Hozro and Hiraeth

“Everything is connected. The wing of the corn beetle affects the direction of the wind, the way the sand drifts, the way the light reflects into the eye of man beholding his reality. All is part of totality, and in this totality man finds his hozro, his way of walking in harmony, with beauty all around him.”
Tony Hillerman, The Ghostway

balanced stones
Image by daschorsch

I came upon two new words recently that come from very different places and cultures, but both resonated with my state of mind this past week.

Hozro is the Navajo word meaning to be in harmony with one’s environment, at peace with one’s circumstances, and free from anger or anxieties. If that isn’t enough, it means you are walking in harmony, content with the beauty all around him.”

It is about balance; about personal and communal beauty that adds its voice to the whole blended ensemble of creation.

Hozho is about real-world harmony and balance in the trenches of life, not the weekend retreat, ”don’t-worry-be-happy varieties.” In the novel Sacred Clowns, Jim Chee, a Navajo detective, is the way author Tony Hillerman explores what it is like to be born among the Dine’ and live on the reservation through novels of mystery. Chee explains hozho in this way:

“This business of hozho… I’ll use an example. Terrible drought, crops dead, sheep dying. Spring dried out. No water. The Hopi, or the Christian, maybe the Moslem, they pray for rain. The Navajo has the proper ceremony done to restore himself to harmony with the drought. You see what I mean? The system is designed to recognize what’s beyond human power to change, and then to change the human’s attitude to be content with the inevitable.”

In hozho, harmony and balance are real and it is a realistic goal in life. You don’t find this harmony outside or in things. You find in your own heart and mind.

Not everyone I know could accept this philosophy. Some people I know want to change the world. That is not the wrong thing to do. There are things that need changing and some of them you yourself can change or at least help change. You could view hozho as acceptance. “I can’t change the climate so I just accept it.”

Adjusting ourselves to reality is an easier and certainly less stressful way to live. It seems to me that this philosophy is more about the things we can’t change. Unhappy about how the weather has “ruined your plans” this weekend? You can’t change it, so adjust yourself.

There is also a belief in certain inevitabilities in hozho. Certain things are going to happen – aging and death amongst the big ones – and fighting to change these things is harmful. I don’t think it means to ignore your health and habits and “come what may” but to battle aging every day makes what life you have left less enjoyable.

nostalgia photos
Image by Michal Jarmoluk

On the other side of the world, I found hiraeth, a Welsh word that has no direct English translation. I found it defined as a combination of homesickness, grief, and sadness over the lost or departed. The closest synonyms in English seem to be “longing, yearning, nostalgia, or wistfulness.” For the Welsh, it seems to be those feelings about the Wales of the past, but the concept is not uniquely Welsh.

The etymology is that it is derived from hir and aeth and literally means “long gone.” The word appears in the earliest Welsh records, including early Welsh poetry. This is not a new feeling.

The word came into the English language in the 19th century. Historically, from 1870 to 1914, approximately 40% of Welsh emigrants returned to Wales. Was it hiraeth?

These two words and their larger meanings don’t seem similar to me. In fact, I see them as opposites in a way. That longing for things long gone in hiraeth is a yearning for things that can never return, such as a lost loved one, or the world, real and imagined, of your childhood. Those kinds of feelings certainly would not enhance any harmony or balance in your life. It means an unacceptance of some inevitabilities.

Everything is connected. The past is settled. You have the present to live in. The future is not completely undetermined but you have the ability to change some of it. If you believe in an afterlife, you are determining what it will be today.


Like Taking Candy From a Baby

decoder I wrote earlier about the Jean Shepherd story that became part of the film, A Christmas Story, Ralphie feels ripped off when he sends away for a decoder ring. The ring is a promotional item for the old radio program Little Orphan Annie that was on the air from 1930-1942. By sending in labels from Ovaltine drink mix, he gets a decoder ring that allows you to decode a secret message at the end of each program.

He checks the mail impatiently every day and when it finally arrives, he tests it out. The “secret message” turns out to be a promotion saying “Drink more Ovaltine.” Scam! Deceit and disillusionment.

I was not immune to such subterfuge as a kid. Annie’s ring was before my time but I did get a decoder ring at a store and so did my friend Kenny. (Yes, one of my closest friends was also a Kenny – it was a popular name at the time.)  Of course, we had no secret messages to decode but we used it in school to pass encoded notes in class. We were actually hoping to get caught, and of course, we did. But no teacher ever decoded our notes. We figured that we had baffled them, though probably they just weren’t interested enough to figure out what two  10-year-old boys were writing.

Our decoder, like Annie’s ring, used one of the simplest and most widely known encryption techniques called the Caesar Cipher. (The one shown here is from Amazon.) It is a type of substitution cipher in which each letter in the plaintext is replaced by a letter some fixed number of positions down the alphabet. For example, with a left shift of 3, D would be replaced by A, E would become B, and so on. So “blog” would become “eorj.”

The method is named after Julius Caesar, who, according to Suetonius, used it in his private and military correspondence. (I was a Caesarian birth so I felt some kinship with the Emperor and widely avoided any kids named Brutus or Cassius.)

dick tracy

There were lots of cheap, gimmicky toys that I bought as a kid. A good number came through ads in comic books or magazines. What kind of “detective kit” would you expect Dick Tracy to send you for fifteen cents?  Paper goods…

The best deal was “free” as in what you got inside a Cracker-Jacks box or in cereal. It was irrelevant to kids that free meant your parents had to buy the product. They were the fast-food giveaways of the 50s and 60s.

cereal box

I had several diving frogmen and submarines from cereal boxes. You loaded some baking soda in a compartment and dropped them in the batub and the resulting foaming bubbles sent the toy up and down in the water. Fascinating for a day.

Those original giveaways – and their more modern-day counterparts – are pretty collectible if you look online.

sea monkeys

I did send away for “sea monkeys.”  This novelty aquarium pet was no monkey but it was a type of brine shrimp. They were sold from 1957 into the 1970s, mostly via comic book ads. The brine shrimp did “hatch” and did  jump around in a monkeyish way, though you needed a magnifying glass to really see them.

They didn’t live very long but they were a kind of science project for me. I read up on them and learned a big word: cryptobiosis.  Cryptobiosis or anabiosis is a metabolic state of life entered by an organism in response to adverse environmental conditions. Maybe they get dried out (desiccation – like these shrimp) or frozen or lack oxygen. They go into a cryptobiotic state when all measurable metabolic processes stop. Suspended animation. Like space travelers in sci-fi stories or Walt Disney’s head. When environmental conditions return to being hospitable, the organism will return to life. I brought those shrimp back from the dead! Frankenstein or a modern Prometheus!  The power was rather heady.

xray specs

For me, the biggest disappointment was the X-Ray glasses. Those ads were always in comic books and I read a lot of comic books.  I was not terribly interested in seeing the bones in my hand. I wanted the Superman vision and the girls at school were the object of my new superpower.

They didn’t work. How could they possibly work, cost a dollar and not be a scientific revolution? If you’re thinking that this is all nostalgia and gullible kids from decades past, think again. You can still buy those X-Ray specs/spex.  I found them on Amazon.

I assumed that the FTC had taken them off the market or at least made them change the product description. The current product description is excerpted below [with my emphasis and comments].

The Original X-Ray Vision Spex . These crazy cool specs are the same ones that went wild back in the 50’s! The Original X-Ray Spex allow you to see bones through skin and to see through clothing! Amazing X-Ray vission guaranteed.  [Does their misspelling of vision let them off the hook legally?] Bright lights help to form the illusion just simply hold your hand towards the light spread fingers and see the bones. [How bright would that light have to be ?!] You can use them at night and mystically see the words X-Ray on every distant point of light. [Not that mystical – the words are printing on the lens] Take X-Ray spex to parties, get-togethers, schools, and hospitals. Your teachers, friends, and family will beg you to try these amazing glasses. They always work and they are loads of fun! X-Ray Spex make great gifts for doctors, radiologists, financial advisors, stockbrokers, and airport security personnel. [An interesting group, but yes, as a gag gift they might be fun.]  For over 40 years, these mesmerizing specs have amazed millions of people all over the world. 

I’m sure every decade has its X-Ray specs and sea monkeys. What was one of your childhood consumer disappointments? Leave a comment.