Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems so limitless. —Paul Bowles
The first time I moved as an adult — from Somerville, MA to Providence, RI — I was surprised by the intensity of the homesickness I experienced. I had expected to miss aspects of Somerville, but I hadn’t anticipated the pervasive sense of sadness that clouded my life for the first several months after the move. My homesickness caught me off guard in part because I actually really liked Providence and I felt that my life was full of promise there. Given the potential, it didn’t make sense to feel so morose over what I had left behind.
One day I went back Somerville to spend some time with friends, and as I walked through my old streets, I could almost smell the crisp, fall air of the day I had moved there, could almost hear the laughter from the first potluck I had attended in one of the apartment buildings I passed, and could almost taste the overpriced hot chocolate from the cafe down the street where my friends and I treated ourselves after big exams. As I described these memories to my friend who still lived locally, she said “I’m homesick for all of that, too. There’s nothing quite like graduate school.”
That’s when it dawned on me that I wasn’t actually homesick for Somerville so much as homesick for my previous phase of life. Sure, I missed my favorite Thai place, knowing the city’s bus routes, and the exemplary public library, but what I really felt nostalgic for was sharing a bowl of drunken noodles with my then-out-of-town boyfriend when he visited for long weekends, hopping on the 66 bus to spend an evening laughing over wine and charades in a friend’s crowded apartment, and spending long hours pouring over books in the cozy reading room of the BPL.
This conversation got me thinking about all the times that I’ve felt homesick for what I thought was one thing, but was actually probably something else. I’ve thought I’ve been homesick for my grandparents’ old house, but actually I am homesick for long summer days spent playing dress-up and sardines with my cousins and siblings, basking in the love of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents. I’ve thought I’ve been homesick for the town I grew up in, but really I miss the sense of safety, protection and freedom that came from living with my parents who fed me good food, let me wake them up when I had nightmares and took care of all the tedious details of everyday life (i.e. scheduling dentist appointments, changing the oil in the car, and shoveling the driveway…some of my least favorite aspects of adulthood).
Our initial brushes with homesickness don’t always reveal the true story of what we miss, and for a few different reasons, I think it’s important to spend some time getting clear about what we long for from times past.
First, it will enable us to grieve that which we truly miss. Grieving — allowing ourselves to sit with sadness and really feel the emotions that come from having lost something or someone dear to us — both honors that which is gone and functions as a doorway to moving forward. The trick is that we’re only able to eventually move forward if we grieve for the thing we really miss; we’re not really going to move on from missing our childhood if we put all our energy into grieving the sale of a house. This can be painful, and that’s why we sometimes avoid grappling with grief.
Secondly, identifying what we miss gives us the opportunity to experience deep gratitude for it. We miss people, places, events, and phases of life precisely because we treasured them, and basking in the feelings of thankfulness for the treasures of our lives is the most sure-fire shortcut to happiness if I’ve ever seen one.
Finally, grieving and gratitude make space for appreciation of the new. Here’s the thing: I miss the graduate student phase of life, but I don’t actually want to return to it; I’m glad my now-husband and I are no longer in a long distance relationship and can afford our own bowls of noodles! Until I was able to grieve the end of that particular phase of life and to thank the universe for it, however, I wasn’t able to lean into the joys of the present moment.
Homesickness, like most things in life, is complicated, a mixture of various feelings and sensations: a recognition of the changes that time and aging bring, a sense of longing that the memories of the past instigate, a simultaneous grief over what was and will never again be and a gratitude for it all. Spending a few minutes thinking about where homesickness surfaces in our lives can help us examine that which matters most to us, and to experience the richness of life more deeply.
Reflect: Who or what do I miss? How is this homesickness an invitation to gratitude?