Thursday, June 12, 2014

Hiraeth: You’ve probably experienced it

Hiraeth. I ran across the word on Facebook recently.

I’d never heard of it. Have you?

It’s a Welsh word pronounced HEER-eyeth  (roll the r).

We English speakers don’t have a good word to describe hiraeth, but that has not stopped us from trying to pin it down.  

I’m especially drawn to one aspect of the definition. According to Smith College, “It often translates as ‘homesickness,’ but the actual concept is far more complex. It incorporates an aspect of impossibility: the pining for a home, a person, [or] a figure.…”

Pamela Petro says this of hiraeth: “The best we can do is ‘homesickness,’ but that’s like the difference between hardwood and laminate. Homesickness is hiraeth-lite.… The Portuguese have a word, ‘saudade,’ which is the only true cognate for hiraeth. [One meaning is] ‘the love that stays’ after someone, or something…has gone away.”

The University of Wales says hiraeth can include “a mix of longing, yearning, nostalgia, wistfulness.…”

It has to do with a strong attachment to a home-like place and a hankering to return to it.

Hiraeth is
the ache,
the longing,
the restlessness,
the vacuum that demands to be filled.

It is something bigger than ourselves.
It lives in our blood and pulses through our veins.

It buzzes,
it flows,
it shouts,
it whispers.

It calls our names: we recognize the voice,
and it tells us that place is where we belong,
that place, where our roots go down deeper than our own roots.

That is our home of homes.

Val Bethell writes of the sensations and the yearning: “I know the meaning of … ‘Hiraeth.’

Val lived in Wales, facing west, and observed, “I would happily travel west, but north, south or east was too difficult…. The mountains shouted hiraeth, hiraeth! Silently and patiently.

“One day … I was able to obey the call. Eureka! I now know, yes I know what it means. Hiraeth is in the mountains where the wind speaks in many tongues and the buzzards fly on silent wings. It’s the call of my spiritual home, it’s where ancient peoples made their home.…

“Hiraeth—the link with the long-forgotten past, the language of the soul, the call from the inner self. Half forgotten.… It speaks from the rocks, from the earth, from the trees and in the waves.…

“Yes, I hear it.

Do you know that feeling?

If you’ve moved from one place to another, you probably understand hiraeth.

If you’ve lived several decades, you probably know the longing to return to some special place or time in the past—hiraeth.

I know the feeling—the longing for the geographical place I belong. Oh, yes, I know hiraeth.

I’ve lived throughout most of Washington State, a few months in Washington, D.C., three years in South America, eight years in Africa, and six years in Missouri, but always, always, Puget Sound calls my name—north of Seattle, just barely south of the Edmonds ferry dock. Richmond Beach, to be exact—but definitely not the county park

No, I’m talking about the old beach, the beach of my childhood, before the county discovered the place and paved a parking lot and walkways and put a bridge over railroad tracks and fences around boundaries and built fire pits and posted rules. 

No, I’m not talking about that beach—I’m talking about the wild, fresh, free Richmond Beach of my youth. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you.

That place mysteriously shaped me and defines me and still anchors me. It calls my name. Richmond Beach is where I belong. I am blessed beyond measure that my in-laws live on that very stretch of beach and I get to go home—home!—a couple of times a year. Decades later, the place still nurtures my soul and spirit.

What place (literal or figurative) mysteriously shaped you and now defines you and still anchors you and lives in you?

 What place (literal or figurative) nurtured your soul and spirit?

“No matter where I went, my compass pointed west.
I would always know what time it was in California.”
(Janet Fitch, last line in White Oleander)

Fill in the blanks: “No matter where I went, my compass always pointed ____________. I would always know what time it was in ______________.”

Write your stories!


  1. I also get this concept, and without knowing the name, I've been pondering this matter intensely of late. I've never felt that I wanted to be tied down to one single place -- I like to roam. But three places call me more strongly than others: Northern New Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, and the Kona Coast.

    I grew up in Los Alamos, and the time I spent wandering the canyon behind our house nourished my soul and comforted me in times of teenage angst. I felt connected with the earth and the enduring spirit of the Indians down there. I still do, anywhere in the central part of the state north of Albuquerque.

    I've never lived in the Pacific northwest, though I did live on the east side of the state for 19 years. I always felt roots in Seattle, and now in Portland where one of our sons lives. Anywhere north of the redwood boundary will do. The intense evergreen vista, the nurturing moisture, proximity to the sea. Again, a connection to earth, to spirit.

    Kona Coast? I visited once. It felt like home. Green, water, mild climate, soothing waves.

    I love the entire earth and feel somewhat detached these days. I hold these spaces in their original purity within me, and I can go there whenever I need to. It matters less where I live than how. I long more now for that sense of spiritual connectedness with kindred souls, and am finding they are not linked to physical place. Hmm.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post!

    1. Sharon, I enjoyed reading about your experiences with the hiraeth sense. I understand the connections, even spiritual connections, you feel with each place, the comfort you felt, the nourishment you drew.

      I was struck by how you always have felt roots in Seattle even though you've never lived there, and Portland. Another aspect of the definition of the word hiraeth includes a yearning for a connection to people, perhaps relatives, who lived in geographical places before our own generation. Could this be what you are experiencing?

      It's fascinating, a dimension of human life we haven't really pinned down, but for sure it's real!

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts with us. I hope this will give you ideas for your future memoirs. :)


  2. Linda, Such a BEAUTIFUL post full of depth and poignancy and wisdom! You understand hiraeth so well. Randy just asked me (when I told him I'd heard from you on FB) where you were from. I said, without really knowing, that you were from Puget Sound:)

    I can't explain my love of history or how happy and fulfilled returning to the place of my girlhood and young womanhood makes me. I do think there are spiritual connections wrapped up in all that that defy logic. It will be interesting to see how this homecoming plays out. I will keep you posted!

    The Pacific Northwest is not the same without you!!

  3. I came upon your piece via a Facebook post. I too explore home and familial feelings on my blog, writing as a Mennonite girl who grew up in Lancaster County, PA and now viewing the past from the vantage point of Florida.

    I had never heard of hiraeth before. But it names a feeling many writer/philosophers have for places in our past. Thank you!

    1. Marian, thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment. Thanks, too, for the link to your blog--I'll check it out. I spent a couple of weeks once or twice in the Lancaster area and it is extremely beautiful. I have such fond memories of the time I spent there.