In Which We Talk About ‘Longing’

One year ago I wrote a piece called “An Unappeased Yearning to Return.” The piece was based on the roots of the word ‘nostalgia.’

The responses were beautiful – thoughtful, poignant, true. They were your voices! You all expressed so much. It doesn’t mean that you aren’t happy, it doesn’t mean that you are maladjusted, it doesn’t mean that you pine daily in a back room, longing for the past. It just means that you loved a place and the people in that place and there are times when you need to express it.

So here are your voices from that post. Thank you for your words!

minarets-at-dusk quote

“ isn’t really that we want the country we left behind. We just want all of the perfect things to be able to come together in one place. And the fact that they can’t is like putting together a puzzle that’s missing half of the pieces.” Bryana Joy


“The yearning for me is for another time and another place. The hard thing is to know that even if I was to physically go back to Pakistan, those memories will not be present because buildings have changed, people have moved on. There’s a sense of loss in that those things can never be gone back to, never recaptured or re-experienced, even if other new and equally enjoyable things are in their place.” Sophie from Little Gumnut


“Sometimes the longing is so strong, it takes my breath away. For the places, for the people, for the way things used to be. But, as you say, most of the time, it is under the surface and I tick along doing all the things I’m meant to do and being happy about them. The longing is an undercurrent, but we can’t let it pull us under. It can most certainly be a gift if it reminds us to reach out to others who may be in danger of drowning.” Stacy from Food Lust, People Love


“Seems the roots of my Nostalgia always lead me to my Identity. And if I am no longer “there”, that place I can no longer BE, am I still who I thought I was?? Of course, the question is rhetorical – So I sit, perhaps at my computer at work, gazing past the grey earth, shorn of its snow-mantle, seeing beyond the un-born spring, into the past. The nostalgia emerges. A mist-covered lake. – I guess the difficult thing about identity is that those we love can never truly know who we are and from where we came. Because our journey is jut that. Our own. It can feel isolating. But I choose to nurture the compassion that thrives in nostalgic soil, allowing it to drive me to connect with others. To hear.

Their story. Their song.

All because there is One Who does know me. And because there will be a time when I will know, even as I am Known.” Sylvia


“I have never admitted this, but I used to get the sick-in-the-pit-of-your-stomach homesickness until well into my 20’s. I don’t know why, but I do often feel the longing for what “no longer is”, and sometimes I feel a longing but I’m not even sure what for!” Hillary


“The Orthodox understanding of the Fall in Genesis is more about yearning than about guilt – it is this sense that there IS somewhere we fully belong, but this is not quite it. And I think your point about embracing nostalgia as something that can connect us to others and make us more compassionate is so good. It is easy to feel that unusual experiences set one apart, but the truth is that EVERYONE experiences loss and yearning, we are ALL travelers far from home.” Thea Wallace


“I have a longing to return to Pakistan or even India that I don’t see any way of fulfilling. In part I satisfied that longing by writing “Captives of Minara,” and in part when we make curry or have the family together and get samosas. Partly it eases when we go to an South Asian restaurant.” Eric Wright


“Recently, I am experiencing this [longing] from the perspective of a mom whose sons have grown up and started their adult lives. Looking back at pictures of a time and a family (our family) to which there is no returning. The gift is in knowing what we shared…and the places and faces with which we shared our family times. And in the yearning for what we shared comes a prayer for what I hope lives on inside each of them to share with the friends and family they have join them on their journeys through life.” Delana


“A dear friend, a sister in the faith, is dying. She is so ready to go HOME, home to be with Jesus. As I was dropping off to sleep last night, I felt tears rolling down my cheeks. I thought of her daughter who died years ago at 27, the 2 stillborn grandsons she never saw, of her husband gone for several years. Such a joyful reunion to be anticipating. Most of all I thought of her finally being face to face with Jesus, the Savior she has loved and served. So my tears were mixed, tears of joy for my sister, my friend and tears for the pain and loss of death.
Does this sound disconnected from this post on nostalgia, that pain of longing for some other place? I believe our longings, our nostalgia in this life are related to that deeper longing for a permanent place, a longing that God has put into our hearts.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.” Ecclesiastes 3:11″ Polly Brown aka my mom


“Just today I read a quote by Barbara Brown Taylor (Learning to Walk in the Dark) that goes along with this thought. ‘After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to noda. There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea, steering by stars. Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.’ Amen to Ecclesiastes 3:11.” Bettie Addleton


“I particularly loved this line and paragraph, ‘But for more people it sits in the soul, under the surface, not affecting activities of daily living, but silently accompanying us wherever we go.’ – that’s so true, and I’m glad you reminded me that it’s ok to feel this. Thank you for reassuring me that I can feel that longing but still be present where I am, that they do not negate one another. Sometimes we forget that, so thank you for reminding me of this: ‘we can be content and well-adjusted to a place and yet still have a longing for the places we came from, the places where we will never return.'” Dounia from TCKNextStop


So there you have it – your voices, your thoughts, written to encourage all of us. Thank you! 

Others – what would you add to the topic of nostalgia and longing? You can take a look at the original post here. 

The Bittersweet Comfort of the Past

Today is the second post of a 2-part series on Nostalgia by Katha. If you missed last week’s post take a look at “What a computer screen can and cannot do for our nostalgia.” posted last Thursday. This piece is longer than most but well worth the read so grab a cup of tea or coffee and lean into it!


The bittersweet comfort of the past by Katha

“Of all the ways of using history, nostalgia is the most general, looks the most innocent, and is perhaps the most dangerous” – Malcolm Chase

Since early childhood my life has been shaped my movement, transition, and goodbyes. My father’s job as a nurse and missionary has led my family all over Germany and beyond. When I was twelve, my parents decided to move to Uganda to work at a small dispensary; even though I was against it at first, I fell in love with this country as soon as I set foot on its soil. The people, their kind hearts, and their joy despite harsh living conditions became an enrichment and inspiration for me. Quite abruptly we had to say goodbye after only two years and moved back to Germany; re-entry was difficult and exhausting because I had left the country as a child and returned as an adult, feeling completely lost in the German teenage culture. Many times I would go back to Uganda in my dreams and imagine how everything there was so much better than surviving here. Being nostalgic about what I had left behind appeared to be an innocent and very comforting way to escape my miserable present, as Malcolm Chase describes.

The phenomenon of longing for home is probably as old as humanity. One could think of biblical times, when the Israelites mourned the harsh working conditions in Egypt and longed for the return to the Promised Land Canaan. One could refer to ancient literature like the pastorals by Vergil, praising the idyll of simple life in the countryside. People felt melancholic, sad, or homesick – they just never labeled it as ‘nostalgia’.

The term came into being in 1688, when the only 20-year old Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer wrote his medical dissertation about nostalgia and homesickness. The term derives from the Greek ηoστος (nostos: return home) and αλγια (algia: longing), which describes a sad mood and constant longing for one’s native land. Many people at that time – soldiers, students, or servants – suffered from it. Home for these people was a geographical place, and as soon as things from home were missing they became obsessed with one thought only: to return home, the place where they would feel safe and comforted.

In the middle of the 19th century things changed.  Cities became the sites of industrial, transportation and communication revolution. People from all over the world streamed into these new centers to make quick money and get a glimpse of modernity. However, when the first wave of excitement and wonder wore off people realized the downside of modernization: cities were noisy, long working hours drained their energy, and life had lots its quality. People realized that all kinds of praised technology were only technical after all and could not substitute human beings or relationships. They longed for intense and real encounter again, experience instead of knowledge. And this is where the problem began that I still try to wrap my head around today: you cannot travel back in time. People thought if they could only go back home everything would be alright and things were like they used to be. Many did go home, back to the rural areas in the West or even crossing the Atlantic for their home countries, but they often had painful realizations:

“Upon travelling back, however, they found they had not arrived, and never could, for the same technologies that had brought them home had also disrupted traditional ways of life. Home was gone, lost in the past. And while space could be traversed, time could not” (Susan Matt).

Homesickness for a home that could never come back quickly gave way to a sentiment that TCKs are quite familiar with: nostalgia. To cling to what they had lost in an innocent way, people preserved traditions, celebrated their heritage, and promoted culture. Towns hosted Homecoming Weeks for urban residents to return to their homesteads, ancestors were worshipped with a revived passion, and people from the city came to the countryside to experience a holiday in the style of “the good ol’ days”.

TCKs might have to take several planes to visit the places again they refer to as home and their memories might not be linked to one specific location but spread across the globe – nevertheless, they might be able to relate to a few nostalgic notions. Whenever we have to leave a place we say our goodbyes and our brain tells us that no matter when we come back, it will never look the same. We will move on and our friends we leave behind will grow up, too. And yet, our heart seems to take one last snapshot of the places and faces we have come to love – this is the image we’ll store inside of us and bring to life whenever we think of that place. This is how we want to remember it.

Even though I slowly adjusted to German life again, I could not wait to return to Africa one day. After I had graduated from high school I was given the chance to go back, but now something interesting happened: I suddenly hesitated to go back to Uganda because I was afraid I would destroy the perfect illusion I had created over the years. What if everything was so different to how I had preserved it in my mind? What if my childhood memories turned out to be a lot bleaker in reality than in my dreams? Suddenly, nostalgia was not only innocent comfort, but also showed me the limits of remembering.

As much comfort as nostalgia seems to promise our homesick-stricken hearts, there is a bittersweet note to it that we should keep in mind. Have you ever thought about what you remember best about your childhood in country xy, or growing up in place z? Most of our experiences seem to have been positive because our memory seems to be manipulated: it filters out the bad memories and strengthens the happy ones that will create a falsified, beautified, and maybe even simplified, version of the past. Living with or in a past that never existed that way can be rather dangerous. We might be so tied to what has seemingly been that we don’t even see what is right in front of us. The present is just unbearable for us, so we use the past as an escape and comfort. Starting college in a country you have never lived in apart from furlough, struggling with a culture you’re supposed to be part of, or having a hard time opening up to new friends can be just so exhausting – why not take a trip down memory lane and stay there, where everything is known and easy? Well, it’s not. It is an illusion our mind tries to sell us, which will eventually blind us to the see beauty in the present, and even worse, bind us to move on into an exciting future.

So how can we make nostalgia a meaningful part of our lives? The other day I was sitting in a class on African Literature when my professor startled me with the following questions: How do you define yourself? If you only look backwards, do you define yourself only by what you’re missing? I think the feeling of missing is a key element of a TCK’s emotional mindset. It can be a wonderful reminder of the beautiful places and wonderful people who have enriched our lives and shaped our worldview. But it should not hold us back from allowing new places and people to have the chance of having yet another impact on our lives. We’ve been given and have experienced far too much that we could ever define ourselves by everything we do NOT have.

I have lived in South Africa and the United States, made wonderful new memories, and took away things and people to remember. Movement and countless goodbyes have made me question issues like home or rootedness. Pictures, videos, songs or Skype calls help to treasure the people I have come to love or experiences I have made. And yet, I am still struggling to wrap my head around the different worlds I have seen and had to leave behind. How they can all exist next to each other, while I can only be in one. To this day I have not returned to Uganda. But reflecting on nostalgia, its bitter sweetness AND its comfort, have made me want to take that journey.

Have you struggled with living in the past, unwilling or unable to live in the present? How have you worked through this? 

What a Computer Screen Can and Cannot do for Our Nostalgia

Katha has written for Communicating Across Boundaries before and I love what she writes today – it resonated with my TCK heart and brought up some good questions and thoughts. This is the first part of a two-part series that Katha is doing on “Nostalgia.”  Katha comes at these pieces from a personal as well as academic angle as her Master’s Thesis was on nostalgia. We would love to hear your thoughts at the end of the post. You can read more about Katha at the end of the post and connect with her at her own blog. 


computer - nostalgia

What a Computer Screen Can and Cannot Do for Our Nostalgia

We live in a world that has grown closer together, as one definition of globalization puts it.

People around me say they don’t have to go anywhere because the world is right at their doorstep. They can choose their dinner menu from at least ten different cultures, and music found by one click online sets the right tone. What’s the big deal with travelling? Others are travel maniacs. Get on a plane and within ten hours (or less, depending on where you live) you’re in a completely different world. People go on vacation to exotic places, spend two weeks in a hotel/beach landscape, and say they know a place.

Friends go on short-term trips to experience ‘the real Africa/India/whatever place you want to put in there’ and come back missing the food, the animals, or the crowded minibus taxis. And I find myself thinking, ‘You have no idea…

The following scene could probably take place in each TCK’s daily life…

…I log myself into Skype and wait for my friend to come online. It’s 7 am and I am little tired, but I also don’t really care about that. It is difficult enough finding a time that we both are available – she between coming home from university and going out with friends in Australia, me before spending all day in classes in Germany. Or other friends joining in from the States after they’re home from church. Skype dates are set up via Facebook or even doodle to find a time where time zones, schedules, or simply life, don’t bother us. We meet virtually from all over the world, and often the first thing we say is, “Thank God for technology!” We talk for hours and hours, share our lives and hearts, but also reminiscence about the time we spent together in yet another part of the world. We laugh, cry, encourage, and pray together – as if we were right next to each other. As if there was no ocean between us. But there is. And I realize it every time I switch off my laptop.

In a way, that Skype call didn’t really cure my homesickness for a certain place or a good friend; it actually increased my longing because I once again had to realize that technology can do a lot, but it cannot bridge the gap between time and space.

Looking at the omnipresence of technology in our globalized lives – how does it affect our feelings of longing and nostalgia?

TCKs are surrounded by movement: either we move ourselves or we watch our friends leave. We are used to saying goodbye on a regular basis, airports have become a second (or third, or tenth) home for us. Since we are constantly on the move, leaving behind too many wonderful places and people, globalization and technology have become a blessing for us – it makes communication and staying in touch with dear friends all around the globe so much easier.

One big advantage of technology like photographs and films is that it enriches facts with vivid images and emotions “far beyond that which could be evoked from a mere chronology of places, persons, and events” (Fred Davis). It helps to recreate the past to a certain extent by eliminating the gap between time and space. There is a new architecture of space because things that used to be far away suddenly appear to be close through email, Skype, videos, and photographs. No matter how far you might feel apart from a place, media bridges the distance and creates instant intimacy. You can easily stay in touch with friends you had to leave behind, even remote places in South African townships or Ugandan bush villages have Internet on their phones these days. Through globalized markets you can get products and tastes from all over the world without leaving your neighborhood. Distance does not matter – with globalization and technology you can create a home away from home or preserve traveling memories for the future.

But does it cure our nostalgia?

When inventions like photography and later videography came about some people said it would eradicate the feeling of nostalgia because we are now able to access our memories in vivid form whenever we want. Some hundred years later, we still grapple with that feeling of longing tugging at our hearts and pulling us back again and again. It seems that nostalgia will always be there, simply in different forms and genres. And it can also have a negative impact because it changes the way we remember, preserve, and deal with homesickness. In a slow world people experience things intensely, but with an increase in speed there is also an increase in forgetting. The more we try to keep up with the speed of progress, of life, of friendships – the more we hear this voice inside of us, we feel this longing to slow down, to go back to a time where things were so much easier and carefree.

Svetlana Boym put if beautifully when she said that nostalgia is ‘a yearning for a different time – the time of our childhood, the slower rhythm of our dreams.’

We long to keep the past alive so we are able to relive it in slow motion. Memories preserved via technology can serve as easy escape from a dull present or the struggle of re-entry into a culture we don’t fit in. Simply watch pictures, call a friend, and you’re back in a different place and time. However, we seem to forget that no virtual reality can ever replace real experiences or recall the actual emotions felt; all it can do is to create a fake image of home or past times. Technology sells the idea of connectedness, which leads to the impossibility of being alone. Constant calling, texting and communicating with home can become a harbor to preserve homesickness; instead of dealing with it, we try to stay in touch with two worlds at once. Then we buy into the illusion that friends on screen are very close. We share lives, relationships, and emotions via video camera. Nevertheless, as soon as we switch off the laptop the connection is lost and only a feeling of loneliness and longing remains. In the end, it makes us even more aware of the fact that there is only one life to live. The past is past and cannot return – the illusion of it, though, increases the longing for home and nostalgia for what can never come back.  

I must admit, I often feel trapped between the curses and blessings of the globalized world I live in. I for sure enjoy staying in touch with friends around the globe. I am grateful for the privilege I’ve been given to be able to travel so much and to see so many beautiful places on earth. And I love looking at pictures or watching movie sequences from a time long gone, remembering things as if they had happened yesterday and feeling what I felt back then.

Yet, I also know the feeling of emptiness after a Skype call, realizing you are still miles and miles apart and knowing that life eventually has to move on. And I wonder how much I can or should enjoy the blessings without suffering from the curses at the same time?

I am not sure we will ever find a fully satisfactory answer to this question. But I am asking you, fellow wanderers and “nostalgics”: How do you use technology to bridge the gap between the different worlds you’ve lived in? How do you deal with the “downside” of it?

Katha - finding your nicheAbout the author: Katha von Dessien is a TCK, who spent some of her teenage years in Uganda and South Africa. She is now based in Germany finishing her teaching degree. More stories and thoughts she shares on her personal blog:

On Sun-Drenched Elsewheres


“Now more than ever do I realize that I will never be content with a sedentary life, that I will always be haunted by thoughts of a sun-drenched elsewhere.”
Isabelle Eberhardt

I wake early on the off chance that there will be a snow day and the ‘non-essential’ personnel can stay home. I look out the window and my answer is there in the small amount of snow that has accumulated overnight. Hot coffee in hand, I sit in the couch by the window, a warm blanket tucked around me.

And I dream of my sun-drenched elsewheres. 

I’m sitting on the verandah at the Holland Bungalow, that big, old building designed for visiting medical staff to come for months at a time while they set up eye camps in Shikarpur and other nearby villages. It’s late afternoon in the winter and the sun is making shadows through the dusty screen. I am a teenager and am plucking out mournful songs on my guitar. The three chords I know are used over and over (and over) again. What I lack in guitar-playing skill I make up for with my voice, which is better than average. I am utterly content in that moment on that verandah. Soon we will have strong, sweet, tea in the garden, dipping sugar-covered Nice Biscuits into the steaming hot drink.


Fast forward and I am on Marty’s balcony in Cairo. It’s early spring in Cairo and Jacaranda trees are blooming everywhere. The weather is perfect covering up the fact that this is a city with pollution problems. I’m waiting on the balcony while Marty makes coffee. We meet regularly on her balcony — it is the safe space for me and many others. Marty has that ability to ask questions and get to the heart of what is going on. I love this city and I love this balcony. I love that the sun beats down and warmth envelopes my body.


Several years later I am in Phoenix, Arizona. Our beautiful yard faces the desert and the patio is perfect for resting and dreaming. The bright, blue water of our pool reflects sunlight and all is calm. I see a bunny running across the yard to hide in the Bougainvillea bushes. My children will be home from school soon but I have this moment of sun-drenched peace and contentment. I love my yard and I love the sun.


It is this past summer and I am walking toward the ocean. The rocky coast is in front of me, and a sunset that defies description lights up the sky. The whole world is bathed in golden color. Ahead of me a sheet hung on a clothesline to dry waves in the breeze, a perfect picture of nostalgia, better still saudade – that poignant longing for what no longer exists.


I give in to the deep longing I feel for just a moment, allowing myself the space to remember. Because there can be strength in remembering. 

Time to leave this dreaming of mine. The clock is ticking and my bus comes soon.

As I pull on sturdy boots over my thick socks I recognize that I’m not discontent, and I don’t dread the day.  But taking the trip back in time to sun-drenched elsewheres was a gift for me this day.

Where are your sun-drenched elsewheres? Do you allow yourself to have moments of longing or do you push them away for fear they will paralyze you? 

Enhanced by Zemanta