The Spoken and Unspoken

I have been thinking about what goes on this blog and what doesn’t, and how this changes or rotates over time, and, more generally, the relation between the spoken and unspoken in our lives. There are some who say that the deepest feelings are those we don’t put into words. This is only sometimes true, especially for those who work with words and search for words. Sometimes the things said in words, and published, are the essence of it all. But sometimes not. It’s important to rotate between words and silence.

I have been writing a lot about music (mainly songs, albums, favorite musicians, and shows), but there will probably come a time when I want to be quieter about this and when another topic becomes my outward focus. At various times, the blog has focused on education, literature, general reflections, thoughts on life in Hungary, thoughts on Hebrew texts and Judaism, and more. I like that flexibility and also like being able to take these topics both outward and inward.

And what is the difference, besides the obvious? When you hold your thoughts inside, you not only don’t have to find words for them (though you probably find something, just to be able to think), but you have room in your privacy. The thoughts can stretch to their true size. You can discover new things about the topic and yourself. There’s also a great security to this: you don’t need others’ responses at all; it’s enough to be thinking, feeling, and receiving.

But when you put your thoughts down, there’s the challenge and pursuit: you want to find the right words, and in looking for them, you also go inward and discover new things. Also, when the words reach someone, that’s exciting: such a connection isn’t shallow at all. There’s also a great openness to it: you are sharing what you think, observe, and feel, and that in itself is good, if you aren’t precious or bombastic about it.

As prosaic as this blog may be, I often go back to old posts and touch them up, changing a word for a clearer one, or fixing little errors, or making a sentence flow better. Probably not many people notice, but I am continually trying to get it right.

So neither wordlessness nor wordmaking is inherently superior to the other. Both depend on each other, and both have their rhythms and seasons.

I have been thinking a lot about Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar that has just begun and that leads into the High Holidays. Traditionally this is a month of reflection and introspection: we are supposed to look at what we have done well and poorly, begin to make amends for our wrongs, and enter the High Holidays with the intent of atonement and renewal, of making a new start.

But my wrongs are on the subtle side. Have I raised my voice in the past year? No. Have I spoken badly of anyone (beyond frank criticism, which is not wrong)? No. Have I failed to keep a commitment? No. Have I lied? Not in any big way; I have told a partial story once in a while. There are times, actually, when it might have been good to get a little angrier, to stand up for myself and others a bit more. Anger is not in itself a terrible thing; only when it’s taken too far, past the point of justice, can it be considered wrong.

Although looking at your wrongs is important (and my own catalogue goes farther than this), it isn’t the only point of Elul. We also look at collective wrongs, and there’s something more, too: a search for the true liveliness of things, a fullness of spirit. One of my favorite verses in all of Torah, which was part of last week’s parsha, “Re’eh” (“See”), is Deuteronomy 12:5: “But unto the place which the LORD your God shall choose out of all your tribes to put His name there, even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither thou shalt come.” That last part, “even unto His habitation shall ye seek, and thither shalt thou come,” consists of four words in Hebrew: “l’shichno tidr’shu, uvata shama.” The first two of these are particularly rich in association: “l’shichno” (“to his habitation”) has the same root as “shechina,” a word for God’s manifestation in the things around us, while “tidr’shu” (“seek”) has the same root as “drash,” a word that can mean close interpretation of Biblical texts. So to me these words suggest reading closely into the liveliness.

And that, in itself, is a meaning of Elul: taking time with the texts, taking time with the world around us, reading it closely, listening to it closely, finding its life, and living more fully.

“You live quite fully already,” some might say. “I don’t think you need much help in that regard.”

True, for the most part. But everything, even full living, requires practice, and Elul is also a time of practice. Also, it’s a time for rebalancing and tempering. There’s a lot to it, and infinite angles on it, and just as with this blog, the emphases will change for a person over time. It’s a month of return, “teshuva,” but it’s also a return to the return itself, with a new understanding of what that is.

What do we return to, when we return? There’s always a part that returns and a part that does not, whether in life, religious practice, a song, a friendship. This mixture of coming back and moving on means that each combination, each encounter, will be completely new. That comes back to the spoken and unspoken: some of this will want its way into words, and some of it will not, but the parts and the proportions will also change, and both language and silence will rear up into life.

Knowing and Not Knowing a Country


Some people have suggested that my next book will be about my time in Hungary. I think that’s likely, but if so, it will differ from books that claim to reveal a country from the inside. Instead, it will explore the very difficulty of getting to know a country, even when you live and teach there, even when you undertake to learn the language, even (I believe) after you have been there a few years. The difficulty is the great part of it; if I could learn all about a country in a few months, I probably wouldn’t bother; I’d look for something more challenging to do.

When I try to speak more Hungarian, people tend to react in one of two ways. Some express amazement when I so much as put a sentence together. Other people ask, “Why do you even bother? Hungarian is difficult, and surely you can find enough people who speak English.” Yes, it’s a difficult language, but I insist on meeting the difficulty. I seek out situations where I am surrounded by Hungarian (for long stretches, without translation). Then I can focus on listening and figuring out as much as possible. The brain does lots of work in the background, too; when I surround myself with the language, I start recognizing patterns and words.

The difficulty of learning a language, of getting to know a country, is all the more reason for doing it. It’s difficult because it shows the limitations of your own knowledge and speech. For a long time you simply feel clumsy, unable to say what you want to say, unable to understand what others are saying. Then, over time, the big clumsiness melts away and an awkward semi-fluency sets in. Then slowly the fluency grows and the awkwardness diminishes; and now you start to appreciate the things that one language can express and the other cannot. You read literature in the new language, without much use of a dictionary. You try making jokes. Even this has a tentative quality–but the tentativeness also sharpens the ear. Something similar can be said for getting to know a country; as you learn more, you keep your conclusions more and more in check and become more alert to your surroundings. (I say “you,” but the truth of this may vary from person to person, place to place, and time to time.)

In that spirit, here’s a recording of a bird I heard the other night. At first I thought it was a mockingbird, but I don’t think there are mockingbirds here. It might have been a starling or Eurasian jay. And here, below, is a video of an unknown bird I saw take flight. I thought it was a stork, but since it was completely white, it may have been an egret instead.

As for the photo at the top, I took it in Békés on June 5. The river is the Körös.


(Photograph by Endre Szabó.)

This morning, before five, I heard a bird song I had never heard before, or at least never noticed. I opened up the balcony door to hear more; the cats stepped outside and looked intently through the opening. The melody was slightly arpeggio-like; the sequence almost always ended in a high-pitched whistle, but no two phrases were identical. I recorded about thirty seconds of it (unfortunately there’s a machine noise too). When I played it back, I could hear the recording against the actual singing, which went on and on. For a long time I still heard it, until other sounds drowned it out.

I didn’t recognize the song, so I listened to various recordings. I believe that it may have come from a feketerigó (sometimes spelled as two words)–that is, a “black thrush,” known in English as a “common blackbird” or “Eurasian blackbird,” a species of true thrush. If so, then I might not have heard it before.

I thought about what it meant to hear this bird for the first time. Now there’s another reason to open the balcony door early in the morning.

I also thought back on an opinion piece I wrote eight years ago about teaching Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush.” I objected (and still object) to the overemphasis on objectives and strategies in schools. I argued for going right into the poem, posing questions along the way. I hold to almost all of this; I would adjust the questions and observations but would teach the poem more or less the way I described. I revise one thing I said, though. At the time, I believed that students did not need to see any pictures or hear any sounds before reading the poem;  the poem would speak for itself. Now I think differently.

There is a difference between knowing the sound of a thrush and not knowing it. It isn’t just any bird song. It stops you in your tracks. If you know the sound, or one of the sounds, then the word “thrush” will bring those sounds to mind. If you don’t, then it won’t. Hardy knew the sound and expected his readers to know it too. Today I would play not just one, but several recordings of thrushes; I would encourage students to listen for them, if they lived near any.

How much a word can hold. Thrush, blackbird, feketerigó–these are just words for birds, until they become words for sounds, and beyond that, for the the encounter with the sounds, since any word, heard in its fullness, holds an encounter, except for those words that dismiss and disparage encounter, that reduce language itself. I have thought recently about how we live in a war of words–but it’s not just a battle of simplistic language against subtle language, or of crass words against noble ones. Anyone, no matter how rich in vocabulary, must stay alert to language in order to use it well. The “war” is against the forces, internal and external, that dull the alertness, that make language rushed or sluggish; imitative or solipsistic; crammed or empty; abusive or noncommittal. To use language well, you must seek not just words, but their histories, structures, and rhythms; both within and without you must seek them.

There is something to be learned from a bird. I mean this not in a naive or silly way. I don’t mean that we should go around imitating them, or that they hold any life solutions. I mean only that a birdsong can change a life slightly; you hear it, and from then on you listen for it (and reject those things that would not have let you listen before). Through the casting off, waiting, searching, and listening, you find your way into form.

The photograph of the blackbird looking in the mirror is by Endre Szabó. The video is by Liza Bakos.

A Cry for Coherence

bikerideTwo Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. have been vandalized over the past week: one in University City, Missouri (just west of St. Louis), and one in Philadelphia. Donations for repairs have been pouring in; much more needs to be done.

I don’t need to explain why people across cultures bury, honor, and remember the dead–and what this means in Jewish history and faith. I imagine that the criminals know some of this already; that may be why they toppled the headstones. They may have thought that they could hurt the dignity of the living and the dead at once.

If so, they are wrong. They caused damage and anguish, but the dignity they hurt was their own.

Yet I doubt that they fully understand what they did. They may not have considered the grief they were causing, and the depth of that grief–how many families of the deceased have relatives who died in mass graves or were burned alive. They may not have known what it means to have a burial and a stone with a name–a sacred place–and what this has meant over the centuries. If they did know, then they must have broken with those they were hurting; they may have thought, “This has nothing to do with me” or “These people deserve no better.” They probably did not know that when you break a grave, you break yourself, not only the self of the moment, with its immediate wants and needs, but the self that goes back in time, that is not only self but also ancestors, neighbors, strangers met in passing.

That doesn’t make the situation better or more comprehensible. The hate crimes over the past few months–against people of a range of backgrounds–have been far-flung and confusing. Some of these acts seem to be provoked and incited by Trump; some may have been long in the planning. Some may come from individuals, some from organizations. Some may have sources and motives that we don’t yet know. The responses, too, have been scattered–many responses have come over Twitter and have consisted of broken expressions.

Coherent speech resists the fragmentation. Sometimes the words don’t come; sometimes they come slowly or don’t come out quite right. (I started this post last night but had trouble putting words together, so I waited until morning.)  Sometimes words are not even needed or appropriate. But a full sentence is not to be taken for granted; it can be built up and broken down.

Many people are responding with donations, volunteer work, and more. The mayor of Philadelphia has said that authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. There will be more information on specific actions that people can take. But the response is internal, too; there is nothing trivial in the gathering of thoughts, feelings, and words.

My thoughts are with those who those who lie buried in these cemeteries, those who have loved ones there, and everyone in pain over what has happened. I will speak up as I can, as well as I can, and will watch for more ways to help.

Image credit: I took the photo when biking along the Hudson the other day.

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

  • “Setting Poetry to Music,” 2022 ALSCW Conference, Yale University

  • Always Different



    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 April 2022, Deep Vellum published 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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