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What to read when you’re homesick.
Oh, I want to be there, in my city…
Not long ago, two friends, a couple, came for dinner. At some point in the evening one asked me, “If you could wave a magic wand and move back to California, would you?”
“Yeah,” I said, scoffing. “In a second.”
She looked deflated. They live nearby and the four of us are close. I felt shitty and confused and traitorous. My husband and I busted ass to buy this sweet house in this sweet place, curating an idyllic life for our child, one in which he goes sledding in the winter and to warm beaches in the summer—a Rockwellian childhood, the kind in movies, the kind I didn’t have. (I didn’t see snowfall until I was 24, and Northern California beaches are mostly just freezing assemblages of forbidding cliffs.) But the move wasn’t just for him. We wanted a tiny version of the American dream, and a sense of community, and a social life that didn’t require an hourlong subway ride in each direction. And by the skin of our teeth, we got it. Why was I dismissing that? After they left, I lay in bed, mulling. And I realized that the answer I’d given about moving home wasn’t true, it had just become reflex.
For a New York decade, I pined for home, visiting California constantly. I’d exit SFO and breathe ambient eucalyptus and sea-funk and tear up with the ecstasy of things making sense again, whistling my way to the rental car. I’d step out of LAX so a friend or my sister could pick me up, and minutes later, double-double on my lap and jettisoned coat in the backseat, I’d feel whole, as if I’d pried off a mask superglued to my face. Once, I dragged that sister to a tattoo parlor and had the golden state’s outline inked on my ankle—a fleshly ode to my true home.
But I never did move back, despite years of urging from friends and family and ardent claims that it was all I wanted. I blamed money, timing, a dearth of jobs. All lies. Yes, California’s cost of living is perverse—New York’s is, too. And the job stuff was just horseshit. There was the offer from the massive tech company: declined. Job listings sent by several kind editors of regional publications: ignored. There was my “accidental” torpedoing of various interviews, like those for an L.A.-based website (“How would you change our verticals?” he asked; “What’s a vertical?” I said) and a splashy science and culture mag in San Francisco (bizarrely, my ideas memo contained few ideas about science or culture). When asked what I wanted to write about for a highbrow California-focused magazine, I said, God help me, “Anything but Hollywood or tech.”
What did those deluded years teach me? That it’s only homesickness if you’ll return soon—if you’re on, say, a brief business trip, longing for your bed and the person you share it with. But if years have passed since you left, what you’re feeling is just plain old grief, because a part of you knows that everything that made the place yours left with you. Even if I’d moved back to the Bay or to L.A. and was happy I’d done so, it would be a new happy, no different from a new happy I could build anywhere. It was comforting to visit, inhabiting memories as if in a dream, but it was an elaborate game of pretend, and always as I boarded the return flight—or sometimes before, sometimes even as I was laughing and having fun—I felt hollow. A childhood spent reading and riding horses and catching frogs, my rattling green pickup truck, the squat Vallejo bungalow I filled with thrifted art, the post-college giddiness that made moving to New York seem wise, the youngest part of my youth: all of it was gone. There was no home left to miss.
Homesickness is more varied than we give it credit for—it’s not always merely a wish to return. Other cultures have noted these nuances, establishing words that evoke the strange subtleties of missing a place, or time, or experience, or an idealized version of any of the above. The Welsh have hiraeth, the longing for a home that’s irretrievably lost. The Russians have toska, a restless longing without an object—a homesickness for anywhere but here. The French have dépaysement, or the disorientation of leaving one’s homeland—call it stranger-in-a-strange-land-itis. And on the other side of the pfennig, the Germans have fernweh, or “farsickness”—that is, homesickness for a place you’ve never been. But my favorite is the Portuguese saudade, a dual emotion: the melancholy knowledge that something wonderful has been lost, twinned with the joy of having known it. In the best-case scenario, grief engenders gratitude: How lucky to have had something worth mourning. That’s how I feel about California now—that it was a lucky place to become a person, and that it will always mean more to me than anywhere else. But it is by no means the only place that has meaning for me.
I hope these works, each of which explores the longing for a familiar place or past, ease and aid your journey home—whether that’s the town that made you or a town that makes you whole.
Author: J.L. Carr
Book; Fiction (1980)
An elegant, slender novel in which Tom Birkin, broken by war and a failed marriage, repairs to Oxgodby, a quaint village in the north of England, having been engaged by the town church to restore a mural on the chapel wall. Birkin’s dislocation is layered: Not only has he left his home to go to war, but he’s also lost, in his recent sufferings both foreign and domestic, the psychic solidity that helps one feel at home in himself. Luckily, what circumstances have taken, his respite in Oxgodby restores—but then he must leave that, too (it’s only a month in the country, after all). Yet Birkin’s final position is one of tender, clear-eyed acceptance: there will always be more loss, but the joy of the good and true things, of life’s country months, can be enough to see us through.
Author: Sarah Broom
Book; Memoir (2019)
In 1961, Broom’s mother purchased a home in New Orleans. Over the following decades, a vast and varied family built and lived its life there, with twelve children, powerful matriarchs, and a creeping decrepitude that slowly ate the house alive—culminating in a final blow, Hurricane Katrina, which rendered it uninhabitable. Amid it all was studious Sarah, the youngest, known at home as Monique: her mother felt a Black child would fare better with a racially neutral name. Broom’s memoir, which won the National Book Award, is a reckoning with the nature of home and what it means—and costs—to leave it. While many in her family stayed, she made what felt to her like an escape, but she never stopped hearing the city’s call. The book is also an examination of the way a family fractures when it’s no longer rooted by an ancestral home, a scattering from which Broom’s clan never quite recovered. In one of the memoir’s many startling images, her brother sits in a chair in the spot where the Yellow House’s living room had been, mourning a private loss in a city deeply scarred by it.
Author: Stephanie Coontz
Book; Nonfiction (1992)
Among a certain population, there’s long been an epidemic of homesickness for another time—a supposedly simpler and more honorable one, steeped in tradition. Though that population consists largely of old farts and dog-whistling politicians, most of us are at least a little susceptible to the revisionist urge. (A recent tweet wistfully related that at the dawn of the Internet, there were whole days where you didn’t even use it. Which, yeah, I get it, but it’s not like we spent the saved time reading Wittgenstein—we talked on the phone for four hours and watched Hangin’ with Mister Cooper.) In this biting, engaging book, Coontz explodes these illusions, systematically dismantling America’s most treasured rose-colored hindsights. She mythbusts the glorification of the male breadwinner, the rise of which coincided with higher rates of poverty, child abuse, and domestic violence, and his “traditional family,” in which women devoted their lives to home and children—“an invention,” Coontz writes, “that drove thousands of women to therapists, tranquilizers, or alcohol when they actually tried to live up to it.” Coontz explains that it’s not just that these glory-days visions weren’t so glorious—it’s that they often didn’t even happen. We have a tendency to collapse disparate eras into one flat, bogus “past,” what Coontz calls “an ahistorical amalgam of structures, values, and behaviors that never coexisted in the same time and place.” The good old days so many have been missing, it seems, were created after the fact—and entirely in our minds.
Author: Tea Obreht
Book; Fiction (2019)
That French word, dépaysement, aptly describes the mien of a character in this curious, supernatural-yet-somehow-also-historical novel: Lurie, a Muslim man born in the Balkans who now finds himself in 1893’s American West. Unusually, though, Lurie’s place-based longing is for one he hardly remembers. He traverses the Arizonan frontier with few memories of his homeland, having left it as a boy with his father, who died shortly thereafter. But this absence of memory does nothing to quiet Lurie’s pangs for a spiritual home; if anything, it deepens his alienation. After joining a group of fellow Muslim immigrants, Lurie sees firsthand the way in which a nascent America is already ridding newcomers of their culture, and begins, with his newfound community, to piece together the mystery of who he is—a homecoming of a different sort.
Author: Safiya Sinclair
Poem; published in Poetry (2015)
“You tinker too much / with each gaunt memory, your youth / and its unweeding…”
So says the mother of the poem’s speaker, who, we learn, has left her home but can’t let it go. We gather that this is the unselfing to which the title refers, a deliberate act of self-displacement, one both chosen and resented, necessary and mourned, and exacerbated by the nature of the home she left: an island, its insularity making starker the differences between here and there. The speaker’s mother prods her, nudges her toward acceptance and away from romanticization: “Her mother now on the line saying too much. / This island is not a martyr.” And later: “Her mother at the airport saying don’t come back. / Love your landlocked city. Money. Buy a coat. / And even exile can be glamorous.” It seems the speaker takes her mother’s advice, since even as the pull of home persists, a new one begins to exert a parallel force on her, splitting her loyalties: “Her heart’s double vault / a muted hydra.”
Home may always be home. But a person can make room in herself for more than one.
Next time: What to read when you could really use a good laugh…