Tag Archives: Hope

Saudade Vem

11 Sep

9/11 Lights - photo by DMT

I’ve been feeling saudade lately.

A few years ago, while attempting to make sense of the emotions I was experiencing after a devastating loss, D. introduced me to this 13th century Portuguese term, which describes a longing or yearning for something from the past that no longer exists in the present.

One definition of saudade is a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist,” and another, stronger definition, is “the love that remains.”  It is a kind of melancholy that leaves one longing for what used to be, but also encompasses a “paradoxical joy derived from acceptance of fate and the hope of recovering or substituting what is lost by something that will either fill in the void or provide consolation.”

The feelings brought about by saudade connect both the past and the future to the present, and are not only used to describe the feeling in relationship to people, but also to places [like one’s homeland] and traditions or “the old ways.”  It recognizes that what has happened, can’t be changed – only remembered.

On September 11, 2001, so much was lost by so many that the pain of loss still permeates the fabric of New York City.  It’s not that people haven’t moved forward with their lives, they have, and the evidence of the strength and resilience of New Yorkers rises from every corner, but saudade sneaks through the cracks.

I wasn’t in New York City on 9/11, nor did I lose anyone close to me in the attacks, but the account that D. wrote for me a few years ago [The Rising: 9/11] helped me begin to understand the depth of pain that he, and other New Yorkers, felt as their city was attacked.  The first time I read D.’s account, I remember sitting in front of my computer, openly sobbing. As I read, I felt waves of anger, fear, despair, and pain wash over me, and I wondered how in the world D., and his fellow New Yorkers, had coped with all of this up close and personal.

As I read on, I realized that they dealt with it by being kind to one another, by finding commonalities, and by doing whatever they could to help.  As D. writes, “…people actually looked at each other in the streets and subways. We made eye contact and nodded to each other. There was a feeling that we were all together in the suffering and anger and fear.”  The tragedy that ripped the city apart brought New Yorkers closer together – because they remembered.


This summer, while in New York, the emotions I felt while reading D.’s account came rushing back when he and I were out touring the Financial District.  We had just rounded the corner in front of the World Trade Center when two guys selling commemorative souvenir photo-booklets shoved them in front of us and asked if we’d like to buy one.  Without looking at either man, D. muttered a terse, “No” and kept walking.  Not being used to this daily profit-driven reminder, I was outraged.

I remembered D.’s vivid descriptions, saw the pain these “souvenirs” caused my friend, and I wanted to rip those books out of the hands of those selling them and ask them if they’d stopped to consider how much pain they were causing by hawking their goods. If I’d thought it would have done any good, I probably would have, but I didn’t want to draw attention to something D. had obviously found a way to endure, so I shut my mouth and silently hoped that the warehouse containing the remaining “memorabilia” would burn down while all of the sellers were home for the night – out of harm’s way.

And yet, I also realized that these “sales people” are also a sign of saudade.  New York City experienced a devastating tragedy, mourned the losses, and began to rebuild.  The souvenir sellers make their money by selling memories of the past – albeit not ones that anyone wants to return to – in order to ensure that no one ever forgets what used to be.  I’m not saying they do it for sentimental reasons or because they love New York, I’m saying that they remain in business because people buy the booklets, and those who buy them remember.

And it’s those who remember who are making a difference – both in big and small ways.

There are many people who remember 9/11 and are committed to helping prevent an attack like this from ever happening again.  Many of those people [such as the 9/11 widows who started Beyond the 11th] have become involved in projects designed to put an end to that which causes people to believe that attacks like these are a solution to the problems of poverty, oppression, illiteracy, and religious intolerance.  Only by remembering the past and working toward change in the present can the future be altered.

What does this have to do with saudade?

Saudade is the longing for what has been, the knowledge that it can never be again, and the yearning for what has yet to be.

As the world commemorates the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I think saudade is a useful term as to describe the feelings many of us are struggling with as we try to make sense of all that was lost on that terrible day, the uncertainty we live with in the present, and the world we hope to create for the future.

May peace – and saudade – be with us all.

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