Have you ever felt homesick for something you cannot name, a person you have never met, or a place you’ve never travelled to? It’s a blues-y, lonely restlessness. Rather than a focused longing, there’s a less definable emotional response happening.
I finished a book this week. Writing that is. Maybe that’s what’s bothering me. You fall a little bit in love with your characters, and possibly your setting, so it seems reasonable to miss them when they’re suddenly not there any more. The book is not published but is cued up for release (online and independently), and I fear not doing my very best for it. With a tiny promotions budget and so little time, it may well sink without a trace. After all those months of being nurtured.
Perhaps, too, you recognise that feeling as a reader, when you close (or flip) the last page and don’t want to leave the places you’ve been, characters you’ve met? Not un-coincidentally, I turned back this week to my ever-lengthening to-be-read list, after long neglect. I haven’t left a review on Goodreads or Amazon in a while, something I aim to keep up with, out of empathy for authors, especially those that are independents. That’s how I came to devour a novel whole yesterday. It was good; it moved me, but left me wistful. This sounds ridiculous, but I had quite an attraction to the main character – even though he’s not real! Okay, maybe it’s time to find a boyfriend, but it’s not unusual is it? Consider the ‘Mr. Darcy phenomenon’.
Obviously we connect homesickness to being away from home; the clue is in the name. Deracinated: there’s a dramatic-sounding word, the sense of being uprooted, from the Latin radix, root. In the 18th and 19th centuries, nostalgia was considered serious illness from which one could ultimately die, worthy of a physician’s attention. The term was described by a physician Johannes Hofer in 1688, named for the Greek nostos (returning home) and algos (pain).
But how can you be homesick for fictional people and places, or for places unvisited. It turns out there’s a word for this type of phenomenon in some languages: Germans use ‘fernweh’ to describe being homesick for a place you have never been. And in Finnish there is the word ‘Kaukokaipuu’ for a similar yearning for an unknown but desirable place – though I understand it can more simply mean ‘wanderlust’, a longing to travel, which is not quite the same thing. This seemingly irrational emotion does, however, appear to be a recognised phenomenon.
In fact, if I understand basic psychology correctly, homesickness is not necessarily about being away from home but about being in transition, between a familiar and an unfamiliar state. This is often related to leaving home, temporarily or long term, but can relate to other sorts of change. Presumably our minds also anticipate this transition, explaining why we can feel nostalgia before the change has actually taken place yet – think of that last day of a holiday you have enjoyed. And hence the reason why we speak of a ‘period of adjustment’ for so many of life’s experiences.
Reading a novel, or writing one, is to enter another world, when we’re absorbed in said book. So leaving these are mini transitions. We can feel we have got to know a character or characters (particularly if we invented them) and form some level of emotional attachment. It can also be possible to create a fantasy version of a place in your mind, one you desire to be real.
The only unhealthy circumstance would be if this were anything but temporary, if we were unable to adjust to the new state or to let go of the old one.
So I need to shake it off. Put my head up from the page and look around my actual home. No, not at the redecorating that needs doing and the wilting pot plants, but the fact we’re here and healthy and safe. It’s the weekend; the sun shines. My older child is away on a camping trip and even for one night is missed. But I hug the other one, even as she wriggles away after a few seconds, and remember Nora Ephron’s words that homesickness is definitely love. You cannot long for something that does not, or did not, provoke a positive response. And for that reason, we may be grateful.
Rosen, G. (1975). Nostalgia: A ‘forgotten’ psychological disorder. Psychological Medicine, 5(4), 340-354. doi:10.1017/S003329170005697X
Nora Ephron, ‘Moving on, in The New Yorker, June 2006.
Information on new book here: https://librepaley.com/
Book-lake-learning, Negative Space, Pexels