What Is a Good Day?

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A day that begins like this (from my bike ride to school along the Zagyva) already has enough going for it–but in addition, classes were lively, I had lunch at one point, and then, in the evening, I accepted a colleague’s invitation to a Bach and Mozart concert performed by the Szolnok Symphony Orchestra–conducted by Izaki Maszahiro–and the brilliant Russian violinist Anna Savkina. So I have no trouble calling this a good day.

But like this photo, days come with layers of light. There have been many “good” days, and I am not sure, in the end, what makes a day good, if not the thought about it at some point. There’s something to be said for saying, “This was good.” “Good” does not mean perfect or peppy; when I call something good, I mean that I miss it and carry it, both at once.

The Role of Sadness

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People in Hungary often comment that I seem very positive. That may be true, but I also carry sadness. The two do not contradict each other. Maybe I tend to keep the sadness to myself, but I don’t run from it; I don’t see it as wrong or defective. Often it helps me see things clearly. There would be a problem if I were stuck in sadness (or in happiness, for that matter), or vacillated abruptly between the two. But that is not how it is. They live side by side.

Sadness comes from the knowledge that things often do not last, and that we ourselves are the ones, at times, who bring them to an end. An angry person blames others for this condition (what is there to be angry about, except that something has been taken away, be it a sandwich or a bit of dignity?), but a sad person does not. (Granted, one can be angry and sad at once, just as one can be happy and sad at once.) Sadness does not pinpoint the blame–or maybe it recognizes a distribution. Most of the time, when things go wrong, it is not one person’s doing alone, but the work of several, or many, or even of generations and longer history. That does not mean there’s no blame at all–often there is–but rarely can it be limited absolutely to one person, time, or place. Anger is necessary; it sharpens perception and shapes justice. It helps us speak. But it has less room, less possibility, than sadness.

Sadness cannot be absolute, or it congeals into depression, a belief that loss is all there is. Sadness and depression have different lives, different meanings. I do not believe in total loss. Something survives, sometimes things we don’t see. Sometimes a painful episode leads a person in roundabout ways to new joy. Also, lives are not contained; we affect others in ways we do not know. I remember Hermann Hesse’s story Knulp, where Knulp, walking in a snowstorm, talks to God about how little he has accomplished, and near the end of this long dialogue, just before Knulp stops and lies down, God says, “Look … I wanted you the way you are and no different. You were a wanderer in my name and wherever you went you brought the settled folk a little homesickness for freedom. In my name, you did silly things and people scoffed at you; I myself was scoffed at in you and loved in you. You are my child and my brother and a part of me. There is nothing you have enjoyed and suffered that I have not enjoyed and suffered with you.” I first read this at age twelve; why has it stayed with me all this time?

 

I took the photo last weekend in Budapest; a friend showed me some lesser-known beautiful buildings, including this.

P.S. This piece seems to have prompted one or two “Are you OK?” inquiries from well-meaning people. If I could not acknowledge sadness, if I insisted that life was only and always great, then people would have cause to worry! Until then (and I hope that day never comes), I am grateful for the human range.

 

Thoughts and Updates

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I have many ideas for blog posts but have not had much time at home, or even in Szolnok for that matter; I have gone to Budapest three times in the past week alone and will be going again on Friday (for a Hanukkah celebration and Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday night, followed by a Shabbat service on Saturday.) We have also had three Saturday working days this fall and have one more to go. So any free time–for writing, friends, duties, biking, thinking, sleeping–has been sparse and precious.

Speaking of writing, two of my most recent essays have been published, one (“Reclaiming Liberty“) in the New England Journal of Higher Education, and the other (“Choosing a College: The Virtues of a Good Misfit“) in Inside Higher Ed. As for the book, here are a few more pictures (thanks to Fruzsi) from the reading at Massolit Books in Budapest on November 18:

People are asking me where they can get a copy in Szolnok; they can do so at the Szkítia-Avantgard könyvesbolt és antikvárium, Baross utca 24. You can’t miss it if you’re on Baross utca and looking out for this (on the northern side of the street):

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As for a Szolnok book event, there will probably be one in January; I will give details when I have them. (The planning is underway.)

Readers in the U.S. may be wondering what I have to say about Viktor Orbán’s takeover of Hungarian media–as discussed and rebuked in a recent New York Times editorial. At this point there is little I could say without directly repeating others’ points, and I don’t like doing that. First, I keep confidentiality, and second, I like to speak from knowledge and thought, not from a need to say something. The situation is worrisome, not only in itself but because it increases the divide between those who can read news in other languages–or can read between the lines–and those who take government propaganda (and other propaganda) as truth.

But in my daily life I see and hear courage, intelligence, imagination, reflection, sharpness, soul, and wit; slowly I start to understand some of the tensions and sadnesses in Hungary.

Take, for instance, the Saturday working day (which I have criticized before). Few people actually like them, from what I can tell, yet few will say so publicly. For one thing, many like the long weekends that they get in return. Also, if you object to the Saturday working day, you risk being dismissed as a complainer or troublemaker. There’s a widespread assumption that the best way to stop things from getting worse is to put up with them. (This doesn’t apply to everything; I have heard robust complaints about various matters.) People will say, “Well, we do get the long weekends, so it isn’t so bad,” or “Most people prefer to have the long weekends, so this is just the way it is going to be.” But here and there, some people do raise objections; a colleague recently shared an article about how unfair this is on schoolchildren.

My complaint about the Saturday working days (which my school has tried to make as light and bearable as possible) is that they intrude on personal time–and, for even minimally observant Jews, on a sacred day. It seems that the government takes some ownership of people’s private lives. Even though these days “pay back” for extra days on long weekends, the tradeoff is not equal. A shortened weekend–and especially four in a single autumn–means less time at your own disposal, less time for serious things outside of work. Here I am both willing and able to speak up without just repeating what others have said. But the point will be slightly moot (or muted) next year, since we will have two Saturday working days that affect teachers and students. (The third is on August 10, during our summer vacation.) This year, there were six, and they all fell during the school year.

In any case, within this crowded schedule, it has been a rich time. And now I must run.

 

I made some edits and corrections to this piece after posting it.

 

Lights Together and Alone

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Last night, Hanukkah began.

Since this holiday commemorates a historical event with no clear heroes (were the Maccabees the virtuous ones? Or were they, as some suggest, religious zealots who used violence to bring other Jews to their way of life?), many seek a modern, general, attractive meaning in it: something about endurance, light in darkness, and the presence of miracles in everyday things. The historical event serves as the ancient background but is usually not the main focus.

Lighting my hanukkiah here in Szolnok for the second year (you can see the wax from last year), or rather, after lighting the shamash and first candle and after getting some sleep, I thought about another possible meaning.

The historical event, much oversimplified here (and tellable in various ways), is this: In the second century BCE, in the time of Antiochus IV, there was an ongoing conflict between the Hellenized Jews of Judea, who had assimilated into Greek culture,  and the Maccabees, who resisted such assimilation. When Antiochus took over the temple and erected a statue of Zeus there–he also ordered pigs to be sacrificed there and forbade circumcision–the Maccabees revolted and succeeded (at least in part). When rededicating the temple, they sought pure oil to light the menorah, but found only one flask, enough for one day (the rest of the oil had been contaminated). But this one flask, according to legend, ended up lasting eight days. From this miracle arose the festival of lights.

Am I on the side of the Maccabees? The Hellenized Jews? Neither? It is difficult to know, since the events and their contexts are so far away. But I do know that I am part assimilated, part not, in Jewish terms and in general. There is a part of me that does not fit in and never has, a part that fits in with some things and not with others, and a part that participates in the world, learns from others, and does as others do. In my Jewish life specifically, I am both traditional and not; I have a strong Jewish identity and practice, but it is not identical to anyone else’s, nor do I follow all traditional rules.

I can’t take sides inside myself–both the “not fitting” and the participation are essential to me–but on this holiday I can light the candles in honor of both: of that thing that burns and persists in a person, regardless of all dampers, all censure, and of this holiday that millions around the world have celebrated over the centuries, even with different meanings and understandings. And so, Happy Festival of Lights!

The Varga Katalin Gimnázium Ball

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Last year, after the school’s annual tablóbál (where, after a procession and ribbon pinning ceremony, the seniors perform ballroom and modern dances for their peers, teachers, and families), I wrote about a meaning of performance. This year again, on Saturday night, I was so happy for my students, even more than last year, since I have been teaching them longer. The ball celebrates their transition; it is a way for them to dance gracefully together, to be solemn and serious with a few moments of silliness mixed in, and to be with all of us, not at the end of the year, when everyone is saying goodbye, but before.

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I wish we had something like this in the U.S. (maybe we do, but I don’t know about it). Schools typically have senior proms–to which parents and teachers are not invited, except as chaperones, and for which students must find a date or else “go stag.” There’s no guidance; you’re left on your own to figure out whom to invite (or by whom to hope to be invited), what to wear, how to dance, and so on. It’s a lot of pressure, unless you deliberately take a different approach to the whole thing. Proms may have changed over the years; from what I gather, some students now go just for fun, to be part of the occasion. But it would be even better if there were something to celebrate, something to perform, some way of being with the whole school.

Now, I don’t meant that the Varga Katalin Ball is without pressure. There’s pressure to buy the right outfit, learn the dances, and participate in the ceremony with everyone looking on. It can be intimidating; some might feel miserable throughout. But no one is left out and no one disparaged; everyone gets to take part. Ninth-graders handle the ushering and coat-check; eleventh-graders introduce the acts. The evening begins with the procession and pinning ceremony, where the class teacher of each senior class leads the students, hand in hand, out to the hall, and where the headmaster gives a speech. That sets the tone; then come the ballroom dances and splashes of humor.

 

 

 

If I were leading a high school, I would be sure to institute something like this, to which everyone was invited, and for which all the seniors would prepare. After years and years, people might start to gripe, “Why do we do this?” But instead of retorting, “It’s our tradition,” I would say, “It is our celebration of growing up–and of childhood too.”

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On Being Different

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It can sound pretentious to talk about being “different,” but for me it has been a fact of life as long as I can remember, from my early childhood onward. Not only have I felt different from others, but others have told me again and again that I was. What is the nature of this difference? Living at a different level of intensity from other people, thinking differently–but all of this reuses the word “different” and fails to clarify the matter. I could give a better explanation, but it would take a long time.

As far as difference itself is concerned, I don’t believe that humanity can be divided cleanly or absolutely into “ordinary” people and “exceptional” people. Everyone has a difference of some sort; some go to great lengths to hide their own. Some differences are larger or more visible than others, but that does not make the slighter ones disappear. You can see them sometimes the way you would see trees through a fog.

Nor is difference all that matters; life requires a combination of difference and sameness. It’s important to find resemblances with others; otherwise there would be no meeting point, no understanding. These differences and samenesses (or similarities, or sense of similarity), are at their best when genuine. Finding your voice, hitting your stride has to do, in part, with not trying to be different, nor trying to be like others, but instead hearing and following what is there, cutting out the excess, the strain, the inessentials.

Life is not always as full of opportunity as the success hawkers would have us believe. There are limits to our time, money, energy, strength, perspective, and ability. But as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in “Self-Reliance,” each of us is given things to perceive that others do not perceive in the same way.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. 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 preëstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray.

To “testify of that particular ray”–that might not seem like much, but it is everything, or rather almost half. The other part involves listening to others. And then there is still room for duties, sleep, meals, questions, and play. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” someone might say. “You’re speaking as someone without children. For a parent, everything revolves around the child. Parents have no time to think about–” But isn’t it part of a parent’s role, a parent’s gift: to see the child in a way no one else can, while also learning more every day about who this person is?

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

A Book Talk in Budapest and More

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This picture is from an evening bike ride along the Zagyva river–a ride I take almost every day, at different times of day, but do not take for granted. I have been here for over a year now, and I still look forward to the rides–the tumbling through fog, the low-hanging birches, the sounds of breeze and bricks.

I have been thinking about Robert Frost’s poem “Birches,” which I brought to some of my classes last week. It has been translated into Hungarian by Ernő Hárs and Illés Fehér (and maybe others). On a first reading, I prefer Hárs’s for its rhythm and Fehér’s (sometimes) for its accuracy–but I need to take more time with them, over time.

Tomorrow evening I will give my first book reading in Hungary–actually, my first book event outside the U.S.–at Massolit Books in Budapest. I look forward to seeing how it turns out. The book has been meeting with good response so far: thoughtful reviews in Quartz (by Ephrat Livni), Publishers Weekly, and Amazon (by Dana Mackenzie), and a few comments from individuals (one reader called it a “treasure chest of words”). There are some dismissive reactions too (on Goodreads), but I don’t consider them reviews, since they say nothing about the book. Reviews, even negative ones, require perception. A true reviewer does not tell people what to think, but instead points out things to see and hear. The reviewer’s final assessment, while important, relies on those observations. Like a bike ride along the Zagyva, like a book talk in Budapest, a perceptive review is not to be taken for granted. I see all of these as gifts, but from where, and to whom? Those questions have no perfect answer.

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I added to this piece and revised it in places after posting it.

On Appreciation

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Ahead and Behind

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Today I leave Dallas for Nashville (a short trip); from this evening until Sunday noon, I will be taking part in the ALSCW conference: presenting two papers, participating in a poetry reading (by ALSCW members, on Friday evening), attending as many other seminars, panels, and readings as possible, talking with colleagues and friends, and taking part in the ALSCW Council meeting. I hope to take some walks in Nashville too. Then, on Sunday evening, I head back to Hungary and should arrive Monday evening, if all goes as scheduled. (I am grateful to the three colleagues who agreed to cover my classes on Monday; to return by Monday, I would have had to skip the Council meeting and possibly more.)

I wrote a sestina yesterday; I may include it in what I read on Friday, or I may choose something shorter. I am reading a new translation as well; more about that in the future!

The book talk and discussion at the Dallas Institute was lively and warm; I am grateful to everyone who worked to put it together and who came out for it. There were over forty people in the audience, and the books almost sold out. But the best part was the combination of planning and spontaneity, familiarity and surprise, content and question.

First Dr. Larry Allums introduced me, then I spoke about the book and read some passages from it, then Dr. Allums and I had a dialogue, and finally I took questions (of which there were many) from the audience. I am delighted that this was the book’s first event; I will try to do something like this in events to come, though I will not be able to replicate it. It was great to be back at the Institute; I look  forward to returning in July.

There are some videos of the evening. Soon I will upload them to my website; for now, you can view them here. (They are numbered 3903, 3904, 3905, and 3906. The first one contains the introductions–Dr. Allums’s introduction and my preliminary remarks; the second, my readings from the book; the third, Dr. Allums’s dialogue with me, and the fourth, the exchange with the audience.)

Yesterday I went back to the Dallas Institute in the lovely rain and met with my colleagues, who took me to dinner at Gloria’s, our favorite Salvadoran/Latin restaurant. Here is the Dallas Institute’s patio just before we left.

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On a sad subject, I will have more to say soon about the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. Others are already making important arguments: for instance, that this was not simply a deranged act, but an act fueled by social media, a reckless and callous president, and easy access to weapons. Some have been looking specifically at its anti-Semitism; others, at its resemblance to other recent hate crimes in the U.S. and elsewhere. Some are analyzing it from the point of view of psychology, others from a political perspective, others from the perspective of gun control, others from personal pain. I will try something a little different (or maybe not different, since I have not had time to read all the responses). I want to consider what it means to believe one has the right (or even duty) to take another’s life, or the lives of members of a particular group. This is so far from my own understanding of rights and duties that I have to see where the difference lies. I might not arrive at answers, but I hope to raise some questions. Is the idea of liberty–of living the way you like, as long as you do not impinge on others, and protecting others’ right to do likewise–still young in our history and imagination? Does it contradict itself? Is it feasible? Do people support it today?

I will be thinking of this and more as I head to the airport.

Letters from a Doll (Sestina)

A girl had lost her doll; to help her through,
Kafka wrote letters—from the doll—that told
where she had been, what she had learned, and what
learning, if not what lessons, lie in loss.
Later the girl found one more in a crack:
Love will come back, but in a different form.

Loss let us first define as ruptured form.
Everything comes from it; it bellows through
the vaults of dark and stars, shaking a crack
in light itself, untelling what was told
and starting a new story: I am loss;
in me there is no who, where, why, or what.

I did not know my winding words were what
wore out your own, or that I broke a form;
I thought I could not be a source of loss.
But loss lies in all things, soaking them through,
down to the dearest, down to what we told
ourselves was firm, down to the plastered crack.

Late in the attic, looking through the crack
in the pine wall, I think I make out what
could be your afterlight. A singer told
me once that certain songs attain their form
from being listened to, and even through
full stoppage can be heard. So with your loss,

so with the fading of the light, the loss
of stuff and all its traps, the faithful crack
in hoped-for shapes, the senses dimming through
lowest degrees, down into who knows what,
the hints of weather marks and final form,
hushing to null, in what the pinewood told.

Yes, the beloved story comes untold
through being heard; nothing without its loss,
it casts me out of what I thought was form.
I rotate this black box, trying to crack
its terse domain, to learn, if lucky, what
keeps it from falling open, being through.

Instead I hear a form of letter. Told
through a new face, cast in new sound, the loss
becomes a pause, a crack, a question, what?

I wrote this sestina today. It was inspired partly by two separate pieces I read recently about Kafka and the doll, partly by Loren Eiseley’s poem “Say that the Gift was Given” (thanks to Thomas for introducing it to me yesterday), and partly by who knows what.