Leaving Instagram

Or trying to leave, at least. It keeps asking for my password and rejecting whatever I type in, but when I request a new password, no email arrives. Anyway, I gave Instagram a try. I would be fine with it if it weren’t for the “stories.” They are like Facebook stories, but much more imposing, a key part of the Instagram experience. What’s more, they are fake, not because of the people who post them, not because of their content (which can be interesting, moving, beautiful, funny, etc.), but because of the way they work. They go by much too fast. And then you’re given just a handful of “reactions” to choose from. You can also type in a comment, but that seems like an imposition somehow. Probably no one cares what you do. But I would rather live in a world where things matter at least a little, and where I offer more than just a flame or handclap emoji.

I feel similarly about Facebook, but at least on Facebook I can get links, event information, etc. and leave a real comment now and then. Instagram is set up to look glamorous and ephemeral: hints flash by, and if you don’t get them, you’re the one at fault. I think I can miss out on that party. Enough good things will still come my way.

Having It Both Ways (or More Than Two)

This year, several people (out of respect) have avoided wishing me a merry Christmas, instead wishing me a happy Hanukkah (well after Hanukkah was over) or happy holidays. The intent is generous and thoughtful. But I grew up celebrating Christmas. I consider it a beautiful holiday when celebrated well. I also love Christmas music of various kinds (I have a fond memory of Louisa Burnham singing “Balulalow” in our high school chorus long ago). I would have a Christmas tree, except that the cats would tear it down.

This leads to a larger question that has been on my mind. For nine years I have been practicing Judaism (and for four years serving as cantor at Szim Salom). But does this mean that I’m supposed to be only Jewish, to deny being anything else? That would be false; I am not only Jewish, and my upbringing wasn’t Jewish except maybe slightly, through hints here and there. I don’t mean I want to practice both Christianity and Judaism; I see how fraught that would be. I just do not find personal meaning in Jewish separateness (on the whole, with exceptions and qualifications). It does not make sense to me for my own life. I understand it and see its historical roots (for one thing, it was tragically forced onto the Jews many times over the centuries; and for another, it allowed Jewish practices and traditions to take shape). I love some of its meanings and principles. But it is not fully true for me. I not only want to find common ground with others, but basically do. I know that some people will perceive me as separate anyway, and that if a vicious form of anti-Semitism should rise up, I would not be spared. But let that be part of a larger truth.

Religious practice is a commitment, and its details matter. At the same time, I see it as an approximation of something else. Besides providing some sort of structure and moral framework, a religion offers a form for approaching the unapproachable and ineffable. The form is essential and serious. But it isn’t the divine. It is a way toward the divine. At least that is how I see it. I do not treat the form as literal law. But I don’t dismiss it as nonsense either.

In that light, and on that level, different religions can meet. But because the form is so important, and because the details have so many historical layers and reasons, one can’t just “mix and match.”

In other words, I don’t believe religious doctrine (Jewish or Christian) in any literal way. (What constitutes the “literal” is a complex question for another time.) I believe it as a gesture toward something else, a way of expressing something that can’t be said. My Judaism is not a rejection of Christianity; it’s where I find a home for the soul. But it isn’t my only home; I also find home in music, in poetry, in teaching, in surprising everyday things. And I am also in search of home, always.

I practiced Christianity in my early adulthood—in Episcopalean, Lutheran, and Catholic churches. (That too was absent from my upbringing, except for religious classical music.) At age twenty-five or so I drifted away; I stayed away from all organized religion until 2013 when, after a series of unexpected events, I started going to synagogue and learning Jewish liturgy and cantillation. I have been up front about the earlier part of my history; although I don’t talk about it often, it is not a secret.

This does not mean I am just “part Jewish.” I am fully Jewish by Jewish law, through matrilineal descent, as well as through practice and in my heart. (My father isn’t Jewish, whereas my mother’s parents, grandparents, and ancestors were all Jewish as far as I know.) But there’s more to any human than one particular identity, more than percentages of this and that. We are infinite, made up of many things, not entirely determined by our background, and never finally fixed. It isn’t just that I’m also Irish, Norwegian, French; I am also made up of the music I listen to, the poetry I read, the people I meet, the things I think about and write, life with all its ruptures and gifts, and things still to come. “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.”

What’s the problem? someone might ask. Who’s putting pressure on you to be anything you aren’t? No one deliberately. But I want a new level of truth in my life. Some of this can’t be external, because external things always get mistaken and misclassified. Some truth can only be private. But I want to try to do better in getting to know others and letting them know me as I am.

People who are Jewish on both sides of the family, or who were brought up Jewish, or who want and need a particular cultural identity, may have trouble with what I am saying. But I know I am far from alone, and even if I were alone, I would have to find my way. And by that I don’t mean living by “me, me, me,” but rather taking part in the world, in a way that keeps unfolding.

Art credit: Marc Chagall, 1913, Paris par la fenêtre (Paris Through the Window), oil on canvas, 136 x 141.9 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

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

O God, Please Heal Her

“El na refa na la,” “O God, please heal her.” It’s striking how much of the Bible has to do with illness and healing. Today we’re under pressure to present ourselves as omnipotent, invulnerable, immortal, but that’s ridiculous; that’s not who or what we are. So many of us have illnesses of one kind or another, or at least have had them at some point. We cope with them in different ways, but they’re there. Some people need to talk about them; some do not. Some want companionship during and around the doctor visits; others would rather handle them alone. But the truth persists. No one is invulnerable, and it’s better that way. An illness can teach us a little bit about ourselves and what we have in common with others. It’s no accident that Chekhov was a doctor.

About twenty-four years ago I was diagnosed with Gorlin Syndrome, an inherited condition with multiple and varying symptoms, particularly basal cell carcinoma tumors. I had my first surgery for basal cell carcinoma more than thirty years ago. So many surgeries followed over the years that I lose count. It has been essential to me, all this time, to keep on going with my life, to avoid absence from work if at all possible, and to deal with it quietly. I don’t like being fussed over; it adds to the stress. Or rather, the fuss, no matter how kindly intended, can be more stressful than the surgeries themselves, since it carries the expectation that I keep people updated, tell them how I am, take care of their feelings and worries, etc. I am not secretive about my surgeries, but I like to treat them with simplicity, as just another thing I have to do.

So why am I writing about it now? I think many others, young, old, and in between, may be in a similar position, dealing with conditions that don’t just go away, be they panic attacks, cancer, liver problems, allergies, or something else. There’s no need to pretend that these things don’t exist.

Also, I had surgery today, my fourth this fall. Two were very small; I was able to have both lesions removed in one evening, in less than half an hour. One was larger, but the surgeon removed it completely in one pass (on a day when we didn’t have any classes). This last one—in the conchal bowl of the ear—has required six doctor’s appointments (two at the G1 Intézet and four at the Semmelweis Klinika) and will require two more followups. Fortunately there won’t be any damage to my hearing, and any cosmetic damage will be minimal and barely visible—but it has required more appointments than most. I think I’ll be all set after the followups, but today I was embarrassed to realize that I wouldn’t be teaching any classes at all. I originally thought I’d just zip in there, zip out again, head back to Szolnok, and catch the second half of the day. But the surgery started later than I expected, and the anesthesia left my face partly numb, so that it would have been hard to teach anyway. I sent my students classwork assignments, which they received and completed.

Doctors both here and in the U.S. have gone out of their way to help me. My followup appointments will both be during the winter break, so I won’t have to miss classes. I trust in the quality of care that I have been receiving in Budapest. And it’s affordable, too; for the most part, everything here has been covered by my health insurance. The exception is when I go to a private doctor or clinic. But the fees there are reasonable, and some of them offer evening appointments, so it’s worth it.

The doctors do something similar to Mohs surgery here, just as in the U.S. The main difference is that there’s no way to get lab results on the spot, so we have to wait about ten days for them. If it then turns out that not everything was removed, I have to return for another pass. Because of this, the surgeons generally take out a slightly larger piece initially than they would in the U.S., to increase the chances of getting it all. (In the U.S., I have had Mohs surgeries where the doctors cut pieces out of me five times in a single day, with an hour or two in between. While the idea is to minimize the cosmetic damage, this can turn into a grueling day. Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages.) The lab reports here are extremely detailed and descriptive, and get added to my medical records, so I learn about what was going on at the site of the lesion. I can see them online as soon as they become available.

As I mentioned, the doctors have been flexible with me, doing their best to make appointments that will work for me. One of them was exchanging texts with me for several weeks, trying to find an appointment that would cause me the least possible disruption. Another one let me come to the G1 Intézet (in the evening) to have my stitches removed, even though the surgery itself was at the Szent Imre Kórház.

My school has been very understanding too. Fortunately I’ve been absent very little, and they know I am doing all I can to keep it this way. But they also believe in taking care of yourself. The principal has told me repeatedly that health comes first, and he means it.

But back to the larger topic. No human escapes illness. Some have it worse than others, but we all come down with something at some point. The people who dedicate their lives to healing—doctors, nurses, therapists, counselors, and others—are doing holy work. It doesn’t end, since no one becomes completely immune to disease or distress, ever. Instead, we become more vulnerable over time. And stronger too. Stronger and weaker at once.

Illness isn’t a contained phenomenon that comes and goes. It affects your life. The surgeries have affected my face and other body parts over time. My nose was once symmetrical; it isn’t now. But that, too, is something people have in common. (I don’t mean the nose in particular; I mean anything that sets you apart a little bit.) It isn’t a cause for shame.

To everyone dealing with a health problem, I would say: you are not alone, and you have many possibilities. You can find a way to handle this and also make the most of your life, while also allowing life to make the most of you, imperfections included. Not being perfect is a gift in itself, to yourself and others.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it, most recently on December 23.

On Steadfastness

We change gradually and abruptly, often without realizing it; we wake up to find out that we are not who we were ten years ago, or even yesterday. So steadfastness—not just habit and routine, but commitment—offers a counterpoint to the changes. Having something that you return to again and again, that you practice over time, does not make you redundant, dull, or repetitive. Rather, the repetition set against the changes allows you to see and hear familiar things in new ways. Endless novelty would just be exhausting and confusing. Practice doesn’t make perfect (nothing does), but it does make life more interesting, and it allows you to build things.

I sometimes don’t notice the steadfastness, because I am so caught up in meeting the next deadline, getting through the next day. But there have been some long projects and gestures.

In December I will have been Szim Salom’s cantor for four years. Four years! This morning I let the rabbi know which verses I would be leyning on December 4—that is, chanting for the Torah reading—and as I read them again, they rose up. They are some of the most beautiful verses in the entire Bible: when Joseph sees his brother Benjamin and has to go to his room to weep in private (because he does not want to reveal himself yet). I have had doubts and questions about my Jewish practice: what I mean with it, how strict I want it to be, and whether I want to be part of an organized religion, period. But when it comes to the texts and liturgy, there’s no doubt. I know that I want to be with these verses and melodies.

Teaching has been steadfast too. Even though I left it twice to write a book, I came back. Yesterday I woke up with a puffy face and swollen eye, and imagined a rough day ahead. But it got better and better as the day went on. It even started out well. The first two classes were devoted to caroling rehearsal; the students had a full plan worked out and accomplished just about everything they set out to do. They were appreciative of the time that had been allotted for this. Later, in one of my classes, most of the students were out at a competition, so the few of us who were there talked about various things: first sports, then education, then my experience in Hungary. I got to know these students a little bit better, and was happy for that. And in between and afterwards (I teach seven classes on Wednesdays), each hour had something memorable. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember it, but if I do, so much the better. And this morning I woke up thoroughly rested after a thick sleep.

And then there’s the writing, translating, and music. Too much to talk about, but these things persevere too. The photo at the top is of a concert I attended on Monday, a solo concert by Gergely Balla of Platon Karataev. I was hesitant to take a picture at all, and took just one, quickly. It came out blurry and abstract, but I think that’s how it was supposed to be. The concert doesn’t translate into descriptions. Some do, a little bit, but this one doesn’t. The picture reminds me of the hush in the room, the absorption in the songs.

I will be taking part in a literary evening, with cello—more about that soon! The timing is just right, since this weekend I am finishing up a big translation (the first draft, that is) as well as the autumn issue of Folyosó, and will have time to practice and prepare after that, and even before and during.

The Pilinszky event in March is sooner than it may seem, so mark your calendars and spread the word! Also, this very morning at 7:55 we will be having a short commemoration at school, in honor of the 100th anniversary of Pilinszky’s birth (he was born on November 27, 1821). I will give a brief introduction, and then three students will recite four Pilinszky poems: “Egy szép napon,” “Kráter,” “Egy szenvedély margójára,” and “Átváltozás.” If we record it, and if the participating students give permission, I’ll post the recording here later. And now I must start to get ready.

Update: Here is the video!

Things Not So Readily Understood

Each of us, I imagine, has something, or maybe several things, that others don’t readily understand. We know what they are, because we keep coming up against them. The reason this happens is that no one can step into another’s manifold. It might seem to overlap with our own, but it really doesn’t. “I know what you mean” is one of the most common falsehoods in the world. These misunderstood things, far from being hindrances or flaws, help form the basic compass of who we are.

I can think of three such things on the spot. One is my need for solitude. It doesn’t mean I always like to be alone. But I need room, even among others, to think things out, to take my own directions. And at this point in life, I not only enjoy living alone but need it too, to the extent that it is possible. Hungarians frown upon this somewhat—not all Hungarians, but many. (To a great extent, Judaism frowns on it too.) But solitude and company are always affecting and interchanging with each other, so a person who desires solitude will also desire company. It is a great joy when something feels kindred, something “clicks,” or even when it doesn’t but the conversation or common project fills me with thoughts.

The second point of difference is that I have plenty to do and am not looking for additional work or projects, with very few exceptions. It took a long time to get across that I do not want to give private English lessons; now the same applies to other things as well. My time outside of teaching is scarce and precious, and I need the freedom to spend it as I choose, to the extent possible. I say “to the extent possible” because things come up over which I have little or no control, and it’s good to give in to them at times. But I am not happy when rushing from one task to the next, especially when these tasks come from others. I need, to some extent, to set my own terms. Those terms are my happy terrain, which continually changes and opens: projects come into being, associations form, I find music that I love. I can’t explain this to anyone else, but I won’t give it up either. In short, I have plenty to do, and it’s important to me to do it slowly and thoughtfully instead of cramming my days with more and more. The stretches of time, and relative freedom within them, are much more important to me than money or fame.

The third is that I find politics not only boring, but superficial. Most political arguments, whether on the right or the left, only scrape the surface of things. Some do go deeper, but only when they deal with structures of human relation. Then fundamental questions come up: Who are we, and what are we capable of deciding and accomplishing together for the common good? Where does the common good conflict with individual good? These questions do not run dry, but parlor-talk does. I feel as uncomfortable with left-wing talk as with right-wing talk; and moderates often fall into traps of compromise and equivocation. Most of the time I am left wondering: why so much talk about this stuff? Why the need to have and proclaim an opinion about every current issue? Sure, I have my opinions too, and at times I make them known. But then I get sick of them. Other things I don’t get sick of, no matter how many times I return to them. Why not focus on those? Yes, politics are important; someone has to figure out how our systems will work and who will lead them. But they are not the only important actions, thoughts, or creations.

But these are just some of mine, and I know I am not alone; we all have prickliness of one kind or another, things that stick out, that aren’t exactly what others expect, approve of, or want. I say, live out that prickliness (without being obnoxious about it). Ruffle those feathers, be that jaunty, dreamy bird that struts through the day.

I edited this piece for clarity after posting it.

Paring Down

Many of us know how satisfying it can be to simplify things, to shed them down to the essential, be it a schedule, a song, a room, or a thought. But this work cannot be unidirectional. We muddle and clutter ourselves up, then let the dross drop. With good reason, too. we want to sweep up the abundance of life, we want to lose it. Again and again. Still, over the long term, a slow paring can happen.

I am going to fewer concerts and other events than I might otherwise this month, because I have so much else to do and want to do it well. I am also thinking more simply, focusing on what I have to do each day (because if I don’t, I am likely to forget something). I have also been thinking of paring down as a principle of poetry—not in the obvious ways (poetry is known for its conciseness) but for the internal shedding that often takes place in a poem, the simplification in motion. A poem is not static. While writing it, you simplify it, but even in its final form it moves into its own kernel.

Listen Up: Hannah Marcus

This “Listen Up” piece, the fourth in the series, is long overdue; I dedicate it to the wonderful Hannah Marcus, who has released album after album over the years, in a changing style of her own, and who collaborates with many musicians across genres. Many people love Hannah’s songs not only for their dark tones and themes, not only for their musical imagination, but also for their humor, curiosity, and generosity, which I hope to touch upon today. This is a short piece, partly because not all of her songs are available online. But I hope it’ll introduce her music to a few people.

I first met her music in a curious way. A friend and bandmate of mine, no longer alive, pulled Hannah’s song “Demerol” out of his closet one evening. “This song is you,” he said, and put it on. It was a stunning song and equation; afterwards I tried to remember the songwriter’s name—which was fitting, because the song begins, “What is your name? Tell me, child of grace, what is your name? What a thing for an R.N. to say, what is your name? Here’s some Demerol to ease the pain, can you tell me what occurred today?….” She starts out slowly, gently, in alto notes, then soars up with “today” into the celestial part of the song.

A few years later, another friend asked me, out of the blue, “Have you heard Hannah Marcus’s music?” She told me where to find some of the albums, and I was off to the record store. It turned out that Hannah was living in San Francisco now (where I was too), so I attended a couple of her shows, and we started to become acquainted. Over time, a friendship formed, which continues to this day.

Another favorite early-ish song, from her 1997 Faith Burns album, is “Face in the Moon.” Like “Demerol,” it rises slowly. A friend told me he got all choked up over the word “joy” (when it first comes up, on a high note). So do I, returning to the song now. It is a song to ride along with, to sink into, to rise up through. The song spills longing like moonlight, and then a joy takes over. “If there is such a thing as joy in this life, let it rise, illuminated, into life.”

The songs have complex qualities and moods; there’s a subtle chuckle even in the saddest of them. One of my favorites on her Black Hole Heaven album is “Los Alamos,” which describes personal abandonment in an eerily changing world, a world marked by fires, genetic experimentation, and mythology. The wry lyrics are punctuated with samples of Richard Burton’s Hamlet (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of innnnfinite space, were it not that I had bad dreams”). The phrases “innnfinite space” and “bad dreams” recur throughout the song.

Another long-time favorite, which I brought up in my “Song Series” piece on American epic sadness, is “Hairdresser in Taos,” from her Desert Farmers album. Like “Los Alamos,” it moves from personal crisis or loss into a view of something vaster, in this case a confusion and lostness going far beyond the self, into a cry that becomes hymnal, “Lord if only I could find a road, I’d take it.” The song is sadly comic too, especially the part about the hairdresser in Taos who “stuck my head in the sink and put red dye all over my hair…” and then “I ran out of the house with the red dye still on, I even left him my only copy of Blonde on Blonde…:” with the piano mounting and dancing.

After Desert Farmers, Hannah Marcus’s music took all sorts of directions. The Wingfield Community Singers was (and I hope still is) a happy convergence of gifts: the composer David Grubbs, the writer Rick Moody, Hannah Marcus, and other members along the way. I loved the concerts and treasure the songs. Listening to this band is like having your random impulses and thoughts poured into graceful sculpture (that then begins to dance around the room). On the solemn side, one of my favorites is “Night, Sleep, Death, and the Stars,” whose lyrics combine two Walt Whitman poems. Another favorite is “Blue Daisy.”

During this time, Hannah was also learning fiddle, specifically bluegrass, and attending bluegrass festivals and conferences. (I went with her once to a bluegrass conference in the Catskills; it was quite an experience.) She has now plays fiddle/violin (as well as her other instruments) on numerous projects, in a range of genres. On Matana Roberts’s 2019 album Coin Coin Chapter Four: Memphis, she plays electric guitar, nylon string guitar, fiddle, and accordion, and sings backing vocals. This is another side of her musicianship: her support of other musicians, her admiration of their talent, her love of playing with others and continuing to learn new things: new instruments, new styles, new ways of thinking about music, new things about people.

In some ways, music can only come out of an individual, in private and in quiet. That’s why there are solo musicians, or leaders of bands and ensembles: the individual has something so powerful and different to bring. Music would not exist if it had to be entirely communal. But the wisest musicians recognize that it doesn’t begin or end with them, that music stretches far beyond them, and all they can do is play within that expanse. And that’s the joy of it: when it’s not about you, but about the music itself, wherever you find yourself in it. I admire Hannah for finding it in so many places and for playing on and on.

I made a few small changes to this piece after posting it. For other pieces in the “Listen Up” series, go here.

Update (December 23): Oh, joy: Hannah Marcus’s song “Pain Isn’t Real” on the 2021 Holiday Recording Party album!

Different Kinds of Depth

The phrase “a deep person” makes me wary. Everyone is infinitely deep. Some people choose to escape from it, while others look it right in the face. Some keep it to themselves, while some share it with others. Some find their way to it through music and other art; others pound their feet on it when running long distance. Some find it when life socks them in the stomach. Some find it through jokes. Some don’t find it at all but are found with it somehow.

There is no point in judging oneself or others as “deep” or “shallow.” Such judgments usually break down. We don’t know what’s going on in another person, and are in no position to measure it. As for ourselves, who are we to call ourselves “deep,” when we have no basis for comparison? Deep in relation to what? What we think we see in others? What we see and what’s going on are two different things, or maybe three or more.

Still, depth does exist, and it takes different forms. There is music that plunges right away, and music that starts out on the lighter side but takes you deeper and deeper. And music that stays near the surface or flies upward.

Beginning with Atoms—their first album, For Her, is a little different in this regard—Platon Karataev’s music starts out deep with “Ex Nihilo” and goes deeper and deeper from there (if there’s such a thing as deeper than nothing). I can’t wait to hear the whole Partért kiáltó album, which will be coming out soon. Listening to the title song many times, I realize that the best way to approach it is on its own terms: not to squeeze it into existing frames and thoughts, but to take it as it is. It speaks as water, it speaks a language of water, all the layers moving and sparkling and darkening.

Cz.K. Sebő’s music, in contrast, sometimes starts out on the lighter side but then surprises and disarms you as it continues. For instance, “Someday” begins like a casual, melancholic conversation or letter, but each repetition of the sentence “you’ll be alone someday” changes and tilts the tone and sense slightly, until the listener receives these words directly and has to confront their meaning. That each of us will be alone someday, no matter how lucky or unlucky we are, no matter what we do.

One of my favorite songs by Galaxisok, “Elaludtam az Ikeában,” seems entirely lighthearted until you suddenly hear what is going on. It’s a dreamy song about falling asleep at Ikea, and waking up when it’s already dark, and running into an old girlfriend, Diána, who also, as it happens, fell asleep at Ikea. And they walk and talk together, and bring up memories of how one summer, when they were taking a make-up math exam, Peti broke his arm and had to wear a cast the whole time. Later that same summer he learns of another accident, and realizes Diána was in it, but then rejoins, “de felejtsd el, inkább hagyjuk ezt” (“but forget it, let’s drop this”). And then, “Én nem leszek fiatalabb, / te nem leszel öregebb,” “I’m not getting any younger, / You’re not getting any older,” which tells you, when it hits you, that Diána is dead and this dream took place after her death. But the music is so gentle and playful-sounding that you might miss this the first time around. (I missed it the first few times, but I think that’s because I am not a native speaker of Hungarian.) This is only a brief summary of the song; it has beautifully murky and surreal motions and images, such as crawling under the leaves of the indoor palms in the plant department.

No one has to be deep all the time; it can’t be forced. Depth happens when we let ourselves go into something. We know better than anyone else does when this happens and when it doesn’t. But sometimes, in the moment, the word “deep” doesn’t even come to mind. The thing itself draws us in, and only afterwards, in memory or reflection, does it seem profound. At other times, the profundity jumps out at us right away.

Going deep can be important as a practice, for those who want better self-knowledge, or who want to reckon with their actions, or who want to create something. But such practice often takes place in private, through meditation, prayer, or quiet thought. Sometimes it can happen in a long conversation, the kind where the conversants forget the time. Sometimes it can happen when doing something with others: for instance, playing music. But I don’t think it’s social, for the most part.

This does not mean that introversion is necessarily deeper than extraversion; introversion and extraversion can take all sorts of forms. There are people who like to spend evenings alone at home browsing random YouTube videos. There are people who go out in the world and strike up conversations with people out of genuine desire to know them better. Things aren’t what they seem on the surface.

Language, after all, takes you deeper into meanings, if you pay attention to it; there are many ways, quiet and lively, to do so. Yesterday I came upon a poem by Dezső Kosztolányi, “Szeptemberi áhítat” (“September Piety”) that I realized was one of the most beautiful poems I had read in Hungarian. But what does it mean to read it? I have read it silently and out loud; I have listened to the recording of János Pilinszky reading it. But this is just the beginning; I need to take much more time with it, maybe memorize it, maybe translate it (George Szirtes’s translation is good, but I want to go about it differently), maybe even set it to music, with cello. And then come back to reading it in silence, reciting it in my mind.

So where is all of this going? Depth is not something to claim as a title; it can be found through practice, but it also comes to you by surprise, and it’s open to all. Of all the ways we have of judging and writing off others, this is one of the worst; calling someone “deep” or “shallow” is just lying, because we are always undulating and trembling between levels, and have no idea where others (or even we ourselves) will go next.

On (Not) Taking Pictures at Concerts

Last night, for the first time in a long time, I attended a concert without taking any pictures. (It was Cz.K. Sebő with his band—a good though short show.) While I still expect to take pictures at concerts now and then, it was a relief this time not to do so. I didn’t have to worry about anything; I could just listen.

Pictures taken at concerts don’t always come out well. That’s why bands and venues have their own photographers, who go up close, shoot from different angles, etc. In contrast, if you’re in the audience, you want the photo-taking to be as brief and unobtrusive as possible, so you take out the camera (phone), shoot a few, and then put it away again. It’s a bit of a gamble.

Beyond that, when taking a picture, you’re trying to freeze or capture something that isn’t supposed to be captured. One reason for going to concerts is to hear a performance that will never be repeated in that exact same way. The moments are going by, you know they will never come back, and you want to meet them as they pass. A photograph can bring back a memory of a concert, but it can’t bring back the concert itself, and if it could, the concert would lose its meaning.

That touches on another problem: the distraction. Even if you take just one picture during a show, you’re distracting yourself slightly, and maybe others too. Never mind videos. When people hold their phones up in the air to get a video of their favorite song in the set, or just to get a video, period, they block others’ view and insert tiny screens into the picture.

And what about privacy? Yes, a concert counts as a public event, but even public events have a private aspect. Musicians don’t necessarily want their every move to be captured on phones, even on stage. It’s unnerving. And offstage they shouldn’t be subject to unsolicited photo shoots at all. But once people are in photo-clicking mode, they often clickity-clack into the night without restraint.

Last night a woman (in her forties or fifties) was taking repeated pictures of the Platon Karataev members as they talked with each other after the show. (Everyone from Platon Karataev was there.) She might have been a family member, in which case it’s understandable. But I thought she was a stranger, and my blood started to pound. Why couldn’t she leave them alone in their downtime?

Oh, but in this era of ubiquitous photo-clicking, there is no downtime, not even for audience members. Someone included me in a video last night. At many events, people have pointed their cameras my way, and I have seen the not-so-flattering results online a day or two later. You can’t attend an event anonymously any more. Your presence and reactions get recorded. And when people bring their phones and take pictures too, they make this more acceptable, when it shouldn’t be. Granted, sometimes the photos come out well, and sometimes it’s nice to have them. But I am uneasy with the trend.

The picture above (taken on Thursday evening) has nothing to do with this post except for the anonymity of the figures in it. It’s one of the best pictures I have ever taken; I had arrived at the Keleti station in Budapest and saw the shadows and light. So I quickly shot a photo. It has more people than most of my photos do, but no one would be able to identify them except perhaps the woman on the right. I find the silhouettes and shadows soothing.

What would it be like to have no picture- or video-shooting at concerts at all, except by designated photographers? It’s not going to happen, probably—but it would change the atmosphere for the better. In the absence of such a rule or agreement, it’s on each person to consider whether this incessant shooting really brings anything to the occasion. I will probably continue to take pictures here and there, but will keep the phone stowed away for the most part. I have some beautiful photos and don’t need that many more. And how great it is to attend a concert with full spirit and walk away with just the sounds and images in my mind, no token, no souvenir.

“siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél….”

Platon Karataev’s song “Partért kiáltó” (“Crying for the Coast,” or “Shouting for Shore”), the title song from their forthcoming album, can be heard in so many ways that anything I say about it is just a temporary thought, different from what others hear in it, and different from what I might hear in it next time. I wrote recently about the silences in it, and that was just a fragment of a beginning.

One line, “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél” was puzzling me in terms of grammar alone. I first thought it might be something like “fut ki merre lát” (“people are running every which way,” “people are running for their lives”). In that case, it would mean, approximately, “everyone is hurrying faster than the forest.” But instead, I think the “ki” is equivalent to “aki,” in which case this would mean, “he/she hurries, who is faster than the forest,” or “whoever is faster than the forest, hurries.” It has the ring of a saying or proverb. It could mean, “Slow down, there’s no rush” or “Time has a different scale here.”

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

(but stay, if you came all the way here,
whoever is faster than the forest, hurries)

The song, as I hear it right now, has something to do with the hopelessness and hope of love: human pain and restlessness tempered by another’s presence. The final words could be coming from the water, from the other person, or from both, like a dialogue:

ezért a mondatért jöttem
ezért a mondatért
ezért a emberért jöttem
ezért a emberért

I came for this sentence
for this sentence
I came for this person
for this person

But even with that interpretation, it doesn’t stay still; different parts stand out at different times, taking on new tones, and I am not sure that it’s about a relationship at all, or about what we usually call relationship. The lyrics stun quietly; they carry the beauty of the Hungarian language. The music holds its own dimensions; just as with the lyrics, you can listen to it in many ways, over and over, to each instrument and to the whole. I think Platon Karataev has reached a new level with this song.

In a distant way, the song reminds me of Leonard Cohen’s “Avalanche,” which similarly has to do with an infinity of pain, an inability to love, but then a turn toward some kind of hope, if only the hope of longing. But Cohen’s lyrics are more bitter, at least until the last two verses. “Partért kiáltó” has all of the pain, or some memory or echo of pain, but none of the bitterness. But now I am not sure that “pain” is what’s going on in it. There’s something else.

Even as I write this, I start hearing the song in different ways. It could also be a call to the listener, a kind of “invitation au voyage,” except that here the voyage consists in staying still and listening, letting the song go down into you. But that understanding, too, will change, and others will hear the song in still different ways, so I will leave off here.

I made a few additions and changes to this piece after posting it, most recently on November 11. I won’t keep on revising it, though, because there will always be more to the song than I can put down here, and this was meant just as a start.

P.S. Thanks to David Dichelle, the DJ of WFMU’s Continental Subway, for including the song in his show on September 2.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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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