As winter approaches—unless you’re near the equator—the nights get longer and the sun’s glow loses its warmth. For much of the world, the surrounding environment becomes harsh and even deadly. Landscapes appear empty and lose their color. Few fruits and vegetables continue to produce food. Wind, cold, ice, and snow make simple daily tasks tiring, difficult, and sometimes impossible. Clothing is something that needs to be carefully contemplated, and usually layered, stifling the humanity of movement.
In the northernmost latitudes, the darkness never fully gives way to day, leading to an ever-present awareness of encroaching night. In such places, winter comes as a haunting, vicious reminder that the world is not always a nice place. It can be dangerous and cruel, and no one cares much, in the end, whether you live or die.
No one, that is, except perhaps your family, and your community; the people with whom your livelihood is intertwined and interdependent, and who share your love of home.
Winter holidays thus emphasize retreat into the safe and comforting bubble of the household. We spark candles, build fires, and hang colorful light displays to ward off the cold and the dark. We gather together to share bountiful meals with our loved ones, tell stories, sing songs, and carry on ancient traditions. We seek the cozy, the comfortable, the familiar, the warm and the well-lit, and the welcoming arms of our friends and allies. These all serve as a reminder that hope lives despite the yearly onslaught from a world that seems to want to stamp out our existence, and despite the seemingly-eternal, brutal reign of night.
Poetically, winter associates with impending doom and dread. And this year more than ever, there is a sense of deep, collective dread that haunts the tenants of all corners of the world. The more insulated, or the more somnambulant among us, perhaps, don’t smell the scent upon the breeze. But many of us can’t escape the sense that a hostile and stifling energy is fast eroding the familiar, warm, and sacred spaces we once called home.
We watch old haunts and beloved rituals nixed, one by one, like villagers in a game of Mafia; the infrastructure and the systems on which we depend seem not to function, or to teeter on the verge of chaos and collapse; human goodwill and hospitality seem to have evaporated, and in its place we see the gleaming eyes of jackals and hyenas, waiting only for our slightest stumble as a cue to swoop in and scavenge everything we have.
It seems as if the people who surround us want to trip us up, so they can justify backstabbing us; we receive charges and fines for things we never asked for, or for crimes we never committed; we live in a scammer’s economy, where the most malicious and manipulative receive social applause and reinforcement, often from the law itself, while the honorable are forced to give and give to feed the black hole of insatiable, ever-present, clawing greed.
Every day there are new laws we must comply with, lest the lawman come and repossess what we have worked our lives to build; new taxes and fees crop up like weeds applied to every good and service on which we rely; and every luxury or windfall that comes to us by luck or hard work immediately, it seems, must be spent on bones for all the hungry, vicious dogs that line the avenue.
This throbbing poltergeist of dread accompanies me ceaselessly, and I am not alone in this. I’m sure my readers understand it so well that I don’t need to explain its origin. But it is wearisome to carry such a burden, and to feel that there is nowhere to retreat and shed its hold—not even one’s own living space.
And so it was, recently, that standing in my kitchen, looking out the window at a dark world of increasing hostility and uncertainty, the exhaustion of the previous year washed over me. And, suddenly, I was overcome with an intense longing for a place that—to my horror—I realized has no real-world correspondence. I turned to my partner and I said aloud: “I want to go home.”
I did not have to clarify my meaning. Seconds later came the quiet, sad reply: “Me, too.”
I am an American citizen residing in Mexico. So one might think that I was simply experiencing a natural, nostalgic longing for the place where I was born and raised. But when I felt, thought, and uttered the phrase “I want to go home,” I was not imagining a particular city, state, or neighborhood in the United States.
Rather, I was longing for a notion of home that encompasses the fullest meaning of the word: I sought a place of physical stability and safety, comfortable and tailored to my needs; I craved an environment familiar and friendly, devoid of cheaters, selfish penny-pinchers, liars, and indifferent or hostile minds; I wanted to be somewhere hidden from the world, where nature’s peace and silence blocked out all the noise and Machiavellian tendencies of Man; and above all, I wanted a genuine and final place of respite from the wintry dread and frostbitten night that seems to have come over the collective soul.
The place I longed for was a place where self-sufficiency was legal; where it was not illegal to pursue and satisfy one’s basic human needs. Where one could build one’s own house, grow, and hunt one’s own food, and live in peace and mastery; where no one told you how to live or how to organize and adorn your own abode.
It would be a place where people valued hospitality and beauty, and where the infrastructure underpinning life was built in service to the human soul, instead of to corporate innovation. Where, as a rule, people weren’t expected to pay fees to parasites for the privilege of being exploited and abused, and where the fiat currency of friendly faces would find its backing in the gold standard of the principled heart.
This kind of “home” was, in fact, the home that I was craving. But where, today, does such a place exist? If you have basic human rights, perchance, in some backwater village of the globe, I guarantee you there is someone working overtime to siphon them away from you. And in that moment, as I contemplated this, I felt as if I’d looked behind me, only to glimpse the fiery wreckage of the town where I was born and raised. I suddenly felt a nauseous sickness in my stomach, knowing that the place my heart desired was perhaps forever lost to time, plucked from the archives of a different age.
The word that I believe most accurately approximates the feeling I describe would be the Welsh word hiraeth, which denotes a longing, grief, or homesickness—often for a feeling, person, or the spirit of a time or place that no longer exists, or perhaps that never even existed in the first place. It is a word that Welsh exiles often use to talk about their longing for Wales itself; but though it is a distinctly Welsh concept tied up in notions of Welsh culture and history, it does not necessarily confine itself strictly to that context.
In the words of Welsh writer Jane Fraser, “Hiraeth gives me a sense of the irretrievable and the irreversible: the poignancy that is encapsulated in ‘once upon a time’ or ‘once upon a place’ — time passes and moments can never be lived again.’”
While Welsh blanket maker FelinFach says on their website, “One attempt to describe hiraeth in English says that it is ‘a longing to be where your spirit lives.’”
For many Welsh exiles, this is a longing for the distinct physical landscapes of their homeland, such as Yr Wyddfa, the coasts of Pembrokeshire, or the Brecon Beacons. But overlaid upon the images of these beloved sites there is usually something more: a nostalgia for the family, friendship, and community that exists atop these spaces, and for the rich and living texture of history, poetry, and myth played out upon their maps. As Sioned Davies, a professor of Welsh at Cardiff University, observes, “Everywhere you go in Wales there are stories linked to the land.”
Lily Crossley-Baxter, writing of her own sense of hiraeth while living in exile in Japan, expands on this idea: “While Wales is a place easily returned to, I know it’s not really the harbourside I crave or the beautiful views. What I miss is the unique sense of being home, perhaps in a way that — years later, with friends scattered and my family living elsewhere — is now unattainable, but nonetheless where I want to be.”
In particular, hiraeth is often associated with intense grief for the disappearance of culture, language, or tradition, or the loss of certain familiar and beloved ways of life — often as the result of brutal conquest.
Author Jon Gower elaborates:
I have this rather fanciful notion that ‘hiraeth’ may a [sic] slow, long mourning for the loss of a language. When you think that names such as Glasgow and Strathclyde in Scotland derive from Glas Gae and Ystrad Clud, or the ‘Avon’ in Stratford-upon-Avon comes from the Welsh ‘afon’ you get a sense of a language that was once spoken over a huge expanse of Britain. But time has seen a huge contraction [. . .] Maybe somewhere deep, deep down we feel this dwindling and entrenchment and hiraeth is a sort of shorthand for a sort of language-grief, as the language is lost over the the centuries or is driven into retreat by historical forces, or by soldiers.
To some extent, change is a natural part of life, and of the human experience. And there is certainly a time for venturing out into hostile and unfamiliar territory. This, after all, is the essence of the Campbellian “hero’s journey”—the subject of all myths, and the ultimate story of the human condition. We must, at times, challenge ourselves to face our fears and reach into the unknown—for this is how we find new opportunities, survive, adapt, and bring our spirits into harmony with a larger universe.
But at the end of the Campbellian cycle, the hero or adventurer must return home. And this is just as vital for the proper functioning of the soul as is the rest of the adventure. For “home” is where the spirit is replenished, nourished, and strengthened so that the cycle can begin again; where lessons and stories are shared, and where one’s friends and family remind the weary traveler of the significance of, and reason for, his bravery.
A “home,” ideally, should function as a place of refuge and of restoration. It should be a place, indeed, “where […] spirit lives.” It should be a place where one feels free to take one’s shoes off, be oneself, and to take down the guards and masks that we put up to shield ourselves from the capriciousness of strangers. “Home,” above all, is a place where we can fall back into the rhythms and songs of tradition, ritual, and landmarks, and bask in the habitual comfort of familiar sights, habits, and faces.
These interwoven, layered elements—people, landscapes, language, stories, and the remembrance of a rooted and continuous history—all contribute to a sense that life has continuity and meaning. We derive an irreplaceable satisfaction from watching these tokens of significance accumulate around us, over the seasons of the human lifespan, in a recurring and cumulative way.
The sense of home usually locates its epicenter within one’s immediate dwelling place. But, like an earthquake, it rolls outward with gradually decreasing intensity, extending—more or less—to all the features of the landscapes we encounter in the course of day-to-day routines. Some people define their sense of home more broadly or narrowly than do others; some, more shallowly, and others with more depth; and almost always, the intensity of these feelings changes according to context.
But, in general, we may feel a sense of “home” when we find ourselves within the borders of our nation; perhaps a stronger sense of “home” within the limits of the town or city where we grew up, have family history, or currently live; and the strongest sense of home we usually feel within our neighborhood or physical abode.
Some people find their sense of “home” attaches more to people and to particular mannerisms than to places; but there is almost always some geospatial component involved. For the day-to-day routines of our lives take place, always, amidst the scenery of the physical realm; and therefore, we unavoidably find ourselves connected to cartographically-defined patterns and rhythms therein.
We therefore seek places and environments that comfort and nourish our spirits and our natural inclinations. Perhaps these manifest as abundant natural landscapes adorned with forests, seas, mountains, or farms; or perhaps we crave the conveniently dense infrastructure of a well-planned city, with its sleek subway systems, coffee shops on every corner, and a cosmopolitan selection of amenities.
Perhaps we want large windows in our home, to let in light and beautiful vistas; or perhaps a well-equipped kitchen, or nearby parks, good schools, or short and picturesque commutes. Or perhaps we want to situate ourselves nearby to old friends, family, a welcoming church congregation, or to the center of a preferred social, professional, or artistic scene. Or, perhaps, we seek instead the farthest edges of the known world, so we can simply dwell alone with our thoughts.
But we live, it seems, in an increasingly inhuman world. Humans are its inhabitants, of course; and yet, definitively, it is not designed for us. For increasingly, all aspects of human life are being renegotiated as instruments for the pursuit of cold, utilitarian, and impersonal goals; they are being privatized and traded as commodities by distant, faceless entities; or, they are being turned into statistical games and objects slated for imperialistic renovation. Increasingly, these priorities come first, both legally and in social action and discourse; while building and nourishing a humane and soulful sense of home becomes, at best, an afterthought—at worst, a selfish and shameworthy flight of fancy.
And so, for example, we find people like psychologist and researcher Dr. Sapna Cheryan, who suggests that “following your passions [when selecting a career] often turns out to be a bad idea.” The reason? It results in a huge statistical gender gap.
“New research that we and our colleagues conducted found that when asked to identify their passions, women and men tend to cite stereotypically feminine and masculine interests and behavior,” she writes in an opinion for the New York Times. “Women are more likely to say they want to make art or help people, for instance, while men are more likely to say they want to do science or play sports.”
Cheryan doesn’t even bother to ask whether or not these might be natural proclivities—she just assumes they must be driven by social pressures, and therefore, in her opinion, oppressive and restrictive. But she seems to look favorably, by contrast, on those non-Western countries where students are encouraged—not to follow their passions—but to choose their career for purely instrumental reasons, such as “income, job security, [or] family obligation.” Though clearly no more “natural” a set of motivations, it’s heavily implied that these are better, since they produce a statistical distribution of professionals more equally balanced by gender.
But why should we prioritize this outcome, out of context, for its own sake? If anything, our science, technological prowess, and our statistics should be used to nourish the blossoming of the individual human spirit—absolutely not the other way around. And yet, increasingly, I get the sense that, in the newly-evolving organizational model for society, the world is not actually intended to serve as a home for human beings. Rather, we are expected to—as Pat Cadigan puts it in her 1992 cyberpunk novel, Synners—“change for the machines.”
The events of 2020 turbocharged this feeling, as the totality of public infrastructure was flipped on its head to serve the public health Leviathan. Places of nourishment and refuge for the human soul—for instance, forests, beaches, parks, cafés, theatres, public squares, and churches—were roped off and closed by decree. Public funding went to purchase masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, face shields, ventilators, and dubious pharmaceutical products—in short, it lined the pockets of greedy corporate scam artists and corrupt cronies. Meanwhile, small businesses and community spaces deemed “non-essential” were forced to stop providing goods and services, and to shut their doors—sometimes permanently.
The human world—the world of life and love and freedom and beauty—was told to pause itself until a virus was eradicated. The singular drum of public life, beat with a sledgehammer from the rooftops, drowned out all other visions, dreams, and goals. The message we received—implicitly or otherwise—was that our reason for existence was to “fight the virus,” to “flatten the curve.” Whatever might have been our raison d’être before the pandemic—be it even God himself—was now found secondary to this holy instrumental goal. Every activity that was deemed to aid the cause was requisite, while anything that even hypothetically might hinder it was banned.
Instead of doctors, hospitals, and public health officials serving people, we were told to “do our part” to “keep the hospitals from being overwhelmed.” We were told to give up our old ways of life and transfer our communities and rituals to technological platforms controlled by corporate mafias and censorious government agencies.
Our meetings and classes would, henceforth, be held on Zoom; our business dealings must take place in online stores, or via Facebook, Instagram, or Whatsapp; and if we wanted to reclaim our intimate connection with a physical community, or to keep our jobs, in many places, we were required to download privacy-invasive apps, or to inject into our bodies novel pharmaceutical products made by unethical companies with obvious conflicts of interest. In short, our social lives and our familiar routines and traditions were held hostage to the whims of corrupt for-profit entities.
The infrastructure of our neighborhoods, and our familiar landscapes, suddenly were retooled to serve a singular purpose: that of hygiene. Between the masks, the caution tape around park entrances, the barriers of Plexiglas, the one-way arrows. and the antiviral mats, one could hardly shake the feeling that we humans were the inconvenience in the race to this utilitarian, totalizing end. Our world, at least to me, no longer felt like home; it felt more like a sterile laboratory or machine. And even though these features have now largely disappeared, the sense of security and rooted confidence in life that I once felt has not returned.
Ironically, the elimination of a sense of home from the communal, public sphere went hand-in-hand with an intrusion of the formerly public into the physical abode itself. As the exterior world became increasingly inhospitable to the human soul and its kaleidoscopic ways of being, so, too, did our dwellings often cease to be a refuge and a place of nourishment.
Classroom peers, teachers, bosses, and coworkers peered into our private lives via webcam, and sometimes dared to tell us how to organize our rooms. Those of us who lived with roommates, or in tiny apartments or condo complexes with external “coworking” or common spaces, may have found our personal habits micromanaged in our own offices, living rooms, or kitchens. An acquaintance of mine actually kicked out her roommate for going for a walk to buy some beer, only to return back maskless.
Many spouses and children, stuck at home for long hours with each other in cramped spaces under duress, suffered from domestic violence and abuse. Others were torn from their family homes, stranded in foreign countries, or separated from their parents, children, and lovers. And in many countries, regional and federal officials declared limits on whom one could invite to one’s home, and under what circumstances.
Suddenly, the spaces we had trusted were familiar and reliable retreats were exposed for their true flimsiness and vulnerability. The places where we dwell and sleep, many of them owned and rented as commodities and governed by, or shared with, others, may not actually serve as places “where [the] spirit lives.”
Increasingly, we lack control over the spaces where we spend the vast majority of our time, where we arrange our things and build our nests, and where we live out the important phases and moments of our lives. Increasingly, these spaces do not have the properties of “home.” And as the world outside ourselves becomes a more and more hostile and inhuman place—as our public squares are cordoned off, our national parks closed, and our sacred spaces barred to access—where do we have left to go to replenish our strength, when this last bastion of the hearth fails us?
E. Nesbit, in her 1913 book, Wings and the Child, writes about the importance of a rooted sense of home, and about what happens when that sacred refuge undergoes erosion, or is turned into a for-profit commodity:
A certain solidness of character, a certain quiet force and confidence grow up naturally in the man who lives all his life in one house, grows all the flowers of his life in one garden. To plant a tree and know that if you live and tend it, you will gather fruit from it; that if you set out a thorn-hedge, it will be a fine thing when your little son has grown to be a man—these are pleasures which none but the very rich can now know. (And the rich who might enjoy these pleasures prefer to run about the country in motor cars.) That is why, for ordinary people, the word ‘neighbour’ is ceasing to have any meaning. The man who occupies the villa partially detached from your own is not your neighbour. He only moved in a month or so ago, and you yourself will probably not be there next year. A house now is a thing to live in, not to love; and a neighbour a person to criticise, but not to befriend.
When people’s lives were rooted in their houses and their gardens they were also rooted in their other possessions. And these possessions were thoughtfully chosen and carefully tended. You bought furniture to live with, and for your children to live with after you. You became familiar with it—it was adorned with memories, brightened with hopes; it, like your house and your garden, assumed then a warm friendliness of intimate individuality. In those days if you wanted to be smart, you bought a new carpet and curtains: now you ‘refurnish the drawing-room.’ If you have to move house, as you often do, it seems cheaper to sell most of your furniture and buy other, than it is to remove it, especially if the moving is caused by a rise of fortune [. . .] So much of life, of thought, of energy, of temper is taken up with the continual change of dress, house, furniture, ornaments, such a constant twittering of nerves goes on about all these things which do not matter. And the children, seeing their mother’s gnat-like restlessness, themselves, in turn, seek change, not of ideas or of adjustments, but of possessions [. . .] Trivial, unsatisfying things, the fruit of a perverse and intense commercial ingenuity: things made to sell, and not to use.
Perhaps many of us feel a sense of hiraeth for the rapid, ongoing erosion of our sense of home, both in the public sphere as well as private. There is a sense that something has been irretrievably lost; that our ways of being, sharing, and communicating in the world are fast losing the flame of their existence. There is a sense that corporate entities, impersonal, instrumental goals, and mere statistical abstractions are taking precedence over the soulful, the beautiful, the historical, the mythical, and the desired. There is a sense that passion and warmth are being told to take a backseat to an indifferent, calculating logic; that the numbers representing individuals are being prized above the unique evolutionary trajectories of the individual beings themselves.
There is a sense that the stories that we tell ourselves about the world no longer interweave us with the land, and our own history; that is, we live in exile from the rhythms of nature, as well as from our own souls. Our neighbors are no longer neighbors, but merely passersby—and so are we, in turn, when we could be kicked from our own homes by our housemates, or our landlords, at a moment’s notice. The infrastructure of our lives rests on a series of dependencies; the people who gatekeep their keys are anything but trustworthy. Deep in our hearts we long for nourishment and for camaraderie, but the last bastions of these feelings seem to be slipping into the sea.
Some people say that hiraeth is the mythical indulgence of a romantic Welsh obsession with melancholy. But the loss of sense of home is no small thing. There is nothing, after all, that can ever replace the years and years spent steeping in a certain vision of the world, living to the beat of certain rhythms, passing certain familiar sites and faces, growing used to certain comforts and amenities, and sharing moments with people one may never see again, in the same context. Just as there is nothing, in the end, that can salve the deeply unnatural and thoroughly modern pain of possessing a passionate human soul in an increasingly impersonal, inescapable, and mechanistic world.
But maybe that is not the necessary end of it. Welsh language officer Marian Brosschot, who lives in Patagonia, muses about hiraeth, “It can be quite revealing, in a way. It can give you an idea of how you want to live, so you can try to embody that happiness and bring it with you into everyday life.”
Hiraeth may, indeed, embody a romantic, and at times overly mythical, sense of melancholy. But it is also a longing for some sort of vision conjured from the memory or from the imagination. In short, it is a longing for something for some sort of treasured ideal—and that ideal just might help us begin to imagine, and then to construct, the kind of world we do want to inhabit.
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