21 August 2012

The Art of Longing

 John William Waterhouse "The Crystal Ball"

Yearning is such a beautiful word.  Each language has a version of this emotion. In Portuguese it is saudade, while the German word is sensucht.  In this age of immediate gratification, I think we have lost sight of the art of yearning for something we might never achieve, and the attendant benefits that accompany that sort of visceral yearning.   

Seeing Venice.  Riding an elephant. Owning a home by the ocean.  

 Longing for the unattainable is pleasurable in a strange way, or at least I find this to be true. It is the setting of magical goals in our hearts—goals that might never materialize and yet they fire our imaginations with ripe possibility and allow us, in our quiet moments of yearning, to picture ourselves in that daydream world. 

If there were more longing in life, there might be less debt.  Now, now now.  Like Veruca Salt in Raold Dahl's cautionery tale, we cannot wait for, save for, yearn for, or relegate to the imagination those things we desire but cannot have right now. We instead bankrupt ourselves for the immediacy of possession. We are bullied into making bucket lists and to accomplish each item. We are assured that nothing is unattainable. We are told about the 50 things we must do, the 100 places we must see, before leaving this life. We are not told that it's alright to dream and yearn and not possess or accomplish. We are not taught the art of longing.  Longing, it would seem, is an ugly and archaic and self-defeating passtime.

I spoke about the art of longing with a friend one day, of the ability to see something in a window or magazine, to imagine having it, to take pleasure in the idea of it, and to let the yearning curl around your mind and heart with the tantalizing hope that perhaps one day it might be possible. And to be wistfully content if it is not. Longing can and should encompass not needing to own something, despite wanting to.

My mother, when she has seen something lovely in a shop window, has frequently said: Isn't that beautiful?  But don't get it for me... I don't need to own it.  And another friend spent years of Sunday afternoons going to open houses with her husband, despite the fact that they had barely enough money to live on, much less buy a house.  She was practicing the art of longing. 

Longing can embrace the sheer pleasure of knowing a particular item or place exists in the world with us.  Too few people know what it means to desire something and be willing to allocate the reality to 'some day'.  Or perhaps to 'never'.  Nearly a year after that conversation with my friend, this delightful book arrived.

Nineteen Hats, Ten Teacups, an Empty Birdcage & The Art of Longing

Longing, far more than it haunts you,
reminds you of your true name.
Longing that is with joy is complete longing.
When it is strong it calms us.
Longing is whatever one wishes.
It can tell you your life again.
Longing does not change anything.
It is the art of not knowing.
Longing is when we think our storm is the right size.
A little can be eternal.
Longing always visits one who is content.
It may be the gift no other gift provides.
Longing comes singly and leaves accompanied.
It can be happiness.
Longing is a word that means to put stars together:
the faith you instill, the faith it has instilled.
Longing is to be someone.
To be someone in solitude.
—Cooper Edens


  1. dear Haworth,
    Saudade, yearning, longing. A wonderful post Haworth.
    longing is for me natural, for some it may not be.
    Its exciting to see something that one likes, and imagine it somewhere.
    I am a dreamer. My father always taught us.. If you stop dreaming, life is over. Dreams are what we build our lives on. Longing should be practised more these days.. like you say.. people are crazy " Oh lets buy it".. linger a while and ponder.. its a wonderful feeling.
    I love this post Haworth.
    thank you for your kind comments over at my blog.
    happy thursday

  2. "If you stop dreaming, life is over" -- that is so beautiful, Val! And so true. And yes, to linger awhile and ponder is a wonderful feeling. I hope you're enjoying these last days of summer. Take care and thank you for coming by. (And I'm enjoying catching up with your blog entries!)

  3. Fascinating! I have to agree with your so well thought out discussion. And what a find the book is! Lovely, lovely passage.

  4. Thank you so much, Jacqueline. I wish you could see the lovely drawings that go with that text. And I've always loved the subtitle on the book's cover: Nineteen Hats, Ten Teacups, an Empty Birdcage. To me it was like someone was writing down a partial inventory of my cottage! Hahah Take good care...