Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What we miss

Homesickness can be traced back to Odysseus from Homer’s The Odyssey. Odysseus wept and rolled on the hard ground thinking of home.

It is my fault, I know, for coming this far and for staying this long. It is my fault for choosing to live in this city, which has turned out to be more massive than any cement strip I’ve ever seen. And it’s my fault for being a writer and thus for needing long hours alone, not just to put my hands to the keys, to the page, but also to think, to walk, to read. And so it’s my fault for shutting my door to the friendly faces in the hostels, and for preferring, sometimes, to eat alone, because it is then that I best can observe. I chose this, I have to remember, even though the hours feel very long these days, for I am lonely.

I recently read an article Philip Graham shared with me; a well-known blogger was giving advice to an eager mother on how best to foster her daughter’s impulse to write. Give your child time to be bored, the author suggested, and I truly cannot think of better advice. Give your child books, and give your child time: this is how you teach someone to imagine. Let them grow up, perhaps, on a quiet road far from town; give them a summer without a job, and a list of chores, and when they’ve finished, send them outside or else up to their room, where you know they’ll only find books to entertain them there. It’s what my mother did, after all; she let words wrap themselves around me so now they run as close to my blood as my skin. Words, my words, are my home.

Still, I wonder whether homesickness is always going to be part of the picture. Without it, anyway, would I be able to write? Don’t you need the sadness to make your writing real; don’t you need this sickness, sometimes, because it’s the most interesting thing you can put on the page? Don’t you want the beautiful things to run alongside something ugly? Everything grows deeper that way. I have always been prone to homesickness, easily swept up in nostalgia, and perhaps, though it’s a torment, I am lucky. How blessed I am, after all, to have had a childhood so sweet I still dream about it, and to still have both parents, whose faces I continue to see everywhere.

And I know what the cure is, anyway. I’ve found you can’t let people heal you, because sometimes they’re just as sad as you are, and they can leave you at any moment. They’ll come and touch your heart, make you laugh, but when they weep in the night or get in trouble far away, it will only make the missing worse. No, the mountains are the thing, and if I can’t have those, the wind in the trees will do. It’s the outdoors that soothes: it’s always been that way, ever since I moved into my first apartment in Cambridge and realized that the walls we’d spend so many hours painting were sometimes just bricks, tight and dark and cold with the power to choke me. That’s the way cities are; sometimes, sitting in your room with the sounds of the cars and the voices a constant, you wonder whether you’ve ever felt so alone.

I look up homesickness on the Internet today. Most of the pages that come up first are for parents looking to help their children, who they’ve sent away to summer camp. Or kids from Midwestern states who seem never to have left that town until college; they’re the ones who weep in the night while outside the parties rage. So I am a child, I think to myself, but read on. My college roommate, who grew up in a string of cosmopolitan cities in Europe and, later, in the metropolitan Northeast, seemed never to be homesick. Sure, the depression we discovered came so easily at an all-women’s college in wealthy suburbia hit us both, but she didn’t look at the photos her mother had taken of her home, the way I had. I feel listless, she’d say, and zip up her tall black boots and go out. For her, the city healed, the bars that she entered and the music that pumped late at night. The cafes, the traffic—this, after all, was her home, while for me, nothing felt farther.

Wikipedia suggests that those who suffer from homesickness should practice being alone. I read that and sigh, for of course it won’t help. Haven’t I slept in foreign hostels, in rented rooms, in cold and unknown cities, for nine months now? Haven’t I had enough practice? I’m still no better at coping, and looking out the window down at the people who rush about, their plans on their mind and cups of maté in their hands, only makes it worse. It reminds me that I’m my own boss, I must work alone, and until I get an agent, or discuss my book with Donigan over dinner, there will be no meetings I have to attend, no after-work cocktails with my co-workers. You are here doing something, my brain tells my trembling heart every day. Be brave.

I realize, too, that it isn’t just my family I miss. It’s the other countries I have seen; the warmth in Nicaragua that made living so easy, and the way the stars came out, clear and white, in the hot night. It’s the way I got to know Xela, got to know Quito, and it’s the drive outside of Baños that I took with Raphael, clutching at his waist as the wind whipped our hair. Those dripping tunnels, and the waterfall we finally reached. It’s the classroom on the hill, looking over Quito’s colonial center, and it’s even that Mariscal house, where in the long hours of the afternoon, the little birds flew in through the open door and pecked at the crumbs in the kitchen. It’s the buses where I slept, where I wept, where I nibbled bread. It’s the high-up Peruvian towns, where I knew no one.

And so it helps to know that someday, I’ll miss this place too. That’s the sweet thing about homesickness; it makes it easier to fall in love. I’ll miss this funny house, where Alex and Vicky peer at the television and shout at their cat, letting him inside and out, inside and out. I’ll miss the wide, dirty streets, and the way the neighborhoods shift and breathe, now green, now black, now frightening, now bright with the light of that yellow café on the corner. This day will go by, just like all the rest of them, and in the meantime I’ll take walks alone, and I’ll watch out the restaurant window. I’ll go home in my dreams, and when I wake in the morning, I’ll start the day here. My conversations, when I have them, will taste sweet, for already how rich I feel in the hours when the homesickness lapses and a Buenos Aires moment fills me up.


  1. Writing is inherently solitary, it is a way of life without support, with no committees or bosses or compatriots. That is the good and the bad of it. I write in cafés because it makes me feel a part of the outside, while all I do occurs on the inside. Clubs and workshops and schools and peer gatherings are not going to help and are not going to change the fact of it.

    If you have a choice to do otherwise, you would have already done otherwise. No one chooses to expose their core, their soul, their innards and sinews in public.

    It is not a choice you made, it is your life. You might as well get on with it, because you are going to anyway.

    Just another reason, Kate, that you have mucho grande cojones.

  2. man, i needed this post!! i was googling loneliness yesterday (because i was). i think what you're saying is so true. i also think you know yourself pretty well to be able to keep your distance from people and home when you need it. i can never tell when i need interaction and when i don't, until i've passed my threshold for either.

  3. Kate--you put into words, beautiful words, some of the very things I've been feeling for the last few days here in Barcelona.

    I love you!