A Visit to the Land of Nod
The nod as pandemic salute, time machine, and mystical communication device
You’re walking on an empty street in your hometown. Someone approaches and a meeting of some kind is inevitable. To ignore them would be an act in itself, since it almost seems, for a moment, like you’re the only two people in existence. Perhaps there is mistrust or fear or who knows, but there is an antidote, it turns out: the humble nod. That simple movement, if returned, can be a powerful act.
A nod is often something beyond language, whether you’re bopping along to music or offering affirmation when someone is telling a story. The slightest movement of the head can lend a sense of welcome and grant the gift of recognition to a fellow pedestrian, acquaintance, whoever you happen to cross paths with. The nod can act as a beacon of solidarity between Black people in white-dominated spaces, a form of the “light telepathy” described in Raven Leilani’s novel Luster. Nods have many meanings. In Greece, a nod means both yes and no, depending on whether the head tilts up (no) or down (yes). The Indian head nod, or bobble, can be particularly befuddling to outsiders. A riddle.
Before the pandemic, I lived in Mexico City and found my nods frequently unreturned. I’m not sure if it was because I looked like an outsider, or perhaps nodding isn’t quite as culturally ingrained there. But when I returned to the U.S., I was quickly awash in nods from strangers at the grocery store, in the street, and elsewhere — they felt redeeming: Welcome back. This quarantine era has been so isolating, I think they have extra weight. With all these masks, you can’t really show a smile, so the text of your face is mostly illegible.
The original meaning of nod comes from the Hebrew word to wander and makes a biblical appearance, referring to exile east of Eden, where Cain is sent after he’s killed his brother, Abel. But nod also meant “sleep,” as in nodding off. Thanks to a pun by Jonathan Swift, some believe, the Land of Nod merged these meanings to refer to the realm you enter just before you fall asleep, a kind of wandering, too.
Trapped inside this past year, I’ve noticed myself meandering through the corridors of memory more than…