Because I am an insufferable hipster douchebag, I not only listen to NPR, I kill a fair amount of time dicking around on NPR’s website. One of my favorite NPR blogs is alt.latino, which explores Latin rock and alternative music, and yesterday that blog had a wonderful, albeit brief, article about a concept I’ve come, over the past several months, to find incredibly powerful: saudade. (Click the link if for no other reason than to listen to some absolutely gorgeous Brazilian and Portuguese music. If you’ve never really gotten into bossa nova, you will now).
Saudade is a Portuguese word that Google translates as “longing,” “yearning,” or “nostalgia,” but each of those words is a poor representation of saudade‘s depth and complexity. Indeed, English doesn’t really have a word that can adequately encapsulate saudade; as alt.latino points out, the Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo poignantly defined it as “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Listen to Brazilian bossa nova or Portuguese fado and you hear an uptempo rhythm — that pulsating Iberian and Latin American beat that’s so energetic and infectious — combined, paradoxically but undeniably effectively, with melancholy lyrics about lost love or a desire to return to a world long gone. That is saudade. It’s an integral part of the Brazilian and Portuguese national identities that’s difficult for an outsider, including me, to truly understand. But we should try to understand it nonetheless, for, I think, it explains much about how it feels to truly grow up in a confusing and uncertain time.
About five months ago, I fell desperately in love with an extraordinary woman, with whom I’ve been wonderful friends for a long time. About three weeks ago, I realized that that woman loves somebody else, that she’d been trying to tell me so for a while, and that I hadn’t listened because I didn’t want to hear. (This probably happens to everybody at some point, but I’d recommend, from personal experience, having this realization gradually, rather than all at once during a business school class). That moment when it hits you that somebody else, and not you, is The Right Guy/Girl for the object of your affection is a crushing one; it sucks every bit of air out of you, leaving you feeling like a deflated husk. It’s unremittingly awful.
…For a few minutes. But, after the gut-punch feeling and the crying jag in the parking lot, I began to feel as one might feel after jumping into, and then out of, a mountain lake — cold, empty, in pain, ready to snuggle with the first thing that looks like it might be warm, but also renewed, awakened, perhaps even invigorated. I know that the woman I love and I will always be friends, and the more rational part of my brain knows that it is a truly wonderful thing for her to be paired with someone for whom she feels in a way she does not feel for me. That hasn’t salved the sting I feel every time I think of her (all the time) or hear her voice on the phone (all too rarely), but it has made it bearable. That sting will ease with time but probably never disappear completely; the joy she brings to my life will remain forever. I am happy for her, but also saddened by thinking of what might have been; I am bitterly disappointed, but also (slowly) making peace. I am feeling saudade.
A similar feeling strikes when I think of my friend Trevor Boehm, who, when I was 18, went into Lake Michigan on a cold, overcast November day and, by his own design, never came out. Much of the man I am now is thanks to Trevor; much of the man I hope to become is inspired by the responsibility I feel to his memory. He taught me the value of laughter, how and why to be a good friend, and a pretty fair Scouse accent, for which I am grateful; he could have taught me so much more, for which I am unspeakably sad. Thinking of the moments I shared with Trevor fills me with a happiness that is tempered by loneliness, incompleteness, and guilt — my recollections of him open my eyes to a world of opportunities extinguished forever, and to how crucial it is for me to cherish the new memories I make. In the tragedy of his death, I am made to feel keenly, acutely, incontrovertibly alive. Saudade.
As I mature and prepare to enter my adult life, it’s become clear to me that saudade is a feeling I share with many of my peers, but most of us can’t identify, and thus deal with, this feeling because we’re not familiar with it. For most of us, our early twenties are the first time in our lives when we’re capable of feeling saudade, because it is only now that we begin to discover the enormity and irreversible nature of past decisions. If we are lucky, we look back fondly on our time in college, while at the same time thinking of how many things we’d do differently (me to college-me: “Get a minor in Theatre! Tell that girl you like her! Pick a different organic chemistry professor! Play more pickup basketball!”) and realizing that nothing will ever, ever be that fun again. We are thrilled to launch careers and be self-sufficient, but we’d give anything for the (relative) simplicity of childhood and adolescence, especially when rent comes due. We think of friends with whom we’ve lost touch, even as we gain newer, closer ones. Young adulthood is a period of great transition — we are drawn inexorably into the future before we’ve finished with the past, and our excitement at our new-found ability and freedom to forge our own paths is restrained by our remembrances of the events, both good and bad, that led us to where we are. Saudade is our optimistic melancholy, our depressive joy; it emboldens and humbles us, inspires and dampens us, electrifies and insulates us.
To grow up is to know saudade.
And, of course, there’s no reason to think that saudade doesn’t stay with us for the rest of our lives. There is no way to live a full life without making hard choices, and there is no way to live a self-aware life without wondering whether those choices were the right ones. Loves, hates, dreams, and jealousies attach themselves to us for a fleeting moment, and then sweep past us like strangers in a crowd; later we question what we could have done to hold on to them, and whether we should have (any 60-year-old who says he or she never pondered a life with a different spouse, or in a different career, or on another continent is either lying or to be pitied for his or her utter lack of imagination). When an experience fades into memory, the sadness at the memory’s hollowness mixes with the happiness at having had the experience at all, adding color to our present lives — the more memories, the more color.
Perhaps all of this is so much self-indulgent navel-gazing (a favorite pastime of Millennials like me). But so be it. Saudade is requisite for really, truly living, and the better we are at dealing with it, the richer will be our existence.
Embrace saudade. Let it slow your sprint through life to a walk, without paralyzing you or leading you from your chosen path.
And for god’s sake, listen to some more bossa nova.
Tags : Adulthood, Bossa nova, Brazil, Coming of Age, featured, Google, Growing Up, Insightful, Inspirational, Lake Michigan, life, Love, Miscellaneous, NPR, Portuguese language, Saudade, Thoughts, United States