A pastime that gives me great pleasure, and whiles away many delightful hours, is researching and learning foreign words and phrases for which there’s no direct English translation. I call them “sentient words” or “ethereal words” and even “subconscious words,” as they cannot be described or explained, they can only be felt. Words like mono no aware (Japanese)—”the pathos of things,” “a sensitivity to ephemera.” A term for the awareness of the transience of things, and a gentle sadness at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life. Ya’aburnee (Arabic)—”you bury me.” Literally the hope that someone you love will outlive you to spare you the pain of their passing. Fernweh (German)—sickness or longing for faraway, foreign unknown places, and wabi-sabi (Japanese)—finding beauty in impermanence, imperfection, decay and incompleteness.
And then there’s my personal long-time favourite—saudade—a Portuguese and Galician word that attempts to describe a profound state of nostalgia or melancholic longing for something or someone that one loves, often with the knowledge that it or they may never return. Sometimes described as “the love that remains” after someone or something is gone.
It’s rare that I have an emotional meltdown, very rare. It happens every ten years or so, maybe. I’m the quintessential outer “ice maiden” and have been called “unfeeling” and other less complementary things by those with whom I will only allow the surface of my being to connect. I do not externalize pain, having long ago made friends with myself, and I accept responsibility for those fickle things called “emotions and feelings.” “Cowboys don’t cry” was the mantra with which my father raised his two daughters, so tears are not something that easily flows. Yes, my peepers glitter at the sight of a breathtaking sunset, or crashing waves, and a little drop may find its way out of the duct at some extreme sight of horror or deprivation, but rarely does a dam well up and overflow.
Enter the gym—the place to where those in highly polluted cities go to give their bodies and hearts a solid hour or so of reckoning. Three times a week, the two of us hit the treadmill in the local gym for at least an hour. Lately, the air conditioning hasn’t been working too well, so we move a fan to blow on two or three of a row of seven treadmills. We make sure that we have treadmills next to each other as we’re constantly exchanging thoughts and ideas on life, people and the state of the world. To ensure the least disturbance to other treaders-of-mills, we always try to take those at either end of the row of seven.
This particular day, the first treadmill had been taken, the others weren’t then accessible, so we took the next two in the row. We looked like this IIIIUUO—treadmill, treadmill, treadmill, treadmill, us, us, other. We turned the fan on to try and only hit the two of us, and commenced our chatter walk. After some 20 minutes, the other treader completed his exercise, and we were the only two left in the gym. Another 20 minutes passed and we had built up a great heartbeat, were breathing reasonably heavily, and the sweat was running. It felt good.
An elderly woman arrived and came to stand behind me. She didn’t say a word, just stood there. Without uttering a word, she walked over to the fan and switched it off. Without missing a step, I turned to her and said, “We need that.” She ignored me. I again said, “If you don’t mind, we need that. The treadmill on the end doesn’t get any wind, if that bothers you.” Without even acknowledging my existence, she walked over to the treadmill next to my partner and commenced her warming up. I was gently flabbergasted. It’s beyond my understanding that people can be completely, not just mindless, but uncaring about others. We continued the last ten minutes of our jog in exhausting heat, and then left. I kept trying to make sense of this woman’s behaviour. I couldn’t.
On arriving home, after getting out of the sweaty clothes, I collapsed on the sofa for a while to think about what had happened. I did a careful recall of the occurrence. I saw the woman, I saw the gym, I saw us. I saw all the treadmills, the fan, the window overlooking the pool and clearly saw the view from each treadmill. I saw the wind of the fan touching some treadmills, ignoring others. I became a presence in the room—a veritable fly on the wall—observing without judging. I saw each moment—the woman coming into the gym, standing at the treadmills watching us, looking at the fan, and without asking us whether we needed it turning it off, her expressionless non-reaction to my request to please leave it on, and her continuing her repertoire—utterly unconcerned with who might be affected by her need to ensure her own comfort.
And I understood. I understood this not as a personal affront, but as a microcosm of what is going on on this planet. How we move through our lives and the lives of others. We are not unaware, we have stopped caring. Even when we are shown a need, we look away. We see, but we choose to close our eyes, hear but plug our fingers in our ears. We cross the street to avoid the beggar, yet spend hours tied up with ourselves. We’re living in the century of the selfie, the age of the ego, and the other is simply an intrusion to either be ignored or eliminated.
And I wept in the fullness of saudade—the seeing of and longing for something I loved, with the knowledge that it has left, forever. But the love remains.