On Homesickness: A Letter to My Children

Airplane Flying
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. If they’re anything like me, they will be afflicted with a craving that creeps up at unexpected moments, and gnaws like hunger. How will they know that I too was young once, and didn’t belong anywhere? How will they know about all the music I’ve switched off and the mountains I’ve looked away from and the magazines I’ve closed up and put back on the shelf, so as to keep the sorrow of unfulfilled things at bay? How will they know there is a thread to tie up all their scattered affections? I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You don’t belong here. I’m pretty sure you know this already, although perhaps you’ve not expressed it in exactly this way. However, I think you should express it in this way.

I don’t know what the colors will be on the flag you stand under at crowded events and in places of national significance, but I can tell you for certain that you aren’t represented there. Though you stand with your brothers and pledge to defend that portion of the earth that has come to belong to you, you mustn’t suppose for even a moment that you belong to it.

You found something once that you wanted to buy and you didn’t have the money for it. A telescope or a helicopter that really whirs overhead and crashes into telephone wires. A doll with a pearly porcelain face and dark braids. You bent your being to that thing, and you worked long hours for it, and you turned down other simpler pleasures, and abstained from candy and small purchases, and it was all a great delight to you, for your eyes were fixed on a better thing. But when you acquired it in the end, you so soon grew tired of it, and put it aside. One day, you walked into your room, and tripped on that prized possession in the doorway, and broke it, and threw it in the trash.

In this way, you know you can’t put any confidence in anything you touch, for if you lean into it, it is sure to give way. Indeed, everything is slipping away. And even this youth you’re passing through today, will fade into a memory you wish you could enter again.

The blue planet has housed you for some time now, and you’re starting to understand that something isn’t right. In spite of all that is startling and surprising and good, there is a mournful well of emptiness at the bottom of every cup. The question is, is the lack in you? Or is it in your sad, unsatisfactory corner of the world?

Or is it in the world?

GalataBridgeMy children, I have been in the world. I have made my home in more than one sad corner of it. I have lived more than half of my years in a country where a different language was spoken and with a people I didn’t belong to – although through the love that I had for them, they came to belong to me. When I was just coming out of my childhood, I left that place suddenly and was planted in the country that was mine – but which I didn’t love and had no part in.

I knew that it would hurt. But I didn’t know it would go on hurting, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I didn’t know I would never be able to hear the music of that country with my heart healed of aching. I didn’t know that the sound of other languages – any of them – drifting through a park or over a television screen, would make me alert, and tense, and hungry. I didn’t know that the National Geographic would be a pain I would pursue in an unreasonable way, flipping the pages, and closing the book, and opening it up again. I didn’t know that sometimes I would change the subject suddenly in conversation, and sometimes I would babble on at inopportune times, half-hoping someone would see my grave wound of displacement and ask me about it, and half-hoping no one would.

Ankara StreetIt’s remarkable – the way we can use words without feeling their import like a knife in the heart. Like the way we can talk about homesickness and not realize what we’re talking about is a malady that wakes people up at night in dread and in loneliness, and makes every place desolate.

There are times when I put my knuckles in my mouth and cry for no apparent reason, except that I’ve fancied I smell the sea on the air, or someone on the street looks like a child I once knew, or down a hallway someone is playing oriental dance music.

The evident truth is that I am homesick. But the bigger truth is that I am not homesick for any place I know. I am homesick in the way that you are homesick – sick not only because the place where we live is not home, but because we can’t find any place that is.

I and the others who’ve been through the nations of the world, we know this by now: how it’s possible to be homesick for so many countries, and not at home in any of them. How the awkward neutral ground of the airport can be the most comfortable place you know.

Poet W.S. Merwin wrote in his poem about airports,

we travel far and fast
and as we pass through
we forget
where we have been

But this isn’t so. For we never forget where we’ve been. It comes back to us in strange ways, whether we wish to remember it or not. It comes in the fragrance of tea leaves, or a certain slant of light on the snow. It comes in snatches of so many songs and in the contrails that crease the sky. It comes in old fuzzy photographs that you don’t remember ever seeing, and in power outages and firelight and pink thyme-flowers, and billowing storms. It comes in hot soup, and unexpected valleys in the forest, and etched words on trees. It comes back to us in the lights behind doors that are shut.

May 15th 2004 001Dear children, I think you should know that all your life you’ll be haunted by these echoes that come out of nowhere and ravage your contentment. And whether you travel to all 196 countries, or never get beyond the town you were born in, this ache that tells you what you have isn’t enough – it isn’t going away.

In Greek, the word is nostos. It means to return. The word that is wedded to it, is algos. It means suffering. We call it nostalgia, a suffering caused by the unappeased longing to return. But this isn’t quite true.

Let me tell you something you might not know yet: even if you could go back, it wouldn’t be enough. Even if you could have the thing you so desperately miss, you can’t make yourself quit hungering. Just like with the doll or the telescope, your homesickness is a hunger that possession does nothing to mitigate. Children, you know already that if all your dreams are shattered, it will hurt. But you must understand that if everything comes about exactly according to your longing, it will still hurt. Homesickness doesn’t tell you what you want. It only tells you that you have not got it.

LastHomelyHouseSometime in your life you’ve seen some ghost of what you want. Somewhere you caught sight of water plunging from an ethereal height, or the winking lamps of a city far away, that tasted like the Better Country. Some page you turned spoke about it. Something whispered out of an unexpected stillness and reminded you that all striving towards wholeness is out of reach while the Last Homely House lies so desperately beyond your grasp.

There is a reason why I think you ought to express all this by saying you don’t belong here: because it’s important that you understand your dissatisfaction is no accident, no glitch in the system of the universe, no bug in the program. The hunger that you have, it has an object. Someone said it best like this,

Happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner, a memory. We are all kings in exile.”

The reason you can’t belong anywhere here? It’s because you already belong somewhere else. Those wants you have, that aren’t satisfied by anything you can get your fingers on? There is a place that has been shaped to fit into your desires.

Swallow_LastavicaThere is a book that I hope you read someday. In it a young boy who has lost everything he has, meets an old man who is passing on. “I did not want you to fly away,” the boy says.

And there is great sympathy in the old man’s voice. “But we all must fly away.” It is the ghastly, gorgeous apex of truth.

“Why must we?” asks the boy. But he is pretty sure he already knows. “Because this is not our home?”

“Yes,” says the old man, “because this is not our home.”

But if this is not our home, some other place is. “I go,” said the homeless world’s wanderer, when He was leaving, “to prepare a place for you.

Children, don’t be afraid to be hungry. Don’t be afraid if nothing fills you up. Don’t be afraid to admit that you belong to no place you’ve been to. Even supposing you could, you don’t want to get too comfortable here. After all, you won’t be here for long.

But how long the days are under the sun! – and you will be bearing your home-hunger all the way. Children, you must learn how to put roots out into the soil of a country, and make the fattest fruits you can produce, sun-ripe and splitting. After all, you may be here for a long time yet.

On The Wanderlust

ValinorMy little brother has finally come of a suitable age to be introduced into the great and exciting story of The Lord of the Rings, which is a thing he has been anticipating expectantly for over half of his life. My sister and I have been taking turns reading it to him on Monday nights, by candlelight and with strong tea. We are only reading one chapter every week. This is an adventure in which we shall be participating until winter comes again.

Reading these books after half a decade of change and of living, I am becoming convinced that the deep and haunting theme of wanderlust is really as much a part of them as I thought it was when I was a child. In those days I was living in a land of seas and mountains and was as deeply in love with places as with people. Now that I have relocated to the big sky country, some things are different for me. But not Tolkien.

No, he is as enthralled as he ever has been by the prospect of the wide open spaces, by the magic of woods and wilds and winding water. He is as much a prisoner to his unquenchable homesickness as I remembered.

Poor old Frodo is a captive at home, where the constricted and familiar beauty of the Shire is obvious and unsatisfactory, and where the untamed, uncharted places linger just on the borders of his maps. But oh! how much fiercer the sadness of the outside world, where he is ever homesick for what he supposes to be the things he has left behind.

It isn’t, though. It isn’t the things he has left behind that make him heartsick and unfulfilled. It’s something further still, something beyond the borders of the whole known world. Which is why the seemingly half-sad ending of The Lord of the Rings had to be just as it was. Because Tolkien was writing about more things than battles and adventures and wars and fairy-tale and myth. Overwhelmingly, he was writing a story about the horrible wanderlust inside him, inside all of us. And there was only one possible resolution to that story.

Chesterton, it seems, understood Frodo quite well. As I mopped the kitchen floor a few nights ago, listening to a Librivox recording of the first chapter of A Short History of England, I was quite taken by this paragraph that he writes of the British people,

They are constantly colonists and emigrants; they have the name of being at home in every country. But they are in exile in their own country. They are torn between love of home and love of something else; of which the sea may be the explanation or may be only the symbol. It is also found in a nameless nursery rhyme which is the finest line in English literature and the dumb refrain of all English poems—‘Over the hills and far away.’

These lines describe Tolkien certainly; describe some part of the heart of the mythology he created for England. Ultimately, though, they describe us, don’t they? All of us tormented by this desperate yearning, all of us trapped and fettered inhabitants of the Island of the World?

What I’ve Recently Finished Reading

The Island of the World, Bryana Johnson, Having Decided To StayIsland of the World (Michael O’Brien) –5 STARS– It took me a little while to realize that I do like this book and then a little longer to realize just how much I like it. However, since it’s 838 pages long, I had plenty of time in which to make those decisions. The Island of the World is a novel about one man, but written in epic form to illustrate the way that all our lives are epics in themselves. The Odyssey is referenced frequently and provides a backdrop for the book, which draws heavily on the beautiful theme of nostos, the homeward journey. Indeed, this is the theme of the entire book, although on a grand and cosmic scale. Josip Lasta, the central character, is a Croatian boy whose life is traced from childhood until old age during a period of massive and tragic turbulence in the Balkans and wanders through hell itself on his search for a reason to live. While I grew frustrated in the middle of the story with imagery that didn’t seem to make sense, I was pleasantly surprised by the way that all of the clues were woven into the story by the end. Note that O’Brien does not shy away from writing about violence. On the contrary, he seems to revel in it when it is necessary to the telling of the story he has set out to tell. Sensitive readers should be forewarned.

Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Kevin Belmonte) –4 STARS– This is a decent biography of Chesterton. Belmonte capitalizes on the sequence and contents of his writings (which were many and varied!) and doesn’t add as much insight into his life – especially his childhood and conversion – as I would have liked, so I didn’t learn quite as much as I was hoping I would.  Overall, however, this is a solid look at the legacy of a mighty wordsmith.

Letters To Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer (C.S. Lewis) – 4 STARS – I think Letters to Malcolm is quite underrated. An insightful collection of thoughts concerning the subject of prayer, it gives the reader a glimpse into a more private side of the mind of C.S. Lewis, revealing questions which that great man asked and yet perhaps was never able to answer on this side of the gray rain-curtain. However, the fact that he didn’t understand everything doesn’t seem to have bothered Lewis overmuch and this happy fact makes the book all the more precious. Of course, in addition to these more theoretical and philosophical considerations, Letters To Malcolm also provides practical ideas for cultivating a habit of prayer.

Miracle in Moscow (David Benson) – 5 STARS – David Benson’s story of distributing Bibles and meeting with followers of Christ in Russia during the cold war is chilling, to say the least. It’s also educational and fulfilling, but I wouldn’t tack on any light and fluffy words like “inspiring.” It is a chronicle of great faith and its rewards, but the rewards mostly consist of assistance on the battlefield of the world and in desperately dark places. This isn’t a book that will leave you with warm and fuzzy feelings about leaning on the everlasting arms, but will point out to you instead that leaning on the everlasting arms is not always a matter of settling into heated blankets. Indeed, it is more often like walking through the valley of the shadow of death with four cold fingers taking refuge in One Great Hand. The nobility of the upside-down Kingdom is portrayed very beautifully in this book, as well as the harried and haunted people of God who have lived in all ages in fear for their lives and yet not afraid. I suppose this is the aristocracy of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Landlady’s Master (George MacDonald, edited by Michael Phillips) – 4 STARS – I’ve already reviewed this book here.

The Weight of Glory (C.S. Lewis) – 5 STARS – This is a book I will probably come back to more than once, in order to spend more time going over some more complex portions, particularly the chapter on transposition. My favorite essays from this collection were The Weight of Glory, Learning in War-Time, The Inner Ring, and Membership. The title essay, The Weight of Glory, is an exploration of sehnzucht, what C.S. Lewis calls “your inconsolable secret.”  It questions if the answer to our unfulfilled longings might not be ultimate acceptance by God. Of course, in so doing, Lewis lays bare a score of other delightful things. I want to post about three pages of quotes from this book, but will refrain from doing so, and simply admonish you to pick up this book and read at least the first chapter, if nothing else.

The Defendant (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – The Defendant is not really built around a unifying theme but is a collection of observations concerning varied and mostly unrelated topics. Chesterton’s two great weaknesses – carelessness and generalization – render a few of the essays unsubstantiated and shallow reasoning is evident in some places. However, there are also many moments of stunning brilliance contained in this volume and these make it well worth the read. Some of my favorites of the “defenses” were Rash Vows, Heraldry, Humility, Baby-Worship, and Patriotism.

Autobiography of George Muller (George Muller) – 5 STARS – This classic is simply written and easily read in a few hours. It is well worth it. Don’t let the title fool you: it is not really an autobiography of a man, but a chronicle of the ways of God with one man who wanted to give everything. And oh, what would we see if we would once realize the heights and the depths of the riches that are ours in Him?

A Damsel in Distress (P.G. Wodehouse) – 4 STARS – Wodehouse delivers again with another entertaining novel spiced with his typical verbal gymnastics and the recycled stock characters we’ve come to know and love.

How to Read the Bible as Literature & Get More Out of It (Leland Ryken) – 4 STARS – This is a magnificent look at the literary nature of the Bible. The preface and first chapter (which, in my opinion, are the best parts of this entire book) attempt to show the reader the artistry of the Bible and the importance of the imagination in coming to a true understanding of the Word of God. Ryken works from the premise that the story is the meaning, explaining that, “because literature aims to recreate a whole experience, there is a certain irreducible quality to it.”  He shows why our abstract dissections of the Bible so often fall short of truly communicating the truth contained in the text. This book gave a context and an expression to things that I have felt for many years but have not been able to coherently verbalize.

The Club Of Queer Trades (G.K. Chesterton) – 4 STARS – Solid Chestertonian fiction, riddled with farce and mystique. I listened to this on Librivox and heartily enjoyed the reader, David Barnes, who reads in a delightful British accent, well-suited to the characters in the story.

Adela Cathcart (George MacDonald) – 3 STARS – Novel about a sickly and psychologically weary young woman who is restored to health through the efforts of a group of acquaintances who form a storytelling club. The plot is rather thin, and some of the stories are annoyingly sentimental, but a few of MacDonald’s classic short stories are also included in this volume, such as The Light Princess and The Giant’s Heart. Overall, I have read better things by MacDonald and expect to read more of them in the future. I was super excited to find 53 of MacDonald’s books in one book on Kindle for $1.99. Now I won’t have to settle for anymore abridged and edited versions of his writings!

The Cold War: A History In Documents (Allan Winkler) – 3 STARS – I would hesitate to recommend this book. Despite its claim to rely on documents for evidence, the author’s bias toward modern liberalism is made all too evident. While Winkler does try to approach most issues more or less objectively, some statements he quotes (or makes himself) serve as windows into his own ‘progressive’ worldview. Take, for example, one towards the beginning of the book which deplores the fact that women in the US during the 1950s “could identify with nothing beyond the home – not politics, not art, not science, not events large or small, war or peace, in the United States or the world…” A discerning reader may be able to pick out the fact from the opinion, but I’m going to keep looking for a better book on the Cold War.

What I’m still reading

The Iliad (translated by Martin Hammond)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
The Complete Poems (W.H. Auden)
The Collected Fictions (Jorge Luis Borges)
The Road to Serfdom (F.A. Hayek)

What else I want to read in the near future

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
The Weapon of Prayer (E.M. Bounds)
Hudson Taylor (by Howard Taylor)
The Gulag Archipelago (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)
The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers