Sehnsucht

February 1, 2009

madison_rainbowI came across a German word-Sehnsucht-that captures what I have often felt, a feeling I can only describe as indescribable. I can, however, name the various experiences and sights and sounds that seem to catch inside of me in a place for that purpose. What is it about the ocean and the rhythmic murmur of breakers and the capacious heavens wheeling above set with the pulsing light of stars that evokes melancholy and a deep yearning? Moonlight floating on the heaving water like mercury, the flashlight beams swooping about like yellow bats of families hunting for sand crabs, and teenagers flocking to the beach to avoid their parents and cruise for fleeting romance?

What is that shaft of emotion piercing the heart, like nostalgia yet different? Nostalgia is that bittersweet longing for a person or a sweet memory tucked away in the folds of the past. We know we often remember a caress as more significant than it was or a drunken evening as funnier than it really could have been. If we learn something from our mistakes, we say, “Hindsight is 20/20.” However, our memories always take on a luster and richness that perhaps speak more to a lack we feel in the present than a more nuanced understanding of the past. We need to remember in golden tones; we need to forget the altercations and swollen, tear-stained faces.

However, Sehnsucht, as I understand it, is a fierce longing for something or someone we have never experienced or met-a longing for fulfillment outside our spheres of experience. I understand nostalgia. For example, bus exhaust on Headington Hill above Oxford, England, brought to mind burnt gunpowder-boyhood days spent in a dove field, sitting but jittery with anticipation, the hay from the bale rough through my camouflage t-shirt, captivated as the birds sashayed and careened through the sunlight. Then, I would burst to my feet, the twelve-gauge over/under finding its nook in my shoulder, deafening explosions, birds stunned in midair and tumbling to the ground, puffs of feathers, pellets raining all around and sometimes stinging the skin. Crunching across the stubble to recover the birds. That boyish jolt of joy with skill and accomplishment and mastery. Feeling like a man for doing something well.

Unless I really dig back into those autumn days, I forget the many shades of my boyish anxiety: What if there are no birds? What if I don’t shoot well? What if I am embarrassed in front of strangers? What if we arrive too late or leave too early? What if I run out of shells? Unless I dig deeply, I don’t remember the inevitable sunburn I had the next day. I forget the make-up homework from skipping school. I forget the missed shots, the lost birds, my best friend’s younger brother who would always shoot too soon, and his mother who would claim birds I thought were mine, not to mention the dirty business of cleaning the birds and the sadness implicit in killing those delicate creatures even if for food, sport, and camaraderie. Or, did we kill out of envy?

We must work to piece together the full picture of a memory because we most often pick the ripest fruits and leave the less palatable. Something will always be left out, forgotten forever. And perhaps this is a gift from our Creator-the grace of remembering the sun-warmed sweetness, the triumphs that become more brilliant than they truly were, the failures without the full taint of humiliation, and the trespasses of others without the deep sting of anger. Perhaps nostalgia humanizes us in that regard. Yet, no matter how hard we struggle, we cannot live in the moment. I cannot fully appreciate her hair blazing at dusk; my father’s hands warm on my neck while he taught me how to tie a single Windsor; the big Rainbow out of Big Creek at the end of our last day of fishing in central Idaho. I was so relieved to land it and have my picture taken that I failed to savor the sensation of my rod straining against its power in the mountain-cold water.

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