"River" (Joni Mitchell)
I wouldn’t always live along the Hudson. I first moved away when I was just 19 years old. In many ways, I kept moving. But it wasn’t the river I was running from.
In fact, wherever the place I lived, I’d always miss the Hudson and the Catskills in the distance hovering over the river.
Most years, I’d make it home for Christmas, the river sometimes frozen over or almost. And the Catskills by then were touched with white like my hair these days.
Of course, I don’t remember my first Christmas. I was merely 8 months old in the December of that year with its momentous music. That year of 1971 ended with a couple Christmas-themed songs that transcended the season, Happy Xmas (the War is Over) by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and River by Joni Mitchell.
It's coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
And putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace…
The emotion underlying Joni Mitchell’s song, however, is a little more exclusive. That emotion is for those who move away. For those who’ve moved away and who long, if just for a time, for what was left behind.
Homesickness… it’s an interesting word. Sick for home. Or for what used to be home. Or for what was created as and called home.
Many Christmas songs include the theme of pining for home or what used to be.
“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me.”
“Someday soon we all will be together
If the fates allow
Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow
So have yourself a merry little Christmas now”
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know…
where tree tops glisten
and children listen
to hear sleigh bells in the snow.”
Then there’s those Home Alone movies from the early 1990s. Its theme song, "Somewhere in My Memory" joins our theme:
“Somewhere in my memory
Christmas joys all around me
Living in my memory
All of the music, all of the magic
All of the family, home here with me.”
Add “River” to the playlist.
I wish I had a river
I could skate away on…
The term “complicated grief” comes to mind. Grief in the wake of a complicated relationship. Losing someone you loved but shared a messy history with, one strewn with hurt and conflict. Missing a deceased sibling you loved but were bullied by as a child. This kind of grief is not easy, not simple, and, well, not uncomplicated. Complicated grief makes the process of grief harder to wade through or describe.
There is such a thing as complicated homesickness, too. That’s how I’d describe how I often felt, and sometimes continue to feel.
My homesickness was real – I did really miss home sometimes – but it felt complicated. How?
The answer is nothing new. It is an ancient story. It is the plight of the black sheep. There is loss involved in this lonely existence. There is isolation and sadness. There is, yes, complicated homesickness.
The home I pined for was a home I didn’t always sense full acceptance within. The home I pined for was a home that didn’t fully get me nor did it seek to.
And when I did get home, there was a sense I came to merely stand on the outside and look in.
I wish I had a river so long
I would teach my feet to fly
There’s a push and pull to home. Pulled back by memories, positive memories, of life along the Hudson with the Catskills in the distance, memories of my childhood walking the sidewalks of Hudson, living in the neighborhood I knew, playing on the playgrounds around me, attending elementary school just around the corner, memories of days that feel freer, simpler, longer.
Pushed away by who I grew to be, by my life spent away from home, by the differences so pronounced they cannot be camouflaged.
Of course, my parents and siblings wanted me closer. They didn’t understand why I came and went so much, why I moved so much, why I didn’t stay longer. White sheep don’t understand why the black sheep feels so disconnected. “We love you just the same,” the notion goes.
What’s more, the white sheep feel hurt at the black sheep’s feelings of dissonance and disconnect, that is if they see that dissonance and disconnect to begin with. This hurt only adds to the complicated existence experienced by the black sheep lost.
I made my baby cry…
Christmas is months away as I write. But I can, with the help of Joni Mitchell’s evocative song, place myself there at the doorstep of Jingle Bells at home. There, I recall what I learned in Sunday school. The wise men traversed a long way from home to finally find the home they were looking for. They returned Eastward, transformed by the journey there and back.