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.

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.

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.

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.

 

A Literary Evening About Death

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I have been promising to describe an event I attended in Debrecen on January 17: a reading and discussion hosted by the literary magazine Alföldon the topic of death.

The theme was not mortality but death. Mortality is the abstract condition; death, the actual event. Mortality is death in a suit and tie (or cocktail dress); death can’t dress up if it tries. Why would a literary event on death draw such a large, dedicated crowd on a winter evening in Debrecen? I can only answer for myself: I went because I admire at least one of the writers and was eager to hear this topic approached openly, a topic that often gets euphemized and sidestepped. Introduced by the editor-in-chief of Alföld, Péter Szirák, the event consisted of discussion–led by the poet and Alföld editor János Áfra–and readings by Krisztián Grecsó, Gyula Jenei, and Márton Meszáros. I left with more than my limited Hungarian can assemble right now, but even if I were fluent in the language, I would need a long time to put together what I had heard.

They began by considering how, for many, the first encounter with death was through the death of an animal. Gyula Jenei read his poems “Tyúkszaros” (approximately the adjective “Chicken-shat”) and “Dögkút” (approximately “Carcass Pit”). Krisztián Grecsó read his story “Jó nap a halálra” (“A good day for death”). Márton Meszáros, a literary scholar, spoke of some of his work. I am not giving translations here of any of the works, because I would want to take time to do it adequately, ask the authors’ permission, and look for a better place for the translations than this blog.

The discussion and readings brought up many memories. I have not raised animals for food and do not know what that is like. But I remember a time when, at age eight or so, I found an egg in the woods, a blue speckled egg, on its own, on the ground, without a nest. I took the egg in my hand, squeezed it, and felt it crack. I remember not knowing, in the moment or afterward, whether I had meant to do this and whether I had taken a life. I wanted to think not, but I wasn’t sure.

I also remember the deaths of various pets: cats that roamed far and never came back, a big St. Bernard dog who went off by herself into the back yard and lay down to die, and Fred, my favorite dog, who died while we were living in Holland and our friends were taking care of him. (My parents couldn’t bring themselves to tell me until a few months after his death.)

We encounter death frequently, even though we do not always acknowledge or name it. It is part of how we come to know the world and ourselves. Deaths shape, scare, humble, sometimes even relieve us. Stories upon stories come to mind. But we also evade death (and discussions of death) with language, technology, medicine, and all kinds of escapes.

Later the writers discussed how people keep death at a distance; János Áfra brought up extreme sports and the fantasy of being a superhuman. They discussed whether euthanasia was an acceptable way of helping a dying person: does it prevent a person from experiencing the transition from one state to another? Should death be experienced fully, in the presence of loving people? On the other hand, does the full experience really do anything for the dying person? Is there really something to be experienced here, besides a sudden terror and pain? Are others able to help at all?  (There was much more to the conversation, and I may have some of this wrong, but this is what I was able to glean.)

The final readings–which appear in the current issue of Alföld–would have made the trip worthwhile on their own, without anything else. I have the texts (and a copy of the journal; there were free copies at the event), so I will be able to read them many times over the years to come. Gyula Jenei’s long poem “Isteni műhiba” (“Divine Malpractice”), the third part of which appears in Alföld, begins:

rendkívüli eseményre készülök. az időpont még
kérdéses, de a dolog elkerülhetetlennek látszik,
s húsz éven belül valószínűleg megtörténik.

You can read the second part of the poem (along with these opening lines) in the January 2019 issue of Kortárs.

Here is the opening stanza of Krisztián Grecsó’s “Magánapokrif” (maybe translatable as “Self-apocryph”):

A mindeneim mára üres árkok,
Kopár földsávok a kincstári mezőn,
Kifosztott oltár a harmadik napon,
Tucatnyi mérgezett varjú a tetőn.
Róluk mondatott le, intett, az Úr,
És elhagytak engem ők könnyedén,
Mintha nem én szültem volna őket,
Általam voltak, mert léteztem én.

I had come here by cab; afterward I walked back to the train station, through the snow, and looked at statues and buildings. A few things were moving slowly in my mind. First, I knew that it was a quietly historic evening, an event that people will remember, not only silently, but in their writings, teachings, conversations. Second, it wasn’t flashy or shocking; it relied on its own quality. The discussion was thoughtful and probing (and funny too, at moments), and the literature worth rereading slowly, many times. Third, I felt fortunate not only to have gone, but to have wanted to go, to have figured out how to do so. I think I understood only a fraction of it (maybe between a third and a half, and a fragmented slice at that), but isn’t that part of the point? You step into something like this, and no matter how much or little you understand, you leave with all three sides of it: the things understood, the things not understood, and the in-between, which together begin their own building.

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I took both pictures in Debrecen on January 17. The statue has an interesting history and has given rise to a variety of interpretations.