It’s a Welsh word that doesn’t translate to English exactly, but it describes a feeling that I often have. Then again, it’s often hard to put feelings into words. Some languages do it better than mine.
I recently heard about hiraeth (pronounced here-eyeth) on a CBS Sunday Morning piece about the John Denver hit song “Take Me Home Country Roads.” I love that song because my Mama used to sing it to me over and over and over when I was little. And because it’s about a near perfect song.
Correspondent Conor Knighton interviewed an assistant professor at West Virginia University named Sara Morris. She said the song had her “thinking about…a Welsh concept called hiraeth.” She described it as “this deep pull toward place.”
But hiraeth doesn’t always refer to a particular place. Rather it describes a longing for a homeplace that could be real, but is more often imagined or lost to time. There’s an element of wistfulness and of grief for things that are gone and will never be again. And there’s the desire to return to the way things were, whether real or romanticized.
I recently got to spend about a week in my hometown of Citronelle, Ala., with my parents. It’s a place I feel deeply connected to – like my very identity, my very soul is inextricably linked to the 36522. Only I haven’t lived there for nearly 35 years. What is that?
When I think of Citronelle, I think about the hours and hours I spent walking a busy, bustling Main Street. I think about the community pool. The creek where I learned to swim. The woods around our home.
A lot of that has changed. Most of the businesses have moved up on the highway and many of the buildings on Main Street are vacant and literally falling down. The pool has been filled in with dirt. The trail down to the creek is so overgrown now that you probably couldn’t hike down there, much less drive a truck.
Many of the people I knew and loved who made my hometown such a special place have moved away…or died. Of course some are still there. But life is busy. You don’t get to visit like you want to. It’s a long drive. But…but…but…
It’s stories. And memories. And ideal. And romance. And yearning. And pining. And soul-crushing homesickness for a place that no longer exists and maybe never did.
It sometimes makes me sad to go home. It’s so different. I’m so different.
Nostalgia can be paralyzing. It traps you in a certain time and place like a snow globe encapsulates a picturesque little scene. No matter how much you shake it, no matter how much the fake snow swirls about, the happy scene is locked perfectly in time.
But you can’t dwell in hiraeth forever.
You have to have a sense of acceptance, of hope and anticipation. Our rational minds know that things can’t stay the same forever. Our rational minds know that our memories are often seen through rose-colored glasses. Our rational minds know that we have to live in the present and look forward to — and even have hope for — the future.
There doesn’t seem to be a word for any of that in English or Welsh or any other language I could find, a word for the opposite of hiraeth. Maybe I’ll come up with my own word.
But what if just maybe home, wherever it is, was or could be, never really changes in your heart. What if you choose to find in the present all the things you loved in the past? What if country roads always take you there? Isn’t that reality?
I guess I don’t need a new word.