Note to the stranger sitting across from me at a social function: After you ask my name, pleeeeeeeease don’t ask me where I’m from. You can ask where I live, how old I am, what I like to do for fun–that’s all fair game, but I am still fractured enough in the present transition that I can’t believe how easily I fall apart when I’m asked where I’m from.
Honestly, I get all shaky and whimpery at the simple question.
Today it’s twenty years that my family landed in Ireland–my parents and me and my five siblings. All but two of us still live there.
Twenty years is a good long time to find a place and call it home. But am I from Ireland? I wasn’t born there, and now it’s six years since I’ve lived there.
I don’t even like to write this all out; it wants to overwhelm me.
Meanwhile, I’ve just finished reading The Odyssey and completely fell in love with the lyrical words. Now when I open the blinds to see the morning, I have words to describe it. It’s “rosy-fingered” or “golden-haired.” In addition to the poetic prose (it was epic poetry in its original Greek form, after all) was its theme: nostos, the deep longing to return home. Odysseus has been gone from home for ten years, fighting battles, and his wife, Penelope is waiting for him while audacious suitors take advantage of the palace and try to win her favor. (Another beautiful theme woven throughout was xenia, the honoring of guests, giving them piles of food and honeyed wine and making them comfortable before ever even asking their names and where they’re from.)
So since literature is an on-going conversation about what it means to be human, in reading The Odyssey, I entered a teeny tiny bit into the story of another human’s nostos, because I know what it’s like to not have a home. Well, I do and I don’t. I go back to my parents who now live in a house I never did, and my family gives me huge deference and mom cooks all my favorite food (always chicken curry and always chocolate mousse) and I go to all my old haunts, but in many ways and for many reasons, I feel I don’t have a place there now. And every time I’m with relatives and/or friends in the US, I’m overwhelmed with their love and inclusion, and I don’t feel homeless but actually home-full: I have many homes. I am very rich. It feels like my story will be many interesting, fascinating things, even its own kind of epic, but not nostos.
Extended singlehood is one layer in the story of having no home. Extended foreign service is another. I have no place to go back to and slot in, like the place Odysseus wanted. I’m still in media res–in the middle of the story. This plot line hasn’t resolved yet. Hence, the rabbit-in-the-headlights feelings when someone asks where I’m from. I hope that some day I can come to some kind of peace about it and have a sensible answer, but somehow the current answer feels like an idiot is talking: “I don’t know where I’m from.”
Trust the resourceful Germans to have a suitable word for my current state: Sehnsucht. It’s the intense longing for a place I’ve never been to; raw homesickness for a place I’ve never seen. It’s the search for Eden, the place we were created for, and life is constantly bumping us against the reality that we can never go back. There’s an angel barring the entrance. Deep inside every human is that cavernous hole that wants to be filled, satisfied, rested in the comfort of home. For those for whom nostos will never be reality, as well as for those who enjoy the deep, satisfying sense of home now already, Sehnsucht beckons all of us farther in and farther on.