Those eloquent Welsh folks have a word for something we vagabond Americans can’t seem to name: hiraeth. It means something like homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or even a home that never existed at all; an intense longing for one’s motherland; a grief-tinged nostalgia for the lost places in the world where one’s heart once fit.
I’ve been thinking about the idea of home a lot over the past year and a half. Pete and I have settled into what is in many ways the house of our dreams, or at least a work in progress towards the house of our dreams, which may or may not be the home we build for the long term. In the hope that we’re putting down roots, my parents decided (with our enthusiastic blessing) to move closer to us, which means they are preparing to sell the house of my childhood, the one place in the world that has ever truly been home to me. And in the midst of all this, somehow, inexplicably, unfathomably, I turned 40. So here I stand, teetering on the edge of my fifth decade on earth, teetering between the home-gone and the home-to-be, staring down the second half of my life and daring it to do its worst—and its best. And feeling, occasionally, a sharp twinge of hiraeth.
I know that many in our transient culture like to talk about home in terms of people—home can be anywhere as long as you’re with people whom you love and who love you—and I certainly don’t deny that family and community are inseparable from the concept. But it is precisely the placeness of home that I am interested in: the incarnate reality of it, the dirt and the roof and the bones of it. My deep longing is rooted in earth. Perhaps this is because I am acutely sensitive to setting—which is ironic, because I’m not especially observant. I miss things that are right in front of me, and I accidentally walk into trees and telephone poles. But places have a kind of scent to me—an emotional scent. I wish I could name a new sense for it: sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste, and placefeeling. In books, setting is as important to me as character. Setting is a character. Avonlea, Middle-earth, Narnia, the Hundred Acre Wood, Port William—each place has its own voice, its own aroma. Each leaves a different footprint on my heart.
The placefeeling of the house I grew up in is utterly unique, and soon it will be only a memory. And I’m ready for that change. It’s time. I know that the story imprinted upon that spot of earth is a story that, for me, lies in the past. It’s a story of daughterness, and I am a wife now. When that house, standing empty now, is finally sold, a character in my story will die. And that is necessary, and as it should be, but the change of setting carries a grieving with it. Though I have lived in many places in my adult life, there is no other place in the world—yet—that is home for me in quite the same way, in the very deepest sense.
But what do I mean by that, exactly, beyond simple nostalgia? What is this earthly, tangible thing called home, and why do we attach such deep emotions to it?
The first word that comes to mind is the obvious one, perhaps: sanctuary. A safe, sheltered place, wrapping us in its protective presence. The place to which we can retreat, where we are loved and understood, where the evils and complexities of the world outside are temporarily held at bay, where we can find peace and rest.
But many places in the world can be sanctuaries. Only one or two of those places can be home. So I will refine my definition:
Home is sanctuary and story intersecting at a single point.
To say that one feels “immediately at home” somewhere is a little like the idea of love at first sight. There can be a core of authentic emotion there, but it’s not really love yet—and it’s not really home yet. Love and home both involve the longevity of a story. They are not platitudes but plots, packed with action and conflict and redemption. They require the turning of many pages.
Going home, when I was in my 20s and 30s, was always like standing on a mountain looking down over a city, seeing the whole in one glance. Home was the high point where I could gaze down upon the entirety of my story. There was a sense of timelessness there. I would wake up in the morning in the bedroom of my girlhood and suddenly it could be any morning in that story. All of the moments were present to me at once.
There are many settings we pass through in the stories of our lives, but not all of them are safe havens. There are many sanctuaries in the world, but not all of them carry the pages of our story like the worn covers of a beloved book.
I am well aware that the chance to grow up in a single stable environment was a rare and profound gift. My husband and many other people I know can’t point to a specific house that holds most or all of their childhood (much less half a lifetime) in its embrace. My niece and nephews of the Warren have received a similar gift—I watch them wearing down the paths of their childhood through rooms stained lovely with laughter, bounding towards the aging oak tree with a gentle white giant of a dog, building their fantasies with sticks and moss in a quiet green wood, and I know that someday they will weep with thankfulness for the story that is written upon this little hidden sanctuary on a tumultuous earth.
The blessing of a permanent physical home offers children a particular kind of grounding and identity—not only because of the love of those who lived there and the memories of events that happened in that place, but because the place itself binds those intangible realities with tangible ones in a unity of spirit and flesh that is sacramental. The tree, the peculiar bend of that path, the scratch on the windowpane, the dust motes in the ray of light that falls on the threadbare bedspread with that brown stain that would never come out—they are all a holy communion, meting out grace bestowed upon them by the hands and feet of the saints who passed there. The love of the mother and the worn space on the bedspread where she sat are profoundly linked. That tree is like a push pin holding precious memories in place—once the tree is gone, the memories are floating, homeless, rootless. But this is more like a series of popular online friv games than what is described above.
I like to think that our lives are burned into places like the negative of a photograph. The film is not the story, but it is the carrier of the story. Imagine if we could take this earth into a photographer’s dark room and develop it. What stories we would see there, carved by light into the very bricks and trees and stones!
And speaking of light . . .
How do you know when you are home? My answer sounds a bit like the instructions for a quest: When you stand in the exact spot where story and sanctuary meet, you will recognize the light.
This will probably make sense to no one but me, but I can’t help it—it’s the best way I can find to express the homeness of a place.
The last time I went home before my parents moved, I realized what it was about my old bedroom that made it precious to me: I know the light in that room. I have dwelt in the light until I recognize the color of it, the quality of its presence, the slant of the refracted sunbeams through those windows—bare now of curtains, though once filtered by rose-colored fabric until the whole room bloomed like a quiet flower, especially in the morning. Nowhere else in the world does the light fall at that particular angle and reflect off one particular room, reflecting those colors and those colors alone. Things look different there. I look different. The emotion I was feeling a week ago in another place looks different in the light of that room. Life casts its shadows in unique places. The light meets me there, always the same, and shows me my true self again, and washes me clean.
Even at night the light is welcome and known. There—at that window in the corner by the closet—there is where I stood so many nights after the rest of the house had gone to bed, entranced by the way moonlight glistened on the windowpane, illuminating my face so that the glass became both window and mirror. There I was, safe on the inside of the window. There was the world, wide and unknown on the outside. And the moonlight brought both together into one shimmering image, my dimly lit face against the silver outline of a quiet landscape, giving me the courage to leave home and go out into that world (once morning came and the room bloomed rosily again) precisely because the light had brought the world’s beauty into my place of safety and comforted me there.
Home is the place in the world that is both your soul’s sanctuary and the anchor of your story, the place where the light slants on your life in such a way that all veils fall off, all shadows flee, and you can see your own face in the window merged with the world beyond.
. . .
I am looking for a new home.
Not just a place that is familiar and comfortable to me. Not just a community of family and friends. Not just a permanent house. Something that includes all of those yet goes deeper still.
When we moved into North Wind Manor a year and a half ago, I loved it immediately yet felt inexplicably lost within its walls for several months. Then one evening just before sunset I was putting the chickens to bed and turned—and stretched out before me was a Winslow Homer painting. Ramshackle porch strung with little white lights, vines creeping up the walls, crooked stone patio leading out to an ancient-looking carriage-house-turned-workshed nearly swallowed in wild honeysuckle, and over it all a vibrant purple and orange curtain. Never mind that there were remnants of the workmen’s long day strewn across the lawn and empty paint cans piled up on the porch, or the fact that we had just gazed up at the house and remarked, “There’s a tree growing out of our roof. Huh.” For that one moment, the light of the setting sun bathed all of it in the grace of a sanctuary and a story. Pete reminded me that this was the “magic hour” so precious to photographers, and I thought of the line in Andrew’s song: “Time and eternity mingle a moment in chorus.” This is the Celtic twilight, the thin space between worlds, when the place itself is the window between now and timelessness—a story concentrated into a single point. For the first time since we moved, I felt welcomed and embraced. Well hello, light, I thought. Hello, magic hour. You and I are going to be good friends.
Perhaps it is here that the earth will capture the burning images of our unfolding adventure and keep them safe for us in the years to come. Perhaps not. There is no knowing, now, whether this ordinary, magical spot will be a permanent dwelling or a just a memorable way station on a longer journey.
Sometimes I wonder if, in the second half of my life, home will not be a house at all. I would not be surprised if home were a boat on the water—sky and clouds and water and sail, where Pete and I will come again and again through the storms of our lives—a place of quietness and healing, a place where our story intersects with eternity. After all, boats and water have run like a motif through so many chapters of my life, connecting me with what has come before, bringing me back to myself. I lie on the deck of our sailboat staring up at a white canvas curtain fluttering against a blue ceiling, my heart wide open to the sky, and I say to myself, I know this light. Yes, I know this light.
We were created with place knitted into our souls. Hiraeth burns in us all, whether we have the word for it or not, whether we are yearning for what is gone forever or for what never was. And that is why I do not believe in a disembodied heaven separate from the earth we have known and loved. It is gnosticism to imagine that we will slough off physicality like an imprisoning shell. No, love is a body embracing me, and home is a warm, aged quilt on my skin. And even sunlight burns, and the burn is the blush of life.
It is all a great mystery, but I don’t think that when we die we will simply leave one home behind and go to a better one—not exactly. More like this: all of that human sense of homeness will be gathered together—the homes we have loved and lost, the homes we have longed for and never found—concentrated into a single point, magnified and perfected, like light focused by a lens, bending every comfort toward each of us till our hearts are set aflame by refracted joy.
Light we know. Light that knows us.
Jennifer Trafton served as the managing editor of Christian History magazine before returning to her first love, children’s literature. She is the author of two middle-grade novels, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic and Henry and the Chalk Dragon .