Saudade, a Song for the Modern Soul


“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