Thursday, January 23, 2014

On saudade, as the summer creeps on

I have written here before about my occasional lapses into a state of saudade. From the Portuguese, this means, roughly, "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." (Thanking you, Wikipedia, for the definition!)

It's a slippery concept for Anglophones to get our heads around - it's sort of like nostalgia, but not quite; it's frequently characterised by sadness, but isn't the equivalent of it, and it certainly isn't grief or pain. In fact, saudade precludes almost by its nature very violent emotional reactions; longing is often amorphous and ill-defined, and can be very deeply felt, but what it isn't, is the overwhelming flood that takes people in raw grief and loss. Saudade is about loss, but the loss of that which we can't define and can't explain.

I am not a person who suffers from depression, and I experience saudade as a gentle ache, a weepy fragility, rather than a profound or debilitating pain. It doesn't incapacitate me, but it does affect me, and how I interact with the world, which becomes muted, muffled, a little porous. At once, it makes me vulnerable to emotional disturbance and strangely detatched from ordinary stressors. I find a new ability, in this state, to care less about pragmatic issues that otherwise raise my ire or make me anxious - indeed I can rarely manifest either rage or anxiety while in saudade, and this is, in itself, no bad thing. But I am shockingly exposed to "events with emotional content". The slightest sad thing or milestone event will knock me into a maudlin fugue for days, when I'm like this.

To put this in real-world terms, I can deal calmly and rationally, probably even more so than usual, with multiple competing work demands in this mindframe, because I filter them through a muted lens that leeches the emotional content from them; but then I will be utterly undone by something like buying my youngest daughter's school socks in readiness for her first day of school next week. I start to see the world in symbols, inscribing on the air the loss that every lived day inevitably brings; things that carry little or no symbolic value to me, that have no freighting of time passing attached, just don't matter, and are dealt with efficiently and minimally.

I can never pin down exactly why saudade comes upon me, when it does. It's often, in fact mostly, preceded by a run of vivid and frightening dreams. It's rarely coincident with illness or major griefs, although it can show up as a precursor to major life changes (such as, for example, my littlest starting school). Sometimes it's the first signal my subconscious sends me that something is profoundly not right in my current situation - the longing, the hunger, for other lives and other selves might be telling me to look deeper, think harder, about what I'm doing. Sometimes it just ... is, and that's all there is to it.

It's a soft ache but a constant one. It sends me, the ebullient extrovert, inside for a while; it turns me back on myself, reaching for something that ... well, I never know quite what. I often appear subdued to others when in this state, and I feel (and behave) less socially. I usually write a lot - poems, stories, anything - and most of it is stuff I never show anyone, ever.

It passes, this - in days, sometimes; weeks, usually; but occasionally it lasts months. It doesn't render me incapable of doing what I must or being who I am, but it shapes my reactions and my interactions until it lifts its tender wing from my heart.

I long, I long, and I know not for what. It's OK, and I'm OK; but saudade is my companion now, until it has taught me whatever my id would have me know.


  1. I have been searching for this word my entire life.

    Saudade... yes! That is it! Thank you my lovely.

    1. It is THE word, isn't it. I found it on another blog about 3 years ago and it was the biggest AHA moment ever.