I listened to a poem this morning penned by the Welsh entertainer Max Boyce. Entitled, When Just The Tide Went Out he wrote it in tribute to the NHS and frontline workers in the UK who are so valiantly fighting to keep the corona virus at bay.
After hearing it through the first time I played it for my wife, and, only a few lines in, I couldn’t stop myself from crying.
The swell of emotion took me completely by surprise, but it was acute and visceral and has left me thinking about it for the rest of the day.
I haven’t lived in Wales for the thick end of a quarter of a century, and I’ve been in South Africa for close to fourteen years. If you heard me speak you wouldn’t think I was Welsh at all. My name isn’t Welsh (although I lay claim to a strong Thomas connection), I don’t speak the language (thanks to the schooling system of my youth deeming Welsh as non essential unless you wanted a job at BBC Cymru) and yet, like all Welsh people, I feel an extraordinary sense of pride and belonging.
I’ve had countless periods of homesickness over the years but they tend to be fleeting and typically relate to people more than place.
Today wasn’t about homesickness. Today was hiraeth.
Hiraeth is a hard word to directly translate into English (the irony of a non Welsh speaking Welshman having a crack at it is not lost on me). In its most basic form it’s a sense of homesickness and longing, but it’s much deeper than that. Hireath speaks to a combination of longing, love, memory and loss. I’ve seen broader descriptions that paint it in terms of an unfathomable sense of longing for a space and time that may or may not exist. It has also been described as the desire to be in the place where your soul and spirit live.
I’ve known the word for a long time, but whereas in the past I’ve explained it away as just a Welsh word for homesick, the way I felt today was profoundly different and, perhaps for the first time, I understand what hiraeth means.
It’s hard to say why Max Boyce’s poem moved me so much. I love the life we have in Cape Town and I feel a great sense of belonging here. It’s my home. Maybe today home wasn’t enough and it needed to be home home. Maybe it’s because we were due to be flying to Mauritius today for T’s 40th. Maybe it’s the easing of pressure by being “on holiday” for the next week – even if the only difference is that I can switch off from a job that’s increasingly moving in a direction I don’t like – the task of being parent and teacher still remains. Maybe it’s the guilt of being so selfishly frustrated about my job when so many here don’t have work. Maybe it’s cabin fever and the weirdness of living within walking distance of a mountain I’m forbidden to walk (or jog or run) towards, up or over. Maybe it’s the stress of constantly squashing any thoughts that there may be people and family I’ll never get to see again. Maybe it’s missing being able to hug a friend. Maybe it was Max Boyce and the memories he evokes – college days in Swansea, Saturday Five Nations rugby games as a kid getting a sneaky sip of beer from my dad in the hallowed, drawn-curtained atmosphere of our living room.
Maybe it’s all of the above.
By the end of this week every one of us in the house will have experienced a birthday under lockdown. It’s tough for anyone, but I do feel particularly sad for my son and my wife who will have hit the milestones of 10 and 40 with no friends to celebrate with, and my father in law who hits 75 tomorrow unable to have a hug from his children or grandchildren. These things are small in the grand scheme of it but they also helped the dam to break today.
It’s hard in times like these to avoid feeling guilt or shame at the things that cause us pain or hurt or stress. There’s always someone worse off. There’s always something positive to focus on. It’s not all that bad. Suck it up. Put on a brave face.
Today taught me that it’s OK to long for something that may never quite have existed or may never exist again. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed and to cry about it and talk about it. It’s OK to accept that your problems and fears don’t become magically less just because someone else has it harder than you do.
So for anyone who reads this, wherever you might be in the world, please accept this virtual cwtch via the socially distanced marvel that is the internet.
We’re all feeling hiraeth right now and that’s OK too.
I’ll leave you with the wit and wisdom of Max Boyce.