In preparing a spoken word and cello reflection entitled 'Hiraeth' (the Welsh word meaning a longing for home), I have been reflecting on the notion of home. Of course, home is more than house, more than bricks and mortar, more than a solid and fixed point. But home can contain those things as well as be contained by them. Homing pigeons have an innate, home-calibrated compass, as do cats and dogs. And we humans are driven to seek that same sense of comfort, safety and containment. Those who travel for their profession often carry knick knacks or other accoutrements in order to invest their temporary accommodation with a sense of home. We often use the German word, gemütlichkeit, to describe a pleasing sense of comfort and familiarity, finding that English cannot convey the same resonances. Similarly, the Danish, hygge, a concept that has recently taken hold of the British imagination, embraces that sense of cosiness, ease, home-like pleasure and the care and comfort afforded by imaginative hospitality.
I have yet to identify a word in any language for a feeling state that I believe I first became aware of in my 20's. It was one of those glorious autumn days in New England, blue and golden, warm with a hint of crispness. The air smelt different. It suggested fruitfulness, abundance and promises as yet unfulfilled. I had been trolling a flea market and had come away with two very lovely champagne glasses and a large pumpkin from which I intended to create a pie in the style of those sticky, spice-sweet autumn desserts of my Canadian childhood. Memory, hospitality, safety, pleasure and something more, something ineffable having to do with the gifts of nature, the magic of the light, converged to produce in a me a sort of domestic ecstasy. Recently I have asked several women friends if they know what I am talking about, although it is difficult to communicate something for which there seems to be very little vocabulary. Have they, I asked, been moved to a strange sort of joy and a sense of possibility by the way the light falls from a window in their house, or by a particular shadow that they've seen again and again in the corner of a room? One friend ventured that perhaps that strange joy was a product of the mystery of nature meeting the more solid gifts of shelter.
For home is, of course, shelter, and that shelter can have less salubrious connotations. Containment can become constriction, turning walls into a prison. And walls not only hold things between them but exclude what is outside whether it be the cold, or wind or other people or even the happenstance of the unpredictable. So we walk a fine line between a longing on the one hand for the security and containment of home and on the other, for freedom and possibility. We walk a line between bestowing on a place the sense that it is our place,thereby creating a sense of identity and belonging, and on the other hand, understanding that from the vantage point of a greater perspective, we have no fixed identity, we belong nowhere and everywhere.
This hiraeth, this longing for home contains issues of identity, belonging and a nostalgia for what was. Because in that notion of home there is not only a sense of place but a sense of time. And while we might return to a a certain latitudinal and longitudinal coordinate, we cannot return to the past. The American novel, 'You Can't Go Home Again' by Thomas Wolfe, published in 1940, explores this notion. And it is often true that ex-patriot communities get locked in time, continuing to perform customs or use turns of phrase that have long been dispensed with in their country of origin.
And yet there is a home that we can return to.
In his poem 'Journey Home', Rabindranath Tagore tells us:
The time that my journey takes is long and the way of it long. I came out on the chariot of the first gleam of light, and pursued my voyage through the wildernesses of worlds leaving my track on many a star and planet.
It is the most distant course that comes nearest to thyself, and that training is the most intricate which leads to the utter simplicity of a tune. The traveler has to knock at every alien door to come to his own, and one has to wander through all the outer worlds to reach the innermost shrine at the end. My eyes strayed far and wide before I shut them and said `Here art thou!'
The question and the cry `Oh, where?' melt into tears of a thousand streams and deluged the world with the flood of the assurance `I am!'
'Hiraeth: A Longing for Home' will be performed on Sunday the 14th of October at 6:00 at St Barnabas Church, SW18 5EP. Admission free.