this is hiraeth

My friend Pili moved back to Argentina last week after a six-year sojourn in the United States. She stayed with me for her last few days in San Francisco and left behind a polka-dotted watering can, an abnormally large pink sombrero that she bought at a reggae festival, and a double-gallon Ziploc bag, filled with chocolate and Skittles.

On the night of her going away party, at least fifty people showed up at a bar to bid her farewell. By midnight most people had left, but all the men who thought they loved her—there are many—stayed, like moths around a light. They wanted the last goodbye, a sweet memory to remedy a bitter departure. But none of them got the goodbye they wanted. A wave, a peck on the cheek, a see-you-later- maybe. Planned goodbyes are anti-climactic and wearying. Life continues on, maybe with a little less joy for awhile, and then you forget that the goodbye happened. Elsewhere becomes a fact, no longer a lament.

The “no longer” is tragic. I cried when I read this passage from Roger Angell’s reflections on old age. Here he writes about the aftermath of his wife’s death: “Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.” Then it stopped—then the haunting, the echo stopped. Absence set in.

Two hours before her flight, Pili locked herself out of my apartment, a casual lapse in consciousness, and I, of course, entertained thoughts of what it would be like if Pili stayed in the US. We would drink more coffee together and look at picture-texts of strange tattoos belonging to men she had met online, go to Portland on a whim, eat steak. There were things about me only she understood.

Even a non-death loss feels like a death, a lower-rung death in the levels of deaths you might suffer, but losing the assurance of physical closeness, while not as painful as losing a total physical existence, is enough to stoke the loneliness of a soul, the deja-vu of melancholia.

I feel anchored to this city in a way most people probably do not; I have no desire to live elsewhere (this does not preclude a constant itch to travel), and I see my future here, even if it makes no logical sense, even if living in this city seems unbearable and unfruitful. The way I see it now, leaving is not an option, but I know for most everyone around me—it is a possibility, if not very likely.

I feel the faint and shadowy premonitions of the ordinary tragedies I will suffer when friends leave, move away, and make homes in other places, other cities. I am anxious, resigned to these losses.

Last week I was walking down Harrison Street on the phone with Shannon, lamenting the fact that I could not find a man who feels like home, at least not one I could seriously date. Later she texted me this: “HIRAETH—welsh—(HEER-eyeth)—(n). a homesickness to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the grief, the yearning for the lost places of your past.” Hiraeth, is similar to the Portuguese word saudade, is not a homesickness that can be remedied; the very concept suggests impossibility. “To feel hiraeth is to experience a deep sense of incompleteness tinged with longing,” reads one explanation of the word. It is a feeling of foreignness everywhere you go. It is place-less.

In solitude, I feel hiraeth most palpably; I feel like an alien here on earth, and I know I will not find a home, or constancy, or security, or ageless comfort, or eternity—all the things I want in a home—before I die, but even knowing that, the desire for home is not softened, or tempered.

I have many homes: the home of my parents, the home that is every place I have lived, the home that is San Francisco, the home that is my church, the home that is my community here. Most days it feels like I am living in a small village where I feel connected to everyone and everything, and yet the hiraeth is unbroken, the deeper longing that is native to my consciousness.

The hubris of my perceived independence convinces me that I don’t need people, and yet I feel absence so acutely, which maybe contradicts the self-perception. Crystal’s gone right now. My mom’s out of the country. I don’t see Shannon as much as I would like. I feel absence as a homesickness, as a sadness for something of the past, or something out of my reach, and I feel absence as an awareness of self—an awareness of my human parts, a sense that things are not as they should be.

This week was confusing. This week a lot of friends suffered grief. There’s no answer to that here or now, at least not one I can stomach contentedly. We’ll get hungry again. The tide always turns.

Roger Angell writes, “Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love,” and I believe that—the surprise especially. I believe I will be surprised by my own yearnings—by the deep and all-consuming stir of desire—for a time when I won't have to say any more goodbyes or wait in expectation of a foreboding loss, when intimacy is perfected, when my friends and lovers will never leave.


  1. This is wonderful; I've always had a strange fascination with the idea of "untranslatable" words. Funny how one word in one language can convey sentences in your own. I think hiraeth is coupled with that idealization of a place you assume to be in stasis but realizing that it is no longer the place you once thought.


    1. Hi Claire! Thank you so much for your lovely and thoughtful comment -- I totally agree about the idealization of a place -- and the belief in stasis / resistance against change -- such a great insight! are you a student at harvard??? / how did you find me?!