Catching the Light

This is a quick post with pictures I took the other day in my neighborhood. The one above is of the Little Marcipán, closed until summer (the big Marcipán, a block away, remains open). The light in the windows was even more golden than it looks here.

Right across the street from the Little Marcipán: the airplane museum. I was on my way to go running along the Tisza, but stopped here and there to take more pictures, since the sunset was so lovely.

I love the picture above, because if you look in the left-hand corner, you will see the two dogs that were playing with this dog on the wall.

This was a favorite of the day. But not the only one.

This one (above) came close to being my favorite of all: the house with the scraggly trees in front and the sunset colors in the background. But my favorite was the one I took on my street, at the very end.

And that is all. Merry Christmas and Shabbat Shalom, to those who celebrate them, respectively, and to those who don’t but who enjoy a holiday wish all the same.

“I Still Love Christmas….”

Cultural differences surprise me over time. It seems that with all our international media, such differences are disappearing or blurring, but this is not so. At Christmastime especially, I notice the differences between the U.S. and Hungary–or, rather, coastal U.S. and Hungary. Many people I know in the U.S. (particularly in New York, Boston, and San Francisco) say “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas”; there’s a certain discomfort with saying “Merry Christmas,” since the addressee might be Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or of another faith; or nonreligious, or otherwise non-Christmas-celebrating.

Yet this Christmas-nonmentioning custom seems fairly recent; I grew up with Christmas and Merry Christmas, albeit of a secular sort. We had a Christmas tree every year and decorated it with cookies shaped like birds. On Christmas morning my sister and I found presents under the tree. When we lived in the Netherlands, we celebrated Sinkerklaas. In high school I sang Christmas songs and sacred music. One of my favorite works was Benjamin Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols; I still remember the sound of Louisa Burnham singing the solo of “Balulalow.” Looking back, I wonder what it was like for my Jewish classmates to sing Christmas songs year after year. I was barely aware of being Jewish myself, and had no idea, until later, that there could be a conflict. Today I don’t think there has to be one–it’s possible to celebrate or recognize Christmas, in some way, no matter who you are, or what your origins or beliefs–but I understand its sources.

But in the U.S., Christmas also means a lot of stress: rushing around for presents, worrying about what to buy and what you might or might not get, bearing with loud workplace parties and Secret Santa rituals, surviving tense family gatherings, etc. This remains unchanged even under the “Happy Holidays” banner. Many people understandably object to the way the holiday has been commercialized over the decades. Yet we also love the Christmas displays in storefronts and on the streets. Gaudy and ungreen as they may be, they still bring cheer and nostalgia. I have happy memories of going with friends to see the Macy’s displays–and why? because they are so pretty, because we enjoy the Christmas spirit and its electric manifestations.

That is one of myriad reasons why “I Still Love Christmas” by my friend Hannah Marcus is one of my favorite Christmas songs of all time. It’s so funny and sweet, with one zinger after another, and such beautiful performance; on top of that, it captures the ambivalence that so many of us feel: the uneasy love of Christmas, the quasi-guilty, defiant delight in its rituals. This, I think, is foreign to many Hungarians; here Christmas is celebrated (whether religiously or secularly) with no guilt or misgivings whatsoever, except by those who feel pressured into or constrained by it, who may be more numerous than I realize.

And I still love Christmas, with misgivings that are culturally untranslatable. “You can’t take that from me, no siree….” I would have a tree this year, except that the cats would definitely pounce on it and bring it down. So my tree this year is double: a lovely illuminated wreath-hanging that a friend gave me yesterday, and a dried floral wreath given to me by another friend a few weeks ago, just before Hanukkah.

Merry Christmas to all those who celebrate, enjoy, or “still love” it, and Happy Holidays and Seasons Greetings to all.

I took the top photo outside the Szolnok Airplane Museum and the bottom photo at home.

Looking Ahead

During this delightfully restful and productive holiday break–in which I have been finishing the translation manuscript, writing stories, rereading Jeremy Bendik-Keymer’s The Wind, reading Samuel Beckett’s trilogy for the first time, watching some films, working on the 1984 project and Folyosó, and going running–I have still had time to think ahead a little. As many of you know, I am in the process of applying for permanent residency here in Hungary. At present I must renew my residency permit every year; a permanent residency permit is up for renewal every five years (a simple procedure, once you have it). A lot went into the application; I am just waiting for a couple of documents from the U.S. If permanent residency is granted, then my plan will be to teach for ten more years and then retire. That’s neither early nor late; it’s normal retirement age, and it seems just right to me. Retirement won’t be the end of my work, just a shift in priorities. I will write, teach individual courses, translate, give readings, and more. And before then, I look forward to a full decade of teaching (and projects too).

Upon retirement, I will be eligible for U.S. social security, which I can receive here. In the U.S., the monthly checks would cover only a fraction of my living costs, but here they should be enough to live on. So then I can spend my time on projects, and tutor, if I wish, for extra income. Travel to the U.S. and elsewhere won’t be difficult, assuming normal travel has resumed by then.

Nothing can be known with precision in advance; all sorts of things can come up unexpectedly, situations can mutate, and plans can fall through. But this overall plan appeals to me and makes lots of sense. It’s also fair to everyone involved; I am not taking anything unfairly from either the U.S. or Hungary, but instead reaping earned benefits and continuing to give what I can. I won’t be eligible for a Hungarian pension here, but I won’t need it. My health care, on the other hand, will be covered.

Three years here went by in an instant. Ten years is just three of those instants and a little more. If I were to become a homeroom teacher (osztályfőnök) in a year or two, I would have time to see two cohorts through from ninth grade to graduation. That is a dream of mine, and well within reach. The osztályfőnök not only sees the students all the way through, but participates in all their ceremonies, helps them with difficulties, oversees their grades, holds meetings with the parents at the beginning and end of each year, and more. For the second consecutive year now, I am a “pótosztályfőnök” (“vice homeroom teacher”), which allows me to see how it works. I am almost ready to take something like this on; I just need a bit more familiarity with the procedural language, so that I can communicate all necessary information to parents. So, another year or two, and it will be time, if the opportunity arises.

Three years ago, we had a concert in the Református Templom here in Szolnok; a group of teachers, directed by music teacher Andrea Barnané Bende, sang “Hymne à la nuit“; I was given the solo, which I loved singing, though I had a slight cold. It was a beautiful welcome into the life of the school; little did I know how much more would be coming, and how much after that would still stretch ahead.

A Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and peaceful, healthy winter!

Stores, Coffee, and Socks

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

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

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

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

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

Instead of “Growth Mindset,” Good Tinkering

I have written numerous posts–and a chapter of a book–on problems with the concept of “growth mindset” and the phrase itself.* But I keep tinkering with the idea, because there seems to be something more to say. Until now, my objections have come down to this: Growth mindset proponents either say or imply that everyone should strive for more growth mindset, no matter how much they already have. Yet it is possible, even likely, that people benefit from a mixture of mindsets, from a sense of possibility and limitation. Also, the phrase sounds overly grandiose, like a polka-dotted umbrella stretching over the world; it claims to encompass more than it does.

I still hold to the above. But I realized something else while listening to Bill Hader’s Q&A with students and program host Tova Laiter at the New York Film Academy’s Los Angeles campus. Throughout the discussion, he keeps returning to the point that no matter where you are in your creative life and career, you fail and fail again. You learn to figure out what’s going wrong and how it could be better. That becomes your primary way of thinking: puzzling things out, looking at possibilities, following your instincts but also listening to others and recognizing when something isn’t working. Trying again. Knowing when you have hit upon what you were looking for. There’s no way to simplify this; it’s contradictory and complex, because you have to let yourself be both right and wrong. You have to listen to yourself but not only to yourself. You have to try all sorts of things that don’t work out at all. Failures do not end.

In the entire hour, he did not once say “growth mindset,” nor have I heard him say it in any other interviews. I admire his work, especially on SNL (eight seasons), in the HBO series Barry, and in the film The Skeleton Twins, and I enjoy hearing him speak about it. He answers questions courteously and thoughtfully, in his own words, without catchphrases. I am sure he has heard the phrase “growth mindset,” but from what I have heard so far, he hasn’t used it. Why not? I have no way of knowing, but I think he’s saying something slightly different.

The point is not to have a “growth mindset,” or even to strive for one. The point is to tinker with stuff and to tinker well. For fun and for results. Try this, try that, and listen closely. Be alert to what you are doing; catch whatever seems slightly off. But also catch whatever is good. Develop a better and better ear and eye for this.

No one does this across the board. We have a few things in our lives that we tinker continually with, and other things we leave alone. I mean “tinker” in the best possible sense: to fiddle, experiment, play with something in order to get it right. There’s tinkering that leads nowhere or that is done haphazardly, with no clear intention. But once you have a grasp of what you are doing, you start tinkering better. It doesn’t always have to be productive; sometimes you do it playfully, to see what happens.

I don’t assume that Bill Hader agrees with me here. For all I know, he might be a “growth mindset” fan. But he seems more concerned with the work itself, and the possibilities within it, than with a “mindset” of any kind. Yes, this does require certain attitudes and assumptions. You don’t tinker at all if you expect your work to be perfect as soon as it comes out of you. Tinkering requires that you see imperfections. But after that, what really matters is the practice of it, the daily immersion in the work and the questions it brings up.

In the NYFA discussion, he returns several times to the importance of focus–and how you can create focus yourself, just through the way you look at your work. A couple of students ask him how he manages to wear different hats in Barry and elsewhere–as writer, director, and actor–and he responds that he focuses on the story. That way, all his different roles come together, and the focus isn’t on him and all the different things he has to do.

Someone like Bill Hader must have to turn down hundreds of projects and possibilities, not just within film and television, but outside. Why not take up a musical instrument? Learn how to repair a car? Go on a speaking tour? Accept this or that interview request? Please, please? The phrase “I can’t” permits not only survival, but dedication to the projects at hand. Sure, stretching yourself into new areas could represent “growth,” but if you aren’t beholden to a concept of growth mindset, you get to decide what and what not to take on.

That must be one of the most difficult parts of a career like his. Even I, who am nowhere near famous, get requests that I have to turn down, but he must get them all the time. He has some people to filter them, but of those invitations and proposals that do get through to him, he probably takes on only a small fraction. Why? Because infinite availability will kill you. People will not respect your limits.

And there it is. To work on something serious, you also need limits, things you can’t or won’t do, things you say no to, implicitly or out loud. This becomes your den. There, in the warm light, you get down to work.

*Growth mindset, according to Carol Dweck, consists in the belief that one’s “talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others).” Growth mindset proponents routinely oppose growth mindset (good) to fixed mindset (bad). They acknowledge that people have a mixture of mindsets (in which case, is it even a “mindset?”) but ignore the possibility that such a mixture might be necessary.

The photo at the top is courtesy of HBO via a wonderful article in Vanity Fair (Sonya Saraiya, “Barry Is Still Killer in Season 2,” March 29, 2019).

The Push and Pull of Literary Journals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facebook, the Indifference Factory

Facebook is in mild trouble. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission and more than forty states have accused it of illegally squashing competition; Chris Hughes, one of Facebook’s founders, argues in a scathing opinion piece that it should be broken up. Facebook has been faulted not only for eliminating competition, but for intruding on users’ privacy and spreading fake news, some of which is intended to incite violence. (This should give “growth mindset” cheerleaders at least some pause.)

Above and beyond all of this, Facebook is a factory of indifference. Its newsfeed, likes, and “friends” put pressure on you to read stuff you don’t really care about, “like” things you might actually love or might not care for much at all (the range of emojis doesn’t do much here), and put up with dizzying interruptions, so that you lose track of whatever it was you originally came to read. It socializes and publicizes friendships; even plans for get-togethers end up in comments on posts, for everyone to see. You have some control over privacy, but often it isn’t worth the bother to go through the steps to exert it.

To care about things in life, you need privacy, and you need levels. You don’t share everything with everyone; you don’t share everything right away. Conversations are individual and selective, not for public display except for special cases, such as interviews. You need time to respond to things, without pressure to give an instant reaction. Facebook pushes against all of this. What Orwell says in Nineteen Eighty-Four about the loss of tragedy applies here. There can be no tragedy (or great joy, or anything important) when there is no privacy. I don’t just mean the privacy of data (which is what people usually bring up), but also the privacy of personal life, thoughts, and reactions.

A heart-sinking pettiness takes over; you have to be a little rude to shake it off. I often feel like a spoil-sport. I post photos that I take here in Szolnok and elsewhere, post links to my blog and other things, and forward links from other people. But I rarely get involved in Facebook discussions and games. When invited to “like” pages, I rarely do, unless I really want to see the updates. I get messages from strangers and near-strangers that I leave unanswered, often because they contain attachments that I don’t want to click, or because I just don’t want to chat.

Facebook is all about activity, constant activity. There’s a recurring chain letter that goes, more or less, “I get discouraged by the superficiality that I find here. Most people on Facebook don’t read each other’s posts; they just skim them, like them, and move on. So I am going to conduct an experiment. I want to find out, for my own peace of mind, who actually cares enough to read this post to the end. If you do read it, please leave a one-word comment below, then copy this post and repost it verbatim on your own timeline. The word should have something to do with your relationship with me. Do not leave a comment without reposting, since that would ruin the experiment.” This kind of post tricks people into thinking that they have to prove their sincerity and readership by reposting. In reposting, they are not saying anything of their own; they are just duplicating someone else’s words, without saying so outright. The message comes down to an ultimatum; if you’re genuine, and you really read my posts, you can prove it by following these steps; if you don’t follow these steps, I may deduce that you don’t read them and don’t really care about me.

A subtler version is “Post 10 photos of books that have had an impact on your life, with no explanation” (or something similar with films, songs, etc.) Each time you post one, you are supposed to nominate someone to start a list. Now, granted, sometimes these can be interesting (and fun too), but if I were nominated, I wouldn’t do it–simply because I don’t want to be pressured to list things and to nominate ten more people. Now, some may say that this has nothing to do with Facebook, but rather with users and the various games they come up with. But these games happen to benefit Facebook by escalating activity. I suspect that some of them originated with Facebook staff and that they accompany hundreds of other ways of manipulating people into depending more on the platform.

There’s a flattening of communication–a pressure to treat everyone dimly as your friend, to play games you don’t want to play, and to let go of thoughts and posts within seconds. The worst part of it is that if you really do take something seriously (or humorously), you are reduced to the same gestures you’d give anything else–a “like,” a “love,” maybe a brief comment.

This does not reflect on Facebook users as people. There are people on Facebook whom I truly like and love, whose posts I enjoy (even chain-letter posts), and whose greetings I know are genuine. The pain lies in having to mix all of this up with so much stuff. Advertisements, updates, posts, comments that I didn’t ask for and have to sludge through anyway. Reading a book, reading anything that doesn’t blink and convulse and broadcast its popularity and split into vanishing bits, has become a revelation and relief.

Facebook needs to be broken up–not just because it is a massive, ever-growing monopoly, not just because it exerts undue influence on people’s sense of reality, but because it mass-manufactures indifference, dresses it up in cheery forms, and tricks people into embracing it (a paradoxical metaphor). No one has to speak, feel, or think this way.

I took the photo yesterday. It has nothing to do with the post, but with a bit of a stretch, one could connect it somehow.

The Teachers’ Room and Its Assumptions

Yesterday I stopped by school to take care of a few things and was able to take a nice picture of the teachers’ room. This is about one-quarter or one-fifth of it; it adjoins a coffee room, where people take breaks or eat lunch, and a computer room with six stations. For the most part, teachers do not have rooms like this in the U.S.; instead, they have teachers’ lounges. I propose that they consider having a teachers’ room instead, especially in high schools.

From what I have read (here’s an interesting article on the subject), the “teachers’ lounge” is intended as a “restorative space” where teachers can rest, eat, chat, and possibly meet or work. Teachers do not have any personal desks or other space within it; the room is shared. Many union contracts require a lounge in every school. Where, then, are they supposed to do most of their work? In the classroom. In elementary schools, teachers often (though not always) have their own classroom where they stay all or most of the day. The students come to them (and spend most of the day in the same room). In high schools, teachers often move around, but they may have a desk in one of the classrooms. Many classrooms have two desks, one at the front and one at the back. While one teacher is giving a lesson, another may be in the back, preparing.

That sounds nuts. Why would anyone want to prepare a lesson in a room where another lesson is going on? The rationale is that this saves space and fosters “collaboration”–but in reality it leads to a lot of waste. I have often enjoyed seeing my colleagues’ lessons, but my real preparation would have to wait until the evening hours.

In addition, teachers in the U.S. are lucky if they have a “prep” period in the first place. Suppose there are eight periods in a day. Typically five of these go toward lessons (twenty-five lessons per week), another goes to a non-classroom duty (such as monitoring the cafeteria or hallway), and the one remaining period goes to “prep” or a team meeting. There is a widespread belief that lesson planning should be collaborative–that teachers don’t need any quiet time, in other words. Under those circumstances, the “lounge” comes as a welcome respite from all the hecticness–except that it brings hecticness of its own: gossip, complaining, badmouthing (not at all schools, but at some).

So the type of room available to teachers reflects the very assumptions about what teaching is.

Suppose, now, that instead of a lounge, you have a teachers’ room, where every full-time teacher has a desk, and part-time teachers may share a desk. You may keep your things there, do your work there, eat there, use computers there. You go into the classrooms just to teach your lessons; while you are teaching, there is no other teacher in the room, unless someone is visiting your lesson.

And suppose there are eight periods in a day, and you teach, say, twenty-two lessons per week. In your free periods, you may decide what to do: prepare your lessons, meet with other teachers, or take a break. The teachers’ room, with its adjoining room, allows for all of these things.

It is clear that I prefer the teachers’ room to the lounge–not just the room, but the principles and assumptions underlying it: the assumption that teachers need time to prepare their lessons, that preparation is both solitary and collaborative, that not every moment of the day should be filled with required activity, even if in practice the teachers are working from start to finish.

Sometimes the teachers’ room gets noisy, especially in the breaks between lessons. But it also has long stretches of quiet. And you have everything you need. It is still impossible to get everything done during school hours; especially when I assign writing, I have a lot of reading and grading to do in the evening. But the day itself is more productive and not exhausting.

What about teachers’ availability to meet with students or answer their questions? Students are free to knock on the door of the teachers’ room; in addition, many teachers, myself included, schedule individual or small-group conferences with students.

What about space? Take that extra teacher’s desk out of each classroom, make the classrooms a little smaller, and you have more than enough room for a spacious teachers’ room. It’s just a question of how you apportion the space.

What about cafeteria and hallway duty? Those should not be a teacher’s job. In the U.S., duties have been added to teachers’ schedules, over time, partly as “givebacks” for higher salaries. But this means that teachers are running from one thing to the next (often with five-minute breaks, at most, between lessons). The hecticness affects everyone. Calm things down a little, and people calm down in response.

The teachers’ room also presumes that while the faculty will have plenary meetings now and then (in a different room), teachers do not have to meet with each other all the time. We meet informally when we need to; we can be trusted to figure this out. Sometimes meetings take only a few minutes. But because the teachers’ room exists, it’s easy for us to find each other.

One day, Hungary might start imitating the U.S. (by raising salaries, adding official duties to teachers’ schedules, and maybe even eliminating the teacher’s room). Higher salaries are long overdue; many teachers make the equivalant of $10,000 per year–which goes a lot farther here than it would in the U.S., but is still low. Yet teachers and administrators would do well to beware of “givebacks” that outweigh the raises; once the calm of the day is taken away, it cannot be restored easily. By “calm” I don’t mean inactivity. I mean the kind of quiet that allows the mind to work. As I mentioned before, the teachers’ room can become lively too–not only at certain times of day, but on special occasions, such as when the eleventh-graders enter the teachers’ room to treat us to caroling.

The first teachers’ room I saw was in Istanbul, at the Lycéé Sainte-Pulchérie, which as a guest teacher for two weeks in May 2017. I was amazed by it. I thought it was a feature of a private school. But the one here at Varga, a Hungarian public school, reminds me a lot of the one in Istanbul. Why shouldn’t U.S. schools, especially high schools, have them too?

Inside and Outside

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took these photos on two different walks last week.

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

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

“It is not easy to become a person”

This isn’t a book about the wind; it’s wind about the book, whirling around the words, through the the spaces. It’s a book that brings you into the wind, the wind that messes up your plans and allows you to relate to others through “deep politeness.” It is The Wind: An Unruly Living by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer. When reading it, I had the sense of coming upon a secret treasure, a wisdom quietly waiting but also singing, speaking, bellowing. Taking different forms, circumventing.

I knew the author long ago, when I was a graduate student at Yale and he was an undergraduate. Some of our conversations have stayed with me over the years; one in particular had such an effect on my thinking and understanding that I have returned to it in my mind many times. But I have not seen or spoken with him for over twenty-five years.

The book is not a philosophical tract, though it draws on the Stoics and other philosophers, but an exploration in intertwining forms, like wind itself–ruminating exposition and questioning, journal, poetry, contrapuntal texts, tilted text, etymologies, a passage that you have to turn upside down to read. It is not a self-help book; it offers no steps to follow, no pat answers. It does not sell anything, and in that way it stands out. That is at its heart; the book tears up our notions of self-possession and throws them into the wind. Why do we insist that we possess ourselves? What damage does this insistence do?

But it moves in a direction, even with its twists and loops; by the end I understand something I had not understood before. Something comes together that I had been puzzling over for years. At the risk of a slight spoiler, I will say a little about it right now. The book explains that it is not only possible, but essential to be practical in a true relation with another. We often think of practicality as self-serving, as a way of getting what we want. But to be considerate of another (and the author points out the Latin root of “considerate,” sidus, sideris, which means “star, heavenly body”), one must be practical as a human being: one must have the practices of listening, speaking, circumventing; treating people as people, not as problems or obstacles.

The book is more optimistic than I am about community. Community often makes me wary, so often have been the times that I have felt stifled in it. The best communities, in my experience, are those that do something together, but where the others also let each other be. A community must have respect for solitude, and not many do.

So I do not “agree” with everything in the book, and on the one hand, that isn’t the point; it isn’t a position paper. On the other hand, the disagreement is exactly the point; and at the risk of another little spoiler, I will say that toward the end, the book talks about how disagreement is essential to relation. It gives the two people something to consider together, something to work through. This does not mean that they will come to an agreement; who knows? But at the very least, they will come to understand each other better.

I used to have trouble stating my disagreement with people. I would just stay quiet or nod, since the disagreement felt so disruptive. Over time, I have become more outspoken, but I still have trouble sometimes, in the moment, saying “I don’t see things that way.” I might just let the matter go, which also means, to a degree, letting the relationship go. Two people cannot know each other if they do not let themselves disagree.

And so, as the book reminds us, “it is not easy to become a person.” Things like disagreement can take a lifetime.

Having read The Wind once, I like to pick it up and open it anywhere and read. It is that kind of book; once you know it, you can play with the sequence. The writing is so clear and bold that something will rise up from any passage, something that didn’t before.

I will write to Jeremy one of these days, probably soon. But what a great conversation, right here, with and within this book.