January 30th – Day of Saudade

The other day while working through the material for my online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course, I ran across some examples of words that are difficult to translate. Completely unaware that my world was about to be rocked, I clicked one of the words, and this is what I read from Wikipedia:

Saudade describes a deep emotional state onostalgic or deeply melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing will never return.”

You mean…that nameless melancholy that’s been hanging over my head since I was 15 years old is a real thing? Oh my God, there’s a name for that? I thought. Relief poured over me.

We seek a country”, I used to call it, a phrase I borrowed from Hebrews 11:14, because I felt strange and out of place.

It feels like homesickness, only worse because you’re homesick for somewhere you’ve never been. Not just nostalgia, but great, heavy, soul-crushing melancholy. Some deep, deep ache so intense it’s almost physical, as if you know that something’s missing, but are powerless to fill it. Not just sadness, but The Sadness. The one that extracts your heart out through your toes.

I was 15, overwhelmed with complex emotional confusion that I couldn’t put words to. I had never heard about anything like it before. I didn’t know what to do. I thought I was being silly and stupid and that I just needed to pull myself together and keep my life moving. But it haunted me, that shadow. Everywhere I went, everything I did, that grieving/longing followed me. I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t kick it, so I hid it. No one else ever talked about anything like this. And I never spoke of it because I didn’t think anyone would understand. I thought I was crazy. And I was ashamed.

But this is good news! Similar ideas are recognized in many other languages! Says the great Wiki:

In Mongolian, betgerekh (бэтгэрэх) is closest to saudade. A feeling where a person misses something or someone very deeply, such as a soldier missing their homeland. It can be categorised as a mental illness.

Great. In Mongolia, not only am I woefully, mournfully, more-or-less always in the throes of saudade, I’m crazy too. Yes, that makes me feel MUCH better.

So, of course, this song by Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors immediately came to mind:

“Some days I wake up with the sadness,

Other days it feels like madness.

Oh, what would I do without you?”

Wikipedia elaborates further:

“It can be described as an emptiness, like someone … or something … that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.”

Again according to Wiki: “In Brazil, the day of saudade is officially celebrated on 30 January.”

So all that being said let me address this message directly to the source on the Day of Saudade:

Saudade, what would I do without you? I’m not sure I quite know… Perhaps I would be always airy, bright, and care-free. Always happy and never sad. What a lovely life that would be! But there’s a fragile beauty to this tragi-comedy of mine that I think I would miss, and there you would be at the end, Saudade, waiting for me and we would begin our spiraling dance all over again.

Do you remember when we first met? It was the day I said good-bye to Kabardinka, and I felt everything all at once: love, joy, pain, gratitude, regret, angst, fear, resignation, faith. Everything I had refused to feel until that moment came pouring out of me. And you were there, Saudade, and you never left me.

You see, you were the First. You were the First Great Emotion that I ever felt. You were the first to make my heart beat when I was numb and cold and devoid of feeling. You will always be with me, always be part of me, because I remember so clearly what it felt like to feel something for the first time. Like a piece of my heart I didn’t even know I was missing had suddenly been found. And then ripped away again. Is it any wonder that I have fought and struggled against you so hard? You are happiness and pain and anguish, always two bitters for every sweetNever a day goes by that you don’t greet me, because there has never been a day that I haven’t thought of them. You and Kabardinka are all tied up together in my heart and I can never recall the two of you separately.

All this time I have spent carrying you around, all those prayers for deliverance from you, all those exercises for letting go of you that I have triedBut now I know you, Saudade, and now that we’ve met face-to-face as it were… I’m not sure I would ever give you up.

You are not some formless shadow haunting me as I once believed. All our ghosts have fled. I know your name, Saudade. You are mine. It is not you who holds on to me anymore; it is I who holds on to you.

You are the push that sets my feet to moving, when everything that stays the same becomes unbearable. You are the lines I draw in my doodles. You are the myths I write in my folk-tales.You are the thing chasing me that I can not escape from, until I decide to turn around and chase you. You are the thing that drove me back to Ukraine after 7 years.

And you are the thing I feel when I’m looking through my TEFL course’s school listings – all the places where people have successfully gone to teach English – and I see the very city I have dreamed of for 12 years, Nalchik, is listed. Right there. Staring unblinkingly in my face, blinding me with unassuming pixels on my computer screenYou are with me in that moment when my past and my future collide to form my present, and I realize that the most impossible of all my dreams is not only possible. It is HERE. And my heart lurches and turns over in my chest, because the destiny I have been working toward my entire life I am standing right on the edge of it, teetering like a baby bird about to jump from the edge of the nest to whatever fate awaits.

And there are no words, not even Saudade, to describe what this feels like. Saudade, yes, but something more: Hope and Terror.

I don’t know if this makes me brave or desperate or just plain crazy, but I am tired of being ashamed of feeling this way.

And I don’t want to feel it alone.

So. For anyone out there who knows how saudade feels, January 30th is our day. 



I have waited a very long time to tell this story. It is the memory I hold closest to my heart. But recently I went back to Worldfest and one of the employees, upon hearing me mention how Worldfest had changed my life, encouraged me to write. So here is my story.

It was World Fest, 2002, 11 years ago. I was 15. Wildfire was the hot new coaster, Red Gold Heritage Hall had just opened, and the Fresco Barn served the best Cornish hens I have ever tasted in my life. It seemed like a place where magic could happen. And it did.

But first, you must understand my situation at the time. I had a miserable home life. My parents fought and argued constantly: my mom cried and screamed, my dad broke stuff and cursed everything. It was not a happy place. I was empty and numb, a huge void of emotions, because to feel happiness or joy was to open up to pain and anguish. And no one ever noticed that I was collateral damage of parents at war.

But once in a lifetime something happens that forever splits your life in two: the time before and the time after. For me that something was Kabardinka.

Worldfest brought musicians and dancers from all over the world to share their culture. Who could have known what was about to happen? I was entirely unsuspecting.

When I saw the show by Kabardinka, I had not a clue what Nalchik, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Elbrus were. I only knew that I had never seen dancing like this before. The women were more gentle than doves, more graceful than ballerinas, drifting as softly as feathers borne on the wind, with movements so effortless that they seemed to float just above the floor, the very picture of feminine beauty and mystery. And as much as the women were soft and beautiful, the men were as wild and fierce, creatures of the mountains straight out of legend. Together they were absolutely the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. Every movement, every step, every glance of the eye was timed to perfection. They caught my attention and never let it go, from the moment the first dancing booted foot touched the stage until the last beautiful dancer had disappeared behind the curtain.

I went around in a daze, visions of highlanders and dark-eyed beauties dancing through my head. Dreams of the kind of women wars were fought for and men who would die defending a woman’s honor.Longing for everything my life lacked: integrity, protection, respect, and honor.

Back then there were Closing Ceremonies. All the performers and guests would gather in a big circle and dance around the gazebo as we sang “What a Wonderful World.” To this day I cannot hear that song with a dry eye. “What a Wonderful World” is springtime at Worldfest, the fragrance of flowers after rain, faces I once knew, the first time my heartfelt anything at all. It marks such a sweet memory of such a precious time. After the Closing Ceremonies, I asked to snap a picture with some of the dancers from Kabardinka. Upon learning that I was a dancer too, they oohed and ahhed and asked to see some ballet. As it happened, I was wearing dance sneakers. I did a pretty little curu on my toes and a curtsey. They seemed quite impressed and even applauded. Nothing fancy, nothing special. But that was all it took. From that moment on, despite their very few words of English and my complete lack of Russian, they were my friends and I was their biggest fan.

And by “biggest fan”, I mean, if they had a show, I would be there. 20 times, at least (probably more),over 6 days, 4 different weekends. And by “friends” I mean, whenever they saw me outside of the Hall, they would always break out with huge smiles, wave vigorously, and cry, “Hello, Sarah!” in those thick accents, whether I was in a crowd full of people or just walking in to watch the show. And I would wave back and call, “Privet!” just like they had taught me. When it was time to leave, they would ask, “When are you coming back?” or the broken English equivalent. I can still see it all vividly when I close my eyes, like a video I can turn on at will. And I can clearly recall their faces without the aid of pictures. The memories are so firmly fixed in my mind. Considering I lived in a different state, I really don’t know how I talked my parents into bringing me so often. I asked my mom about it the other day, and her reply was, “Well, at least I always knew where you were.”

My mom had a point. I was always hanging around the dancers, so much so that sometimes other patrons of Worldfest would ask me questions about the group and their culture. And sometimes I could answer. I even ended up playing interpreter a couple of times for those that didn’t speak charades. Communication without words is a skill that has stayed with me to this day.

My friends and I would often go to watch the other shows, wander all over Silver Dollar City, or ride the roller coasters. We loved Wildfire and Thunderation. They taught me their dances and my very first words in Russian. I adored them no end.

Later, when I realized that Kabardinka had toured all over other countries and that some of those dancers who knew me by name and always greeted me with a smile were THE principle dancers of the ensemble, I just couldn’t believe it. Who was I? I was nobody. And yet, while all my world and my parents’ marriage was burning to ashes around me, they were my lifesavers in an ocean of despair.

It was the first time in my life I had ever felt safe. They were the kindest, most compassionate people I had ever met. They showed me glimpses of a world beyond the one I was trapped in, the first ray of dawn in my endless dark night. The dancers of Kabardinka saved my life.

I know I will probably never meet any of those dancers again. But that’s okay. They will hold a special place in my heart. Always. Because of them, I have seen the names of my ancestors carved in stone in a Ukrainian cellar, I have drunk pure water from one of the last clean wells on earth, I have international friends all over the world, I can smile without sadness, and dance freely. I have found things worth living for. I speak Russian and a little Ukrainian, I am proud of my Ukrainian Mennonite heritage, and I learned of my great-uncle who was born in Pyatigorsk, about 55 miles from Nalchik, where Kabardinka was from. I have learned to never let language get in the way of kindness, because I know first-hand the value of a smile. I know who I am because of one chance encounter 11 years ago at Worldfest, Silver Dollar City, Branson, Missouri when a handful of dancers from a city in Russia that no one in Arkansas had ever heard of, were kind to a broken 15year-old girl. To this day their kindness allows me to heal.

If I could ever see them again, I would try to tell them thank you from the bottom of my heart, for saving me from my life, for giving me hope when everything looked hopeless, for showing me goodness when all the other “good” people were passing me by. There is never a day that goes by that I don’t think of them with overwhelming gratitude, that I don’t wish all the best things for them, that I don’t wonder if they would even remember me at all. Because I will never ever forget them. I learned Russian for this very reason, so I could tell them. Just in case I have the chance someday.

Of all the things I hope to do before I die, at the top is to see Kabardinka perform one more time.