I left Ireland on Friday morning. After spending just under two years in the Burren Region of County Clare, my return to the states comes with very mixed emotions. Though I’ve shared a lot in previous blog posts about what Ireland has taught me, I wanted to document and share what I’m reflecting on most prominently in this time of transition.
In March of 2017 when I decided to move to Ballyvaughan to pursue my Master of Fine Arts from the Burren College of Art, the two years that lay ahead seemed like a monumental amount of time. I was excited to live in Ireland, but I worried about spending so much of my early twenties in a rural village in West Clare—at least for what I believed I “should” be doing. I remember thinking about how my decision would move me away from opportunities to hangout with my college friends and meet new young people at bustling bars of the city. Despite my worries, I was excited about the adventure and felt generally good about my decision. My first month in Ireland was magical, the fairytale that one may assume. It’s easy to romanticize living in such a picturesque country, especially when social media allows for a perfect portrayal of all the best aspects of a place. Fresh blackberries lined the roads, the grass and shrubbery were the richest shades of green imaginable, weather was mild and mostly sunny, I got a job serving at a local restaurant and pub, took long weekend spins with the local cycling club, my apartment looked out over Galway Bay, and I had a fabulous artist studio of my own where creativity seem to flow freely and uninhibited.
Shortly after I settled in, I felt a deep sense that I had made the wrong decision. In moving to Ireland, I gave up physical closeness to the people I loved most, the comfort of central heating, a dishwasher and dryer, access to a gym membership, having a grocery store less than a 45 minute drive away, a salaried job, sunshine, the opportunity to meet many people within 10 years of my age range within a reasonable radius, etc.…in my mind I gave up all that I knew and loved and I WAS MISERABLE. I questioned identifying as an artist, feeling like a liar in making that claim. I am embarrassed to share, that I called my mom in tears, feeling sorry for myself as I contemplated leaving and returning to a more comfortable life in the states. I was so obsessed with comparing my life in Ireland to what I thought it should be and it forced me into a cycle of unhappiness. When I graduated from DePauw several months earlier, I was a confident, independent, self-assured young woman. I thought I could conquer the world and take on any challenge. I thought I knew myself. Ireland’s dark days and lonely hours stole my confidence, independence, and self-assuredness. But Ireland is not evil, she is pure, transformative, and empowering. Ireland gave back everything that I thought lost and more. Putting what I’ve learned over the past two years into words is impossible, but it would be a disservice not to share some of the beauty I’ve found through my semi-tumultuous journey.
The combination of the darkness (the sun doesn’t shine often and some winter days the light only lasts from 9:30 AM-3:00 PM) and the lack of familiarity are the two factors that pushed my initial discomfort over the edge. Ireland and the United States do have a lot in common, culturally. We are both English-speaking, western nations, but there are many disparities between the lifestyles encouraged and adopted by individuals living in rural Ireland and those in suburban/urban areas of the United States. The most difficult period of my experience fell just before Thanksgiving of my first year. I couldn’t handle the thought that I wouldn’t be around my favorite people as we shared food and made memories together. During that week, I was shown extreme patience and undeserved grace by my community in Ballyvaughan. Their acts of love helped me move past the destructive path that I was paving, onto a new, more positive and productive one. We ended up having a wonderful Thanksgiving celebration at the college, and I realized that I also had a family in Ballyvaughan. Family can be created wherever one goes. You and I both can belong anywhere with an open heart and mind.
The group of post-graduate women who I studied with in my first year became a supportive and loving community—a sisterhood. We made our own entertainment and fun with brunches, potluck dinners, game nights, and cozy fires. They taught me about friendship, respect, and love…among many other things. We are all incredibly different individuals, but we enjoyed every moment together and learned to embrace each other’s quirks. That group of women helped shift my perspective for the better. I remember when my friend, Katie, encouraged me to stop comparing my life in Ireland to what it would or could be in the states. Her encouragement gave me a new approach to my day-to-day. I stopped letting the rain or darkness prevent me from doing what I wanted to do and found multiple ways to cope challenges that had previously paralyzed me.
I began running or cycling almost every morning—rain or shine—this ritual became my time for reflection and gave me a daily dose of clarity as I sorted out my thoughts and pushed my physical limits. Beginning the morning with a bit of exercise allowed me to focus more sharply on my tasks for the remainder of the day. I had more energy and felt the results of my progress as I grew stronger. Some of my most creative ideas for the studio arose from the moments I spent outside moving through the majestic environment of the Burren. I learned that I don’t need a gym membership to motivate myself to move my body in positive and healthy ways. Though I probably pushed myself to extremes at some points, I am grateful to know that I can maintain fitness without an institution telling me what to do. In addition, I also began to accept what I couldn’t change about my life in Ireland. The challenges I was presented with were ones that I actively chose to have in my life. Maybe I didn’t expect the grocery store to be a 45 minute drive away or know how hard it would be to find time to chat with loved ones at home, but those circumstances came with my choice. Before moving to Ireland, I didn’t totally realize the privilege of living in a home where a moderate and comfortable temperature was consistently maintained. Anyway, those realizations feel far gone now because they’ve been my reality. Things that used to bother me feel trivial now.
With acceptance, living a life that I loved began to come more easily. I started writing every day, keeping a personal journal to record random thoughts and moments of gratitude. I made time to read more both for pleasure and in pursuit of knowledge. I began enjoying the a simpler lifestyle that I found difficulty adjusting to at first. I wore hiking boots, leggings, and several layers of warmth on top when I worked in the studio. My nearly uniform outfit was practical for painting, but it also allowed me to take quick breaks for a hike on the trails behind the college whenever I desired. A combination of about 7 articles of clothing was all I needed to make due for a week. I saved money and time because I was content with the few pieces of clothing I had. Over the two years, I bought nearly no new clothing. I no longer feel the pressure to always have a new cute outfit. I care more about the items that I have, let go of things that don’t work, and have more time to focus on non-material things.
My paintings developed and became more sophisticated, in tandem with my own experience of growing up. In my first semester I was nearly throwing anything and everything at the canvas. Eventually, I realized the importance of a conscious refinement of my visual language. I tamed my obsession of color into something more manageable. My love for color won’t ever leave me, but I don’t plan on revisiting my tendencies of combining it with unawareness (nearly ignorance if we’re being honest). I battled through writing a cohesive dissertation and with the opening of the final show, Periphery, I felt an incredible sense of accomplishment as an artist. I know I have a lot of growing still to do, but I am proud of the progress I’ve been able to make as a painter. I have a wonderful support system of peers, professors, and visiting artists and residents to thank for the success of my journey.
Ireland has taught me that I will never fully know myself as an artist, as a woman, as a sister, daughter, friend, or as an individual. AND this lesson has provided me with so much relief! I don’t desire placing myself in a box by creating an unwavering identity of who I think I am or need to be. Maintaining a curiosity for life is SO much more interesting and realistic. In giving myself permission to constantly question myself and my identity, I’ve gained a greater sense of freedom and peace from within.
I encourage you to know that the only wrong decisions you can make in your life are ones that you are making in order to please other people, without acknowledging your own hopes and dreams. Do you really know what you want? Is that six-figure salary, white picket fence, perfect partner and kids, closet full of more clothes than you need or care about, and all the other stereotypical ideas of what success looks like in western society something YOU want to strive for? There is nothing wrong with wanting these things, if it’s truly what you want for yourself. I wish for you that you have time to decide what you really want though. I hope you question and consider what brings you joy in life and what you don’t really care about. We’re complex individuals and our wants and desires will and should change throughout different periods of life. I don’t know everything, but I know our desires aren’t universal. If we all really looked at our lives with a reflective mindset, we wouldn’t seek to fulfill the cookie-cut expectations of others and we’d all be better people for it.
I no longer think that 2 years is a long time or that 24 is “that old”. I have so much more to experience and learn. Ireland has gifted me through changing and shaping my identity in ways I couldn’t have predetermined. I think my time in Ireland has given me a small bit of wisdom, but I recognize that it may not be relevant to everyone. Please take from this post only take what’s relevant to you.
Thank you, Ireland, for not giving up on me or letting me give up when I was ready to give up on you. Thank you for being the greatest teacher I’ve ever known. Thank you for breaking me to a point where I thought I would never be repaired and then rebuilding me much stronger than ever before. Thank you for helping refine my understanding of the definitions of love, grace, compassion, and generosity. Thank you for making me appreciate my life in a more profound way. Thank you for changing me forever.
I’ll always be indebted to the individuals who made this experience what it was for me. Though I don’t think I’ll have the opportunity to ever fully repay my dues, I commit to passing the goodness that I’ve been granted on to all of my future communities. I’ll always look back on my time in Ireland with genuine fondness. I can’t wait to return throughout my life to the Burren—a strange place that will always be a second home.