Nostalgia: The Pain of Leaving Home


I’ve been thinking a good bit these past years, and especially these past months, about our attachments and relationships to place. Or the lack of it. I’ve been thinking about the connections between “nature deficit disorder” and what I call placelessness, and wondering about the spiritual, psychological and emotional impact those disconnects have caused us.

So a few Sundays ago, when the minister described the Prodigal Son’s emotional state in his rebellion as “homesick”, the word resonated. I wrote it down on the folded paper I always keep in a pocket. I’ve only just now started working my way through how that familiar word may teach me something about how we bond–or fail to or pretend to not need to form attachments –with the landscapes of our lives.

And the first factoid comes from language, not surprisingly. The term nostalgia derives from the Greek “nostos” for leaving home; and -algia, the Latin for pain. The Pain of Leaving Home. We’ve extended the meaning to any wistful emotion-laden remembrance tinged with longing or regret.

I don’t really have time right now to take this rabbit trail, but thought I needed a place-marker to come back to, which is what the blog is turning out to be. So here’s a start towards following homesickness to see what it can tell me about the ways our health, in all its dimensions, is affected by our relationships to the places we call home.

According to Susan Matts, author of Homesickess: An American History, homesickness is “un-American.” Don’t fence me in. The rugged American. Route 66.

“Adults in modern America have learned to repress overt expressions of homesickness, for it has come to connote immaturity, a lack of ambition, and failure. It is out of step with the ethos of modern capitalism, which prizes mobility and individualism.”

“…mobility has in fact never been an innate trait of Americans. Instead, they had to learn to leave home, and they have still not completely mastered the art of rugged, restless individualism.

How would it impact our collective mental health if, instead of denial, we embraced the ties that bind us to place, home, nature and community? What have we lost in our urgency to a “free” and placeless people? If nostalgia is the pain of leaving home, we’ll need a word for the pleasure of finding it again.

And I wonder if we can be “nostalgic” for places we’ve never been, for homes we’ve never had, but long to find.

Have you ever been homesick? What did it teach you about yourself? Where you embarrassed or shamed by the experience?

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I think we are all Odysseus – trying to find our way home – so to deny this is to deny our deepest longing. I agree with you too Fred that “Home” like “family” need not be where you were born but a place or people that resonate with our soul.

    I note that Tsuga is the lead on this piece. What is a home or a family without a dog?

  2. Growing up an Air Force brat the idea of homesickness is sort of foreign to me. Every place I ever lived was with the assumption that I would be leaving, probably sooner rather than later. I’ve been in Fredericksburg VA for 10 years and this place still doesn’t feel like home to me. I could pack up and leave tomorrow without looking back.

  3. Nice piece, Fred. When I think back about my move from the Pacific Northwest to Southwest Virginia, I am reminded that I didn’t anticipate the experience of being “homesick,” as it were. I also didn’t anticipate how rooted that would be in terms of geography. Yes, I was leaving one set of mountains for another – but they were oh-so-different! I did not expect this homesickness to root in geography for me the way it did, either. Yes, precipitation amounts were the same (about 36 inches per year), but the delivery was very different. I expected to see a 10k foot volcano rising up above the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance as well. Terrain has a way of becoming etched into/onto our way of seeing, I think. I can’t say I was embarrassed about it. In many ways it was unrecognized for quite a while as the newness kept it at bay.

    Being back here now, after my five significant years there, feels like I’m home. Nice post to read this morning. Thank you, as always . . .

  4. You’ve hit a nerve this time providing more fascinating concepts to be explored and yet another book to add to the long must-read list. I’ve always experienced homesickness to the point that, as a child, I was unable to stay overnight with friends or family. As an adult, as much as I enjoy seeing new things, experiencing new places and visiting far-flung family, the homesickness always creeps in. I still feel quite embarrassed by those emotions and (as noted by Matts) feel like a failure at being a grownup!

  5. Ever been homesick? Heck yes … most especially up till the mid-20s … in fact, one of the major hurdles I had to face when trying to make my own life was facing up to the pain of homesickness. Which in the long run was a rewarding pain to go through, but the passage does leave its scars. And I feel little tugs of it again whenever I visit places that I have personally known … or (through research) have come to know as forming the environment for ancestors in years past …. it is that feeling of “place” that also helps develop more of an ability to feel empathy for other beings …. and not only the human ones …..

  6. I have had a gypsy’s heart always. Wherever I am, I feel at home. I carry home with me, in the connections I loyally keep alive for decades and a few artifacts that travel with me. I visit people and places from my past and pick up where I left off. Only occasionally have I experienced homesick feelings. One I remember was seeing on TV some wide open Western vistas shortly after I had moved back east for a couple years, and feeling the yearning for that kind of spaciousness that eastern woods prevent. But for the most part, because the sky is the same for me all over the world I feel at home whenever I look up.

  7. When I am “at home” either in my own house or just in the small knit community I live in, it is a feeling of comfort, security and true belonging.

    The feeling I expereince, is similar to the mountains that totally surround me, a feeling of protection, beauty, greatness, but yet gentle and embracing.

    If I were to leave this mountain top, I know sadness, emptiness and homesickness would over come me. I have no desire to be in any place else, while my two feet are still attached to the topsoil of this earth.

  8. Homesickness. What an interesting topic. I suspect that homesickness is directly related to the number of connections a person has to where they live – not geographical, but social and emotional. One thing that I like (amongst many) about Floyd is the degree of “rootedness” of the people who live there. Some years ago, I had a conversation with someone (I’ve forgotten who!) who told me that he/she knew of an over-50 aged person who had never left Floyd County! That really floored me. But why leave if there is no need to? Doing the tourist thing has its pleasures, but isn’t sleeping in your own bed great? As for the idea that travel “broadens ones’ horizons” – eh, I’m not so sure. We tend to carry our shells on our backs, like turtles.

    • Enjoyed reading your post…I so agree with your interpretation of “homesickness”… Our happiness is found with the emotional and social ties that we create….and yes, there is no place like home. Especially if you are so very fortunate to live on this mountain top. I refer to my home, as the closest place to Heaven, on this earth!

  9. I live in a permanent state of homesickness

    When I’m in France I am homesick for England and this little house and the village green, and when I’m here I long to be back in Brittany in my large, crazy, lovely home and my good friends back there.

    It has taught me a very important lesson, this state of ’emotionally straddling the English channel’, to live in the Here and Now and to make the very most of that which I have Today