The Portuguese have the word saudade to capture this feeling of inexplicable missing or longing. In Russian, it's toska. The Germans call it sehnsuct, in Welsch it's hierath, and in Swahili the closest word is hamu. The Latin word liminal references the ‘threshold’ between known and unknown spaces. So often, these words are untranslatable across languages and cultures, mostly because it's a word to describe the ineffable.
My friend Rachel calls this 'Particle Monologues', the notion that each of us carries and rehearses the lost fragments of conversation addressed to a particular "you" -- and when that person leaves, dies, disappears -- or WE leave or disappear, we are still in relationship to that person or place, and work to address unrequited, undiscovered messages from within.
When Patti Smith was asked how she copes with death, she explained, "it's part of the human privilege of being alive. We all have our moment when we're going to say goodbye. It's nothing personal, we all have to pass through it...All these people we lose, they're all within us. They become part of our DNA, they become part of our blood. Sometimes I am still scolded by my mother. I'm 70, my mother's been gone since 2001, but she's still scolding me, she's still helping me, she's still counseling me...If we keep ourselves open, they'll come."
'It isn't that the dead don't speak, it's just that we forget how to listen.' -- Pier Pablo Passolini
Today, I read a lovely FB post by Zuhira Khaldun-Diarra on the complexities of saying goodbye to a fellow traveler, drawing on Kahlil Gibran's words: "We wanderers, ever seeking the lonelier way, begin no day where we have ended another day; and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us. Even while the earth sleeps we travel. We are the seeds of the tenacious plant, and it is in our ripeness and our fullness of heart that we are given to the wind and are scattered."
I often write in two-year pulse beats. I'll move forward, only to find I start calling back into my life memories, experiences, people or places from two years prior. Does anyone else do that? It's as if there's a delayed reaction when reconfiguring the self for a new skin, to begin again. And part of the work of adapting is to go back and collect parts of myself that still linger in the ether of other lives and landscapes. A snippet, a fragment, a voice, a sound, a song -- all triggers for memory work. And when I have the courage, time, energy or fortitude, I listen and respond, writing from that space within.
Long stretches go by without the 'persistent presence of absence.' But sometimes longing can be a kind of anguish that holds me hostage, making it difficult -- literally -- to be in the present tense. When I spend time with what's missing, I hold conversations with the other side, walk down streets and paths I haven't traveled back to in years, revisit the rooms and hallways of histories I barely know as mine anymore. And when I do this, I keep close what gives me life and light and let go of what no longer serves me.
I've met so many people around the world who leave their home places and don't return for long periods. Some never return, and other struggle to get back but feel they never will and live in various states of longing and missing as part of the overall feeling of being alive. With all the ways possible to connect and communicate online these days, some even feel closer than ever to those who live far away, in another life or country.
What do we give up or gain when we make these kinds of moves? What's at stake? How do we check our own privilege and expectations when we settle into a life lived 'over there' between and amidst languages, cultures, and communities not inherently our own?
Over coffee and bagels one late morning in Chicago this summer, Caroyln Defrin and I had a long conversation about these questions and ideas. Carolyn and I met in Chicago years ago as teaching artists and both decided to leave the United States to root down in other countries -- Carolyn, to the UK and me, to Zanzibar. We found relief and delight in exploring all the shared questions, observations and thoughts we both had about living lives outside the norms and expectations we'd grown up with in the States.
We also talked about our somewhat 'buried' Jewish selves who seem to come out more enthusiastically in the company of others. How do we navigate multiple identities when traveling through in and between other worlds and cultures? In what ways do we play up or tone down certain aspects or qualities of our lives in order to adapt to our current communities, cultures and contexts?
Out of this long and winding conversation we landed on this idea of feeling 'Split Between,' and we're excited to present Split Between: Women Writers Workshop together this January 2018 in Bwejuu, Zanzibar.
Do you have a word for 'inexplicable longing' in your language? To whom are you still having imaginary conversation in your heart & mind, long after the encounter or experience? Where are you still drawn, living out phantom lives, even as you begin again somewhere new, or return home?