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Just Walking Each Other Home: Nostalgia and Spiritual Longing

Posted on 24 Apr | 16 comments
Just Walking Each Other Home: Nostalgia and Spiritual Longing

Last month, during the Society for Humanistic Psychology Conference at Sofia University, I had the honor of attending a presentation by Elizabeth Wolfson centering on creativity in midlife.

Toward the beginning of her talk, Elizabeth posed the question, “What is nostalgia?” I responded with the first and truest answer that bubbled right up out of my bodily felt sense. “Homesickness,” I said. She paused, looked right at me, tears glazing her eyes, and told me, “Wow. That really touched me.” I, too, was touched by that I-Thou moment of connection, feeling for the space of a few seconds every bit of that very thing—homesickness, longing.

I associate this feeling with a desire to be connected at increasingly greater depths with something that seemed to come so easily as a child, something I can only describe here now in midlife as magic, mystery, and wonder. I knew, also, that Elizabeth was experiencing something very similar in that moment, though perhaps her vocabulary differs from my own.

As a child, I had no need to think about or reflect on my connection with the natural world, or to consider at any length my place in it. Faeries and nature spirits were my playmates, and I was of their company. I organically accepted the animism of my world; miracles were almost commonplace. I could tell many stories here, but perhaps this one brief account will suffice. I have a vivid memory of being six years old and climbing a corkscrew willow tree in our side yard. I managed to climb to the very top of the tree, about 50 feet up, where the limbs were thin and not sufficient to hold my weight. Inevitably, the branch on which I sat snapped, and I fell all the way to the ground. I landed in a sitting position, somehow uninjured. My body memory even now insists that the turf on which I landed felt like pillows. Alas, whatever capricious nature spirits intervened to soften my landing were nowhere to be found about four months later, when I fell off a driveway wall and needed three stiches in my chin.

Initially a spontaneous response at a conference, my choice to use the term “homesickness” to describe nostalgia in midlife is now very deliberate. I am not endeavoring to be simply metaphorical or poetic. To me, the word most fully encompasses my whole body desire to return to some primal, organic, unsullied, pristine state of union or connectedness. Nor is it adequate to say that it is only a Freudian desire to crawl back into the womb. It is not solely a yearning to be whole; it is also a striving to somehow remember when I was a resident of that first place—of which this beautiful world that we are despoiling is but a pale reflection. To say that it is a mystical and spiritual longing is a true statement, but one that reducibly falls short of the numinous, mysterious actuality of the lived experience, with full presence in the moment.

Moreover, to dismiss this feeling as sort of Platonic dualistic idealism would also be a mistake. Even if they seem separate, the shadows among which I dwell are monistically and inextricably—if elusively—connected to that place my body mysteriously “remembers.” In very high places, among the winds, I know I am very close to that world. The eternal source of all being seems to me a bit dry and abstract as a description. I would much rather call it “Home.”

I feel that this homesickness lives and moves in many of us at this midpoint in our lives—or perhaps at ANY transitional juncture during which we might experience an occasional sense of psychospiritual infertility or staleness. Concepts like “emptiness,” “vacuum,” or “meaninglessness” may also apply. Awareness of homesickness reveals to us the state of disconnection in which we find ourselves. It stirs a restlessness that wakes us out of sleep. It drives many of us to make significant life changes—to take wise or foolish risks—as we wander into Campbellian heroic adventures, attempting to reconnect with what feels authentic. Some of these might even produce lush prizes and stories for posterity through our explorations. Others of us seemingly lose our grasp on our hard-won impulse control, becoming lost in addictions. We may then engage in a futile attempt to ward off the encroaching and despairing realization that we feel unable to recapture any sense of the magic that we associate with youth, but which derives, in fact, from that much deeper spiritual well described earlier. Here again, reductive terms like “midlife crisis” fail utterly to capture the creativity and complexity of what is actually happening.

Occasionally, we may quite serendipitously and deeply encounter each other on our own journeys home, inspiring and encouraging each other, feeling as a result a little less lost and disconnected. We may also deliberately cultivate comfort in groups, families, tribes, and communities, where we support each other with intent and compassion on our respective paths. The title of this article derives from a quote attributed to Ram Dass: “We’re all just walking each other home.” I felt that the quote captures perfectly both the sense of spiritual homesickness as well as the ways in which we find and love each other along the way.

By way of conclusion, I feel like I would be remiss if I did not at least briefly consider just a bit more deeply the role of aging in connection with homesickness. As I was working out at the gym last week, I was reflecting on how important my continued health and fitness in middle age has become to me. I work so hard to preserve grace and mobility, and recapturing some of my youthful vitality has been a joy. Yet, I also feel in every muscle and joint the onset of age—particularly during workouts!

Reveling in the post-workout endorphin rush, I had a thought. The deterioration of my physical body and loss of youthfulness in aging may not at this point be contributing significantly to my alienation from Home after all. As a child, I certainly embodied connection with Home in my very beingness. My body naturally connected me to it. Yet, I was also not as able to experience and appreciate spirituality and mysticism in the way I do now as an adult. What if I am encountering less need for a physical body as I age, and am simply preparing to discard it as an increasingly unnecessary crust or shell that only serves to shield me and separate me from the brightness of mystery that awaits me upon my return Home?

I feel—and I hope—that the day I no longer need that shell at all is still far off. I am very much still enjoying my embodied experience of this life and the connections with dear friends and family it enables for me. Yet perhaps I no longer feel the need to take high magnitude risks in service of my heart’s desire. Where once I gambled everything for love (as Rumi says) and benefitted greatly thereby, perhaps now I am finally ready to embrace the rest of my life in its totality. Perhaps I can accept with greater serenity my body’s natural preparation for my ultimate return Home.

My nostalgia and longing thus help me embrace my life—all of it—at ever greater depths.

-- Drake Spaeth

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Comments and Discussions

Beautifully written and

Beautifully written and thought provoking. Your article seemed to provide the structure for my own recent thoughts to adhere. Watching my son racing outside after school brings up a longing for a time when life seemed to flow without effort and you "couldn't wait to be outside" [blink 182, Adam's Song] I wonder if this longing or homesickness is inevitable as a result of moving from that egocentric child to a logical, reasoning adult? To go back to a time when there was no reason to suspect the world did not revolve around oneself and the rational mind was unaware. Remembering something with the emotions that the brain was unable to record? I will enjoy thinking about this as I travel through my mid-life world.

Thanks again, Drake, for your

Thanks again, Drake, for your insightful heartfelt words. The statement that particularly resonates with me:

"To say that it is a mystical and spiritual longing is a true statement, but one that reducibly falls short of the numinous, mysterious actuality of the lived experience, with full presence in the moment."

I quicken to the "full presence in the moment." In my performance and visual artwork, I've endeavored to be "fully present" in the process of creation. This isn't about product nor elocution nor perfection, but being very present. And in performance with an audience, it has involved inviting the audience to be present *with* me.

In reading your post, I am reviewing my recent season in public art, and am curious how your angle may further inform this travel, past and ongoing. I look forward to your future posts!

I have felt for a long time

I have felt for a long time that artists are intimately connected with this feelings, this "hiraeth" as the Welsh say. Thanks for reading and responding here, Melissa!

What if I am encountering

What if I am encountering less need for a physical body as I age, and am simply preparing to discard it as an increasingly unnecessary crust or shell that only serves to shield me and separate me from the brightness of mystery that awaits me upon my return Home?
This really is calling my name....

;-) Thanks Leslie!

;-) Thanks Leslie!

I've been homesick much of my

I've been homesick much of my life. I've been walking myself home all along. That being, the child in me has been walking all the other me(s) home. I don't know if I'll see my mountains ever again but that's where I belong. I used to climb the trees, dangle upside down on the monkey bars, roll down the floodwalls at full speed and walk through the crick across the rocks and dance with the fireflies. The innocence is not quite lost but it's taunting me.

Perhaps it's teasing you.

Perhaps it's teasing you. There is an important difference. :-)

"Occasionally, we may quite

"Occasionally, we may quite serendipitously and deeply encounter each other on our own journeys home, inspiring and encouraging each other, feeling as a result a little less lost and disconnected...We’re all just walking each other home. I felt that the quote captures perfectly both the sense of spiritual homesickness as well as the ways in which we find and love each other along the way."

That is so beautifully put. Reading that makes me think of the journey that a therapist and client takes, as they both strive to find their way back home. And as I read your last paragraph, I get a sense of peace.. Thank you for sharing this piece Dr Spaeth.

JoAnn, yes I feel that way in

JoAnn, yes I feel that way in therapy sessions--and often in the classroom too! Thank you for your reply.

A refreshing well of cool

A refreshing well of cool clear truth served to weary travelers in love's cup. Thank you, Dr. Spaeth.

My pleasure. Glad it was

My pleasure. Glad it was refreshing. :-)

Reading the beginning of your

Reading the beginning of your blog made me think of this song "Dreams of Home" by Ziggy Marley & The Melody Makers. A song I listened to as a child and throughout my life since.

The song is about the ancestors of slaves having dreams and visions of Africa. The song has always haunted me in a deep way because even though I can't relate to the songs explicit meaning I relate with my ancestral past and being so disconnected with my ancestors and roots in Italy, England, Ireland and even beyond memory or documentation. It is a feeling hard to articulate, yet you seem to be able to!

To me, this homesickness also encompasses the lineage of my DNA and the experiences within. Feeling like a sore thumb in American culture, I have a surreal homesickness for somewhere I have never physically been.

I absolutely feel the depth of your experience with this nostalgia. My nostalgia seems to weave through my past experiences and even further. The ghost of my childlike self has a real presence in my limbic system, frequently reminding me not to get too wrapped up in the BS of adulthood. But I can't deny how hard it is for me to use my imagination in that magical and inspiring way I did as a child. You described the ways we go about trying to recapture this magic so well.

As I finished your piece, I was touched by your openness to the meaning of your homesick feeling and I am a left a bit less cynical. Thank you for sharing :-)

Wonderful Jamie! Thank you

Wonderful Jamie! Thank you for your comment. Yes, I think the ancestral connection is a very important piece of this. Always nice to hear from you. :-)

It is always nice to have you

It is always nice to have you push the envelope and help us explore within and without :-)

Thanks so much Sophia. Your

Thanks so much Sophia. Your support has meant so much to me!

Whoa. I feel like I just got

Whoa. I feel like I just got sucker-punched in the best way possible. What a wonderful piece. There is so much here and I know I will be mulling this over for a long time. Thank you, Dr. Spaeth.

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