Paris and Saudade

posted May 21, 2015


My friend Judy Hooper, the writer, introduced me to a word I needed badly to know: saudade (pronounced ‘soDAHday’)—a Portuguese word for which there is no proper English translation. It includes what we think of nostalgia, but specifically it is nostalgia and longing and yearning for a home, person, state of being, that never quite existed. It is homesickness for a home one has not inhabited, but nevertheless knows. And it is, we agreed, the fundamental fuel for the artist. Aren’t we all writing, composing, dancing, painting, directing, shaping, playing, singing to re-create this place for ourselves and for our audience?

As I write this, my broken suitcase is laying open on my bed, half-full of shoes and books and clothes and carefully packaged food, all of which I will take to Paris. Tom and I are getting away for five dear (dear as in “chere”) days, on the way to the City of Cities, the center of intellectual thought, gastronomie, art, fashion, accordion music, and ancient buildings older than anything we have seen in this hemisphere.

We are celebrating our love. It’s ten years since our wedding day, and coincidentally, during this month of May, our combined ages add up to 100. How to celebrate? Paris came to us by a lot of luck and happenstance; the tremendous generosity of my parents, sister, and our dear family friend who will be taking care of our kids. (We’re leaving the kids with persons quite a bit more than “vaguely responsible.”)

I hardly know what to do with myself. I am bruised for the all pinching of my arms to see if this is real. I have been to Paris twice before, once at 12 and once at 15. Both times, I felt as though I belonged in and to this city, as if I’d surely lived there before. My French is rusty to say the least, though I did study extensively in high school. I am in cram mode at the moment, trying to watch Amélie again, paging through a French grammar book, and translating every thought with my iPhone app.

And of course, I am assuming that my fortunes can’t possibly sustain all this goodness, and that we will therefore probably die en route or while there. (“Don’t go out alone!” my friend P. warned me. “My girlfriend was killed in Mexico when she went running alone on a beach!”)

In my Underground Seminary, Steve gave me Isaiah 45:7 to chew on:

I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create calamity:

I the LORD do all these things.

“It’s like the missing page of a great mystery,” Steve said when we sat down to discuss it. “The answer to many many questions. It’s like, in the studio, God’s going, ‘Aw, man, this stuff just dies.’”

Indeed. And a hard answer, one I don’t always like. I have two friends who are bravely battling cancer, and lately the news has not been good. These are friends who are beloved in their communities, prayed for by thousands. They are both way too young to have to lose their fights. And they both keep saying that they are only praying for God’s will to be done. If God’s will is for them to go, then I’m not on God’s side. I am way too selfish for that. I want my friends to stay. We need them. Their people need them. And it’s totally unfair.

But, Steve pointed out, maybe God thought pain and calamity–even “evil” which is truer to the original Hebrew “ra”–was worth it because it came from love.

And when he said this, the truth of the statement rose and opened like the peonies Katryna brought me on our anniversary. Yes, of course. We think Love is on one side of the fulcrum and Evil is on the other. But they are not two binaristic opponents. Love contains evil. Love contains pain, sorrow, loneliness, jealousy, envy, greed, fear, loss, anger and even violence. And darkness only is dark because there is light; without one, we could not have the other. There is sorrow in any parting—because we love. As long as we are present, we have to accept that love comes with a lot of other baggage. So does God. So does life. That’s the deal. (And thus, the myriad ways we avoid staying present.)

Another friend called this morning. She has a baby not even a year old, a sweet healthy gorgeous child that she clearly adores. And she confessed to me that she had felt great relief when another more experienced mother had confided in her that she found many aspects of parenting profoundly boring. I have heard this too, over the years––that parenthood is boring—and I had never related. I find parenting the most fascinating thing I’ve ever done. The love I have for my children is bigger than any love I’ve ever had, and it has transformed me. And yet, today, hearing my friend’s confession, I got it. I just hadn’t applied the word “boring” to the feeling I have when my kids want me to play soccer with them. I hate to play soccer. I would rather go to the dentist than kick a ball around for more than 5 minutes, but I have such deep shame about this that I would never call my feeling “boredom.” Instead, it’s just been my secret shame. On the other hand, I can see that monitoring my kids violin practice completely bores pretty much every other adult to whom I subject the occasion. And believe me, I am always looking for willing audience members for my kids’ practices. (These friends and family members are bona fide kid people and/or excellent parents who seem extremely not-bored in areas I deem vital, and in which I regularly fail, namely the soccer playing, or in cold weather, doing pretty much anything outdoors.) They are good sports for the first ten minutes, but after 45, they look over at me as if I’m Pol Pot. Then they make an excuse to leave. I don’t blame them at all; and yet watching my kids practice violin is the most fascinating, connected 90 minutes of the day for me. (Today marks Day 700 of daily practice, by the way. They get a prize every 100 days. This round? World Cup soccer jerseys.)

I continue to get up at 5 in the morning to work on my novel The Big Idea. I work for 50 minutes, and then do another 50 minute session with my three weekly writers groups. This practice has galvanized me and invigorated the book. I know now I will finish it now, even though it still may take years. But I hasten to tell people that I still don’t plop down and run my fingers clickety clack over the keys of the computer. Much of the 50 minutes is spent staring into space when I hit a rough spot in the book. At those moments, I want to check email, see who’s posted on Facebook, see if somehow I have tracked any more steps on my FitBit even though I haven’t moved. But instead, I stay. I press my face up against the glass of that moment of Block and whisper to my sulky muse, “I am still here. I am not going anywhere.” And eventually, I get the next sentence. It might not be a great sentence, but it’s enough to get me to the one after that.

I am leaving my children tomorrow. I don’t want to go. I keep hoping one of them will get slightly sick, or that I will; not so sick as to cause calamity, but sick enough that we have to postpone this love trip, this voyage back to saudade. They are so lovable right now, so hilarious and interesting. I just want to be with them, to hold them and breath in the scent of their hair, to listen to the stories of their days, to make them hamburgers and mac and cheese, to listen to their minuets and études and correct their bow holds. And I also want Paris. I want to go back to that city and find 15-year-old me in the George Pompidou, to hear some accordion music and drink some real coffee. And then to write about it.


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