Words of Esperança (Hope)

Naming the Unknown

July 30th, 2014


Naming the Unknown

You never know when it will grab you. You’re walking down a street you know well, a street you walk every day. Suddenly someone’s voice, drifting over a backyard fence, catches your heart, stops your breath and leaves an ache in its place.

Or a wonderful aroma, wafting from a bakery or  garden, pulls you back into an earlier, seemingly sweeter time. You’re hearing your own heartbeat, then feeling the silence between beats, the faint echo of the past.

The Brazilians have a word for it – saudade. It’s so much more than nostalgia, deeper than simple memories. It’s the almost inexpressible longings that we all live with, longings that I finally put a name to when I moved to Brazil. Saudade.

I was reminded of my self-discovery on a recent trip to visit my dad. He took me to the Santa Fe Folk Arts Museum without saying why. We entered the museum (one of my favorite places to visit), walked across the familiar second-level courtyard, went through an archway. And there I was, back in Brazil. The familiar feeling of saudade was overwhelming.

The Brazilian exhibit included costumes and videos from the powerful macumba and candomblé ceremonies, moving displays of life-into-death symbols, the whimsical clay figures of everyday life which had some additions I hadn’t seen before – a lineman on an electrical pole, a man being booked into a police station and – my favorite – a patient lying on a psychiatrist’s couch.

And floating through the rooms of the exhibit, the sometimes throbbing,  sometimes sobbing music of Brazil. Make no mistake, those Brazilian songs we all hum, sing and dance to are often written deep in the grip of saudade. Whether we understand the words or not, the ache of longing is another line of the music.

I might be making Brazilians sound like a people burdened with heavy feelings of sorrow. And we all know that’s not true. Anyone who’s spent a few minutes watching clips of Carnaval or the early days of the World Cup understands Brazilians do not think of themselves that way.

Yes, they have sometimes unfathomable longings they display and describe as saudade. But those same deep feelings can also bring great joy. The little clay band I brought home from Brazil, with bright orange cowboy hats and homemade instruments, is accompanied by a circle of tiny laughing  dancers. Just looking at them makes me happy and brings back memories of vibrant celebrations with people who became my friends for life.

So think of saudade the next time something rings deeply in your heart. Then remember, as I try to, that for every moment of saudade, there is another moment of joy. The band is playing, the sun is shining and it is truly time to circle back to the dance of life.


PenWriting Prompts

Use these phrases to start a piece of your own writing.

“…a longing for something or someone you never had.”
“…the silence between heartbeats…another line of the music.”


Leaning Into the Landscape

March 14th, 2014

“Your setting is another character in your novel,” my friend said one night in writing group. We were looking at my latest chapter of  Angel,  but we could have been looking at my life. Or anyone else’s for that matter.

Setting, the landscape, the world around us, affects us in ways we recognize or don’t. If the setting is familiar, we may not even notice it much. Even when we do – when we are aware that we live in a place that is unique – we still may not understand how it has become a part of our bones and cells.

In a story, the setting affects the characters in much the same way. They may have lived all their lives in the same little village – as the townspeople in Angel most certainly have.  They think of their village – its smells, sounds, tastes, even its air – as just “the village.”

Yet every day, their actions and reactions are shaped in part by that familiar setting. The small houses of mud and wattle enclose the villagers with the same earth they walk on, the same earth they will be buried in. Little boys kicking a half-flattened ball down the same dusty streets where their fathers once played fill the air with shouts. Outdoor baking ovens tended by young girls and their mothers send the aroma of delicious sugar buns down those same streets. Even the jungle, not part of their physical experience, looms “green and hungry” in the stories they tell, the dreams that haunt them.

And when something shifts in their landscape – a flood, a stranger appearing on the shore of their river bank, a woman suddenly shut in a tower – they in turn must shift to accommodate the change or refuse to shift and face the consequences of not budging.  Relationships slide, arguments break out, people turn away or turn toward each other. Some leave, some decide, for the first time in their lives, to stay.

When I first came to Brazil as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was the stranger arriving on the shore. But I was also the American reeling from changes I couldn’t have imagined. Everything was brighter, louder, hotter, sweeter, more pungent. Different.  Even the night sky was different – the stars startlingly rearranged and so much closer in my little town without electricity.

Eventually, I relaxed into this new place, then fell in love with its wonders, then made it in some way my own. So much so that when I returned to the U.S., I was shocked to realize that its once familiar landscape had suddenly become foreign to me. I had to relearn the tastes, smells and sounds of the world I had once called home.

Writing Prompts

PenToday’s writing prompts come, appropriately, from two articles in the Nov./Dec. 2013 issue of Orion magazine, a publication of “nature, culture, place.”

“There’s a kind of wind here that’s filled with dirt.”
“If grief had a landscape, what shape would it take?”


Use Your Words

February 28th, 2014

Words – spoken, written, sung, used in a text or a blog. They are my daily bread and water, the air I breathe, the work I love.

So imagine my surprise – horror! – at arriving in my Peace Corps village in Brazil with almost no words. Me. The young writer and champion talker (just ask my friends) suddenly had the vocabulary of a 2-year-old. I could demand things like food, drinks, the bathroom. I could say, “No, No, No.” I couldn’t say “Thank you” or “Happy to meet you,” much less “tristeza” (sadness) or “esperanҫa” (hope).

But filled with vast amounts of esperanҫa and the confidence of every 22-year-old, I strode out into the dirt streets of my little town sure that I could easily pick up the words of this new language I was hearing. And I did. Or came very close. And coming close had hilarious consequences.

One morning, one of my neighbors, attempting to talk to me, asked me what Americans eat for breakfast. I told her I had oatmeal (aveia) every morning Only I said “areia.” A long pause, then she asked, “How do you prepare it?” I went into rhapsodies of description – with milk, not water, with raisins and brown sugar. I strolled away happy with my lengthy conversation, then realized, walking into my house, that I had told her I eat sand! Every morning, yes, with milk and….

Not too long after, I passed another neighbor standing in front of his house, enjoying the morning sun. I waved cheerily and called out my version of “Bom dia” – good morning. He bowed slightly and gravely, then staggered into his house where I could hear him laughing helplessly. The new American had just yelled “little rear end” at him.

Eventually, I made friends with a woman who became the Brazilian mother I needed. Like every good mother, she gently corrected me. After a while, she felt comfortable enough to laugh first, explain – sometimes with a red face – what I had just said, then give me the oh-so-close right word.  Eventually, I learned enough Portuguese (and my Brazilian friends learned enough of my version of their language), that we could laugh and cry together, make silly jokes and share secret sorrows.

Among many other treasures I carried back to the U.S., I brought a new and profound appreciation for language, for the words we speak and write and take for granted.

Without our words, our world would be complete chaos. Without language, we would be dust.

PenWriting Prompt

Use these phrases to start a piece of your own writing. Today’s prompts come from an excellent Word reading at The Cabin with poets Keri Webster and Danny Stewart and playwright Heidi Kraay.

“Did I mention?…Did I mention?”
“Some nights call for hooves.”

Mark Park Publishing

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