the refraction of longing


The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

– Agha Shahid Ali, Stationery

Longing: both a noun and an adjective, a word that describes a particular kind of desire, of wanting something that perhaps you don’t, or can’t have. I’ve never really been able to describe longing very well, there’s a kind of melancholy there, the same kind of melancholy associated with nostalgia? I don’t know. One of the suggestions in the last supervisory meeting was that there may be a similarity in the stories of shadow objects, where there would be more variety in stories of objects that person does have, which might be true. So I have been wondering about what sort of emotions shadow objects might be centered around, and I wonder if perhaps it covers the many shades of longing? Veronica spoke of craving and desire, and I didn’t recognise it at the time, but I think she was talking about longing too.

I have a fascination with the idea of longing, so I’m not surprised (and I also am surprised because it wasn’t intentional) that I found myself a way back to spending time with the idea. There isn’t all that much literature on longing, or yearning, not even total agreement that it’s a distinct emotion at all, but I did find this science-y definition (written almost 20 years ago now, I’m getting old).

Longing is mainly a blend of the (primary) emotions of love or happiness and sadness or depression … It is experienced as a need for something – a thing, a state, a relationship – without which one’s life does not feel complete.

Holm, O. (1999). Analyses of Longing: Origins, Levels, and Dimensions. The Journal of Psychology, 133:6, 621-630

And perhaps it is also as Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Housekeeping, that it is the very fact we crave an object that keeps an object, a state, a relationship, with us.

(She also describes the absence as a shadow and she’s a literary genius, just saying…)

To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again.

Of course, saying all shadow objects are connected to longing, to yearning, is a little banal; they wouldn’t qualify as objects that cast a shadow if there were no desire for them in the first place. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. But the banality of my wonderings is not the point: it’s the stories of why an absent object evokes longing in the first place that I’m here for. In those stories, I am sure, I will find a myriad of different motivations and emotions; longing, refracted into so many hues.

4 thoughts on “the refraction of longing

  1. I so love this. I lost the ring I wore in my previous marriage at some point. It vanished off the face of the earth. Thick gold, 8 diamonds spaced evenly around its circumference. A beautiful thing. Uncomfortable not just in itself but because of the memories it held, and yet I can’t let go of it. If it was sitting in a drawer it wouldn’t bother me at all, but the fact that it vanished bothers me and does sit like a shadow. Where did it go.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that’s it exactly. And I may need to expand from bereavement into general loss like this, because it’s just as interesting and interconnected emotionally for me. We’ll see. Though divorce is a bereavement too, isn’t it? I may have to talk to you more, Michelle 🙂


  2. Melinda Cannady

    I too love this. I love Marilynne Robinson’s words are so lovely. After he died, I longed to hear my brother’s laughter again (not an object, but a thing I guess?) and I’m terrified that the memory of it will slowly fade. It’s not as clear a sound in my head as it used to be. Not as loud, not as vivid… and I have shared that with no one, because this one small thing, forgetting the sound of his voice, seems like a betrayal of his memory, and of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Marilynne Robinson is amazing.

      My son’s friend died a couple of weeks ago and his mother said the one thing she was the most upset about was that she would never hear his voice again. Some of his mates posted a video they had taken of him playing Minecraft, laughing and chatting with his friends, and she was so grateful she had that recorded sound to play every time she thought the sound memory might be fading. So yes. I get that yearning too.


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