This Is Us

A Visit to the Land of Nod

The nod as pandemic salute, time machine, and mystical communication device

Black and white superimposed image of a sculpture of a face.
Black and white superimposed image of a sculpture of a face.
Photo: Bill Benzon/Flickr

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 before. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion recommends staying on nodding terms with who you used to be to resist the many revisions and oversights of memory. That way, you can keep an eye on the stray parts of yourself: “Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.”

Didion’s nod across time made me think of Pajtim. We went to elementary school together but weren’t really friends. We weren’t on bad terms, either. He was just someone else in the grade. Who knows, we might’ve even traded Pokémon cards at some point. A door of memory swung open: I was in the schoolyard with a buddy who was picking on Pajtim, for reasons unknown to me. He was a little heavy; maybe that made him a target. My buddy threw a large rubber ball at him, one we usually used for kickball, and I stood there watching. I didn’t stop it. Pajtim chased us and my buddy called him a “tub of lard.” I still think of this anytime I hear the word lard. I think of Pajtim, who’d been minding his own business, and then was hit, and chased us, and took down my buddy and punched me in the face, and I was crying and we were all in the principal’s office, and Pajtim was the one who got in trouble.

It felt almost karmic, since my own career of being bullied started minutes after. I was leaving school with someone who had been a friend, but then he kept laughing as he inspected my face, delighted at how the punch had bent my nose. He was trying to impress a girl who was walking with us, and I panicked, not having a mirror, just his laughter as testimony. In the years afterward, as others snickered, I wondered if it were really Pajtim who had punched those taunts into existence or if my nose was always like that and I’d just never had a reason to look closely. It was easier to make sense of being bullied if there were someone to blame, so I blamed Pajtim.

Before the door of memory closed, the younger version of me nodded to his older counterpart, as though schooled in Didion’s essay. The essence of the look was: Don’t forget the hundreds of small humiliations, the terror of scrutiny. Be gentle with people. Then another door opened: I was in a bar and saw someone from my past who used to make me feel like shit. He wanted to catch up and clink beers, but I said sorry, I was just leaving. I wasn’t going to allow him to coat over all the things he’d said with a metaphorical nod, some kind of pleasant exchange of what we’d been up to over the last decade. I think it hurt him, as it often does to have a nod declined. Unacknowledged.

Some doors were harder to pry ajar. There was this time as teenagers that kids were calling one boy “Kermit” — it had become his nickname even though he hated it, likened to a frog — and I sort of, kind of, tried to get them to stop but mostly giggled; part of me was just happy that finally, it wasn’t me.

Is it true I wasn’t involved in throwing the ball at Pajtim? That I just stood there? Why would he have punched me if I had really done nothing? It’s hard to remember, but maybe I’ve sanded down the memory because it didn’t feel good to see the person I was capable of being. I’ve written about being bullied before, how it was so ingrained and how it had a significant, negative effect on me, but it complicates the narrative a little bit that I might’ve been a bully, too, once upon a time.

Many years after elementary school, I was on a subway. I was looking around at the gallery of faces on the train when I saw him. I saw Pajtim. It was shocking, dreamlike; neither of us moved. We held each other’s gaze. Who knows what he remembered? My heart pounded. Had I wronged him? Or was I mostly just a bystander and actually, he’d wronged me, his punch turning me into a target? Would there be one last brawl?

I don’t know what calculations happened for him in those split seconds. For me, I think it’s true what Gore Vidal said: If you live long enough, even your enemies become contemporaries.

But something told me, and I think it told Pajtim too, that we’d never been enemies, not really. I had a dream the other night and I couldn’t remember most of it, but I scribbled down the phrase “in sympathy with.” That was what I felt we were that day on the train, in sympathy with each other, even without reminiscing. As though somehow he could wander into the deep of my experience and I into his; we weren’t enemies, nor were we friends, but we had been through something together and survived it. There was only one way to honor that. He nodded to me. I nodded to him. I got off the train and it disappeared into the tunnel.

Jason Schwartzman’s debut book, NO ONE YOU KNOW, will be out in May 2021 from Outpost19. The book chronicles his deepest and most memorable encounters with strangers, all revolving around the question of what it means to really know someone.

Debut book NO ONE YOU KNOW out now from Outpost19 | Founding Editor, True.Ink | Twitter: @jdschwartzman |

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