“Where are you from?” doesn’t seem like a complicated question, but I always struggle to answer it. I spent my childhood years in Wisconsin, where I grew used to moving apartments every couple of years; just as I became old enough to start forming a sense of identity, my family’s circumstances brought us to New Jersey, and nearly everything familiar to me stayed behind, halfway across the country. And though it ended up becoming the longest-lasting home of my life — so far — I never quite felt like I was from there. There was something organic about my life in Wisconsin that my life in New Jersey was simply missing. When I went off to college in New York, where (by equal parts chance and choice) I ended up staying after graduation, the question of where I was from grew steadily murkier. I still feel a particular attachment to Wisconsin, the first home I ever knew — but I only lived as a child there, and was barely on the cusp of understanding life by the time I left. My identity was formed almost entirely by the life I had in New Jersey, and refined by my first experiences of life on my own in New York. Each place is a part of me, so telling people where I’m from becomes something of a juggling act. It’s either a half-truth that feels disloyal to the parts I leave out, or a much longer answer than such a simple question warrants.
I’m from all of those places. But which one is my home? Is it any of them? In college, it’s customary to adopt the idea that home is where your family lives, the place you return to when you’re not at school. Yet even since graduating, despite forging my own life and creating my own home in a place that actually feels like mine, I still catch myself using the phrase “going home” to mean going to see my family… who no longer live in New Jersey. For me, “going home” now refers to a place where I’ve never even lived. As bizarre as that is to think about, though, it doesn’t really feel that way, because I’ve managed to form an attachment to it as if I did live there. Taking this idea even farther, my extended family owns a summer cabin in a faraway state where none of us have ever lived, but all of us ritually go. I spend only a week there out of the entire year, but being there holds so much meaning that the first time setting foot in the cabin during that week is tantamount to the feeling of returning home from a long trip abroad. I’m here, I always think. I’m back. I’m home. I love where I live in New York, and it does feel like home in its own right. But my family’s home and the summer cabin — they’re the homes I’m not from. Home, I’ve decided, isn’t about where you’re from or where you’ve lived — it’s about where you belong.
All this is why hiraeth strikes a chord with me. It’s a beautiful word, but hard to translate concisely because it carries the weight of such a complex feeling. It goes beyond homesickness, which is merely the yearning of the mind and body to come home; hiraeth is the yearning of the soul to come home. It’s a deep, visceral ache for the place where you know you belong, the place that calls to you. It could be a place you’ve never lived or never even been; maybe it’s not even real. It’s deeply personal: when I hear it I think of the summer cabin, and all the feelings associated with being there. (The first time I ever saw the word was actually at the cabin, on a notecard tacked up on a bulletin board by another family member, so I know I’m not the only one.) But hiraeth is multifaceted. At the same time, it implies a sense of nostalgia, even grief for a place from your past — a place, or perhaps even a time, that you’ve lost. For some people it’s a spiritual feeling, evoking ancient generations of ancestors; for me it evokes, with startling poignancy, the first home in Wisconsin that I had to leave behind as a child without looking back. It’s the part of me, the quiet voice that pipes up every now and again, wondering if I’ll ever return — and if it will be at all the place I remember, or if my childhood memories tinted it in a light that never really was. And somehow, it’s also the part of me that doesn’t want to find out.
We are made up of the places we’ve lived, but it’s up to us to figure out where we belong. We are all lost in the world, trying to find our way; hiraeth is the little voice, the distant beacon of light, that will guide us home.