Hiraeth – A Welsh word for homesickness
Some mornings I wake up missing Wales. Sometimes its remembering that the national election season lasts only about 2 months there. (Imagine not having to deal with the posturing, attack ads, and clown antics for 2 years?!) Sometimes its that feeling of security, knowing that whatever happened to me, I had guaranteed healthcare – no need to worry about deductibles or fighting insurance companies or getting kicked off of Medicaid.
More often its something less definable. The smell of the sea, the red postal boxes, the taste of the carrots from the local market, the narrow houses lining the steep hills. Hiraeth is a Welsh word for this feeling, I think. Any good Welshman would tell you there is no real way to translate it … but homesickness, a longing for place or people lost might come close. The Oxford says its: Homesickness for a place you can’t return to, or that never was. I like that definition … The Wales of my memory is, in many ways, a place that never was.
In keeping with my mood of hiraeth, I thought I’d share a poem I wrote in a lovely, rather magical house in Cardiff where I was house-sitting. There was a park across the street, a market round the corner. The high yellow kitchen had a south-west window that looked out on narrow backyards and the rain-soaked backs of another line of stone houses. There was no view of the sea, which was a couple miles away, but somehow its presence was always tangible.
The same seagull for hours
The same seagull posted on a chimney-pot across the alley. Her white pieces (the head, just below the wing, above the tail) cut arrows of space from the gray sky beyond her. Waiting for what? Wind blows droplets off the dark cypress next to the house. She scans, waits, scans. Listens to the argument of two crows in an apple tree, listens the family in the house below her—the woman sifting through the kitchen: A pot, a pan, the kettle hissing. The same seagull, for hours, waiting while the rain turns bitter. For who? Below her the man moves up the creaking stairs, the boy rattles a plastic car over wooden floor, the girl breathes softly, reading a book under the tent of her duvet.
The horse-chestnuts are falling.
Rows of roofs. Wet brick and wet tile and wet tin. Wet wood and wet glass. The green hills are between here and there, between the seagull and the sea, but still she feels it. She stretches a gray wing into gray air. She blinks and for a moment she inhabits her mother’s body, feels the sand-mixed wind against her feathers, tastes the salt-silver fish in her mother’s throat.
Bats and swallows fly out from unknown cracks in the brick houses. Clouds of steam and tiny insects rise up to meet them.
Almost magical… thank you for sharing. My second-great-grandfather emigrated from a place called “The Vines” in Wales. And now I am hiraeth.
Thank you, Susan. My husband’s family came to the States from Wales in the mid 1800’s. We found it fascinating to occasionally see a face that looked remarkably like one of his nieces or nephews wandering about the town. Its gorgeous country.
You capture moments with words, Michaela, and they become lasting things. Not past, present or future, but all tenses at once, living in the moment they are written, read and read again. We may experience hiraeth but words live wherever, whenever they are read. Thank you. And thank you for putting a name to so many of the feelings I experience as I grow older – hiraeth.