What do you miss about the U.S.?

I get asked this question from time to time. People are surprised that I don’t miss the U.S. more. Well, I do miss it, sometimes a lot, but life here has been good to me, and it keeps getting better, even with ups and downs.

Well, first of all I miss people. I don’t want to go into that, because it would feel bad to mention some and leave out others. But yes, family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, former students, former clients, people whose work I love and admire, people I run into on the street, people I have never met but sense around me. This, however, could be true anywhere. There are people I miss in Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkey, the Netherlands, France, Argentina, and elsewhere. People I have known for years, and people I have met only briefly.

Then come the places. San Francisco, Tucson, Taos, Dallas, Chicago, Nashville (where I have been just twice), Philadelphia, Ithaca, New York, New Haven, and then many places in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine. The coast of Maine with its jagged rocks and snails. That, and the long stretches in between these places, the long road trips I used to take. Driving along the Salmon River in Idaho. Visiting a friend in Montana.

Then the works. Of literature, music, art, theater, architecture, and more. Not only the famous and long-resonating works, not only Whitman, Faulkner, O’Connor, Morrison, Dylan, the gold of many colors, but the burgeoning projects, the college singing groups, the open mic poets (even the unbearable ones), the newly-formed bands, the scribbled notebooks.

Then the ideas. The idea that it is not only permissible, but even good to criticize your government. (Granted, this can be taken to ridiculous and dangerous extremes, but the principle is dear to me.) The idea (also taken to extremes) that if you want to do something, and have enough determination and smarts, you can pull it off. The raw enthusiasm of the American character. The belief in freedom, even though we have not always honored it by a long shot and don’t fully know what it is.

Then the institutions, form the elegant universities, libraries, concert halls to the hole-in-the wall clubs, shoestring-budget theaters, independent film houses, ephemeral literary journals.

The comedy groups. Improv. SNL. Really good standup. The whimsy, the daring of comedy. The knowledge, contained in every comedian (just ask them who their favorite bands are) that life serves up generous portions of sadness.

Then the religions. The vast variety within each religion. The plethora of synagogues, for instance, ranging in terms of observance, emphasis, atmosphere, congregants. I don’t know that any other country has or could have a synagogue like B’nai Jeshurun, with such an combination of halachic seriousness, responsiveness to the world, and music.

Then the sounds of everyday life. The whisk of the A train in Manhattan as it speeds from 59th to 125th Street. The crunch of bicycle wheels heading up a San Francisco hill on a rainy day. Someone playing an accordion in the Mission. Coffee brewing in the kitchen early in the morning. The sound of waves, the sound of a stream running over rocks. The movement of animals in the woods. The long, droning cry of rush-hour traffic. The many languages, many tones of voice on the street, arguing, joking, questioning, proclaiming.

Then the personal lives, with all their triumphs and troubles. Because how could any of this have existed, except for the troubles? Troubles that wake you up and show you a bit of the way. Not the crippling troubles—there’s nothing redeeming about them—but the ones that jolt you momentarily out of your dream.

Then the broken dream. Because the darndest thing is, the Great American Dream has failed everyone at some point. “Things have a way of turning out so badly,” says Amanda in The Glass Menagerie. But for some reason, even after the losses and deaths, people get up and start dreaming all over again. Maybe a little differently, but radiantly. And that is one of the things I miss but also brought with me here.

I think of the end of Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” one of the most beautiful poems of all time:

And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.

Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.


I took the photo in Fort Tryon Park in May 2017.

Update: I added a paragraph to this piece after posting it. Also, see Veronika Kisfalvi’s comment.

Different Kinds of Rest

IMG_8205

Rest will be scarce over the coming months (or plentiful, from some perspectives), so I will be looking to make the most of it. I have three different translation projects ahead and am excited about them all. I am participating in two literary events in the U.S. in October: the ALSCW Conference in Worcester, Massachusetts, and a series of events at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture featuring two of my Hungarian colleagues (more about that soon!). In addition, I have a few writing deadlines, will continue my synagogue responsibilities as usual, and may hold another event at the Szolnok Gallery/Synagogue in September. The event on May 23 went beautifully. The audience was enthusiastic, everyone joined in the singing, and the acoustics lifted the voices.

Yes, and there’s the upcoming Hamlet performance and discussion–by some of my tenth-grade students–at the Ferenc Verseghy Public Library on June 14! They will perform three scenes from Hamlet, followed by discussions and interviews with the characters. We are now heading into our final rehearsals.

All of this is in addition to regular teaching, which is in an irregular state right now, since I am meeting frequently with seniors to help them prepare for their oral exams.

The next few weekends will be packed. Next Saturday I go to Esztergom to enjoy the Comedium Corso festival–where 1LIFE will be performing–and explore the surroundings, which look stunning in the photos I have seen. (I will take my bike on the train so that I can explore more easily.) From there I go to Budapest to lead Szim Salom’s Shavuot service on Sunday. The following weekend, we have the Hamlet performance on Friday; right after that, also in the library, there will be a performance by Zsolt Bajnai and Marcell Bajnai (father and son)! On Saturday, June 15, I plan to attend a folk dance festival in Zagyvarékas; one of my students, Dániel Lipcsei, will be performing in three groups, and there will be many more groups from all over the country. Some of it might look and sound like this:

Then on Sunday, June 16, I go to Budapest for the Budapest Festival Orchestra’s annual Dancing on the Square event. Later in the week, Szolnok’s Tiszavirág Fesztivál begins; I look forward to its concerts–including an acoustic show by 1LIFE–and other festivities. The following Shabbat (on June 22) I lead a service–with a bat mitzvah ceremony–in Budapest; on June 30, I leave for the U.S.  I will be teaching, for the ninth consecutive summer, at the Dallas Institute’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers; this year we focus on tragedy and comedy, as we always do in the odd-numbered years (the even-numbered summers are devoted to epic). Those will be an intense, focused three and a half weeks, with lectures, seminars, panel discussions, films, and more. A few days on either end for visiting people–and then back to Hungary on August 5!

Back to the topic of rest: there are different levels and kinds. One of the reasons that I find Shabbat challenging (and important) is that it takes me about a day to wind down from the week. Resting on Friday evening and Saturday takes planning, focus, and determination (and I don’t always succeed at it). On Sunday, a greater calm sets in, but by then it’s already time to gear up for Monday. I have found it difficult, even in “free” time, to read books unrelated to my teaching, projects, and other preparations; several books have been waiting for months, not because I lacked time for them, but because my mind would not fit them in. I have now returned to The Book of Why by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie; this time I hope to stay with it instead of letting more months go by. It gets more and more interesting as I get farther into it; I will have more to say about it later. I am also overdue with Cynthia Haven’s biography of René Girard, Evolution of Desire, not to mention books in Hungarian, which I read especially slowly.

Reading a long book (for pleasure and interest) takes a particular kind of  restfulness. It’s different from reading a poem or short story; while these require intense focus and attention (and time), they tend to take less time on the initial reading than a novel or nonfiction book; thus you can reread them many times. I enjoy rereading more than I enjoy first-time reading, because of the new understandings that come with the repetition. To come to know a long book, you have to be willing to dedicate many hours just to the first reading. This is especially true for slow readers like me. I know people who can read a 350-page book in an afternoon or two; I am not one of these.

So there’s the rest that involves unwinding and the rest that makes room for reading. What other kinds are there? Writing, playing music, and other creative activities require stretches of time for trying things out, going back and revising, etc. There’s also the rest that comes through exercise: biking, for instance, over long distances. There’s the rest that comes from spending time with others: laughing with them, playing music with them, sitting down for a meal with them. There’s the rest that comes from doing something different: going somewhere on vacation, for instance. There’s the rest that comes from attending a concert, reading, or other performance. There’s the rest that comes from sorting things out in the mind: reflecting on the week, remembering important things, and putting less important things in their place. Then there’s the rest that comes with pure laziness: puttering around, doing what you feel like doing, whether or not it’s productive. There’s the rest that comes from sitting quietly and doing nothing. There’s structured, time-bound, hallowed rest, such as the rest of Shabbat. Finally, or near-finally, there’s sleep, and, at the end of life, death.

These all overlap, yet they are distinct, taking different forms and playing different roles. Yet each one can be well or poorly carried out. It’s all too easy to compromise rest, to try to make it serve something else. To rest well, you have to rest with all your heart. Or maybe that’s what makes something restful in the first place: doing it with all your heart, instead of pulling it this way and that.

I end with Walt Whitman, “A Clear Midnight“:

THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.

  • “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

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  • 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 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.

  • 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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