The extraordinary things I learned from finding myself suddenly separate from society

When Imen McDonnell left a blossoming career in broadcast production in the USA for the green fields of Ireland – life as she knew it changed forever. Words by Imen McDonnell.   


isolation

There are some surprising perks to self-isolation.

Of this, I am sure.

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And, believe it or not – the best is yet to come.

Admire the rainbow above. Sure, there is a little break in the vibrance where things get a bit hazy, but those vivid colours that come shining through again at the end? That’s where the greatest treasures will be found.

I know that some have already copped on to the good bits that are coming out of our #stayathome orders (bravo!). I also know people are dealing with their confinement in many challenging and profoundly emotional ways, and definitely may not be able to see anything positive about it. People are sick, some have lost loved ones – my heart goes out to those of you struggling with heartache, illness and fear.

As I write this, there will be those who are wondering who the hell am I to tell you what’s great about anything right now, especially having to stay socially distant from everyone? Indeed, I have asked myself the same question. The truth is, I have a lot of experience with feeling separate from society, and have learned what can be drawn from leading such a way of life.

A shrunk world

Let me paint a picture. In 2005 I filled a shipping container full of all my valuables, packed it onto an ocean liner and leaped from urban America across the Atlantic to live among the small green fields of very rural Ireland. I won’t go into the full reasons why I made such a move (the whole story can be found in the intro of my book, The Farmette Cookbook: Recipes & Adventures From My Life On An Irish Farm, if you fancy learning more about me and how to bake a mean cream scone) but could be likened to the old adage, “love is blind.”

I was young(er) and cavalier when I made the decision to plant myself on the craggy isle of Eire. To my dismay, company politics meant that suddenly I would not be continuing to work in broadcast production with my American company once I landed here, as I’d trusted. So, in an instant I felt like my entire world had literally shrunk; like a zoom-out camera move from The Incredible Shrinking (wo)Man, followed by a full-on fade-to-black for an epic period of time.

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This is precisely when isolation and I became REAL intimate (cue Barry White).

Irish farm life

 

From city slicker to cows grazing in my front garden

My Irish husband and I decided to build a house in the middle of a pasture that had been on his family farm since the 1800’s. Very remote. I remember quite early on, looking out the window at the herd of cows grazing in our front garden and realising that I had absolutely no notion of how challenging it would be to let go of all the trappings of my former life.

I desperately longed for my work and the whole bombastic part of my identity that came with it. I was a thousand percent lost without the constant buzz of city life

On top of feeling completely like I was in the middle of nowhere while trying to become accustomed to a new culture, I desperately longed for my work and the whole bombastic part of my identity that came with it. I was a thousand percent lost without the constant buzz of city life. I sorely missed dining out at restaurants and hopping in a quick taxi to meet friends at a cocktail lounge, gallery opening, theatre or music gig--this was part and parcel to my daily existence B.I. (Before Ireland). I pined for everything from pay-at-the-pump filling stations to having a Macy’s conveniently just around the corner from my office.

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Long story short, before I landed in the Irish countryside it seemed that ANY  tangible thing was easily accessible to me. 24/7. Coffee. Bagels. Delis. Bakeries. Pizza. Parks. PEOPLE. I mean, just people! People were everywhere, and my extroverted heart loved it that way. The list goes on and on, but it’s safe to say there was nothing not at my fingertips B.I.

Until instantly NONE of it was.

Sound familiar?

 

Irish farm life

Days rolled into weeks

For my first year or two in Ireland, I had no friends or family nearby except for my husband, his family, our son and our Airedale pup, Ted. Having a baby made it harder and then not having more babies made it harder again (there is a reason why country families have big broods, we need company!)

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Days rolled into weeks, as farming life does. You don’t differentiate between weekdays and weekends.

I was busy being a mom and offering whatever help I was capable of to the farm, but overall I was lonely, BORED, and felt horrendously sorry for myself. I gained weight, comfort cooked and ate through my emotions, drank A LOT of California wine (okay still a lot, but now French), felt blue about missing funerals and other significant family events back in the States, and was basically in a nonstop fowler for an excruciating period of time.

Nevertheless, for better or worse my husband and I were in love and determined to make it work and compromised that we would travel back to the USA at least once a year for my family/friends/city fix. At once, I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This pioneer life

When you get that sort of liberty again, my friends, you will reach the silver lining. When we are all finally out of lockdown, the world will be our actual oyster, even if that oyster is just the tiny café down the street. I know full well that being able to walk into Rift Coffee or Two Boys Brew, order an Americano and sit down for a good old natter with a friend is gonna be THEE SHINIEST of pearls.

“We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.” - Joseph Campbell

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Eventually I adapted to the bucolic bubble of this pioneer life.  Once I started writing about my story online, sharing through a blog and social media I was able to make kindred friendships with others in Ireland and abroad which provided companionship and saved my sanity. Much like how we are virtually linking up now more than ever to help us feel loved and connected. (Sure, I could’ve done with Zoom or Houseparty back then, but I digress.)

As much as I miss my family and friends, Irish country cocooning has become a total luxury.

I have to admit, at this stage I actually prefer the pastoral nature of the Irish countryside to the frenetic energy of New York or Minneapolis. As much as I miss my family and friends, Irish country cocooning has become a total luxury.

Since #Covid19 has most of us around the world hunkered down at home, we all feel restricted. In some ways, for me it feels a bit like being stuck right back at square one. But, it’s different than it was all those years ago.

Irish farm life

 

Right now, we have online access to so many simple pleasures: the most gorgeous Irish produce for delivery or collection (check out neighbourfood.ie), Handsome Burger DIY kits couriered to our kitchens, an intimate door-to-door dinner for two to savour at home. We can join The Wine Explorer's Club and even dial-a-pint for delivery. I mean, where was Yoga with Adrienne in 2007?

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I feel for all who are greatly missing the frills and conveniences of their former, more social life.

While I fully recognise my first personal experience of isolation was 100% self-imposed and pre-pandemic, and know that I am privileged to even have a home during this time, I fiercely empathise with the portion of our population who are seriously struggling with feeling completely isolated in quarantine – either alone or living with others, those who grapple with depression or mental health issues. I feel for all who are greatly missing the frills and conveniences of their former, more social life.

Because I have a bleeding heart, I feel the need to draw parallels from my own experience of solitude and seclusion at different stages in my Irish life to what is happening to us all now in pandemic mode. It is true that the world and ourselves will be changed in ways that I cannot fathom at this moment. And yet, I am mercifully reminded of the incredible gifts that I received by being at one with myself here, on my own, without any social crutches or handy-dandy life amenities and my hope is that this list of encouraging reflections might be useful to you too, for when we get to the other side of this. So, without further ado...

Irish farm life

In Praise of Self-Isolation (The Bennies!)

Years later I can colour, trim and properly style my own hair. I can wax and tweeze a pretty mean brow shape. I can fix things with a hammer and nails. I had no idea I could be this self-sufficient

1. This is glaringly obvious, but you will be exceedingly grateful for all the little things. And, it WON’T just be a phase. When this is all over, you will get back out in the world and all the little things will bring you extraordinarily OTT joy. All those little conveniences that you took for granted like walking into a coffee shop (might I suggest Coffee Angel?). Going to yoga. Seeing a film at the cinema instead of on your iPad. Browsing around a bookshop and leafing through a book before buying it. Sitting with your family and friends for a meal, looking them in the eye and hearing their laughter in real life. It will move you to tears. Weirdly, I’ll never forget bawling my eyes out looking at a bloody Cheesecake Factory menu (awful American family resto franchise) that had about 5000 styles of cheesecake on offer and a kids menu – I don’t even eat cheesecake, and I never went to a Cheesecake Factory when I previously lived in the USA, but it literally brought me to tears, I was just so grateful for the choice. Your depth of gratitude will be seismic, surprising, and everlasting.

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2. We are actually incredibly resilient and more self-sufficient than we ever thought. Necessity is the mother of inventionI am so proud of the fact that, bit by bit, I have figured out how to do nearly everything that I thought I needed to buy or have someone do for me. It started with growing vegetables and making good ice cream from our dairy milk. There is nothing more satisfying than cultivating your own food. I now try to cook all the dishes that I’ve enjoyed in restaurants – find a recipe, buy the ingredients and follow it, I promise you just need reading aptitude and patience. If you need a therapist, do a phone session. Or try BetterHelp.com. Figure it out to take care of yourself. Years later, I actually colour, trim and properly style my own hair. I can wax and tweeze a pretty mean brow shape. I can fix things with a hammer and nails. I had no idea I could be this self-sufficient, and I think many are feeling the same right now too. More power to you.

I thought that my job defined me. I grieved this loss of identity tremendously. But, over time I feel as though I had a rebirth or at least a renewal as I discovered that I, as a human, am so much more than my work.

3. Isolation literally brings on a grieving stage, but also an incredible rebirth or renewal afterward. I thought that going to my job, being a “career woman” every day totally defined me. I grieved this loss of identity tremendously. But, over time I feel as though I had a rebirth or at least a renewal as I discovered that I, as a human, am so much more than my work. I uncovered other talents that were worth pursuing that could also bring in an income. Ask yourself, what do you or would you miss about work and why? If we let our career define us so deeply, our life is actually pretty empty. Trust me on this. If it’s not work, it might be some other powerful way that you define yourself that you could re-evaluate and feel rejuvenated.

4. There is power in being fully present instead of looking ahead and keeping busy. This was huge. I was a busy person. Had to be on the go nonstop with work, friends, fitness, planning vacations, go-go-go. When I moved here suddenly everything felt like it was at a standstill. I literally felt stuck. Can you relate right now? The countryside moves at a snail’s pace which I have now come to love and gives such great peace of mind. But, when you are isolated you really have no choice than to be fully present at least for part of the time, and this will stand to you when it’s over and you can go out again. Now, when I get to travel, I appreciate my experiences so much more because I have adapted to being fully in the moment. Long live Deepak Chopra and his mindfulness mantras.

Besides, how fun is it to really pick the one gorgeous outfit to wear on your once a week shop now? That’s all you really need if you think of it.

5. There is SO much that we do not need and that is a good thing! No doubt everyone is going through their things right now, paring things down, from closets to file cabinets to refrigerators. We do not need 10 (even 3!) pairs of denims and 50 pairs of shoes. It is actually such an a-ha! moment of relief to know that we can live with so much less. Besides, how fun is it to really pick the one gorgeous outfit to wear on your once a week shop now? That’s all you really need if you think of it. When it’s hard to get to places to buy things you realise what is worth it and what isn’t. The environment will thank us all for cutting back on overconsumption, and you’re a better person because of this.

6. Wherever you go, there you are anyway. But, that’s alright, get to know yourself better. This is massive. When you are living in isolation, you are with yourself and all of your “stuff” is there too. It is then that you realise that even if you were able to be somewhere else, you’d still be there and you’d still have all that stuff. Honestly think about your niggly issues and do something about it, it will improve the quality of your life. No better time.

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Curating a music playlist can make or break a lonely day. Going to virtual museums with my little boy was a total day-maker.

7. A greater appreciation for the arts when you have to glean it elsewhere My appreciation for any sort of arts has blossomed while living out here without access to live shows or performances on a regular basis. Curating a music playlist can make or break a lonely day. Going to virtual museums with my little boy was a total day-maker. Creating home theatre performances is exhilarating and fun, I mean we were making TikTok videos before TikTok existed. Doing these things will continue to bring pleasure well beyond #Covid19. Learning an instrument, painting, photography can be seminal. When it’s finally safe to go see a Broadway performance or attend a concert it will be 1000% invigorating.

8. Discovery of new creative talents and ingenuity. You will be forced to harvest new talents whether you want to or not. Sure, I could no longer work in tv or film, but I could produce a short film about Ireland. I developed 150 recipes and wrote a cookbook. Didn’t see that coming. You’ve got it all inside of you, and if you let it, it will blossom.

And, last but NOT least,

9. Your empathy meter will hit new heights. Being fully aware of how it feels to be isolated is a compassion game changer. You will truly understand how your friends or family who live alone are getting by and why it can be so challenging, you will want to shower them with love and stop by to say hello more. Also, sympathy for those who work from home and also have small children at home – get it now? Now, most importantly given our current circumstances, I feel utterly indebted to those on the front lines working tirelessly every day to save lives or feed people, some of whom also have to come home each evening to an empty house as they self-isolate. Your fundamental kindness will sprout up like a seedling in the springtime.

#stayathome 

 

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Life on a Irish farm

Imen's book The Farmette Cookbook: Recipes and Adventures from My Life on an Irish Farm is out now. Watch the short film, Small Green Fields, she made about Ireland here.  Follow her at farmette.ie and on instagram @imenmcdonnell.

 

Portraits of Imen by Gitte Kennedy. All other photographs by Imen McDonnell. 

 

Read more: Maternal Mental Health: 'I was terrified they would take my children away if I admitted I was struggling'

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