One of my new favorite words is Hiraeth [hee-REY-eth], a Welsh word that I learned this past spring. Hiraeth lacks an exact English counterpart. It refers to the a yearning for or missing of a space or geography. It comes with a mixture of wistfulness, sadness, grief, and nostalgia for an ideal place of the past to which one longs to return. It’s a place you can’t quite go back to or, wildly, a homesickness for a place you’ve never been.
Coincidentally I came across Hiraeth from two different sources last April: first it’s one of the beautifully illuminated cards in Nick Bantock’s Archeo deck, second from Kate Humble’s BBC series, Off the Beaten Track, in which she and her Welsh Sheepdog ‘Teg’ (who’s worth watching the whole series for!) explore the lesser known areas of Wales, to find hidden treasures and discover people’s connection to the land. Thankfully, that’s also how I learned to pronounce it.
As an Archeo, Hiraeth is that which is missing, even if you have never quite known it. For me the word is both the profound sense of belonging and homesickness for a place that never was home and a deep, aching longing to spend more time drawing things I haven’t even imagined yet.
Very late on a rainy night in the desert in December of 1991, the plane touched down on the runway of Cairo International Airport, and I was slammed with a palpable and unbelievably strong relief of returning home. This was, however, my very first trip ever to Egypt. I never shook the sensation for the two weeks I was there, up and down the Nile, in and out of tombs in the Valley of the Kings, everywhere I went was both new and home. When I left, grief was the only word that came close to expressing what it was like to drag myself back on board the airplane bound for New York. The strangest thing was that none of my return trips to Egypt ever gave me quite the same discombobulating and destabilizing effect, just a happiness to visit again. 23 and Me recently listed my trace ancestry as Coptic Egyptian. Science devotee and nerd I may be, but the intense power of that first experience can’t quite be reduced to a tiny fragment of DNA, even if it is in every cell of my body.
Sometimes Hiraeth is a flirty, ghost-like muse that disappears whenever I look directly at her, taking with her the, phrases, ideas, or designs that I almost saw in my head before she was gone. Whenever I get the typical small talk question, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I freeze for a nanosecond, wondering if the person asking really has any idea at all of the craziness of this question. In his book The View from the Cheap Seats, author Neil Gaiman gives his take on the question and the honest, snarky answer he learned to give and one I have stolen from him: My ideas come from my imagination. Trust me, it’s a conversation stopper.
What I wonder in my nanosecond freeze at the question is how I might even begin to describe the absolute soul yearning I experience when I think about beginning artwork that I can’t quite imagine, the desire to draw in graphite and color, all the time, that which I don’t yet know, have not yet entirely envisioned, and for which I often doubt that I’m up to the task. All those 250+ semi-erasable, mark-making round and hexagonal sticks taunt me with what trails of wonder they might leave if only I could wiggle them around on paper 24/7. It’s a relief when I finally take time to pick up a pencil, and the sensation of its lead gliding across the paper is exquisite, whether I have any clue what I’m going to do at the start or not.
Whenever I’ve coached students and fellow creatives on the mysteries of designing, I encounter the same sense of longing to express an intangible and as yet unmade object from the rough sketches that never quite feel as worthy of pursuing as we’d hoped when we tried to draw our ideas. The advice I give is that which I learned through experience more than 30 years ago: There is this enormous gap between that which we most want to make and that which we finish. With each piece, we get a tiny bit closer. Eventually, most of the time, it may seem less like being in 36 hours of labor for a firstborn and more like fast pain from a second or third childbirth. Some projects will just be damned elusive and, however beautiful, occasionally unsatisfying in contrast to our original intent.
The ephemeral sense of the other side of the gap…the artist’s Hiraeth. The good news is that millions of great works of art lie within that gap.
For the individual artist, with each piece, the gap between ideal expression and object reality gets significantly smaller. I suspect, though, that the day I find the gap is gone, is the day I’m done making things, so I’ve learned to embrace the space as that which drives me to keep creating. It is the Chaos from which all Order rises.
What do you most long to create?
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