Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people.
After two years of border closures and being separated from my family in the UK, I depart Melbourne for a two-month visit back to my birthlands. I’m going back home.
“Back.” The word itself hits differently as I ride the 17-hour flight from Darwin to London. It’s only when the wheels hit the tarmac, when I step beyond the gates of the customs boundary, when I run into the arms of my father, do I release a breath I have been holding for two years. A fear I drew in and was petrified to release until now; the fear I could never go back.
Like many people who left their homelands, I live with a longing that sits deep in the catacombs of my guts. It rolls itself into landscapes, blows me around like a gale on the moors. This is no trite “homesickness”, it’s bigger. In fact, there is a Welsh word that captures it beautifully: Hiraeth. This is beyond homesickness, it is the indescribable, bone-aching desire to return to a home that no longer exists. The impossibility of it: it is both joy and grief in embrace. The bitter-sweet beauty of an emotion which fills every cell yet leaves you simultaneously drained of all substance. Hiraeth.
It is a feeling I have learned in my life to hold gently with tenderness, respect and care.
And despite being a word developed specifically for Welsh land and culture, I feel this longing has become familiar to many of us over the past two years. You see, despite being quite literally locked into our places of residence, border closures have cut many of us off from what is, in fact, our home. Across state lines, across seas, and for some of us, across hemispheres and continents too; many of us have been unable to go “back”.
Each of us found our own ways to survive once 2020 hit. I took the thoughts of home, of family, of crisp morning fogs, and locked them in a small box. I tied that up with a ribbon woven from the fear, put it in a corner of my heart and desperately avoided looking at it. But, there were nights when all the Netflix, baking and gin couldn’t smother its call and I would lay on my bed anyway and weep in the arms of my partner at this beautiful yet devastating emotion.
And yes, finally returning to the UK, to the chalky downlands of south England, and the misty beacons of Wales, there is a deep sense of returning I have felt. There is no one like family, and I tell you after a household full of COVID and the subsequent 10-day isolation, I stand by Ram Dass when he said that “If you think you’re enlightened, go spend a week with your family”.
Some things do not change no matter how many decades or continents are laid down; in-jokes, memories and petty arguments still thrive. But, much has changed. I have mulled over this change a lot over the past 2 months, questioned, Is it just the new features of masks and sanitisers that I am feeling? Or perhaps the addition of a new language, the vernacular of the 2020s which has so quickly taken root on our tongues?
But no. There is something profoundly different in this experience of coming home. We have all been sailing such a tremendous storm, and yet how different each of our vessels and journeys have been. I sit with old friends in pubs over warm spiced wines and we share momentary silences, little acknowledgements of the unspeakable. The truth is, they will never know what we went through in Melbourne, what I went through in my tiny 2-bed apartment on the other side of the ocean, and in return, I will never know what they have faced either.
If there is one thing, however, that I see in all of us, it is that we have all had to face monsters in the oceans of this storm. Our own personal serpents and squids that have taken us to very new places, and in that, I feel, possibly, we have all touched home within ourselves a little more. It is not a home we can go “back” to; it is a home we can carry with us, a home built of grief and joy, a very personal home.
I see that the fear that I could never go “back home” doesn’t just belong to those of us separated from our physical homes; it belongs to each of us. Each of us who entered this pandemic in the belief (or hope?) that it would pass. As we enter our third year, I feel that we now all know this feeling I have held so gently in my life, this feeling the Welsh knew well enough to name, this deep longing for a home which no longer exists, this Hiraeth.
The reality is, I never was able to go “back home”. There is no going “back”, we know this now. No going back home because home no longer exists – not as it once was because we will never be the people we were before we sailed a storm that threw demons in our path. The world will never be the place it was. However, there is bitter-sweet beauty in longing, there is poetry in the marriage of grief and joy, and there is a new kind of home we are discovering in ourselves, and I feel that if we do not lock this feeling in a box, do no tie it up in fear, do not avoid looking at it head-on, maybe we have a chance of something else.
If we hold this feeling gently, with tenderness, respect and care, then we may realise that although we can’t go “back home”, we are all navigating our own tender ways to a home within ourselves. A home built on memories of the lives we have lived, with bricks forged by demons and family alike.