before us, including choices of attitude.

Back to the point about enjoying being alone. Right now I want to look briefly at the difference between loneliness and solitude. I wrote about this in my first book, Republic of Noise. The distinction isn’t absolute or clear-cut; the two can overlap. Nor does either of these have to do entirely with the presence or absence of others. You can be lonely–or solitary–when someone is right beside you. So what are they, and how do they differ?

Loneliness is a felt lack of human company. It can come upon you when you are all by yourself, or when you are around others with whom you do not feel at ease, or when you are enjoying the company of others but missing a particular person, or even when there’s no one in particular you are missing, but you feel a longing or ache, maybe even for someone you haven’t met yet. Loneliness isn’t always bad; sometimes you need it to pull you into the world or to see things more clearly. But in its extreme forms, it can be crippling and can take hold of millions of people.

Solitude exists at many levels and takes different forms. It can be understood as a basic, elemental aloneness that we carry with us at all times. People sometimes define it as productive or healthy aloneness. But I think there’s more to it than that. At one level, solitude is part of us whether we enjoy it or not, whether we think about it or not, whether we do anything with it or not. From there, it’s possible to shape the solitude that you have. Even in conversation, solitude comes into play; it allows you to stand back from the trend and form your thoughts.

Solitude can take the form of spending time alone. Over time, I have come to find this form essential; I need it not only for writing, not only for thinking things through, but also, often, for experiencing and enjoying things. I love going on long bike rides alone, because I don’t have to talk or stop, I can just be on the road as long as I like, going as fast or as slowly as I wish, looking around me, and letting my thoughts fly. I also love going to performances and films on my own, because I can take them in fully that way. I find solitude essential (paradoxically) for learning a language.

But that doesn’t mean I dislike company. My friends are dear to me. I have friends from across the years, from the various places I have lived, gone to school, and worked. I can’t imagine my life without them. I also have room in my heart for a relationship, should it come along. I imagine there’s someone out there with whom I would get along terrifically well, who wants to build something with me, who can make me laugh, who finds life interesting, who isn’t already with someone, who is fairly close to me in age and priorities, who understands solitude, who shares some interests with me, and who doesn’t ask me to be anyone I am not. I would offer my own version of the same.

Such a thing is possible and wonderful; at this point I have no idea who it would be or how we would meet, or even whether it would happen. If it happened, I think we would meet in person, not online. It would feel right to both of us, not forced. In the meantime–that is, the main time–there is much to do, learn, and enjoy: teaching to do, languages to learn, projects to work on, places to bike to, concerts to listen to, people to spend time with, pictures to take, questions to ask, and things to puzzle through and dream.

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If Only

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Often in my English classes we work with counterfactual conditionals: “If I hadn’t overslept this morning, I wouldn’t have arrived late”; “If I knew that you would be waiting, I would have called you”; etc. The curious thing about all these statements is that we have no idea whether they are true. We think that if we had done such-and-such, things would have turned out differently, but we don’t know precisely how. All we know is what actually did happen, and (to a lesser extent) what choices went into it. So when I look back on the past sometimes, and think, for example, “If I had taken a class with Harold Bloom, if I had majored in English while also taking Russian literature classes….” my conclusions, though appealing, come down to speculation.

I tried positing this–the unreality and uncertainty of the things that didn’t happen–in a one-session workshop on the philosophy of time (which I taught at school last year on Katalin Day). I didn’t talk about my own experience but focused on the texts I had brought and on the discussion in the room. A few students protested vigorously that my argument denied free will. But it doesn’t; it merely posits that we have no way of knowing what would have happened if we had done this or that differently. This doesn’t make the choices unimportant or unreal. To the contrary: by choosing an action, we give it a reality that the other hypothetical possibilities can never attain, except in the mind. It is true that we can return to, and embrace, a rejected option later. But we are now doing it as a different person from before, with the accumulated experience.

Well, I take that back. There are certain physical certainties, or relative certainties. If I take a book out of the bookshelf in my apartment, it will stay out until I put it back in; if I do not take it out, it will stay there. I can say, with some confidence, “If I hadn’t taken that book out of the bookshelf, it would still be there.” But as soon as other people and complex situations are involved, the alternative possibilities and their outcomes become less definite.

Let’s take the example of majoring in English. I see now that my reasons for not doing so were foolish. I paid too much attention to the amateur advice-givers around me. People were saying that the English major was overcrowded and that you “couldn’t do anything” with a degree in English. I don’t know about the first assertion, but the second was false. English majors can become writers, editors, scholars, critics, and much more; if they decide to change fields–for instance, to go into law–their studies will serve them well. Moreover, they will carry many of the works they read, and memories of the lectures and discussions, for the rest of their lives.

Why do I sometimes wish I had majored in English? Part of the reason is that I wanted to do this, early on, but let myself be dissuaded. Part of it is that I had a difficult time choosing a major at all; I finally chose Russian, but this came after I entertained many other possibilities. And there lies the catch. There are many reasons why I had difficulty choosing a major: a multitude of interests, contradictory and confusing advice, too many opportunities to change my mind, and profound uncertainty about what I was doing. There is no guarantee that any of this would have abated if I had chosen a different major.

Moreover, I loved the study of Russian literature and excelled in it. The one problem was that I didn’t want to go to Russia to study for a semester or year. I wasn’t required to do this, but it would have helped my Russian greatly. I wanted to stay put–having traveled and moved a lot in childhood–and this placed a limit on my Russian. My Russian was considered proficient at the time, but it wasn’t fluent. I could express myself well in certain areas, write essays, and read Dostoevsky without a dictionary, but there were swathes of vocabulary and colloquial expressions that I didn’t know. My deficiencies were even more basic than that; I made mistakes with perfective and imperfective verb forms and was far from mastering the prefixes.

Over the long term, I learned and accomplished things I never would have predicted–but beyond that, this is the only life I know. All those things that might have happened, that might have turned out differently, stay part of the imagination. Like any human, I take them up in the mind, but I can be certain of none of them.

Back to my students’ objections: If there is only one way for things to turn out, what happens to free will? I question the question’s premise. There are many ways that things can turn out, but only one way that they actually do. But even that is only partly true. Do we ever know, with certainty, how things turned out? To a degree, we can state what happened. But the meaning of what happened is continually changing; our perspectives change, and we learn from others’ perspectives. So, in a sense, an event many turn out in many ways at once. We have more free will than we even know: we not only make choices in life, but later choose how to interpret what we and others did. In this interpretation, the things that did not happen play a large role. There is still a distinction between things that happened and things that did not, but both sides involve the imagination, and the choices are infinite. (I didn’t manage to say all of this in class; these thoughts, provoked by the students’ challenges, came later.)

I am very sorry that I never took a class with Harold Bloom (or even met him in person). That’s on my mind now, since he died last week. But in ways I didn’t realize, I was learning from him indirectly. My friends and professors (and later my colleagues) spoke of him often; I picked up and returned to his books, which I read in passages and parts. He was in my life in some way, and he remains.

I have a similar (though different) feeling about Toni Morrison, who died in August. I would have learned so much from being in the room while she was speaking. I thought the day would come, but it did not. Still I continue to learn from her.

I didn’t miss out, though, even in terms of English courses; I had the great joy of taking two classes from John Hollander, as an undergraduate and a grad student. I think that was how things were supposed to be, since I sought those classes out. There was nothing like them in all my years of school; I return to them often in my mind. I am so far from missing out in life that a regret seems frivolous. But regrets have a place, when not taken too far. They help us perceive things that did not come to pass and that never will. Without such imagination we would fall for a much more dangerous illusion: that we are always justified, right, and complete.

Friendship and Place

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The past few days have reminded me how friendship and place go together. I associate friends with certain places; when we meet in those places, old memories get layered with the new; when we meet in a new place, it can bring something out of the friendship. I will not talk here about the conversations I had with various friends; that is not for reporting on the blog. There must be something that a person can keep offline. But I will say a little about the places, in reverse chronological order.

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Dallas, and that evening I went with my dear colleagues and friends to Gloria’s, the Salvadoran, Tex-Mex, and Mexican restaurant that we have visited so many times. I did not take pictures, but the conversation and meal are fresh in my mind.

On Tuesday evening, a friend and I met at the New Leaf restaurant in Fort Tryon Park (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC). Both of us had been there before, but not together. She lives right by the park; so did I, in the two years before I moved to Hungary. The photo at the top is of the park as I walked through it after dinner.

On my way to dinner, I walked through the long subway tunnel at 190th Street.

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Earlier in the day, I went with another friend to the New York Public Library. (Both he and the friend I first mentioned were also my colleagues at Columbia Secondary School.) We had gotten together there before, but this occasion was different; his wife, who works at the library, arranged for us to see the Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens special collections; this included the copy of Alice in Wonderland that Carroll dedicated and presented to Alice Liddell, as well as the copy of A Christmas Carol, replete with handwritten cuts and edits, that Dickens used for his public readings. After that, we got to see the very first handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. It was difficult to take a good picture of it; here is one of my attempts.

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Before and after the Declaration of Independence, we went to the children’s reading room, where his two children were playing, and saw the original Winnie the Pooh toys.

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That morning I met with a friend in Edgar’s Café, which has become our traditional meeting place. It is named after Edgar Allan Poe; its original location was on Edgar Allan Poe Street between West End Avenue and Broadway. It was there, right on or near that street, that Poe lived from March 1844 to August 1845; it was supposedly there that he wrote “The Raven.” I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s one I took in February, when I came to NYC for two days to give a book reading and had breakfast with the same friend. (Neither of us appears in the photo.)

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The previous evening, I met with a friend in a gorgeous apartment on Washington Square Park (it belongs to one of her family members, who was away). We had never met there before; it ended up hosting a good, long conversation. I took no pictures indoors, but here’s one of a street corner nearby. The arched windows of the tall building across the street were glittering in the sun, but the picture doesn’t catch that.

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On the way there, I passed by the Stonewall National Monument. It was the day after the Pride Parade, so it was quiet (but still full of visitors). I missed the parade on Sunday–well, I could have caught the end of it, probably, but was too tired and jet-lagged to realize this. The quiet walk was good, in any case.

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Each of these places was beautiful, and just right for each of the meetings with friends–but I think it’s partly because I was alert to them. Living in Szolnok has made me more aware of places and their relation to people. I think of the rivers, the school, the library, the places where the banketts were held, the Tiszavirág Fesztivál grounds, the Tiszavirág bridge, the café where I met weekly this year with Böbi and Tündi, the many streets I got to know by bike, the buildings whose history I am slowly beginning to learn. A person not only becomes part of a place, but gives something through it, so that the place becomes a messenger, but the opposite of Hermes and Iris, since it needs no wings but rather does its work by standing still.

One Foot in Each World

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Religion might be the touchiest subject in the world, or at least a mighty candidate. Those who feel strongly about it (one way or another) have trouble considering others’ beliefs; those who don’t feel strongly about it see little need to discuss it. Religious convictions (including atheism) often come bundled with attitudes of superiority; those with religious faith see atheists as spiritually impoverished, whereas atheists often see the religious as deluded or worse. Even within a given religion, there are demarcations and judgments; some look down on their less observant fellow worshipers, while others pride themselves on not being one of those “crazy” types. Add to this the centuries of conflicts between and within religions, and you have a sensitive subject indeed. But perhaps there are ways to think and talk about it, even with disagreements.

First of all, what is religion? It begins with the apprehension of something beyond our concrete knowledge but somehow involved in our lives. We start to see this as a god; a text that reveals this god takes on a sacred status. Practices arise out of this perception; if there is a god, and if this god is good, then one should make as much room for the god as possible, driving away the god’s enemies, whatever they may be. Religious rituals, services, and prayers, as well as dietary and other practices, can be seen as ways of letting God in.

For many an atheist, this is nonsense or worse; religious practices distract from a truly moral way of life–where one strives to make the world a better place for its own sake–or a life of self-fulfillment, where one seeks one’s own advantage. There’s no god watching over us, no afterlife awaiting us, just ourselves and our choices, be they selfish, generous, or both.

These views seem diametrically opposed, but maybe they aren’t. It’s possible to hold both of them at once. I have no way of knowing whether there is a god or not. I consider it entirely possible that there is none, and no afterlife either. Yet religious texts and liturgies–Jewish texts and liturgy in particular–have a meaning for me that cannot be explained away or reduced. Judaism emphasizes the communal and the social, but for me it is primarily internal. I loved those hours of learning a Torah portion late into the evening, pondering the meanings, looking up the etymology of word after word, figuring out the logic behind a particular trope pattern–or else sinking into the liturgy, listening, singing, chanting. This is similar to my relation to literature and music but not exactly the same. I say “loved” because I learn the Torah portions much faster now and have been focused on leading services, which requires more than one kind of preparation. Leading services is a great joy, but it shifts the attention to the external. You not only learn the texts and prepare your voice, but also make adjustments for the many possible occurrences: special guests, a large crowd, a complete lack of crowd, a changed location, etc. I imagine that rabbis and cantors (as well as priests and leaders of other religions) must work hard to protect their internal lives. Religion is a kind of internal life that cannot be replaced with anything else.

A future rabbi (now a rabbi in actuality) told me about five years ago that I had one foot in the secular world and the other in the religious world, and that this was not a bad thing. This remains true. I reject a sheltered existence for myself; I want to be in the world, and that means being among people who differ from me, as well as those with whom I share interests, background, priorities, experiences. I need the retreat as well, not the retreat of escape, but that of sinking into texts, thoughts, melodies, both secular and religious. I know that these two (or three or four) worlds meet, the secular and the religious, the external and internal, because I live them. Yet how difficult it is to explain the intersection (or overlap, or intertwining, symphony, or stew)! I suspect that when human life reaches an end, when the whole story wraps up, if it ever does, each of us will turn out to have been at least slightly wrong. Maybe that’s the upshot of the “double life”: each one reminds the other that there is more to learn and more people and things to learn from.

I took the photo at the Tiszavirág Fesztivál last night; this was one of many entries in a “light painting” (fényfestés) competition. Here the art is projected onto the Reformed Church.

 

1LIFE in Esztergom

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Does life get a whole lot better than this: listening to a terrific band in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? If it does, I hope to be there for it; but if not, I have already lived well.

Established late in the tenth century, Esztergom was Hungary’s capital until the Mongol seige of 1241. It towers above and alongside the Danube; you quickly encounter its steep hill and cliffs (I was generally able to bike uphill; I just had to watch for cars). When I arrived, it was just early afternoon, so I had time to see the Basilica (up high) and bike along the Danube below.

The Basilica, planned in 1822 and completed in 1869, stands on the foundation of a much older church, built in the eleventh century, that suffered burning, sacking, and ultimate ruin, with renovations in between. Esztergom itself, for all its splendor, has been through war after war, trouble after trouble. Later, when I commented on its beauty to the staff at the Atrium, the bed-and-breakfast place where I stayed, they replied, “Szép lesz.” (It will be beautiful.)

The synagogue, which I did not get to see (I mistook another building for it) is supposedly Hungary’s oldest—I have yet to verify this—but with the deportation and killing of almost the entire Jewish community in World War II, it stopped being a place for services. Today it functions as a cultural center.

 

After coming down from the hill, I walked through the Comedium Corso festival grounds to get my bearings. I heard an organ grinder, saw children riding Shetland ponies, and found the large stage where the bands were to play. I checked in at the Atrium before biking back down for the concert.

 

1LIFE ascended the stage through billows of fog and began to play up a storm. Within seconds or minutes, the audience (ranging in age from about 3 to 60, with a large teenage contingent) was tapping, dancing, singing, cheering along. Some of these songs, such as “Nincsen kérdés,” are heartbreaking and exhilarating at once; the hard-edged sound combines with the raw and thoughtful lyrics. Their sound reminds me a little of Nirvana and a little more of Son Volt (especially the Wide Swing Tremolo album) but their mixture of music and lyrics is unlike any other I have heard.

Several little kids were dancing through almost the whole show—and really dancing to the beat, not just randomly jumping around; teens were singing along to every word; and I was thrilled to be there. I realized, in a new way, that 1LIFE had “it”: the combination of music, lyrics, zest, stage presence, and knowhow that makes you enjoy every moment and want still more. They have more to discover and try out—this is always true for good artists—and they are clearly doing this. They show it through their appreciation of others’ music, their range of textures and tones, and their willingness to go for it, play shows, work with each new situation. They are professional in the best sense of the word: not staid-professional, but live-out-the-art professional.

They played most of the songs from their album, including “Kapcsolj ki!” and other favorites; one still-unrecorded song whose name I didn’t catch (I think it has “bölcsesség,” “wisdom,” in it) and which begins with “Na na na”—I love it so far and can’t wait to hear it again—and another song, “Londoni idő,” that is not on the album either but can be found on video. Midway through “Álmok a parton,” in the chorus, Marcell Bajnai changed “A Tisza-parton éjsaka….” to “A Duna-parton éjsaka” (in accordance with Esztergom’s location on the Danube). I don’t know if this was planned, but it felt spontaneous and perfect. There were memorable moments between the songs, too: quick stage banter, an eloquent impromptu song introduction by Marcell Jankó, the bassist—and then the one sad moment: they announced that they would play their next-to-last song, “Maradok ember,” but a festival staff person apparently told them that they were out of time and could only play one more song. So they skipped “Maradok ember” and played a gorgeous, exuberant “Táncolunk a végtelenben,” which turned responsive toward the end—that is, we sang back when we were supposed to, with full voice. And then cheered and cheered. And hoped for an encore. It did not come, but the concert didn’t go away quickly either. The pictures I took of the show (below) are limited in quality, but Kitti Berényi (kittiphoto) took some great ones.

After the concert, I biked along the Danube again, walked over the bridge to Slovakia and back, got some beef stew from one of the festival food stands, ran into the band and congratulated them, and then walked and biked through sloping alleys, up and down steps, until the sun went down. I got a good night’s sleep; early in the morning, I set out for Budapest (by train), where Rabbi Katalin Kelemen and I led Szim Salom’s Shavuot service. I had been preparing for this daily (it involved, among other things, leyning the Ten Commandments and chanting the first chapter of Ruth), but I didn’t realize that Esztergom would be part of the preparation too. I arrived so rested and happy, and met with such cheer and warmth from the others (regulars and visitors) that it went the way a Shavuot festival should. From festival to festival, the bridge was not long.

Some may think it’s eccentric of a 55-year-old to travel to Esztergom to hear a band led by one of her former students. Well, it is eccentric, but it’s part of my nature, and I don’t regret a second of it. Good music reaches people of all ages. This does not mean that I would go to all their shows. For instance, if they were playing at a young people’s nightclub or party, I wouldn’t want to step into their space. But a festival is meant to bring people together; age is less important there than other things.

There’s another aspect of this too. In his essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson writes of the individual: “The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preestablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.“ That is, it is given to each of us in life to appreciate particular things, to see them in a particular way. No one else can do this for us. It’s each person’s choice whether to live this out or not, but for me it’s the difference between full life and a sort of whimpering hesitation. Live modestly; be thoughtful of others; remember life’s stages, necessities and losses; but live out that life that is only yours, because that’s what it’s there for, briefly.

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(I added links to this piece and edited it here and there after posting it.)

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.

From every angle they whiz. 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.

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.