12/29/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hiraeth Part II: 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.

It is late afternoon in Brooklyn, random groups of people can be seen wandering the streets dragging their rolling luggage, arms full of post-holiday shopping bags as they return to their brownstone apartments. The sidewalks are narrowed by the unusually large piles of trash accumulating curbside. Wrapping paper, empty cardboard boxes, unwanted old toys, and disposable Christmas trees (some still decorated, some with an occasional forgotten ornament) signal we are in the days between holidays.

This year I am doing something completely new and different. I am opting out of the holidays. I am valuing my unexpected freedom and independence I have to take this choice. It may never come again I realize, and I hope. For Thanksgiving, I had sushi in my micro-studio and this unChristmas, finds me introspective staying in my old garden apartment hanging out with the two cats and dog (all female) while my ex is away with his girlfriend. Even though my allergies are tickling me and making me itchy, the pet therapy is doing me good. Their love is healthier than the overeating I am doing particularly of sweets, and oversleeping, and dreaming a lot.

My dreams are processing a lot of stuck and stagnant material I suspect as I awaken abruptly several times in the night, disoriented of my body's positioning in dark undefined space. I become aware of and try to make sense of the rectangular shape of light that is a window in a familiar, yet unfamiliar bedroom from a few years ago. Once I recall where I am, I realize in some ways I never left. In other ways I have been gone forever.

Reaching for my notebook on the floor next to the bed, I jot down images and basic plots to serve as a reminder to be filled out in full in the morning. The details tend to get tedious taking up pages and sometimes up to an hour of time to write out. To be made sense of later, or not.

The pets did not care what day it was and so neither did I. I've had enough traditional and non-traditional Christmases to serve me. This year I decided just to let this one go by uncelebrated. Unlike Thanksgiving (see Hiraeth Part I), I did not intentionally think back on past Christmases and resolve what and how I wanted my future Christmases to be like. It seemed enough just to get through Christmas eve and Christmas day hearing all of the happy, grateful, "blessed" messages and seeing the photos of all the shiny happy people.

Yet for some reason, one uneventful Christmas decades ago kept playing in my mind. I must have been six or seven because I remember I was wearing my prized Gunne Sax skirt, pale tights and ballet slippers. It is evening and I am alone in the family room while everyone else is upstairs. I've created a small set to accommodate my made-up choreography. The mushroom shaped footstool symbolic of a table is placed near the lit tree as I rehearse carefully placing hammered aluminum drink coasters with each demi-plié representing little dinner plates in anticipation of my imaginary guests. Over and over again, I slip up and rewind the cassette player tape of The Nutcracker on the family stereo in a dozen attempts to perfect my dance ritual until someones yells at me from upstairs to let the cassette play through.

Hurt, I sulk. They don't understand. If I just performed the dance without error then we would have the perfect family Christmas. Looking back this was around the time I was turning towards a fixation with Catholicism (despite my parents' displeasure) and superstitiously repeated a series of "Hail Marys" and "Our Fathers" every night after I lined up my stuffed animals and dolls and slid into a very small space in the center of my bed. If I practiced and got it perfect every night before I went to sleep my grandparents would not die. To be fair, I probably inherited this OCD tendency from my maternal grandfather who made a deal with God every time someone got sick. He promised he would go to Mass every Sunday for a year even though it messed up his morning YMCA routine.

My heart pangs for Christmas in their house after all these years. And although they were long gone, the last time I drove by their house the new neighbors invited me in and I politely turned down the offer. I preferred to keep the image and memory I had of the interior decorated and kept by my grandma in my mind's eye. It felt safe and secure and I liked that I could return there at will, internally. The memory and feeling so vivid and so strong and comforting as I close my eyes and am back in the crowded dark coziness, surrounded by the collections of objects, the smell, each room its own entity.

Sometimes I feel homesick for those times and for the handwritten arthritic letters my grandma used to send me with a stamp attached to the top of her first page for me to return my letter. But times change and we try to make new memories like when my mom decided after my paternal grandparents died we would do something completely different. Remarkably she convinced the family, who had not been west of Ohio, to take a leap and fly to California to visit my newly relocated college dropout sister to check in on her before making our way onto Hawaii. What a surreal wonderful holiday! And to be tan in January.

Little did we know it would also be the last vacation with my mom. She would die unexpected the next year after the holidays. She was 41 and I was 14. Suddenly, homesickness was taken to a completely different level of ill-at-ease in the world.

So I return to the word hiraeth (pronounced "here-eyeth") as a container for the bittersweet sense of home evolving and dissolving as the wheel of life continues. Beneath a solitary strand of colored lights or in a crowded room, wherever this year finds you 'tween the holidays -- be present in that moment, if you can. Take a deep breath, be in your body, and do a "feelings check-in" with yourself. For better or for worse, this too shall pass.