Leviathan used to be my favorite word. I think that was partly because of how it sounded, but also because it described a sea monster. I first heard the word when I was about eight. That was because of the sci-fi flick of the same title, starring Peter Weller and Ernie Hudson. You can’t beat the pairing of Robocop and a Ghostbuster tackling a sea monster.
In recent years, I’ve come to know a new favorite word. Perhaps I should just make a list of favorite words, as it difficult to choose just one.
This word is different. There’s a beauty in the sound of it; as if it should be the name of a fair-haired girl, with blue eyes and a mournful look. It’s a word that speaks of serene landscapes, that are in perpetual overcast dawn. It is a word of mourning, and yet it carries great love.
It’s a word known by experience, not definition. I felt this word before I knew it’s meaning. It never fully goes away, as the wounds on one’s heart don’t fully heal; they just form emotional scar tissue. It doesn’t mean one can never love again. It just means that one must be careful how they love.
Hiraeth is a Welsh word, meaning, “The pain of longing, and loss; coupled with homesickness.” It can be homesickness. It can be the feeling of loss of a loved one. It can be both. It also carries nostalgia; which itself means, “pain from an old wound.” Yet, people pay good money for nostalgia these days. Just look at all the old Atari and Nintendo systems on EBay. However, no one has to pay for hiraeth; as it comes for free.
I first felt this word on the day I flew back from England to the U.S. I’d just visited the U.K. for the first time. I was only able to spend a week, yet I didn’t want to leave. I’d dreamed of the U.K., specifically England, since I was a child. For the first time in my life, I felt like I belonged somewhere. I couldn’t stop smiling when I entered the airport at Birmingham, and saw the Union Flag flying overhead. I couldn’t stop smiling that entire first day. There were so many firsts that day. There were so many things I experienced that week. It rained on the last day, which felt appropriate for a number of reasons. I carrying a longing to return to a place, and its people.
My mother once said, “Men don’t get attached to places.”
I disagree. I feel that everyone leaves a part of their essence in a place they love, or that had significance to them. Though some terrible things happened in the house where I grew up, I still felt it was home. Though the last time I saw it, it didn’t feel like home anymore. It seemed foreign to me. It’s as if the place only exists in memory now. I have no desire to return to the actual building. Nor, would I return to the flat where my mother died.
There are places I do get attached to, and couldn’t picture life without. But, there are also places that I don’t miss, and am ready to move on from, and not experience again.
Then there are the places I’ve only touched, but not fully explored. Like a lover giving up their secrets, there’s always more to find. You could spend a lifetime searching, and still not know everything. Those are the places I love the most.
I’m in a period now where I have lost much. Yet, I have not given up hope; as it is all that drives me forward. I find myself in another place where things seemed to be stabilizing, and then became unstable again. There is much uncertainty, and little I can control. Yet, I have not lost hope. Maybe that’s a side of hiraeth that few have explored; the hope of return?
Hiraeth also carries with it an element of love. We feel hiraeth most toward the ones that we love, because we know time is short. We need to make every moment with them count. I’ve written before that even a hundred years is a blink in the eye of God. As such, we are all on limited time frames on, what Carl Sagan called, “The pale blue dot.” We can’t afford to waste a second.
So, that is why I sometimes jump the gun in life. I want to take in everything that matters to me, and not let it go. I want to experience this world, and share it with someone. I want them, and everyone else to know that it all mattered, and that my life wasn’t just wasted time. So, I’ve found another aspect of hiraeth; mourning over lost time. Yet, I still look to the future, as I know the lost time can’t be regained. Only the future can be acquired.
One can feel hiraeth over a person. No matter how many people one loves, that is always someone that gives us a sense of hope, or even a sense of purpose. Perhaps that hope and purpose cannot be lost? Even with all the upsets and confusion that goes on in the heart, those dual senses can still exist. Yes, I speak of someone that I love dearly. Someone who is in pain. Because of that pain, they have drawn away from me. Yet, again, I hold onto the hope they will return. Whether my love for them takes the form of romance (which is the trajectory it’s headed on) or, if it remains something else, I can’t say. I know what I want, and I know what they are ready to experience. It’s just a matter of synchronizing the two. You just can’t experience someone that you feel is part of you, and not feel you belong with them. It’s impossible to look at them, and not see the missing half you’ve searched for your entire life, up to this point. I’ve not given up on this person, even if they are unsure of their future.
That’s another example of hiraeth to me.
The words to She Moved Through the Fair come to mind when I think of this emotion. If there ever was an example of hiraeth over love of a person, it’s in that song. But, I must confess, that my love of place is great. Is it greater than my love for a person? I don’t know. Both carry great opportunities, and many adventures for the future.
That’s it, the future.
Perhaps hope and the future, when concocted, form an antidote to hiraeth. Not, a cure, mind you, but a treatment, that allows one to function, and to love.
I don’t know, but I intend to find out.
Text and photo: Copyright Riley Joyce 2017