An Epic Search


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.

Let’s go!


29 thoughts on “An Epic Search

  1. Dear Anita,

    I had to reply to this; it grabbed my heart because I have been there, not so long ago, in that sehnsucht, aching. I looked up a journal I had written in that time so I could give to you what God gave to me then:

    “Look upon Zion, the city of our appointed feasts; your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet home …. But there the majestic LORD will be for us, a place of broad rivers and streams, in which no galley with oars will sail, not majestic ships pass by, for the LORD is our Lawgiver; the LORD is our King; He will save us.” Isaiah 33:20-22 (italics added)

    In some way, I think our hearts are all in sehnsucht, by God’s design, maybe sometimes more than others. It’s to keep our hearts toward our Long Home. But what God said to me in that time by this Word is that HE is my HOME. He has a quiet place for me, a place of belonging, of broad rivers and streams and lavish love like that! And more! He will even judge for me in that home, and be my King, and I am safe there, in His heart, in the secret place.

    God bless you, sister. Maybe the next time someone asks where you’re from, you can whisper, “I’m from the secret place in God’s heart”……. Maybe the Germans have a word for that, too?

    By the way, I’m married! J

    I appreciate your blogs and the way you speak my heart and create art with words!

    Edna Yoder

    Russellville OH

  2. Oh, friend. Thank you for articulating how complicated the feelings are: loss AND richness. Confusion AND hope. Yesterday I told my brothers that even after two months, I don’t have a feeling that I am *here.* I’m suspended in midair, because “I don’t live here,” but perhaps, now, I do. Hugging you!

  3. God bless you, Anita! My mind went back to my first year of marriage when I was so totally uprooted. And I shed a few tears for both of us. If I could, I’d have a enormous house and take everyone like you in and give you a real home. I’d stir up delicious food and you could cut capers with my babies until you were tired of them and then retreat to your private quarters. But it still wouldn’t Home. It would just be a cozy place that throws warm, welcoming light-pools out onto the road of this journey towards Home. But there would be laughter, a shoulder to cry on, and most of all, love.

  4. I understand both of these, sehnsucht and nostos. Wasn’t it Lewis that said the reason we love fairy tales is because we were made for eternity in perfection, and they show us glimpses of the “more” we can never experience on This Side? I think it all fits together, and particularly if we’ve lived and been uprooted in a diversity of places, we feel the disillusionment of our impermanence here. In some ways that’s ok. In others, it kinda hurts. I’m right there with you.

  5. I fell in love with sehnsucht (the word) when I first read its definition while in search of a word to describe my love for traveling, though sehnsucht, of course, is so much deeper. There are some who cannot understand how one can miss a place one has never seen, but oh, it thrilled my soul. The longing for MORE, the ache for perfection, for truly home, has been seen and acknowledged and given merit. It explains my tears of longing when reading of Aslan and Narnia, and reminds me to not expect too much home here. This earth is, especially this time of year, a marvelously beautiful creation. But, oh, I don’t want to stay here.
    Blessings, my friend, as you travel here. This is a journey to a destination so perfect, so God-filled, so BEYOND, that I’m out of words in any language.
    (BTW, sehnsucht has become so important to me that it’s my Instagram name.) 🙂

  6. Our family has a lot of experience with third culture kids (TCK’s). You didn’t use this term, and I’m not sure it’s exactly the same as how you identify, but I think the remedy for the sense of uprootedness is the same–focusing on the permanence and reality of the future long home, and making little, necessary adjustments for survival and thriving in this temporary one. This was beautifully written. Thanks.

  7. A few lines from a song that have become especially meaningful as I think of leaving this country I call home.
    And sometimes, when I’m dreaming,
    It comes as no surprise,
    That if you’d look, you’d see that homesick feeling in my eyes.
    I’m headed home, going home,
    Where I belong.
    And someday, I’ll be sleeping
    When death knocks on my door.
    And I’ll awake, to find that I’m not homesick anymore.
    I’ll be home, going home,
    Where I belong.

  8. I wish you could connect with Ivan and Kay. I believe they could commiserate with you. They lived abroad for sixteen years, two eight-year stints with one year between. During that time most of their children were born. When they came home to visit, they had three “homes”. Their house and church were in Virginia, his parents were in Pennsylvania, and her parents in Ohio. I believe part of that time her parents were abroad, too, on a different continent than Ivan and Kay’s family.

  9. Have you read Strangers and Sojourners by Michael O’Brien? I love it. At one place, the book says about the sojourner: “and he saw that it was a gift, for it was the state of pilgrims journeying toward his own true home.” I think of that often when I feel displaced and lonely.

  10. Having lived my whole life to this point in the house i was born in (short mission trips and other travels don’t count as moving) I have the opposite “problem” as you – deep roots can seem binding and stale, instead of comforting and inclusive. (and a new culture would look exhilarating.) But, as you & I well know, being in God’s will is the best place to be! The bit of encouragement I want to give is from a real life experience of a friend. She was in a group of young ladies traveling to Prince Edward Island last summer. On their way, they needed a place to worship on Sunday, so they decided to join the Quaker Meeting they discovered. After a very interesting meeting/ cultural experience, they had snacks and coffee. They sat in a circle (it was a small group of attendees) and each person was supposed to say their name and where they were from.They will always remember one gentleman’s answer “I’m from planet earth” . 🙂 Maybe you can adopt his mantra and leave people with a smile, and a story of how the Lord has lead and continues to lead you to different parts of the globe. God bless you, while you continue to ‘get your bearings’ on this side of the ocean.

    p.s. I have been a reader of your blog for awhile, and greatly enjoyed your book – fully agreeing with the whole view of living your life to the fullest, where ever and how ever our lot in life may be. Blessings!

  11. Anita, I loved, loved, loved this post!!!! It resonated with my heart, my experience. You really hit some nails on the head with this post. I can identify with the longing, yearning… Thanx for writing and expressing so well how i feel sometimes. (april friesen)

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