Saudade, a Song for the Modern Soul

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“I grew up with a paradoxical sense of belonging to many and to none at the same time. It is an interesting type of “belonging,”… resulting in a subtle sense of saudade flavoring my life’s journey.” -Karen Noiva

Feb_RachelJ2I struggled with the word “belong” this month. I don’t believe in writer’s block but I do believe that my creative writing abilities suffer when I experience jet lag, culture shock, and the over-stimulation that generally accompanies visits to the United States. So it came as no surprise that in the London Heathrow airport as I tried to fill the time by getting work done, my brain froze.

I turned to my daughter Maggie, and said, “I’m supposed to write about belonging. Help.”

She said, “Write about home.” She said write about trying to find home and trying to explain where home is and about struggling to find the right words that will convey the multifaceted aspects of home for Third Culture Kids.

“What is home for you?” I asked.

“I think home is the place you miss the most when you aren’t there,” she said, said I could quote her, and returned to reading Divergent.

A few days earlier, after driving my husband and our other daughter to the airport, the twins and I had talked about home and about how to answer the questions: where is home and where are you from? They have so many possible ways to answer those questions and it can be overwhelming, daunting, to choose the right answer, to match the circumstance and the expectation of the person asking, to be honest without being confusing, to share their heart without killing a conversation.

This answer in the airport, how Maggie related home with belonging, rings of deep truths.

Home is a place of belonging. Knowing you belong evokes a sense of home. Home and belonging can happen where you do not actually live. Home, for many, is a place you have loved and left, but for which you continually ache.

Marilyn Gardner introduced me to a new word last year, “saudade.” Saudade, a Portuguese word, is “…a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness.” A. F. G. Bell

Saudade fits the sense of home and absence and ache. I think it is what my daughter saw all wrapped up in the word ‘belong.’

Many of the places she has belonged to and the people she has belonged with are no longer available to her. She (probably) will never live in Somalia again. Her best Djiboutian friend moved to Belgium. The kids she develops friendships with in America move on in her absence. Homes and toys and books and furniture are left behind in various countries. The vibrant, loving community she belongs to at school in Kenya pulls her from the vibrant, loving community she belongs to in Djibouti.

When she feels at home, feels that sense of belonging in one place, she is fully aware that it means she is not in the other places she belongs and feels at home. There is a peace and joy in belonging and an ache for what is not, for what can no longer be.

“I, like many of this era, am a nomad rich with diverse experiences, yet will never be able to collect all of my place- and people-specific memories together in one place, in one time. Saudade: a song for the modern soul.” Karen Noiva

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Rachel Pieh Jones
Rachel Pieh Jones has written for the New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, EthnoTraveler, the Desiring God blog, and Skirt. She lives, writes, and runs in Djibouti with her husband and three children. She blogs at www.djiboutijones.com.
Rachel Pieh Jones
Rachel Pieh Jones

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  • fiona lynne

    Oh I know this feeling well. There’s something about expat life, this moving around every few years, marrying someone from a different culture, that brings this question to front and centre: where do I belong? And can I ever go home? Where is that even? We’re changed by all these communities and places and homes. And so I’m a muddled collection of all of it – belonging a little in so many places but always feeling the part that’s missing.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I’m replying to you from the airport, in transit to Minnesota for my grandmother’s funeral. Pretty fitting place to think about this piece again and read the comments. Your words are right on.

    • Bev Murrill

      Can you go home? And where is that even? I know the way you feel, Fiona. We are changed by it all. Even if we were to go back to our old ‘home’, it wouldn’t still be there, because we ourselves are not the same.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    I love this Rachel- love Maggie’s wisdom and I would echo what she said. The quote at the end I found particularly poignant. I am learning more and more about embracing the Saudade and that has been a gift. Brazilians also talk about “killing the saudade” which happens when you get together with people who ‘get’ it and reminisce. And for a time you have killed the longing. But from a spiritual perspective, perhaps this saudade is a great gift that keeps us longing for that true belonging that is not of this world.

    • http://www.michaelaevanow.com/ Michaela Evanow

      I love what Marilyn says here, that saudade is great gift that keeps us longing for things not of this world…
      What a poignant piece Rachel. And what a beautiful life you and your children have lived so far.

      • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

        Thanks Michaela. And Marilyn – I remember Ute wrote about killing the saudade, that is such a powerful image.

  • Caiobhe

    I too came across ‘saudade’ just last year as a term to describe those emotions. I wrote about it last week, but in a different context, as the 30th January was the Day of saudades in Brazil. Thank you for your writing. Here’s mine if you are interested. http://caiobhesblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/30/the-day-of-saudade/

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks for your link, I’ll enjoy reading it. I feel like I am still discovering the many layers of the word.

  • Pingback: Belonging and Saudade | Djibouti Jones

  • Sarah Joslyn

    Rachel, you never cease to amaze me with your words. Thank you for this.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thank you! And again for the photos.

  • http://princessmorag.blogspot.com/ Morag Renfro

    I went ‘home’ to Scotland at Christmas and then came back ‘home’ to California after new year. But I think I have always had a feeling of ‘saudade’. And for those of us who are able to call St Andrews, Scotland home for four years of university will always have a calling in our hearts for that amazingly special place.

  • Saskia Wishart

    Oh This Feeling… aching for home, when you don’t know exactly where or who that is. So relevant in our global reality. For me it was this line: “Home and belonging can happen where you do not actually live. ”

    Even when your home is in one place, you are always ‘not home’ somewhere else.

    Thank you for these words Rachel! Xx

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Exactly – home here but not there, there but not here…

  • Bev Murrill

    Thanks for introducing me to saudade, Rachel. As an Aussie who’s lived in England for nearly two decades, and travelled through many nations over those same years, I, like the others who’ve written, and like your family also… long somehow for all those people/things/places at times… It’s a great word! and a great post.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I’m thankful to those who introduced me to it, it seems like a word-gift, if there is such a thing.

      • Bev Murrill

        I’m up for that … a word-gift. Love it. xx

  • pastordt

    What a GREAT word, Rachel. I think most of us have experienced this in some, small way, but I imagine it’s much harder for third-culture kids (and adults) than the rest of us. Thank you!

  • Anna Wegner

    I know this feeling. I feel so blessed to have had so many places to call “home,” but now wherever I am, I’m missing somewhere else. And all of my “people” are scattered around the world.

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