March 22, 2015

Homesickness: Where My Heart Is.


In the 17th Century, homesickness was seen as a dangerous disease that people could die from.

I first felt homesick when I was about 11 at summer camp. I actually don’t remember much about the camp itself, but I do remember the feeling.

Every day I woke up with a cold rock inside me: a feeling of such longing and displacement I could barely summon the will to get up out of my sleeping bag. I also remember the relief—the sweet whole-body sigh of relief when I got home again. My home, my family, my place in the world.

South Africa is my original home. Although I have lived 6000 miles away from it for most of my adult life, on most days I feel a longing like a broad underground river in my soul for this place called home. Even in my most blissful moments here in the UK, homesickness flows deep beneath.

Although the UK is now home to me and the beautiful family I have helped create, I still have this echo—this shadow home like a constant figure in the background.

Sometimes late at night, tears come easily. Tears over not being able to go back for a visit again this year, or pop in for a cup of tea with my sister, or support my mom when she moved out of our family home, or be at my niece’s second birthday party and my dad’s 60th (and all the other days between the milestones).

We tried going “home” once. After six years here we boarded a plane back to South Africa. I honestly believed it would be a one-way trip. I was determined it would be. We committed fully, sending all our things, throwing all of our money and energy at our new life “back home.”

But in the end it didn’t work out. For months I fought my husband and myself over what I already knew to be true: we had to come back to the UK. And despite the endless lists of pros and cons that I weighed up obsessively in the scales of my heart and mind, in the end it was a survival decision—financial survival: head over heart.

But the heart doesn’t give up that easily. Mine waged a war with me for the next year.

And then my brother died and it fell to pieces. Pieces of regret, rage and longing. Such longing.

There is a Welsh word that describes these feelings perfectly: hiraeth. In short, it is a deep longing for home.

More than mere childish homesickness, it’s an expression of the bond we feel with our home country when we are away from it. One definition is homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed.

When he died, my deep longing for “home” joined hands with my longing for my departed brother. No matter how far I travelled or how many connecting flights I caught, I would never be able to find him again. The home I carried so carefully in my heart everywhere I went, with my family-members all safely tucked inside was torn down, destroyed by a tsunami of loss.

The last time I was in South Africa was when my brother died.

Since then I have not been able to return, to begin to piece back together my homeland without him in it. My homesickness and my grief have infused one another in a potent cocktail of heartache.

But because I am a mom, a wife, a teacher, an employee, a friend, and because almost no one here knew my brother, I have learnt to turn the throaty wail of my hiraeth down to a whisper—a constant white-noise in the background of my life. And it has become quieter over time, or perhaps I’ve become used to its racket and simply rebuilt myself around it.

I am mostly happy here. I have somehow landed in a community of people who hold me up and love me like they’ve known me for a lifetime, when in reality it’s only a few years or months. My sons are British. I am madly in love with this green and pleasant land. I adore British humour and British summers (when they’re good, they’re good).

The truth is, this is also my home. The truth is, I will never feel entirely at home anywhere ever again, not in the way I did as a child. I think that makes me pretty normal.

Homesickness is an almost-universal experience that actually has little to do with place and more to do with the things and people we love. And the strength of our attachment to them. If we had no-one to love and were not attached to anything, we wouldn’t feel homesick.

So really, we feel homesick because we’re the lucky ones. The ones who have people who love us and who we love back, the ones who have anchor points in this transient life—this is the sweetness of home, and homesickness.

In times of chronic homesickness, I find reading and listening to music help most. The words comfort me. They remind me that even when we are strangers, we are family: we share this experience, this life.

“I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and the dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.” ~Maya Angelou

Author: Khara-Jade Warren

Editor: Caroline Beaton

Photo: Flickr

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