Throughout my life I have been fascinated by the challenge of leaving. It seems that to be human is to try to cope with the farewells and adjustments that accompany change, but we all do this differently. As a former nomad, I used to pride myself on my ability to sacrifice discomfort and unfamiliarity for new horizons. Then I realized that it’s easy to leave a place you never really arrived. What is far more difficult is to allow yourself to fall in love with a place; with its people and their way of living and understanding the world, while still holding the knowledge that your time is limited. Bravest of all is leaving a place you have done your best to know and moving forward. As my peers and I move toward the last few weeks of our semester abroad, how we will cope with our imminent departure and saying goodbye to study abroad is on all our minds.
Irish Lessons on Transience
Working with or against continuous change saturates every part of life in rural Ireland. It is present in the dynamism of the Burren landscape, where the light, wind, sky and precipitation seem to shift every moment. Beyond the flux of their environment, the residents of the west coast of Ireland must navigate preserving their ancient traditions and culture while still welcoming the diverse tourist population their economy relies upon. In the village of Ballyvaughan, the students at the Burren College of Art are another transitory yet vital part of the community. Despite the ever-changing tide of tourists and students that fuels the town’s economy, the locals maintain generosity and openness toward us “blow-ins” (Irish shorthand for anyone who has been transplanted to their area). We are welcomed, invited into daily village life, jokingly encouraged to find Irish partners, and eventually bid farewell and told to come back and visit.
However reluctant, Irish acceptance of the temporary provides a valuable framework for study abroad students as they approach the final days of their semester. After four months living amongst people who embraced me as a member of their small community despite knowing I would eventually leave, I began to ask myself how I could do the same. I did my best to be present for every community gathering, to sing for community events, to show up, build friendships, and express my gratitude for the multitude of lifts, pints and experiences I was given.
Beyond the many concrete blessings are larger, less tangible gifts. Along with Ireland’s attitude towards transience, I will be bringing home a rediscovered love for singing and participating in jam sessions, a dark sense of humor, a deep respect for the environment, unrelenting tenacity, and as much generosity and hospitality as I can carry. I’m going to co-opt the Irish way of finding the most abstract connections with anyone and everyone I meet. Most importantly, I’m going home with many new perspectives on my identity both as an American and as a global citizen.
The Portability of Home
When I asked the graduate students at BCA about their process of leaving, a beautiful conversation about the ways they have changed unfolded at the lunch table. After living in Ballyvaughan for two years while completing their MFA, the students spoke bittersweetly about their experiences. Morgan Madison credits her abroad experience for giving her far more emotional self-sufficiency and resilience. She also notes that living with a community far richer in culture than monetary resources has made looking for a high-salary job less of a necessity. Katie Kramer loves the community culture around food, particularly the fact that there are almost no drive-thrus in Ireland. Having lived in two very different contexts, Katie describes the fluidity of identity and community she has felt and says that her perception and definition of home has changed dramatically. “There’s a portability to home now; it’s a place of comfort I create for myself.”
Anavi: Displacement and Integration
My fellow undergraduate Anavi Mullick also commented on the challenges and rewards of living abroad. Anavi is from India but is attending college in the US, so she had two years of being immersed in a new culture before coming to Ireland. She says her experience of adaptation at BCA has been relatively easy, crediting her ability to navigate transition in Ireland to being an international student in the States. She says that “learning to cope with challenges is based on an understanding that there will be challenges wherever I go.” Anavi attributes much of her growth to her art practice, much of which centers around displacement. For her, “sharing art has been a process of opening, allowing me to integrate my separate lives into separate parts of one life.”
Take-away, the Irish version of “to-go”
Dealing with change and upheaval is never going to be painless, but it does get easier. Every time I’ve left one of my 19 addresses the process of saying goodbye is more natural. Although I’ll always miss aspects of the communities of which I’ve been a part, I understand that I never really leave a place behind. For me, home is an internal album of snapshots from everywhere I’ve ever been and everything I’ve ever done. I’ve got quite a collection.
Laura Kennedy is an Art Therapy major at Avila University and studied abroad with IFSA at the Burren College of Art in Ireland in Spring 2019. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.