On Homesickness: A Letter to My Children

Airplane Flying
[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. If they’re anything like me, they will be afflicted with a craving that creeps up at unexpected moments, and gnaws like hunger. How will they know that I too was young once, and didn’t belong anywhere? How will they know about all the music I’ve switched off and the mountains I’ve looked away from and the magazines I’ve closed up and put back on the shelf, so as to keep the sorrow of unfulfilled things at bay? How will they know there is a thread to tie up all their scattered affections? I will write a letter…]

My Dear Children,

You don’t belong here. I’m pretty sure you know this already, although perhaps you’ve not expressed it in exactly this way. However, I think you should express it in this way.

I don’t know what the colors will be on the flag you stand under at crowded events and in places of national significance, but I can tell you for certain that you aren’t represented there. Though you stand with your brothers and pledge to defend that portion of the earth that has come to belong to you, you mustn’t suppose for even a moment that you belong to it.

You found something once that you wanted to buy and you didn’t have the money for it. A telescope or a helicopter that really whirs overhead and crashes into telephone wires. A doll with a pearly porcelain face and dark braids. You bent your being to that thing, and you worked long hours for it, and you turned down other simpler pleasures, and abstained from candy and small purchases, and it was all a great delight to you, for your eyes were fixed on a better thing. But when you acquired it in the end, you so soon grew tired of it, and put it aside. One day, you walked into your room, and tripped on that prized possession in the doorway, and broke it, and threw it in the trash.

In this way, you know you can’t put any confidence in anything you touch, for if you lean into it, it is sure to give way. Indeed, everything is slipping away. And even this youth you’re passing through today, will fade into a memory you wish you could enter again.

The blue planet has housed you for some time now, and you’re starting to understand that something isn’t right. In spite of all that is startling and surprising and good, there is a mournful well of emptiness at the bottom of every cup. The question is, is the lack in you? Or is it in your sad, unsatisfactory corner of the world?

Or is it in the world?

GalataBridgeMy children, I have been in the world. I have made my home in more than one sad corner of it. I have lived more than half of my years in a country where a different language was spoken and with a people I didn’t belong to – although through the love that I had for them, they came to belong to me. When I was just coming out of my childhood, I left that place suddenly and was planted in the country that was mine – but which I didn’t love and had no part in.

I knew that it would hurt. But I didn’t know it would go on hurting, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. I didn’t know I would never be able to hear the music of that country with my heart healed of aching. I didn’t know that the sound of other languages – any of them – drifting through a park or over a television screen, would make me alert, and tense, and hungry. I didn’t know that the National Geographic would be a pain I would pursue in an unreasonable way, flipping the pages, and closing the book, and opening it up again. I didn’t know that sometimes I would change the subject suddenly in conversation, and sometimes I would babble on at inopportune times, half-hoping someone would see my grave wound of displacement and ask me about it, and half-hoping no one would.

Ankara StreetIt’s remarkable – the way we can use words without feeling their import like a knife in the heart. Like the way we can talk about homesickness and not realize what we’re talking about is a malady that wakes people up at night in dread and in loneliness, and makes every place desolate.

There are times when I put my knuckles in my mouth and cry for no apparent reason, except that I’ve fancied I smell the sea on the air, or someone on the street looks like a child I once knew, or down a hallway someone is playing oriental dance music.

The evident truth is that I am homesick. But the bigger truth is that I am not homesick for any place I know. I am homesick in the way that you are homesick – sick not only because the place where we live is not home, but because we can’t find any place that is.

I and the others who’ve been through the nations of the world, we know this by now: how it’s possible to be homesick for so many countries, and not at home in any of them. How the awkward neutral ground of the airport can be the most comfortable place you know.

Poet W.S. Merwin wrote in his poem about airports,

we travel far and fast
and as we pass through
we forget
where we have been

But this isn’t so. For we never forget where we’ve been. It comes back to us in strange ways, whether we wish to remember it or not. It comes in the fragrance of tea leaves, or a certain slant of light on the snow. It comes in snatches of so many songs and in the contrails that crease the sky. It comes in old fuzzy photographs that you don’t remember ever seeing, and in power outages and firelight and pink thyme-flowers, and billowing storms. It comes in hot soup, and unexpected valleys in the forest, and etched words on trees. It comes back to us in the lights behind doors that are shut.

May 15th 2004 001Dear children, I think you should know that all your life you’ll be haunted by these echoes that come out of nowhere and ravage your contentment. And whether you travel to all 196 countries, or never get beyond the town you were born in, this ache that tells you what you have isn’t enough – it isn’t going away.

In Greek, the word is nostos. It means to return. The word that is wedded to it, is algos. It means suffering. We call it nostalgia, a suffering caused by the unappeased longing to return. But this isn’t quite true.

Let me tell you something you might not know yet: even if you could go back, it wouldn’t be enough. Even if you could have the thing you so desperately miss, you can’t make yourself quit hungering. Just like with the doll or the telescope, your homesickness is a hunger that possession does nothing to mitigate. Children, you know already that if all your dreams are shattered, it will hurt. But you must understand that if everything comes about exactly according to your longing, it will still hurt. Homesickness doesn’t tell you what you want. It only tells you that you have not got it.

LastHomelyHouseSometime in your life you’ve seen some ghost of what you want. Somewhere you caught sight of water plunging from an ethereal height, or the winking lamps of a city far away, that tasted like the Better Country. Some page you turned spoke about it. Something whispered out of an unexpected stillness and reminded you that all striving towards wholeness is out of reach while the Last Homely House lies so desperately beyond your grasp.

There is a reason why I think you ought to express all this by saying you don’t belong here: because it’s important that you understand your dissatisfaction is no accident, no glitch in the system of the universe, no bug in the program. The hunger that you have, it has an object. Someone said it best like this,

Happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner, a memory. We are all kings in exile.”

The reason you can’t belong anywhere here? It’s because you already belong somewhere else. Those wants you have, that aren’t satisfied by anything you can get your fingers on? There is a place that has been shaped to fit into your desires.

Swallow_LastavicaThere is a book that I hope you read someday. In it a young boy who has lost everything he has, meets an old man who is passing on. “I did not want you to fly away,” the boy says.

And there is great sympathy in the old man’s voice. “But we all must fly away.” It is the ghastly, gorgeous apex of truth.

“Why must we?” asks the boy. But he is pretty sure he already knows. “Because this is not our home?”

“Yes,” says the old man, “because this is not our home.”

But if this is not our home, some other place is. “I go,” said the homeless world’s wanderer, when He was leaving, “to prepare a place for you.

Children, don’t be afraid to be hungry. Don’t be afraid if nothing fills you up. Don’t be afraid to admit that you belong to no place you’ve been to. Even supposing you could, you don’t want to get too comfortable here. After all, you won’t be here for long.

But how long the days are under the sun! – and you will be bearing your home-hunger all the way. Children, you must learn how to put roots out into the soil of a country, and make the fattest fruits you can produce, sun-ripe and splitting. After all, you may be here for a long time yet.

On Heroism: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. How will I explain to them what to do with the deep-seated, grasping longings they have in them and don’t understand? How will they know they aren’t alone with their wants, that all of humanity pulses with the same passions? – passions that can raise the sinking ship from the waves, or drown it utterly? How will they know that I too know the press of their heartache? I will write a letter… ]

Titanic

My Dear Children,

You want to save the world. God bless you.

How it does need saving! How like it is to an overbold ocean liner, broken on the bergs of the deep and going down. How you want to dive under it and uphold it! How you wish your hands were great like those of God, that you could seize the smokestacks of the terrorized Titanic and take her out. How you want to dispense a thousand lifeboats into the cold darkness. How you want to hang on the heavy bell-ropes of the planet and set up a clamor for help that combs the stars.

This ambition to be a hero is one of the grandest things about the kingdom of youth. Never let anyone belittle it in your hearing, as long as you live. You are wise to let it run in your veins and impassion you. You are wise to look beyond your little self and into the great world, and hurt for it. You are wise to nurture your longing to heal the ravaged globe. Young people, never stop.

There is something you need to know, though. You should know it now, while you are still young, for though it will surely dawn on you when you are old and full of days, it may be too late, then, for much good that might have been. Oh, it may be too late.

You need to know that you are not the caped savior but a passenger on the ship that is going down. The world’s only hero has already been here, and you can add nothing to what He has done. The scared crowds lining the decks are not in need of you, but of something else entirely. And you can only offer it to them if you are sure you have got it.

Know your poor self as deeply as you can bear to. Know your own frailty and your own frame. Know how to laugh at the joke that is you. It is a very good joke.

Come more time, and a little age on your shoulders, you will want to die for something. Maybe you already do. God bless you.

I know the feeling. How small and ultimately insignificant is your little life in the scheme of things. How you ache for the picture to be bigger, for the story to be wider, for something to put it all together, and make it all make sense. How you want to go down fighting for a greater cause. How you want your tiny, rather wretched self to be swallowed up in something ineffable and all-consuming. How you want your one, precious life to be spent on the very best thing.

RussianSoldierWWIIFor this cause men leave all that is dear and familiar and hard-won, and fling themselves recklessly into battles that can’t be won. For this cause a boy will put all his hopes into the barrel of a gun and fire it into the nothingness and fall into the dirt with his life ebbing out. For this cause little bands of brothers will break themselves against the impossible fortresses of tyrants. For this cause young women in new bloom and old women with happy memories and strong, able men and small children have endured slow deaths and dismemberment and decades behind iron bars and gone out singing, singing.

All down the ages the world has been going to war. Because a man needs a thing higher than himself to spend himself on.

This is the one essential condition,” says Dostoevsky, “of human existence: that man should always be able to bow down to something infinitely greater. If men are deprived of the infinitely great, they will not go on living and will die of despair.”

This ambition to be given up entirely to something entirely beyond you is one of the dearest things about you. Never let anyone poison your mind with myths about your own importance, murmurings about your individual rights and your individual grievances. You are wise to know your own poverty and insufficiency. Never stop knowing it.

There are some other things you need to know, though. You need to know them before you spend yourself on what is not worthy of you. For only one thing is.

The first thing you need to know is the way that evil men can take your best and noblest ideals and exploit them to the detriment of everything you honor and admire. Are men filled with a hunger to be sacrificed grandly? The kings of the earth are eager with ideas for grand sacrifice. They are eager to utilize your goodwill and your humility and your willingness to offer unquestioning obedience, and a man who will be guided by them may soon find himself blowing away the brains of toddlers in a pool of blood in a rice paddy, caught in a war that no one wants to win.

You do not owe your unquestioning obedience to that. Be sure you never offer that kind of allegiance to any of the rulers of the earth. A man may be weak and small, but his life, once he has given it up, is of great value, and may bring great ruin.

Nevertheless, you must not become less humble or less loyal because of this. You must not become embittered. The hunger in you is good. You have but to satisfy it with the thing that is right. You must offer your humility and your loyalty to a worthy commander. There is only one.

There is a second thing you need to know. It is the most important thing of all.

Ultimate heroism does not consist in dying for a thing, but in living for it.

Anyone can die. There is hype and adrenaline and suddenness and the strong, present sense of significance. The significance of death is rarely lost on anyone who comes to meet it face to face.

But to live something out, day in, day out, every tedious, monotonous, fearful, dull minute? Every morning to wake to the same alarm clock and fill your mouth with toothpaste and wear clothes you’ve worn a hundred other days and do the same tiresome work, and brush with the same tiresome people and greet all of this wearisome business with the same quiet joy, and seek in it the end that is higher than you?

Oh, that takes a hero. Oh, that takes a truly mighty man, a truly strong woman. Oh, that takes a power that is higher than you.

Yet that is the heroism that is before you, the bleak road through the thick darkness that severs everything from everything else and veils your eyes to what is occurring on every side. Will you go out without knowing? Because this is the satisfaction for the hunger in your heart and the only preparation to make you fit for the kind of dying that you want to one day do.

On Growing Up: A Letter to my Children

[Someday, perhaps, I will have children. There will be a great many things I wish to tell them, long before they are listening at all. That is the thing about the knowing you carry in the core of your heart: you can give it away every day of your life, but you cannot make anyone take it. And how will they know I was a child too, once? That what seems to them like a long age of dusty history was a short flash of years to me? That just as I started to figure it out, it was over?

I will write a letter. A letter from here, from 20 years old, from the barest bank on the other side of the bridge that only takes you halfway there. I will dedicate it to the children I may someday have. And to all the children that are mine in the Kingdom of Heaven.]

Children Running
My Dear Children,

You are vibrant with breath. You are bright-eyed and beautiful. When you take it into your head to do a thing, you do it, and the crimson pump in your chest keeps time.

It is called life, and it is a gift you could do nothing to earn. In addition to that, it is a gift much too big for you, like a too-large sweater with sleeves dangling into the spaghetti. You must grow into it. That is what it is about. It is about coming to a coming of age that is more than the number of candles on a cake, or of discarded calendars. Quite simply put, it is about growing up.

Do not imagine that growing up has anything to do with growing old. For we all grow old (and if you do not know this now, oh! you will know it very soon) but only some of us ever grow up. You must not think that because you are young, you cannot grow up yet.

Someday you will be old. And in that day, you must not think that because you are old, you have grown up already.

For to grow up means more than the putting away of childish things. It means also the putting away of adultish things, of the wisdom of the world that clings ever closer as old age comes on. And you were born with a great many adultish things about you. You must grow out of all of this. Out of power-hunger and hard pride and cynical un-love. Out of the shallow pretenses of wisdom. Out of fear.

There is a childhood into which we have to grow, just as there is a childhood which we must leave behind,” wrote George MacDonald. “A childlikeness which is the highest gain of humanity, and a childishness from which but few of those who are counted the wisest among men have freed themselves in their imagined progress towards the reality of things.”

Child, you must grow out of willfulness and into the strong will. You must grow out of reasonable anxiety and into the reckless abandon of trust. You must grow out of good resolutions and into obedience. You must grow out of innocence and into purity. You must grow out of self-sufficiency, and grow into the deep, deep debt. Little children, you must grow out of the fool’s paradise and into the Kingdom of Heaven.

I can say all of this to you with no lingering arrogance, for I was a child not long ago, – oh, such a little while ago! and I know all about it. I know what it is to be a new-comer to the wonder-filled world and the delight. I know what it is to be young and perfect and boisterous.

I know what it is to be at the center of my own universe and bitterly dissatisfied with my reign. I know what it is to be small and weak and overcome with vanity.

But more than all of that, I know what it is to be seeking after the good things with almost my whole heart. I know what it is to be fascinated and intrigued by glorious righteousness, and yet to shy away from the kind of giving up that is required. I know what it is to be holding something back.

Child, as long as you are holding something back, you are a child still, you have not grown up.

KnightAnd this is the answer to all the riddles: growing up is giving up. When you get there, you will know it. It is giving up your vast dreams, your lively freedom, your marked-up maps, your own way, your own notions about the way things are, and the way they should be. It is a bowing of the knee. And when the boy has bowed his knee before the throne of the sovereign, it is then that he feels the scepter of the sword come down on his shoulders and rises a knight, a slayer of dragons, a man of action. Because most of all, growing up is an action.

Let me tell you the way of things in the Kingdom of Heaven. The truth is not given to you all at once. That is not the way of the learning that really matters. Truth comes in like the rising tide: one wave a little bigger than the next. What is different is that the ocean goes on beating the sand regardless of everything. But truth must have your permission before it can wash any deeper into you. It is a stark, strong, beauty and it will not waste itself on the unready heart.

When there is a thing that you know you must do, you must do it. When you do it, you will grow. Immediately you do it, you will know something you did not know before. You will know it in your core, and it will change you. If you do not do it, you will not grow. If you do not do it for a hundred years, you will be a hundred years old and a hundred years wasted. There is no other way to grow up.

Until you have come as far down this road as I have come, I hope you will be able to look at me and know there are good things ahead, that the thin little road is worth taking, in spite of the steep ascent, and the tight, mysterious curves.

But if you obey soon and do not wait long to do the thing that is given, you will fast leave your childhood behind and grow into my brother, my sister. I hope you will not be satisfied with that. For I did not do as well as I might have done. I left so much undone, and took such a long time to do anything at all.

Fix your eyes on the Master. Make him your ambition and your finish line, your homecoming, your resting place. Together we will run the long course. We will race.

Go humbly…it has hailed and snowed…
With voices low and lanterns lit;
So very simple is the road,
That we may stray from it.

After all, we are only little children walking through the snow and rain.

I tell you the truth,” said the Master, when he was walking among us to bear witness to the truth. “whoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter.” For this reason, we need someone who will call us “child” as long as we live.

Child! What I want to say to you is as near to me as my own breath: stay young, little children. But grow up.