Wednesday, May 4, 2011


In reading comments on a post at the wonderful Irretrievably Broken (a blog whose acquaintance I highly recommend you make, if witty, insightful, engaging writing is your cup of tea), I came across a word I'd never heard before - Saudade.

It is a Portuguese word that does not translate fully into English, according to the Wikipedia entry, but can be roughly rendered as "a deep emotional state of nostalgic longing for something or someone that one was fond of and which is lost. It often carries a fatalist tone and a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might really never return." Alternatively, it is "vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist ... a turning towards the past or towards the future."

It's not quite - or, at least, not only - nostalgia that's encompassed in this word. Nostalgia (at least in its conventional usage in English) is about a yearning for an idealised past, which can be one element of saudade but doesn't seem to be its essence. It seems to me, non-Portuguese speaker that I am, that saudade is putting a name to a more generalised longing - a sadness, an ache, for that which isn't here; for things and people and moments and states of being that are either past, or imagined but not yet realised, or, possibly, unattainable altogether.

I was overwhelmed with gratitude when I discovered this word, because now I have a label for the feeling that sweeps over me on occasion, when I am at a low ebb, and can be extremely intense. I've never been able to adequately describe it before. It's sadness, longing, resignation ... yes. It's not depressive or tragic so much as mournful, pining. It's not always nostalgic in nature - sometimes I'm longing for an imagined state or an imagined future. And when it is nostalgic, I'm certainly hungering for a past that didn't exist, that has no reality except in my memory. This is quite a different emotion to grief or missing a lost loved one - I'm no stranger to those feelings either, and I know this is not grief, or at least not in the way I've experienced it.

Yet aspects of this longing are pegged to past selves - I often feel intense, almost physical yearning for the younger iterations of my daughters and the life we lived when A was an only child, or when E was a baby, or when I was pregnant with C. It's not that I believe now (or believed then) that any stage of life was more perfect or beautiful or desirable than any other; rather, it's that I feel that every stage slipped away more rapidly that I could comprehend, and that all that time, all those kisses and tears and stories and play and laughter, ran through my fingers before I could fully appreciate it. Ahhhh ... There you go. That feeling, right there. Saudade.

When I am awash with this emotion, I find that I am quite calm, but also melancholy, unproductive, unmotivated, and sensitive to small troubles that ordinarily would not phase me. This is the state of mind in which I'm quite likely to cry when reading a sad story, or pootle around the house picking things up and putting then down aimlessly without accomplishing anything. This is the state of mind in which I look up into the sky and feel ... aching. Longing. For what, I can't always say, but for some self beyond the one I'm living today.

It's not a comfortable feeling, saudade, but neither is it devastating (to me); unlike grief or pain, it doesn't maroon me, it doesn't leave me unable to touch or be touched. I am still me, when I'm in this state; just a quieter, more pensive, more introspective me.

Perhaps Shalom Freedman's poem can express the sentiment best of all.


The longing is the heart of the poem
The longing for so much
Which will never be again-

The longing to be young again
To love again
In a true and deep way-

The longing for all the times and people
Who are not
And never will be again-

The longing which tells me again and again
How much we lose in merely living
How deep and rich life is
In time and ways and people
Beyond our ever remembering and recollecting fully-

The longing is for so much that is gone
For so much that will never be again-

Life itself is a longing for life itself
And life goes beyond itself in so many ways-

All the longing all my longing
Will never bring it back
even that
which is always here.

- Shalom Freedman

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