On Staying Intact

transfer bridge

I was partly kidding when I suggested that if we all pitched in now and then with gardening and philosophizing, we would get things done, it wouldn’t be so terrible, and no one would have to be roped in for the long haul. But a more serious question has been on my mind: Is it possible to do something one doesn’t normally do and doesn’t like to do, or something about which one has mixed thoughts and emotions, and still stay intact? I realize that “yes and no” is too simple an answer, but if explained properly, it seems correct.

What does it mean to stay intact? It means that you retain roughly the same thoughts and preferences as before, as well as the strength to honor them. If I generally don’t like commercial action thrillers but go with a friend to see War for the Planet of the Apes (which I have no plans to see), find myself enjoying it a little, but still know that I would not choose it on my own, I have stayed intact. I have neither betrayed myself nor become a different person; I just tried something out of the usual for me.

Or take a trickier example: Let’s say I have a friend who does not like some of my other friends. I can spend time with this person, in private or public, without fearing that I have betrayed others. Sometimes this can be challenging, but it’s possible.

Or suppose I attend a religious service of a faith other than my own. Up to a point, I can participate without worrying that I have gone against who I am. There is a breaking point, though, generally understood by all. For instance, if you are not Catholic, you can sing the hymns and join in the responses (according to your comfort) but should not take communion. In holding back here, you show respect for yourself and others.

Another tricky example: Suppose I attend a demonstration that generally reflects my views but differs in some particulars. If I participate without assuming (or letting others assume) that I have given up my differences, then I have stayed intact. (In this case, the demonstration becomes a statement in itself, so a participant may have difficulty differentiating himself from it.)

Why does it matter to stay intact? It affects your participation in the world. If you believe that an experience will turn you into that thing, whatever it may be, then you might avoid it, for fear of becoming someone you don’t want to be. If you believe that you will stay intact, you can walk confidently through the world and try all kinds of interesting things.

So, now for the “yes” and “no” of the matter. It is possible to do something without becoming it, yet each of our experiences and actions influences us and our directions. Moreover, some experiences affect us profoundly and surprisingly. We can’t always control what comes of them. Also, some distinctions and markers of identity lose importance over time, while others gain importance. Someone who formerly took pride in not being a “poetry person” may come to question whether such a type exists. But a poet who initially admired both Yeats and Auden might come to favor one over the other.

It’s possible to stay intact, but not completely.  We’re continually reshaping around the edges. Sometimes the center undergoes a whirl. Still, even with that, it’s possible not to cave in to each suggestion or sensation. The wisdom of when and when not to resist, how far to venture outward, and when and how to go home can be found in books, but only partly. Each judgment is lonely.  But there’s something grounding in seeing it as judgment, and not just as fate or folly. In many senses of the phrase, we get to make up our minds.


I took this photo of the 69th Street Transfer Bridge while biking along the Hudson last Friday. See Nick Carr’s photos as well.

As usual, I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

The Movement Around the Edges

eurovelo 11 photo 2Was it a great experience, this week in Hungary and Slovakia after the rich two weeks in Istanbul? Of course, but it was more than experience. Experiences can get in the way. Martin Buber places experience in the I-It realm; to experience, in his view, is to extract knowledge and impressions, and thus to possess and degrade. Even “inner” and “secret” experiences belong to this domain:*

I experience something. If we add “inner” to “outer” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. We are merely following the uneternal division that springs from the lust of the human race to whittle away the secret of death. Inner things or outer things, what are they but things and things!

I experience something. If we add “secret” to “open” experiences, nothing in the situation is changed. How self-confident is that wisdom which perceives a closed compartment in things, reserved for the initiate and manipulated only with the key. O, secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information! It, always It!

sunsetHow, then, do you go beyond “experience” into an actual encounter with a place? I thought of putting away the camera (phone) but knew I would regret coming back without pictures. So I tried to stay aware of the movement around the edges, the impossibility of capturing a place or saying anything definitive about it.

durkovIn Budapest I attended two chamber concerts, a jazz concert (by the band Nigun), and an opera (The Tenor by Ernő Dohnányi); visited the Dohány Street Synagogue; and walked all over the place, In Slovakia I went on a private walking tour in Košice and took a bus on my own to Ďurkov (where my great-grandfather Max Fischer lived before coming to the U.S. with his parents and seven siblings). The picture to the right is of Ďurkov, with a stork presiding over it all. In addition, I spent two days biking in northern Hungary. All this in one week; the days spill out of the frame.

Language (or rather, the language barrier) kept me firmly lodged in the ineffable, because I couldn’t say much in Hungarian. One day I was walking through a playground in Budapest. Two little girls (around age six or seven) ran up to me and asked me for something in Hungarian. I had no idea what they wanted and replied that I spoke English. Their eyes lit up. “Yes?” one of them said. They repeated their words more slowly, and one girl touched her knee. I asked (in English) whether they needed a band-aid. “Yes,” the girl replied. I said I didn’t have any. “No,” the other girl said. They started alternating–randomly, it seemed–between “Yes” and “No.” Then they ran away giggling; one of them called out “Have a nice day!”

Nigun bandThere was also the language of hands. In Budapest, I noticed that audiences were much less exuberant with their applause than in the U.S. They clapped but did not cheer. But this initial reserve, I soon realized, allowed for a crescendo. Audiences would clap quietly at first, then build into a rhythm (a sign of enthusiasm), then possibly erupt into a cheer or two. If the audience kept clapping (as it did at the Nigun concert, pictured here), then an encore was in order. In any case, you could sense the gradations of excitement. Yet applause is just one expression of enthusiasm or appreciation; attention is another. The audiences seemed extraordinarily attentive, but how do I know that, really? What do I know about another person’s mind?

swingsetNot only the outside world, but a traveler’s thoughts and moods can become an “experience” (or not). If I think, “I felt melancholy when looking at the swing set,” I deceive myself, because the melancholy, like the swing set, came with so much more. I thought about the engineering; whether the asymmetry was intentional here, because there is only one swing. I thought about what it would be like to swing in this swing; I remembered swings of childhood, the Robert Louis Stevenson poem, and the rope swing in Charlotte’s Web. I imagined the rhythmic creaking sound and the push of feet against grass.

liberty bridgeIn the contrasts between city and country, I sensed all kinds of things below and beyond the appearances. Budapest seemed dormant at first, after the throbbing bustle of Istanbul, but by the end I was walking in liveliness. The towns seemed enclosed, as towns anywhere can be, but everywhere there were histories and stories. With more time and language, I could have learned some of them.

But with all its limitations, the traveling opened up something extraordinary. Before my trip, many people worried that I was putting myself in danger. Yet while I took precautions and stayed alert, I felt distinctly safe. Even traveling alone, a woman, in countries where I did not speak the language (or, except in Slovakia, any language in the same family), I could move confidently on foot, on bike, or by train.

Except for two walking tours, I traveled independently; as I went along, I saw more and more to see. By the end, my toes had barely inched into new and ancient places, but that in itself was something: to see the inches (or centimeters) and the dim shapes beyond.

haftarah scroll from prossnitz

*Quote from Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Scribner, 1986), 21.

The last photo here, taken at the Jewish Museum in Budapest, is of a 1732 Haftarah scroll from Prossnitz, Moravia (now Prostějov, Czech Republic). It is opened to the Haftarah reading for Shabbat Hazon (Isaiah 1:1-27), which we studied in cantillation class this spring for its alternation between Haftarah and Eicha trope. In the left column, seventeen lines down, you can see the great words “Limdu heiteiv” (roughly “learn to do good”).

I made a few revisions and one correction to this piece after posting it.