blog: Hiraeth By Gruffudd Watts

Strangers & Karma

A Literary Journal

Hiraeth

/hiraɨ̯θ/

By Gruffudd Watts

There is a word in the Welsh language that I have always loved. Hiraeth. They say it is untranslatable. The power hidden in the valley of its long vowel and the crash of its sloping end to this day beguiles English speakers. Let us take a journey, you and I, deep into a word no other culture ever missed. A feeling closed off to those who have never seen the barren beauty of the mountain peaks of Yr Wydffa. Hiraeth, a happy sorrow and repulsive longing burning in the chest of an ancient people. As a famous man once said; to begin at the beginning.

First on this journey is to conjure a treasured memory. You might choose your favorite experience or simply your favorite place. A favorite smell? Memory is a funny thing, isn´t it? Trickier than a violin. You might ask what is treasured? How can I identify a jewel inside my own head? It could of course be a moment of great happiness or brilliant anger or even empowering sorrow. There have always been terrifying triumphs and lovely losses, just as the reverse is true.

What makes a memory true though is the noise surrounding it. To be happy watching a film or cry reading a book, these are life’s little pleasures, with hiraeth the devil is in the details. You must find a memory of great importance. One whose mark can still be seen on you. Take it and allow yourself to be submerged in it.

I choose to walk you through a childhood memory of my favorite place eating my favorite food with two of my favorite people. Let us travel deep into a secret garden owned by my grandparents, where the smell of fruit and pastry is mixed with pollen, and the sun soaks into the greenery. Let me tell you here, at this time, it was a rare summer of hot Welsh sun.

To look at my grandparents’ home is nothing special. A four-room house, overlooking the sand dunes that spill out of Pen-y-bont. There are a dozen like it. As we walk up to it you may ask, why start our journey in such a humble place? That is until you see the garden. It is a marvel that my grandparents have been building for far longer than you or I have been collecting memories of our own.

To get there I must take you through a comically small kitchen. The smell of stale sugar, powdered soap, and burnt toast dominate here in the hours following breakfast. It will add to the magic of the garden. As you step out, still blinded by the glare of the sun, there is a choir of smells that leave the first impression. As our eyes adjust, we sit on their rusted swinging bench hidden inside a castle of glossy evergreen holly bushes. The bass of the garden’s ensemble, if you please. It is the holly that stings your nose, daring you to touch its violent leaves. 

But we have yet to see the whole of the garden so we continue down the uneven steps built when the Queen had an unmarked and smooth face like mine. Here I show you the tenors, a slim lawn punctuated by flower beds. There are daffodils, of course, sweet peas, and carnations. There’s even a rose bush. But we do not stop here for long.

Wading through the drunken bees that knock your knees like a gentle stream, you think we have reached the end of the garden, but there is a hole in the holly bush. I lead you through it to see the altos, a vegetable patch that would make a chef blush still overflowing from spring. Above it, is the baritone, an ancient apple tree whose fallen fruits fill the air with a sickly perfume. And finally, you see the younger me, sitting underneath it. I am a teenager there, tall and svelte with a face of straggly and angry acne.

Here in my favorite memory, I have a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo stolen from my grandmother’s library resting on my lap and a half-finished slice of raspberry pie next to me. The pie is my favorite and they have made it, specifically for me. Watching me sit there with my eyes closed, you see a smile. A smile of great peace and satisfaction, warmed by the sun and sweetened by dessert. When you turn to look at me standing by your side, you see that smile mirrored on a grainy face that you would not call the same. Here we are in my favorite memory.

But this memory is not hiraeth. Hiraeth is in the details of this memory. I began to tell you the story of the pie and I must, inevitably, tell you why it was made specially for me. You ask me if I was visiting my grandparents. While the younger me continues to smile while sitting beneath the tree, the light on my older face begins to fade. You see, some years before this memory my parents had sent me off to a live-in school because they saw me as a nuisance and my presence was no longer wanted.

During this summer, while being embraced by this apple tree and my grandparents, I was not welcomed at home. It is, in fact, unclear if there will ever be a home for me to return to. That is why they made me this raspberry pie. A hopeful gesture from grandparents who had no idea what to do with an angry teenager. That, I tell you, is hiraeth.      

Memory Is a beautiful camera, but it is not a good one, and here in this memory the imperfections are clear to see. In a sea of unhappiness, I am an island. In the present, I choose to look inland, but here we are in my memory and I cannot ignore the crashing waves. I turn to see the look in your eyes. I see the way you protectively pull that cherished memory, once hanging loosely by your side, close into your chest. Perhaps it is better that we Welsh keep our hiraeth, and you keep your memory.    

There is a reason for this word’s existence. The Welsh are a naturally nostalgic people whose one Golden Age was never recorded and has long slipped out of memory. In this golden but formless world where King Arthur reigned, battles were won and their way of life was celebrated. That which we call history only reflects our own desires. Like a rippling lake, the truth is too distorted for any of us to see what we want. And if you do see anything you want, the truth is you cannot see anything at all.

Edited by Kayla Sosa