I have a mild obsession with words. Okay, scratch that. I am obsessed with words. I love nothing more than to learn a new word, especially so if that word becomes a part of me or seems as if it’s a word I have always known.
That’s exactly how I felt when I stumbled across the word hiraeth. Until several months ago, I was never aware of the word. But when I read its definition, I fell in love. Go ahead, judge me. I’m a nerdy English teacher, an eccentric writer, a crazy artist… But you just might fall in love, too:
HIRAETH (n.) [hear-eth]
A homesickness for a place you can never return to; a place which maybe never was; the yearning, the nostalgia, the grief for the lost places of your past
Hiraeth is a feeling that has always been a part of me for as long as I can remember, and I know it’s been a part of you, too. When I was a little girl, I remember crawling out of bed and hiding in the dark beside my bedroom air-vent in our old two-story home just so I could hear the murmurs of my parents’ voices lull in and out of the private conversations beneath me. I could never make out what they said, and I had only been in my mother’s arms just hours before, yet I was full of a hiraeth I did not fully understand.
I remember feeling this magnetic sadness for what “was” and what “could-have-been” after leaving home for college. I wasn’t the only one to leave. My parents and sister moved away from my hometown for the mountains of North Carolina just weeks after my high school graduation. In a matter of weeks, I was alone, grappling with the notion that nothing would ever look the same again. The long familiar road I traveled down as a child—on foot, on bike, by car—was a place I’d never returned to because there was no “home” to go back to. Moving vans and U-Haul boxes and bank transactions made it so.
This meant there was no old bedroom to comfort me in the hurricane of change that is college. It meant there would be no Sunday night dinners I could return to with a bag full of dirty clothes to launder. And there would be no more fields or woods where I could roam like I did as I child. I was a vagabond now—a rootless sapling.
I felt this longing even more when I learned that this house, the only family home I had ever known, sat vacant and was later destroyed by a water-main break. The whole house was flooded, rotted from the inside out, and soon demolished. I promised my mother I wouldn’t return to look at the ruins, but I broke this promise after many years of keeping it.
It was just last summer when that sensation of hiraeth for home was so strong that I felt compelled like a sickness to go to it. I remember pulling down the road already in deep regret, just before sunset. The air was humid and heavy, only like Florida in June can be, and the cicadas roared in the summer air a rhythm that had been a part of me since my childhood. I cannot count for you all of the times those cicadas sang me to sleep throughout my childhood, as the summer breeze made my white lace curtains billow and waltz along the open sliding-glass-doors.
When our old property finally came into view, it was indecipherable. It had been given up to a jungle of voracious weeds and vines with absolutely no sign that there had ever been a home there at all. The only piece of my childhood I was able to untangle was the great old oak tree that had appeared to double in size just inside the fence. I climbed that tree and did a lot of thinking there. I wish I had taken a picture of it. It is one of the only things I can recognize from those first eighteen years of my life. It is what hiraeth looks like to me now.
Hiraeth: It is our longing for more, a deep sense that we are not fully home, that we must continue on still so that we may find that sacred place.
Hiraeth: It is the yearning to recapture what was, what could have been, what might have been had we been different… had the world been different.
Hiraeth: It is the more complicated half of being human. The half we feel but cannot fully understand. The half that yearns but cannot be fully quenched.
Perhaps this is because we were never made for this world. Perhaps hiraeth is simply the state of passing through. Perhaps it is our desire for God or for a heaven we have yet to know.
I find it strange—maybe uncanny is the better word—that hiraeth is something we all have in common, no matter our age, gender, race, orientation, or politics. It is a wanderlust none of us can seem to still, an appetite that is brought to hunger with every beat of our hearts.
So then, it is also true that all of our hearts beat together in symphony, for so much more. And if this is the case, wouldn’t we want to be easier on each other? Wouldn’t we want to acknowledge that longing in one another, rather than find ways to be divided?
Hiraeth: It is what unites us in this human experience. We are all longing for something. For me, it’s that childhood home I’ll never see again. It’s the great old oak tree I’d get stuck in. And it’s the lonely woods I got lost in. They are all a piece of me now.
But what they represent? That’s innocence. It’s safety. And it’s a time when everything felt alright in the world. And you, wherever you are, you’re a piece of me too. Why? Because we both possess a hiraeth we’ll never fully understand and that makes us the same. I just pray, in this journey, somehow we can both find a semblance of home and find a peace in this tumultuous world.
Be it in a friendly smile.
An infant you cradle.
Or a garden you plant.