A Welsh word, “hiraeth” means a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
In an essay titled “In the Light of Home,” Jennifer Trafton writes:
It is precisely the place-ness of home that I am interested in: the incarnate reality of it, the dirt and the roof and the bones of it. My deep longing is rooted in earth… A place itself binds intangible realities with tangible ones in a unity of spirit and flesh that is sacramental. The tree, the peculiar bend of that path, the scratch on the windowpane… they are all a holy communion… That tree is like a push pin holding precious memories in place.
My childhood home was a white colonial with green shutters and pillars on the front porch. My dad built it by hand, along with the large barn where we stored the logs for our wood stove. We used to climb the woodpile and use it to clamber up and swing from the barn rafters. He also built us a fort on stilts, with a trapdoor, from which we spent countless hours spying on roving bands of pirates and launching pine cones at them from slingshots when they got too close. There was a trampoline, but it was dug into the ground to reduce the risk of falls, and in the winter we would crawl down underneath it as an underground igloo. There was a fenced-in garden, with ducks who lived in two little white houses; we would gather their eggs for baking.
We had a golden retriever named Maggie, and several barn cats. We also had an ATV that my mother (miraculously) permitted us to ride through the fields and woods, pulling behind it a trailer that often served as a covered wagon when we played Little House on the Prairie. In the spring we had a maypole planted in the yard, for our various vernal festivities (some perhaps more pagan than others, but we were well-read little girls with vivid imaginations). We especially loved to go a-Maying: dressed in our finest gowns, gathering bouquets of purple camas and white yarrow and yellow desert parsley, tying them with colorful ribbons, dropping them on the porches of neighbors, and then ringing doorbells and quickly hiding in a flurry of giggles and silk.
But best of all was the forest. Pine trees towered to the sky – perfect for climbing to the very top and clutching tightly as you swayed back and forth in the breeze. The needles on the paths crunched under your feet, and the air smelled like the sap that would stick to your fingers. We had the whole forest mapped out: from our fort towards the entrance, to the pit in the center, through the “rainforest,” and passing the log cabin (where we found the Styrofoam boar that made it to our backyard as an archery target). Finally, we would end in Terabithia at the farthest reaches of the forest. If you were there, you had gone too far (a fact which my father pointed out, having finally caught up to us when our walkie-talkies went out of range). It was Narnia, Mirkwood, and the Forbidden Forest all rolled into one.
Trafton recalls how when she was 40, her parents sold her childhood home. “The last time I went home before my parents moved, I realized what it was about my old bedroom that made it precious to me: I know the light in that room. I have dwelt in the light until I recognize the color of it, the quality of its presence, the slant of the refracted sunbeams through those windows…”
My childhood home was sold when I was just a teenager, but the feeling was precisely the same: it was the light I loved most. The day we moved out of our house, I got up early in the morning and went out to the forest, and sat beneath my favorite tree. I watched the sunrise, the way the light first crowned the tips of the pine trees, then pooled in along the pathway through the woods before spilling out to the rest of it.
I have always had a strong sense of nostalgia for past times and places. But more than anywhere else, I have longed for my childhood home – for a place and a time that was a sanctuary, a place of utter joy, peace, and the carefreeness of childhood. My parents now live in a different, nearby town. But every time we fly into Spokane, I am struck with the longing to go see our old home.
This past summer visit, my parents graciously gave in to my whim, and we did go back to visit. The place had changed, of course. It was, as Neil Gaiman puts it, smaller than I remembered. Tall trees had grown up, and the new owners had planted a garden and painted it a different color. But standing in front of the house, I was still struck with the same pang of hiraeth.
I took my children by the hand, and led them into the woods of my childhood. I showed them the time machine, the magic ladder, the fort. I saw their eyes grow wide with wonder. “I think these woods go on forever,” my son exclaimed.
Before we left the woods, I gathered my favorite wildflowers. And, buried beneath layers of dirt and pine, I found the old wooden sign once perched above our porch, with “Welcom” engraved on it in a childish scrawl. I took it with me.
But hiraeth is not just a longing for a home we have lost; it can even be a longing for a home that has never been. And in my adult life, as the wife of an academic, we have never yet had to be in one place long enough to feel that sense of home. Instead, we have been transients – moving from Idaho, to Indiana, to New Jersey, to Iowa. I don’t know if my children will ever have one place that is “home” to them. Great writers like Wendell Barry and Marilynne Robinson devote a lot of time to the subject of home and place and rootedness, and so this idea is something I have struggled to come to terms with. I am not quite there yet.
I think that is why the end of Trafton’s piece resonates so very deeply with me. She writes:
We were created with place knitted into our souls… And that is why I do not believe in a disembodied heaven separate from the earth we have known and loved… I don’t think that when we die we will simply leave one home behind and go to a better one—not exactly. More like this: all of that human sense of home-ness will be gathered together—the homes we have loved and lost, the homes we have longed for and never found—concentrated into a single point, magnified and perfected, like light focused by a lens… Light we know. Light that knows us.
I have a recurring dream, in which I bring my children back to that house in the country. Everyone is there – my mom and dad, my little sister, even our golden retriever Maggie. All waiting to greet us, to welcome us home. My children roam the old rooms and run through the fields and the forests, and we are home. Where we always belonged. And together, we watch the sunrise.
“And there will be no more night there. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” (Rev. 22:5)
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Thank you for those those amazing words. We have also moved a lot. Home is family.
Thank you for this wonderful piece on a topic that is not often written about! I agree completely with the importance that place has on our lives and would love to see more people engaging with this idea, so thank you for bringing this to light. I think one reason that our childhood home often has such an impact on us is that when we were children, we were constantly learning to love our “place.” We were exploring every nook and cranny, digging in the dirt, playing outside in every season, and learning what it meant to live “there.” Now, as adults, I think it’s so easy to think that we’ve grown out of this need to love the place where we’re living, especially as the transience of where we live is so much more prevalent. We often want to save ourselves from the hurt we know that will come if we fall in love with a place and then have to leave. Yet, as you said, God gives us this longing for place, these earthy roots for a reason, and that is not, I think, something to be taken lightly. This impacts both how we live in the present and our view on eschatology. Thank you for such a well-written piece on an important topic!
Thank you…that was a delicious read to start my day.
Thank you for these memories so beautifully presented.
I wonder if what the Welsh call hiraeth and what you seek to capture in you essay is what C. S. Lewis called sehnsucht, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, our lifelong nostalgia. In other words, it is more than a place, a house, a time. It is an incompleteness brought about by your–and all of our–fallenness. And so our joys are never quite complete. As the old hymn puts it, “From fullest bliss that earth imparts we turn unfilled. . . .”
Perhaps that’s what the text from Revelation tells us.
This is precisely the danger — Lewis’s romanticism and nordicism was of a piece of his era, the era of romantic nationalism. We know how it played out, and so did he. It was difficult to love Wagner, Parsifal, and Siegfried as an Englishman (or Ulsterman) in the 20s, 30s, and 40s — Derek Brewer once shared an anecdote about how Lewis and Tolkien would sneak off to see The Ring in London after Sehnsucht for Northernness had become definitive of the Third Reich. Lewis struggled quite openly with his spiritual journey as a path that came through neopaganism, spiritualism, and an erotic flair that colours all his work.
God does not come to people in the forms of their countries and cultures to deify them. To mistake the sign for the thing itself is the semiosis of idoltry. To long for something that does not exist is to love an idol of our own making, and even hope may tend to be hope for the wrong things, as T. S. Eliot put it.
Be careful what you long for,