My favorite school tradition in Hungary is the serenade. This is where graduating seniors sing to their teachers (and, on one occasion, vice versa). In the “old days” (up to about a decade ago, from what I hear), the students used to go to the teachers’ houses and sing outside. The teachers would then invite them in and offer them a beverage (tea, lemonade, soda, sometimes beer or pálinka).* That practice was abandoned, but the school serenades and end-of-year banquet have taken their place. First of all, students serenade individual teachers just before their last class with them. This is happening in the photo above (I was the serenaded teacher). Sometimes the serenades are more formal and practiced, sometimes more spontaneous.

Then, in the midst of the individual serendades, there is also a big serenade one evening (we held it on Tuesday). There, all the seniors sing, class by class, for all the teachers, and the teachers (holding candles) sing a few songs in return.

At the end of the serenade week (that is, today), we hold the graduation ceremony. This year, the schoolwide and citywide ceremonies are on the same day, one after another. The schoolwide ceremony is much like a graduation in the U.S., except that parents typically aren’t present, and before the ceremony begins, the seniors and their homeroom teachers walk hand in hand through the school, from classroom to classroom, singing (and the classrooms are decorated with flowers). The citywide ceremony is a grand procession through the streets, with songs and flowers, and a final release of balloons. I will be in the procession for the first time, since I am the “pótosztályfőnök” (approximately: substitute homeroom teacher) for one of the classes. In past years, I was on the sidelines along with large crowds of parents, teachers, and students.

The seniors don’t have classes after this week; their exams begin. The underclassmen continue with their classes through mid-June, and exams continue until the end of June. When the seniors finish their last exam, another ceremony takes place, followed by a banquet (an informal gathering of students and teachers, hosted by the students, at a local restaurant). Our school year officially ends on July 3.

I have to end here, since the festivities will shortly begin!

*Alcohol is never provided at school events involving students. However, at the end-of-year banquet (for graduated seniors and their teachers), it is common for students and teachers to have a drink together; this symbolizes the students’ transition to adulthood and a new stage of education. From what I hear, alcohol was sometimes also part of the home serenades as well.

A bit of catching up

First of all, last night I went to Martfű (about half an hour away by train) to see a gala folk dance performance featuring the Tisza Táncegyüttes and several other groups. Two of my students and a former student were in it; they have been dancing for years, and you can see their love and expertise. They put so much zest, skill, and care into each gesture, each step, each syllable of the songs (they are often singing and dancing at the same time) that I couldn’t help getting caught up in the joy. The performers (in different groups) ranged from about 5 to 50. With the dancers in their late teens, you could see their work and talent taking distinctive form. They know how to work together, but each has a particular personality that comes out through the dances.

The week has been a bit of a whirlwind. Monday was the Shakespeare festival, a rousing success. That evening, my cats escaped through the window (the screen popped open and rolled upward while I had fallen asleep at my desk and actually fallen from the chair). I retrieved Sziszi right away but couldn’t manage to get Dominó, although I spotted him many times that night. The next day was my birthday, and while I sat outside early in the morning and late at night, I didn’t see him at all. On Wednesday night, my neighbor and I saw him, but he wouldn’t let me come close. On Thursday I went out with his favorite treat, chicken ham, and he came out from under a car to me and cuddled against me when I picked him up. He seemed delighted to be back home; he rolled over and over.

On Wednesday, for the professional development week, I gave a demo lesson (observed by two colleagues) in which my students and I read and discussed Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Fish.” My colleagues were duly impressed by my students’ ability to understand and talk about this complex poem in such a short time. We began by looking at the first and last lines (“I caught a tremendous fish”; “And I let the fish go.”). I told them, “So our goal is to figure out how the poem goes from here to there.” We considered the vocabulary closely, looking not only at the meanings of the words but at their role in the poem. At the end, I asked my students to connect the poem, in any way they saw fit, with Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” (which they had already read); not only did they have a lot to say (a student pointed out that Rilke’s “You must change your life” actually happens—the changed life, that is—in Bishop’s poem), but just when I thought we had brought an end to the discussion, a student had more to say: she pointed out how, in Rilke’s poem, the speaker perceives the beauty of the torso right away, whereas in “The Fish,” it’s a gradual perception that ultimately becomes so overwhelming that the speaker has no regrets when she lets the fish go.

All week I was working on an exciting translation project that I finished today. It will be released soon, and I will say more about it then.

Speaking of translations, my translation of Sándor Jászberényi’s story “Nyugati történet” (“A Western Tale”) was published yesterday in the Spring 2023 issue of BODY. That’s the first of my Jászberényi translations to be published, as far as I know. In 2021 I translated his story collection A varjúkirály (King of the Crows); this is one of the stories. The translated book will find a publisher before long, I think.

I will leave off with some photos taken in the past few weeks.

More on Sacrifice

I brought up sacrifice in a recent post but didn’t explain what I meant by it. The word can evoke strong reactions and associations: slaughtered animals on the altar, Christ on the cross, children’s guilt (“just think of how much we have sacrificed for you”). But there is a simpler way of thinking about it.

“Sacrifice” derives from the concept of “making something sacred” through an offering to God. Yet in secular terms it may mean that we are mortal and can’t have or do everything. Having one thing means not having something else; doing one thing means not doing something else. Not only do we have to choose, but we have to give something up.

We come under pressure to be and do everything, or at least to believe that we can (and to speak the jargon of such belief). Especially in U.S. American culture, with growth mindset, positivity, happiness movements, and such, it is shameful to suggest that we have limits.

Limits mean not having something, giving something up, letting something go. There is something sacred (even for the secular) in those relinquishments, as insignificant as they may seem, because we make them for eternity. True, at a different future moment we could take a different tack, but that’s already a different moment.

Understood in this way, sacrifices don’t have to be particularly virtuous, grandiose, or even conscious. They happen whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not. Sometimes they do stand out; sometimes they do involve some kind of greatness of spirit. But often they escape our notice or just dimly cross our mind.

Wait, someone might protest, aren’t you betraying the meaning of sacrifice here? Isn’t it supposed to involve the holy? Well, holiness hides in unlikely places. Maybe Abraham’s not sacrificing Isaac was a sacrifice in its own right. Maybe holiness lies not in grand acts, but in the willingness, here and there, even invisibly, to let something go. Or, in some cases, to insist on something, even to the point of alienating others. Or to live quietly, without fanfare.

This all seems to get confusing and equivocal: if anything can be a sacrifice, then sacrifice means nothing. But that isn’t so. Each person has to live out a life that won’t be anyone else’s. Within it, nothing can be undone. Some choices, directions are better than others, but every life will have its mistakes.

This gives no guidance about right and wrong, but at least it makes room for a certain kind of finiteness, the kind which in turn may open into infinity.

A Documentary, a Full Weekend, and Many Thoughts

There are times when I wish I had a few more hours in a day to think about what happened in it. This afternoon, after getting a lot done (I wrote my Hungarian introduction to the Shakespeare festival, as well as a few words for the Renaissance dance workshop), I headed off to Budapest to see the premiere of Nyílnak befelé ablakok, a documentary directed by Zsófi Szász about Platon Karataev. The film presents the musicians in a human and profound way, with many beautiful moments. The artist Emőke Dobos—the inspiration for many of the songs, the creator of Platon Karataev art of many forms, and the wife of Gergely Balla—figures prominently in it too, as do other essential Platon colleagues (such as the sound engineer Ábel Zwickl). I don’t want to say more about it, because it will eventually be available online, with English subtitles.

But as I watched it, and as I listened to the discussion afterwards (the interviewer asked some superficial questions, which they answered thoughtfully and strongly), I realized once again why we were all there: first of all, for their music and their approach to it, second, to see this wonderful film. Beyond that, we have something in common with them and each other. As they themselves said in the interview, they aren’t sure why there would be a film about them in particular, or why their music in draws such large audiences (in contrast with, say, a superb jazz musician who might play for an audience of ten), but they are trying to give both the music and the situation their best. Their artistic directions and decisions are not for the sake of popularity; if people are drawn to their music, that means something to them, but they aren’t striving for big crowds and rave reviews. Nor do they lead glamorous lives; most of their work takes place behind the scenes, at home or in the studio, or in the long stretches of travel, or even when not much seems to be happening at all. Gergő spoke about how important fatherhood is for him; because of this, he would much rather go on several shorter tours than one or two long ones. The musicians shape their work according to what they hold dear and strive for, alone and together.

During this event, a joy wrapped me up, a new way of realizing (as I have realized many times, then somehow unrealized) that each life has its dignity, that each of us has something to do, and that it doesn’t matter how many people notice and applaud it. Yes, it is important to reach people, to have one’s work understood in some way—but this does not mean getting distracted by the numbers, the outward signs of success. The important thing is to make the work better and better, whatever it is—not only technically, though that too, but internally, in terms of what it is and where it goes. For this, our internal life has only our own secret flashlight shining on it, and sometimes not even that. Essential also are the daily habits and practices, which vary from person to person (some thrive with structure and discipline, while some need a little bit of laziness). Most important of all is to shut out unnecessary noise. Spiritual life (which sometimes we ourselves cannot see) lies at the center of it all, even for those who do not believe in God, because each of us has to contend at some point with the question: what is left when the things we take for granted are gone?

The previous day, I came to a concert that I loved: László Kollár-Klemencz with his band and an array of guest musicians spanning several generations. It was such a rich concert that it ran out of time, so unfortunately Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev), the last guest musician, could only play one of the songs he had intended to play. That moment of disappointment was nothing more than that, but it brought up memories. I remember playing cello on a few songs at a beloved musician’s concert, in San Francisco—and at the last minute, she crossed one of the songs off the list. I too have had times where I had to shorten a list, or adjust a program. On the surface, it’s a trifling matter, everyone will survive it, there will be more concerts. But in the moment, the person making the decision, or someone affected by it, including an audience member, can feel dismay. There’s a sacrifice here, a tiny one, but a sacrifice all the same. Sacrifice is nothing to fear, though. Without it, life loses meaning.

A couple of weeks ago I brought my students William Faulkner’s Nobel Banquet speech. It turned out to be very important for them, particularly what he says about sacrifice:

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Faulkner gave this speech in 1950, when the Cold War was underway, but today too we are beset by fears—not only of global warming, or world war, but of our own insignificance, of not being one of the “important” people. We are fed a daily propaganda that measures people in terms of their numbers, their following. Now, everyone who writes or creates in some way wants an audience. Even outside of creative work, people want to be recognized fairly. But start taking the numbers to heart, start letting them tell you your own worth, and you’re half dead. It’s a big distraction and delusion; it feels rotten. It takes time away from one of the most important things in the world: attention to someone or something beyond the self, which involves everything that Faulkner speaks of, even invisibly.

That will be all for now, because I have to rush off for a full day of school, including a Shakespeare rehearsal. The festival is a week away. May it be good.

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it, mostly for flow.

The rhythm of Pilinszky’s “Keringő” (“Waltz”)

When I started setting Pilinszky’s six-line poem “Keringő” to music, I tried at first to make it waltz-like, but quickly found that the poem resisted this. So instead I followed the poem’s own rhythm, as I heard it. One line kept tripping me up, because it has a rhythm of its own: “szemközt a leáldozó nappal” (“across from the sacrificing sun”). I realized that I could make this a transition into a waltz, and from there a waltz rhythm would prevail. I don’t know how this sounds to a Hungarian ear, but to me this changing rhythm also works with the meaning of the poem. Only the last line of the poem really sounds like a waltz, but then the music keeps on going for a little while.

Pilinszky János, “Keringő”

A zongorát befutja a borostyán,
s a gyerekkori ház falát
szétmállasztja a naplemente.

És mégis, mégis szakadatlanúl
szemközt a leáldozó nappal
mindaz, mi elmúlt, halhatatlan.

In my rough translation, with some minor liberties:

János Pilinszky, “Waltz”

The piano is entangled by the vine
and the setting sun crumbles
the wall of the childhood house.

And yet, and yet, without fail,
across from the sacrificing sun,
all that is past is immortal.

I spent most of the day recording it, but it is still a draft. I now have seven musical renditions of Pilinszky and plan to re-record them all, maybe with a few others. My renditions of “Metronóm” and “A tengerpartra” are also on YouTube (in draft form); I think this is the best of the three, but all three will be better over time.

Against Platitudes

Most of us have gifts that can become faults when taken too far or brought into the wrong context. For me, a combination of seriousness, immersion, excitement, and brazen determination has allowed me to do things, both alone and with others, that never would have happened otherwise. Books, translations, dramatic productions, literary journals, literary events, musical projects, moving to Hungary and learning Hungarian—all of this took considerable enthusiasm and stubbornness. I never wanted to be selfish about it; I wanted to take others into account. Most of the time, people appreciated my dedication and relied on my judgement, even when I was treating the project as the most important thing on earth. Even when I pestered them repeatedly.

But there’s a recurring mistake I make every 8-10 years or so: I get excited about something (happily) and become temporarily insistent and impatient (not so happily). The latter part can throw people off and upset them. I see my mistake promptly, but it is done.

Anyone who knows me can picture this; when I was younger it happened frequently. After I hit forty, it happened three significant times: once in 2005 or so, once in 2015, and once this year (I am not going into details). These stand out because of their importance to me. There may have been smaller instances too, but nothing that reached this pitch.

The two previous times, I talked about the situation to a few carefully chosen people—people with no connection to those involved. Their advice was usually unhelpful (if not downright confusing), along the lines of “So-and-so isn’t worth your time and attention.” That seems to be the default response these days: labeling others as toxic or, at best, “not worth your time.” But it’s just an escape; it doesn’t get to the heart of the matter. When a misunderstanding happens, we usually have something to do with it. It isn’t necessarily all our fault; no good comes from complete self-blame. But some sort of fault is there. Also, others have dignity; they don’t deserve to be called “not worth” someone’s time. Everyone is worth someone’s time. That does not mean that everyone has time for everyone.

I had my part in this. It seems that things go wrong when I want something not for a project, but at least partly for myself (and especially when I show any kind of hurt or disappointment). This isn’t because it’s wrong to want something for myself. Rather, others aren’t necessarily prepared for this, and I am not very good at conveying both clearly and gently that something is important to me. Also, others are not obligated to do anything just because it’s important to me; they may feel pushed (just as I feel pushed sometimes). It is hard to express a wish or need without seeming demanding and controlling. I understand this well; I recoil at subtle and not-so subtle personal demands and manipulation.

The ideal approach would be to state that it is important to me, but then let go of it and let the other person do whatever he or she wants. Take away all “shoulds,” take away any rush or urgency (unless there is a real deadline), remove them even internally, and go on with life. This is extremely hard to do, especially in our online hyper-connected world, never mind our culture of entitlement. But it can be done.

People do like to do nice things for others, after all, but they like to do them freely. I do too. The problem is that it’s so hard to ask for anything at all, or convey that it means something, without having it come across as a demand.

But even when you express yourself generously and briefly, you can be misunderstood. As soon as you bring yourself into the picture, people can perceive you as pushy or worse. Or, at the other end of things, your words may go unnoticed because you were so gentle about them.

In the end, how others react is less important than how I handle things. Yes, their reaction is important too. Others’ responses reflect my actions at least somewhat—and I don’t want to bother or hurt anyone. But even if I were perfect, which I will never be, misunderstandings will happen. I cannot always prevent or fix them.

I was thinking about this yesterday when reading Camus’ “The Guest” with my students. In the story, set in Algeria, the schoolmaster Daru is handed an Arab prisoner (accused of murdering his cousin) and instructed to hand him into the authorities. Daru, who lives between two worlds (being of French origin but an Algerian native) does not want to do this. He ends up giving the prisoner a free choice (and the prisoner chooses to walk in the direction of the authorities, to turn himself in). When Daru returns to the classroom, he sees scrawled on the blackboard the message, “You handed over our brother. You will pay for this.”

We talked about how even though we are fortunately not in situations where our decisions cost us our lives, the story is true for us too; we can never guarantee that our actions will be understood. People might take them as their opposite. This does not mean that they don’t matter. They matter, not because of how others respond, but because they shape us.

In all three situations mentioned earlier, I did not say a single bad word about the others involved (neither before, nor during, nor after the conflict), did not descend into gossip, and took a serious look at my own part. I tried to reconcile, and succeeded in part, over time.

But where my previous “bad advisors” may have been slightly right was this: It isn’t that the others weren’t worth my time, or otherwise defective; rather, they weren’t in a position to meet my needs, no matter how small or big, temporary or lasting. They had their own lives, worthy in themselves, not really overlapping with mine.

Sometimes my needs are so simple, a tiny gesture can make me happy for weeks or longer. But that isn’t the point. People have their radius of attention and are wary of expanding or overpacking it, because there isn’t time. This I understand well. There’s so much that can wear us out and take our focus away. I too have to limit my focus. I have so much to do and also have to make more room for my life. By “my life” I mean not only my work and projects, but rest, health, and people close to me.

Just look at this day. We had the day off for the March 15 holiday commemorating the Revolution of 1848. I have spent most of the day mulling over the questions of this blog post. It has done me good, but how much else there is to do too.

The mulling, too, is both a gift and a fault. I am good at looking at myself when things go wrong, not to berate myself, but to sort things out and put them in perspective. A person can do much worse than this. But I spend too much time on it. I wouldn’t call it neurotic—neuroticism repeats itself, whereas this moves toward understanding or peace—but still, it’s a bit too much. Also, it’s futile; I could double the time spent, and it would do nothing for the resolution. Sometimes answers really do come when you finally forget the question, as Csenger Kertai suggests in his poem “Dokkolás” (“Docking”). I believe that this will be the case here. Giving it a rest, a true rest, a full rest, will be the best gift, not only to the others, but to me. That in itself may seem a platitude, but it isn’t. Rest is profound and difficult. And needed.

The photo of the Hautes Plaines (“High Plains”, Arabic: الهضاب العليا, in northern Algeria) is courtesy of Wikipedia.

Staying Home Anyway (and This and That)

I had hoped to go hear Dávid Korándi (cappuccino projekt) and then The Roving Chess Club in Budapest tonight, but after an intense week I ended up slightly dizzy—not sick, but just short of robust. Because next week starts out with two important trips to Budapest after school—a Purim celebration at the Ohél Ávrahám synagogue (where I will chant two chapters of the Book of Esther), and an unrelated, eagerly awaited gathering the next day—I need not push it this evening or weekend. I will listen to the cappuccino project album tonight.

It was actually a short week because of a long weekend. On Monday and Tuesday we had no classes, but on Tuesday we teachers took part in activities led by our colleagues. I went first to a poetry workshop, then a drama workshop, both of which I enjoyed. That evening, I attended a gorgeous Platon Karataev duo concert featuring Emőke Dobos’s art for Partért kiáltó (on the screen, moving slowly and rotating). Being able to focus on the rotating images brought the songs to me in a new way, with new textures and associations.

The concert was followed by an interview discussion, which I loved for the way Emőke, Gergő, and Sebő could take any question (posed by Dóri Hegyi) and turn it into something interesting and beautiful.

I got home after midnight, went promptly to sleep, and arrived at school the next day at 7:30, since I was one of three interviewers for the oral entrance exams. We interviewed about 75 students over three days (about 30/30/15); I enjoy doing this but was unsure, from the start, whether a concert on Friday night would be realistic afterwards. It is not, especially since I am not needed or expected there in any way. I like to keep my commitments whenever possible, but this wasn’t a commitment, just something I wanted very much to do.

In addition, I am working on a long poem and an unrelated essay, as well as translations, the Shakespeare festival, and more. It is good to have just a little bit of time for doing close to nothing, letting the thoughts slow down.

Update: The Roving Chess Club will be playing at the Tisza Mozi (in Szolnok) on March 17! I plan to go.

On Age and Aging, and Thoughts on a Concert

In April I will turn 59. That’s not yet sixty; it’s still barely within the range of middle age. But sixty and older will come, not just to me, but to anyone who lives that long. In this there is no shame. Yes, you start sensing that much of the world regards you as obsolete or overlooks you entirely. On the other hand, you are much stronger and more confident than a few decades earlier. You realize that you can do whatever you want, within internal and external limits; you become more concerned with living fully (kindly, boldly, responsibly, keenly) than with winning approval. Or at least you see the possibility.

It has taken me years to move beyond approval, but I have done it, though I still have blips here and there. Winning approval was my means of defense, during family conflict and at school. I was good at it; people praised me for my intellectual abilities and accomplishments, my interest in languages, my cello playing. But when I hit early adulthood (and even much earlier), I needed to escape the snare of approval but didn’t know how. The things people approved of in me were genuine but incomplete; I hadn’t been faking anything, but I had constrained myself. For instance, I loved certain classical music but also kinds of music that parents and teachers looked down on. I had serious intellectual interests but was not only intellectual. I loved quiet but had a wild streak too. To get my point across, I started doing things that people disapproved of (which missed the point, I later understood). Over time, I learned to care far less about approval: to listen to and play about the music I wanted, write about what I wanted, read freely, speak my mind, stay quiet when I don’t want to say anything at all, and relate to others as equals. How great it would have been to do this earlier! But that’s partly what years are for.

Last night I went to hear Cz.K. Sebő / capsule boy (his electronic project); he was opening for Analog Balaton, a soulful, beatful pop electronic duo. Analog Balaton had a double show, on two consecutive days; both were sold out (and capsule boy was playing only on the second). On Thursday, the capsule boy single and video “Funeral Circular” came out. The song (which Sebő wrote in Spanish) conveys bright light and darkness and reminds me of moments of Arvo Pärt’s Tabula Rasa; the video, directed by Ákos Székely, with graphics and dancing by Fruzsina Balogh, takes you deep into the song and into something else too. Something exciting and important has taken off here; I can’t wait to see where it goes.

Sebő’s songs and performance captivated the (huge) crowd; as the set progressed, more and more people joined in the listening, dancing, swaying, cheering. He seemed to catch on to the response, to relax into it and enjoy it. He seemed fully in his element with the music, bringing the samples in and out, singing and backing away, moving to the beat, conveying the mood.

I had a great time there (with some lovely conversation afterward too); I stayed for a little bit of Analog Balaton but then left to catch a not-too-late train back to Szolnok. I read Cortázar on the way home and arrived a little after midnight.

So yes, it gives me joy to be able to go hear a concert like this, to see and hear a favorite musician taking his directions and being so enthusiastically received. This was only a fraction of my week; on Friday I went to a literary event hosted by Eső, and the week has otherwise been filled with teaching, writing, translating, music, reading (in Hungarian, English, Russian, Spanish, and Biblical Hebrew), planning for the Shakespeare Festival, practicing Books 7 and 8 of Esther, which I will be chanting on Purim, and taking care of various odds and ends. But as far as fractions go, it’s a resplendent one.

Back to the question of age: It is true that at a particular age or stage of life, certain activities are more appropriate than others. There’s something undignified, rude, possibly even destructive, about pretending to be am age you are not. But if you are not pretending, and if the activity is good, then there’s every reason to do it if you want. To listen to music, play music, dance, sing. To be there at great moments. To follow your own instinct and ear. To care and at the same time toss away worries. To leave false assumptions, false oppositions behind. To grieve and rejoice as life will have it, trusting your own rhythms and forms, which others may or may not understand. To be able, at the end of it all, to recall Yeats’s “To my Heart, bidding it have no Fear“:

Be you still, be you still, trembling heart;
Remember the wisdom out of the old days:

Him who trembles before the flame and the flood,
And the winds that blow through the starry ways,
Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the lonely, majestical multitude.

“And thus I received an answer”

I have often passed by the Evangélikus Múzeum (Lutheran Museum) at Deák Ferenc tér and noticed the letters carved through the wall, but last night the letters glowed with the indoor light, and a particular text stopped me in my tracks. Several times I started to walk onward but came back to it. Part of it reads, “Az emberi bűn mérhetetlensége és Isten szeretetének végtelensége mutatkozott meg számomra ebben az álomban, és így kaptam választ a magam és mások kínzó kérdéseire.” (“The immensity of human sin and the infinity of God’s love were revealed to me in this dream, and thus I received an answer to my own and others’ agonizing questions.”) This is by Gábor Sztehlo, about whom I knew nothing, but who, I learned later, saved two thousand Jewish, Roma, and other lives during World War II.

The text is from his diary Isten kezében (In the Hands of God); a longer quote reads,

Az én számomra olyan volt ez az év, mint valami álom. Álom, amit sírva és nevetve, éhezve és jóllakottan, küszködve és boldogan, bizakodva és reményvesztetten, fázva és melegedve; már mindegy, hogy miképpen, de mégis álmodva éltem át. Szinte öntudatlanul cselekedve azt, amit kellett, a mindennapok feladatait, melyek a tegnapból folytak át a mába és a mából a holnapba, anélkül, hogy a holnapután pontos körvonalait láttam volna. Álom volt, és mégis eleven, húsba vágó valóság. Rossz álomnak is nevezhetem: rossz álom, hogy annyi emberi nyomorúság és aljasság létezhet a földön; de csodálatos álom, hogy Isten nyilvánvaló szeretete akkor sem hagyott el bennünket. Az emberi bűn mérhetetlensége és Isten szeretetének végtelensége mutatkozott meg számomra ebben az álomban, és így kaptam választ a magam és mások kínzó kérdéseire.

In rough translation:

For me, this year was like some sort of dream. A dream that, sobbing and laughing, hungry and full, struggling and happy, trusting and hopeless, freezing and warmed, it doesn’t matter how, I lived out, dreaming. Almost unconsciously doing what was needed, the everyday tasks that flowed from yesterday to today and from today to tomorrow, without seeing the exact contours of the day after tomorrow. It was a dream, and yet a living, flesh-cutting reality. I can also call it a bad dream: a bad dream that so much human misery and meanness can exist on earth; but it is a wonderful dream that God’s obvious love did not leave us even then. The immensity of human sin and the infinity of God’s love were revealed to me in this dream, and thus I received an answer to my own and others’ agonizing questions.

I was on my way to a literary and musical evening at the K11 Kulturális Központ: the poet and fiction writer János Lackfi and the songwriter Gergely Balla (of Platon Karataev) in dialogue of their work. It was delightful, moving, and inspiring The combination of the two, and the connections between their pieces, went far beyond the obvious. I was familiar with the songs, at least from concerts and other literary events; the pieces that Lackfi read were new to me. (He is not entirely unfamiliar to me; his work appears regularly in Eső.) His language is not easy for a foreigner, because it’s full of wordplay, references, different registers of speech—but I am now in a position to approach it. This afternoon I plan to look for his Poket book, which consists of selections from his reader-writer project. He had asked his readers to send him themes, and then he wrote poems (in a wide variety of forms) based on them. Some of the “themes” are intricate anecdotes in themselves.

One of my favorite details of the evening was the way Lackfi swayed with absorption during Balla’s songs. Also, that there was no moderator or mediator, just the two of them. I loved hearing the songs and the way this event brought something new out of them.

Tonight I was planning to go to Kolibri’s record release (for a beautiful, exciting album, about which I will say something soon). But the weather is cold and wet, last night’s event was enough to last me a while, and the thought of a full weekend at home is too tempting, especially since I will be going to Budapest twice next weekend. I have a lot to do, and some resting to do too. The show is sold out, and there’s a long waiting list for tickets on Ticketswap; so I listed my ticket there, and it was gone in a minute.

Listening (new poem)


Diana Senechal

Today I tried something new
(Or old in a new way):
Saying nothing.

True, many stints of null
Had marked my days before,
But this nothing had

A pluck to it.
Tuning, muting
Its strings, gearing

Up for the miracle
(As anything that comes
From zero is miracle),

It befriended the oval.
Later I thought of how
The hush had given me time

To hear space sing,
To see the clouds converge,
Break up, glitter, and

Spatter the long sands,
Daring me into a brief
Collapse of words.

The words resurged,
But with the glint of return
From a private voyage:

“Later I looked up the name
Of that beach whose waves
Rough-sang the sky.”

Art credit: Piet Mondrian (1872-1944), Composition in Oval with Color Planes 1 (1914), oil on canvas, Museum of Modern Art.

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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