What Are Years?

I celebrate three New Years annually: the Jewish New Year, the academic new year, and the Gregorian New Year, which begins tomorrow. They are all different kinds of beginnings. This last one has both the least and the greatest effect on my sense of time: the least because it doesn’t really affect my life rhythm, except that it occurs during our winter break and heralds certain deadlines and beginnings, and the greatest because the it is recognized, marked, and fêted worldwide. I suppose birthdays are a kind of new year too, in which case I celebrate many more than three.

But in all cases, the “year” has to do with the motion of the earth around the sun (or vice versa, as it was perceived in ancient times). Seasons and growth cycles have been part of our conception of time since the earliest antiquity known to us.

New Year’s resolutions may be silly at times, but our sense of starting afresh is not. It’s physical, possible, and good. A person doesn’t even have to wait a year to do this. I often do it from one day to the next, or even during the course of a day. For instance, if I didn’t get nearly as much done as I had hoped, I start over, right then and there, and either get something done or not. Or I do enough of something that I know it will be easy to continue or finish the next day. Being able to “start over” can do, if not wonders, at least more than nothing. Or it can make the “nothing” worthwhile. At times it can simply mean getting a good night’s sleep.

But yes, this year stands out from other years, and the desire for a new start is a bit more urgent than usual, all around the world. Those spared by Covid itself have been hit by Covid fatigue and anxiety. The arts have taken a terrible hit. Travel, events, gatherings are up in the air.

But it’s still possible to read, write, listen to music, watch movies, laugh. So I leave off with just a few recommendations:

The Autumn 2020 issue of my students’ online journal, Folyosó:

Marcell Bajnai’s song “dühöngő” (released in July):

A live video of Dávid Szesztay and his band playing his song “Elindul” (maybe my favorite of his songs):

A brutally funny satirical piece by Dan Geddes, published 19 years ago in The Satirist: “In Memoriam: Dr. Claire Hoyt: ‘Shrink to the Stars’“;

Lara Allen’s art work Fried Liver Attack, whose description begins, “‘Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.’ These words, spoken by heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, are the tabula rasa for this work. This punch might be a beginning or an end. It’s supposed that we make art that is about something, or that reflects something, or interrogates something.”

Ishion Hutchinson’s magnificent poem “Little Music,” published in the January 2021 issue of Harper’s;

Martha Hollander’s quietly stunning poem “Friday Harbor,” published in Issue 12:3 of Literary Matters;

And, of course, Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” from which this post’s title comes. It is one of my favorite poems, and it brings back memories of John Hollander’s classes. Since it now appears in various places online, I will copy it below (from the Madison Public Library website). I read it aloud this evening, against a backdrop of rain; here is the recording.

A Happy New Year to all!

What Are Years?

Marianne Moore

        What is our innocence,
what is our guilt? All are
        naked, none is safe. And whence
is courage: the unanswered question,
the resolute doubt—
dumbly calling, deafly listening—that
in misfortune, even death,
        encourages others
        and in its defeat, stirs

        the soul to be strong? He
sees deep and is glad, who 
        accedes to mortality
and in his imprisonment, rises
upon himself as
the sea in a chasm, struggling to be
free and unable to be,
        in its surrendering
        finds its continuing. 

        So he who strongly feels,
behaves. The very bird,
        grown taller as he sings, steels
his form straight up. Though he is captive,
his mighty singing
says, satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
        This is mortality,
        this is eternity.

Stores, Coffee, and Socks

Those who scoff at capitalism might forget the joy of walking into a little store–like the Arabica Kávézó here in Szolnok, which offers not only coffee and cookies, but books (including Zsolt Bajnai’s Visszaköszönés), tote bags with cats and dogs on them, lovely jewelry, and other things that catch the eye. This is the kind of store that, in the world of Orwell’s 1984, could get a person in trouble with the Thought Police. I went there today because I saw interesting things through the window. I walked out with a necklace and bracelet, a cat tote bag, and information on where to find coffee filters. I had just bought an American-style coffee maker (for three years I have been drinking instant coffee at home), but could not find any filters. Speaking to me rapidly (I can now understand people when they do this in Hungarian), the woman behind the counter explained exactly where the filters were in the Co-op grocery store next door. I went there and, sure enough, there they were. The taste of homemade coffee is thrilling.

With so many restrictions on our lives, with so many institutions closed down at least temporarily, with so many events converted into Zoom sessions, it’s cheering to walk by stores that are lit up and open.

And even those stores you never visit–the ones that you pass by, thinking, “One of these days I’ll step inside,” these too bring something to your life. Stores have to make money, but that’s not all they do. They give something to a town or city. You come to know a place by them, in part.

Hungary has its share of chain stores (which also serve their purpose), but I love the little shops and cafés here; it is fun to discover them, get to know them, visit them over time. That’s part of living in a city, I think: learning to support the businesses properly. Because otherwise one day they could be gone.

Oh, yes, my title mentioned socks. That’s because I was thinking of Pablo Neruda’s “Oda a los calcetines.” Here it is, in Spanish and English, for your enjoyment. True, Neruda was passionately communist–which seems, on the surface, to contradict what I have been saying here. But such are the contradictions of life, and they weave together into a truth.

The Push and Pull of Literary Journals

In my experience, literary journals, especially in the U.S. can tend toward either of two extremes: discouraging people from submitting work, or sending enthusiastic daily reminders to do so.

The first tendency I can understand, up to a point. A journal knows what it wants; the editors have little time and don’t want to spend hours scrolling through submissions that they know they will reject. But some seem gratuitously offputting. Not long ago, I came upon this mission statement:

[Journal X] has a very clear mission: to be inclusive, to denounce bigotry of all kinds, and to stand up to those who abuse and persecute. We have a zero-tolerance policy regarding racism, trans/homophobia, misogyny, and violence for the sake of violence. If we receive work from an abusive person, we will decline it, as is our right to do. If we are alerted that we have published a piece by an abuser, we will unpublish it, as is our right to do.

Denouncing bigotry is the journal’s prerogative; journals have the freedom to set their own standards and criteria. What bothers me is the statement, “If we are alerted that we have published a piece by an abuser, we will unpublish it, as is our right to do.” They make no room for uncertainty; they say unambiguously, “we will unpublish it” (italics added). What if the “alert” is false, distorted, or vicious? This statement appears to value hearsay over (a) the contents of the submitted work and (b) the editors’ own judgment.

Let there be journals of many kinds; let the editors set their rules and choose pieces that they love. But writers, too, have standards to set and choices to make. I want editors who are willing to stand up for what they print, who won’t unpublish a piece just because of something they heard about the author.

At the other end of things, we find journals that remind you daily, maybe more than once a day, to enter their contests. As the days and hours count down, you get more and more reminders. Why? Do they really want your work? Do they think you have a chance of winning? Probably not. I can see several possible reasons for this approach: they want to discover some unknown gems; they make (badly needed) money from the contests; they want to spread the word about the journal, and they know that some people, including some of their favorite writers, just forget and need to be reminded. But most people receiving these emails are not really being sought out. If they submit, their work just adds to the size of the electronic pile.

Advice abounds about how to submit to journals and get your work published. Much of it makes sense; some of it just distracts. Submissions should never take precedence over the writing itself. (On a related subject, listen to this interview with the poet Teresa Miller.) Yes, if you want to be published, you do have to send out your work; granted, some approaches will work better than others. But if you are working on a story, and on a single day you get three reminders to submit to a particular contest, that does not mean you should submit the story before it’s done. Take the necessary time with it; otherwise you are just wasting your submission and incurring unnecessary rejection. Take years, if you need years.

And by all means, avoid journals whose mission statements sound a little off. Trust the ear over hearsay.

Image courtesy of Stack. This post does not refer, directly or indirectly, to any of the journals in the picture.

Inside and Outside

With the online teaching, I spend most of the day inside, but try to get outside at some point to run an errand or take a walk. Today I might be able to go on a bike ride, if I get the essential things done in the morning. Some combination of inside and outside is important, but the mixture varies from person to person. In July 2012, my dear friend Cybèle Troyan walked and biked with her husband and daughters from Le Puy en Velay, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (a distance of 1,500 kilometers); her husband, Bennett Voyles, wrote a book (which I highly recommend) about their pilgrimage. On another occasion, without their daughters, Cybèle and Ben walked from Berlin to Rome. Such a long walk is out of the question for me because of the sun exposure, but I admire it and the love of the outdoors that comes with it. There’s an indoor aspect to such a walk, too; you immerse yourself in the outdoors and are therefore inside it.

I have been thinking about the inside and outside in writing and other art; when and how to speak without reservation, and when and how to hold back. Or what the “inside” and “outside” even are. There is no absolute answer, but I have been influenced recently by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind: an Unruly Living (about which I wrote the other day) and Will Arbery’s play Heroes of the Fourth Turning, which I had the fortune of watching online.

Last night I revised a sonnet I had written over three years ago; I realized that it was too enclosed and didn’t end with what it wanted to say. I changed just three lines of it, and there it was.

At other times obliqueness is not only necessary but truthful; the “direct” our “outward” truth will miss the point somehow. Instead, you need to wind around dimly in the dark.

David Brooks wrote a column titled “Nine Nonobvious Ways to Have Deeper Conversations.” While his advice seems reasonable, I find the formula irritating (some magic number, a list, and an assumption that people need this advice in the first place); moreover, I question the concept of “deep” conversations to begin with. There’s nothing inherently superior about discussing one’s private fears and hopes, or the meaning of life, nor is this necessarily deep. What I have learned over time, sometimes the hard way, is that both people have to want to take part in the conversation, whatever it is about. A sustained, voluntary conversation, even on a supposedly superficial topic, contains much more, and goes much farther, than a “deep” unwanted dialogue.

Back in the days when I used to communicate a lot by email (my emails now are occasional, not regular, except when related to work), I found it hard to sense the other person. Some of my correspondences were one-sided, but I would not realize this for a long time, and when I did, it was too late; in a few cases, the person had gotten deeply annoyed. Our current forms of communication run the opposite risk. They are too fragmented. I often can’t stand them. Sometimes people, out of the blue, will send me a link on Messenger without telling me what it is. I just ignore it, since it could contain a virus. But that’s the sort of thing that goes on.

What, then, if you are not having a conversation, but instead writing for readers, whoever they might be? Something similar still applies. You have to consider the person who might be reading. You don’t know who it is, but you have to uphold this person’s trust, by making the reading worthwhile, helping the reader where necessary, assuming intelligence (on both ends), and letting the work take shape between the two of you. It will always be between two.

The other night I took a walk and saw this tree against the sky. Both tree and sky bringing each other out, after dark. Inside and outside, surface and depth. If you go far enough, the outside becomes inside, as in Robert Frost’s “Come In.”

So no, I am not after “deep” conversations, since the sound of a car driving through puddles can surprise me with its depth, bringing back sounds of old rains, of days when I sat inside, watching the evening, watching my words stumble on the line of what they want to say.

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

When looking online for Frost’s “Come In,” I found David Sutton’s website and began reading his poems. An exciting discovery.

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

A Book in the Making

Almost a year ago, in October 2019, Gyula Jenei, Marianna Fekete, and I travelled to Dallas to give poetry readings and hold discussions for the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s annual Education Forum. I think back on those bright, brisk days: the events, with their lively discussions; the walks all around Dallas, the visit to the Terrell Academy in Fort Worth; and the many conversations and meetings. At a luncheon we met Will Evans, Executive Director and Publisher of Deep Vellum, who expressed interest in publishing a book of my translations of Gyula’s poems.

Yesterday the contracts were executed; the book, Always Different: Poems of Memory, by Gyula Jenei, translated by Diana Senechal, will be released sometime in 2021.

I have translated much poetry in my life, but this is the first large project that I have initiated. Others came to me through invitation; this one I sought out, and then later a publisher sought the fruits of it. It stands out in that way and in many others: it also brings together my life in Hungary and my long and rich relationship with the Dallas Institute. Beyond that, the poems are great, and people love them in English as well as in Hungarian. One of my favorites, “Scissors” (“Olló”) will be published in The Massachusetts Review, probably this spring, and most likely before the book comes out.

In retrospect, the timing of all of this seems perfect and improbable. If our trip to Dallas had been scheduled for the spring instead of the fall, the pandemic would have prevented it from happening. It not only worked out, but worked out as perfectly as a human thing can. Not only did nothing go wrong, but an abundance of things went right. And there we were together, talking about poetry, reading and hearing poetry.

The title of the Education Forum was “Poetry as Education.” This was not about pedagogy at all, though pedagogy came up here and there in the discussions. The event, like the Institute’s work in general, presumed that good education requires attention to the essential subjects themselves. Poetry is not an afterthought or an extracurricular activity. It underlies each day.

Finishing the manuscript by the end of 2020 will take intense focus, but that is nothing new for me; I am used to meeting deadlines, and it can be done. I thrive on such focus; it counterbalances the multiplicity. This year is about as full for me as a year can get, but I would not give up any of it. With that in mind, I must run.

Both photos in this post are by James Edward, courtesy of The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. The full Flickr slideshow can be found here.

Dear Beck: I Draw You a Circle

circleDear Beck,

Don’t worry, I’m not writing to you about divorce, shapeshifting, or Scientology. This isn’t even about your music, although it might inadvertently touch on a song or two. If you’ve ever had a summer afternoon when, finding your soul sucked dry, you head down to your rowboat to splash your oars for a while and pay no mind to the fakery of politics and love, the painted eyelids, the accusations, and Lord only knows what other dead melodies; if, even when rowing, you find yourself trapped in a broken train of thought, so you pull back up to shore, get out, walk a little ways, and sit down by the side of the road, only to see an ambulance taking an emergency exit onto a sidestreet a few feet from you, missing your outstretched arm by a hair; when you remember you had promised to call a friend, and you reach into your pocket, only to discover that your cellphone’s dead and you’re condemned to rely on yourself, a necessary evil for which you will stay unforgiven by your own soul until sunrise; when you walk to the town park, sit down on a bench, and stay up all night trying to see through the dark places both inside and outside yourself—when all of this and more has occurred, you may just happen to be ready for what I am about to tell you: things could be worse, better, or in between.

I’m sure you’ve heard people say that things could be worse. And indeed they could. Take any mishap and multiply it by two, five, or ten. Throw in some unexpected bullshit. Mix it all with a rotten mood. And that’s only the beginning. There are many other roads toward worsening, which I won’t bring up right now because that would be depressing, and I’m about to switch to the next point: things could be better.

Yes, things could be better. Everyone has something that they wish they had more of, or less of, or that they wish they could care more about, or less about. More is not always better, and less is more, so less is not always better either. That right there is the problem. When trying to make things better (because they could be better), we often don’t know whether to aim for more or less, and of what in particular. If we knew exactly how to make things better, we would probably go for it. But oftentimes, when trying, we get it wrong, causing new problems in the process.

So far, all of this is fairly intuitive. I’m sure you have not only followed my logic, but arrived at it on your own long ago. But now we’re coming to the jawdropper, the dazzler, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Things could also be somewhere in between better and worse—that is, sort of as they are, but with a few gives and takes. It’s a bracing possibility. Think about it. When hoping for things to get better, many of us fear that they actually won’t. This fear holds some truth; life does have its letdowns. Likewise, when fearing that things will get worse, many of us hope that they won’t. This hope, too, has a connection to reality; bad things don’t always happen. So basically a person could live, all the time, in some combination of hope and fear. But in that middle place, you don’t really need either one. There’s nothing to hope for, because it already is. There’s nothing to fear, because it has already happened.

That middle place is the worst of all, you might say. It’s limbo, apathy, indecision, rot. Well, it might be. But if that’s the case—and I believe you are right, if that’s what you believe—then the hopes and fears aren’t so bad after all. They have something to do with being alive.

So let’s backtrack from the park bench. While sitting there, you saw lightning, and it kind of freaked you out, but not much, because in the moment that you cried out for your dear life, you realized that life was in fact dear to you, and that illumination cheered you up. So now it’s morning, and even though you’re feeling a tad youthless after a night of no sleep, you have no complaints, since old age has its wisdoms and oblivions. As Yeats wrote, “There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” Hell yes. So you go round the bend, back to the road you were sitting beside before—it’s a beautiful way—and you stop to marvel at the lazy flies zigging and zagging without any sense of rush. This is happiness minus the most important component—but now you know you’re getting there. You see water ahead. You walk to it. You figure, “time to get in the boat and steal my body home.” But the boat is gone—someone stole it in the night—and you feel like you’ve got one foot in the grave. But then you realize, whoa! That means I’ve got feelings! And then it turns out that you had just taken the wrong path to the river. You see your boat tied up where you left it, a little farther along, past some brambles. Even the oars are there. So you get in the boat and paddle it back to the beginning. Or maybe somewhere else entirely.

Sincerely,

Diana Senechal

This fictional piece (which alludes to thirty songs from Beck’s fourteen studio albums) received a complimentary, non-form-letter rejection from a publication that I have enjoyed and respected (and at times railed at) for many years. So I publish it here.

Productivity

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When I bemoan the little I have done
from dawn to dusk—the promises unkept,
story unfinished, kitchen floor unswept
panning my conscience like a pantheon;
when, looking for some task to seize upon
and nail, only to find each one adept
at leaping from my hands (the laundry crept
away, I chased it, and it split and won),
I only have to listen to one song—
go ahead, call me lazy, call me lame—
to know the day repaid a thousand loans,
because all songs need listeners; their fame
occurs in quiet, and whatever wrong
occasioned them, one pair of ears atones.

A Premise of Generosity

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It has taken me most of my life to understand that it’s not only reasonable but necessary to expect a basic generosity in everyday relationships. That is, I now expect that people will not condemn each other for a simple mistake, or look for fault in each other, or reject those with whom they disagree. This does not mean that everyone has to be friends or that people must surround themselves with “positivity.” You can have people around you who offer criticism at times, who go through their ups and downs, and who are not always there for you in a literal sense. But just as they have their own limits and imperfections, they will allow for limits and imperfections in others. Most important of all, they will let the relationship–be it a work relationship, friendship, family relationship, or romantic relationship–continue over the long term, unless it comes to a true impasse.

In my early adulthood, and here and there later on, I lived with intense fear that people would reject or leave me, especially people within my general age range. (I was much more confident, say, in my rapport with professors and teachers.) There were various sources of this fear, but there was a blind spot too. What I didn’t understand was that I could set a standard of basic generosity, both for others’ treatment of me and for my treatment of others. That is, if someone were to reject me out of hand, for a small mistake or for something in my personality, then that relationship would not meet the standard and did not deserve my focus anyway. This doesn’t mean that the other person was unworthy. Rather, the relationship was.

Rejections and fallouts will still happen, even with a premise of generosity. Some people do not click. Some are so persistent with their destructive habits that they drive others past their patience. But a basic generosity allows you to get to know a person, to tolerate a range of personalities and quirks, and to be tolerated as well. There is a mutuality to it.

How strange that, now that I understand this fully, I see us moving into a culture of condemnation: where a teenager’s college admission can be revoked because of an obnoxious tweet, where someone can lose a top editorial position for publishing a poem deemed offensive, where people dig up dirt from others’ pasts just to ruin their reputations, or, short of all of this, where people just assume and post the worst about each other. Why are people so eager to hurt each other and so sure of their justification for doing so?

Part of this has to do with a rejection of contradictions. People are not allowed to have internal conflicts; if their words and actions don’t all line up, they get blasted as hypocrites. But contradictions make people interesting. At times (not always), they go deeper than consistencies, since there are questions, uncertainties, and discrepancies that we wrestle with–or neglect to wrestle with–our entire lives. Sometimes there’s even a larger consistency holding the seeming inconsistency together.

This morning I finished a new translation of a poem by Gyula Jenei. It’s the sixteenth of his poems that I have translated so far. It tells the story of one afternoon in elementary school when the principal visits the class–the one and only time she does so. She’s a rather grotesque figure–short, pudgy, old, with lipstick smearing onto her front teeth–and she begins by asking the children a question and turning it into a silly pun with a consonant change. But even as the children smile, and then laugh, they sense, with slight anxiety, that the principal has the freedom to do whatever she pleases: she can joke, smile, yell, anything. Poem-time passes by; the narrator tells us that he later teases his children with the same joke, and the thoughts about this lead into a surprising ending. I don’t want to say more about it, because it is better as a poem, and I don’t want to quote it just yet. But I thought about the narrator’s perception in this poem: how he sees his changing roles in time, how the poem’s mild villain, the principal (not really a villain, but a little bit scary all the same), could be any of us.

That is the contradiction that people don’t want to accept: that each of us is capable of being–or perhaps already is–many of the things we fear and reject. Not across the board, but enough to give a person pause. And if I am those things, I can allow them in others too.

I took the photo in Budapest on Thursday evening. Also, I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

 

The Idea of Vacation

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First of all, welcome to Dominó (also known as Mézes), the new member of the household! I had been realizing for a few weeks that Sziszi needed a feline friend, and I knew that Mézes needed a home. The Mimóza Macskamentő Alapítvány, a cat rescue service, was taking care of him. I had to wait a couple of weeks for him to be medically cleared (he was being treated for giardia), but once the tests came back negative, I went to pick him up. As soon we arrived home and I opened the box, the two of them started playing. They have been playing and resting ever since.

That brings us to the subject of vacation. Without making grand cultural generalizations, I can say that I have seen different views of vacation in the U.S. and here. In the U.S., many people rate their vacations in terms of how productive they were. Even travels are supposed to be productive–you go to many places, see a lot, etc. (“I got a lot done” is what you might hear afterward, and what I have often said, or not.) Here in Hungary, by contrast, the people I know expect vacation to be restful. “Jó pihenést” (Have a good rest) is what we wish each other. Now, this is already oversimplified: many Americans relax during their time off, and many Hungarians use their vacations to get things done or to learn something new. But there’s a different view of what should happen.

It is hard to get rid of the sense that I am not being productive enough. This summer, so far, I have translated three poems (two from Hungarian and one from Lithuanian) and a story, written an essay for an incipient Hungarian-English literary journal, Krajcáros Igazság / The Penny Truth, written six of seven parts of a long poem, settled into–and set up–my new place, adopted two kittens, and gone on runs and bike rides. Also, I have dealt with numerous situations, entirely in Hungarian–an apparent problem with my washing machine (easily fixed), furniture orders and delivery, doctor’s appointments, a condominium association meeting, and much more. All in all, I would say that isn’t too bad. But sometimes I catch myself thinking that I should have done more.

On the other hand, there are Hungarians who would consider this far too work-like for a vacation. Why haven’t I gone to Lake Balaton? (I will, just not in the peak of summer, since I have to be careful in the sun.) Why haven’t I gone on more day trips, socialized more, etc.? I do look forward to a day trip or two, with the bike or maybe a bike/train combination. But it’s hard to explain that I enjoy working on my projects during vacation. Not only that, but it’s important for me; it’s the rare time when I have stretches of time. And it has felt very relaxed; I have done things without rush, and each morning has a leisurely beginning (with the NYT mini crossword puzzle, the Spelling Bee game, the Letter Boxed game, etc.).

So the differences really come down to the “shoulds”: people’s idea of what a vacation is supposed to be. In any culture, there is more than one “should” happening at once. Sometimes they even contradict each other. But you can feel the relative pull of one “should” or another. To some extent, “shoulds” are a nuisance and an impediment. Do what you want, for crying out loud! But they will always be there, even dimly, and sometimes they can do good.

So far, I have considered what people do during vacation. The other big question is “with whom.” In the U.S., at least among the people I know, it is considered normal to spend vacation alone. In fact, many relish the idea of having some time to themselves. In Hungary, it’s largely unheard of (and somewhat frowned upon). Some people understand how it’s possible to enjoy time alone, but overall this is accepted less than in the U.S.

On the other hand, in the U.S. there’s a great fear of having time alone to think. There’s an old belief, going back to Puritan times or farther, that too much thinking will get you in trouble. That in turn justifies productivity: if you keep yourself busy, you have less time for thinking, and that is a Good Thing. I haven’t encountered that fear of thinking in Hungary, at least not to the same extent. This may have something to do with my surroundings–I teach at a school full of thinkers–but I think it goes beyond that.

Vacations say a lot about a culture, but the teachings are complex. How people spend their free time–when it actually exists–is no trivial matter; to have a good vacation, you have to be a bit of a rebel–down with the shoulds!–and a bit of a traditionalist (some shoulds are worth having after all).

In any case, Gertrude Stein said it best in “A Light in the Moon“:

A LIGHT in the moon the only light is on Sunday. What was the sensible decision. The sensible decision was that notwithstanding many declarations and more music, not even withstanding the choice and a torch and a collection, notwithstanding the celebrating hat and a vacation and even more noise than cutting, notwithstanding Europe and Asia and being overbearing, not even notwithstanding an elephant and a strict occasion, not even withstanding more cultivation and some seasoning, not even with drowning and with the ocean being encircling, not even with more likeness and any cloud, not even with terrific sacrifice of pedestrianism and a special resolution, not even more likely to be pleasing. The care with which the rain is wrong and the green is wrong and the white is wrong, the care with which there is a chair and plenty of breathing. The care with which there is incredible justice and likeness, all this makes a magnificent asparagus, and also a fountain.

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Those Sixteen Measures

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It was in graduate school that I fell in love with Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (Kniha smíchu a zapomnění). I read it again and again, and then later, over the years, returned to the book and my favorite passages in it. This (and everything leading up to it) is my favorite passage of all:

It is no wonder, then, that the variation form became the passion of the mature Beethoven, who (like Tamina and like me) knew all too well that there is nothing more unbearable than losing a person we have loved–those sixteen measures and the inner universe of their infinite possibilities.

The narrator is speaking of Beethoven’s Opus 111, the last of his piano sonatas. I listened to this piece over and over as a high school student, listened to again over the years, and am returning to it now. It breaks ground no matter where you are in your musical and life experience and how many times you have listened to it.

Loss takes its own form, direction, and time. The world tells you to set goals; you go around and around. The world tells you to move on; you don’t. But then you realize that the world isn’t telling you anything. You have to figure out for yourself what to make of it all and what to do.

The lingering and the circling have their own reasons. They don’t just repeat themselves haplessly. They have variations and digressions. Over time you start to see things in a new way, or at least you start to know what it was you were seeing.

We usually grieve more than one thing at once: along with a person, a part of ourselves, a part of the world, a way of life, a belief in something. A piece of existence falls away forever; with that piece, a person close to us, or someone important to us, and in that person, cavern after cavern, light after light. This is true even if the person does not die. A lost friendship, a breakup, a falling out can bring up this same grief.

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Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Spring and Fall” comes to mind:

Spring and Fall

                         to a young child

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Marcell Bajnai’s new song “Dühöngő” (“Raging”) has something to do with all of this. It circles around and around a loss, but always in a different way, and the loss takes on different forms and meanings each time. It could be a loss of a person, a loss of faith, or a loss of something in the self, or all of these combined. The song’s refrain has several variations, one of which is this:

nem hibák, csak végzetek,
feltámadás után halni meg
ordító némaság,
hitetlen, dühöngő gyávaság

(Approximately: “Not mistakes, just destinies, to die after resurrection, roaring silence, faithless, raging cowardice.”)

 

The words play against the other words in the song; variation plays against variation. Images and possibilities intertwine with the melody. When I listen to it, I change a little bit.

Grief of this kind is not the most accepted emotion, or mixture of emotions, in the world, nor can it be laid out in flat prose. It requires art and is one of the reasons for art. This very blog post points to art again and again. Without art, we would be limited to the slogan, the goal, the game plan–all those things that urge certainty of action. Those are essential too. I would not have my new apartment without a series of actions and words. But those certainties are limited by the very language that expresses them. There, words serve a specific purpose and are no longer needed, except for the record, once the purpose is accomplished. I do not find myself rereading contracts and manuals, except to find specific information in them.

But art brings you back to find more–in the work, in yourself, in the world. Grief is a plunge into the hidden regions of life–lonely and frightening at first, but then surprising, then brilliant, then so much at once that you have to lay it out in time, in form, and pass through its infinite possibilities.