“I miss everyone. I can remember being young and feeling a thing and identifying it as homesickness, and then thinking well now that's odd, isn't it, because I was home, all the time. What on earth are we to make of that?”
—From The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace.
“One's home is like a delicious piece of pie you order in a restaurant on a country road one cozy evening—the best piece of pie you have ever eaten in your life—and can never find again. After you leave home, you may find yourself feeling homesick, even if you have a new home that has nicer wallpaper and a more efficient dishwasher than the home in which you grew up, and no matter how many times you visit you may never quite cure yourself of the fluttery, homesick feeling in your stomach. Homesickness can even strike you when you are still living at home, but a home that has changed over the years, and you long for the time—even if such a time existed only in your imagination—when your home was as delicious as you remember. You may search your family and your mind—just as you might search dark and winding country roads—trying to recapture the best time in your life, so that you might cure your homesickness with a second slice of that distant, faraway pie, but your search will end in vain, as you have lost the map that told you where to turn, and the restaurant has long ago burned down, and the baker who made the pie has gotten tired of waiting for you and has devoted her life to making tomato paste instead, but she is no good at it, and now you are lost in life, the darkness closing in on you, with nothing but a sad flutter in your stomach and a sour acidic taste in your mouth.”
—Lemony Snicket, Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid
Homesickness today is dismissed as a sign of immaturity, what children feel at summer camp, but in the nineteenth century it was recognized as a powerful emotion. When gold miners in California heard the tune “Home, Sweet Home,” they sobbed. When Civil War soldiers became homesick, army doctors sent them home, lest they die. Such images don’t fit with our national mythology, which celebrates the restless individualism of colonists, explorers, pioneers, soldiers, and immigrants who supposedly left home and never looked back.
…the problem with homesickness isn’t just that it impedes ambition; it’s that the object of longing, home, is not as fixed as one might think. After the Civil War, for instance, “the transcontinental railroad and steam-powered ocean liners,” Matt writes, “made it easier to return to a physical home and thus, at least theoretically, easier to assuage homesickness. Upon traveling 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.” The schedules and even the clocks of hometowns had been recalibrated to train schedules and standard time; certain commodities, like ice, reshaped the diet. Traveling back revealed that “home” had been vanquished by time, and a word necessarily arose to define this longing for what was lost: nostalgia.
“But don't go trying to use the same route twice. Indeed, don't try to get there at all. It'll happen when you're not looking for it. And don't talk too much about it even among yourselves. And don't mention it to anyone else unless you find that they've had adventures of the same sort themselves. What's that? How will you know? Oh, you'll know all right. Odd things, they say - even their looks - will let the secret out.”