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Finding the Right Words for Today

How ‘Saudade’ describes what I’m feeling right now

Every day I roll words around in my head like glass marbles. I examine them, I flick them across a room, aiming to hit on one that feels right. I’m trying to express the feeling I’m having, the one many of us are having at this moment.

We’re seven months into living with COVID-19, we’re worried about the election and our future, and we’re missing friends and family. We feel an emptiness, a longing, and maybe even a physical ache.

We’re reflecting on the past but desperately trying to be hopeful for a better tomorrow. Because we need one.

Last year, my daughter’s Portuguese friend came to live with us. She taught us the word SAUDADE. There’s no perfect translation in English and yet it’s the perfect word for now.


Wikipedia describes it as a “deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one cares for and/or loves…it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again. It is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places, or events…which now triggers the senses and makes one experience the pain of separation from those joyous sensations.”

I have SAUDADE for my friends. I can see that I took gatherings for granted, sometimes even turning down invitations. Now, parties with friends, dinners out with small groups, outdoor barbecues, gatherings around the fire-pit, and vacations are non-existent or fraught with the “what if” worry. Someone tells a story about a super-spreader event, someone else shares that a friend or family member died, someone coughs and everyone looks concerned.

I have SAUDADE for my family. After not seeing my parents for over a year, I decided to brave the airport and travel to Florida. In my memory, my Mom and Dad are still the same people from my childhood. I imagine them at that age. Seeing them, at 80, is always a shock and a realization that I need to hold them tighter. The video calls we’ve been having also bring forward the memories of our lives, and the realization that my three siblings live really far away from me (Prague, Houston, Las Vegas). The pandemic will make reunions even more difficult.

I’m measuring this feeling against the millions of people who’ve lost friends and family this year.

My own children are young adults but their launch into the world has been disrupted by the virus. I’m misty about their youth, as well as the months we spent living together this past year and the memories we made. When they were little, my husband and I would always reference the Harry Chapin song, “Cat’s in the Cradle” to make sure we took advantage of the time we had. That song is full of Saudade. I worry about their future, the path they’ll take from here.

I have SAUDADE for my work. For the past fourteen years, I’ve been working in music festival production helping to create some of the largest experiences in the world. I have years of memories of seeing thousands of revelers dancing, singing, and enjoying weekends filled with art, music, and unfettered joy. Will we ever be able to return to these carefree times?

In addition to the patrons who are losing out, there are 12 million people, including me, who used to work in live event production. The virtual reality or “drive-ins” or socially distant gatherings don’t replace what we’ve lost. I wonder when or if it will ever return. Even when it does, that carefree feeling may not come back. We’ll have the memory of these times nagging at us.

I have SAUDADE for our BEFORE life. Brazilians celebrate a day of SAUDADE on January 30. On this day, we will have sworn in a new President, we will be a month into 2021 and the world will still be wondering when life will return to NORMAL.

And yet…was what we called “NORMAL” really that amazing?

Wikipedia points to another part of Saudade which is “to long for the past would detract from the excitement you feel towards the future.”

It means that the past could also be described as “bittersweet” and that’s truly how the past is to me now.

BITTERSWEET is a good word to describe how I’ll look back at everything BEFORE — at the many ways I let my small, insular world cloud the much larger, more critical issues facing all of us. It’s not surprising that the pandemic laid bare the social, political, economic, and emotional turmoil around us. It was always there but perhaps we didn’t feel it so deeply. I know I didn’t. The memories I carry, though wonderful, begin to pull at me. What could I have done better? How could I have contributed more?

Saudade doesn’t have to exist as a way to describe the past, though. It can also be used to think about the future.

The blog Expat Since Birth describes many complementary words for “saudade” across many languages, including the German word: Weltschmerz. This is translated as the “general pain caused by an imperfect state of being or state of the world.”

This is the feeling I woke up with this morning. Weltschmerz. I’m hoping that I can do better. No matter what age any of us are now, at this very moment in time, we can use our saudade for the past to work toward something better, to correct the imperfect state of the world.

If you want to learn how to say or use SAUDADE properly, click here:


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