Friendship and Place

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The past few days have reminded me how friendship and place go together. I associate friends with certain places; when we meet in those places, old memories get layered with the new; when we meet in a new place, it can bring something out of the friendship. I will not talk here about the conversations I had with various friends; that is not for reporting on the blog. There must be something that a person can keep offline. But I will say a little about the places, in reverse chronological order.

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in Dallas, and that evening I went with my dear colleagues and friends to Gloria’s, the Salvadoran, Tex-Mex, and Mexican restaurant that we have visited so many times. I did not take pictures, but the conversation and meal are fresh in my mind.

On Tuesday evening, a friend and I met at the New Leaf restaurant in Fort Tryon Park (in the Washington Heights neighborhood of NYC). Both of us had been there before, but not together. She lives right by the park; so did I, in the two years before I moved to Hungary. The photo at the top is of the park as I walked through it after dinner.

On my way to dinner, I walked through the long subway tunnel at 190th Street.

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Earlier in the day, I went with another friend to the New York Public Library. (Both he and the friend I first mentioned were also my colleagues at Columbia Secondary School.) We had gotten together there before, but this occasion was different; his wife, who works at the library, arranged for us to see the Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens special collections; this included the copy of Alice in Wonderland that Carroll dedicated and presented to Alice Liddell, as well as the copy of A Christmas Carol, replete with handwritten cuts and edits, that Dickens used for his public readings. After that, we got to see the very first handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence, in the hand of Thomas Jefferson. It was difficult to take a good picture of it; here is one of my attempts.

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Before and after the Declaration of Independence, we went to the children’s reading room, where his two children were playing, and saw the original Winnie the Pooh toys.

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That morning I met with a friend in Edgar’s Café, which has become our traditional meeting place. It is named after Edgar Allan Poe; its original location was on Edgar Allan Poe Street between West End Avenue and Broadway. It was there, right on or near that street, that Poe lived from March 1844 to August 1845; it was supposedly there that he wrote “The Raven.” I didn’t take any pictures, but here’s one I took in February, when I came to NYC for two days to give a book reading and had breakfast with the same friend. (Neither of us appears in the photo.)

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The previous evening, I met with a friend in a gorgeous apartment on Washington Square Park (it belongs to one of her family members, who was away). We had never met there before; it ended up hosting a good, long conversation. I took no pictures indoors, but here’s one of a street corner nearby. The arched windows of the tall building across the street were glittering in the sun, but the picture doesn’t catch that.

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On the way there, I passed by the Stonewall National Monument. It was the day after the Pride Parade, so it was quiet (but still full of visitors). I missed the parade on Sunday–well, I could have caught the end of it, probably, but was too tired and jet-lagged to realize this. The quiet walk was good, in any case.

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Each of these places was beautiful, and just right for each of the meetings with friends–but I think it’s partly because I was alert to them. Living in Szolnok has made me more aware of places and their relation to people. I think of the rivers, the school, the library, the places where the banketts were held, the Tiszavirág Fesztivál grounds, the Tiszavirág bridge, the café where I met weekly this year with Böbi and Tündi, the many streets I got to know by bike, the buildings whose history I am slowly beginning to learn. A person not only becomes part of a place, but gives something through it, so that the place becomes a messenger, but the opposite of Hermes and Iris, since it needs no wings but rather does its work by standing still.

Yearning and Return in Education

It’s already an old joke that the good old days of nostalgia are long gone: that once upon a time it was honorable to look back longingly at the past, but no longer. There’s truth in it; in education discussion I often hear people fault others for harking back to a golden age that never was. Bad, bad, they say; we must stay grounded in facts. Mr. Gradgrind (from Dickens’ Hard Times) works his way into many an argument.

It is dangerous, of course, to paint the past as golden, but there are reasons why we yearn for the past sometimes. We shouldn’t be so quick to push such yearning away. For me, the fall is usually a time of yearning. I find room and urge to take walks, watch the leaves leap and sweep over the sidewalk, and assemble past autumns in my mind. Details work their way in as well: a ribbon on the ground, a cat surveying the neighborhood, or the color of a coat.

As a teacher, I return to the classroom and see the students a little older and taller, excited to tackle books that I first read in high school, and I remember my own teachers and the way they spoke. The beginning of the school year comes with reminiscence. There’s a ceremonial feeling to it, even amidst the confusion of rooms and schedules; when you address each class for the first time, you remember layers of first days.

I remember a high school assembly at the start of my ninth-grade year. The teachers were seated on the stage. One of them, I knew, had gone through a divorce; I wrote in my diary (which I no longer have) that I saw a look of pathos on her face. In retrospect, I doubt it was pathos (I discovered later that she had irrepressible wit), but the word “pathos” was part of that day for me.

Part of the point of education is to learn to select what is good, to bring it into one’s life, and to pass it on; this requires knowledge, discernment, and feeling. Memory helps us make such selections. Those works that come back to us many times over the years, or that suddenly open up on the second or third reading, have a little more to them, in our minds, than the ones we read and forget. With the memory comes a bit of longing. I think back on the Southern Literature course I took in high school, and the advanced verse writing seminar in college; I have often wished to return to those rooms, and have carried a hint of them into my teaching.

By this I don’t mean that people should rely on their memories for guidance. What I hold dear from my high school years may not have been quite as I remember it, nor is it necessarily good for every student. Still, I carry something of the spirit of it, and must do so; it is precisely through holding my past that I can play with it in the present, even transform it.

Andrew Delbanco understands this well. His extraordinarily thoughtful book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012) looks back to earlier eras not to portray them as perfect, but to capture their meaning and wisdom. His book resists alarmism and paeans to good old days, but still looks back with nostalgia—wise, temperate nostalgia. I wouldn’t do his book justice with a short quotation here; I hope to write more about it another time.

The literary works that make their way into our memory, the ones that follow us around, contain this treasuring and pondering of the past. What would Job’s lamentations be without this treasuring and pondering? What would Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” be without it? How can a student or a teacher approach this literature without understanding what it means to think back, sometimes with sadness or rage, sometimes with wistfulness or wit?  Why the cultural pressure to regard the past with a cold eye and move on?

Many young people understand the importance of looking back and yearning. They need adults who understand it too and who can help them make sense of the past. They need to find that promising terrain between sentimentality and dismissiveness. Through literature, they learn to store language in memory; through history, they learn to guard against memory’s distortions.

The point is not to live in the past, but rather to hold it, turn it, contemplate it, change one’s mind about it, reconsider it again, forgive it, and sometimes, when necessary, leave it behind.

  • “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

  • TEDx Talk

    Delivered at TEDx Upper West Side, April 26, 2016.

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    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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