“Hold on there, Evangeline”

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This photo I took yesterday of tracks in the Szolnok snow (on the Zagyva promenade) reminded me of Mark Twain’s Whittier Birthday Dinner Speech, delivered on John Greenleaf Whittier’s seventieth birthday, at the Hotel Brunswick, Boston, on December 17, 1877—that is, 140 years and a week ago. I hadn’t read it since high school, but I remembered how Twain mocked Longfellow. The speech is a story within a story. It begins with Twain tramping through the southern mines of California and then resolving “to try the virtues” of his “nom de guerre,” that is, his pen name. He knocks on the door of a miner, who, after letting him in and feeding him, reports dejectedly that he is “the fourth”—that he just hosted three “littery men” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) the previous evening. The miner proceeds to tell Twain what a difficult lot they were; toward the end of his deluge, he comes to this:

“They were pretty how-come-you-so by now, and they begun to blow. Emerson says, ‘The nobbiest thing I ever wrote was ” Barbara Frietchie.”‘ Says Longfellow, ‘It don’t begin with my “Biglow Papers.”‘ Says Holmes, ‘My “Thanatopsis” lays over ’em both.’ They mighty near ended in a fight. Then they wished they had some more company — and Mr. Emerson pointed to me and says:

“‘Is yonder squalid peasant all
That this proud nursery could breed?’

He was a-whetting his bowie on his boot — so I let it pass. Well, sir, next they took it into their heads that they would like some music; so they made me stand up and sing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” till I dropped — at thirteen minutes past four this morning. That’s what I’ve been through, my friend. When I woke at seven, they were leaving, thank goodness, and Mr. Longfellow had my only boots on, and his’n under his arm. Says I, ‘Hold on, there, Evangeline, what are you going to do with them?’ He says, ‘Going to make tracks with ’em; because:

“‘Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime;
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.’

As I said, Mr. Twain, you are the fourth in twenty-four hours — and I’m going to move; I ain’t suited to a littery atmosphere.”

The whole speech is pugnacious and funny, but the newspapers reported it as an “attack.” Longfellow then replied in Twain’s defense, stating that everyone present understood the speech as humorous and that the newspapers themselves had caused the “mischief.” That’s sublime, in my view: to take such mockery in good spirit and even speak up for the lampooner.

I think about that kind of goodwill and how it can’t be taken for granted. It comes not  only from individuals but from ways of thinking and living.

At school, the calendar year of 2017 ended with an abundance of goodwill. Friday was filled with treats and caroling. Here are the videos of the eleventh-graders’ first caroling visit of the day. (They went from classroom to classroom all day long and performed for the teachers as well.)

I end with three photos from Thursday and Friday: one of a funny student skit (the scene took place in a restaurant and involved the flashing of credit cards), one of the students rehearsing the carols, one of me in the classroom, and one of the eleventh-graders in the hallway before their first caroling visit. Reverence and irreverence combined to make this a day that will leave tracks in the snows and staves of time. Boldog Karácsonyt, Kellemes Új Évet, és Kellemes téli szünetet!

A Place for a Hanukkiah

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Yesterday evening I thought about where to put the hanukkiah. There is no place near the doorway for it, and the window is more than thirty feet above ground, so I had to look beyond the traditional options. I put on the windowsill after all, because it is lovely there. I had it face toward the inside, since only from indoors can anyone see it in full. No one in the alley below can see it–the balcony blocks the view–but someone walking along the Zagyva might spot the tips of the flames.

I thought about the resilience of the Hanukkah story–the rededication of the Temple, the lasting of the lights–and the resilience that I have found here. People sometimes think of resilience as difficult, exhausting, admirable, even pitiable, but that’s an outside view. From the inside, resilience isn’t always joyous, but when it is, it girds itself with light. It has less to do with toughness or bravery than with locating something that endures. Even that endurance might not be obvious. I find it, for instance, in May Swenson’s poem “Water Picture,” which seems (but only seems) to collapse into itself at the end.

And at school we have a tradition of caroling–so I have been singing Christmas songs too. Here in Szolnok, the festivities revolve around Christmas; Budapest has a Hanukkah celebration on the ice rink, but in Szolnok I have yet to see the word Hanukkah at all. I imagine, though, that somewhere in Szolnok someone else is lighting a hanukkiah. It isn’t too hard, in any case, to bring the holiday into the air. I taught one of my classes “Sevivon sov sov sov” yesterday, along with some Christmas songs, and told  them a little about it. None had heard it before, and they seemed to enjoy it.

Hanukkah is traditionally a minor holiday; it has become popular over time mainly because of its proximity to Christmas (it takes place in November or December, depending on the Jewish calendar). Moreover, the earliest written source of the Hanukkah story–Maccabees 1 and 2–is part of the Catholic Old Testament but not the Jewish Bible, and it tells only part of the story that we know today. It is the Talmud that first recounts the miracle of the oil.

Still, minor or not, the holiday has resilient meaning (despite John Oliver’s quip about it essentially “celebrating fuel savings“), not only in the lights’ symbolism but in their reality and our accompanying imagination. When I lit the first candle last night, I thought of people who would be lighting theirs in six hours or so. I thought, also, of the shamash, the lovely “servant” candle that lights the others, and its importance to the entire ritual. On my hanukkiah, which I purchased in Budapest, the shamash stands above the others, which was one reason I chose it (the lions were another). I sensed that this hanukkiah had been used and loved for many years. The storekeeper believes it is over a century old (except for the shamash holder); he doesn’t know where it comes from, but whatever its origins, it has held light and time.

Hag Urim Sameah, Merry Christmas, and Happy Almost-Wintertime to all!

P.S. On another subject: My essay “This Is a Resolution? A Letter on Bellow’s Seize the Day” is now published in Literary Imagination, Volume 19, Issue 3. To read it, please find the link on the News page of my website or, better yet, subscribe to the journal.