“…all the words you can say have been said, it’s for you my tears are shed.”
— The Moody Blues, “What Am I Doing Here?”
Oh Leigha, my dear friend, thank you.
You saved me with a word I didn’t recognize, but its meaning I instantly knew.
Your photograph on Instagram, and description of the word, which is “saudade,” a nearly untranslatable Portuguese word that vaguely means “the feeling of being present (or I would say, awareness of) in the absence of something that one loves.”
Well, bust my britches. I covered this on Completely in the Dark as my early teenage Nightwalking — longing for a place or person that I knew or wanted to know, but the absence of which haunted me, and I felt lost and alone.
It’s sad! But it’s beautiful! Weird!
Every person, I think, knows this; it’s a forgotten thing. How distracted you’ve become, and how far off the solitary path you’ve gone, might mean it was once at the innermost core of your being. Maybe you need to find your way back to it.
So, how will you?
Memory, journals, writing, poetry, photographs, movies, books, songs are great places to start. When I hear the Moody Blues song “What Am I Doing Here?” (linked above), I’m reminded of this saudade-inducing image:
I took the photo a long time ago, at a church camp in Paynesville, Minn., on Lake Koronis.
Why does it inspire saudade in me?
Well, let’s look closer.
There are three people on a bench looking out at the lake. Two are sitting close together, one leaning slightly toward the other. The third sits apart from them. That space, that distance between the couple and the lone person, is witnessed from afar.
From me, the photographer who has memorialized this scenario, that is the core feeling: the reflective power of distance, of detachment. Here, on a beautiful summer’s day, someone feels alone among others.
I knew that feeling during most of my young life. It’s a negotiation with reality that I still deal with today. By negotiation I mean it’s because it is always an emotional, reflective conversation. My mind might bend toward privacy, but my emotions have other, maybe more public issues, like loneliness, regret, abandonment. It wants to yowl and bark, have its say.
But rather than wallow in loneliness or desperate feelings of abandonment, I sweetly relish solitude, the private joy of knowing that I was once like that distant couple, together with someone, happy, content, and looking at a glistening lake in summertime, smelling the sweet breeze and holding my beloved’s hand.
It cuts both ways. I was also the lone person on the end of bench. Any way you look at it, the memory is overpowering, and satisfies like a great meal or a long, warm hug.
It is truly one of life’s pleasures.
And I think that’s a form of saudade.
In the Moody Blues song, there is a squire and a princess. The squire chooses to follow his master (in modern terms, it’s taking the easy route, getting a corporate job, staying with the mediocre choices day-in and day-out), and by that choice ends up dying by his master’s side.
“What am I doing here?” he says before fading away.
Too late, game over.
The princess is “fair and pale,” staring out at the ocean and feeling alone “in her castle dark and grey/her love she’ll never see.”
What is she doing there? Who is her love? What is she missing? Why does she continue living in her castle (beautiful it may be) “dark and grey”?
And what are we doing here?
I’m instantly reminded of the myth of Psyche and Cupid. Maybe you know the story. Apologies, but it’s a fairly complicated one. I had to pull down my Edith Hamilton to refresh my memory, but it’s such a beautiful story of longing and loss, with a heapin’ helpin’ of saudade.
Here’s the breakdown:
Cupid, child of the goddess Venus and a god in his own right, falls in love with a beautiful mortal named Psyche. Psyche is the youngest daughter in a family of three — so lovely that she inspires Venus to exclaim she was “a mortal of loveliness beyond measure.”
Venus grows jealous when her followers are paying more attention to Psyche than to her. So she sends her son Cupid to fix the problem by making Psyche fall in love with someone so despicable that it will discredit Psyche forever.
Problem is, Cupid takes “just one look” … and man, he is gone, gone, gone.
Oh you nasty boy.
As for Psyche, she’s unaware of the attention. She has suitors, but they end up passing her by for someone else. Her hands always come up empty in the pursuit of love. Being the last daughter to marry off, her father is desperate.
So Psyche’s father abandons her on a hillside, left to the elements. Maybe she felt like a lone princess in a dark and gray tower, or that person on a lakeside bench in 1977. I don’t know.
For what it’s worth, Zephyr, “the sweetest and mildest of winds” discovers her there and rescues her. She’s taken to a place where she has one hell of a good time (probably for the first time in her mortal life) then marries a mystery husband she’s never allowed to see (sound familiar?). He demands that she never look on him, nor does he go out in the light of day (Nightwalking, surely). The suspense is too much for Psyche. She HAS to see the face of the person she’s just married!
One night, as he’s sleeping, she takes a lamp and goes to reveal the mystery at last.
OMG. It’s Cupid! That guy who first fell in love with me! He’s gorgeous! I can’t believe my luck! I must kiss him!
As she bends over to to kiss the sleeping Cupid, he’s startled awake when the oil from her lamp burns his shoulder. He flees, saying “Love cannot live where there is no trust!” vanishing from her life, seemingly forever.
Of course Big Momma Venus is delighted by all this and is all the more determined to show Psyche “Hey, don’t fuck with a goddess.” Oh, and btw “leave my handsome son alone, you sorry bitch.”
But Venus Momma can’t leave it there. She is, I think, a little consumed by the fact she has a rival, and heck, even her son still likes Psyche, despite the oil burn. Attraction can be negatively charged! Negative can turn positive. Positive can turn negative. You get the picture.
So Venus, feeling testy, sends Psyche on a couple errands — Labors of Hercules-sized shit, I’d call ’em — one of which is to, “Oh, hey could you dip down to Hell and ask Persephone for some beauty makeup” since caring for her lovesick son was putting wrinkles on her aging divine countenance. Psyche goes, and has Charon ferry her over while getting razzed by some bad dudes on the way.
Cut to the chase: Psyche completes her labors, Cupid heals up pretty good for a frisky college boy, and begs Daddy Zeus to make Venus chill the fuck out and let Psyche become one of the gods. You can hear it now: “Please, c’mon, Pop. I love her that much.”
Oh you crazy beautiful kids.
Anyway, Venus can’t argue that Psyche is a rival now Zeus has proclaimed her a goddess and marries her to Cupid.
Love (Cupid) and Soul (Psyche) land a solid contract to build a house together on HGTV … and all is right with the world.
How is this saudade?
Well, I ask you. How is it not?
Leigha remarked in her Instagram that Richard Linklater’s final scene from Before Sunrise (yes, it is an amazing film and one of my favorites) is a fine example of saudade. Hell yes, it is.
And there’s also the final scene to Stand By Me, when Gordy watches his friend Chris Chambers walk into eternity. Again: the distance and detachment. The passage of time and the lingering long view of “See you when I see you … Not if I see you first.”
Being in the moment and seizing it, knowing it’s pregnant with the future and the past, is both heavy and beautiful to the soul. It’s sad, for sure, but that’s what you get in the marriage of Love and Soul. Maybe it’s also why we cry at weddings. We’re witnessing the beginning AND the end, at the same moment. It’s a rare opportunity to feel saudade, there in the moment.
They’re necessary to living a full life, damn straight. We do this intellectually, but if we’re wise we recognize the emotions are ringing bells all over the place, as emotions are wont to do. That’s okay. Let them have their day, like Venus’s jealousy. Let them have a seat at the table of the feast that is saudade.
I think if we’re truly feeling saudade together, we’re doing the same thing: We’re fully present in the moment, knowing this may be the last we see of something or someone we adore with every fiber of our being. Holy shit do I know this.
In the last ten years I lost half of my family (mother and father), dear friends, and loved ones. My heart keeps breaking year after year. Sometimes I don’t know how I can handle it. Sometimes it’s felt like an impossible situation, like Psyche abandoned on the hillside, or being sent on some stupid errand to Hell for a fucking gallon of goat’s milk and a box of stale Oreos.
But then Zephyr comes.
This I know, oh yes. The winds shift, and turn sweet.
Zephyr is the catalyst of saudade. Its aroma is heady with all the things that came before and promise a future of love and discovery. Even rediscovery. Of love. Of mystery. Of wonder. Of living again — life after death —rebirth, call it what you will.
As the Moody Blues sing, “What can be done, you won’t believe/listen and you may see/Everyone’s dream is deep within, find it and you’ll be free.”