Adventures in Culture and Travel

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16 August, 2011

Hiraeth and The Homing Human - The Internal Calling

Homing Pigeon (Chicken?)
And I'd never in my life been so happy.


All my life I've wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those. Staring at the screen in a dark theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed at me like hunger. Sometimes, at home in the evening, reading a casual description of London by Hazlit or Leigh Hunt, I'd put the book down suddenly, engulfed by a wave of longing that was like homesickness. I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die. I used to tell myself this was natural in a writer and book-lover born to the language of Shakespeare. But sitting on a bench in Bedford Square it wasn't Shakespeare I was thinking of; it was Mary Bailey.


I come of very mixed ancestry, which includes an English Quaker family named Bailey. A daughter of that family, Mary Bailey, born in Philadelphia in 1807, was the only ancestor I had any interest in when I was a little girl. She left a sampler behind, and I use to stare at that sampler, willing it to tell me was she was like. I don't know why I wanted to know.


Sitting in Bedford Square I reminded myself that Mary Bailey was born in Philadelphia, died in Virginia and never saw London. But the name persisted in my head. Maybe she was a namesake. Maybe it was her grandmother or great-grandmother who had wanted to go home again. All I knew, sitting there, was that some long-dead Mary Bailey or other had finally found a descendant to go home for her.


-The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helen Hanff
One of the concepts I've written about off-line this year was hiraeth, a Welsh concept vaguely similar to homesickness. As I read the follow up book to 84 Charing Cross this morning, I felt the above passage demonstrated the concept of hiraeth well.

What draws us to certain places, why does the concept of yearning for our ancestral home rise up in some of us, while others are so blind to the concept they spend their entire lives without leaving the same county, or state?

Is it some sort of built in homing signal in our DNA, like a pigeon bred to always return, some us are designed to find our way back home?

Is it coincidence I grew up one block from Wales road, or that my grandmother gave me a Teddy bear named Cwtchy, a name I never realized was Welsh for 'hug' until last year by some serendipitous discovery? This, my most beloved childhood toy, I had now passed on to my children. The night I found out, I ran into their room grabbed Cwtchy and immediately laughed and cried at the idea I was 32 years old squeezing my childhood teddy bear which I had just now discovered was Welsh, my grandmother dead, and I could no longer tell her I went home just months before. Why she chose that name is, and will be a mystery for ever more but something inside me wonders if Grandma didn't have a bit of hiraeth inside of her too.