There’s nothing like viewing the world through the lens of another language to show you how limited your own can be. We can’t ever fully merge two lexical frameworks into one, and our translations often fall short of the original concept. Some vocabularies don’t concisely reach into others.
All this is to say that the Welsh word Hiraeth is one I’m still learning how to wrap my English arms around. I’ve mentioned it here before, as have others. It’s most often described as a nostalgia or, better yet, homesickness—but not one that can be easily cured by a plane ticket. It’s a homesickness for a home you’ve never been to, one you’ve never seen or can no longer return to, sometimes even one that never existed at all. It is simultaneously grief and desire—a restless dissatisfaction with what is that comes from a weary confidence that something else used to be.
Can you feel the shortcomings of the English language here? Can you grasp the depth of the Welsh—how seven letters could scrawl out so much of what it means to be human? It’s going to take something more creative than a line from Webster to define.
There’s one more definition I’ve recently added to my collection of possible translations, and it may just be my favorite one yet:
I’m homesick most For a place I don’t know But I knew before, I knew before —Joel Ansett
So Denver-based singer-songwriter Joel Ansett writes in the opening track of his sophomore album, aptly-titled A Place I Knew Before. I have no idea if Ansett has any Welsh running through his blood, but I can honestly say that keeping his album in my car disk player (because I still have one of those) over the last six months has changed the way I understand hiraeth in my own life.
It’s little wonder that this first song, “Homesick,” describes the gardens of Manito Park in Spokane through Edenic imagery like “the cool of the day” and “angels and flames,” as Ansett wrestles with his own sense of loss and desire. Then the lament turns to a question:
Try to remember your voice Deep in my mind. I have a choice: If I could picture the place I am from Would it change who I become? —Joel Ansett
From this question, an entire album of pictures unfolds: lyrical sketches of life lived between grief and desire, the same loss and longing for home we all know so well. With each song comes different images of people, relationships, and places. He writes of marriage, illness, and the breakneck speed of modern life. He plays through movies that run in our minds and resists our tendencies to view other peoples’ stories in the cinematic simplicity of black and white. We see in a geranium what Ansett describes as “beautiful to me but dying underneath,” and we know the truth of the flower rings true for the world. He describes in vivid detail those joys that distract like Cadillacs driving past and those joys that offer “a glimpse of glory, something I knew before”—and the homesick heart feels the pierce of hiraeth everywhere.
The love of the Father is dwelling here, now, in the bent world, in the gardens that typify Eden yet still fall short, in a voice that speaks beyond the limitations of language, in a love that not only moves towards the pain but takes on our pain. Hannah Hubin
For their broad scope, all these songs have one thing in common: in some way or another, they’re all marked by the restless dissatisfaction of hiraeth—a desire for the sick to be healed, the broken to be restored, the wound tight to slow down. Like Ansett, we desire whole human relationships we don’t now know, but somehow, written down in the beginnings of our history, we knew before. We rage against our limitations, our distracted hearts, and our distant friendships like languages narrower than we were meant to speak. Like Ansett, we find ourselves both wounded and wounding, and “we wait for someone to move toward the pain.” We desire to love more deeply than this fallen flesh lets us, and we grieve our inability to comfort those also grieving.
My heart is aching but I finally found a cure If you’re a breaking wave, maybe I could be the shore I’d give up all my dreams if you would tell me yours Oh it hurts me; it hurts me not to know you more. —Joel Ansett
The hiraeth soul knows that this place is not home, that these relationships do not perfectly satisfy, that our communities are ever breaking and healing and breaking all over again. We celebrate what is beautiful and we grieve that the beauty is never whole.
And then comes one last song—the final picture. The album that opened in the gardens of Manito Park ends “running through the gardens to the east of Cheesman Park”—and the listener knows this is more than just a transition from Seattle to Denver.
Chasing rabbits with my son ‘til it’s too dark And he can’t understand the fullness of my love Tell me it’s the same with my father up above.I feel broken Weary of the wars I can’t escape Tired of hoping For the promised morning light to break And then I heard you, calling out my name Singing “Do not be afraid. I will be your dwelling place.“ —Joel Ansett
Ansett doesn’t leave us without a second garden. This final picture is one both of the place we are from and the place we are making our way home to again—though we see it now only through the fading dusk. But, in answer to Ansett’s earlier question, does it change who we become?
The truth is that it is already changing who we are now. The things of heaven cast their shadows on earth, and though Cheesman Park is no Eden, in this moment we catch these Edenic patches of evening light. The homesick heart isn’t home yet, but this final song reveals more than the hope that we’ll make it someday. It reveals the holy presence here as well, manifested in the voice Ansett tried to remember back at the beginning of the album. The love of the Father is dwelling here, now, in the bent world, in the gardens that typify Eden yet still fall short, in a voice that speaks beyond the limitations of language, in a love that not only moves towards the pain but takes on our pain.
And this, I believe, is why Ansett has offered a better description of hiraeth than I’ll ever find in a Welsh dictionary: he’s added a missing piece to the truth of our own nostalgic hearts. Between the grief and the longing of homesickness can also lie a third thing—a contentment—and the listener, left there in the love of the Father falling like shadows over Cheesman park, with the ferocity of hiraeth burning in his heart, still east of Eden, is not without a dwelling place even now.