I’ve been in love with German ever since I learned the word weltschmerz. Its literal translation is “world-pain,” the depression that arises when the realities of existence don’t line up with the ideals in your head. I talk about this word in the opening chapter of my memoir, how when I discovered it, some gear inside me clicked into place, and I thought, Yes, that’s what I’ve been trying my whole life to explain.
My weltschmerz has lessened considerably since I’ve grown closer to Jesus. I understand now that this world, in its present state, cannot satisfy the longings that gong deep and low in my soul, and the only way to find fulfillment is to hand my whole self over to God. Only when I stopped expecting writing to save me did I experience freedom in it. Only when I started asking Jesus to show me who and how to be did my desperate and ultimately futile attempts to claw out a cure for weltschmerz subside.
The second German word that caught my eye, I discovered in Sigrid Nunez’s A Feather on the Breath of God (arguably my favorite novel). The narrator’s mother, who’s spent her adult life in New York, talks of how she longs for the Germany of her youth, overturned and wholly unrecognizable after the war. To describe this longing, she uses the word heimweh. “‘Another word you have no English for.’ Homesickness? ‘Yes, but more than that.’ Nostalgia? ‘Stronger than that.'”
Google Translate offers three English words for heimweh: homesickness, longing, nostalgia. But what I know of German is the same thing the mother of Nunez’s narrator knows: more than that, stronger than that. Like weltschmerz, it, too, is a compound word. Heim means “home.” Weh means “sore, ache, woe.” More than homesickness, stronger than nostalgia, heimweh is a visceral, whole-person yearning for the place of one’s belonging. For home.
Just as I did with weltschmerz, I’ve spent my cognitive life bearing the weight of heimweh, only my longing isn’t associated with the place where I grew up. Every time I approach Southern California by plane, I look down on it and think, Crowded, cluttered, cloying. Not mine. I experienced this the first time I came back from college, leaving behind the multicolored trees of a New England fall, descending upon a place that looked the same as when I’d left it that summer. Thirteen years later, my reaction is also the same.
So when I talk of heimweh, I don’t mean what most people do. I have never felt “at home” in my hometown. As soon as I was old enough to realize there were other places to go, I dug my roots out of that arid soil and held them to my chest until I could move them somewhere else. For a while, I set them down in Boston, and though I loved it there, they didn’t take. I dug them back up and returned to California, before I hightailed it up to Portland, Oregon, where I’ve lived ever since.
That was eight years ago, and throughout those years, I’ve had various debates with myself (for various reasons) about whether or not the Northwest is, in fact, my home—is the satisfaction of my heimweh, such as any place on this earth can be. For heimweh is like weltschmerz in that, ultimately, the answer to its keening lies in God. He is our home, our belonging, our peace, and our rest. But though I know now that home is more than where I lay my head, the “where” still makes a considerable difference.
My time in Portland has been challenging (again, for various reasons), but whenever I look out the window and see the swells of this good, green city, all I can think is, Home. So why do I hesitate when people ask me if I’ll stay? I could give any number of answers: Because I never thought I’d find a place I loved, and now that I have, I don’t know quite what to do. Because Portland is changing so much, and I don’t know if I’ll still love it in two years, ten, twenty. Because though I don’t know where else I would go, sometimes, I’m not sure I have a reason to stay.
I live alone in a studio apartment. I work from home. I have no pets, but I do have friends, and we see each other from time to time, though we’re all busy, burdened, running this way and that. My existence is, by and large, a solitary one. Four years ago, when I said goodbye to my last roommate and got a place of my own, one of my first thoughts upon moving was, Who will find me if I die? But beating like a heart beneath this question was and still is a larger one: Who will notice if I live?
At the end of her meditation on her mother, Nunez’s narrator says, “I think I know what Heimweh means.” I think I’m also beginning to understand. What I long for is not just the “where” but the “who”—the person (or people) to make a home with. What I want is the collision of matter and meaning: marriage (and motherhood, should that come with it). What I yearn for is a reason to feel tethered to this earth, to spread my roots into the good soil God has brought me to and grow, until Jesus calls me home.