12/23/2014 11:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hiraeth Part I: Holiday Homesickness


(n.) a homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.

I dream of walking by an abandoned storefront. The shop seemed to be there just a few days ago, but now for the life of me I cannot remember what it was. It is on the tip of my mind's tongue, but keeps fleeting when I try to focus on it. A deep sadness fills me for a place I can no longer remember.

This is a familiar feeling. One I have known for many years of my life, perhaps since I was quite young. With each loss it is compounded. Some of you may feel this is depressing and I suppose it can be, but at the same time it is not. Held within this feeling state is a rich reservoir of emotion and memory. Sometimes I willingly choose to tap into it and sometimes, such as now in the midst of the holidays, it takes over me.

If you follow and understand, please stay with me. If you do not, I get it. This is not for you.

To make light of the feeling and to describe it in the most generic way possible, I think back to the experience I have had a few times in the past year or so when an unnamed chain coffee shop unexpectedly discontinued the breakfast sandwich I had become fond of and which motivated me out of bed. Standing in line finally at the register to have the barista say they no longer carry that, but offer me two other unfamiliar options left me unprepared and confused. My mouth is tasting with anticipation the perfect blend of the whole wheat English muffin with an occasional flaxseed, holding together the congealed cheese melted on the round disk of egg whites and two strips of turkey bacon.

I am like a child again. Rather quickly thrown back into a primal state. I know it is ridiculous and not rational, but the spinach feta wrap is just not going to do. I had expectations. This sandwich is what I know and what I wanted. In the few seconds this is whirling around me I feel nudged to make a quick decision to keep the line moving. I nod undecidedly on something the barista offers as a substitute, numbly move forward and pay.

Yes, I know there are bigger problems in the world, but early in the morning I am just trying to stabilize myself with familiar nourishment to prepare myself to deal with the bigger issues. I am a sensitive soul and it may be puerile, but as I wait for my whatever-breakfast-sandwich to heat up in the huge contraption the numbness lifts a bit and I feel a bit of anger, disappointment, and resentment about the situation. I think to myself and almost want to say -- "I wish I could have known that sandwich was being discontinued. I would have eaten that last sandwich with more awareness and appreciation."

Are you sure there is not one of those sandwiches pushed in the back of the refrigerator so I may have one last time with the sandwich? I think to myself. I have felt this before, yet in different form I realize. It was when my long term relationship was over. I remember wishing I had known this so I could have paid more attention, observed and remembered the details of the last time we made love. But I hadn't known the last time was the last. And now it was gone forever.

I know I am silly to compare this to that. But so be it. I am human and silly. These experiences compound each other adding layer upon layer of who I am. I am finally learning to accept and feel these feelings because after decades of trying to protect myself from "unpleasant" feelings I now know the quickest way through them is to face them head-on and experience them.

This has been a useful and simple life-tool to learn. The past year has been a lot of "unlearning" I have heard myself say out loud surprisingly on several occasions. Perhaps this second half of life I will unlearn what does not fit me or never really served me and learn new ways of being.

For instance, I opted out of Thanksgiving this year. This was the first year I had no obligations or invitations. Rather than be depressed about it, I had sushi in my cozy micro apartment and thought about my past Thanksgivings (many traditional and a handful not so much, yet more memorable). I came to the realization that the holidays needed a change for me moving forward in order to have meaning. The socially-prescribed expectations rang empty with me. Not having a family or a partner this year, I had to think hard and deep about what I would like my future Thanksgivings to look like. What would I take with me and what would I leave behind? I do enjoy the meal. But feel despondent contributing to the mass killing of thousands of turkeys. Perhaps the turkey, like the disposable freshly-chopped Christmas tree would have to go. I've always liked the idea of having a fir tree growing in the yard (or in my case, perhaps temporarily he will need to be potted and moved with me) to decorate, celebrate and photograph its growth each year. The piles of plastic body bags lining the sidewalks directly after Christmas amongst the heap of other mindless paper waste and boxes could be eliminated.

By the end of the holiday, I decided from now on my Thanksgiving would somehow be a giving back to the Native American community. I do not know how it will look or what it will take, but I have almost a year to research it and it feels really right with me. I was thankful for this hope and new direction.

Christmas and New Year's Eve, on the other hand, is another challenge. Last week I stumbled upon the Welsh word "hiraeth" for the first time in my life and it felt familiar and comforting. We do not have one word to describe such a complicated nuanced feeling state in the U.S. But it perfectly captures the lingering resonating I feel beneath the bustle of commerce on the crowded city streets, the pretty sparkling lights, tinny tunes, smell of evergreens, and jolly laughter surrounding me.