‘Those people’ were a different, alien, species. They were the ones with an extra gene to bolster against the Atlantic cold, and, at birth, were born with added doses of bravery and physical stamina. No, I have never been one of ‘those people’
There is a chill in the November air now- not biting cold, but nippier. The wind has a bit of a whip in it too. I look at the sea though and still I hear an invitation: dive in.
The thought of the cold plunge sends butterflies to my nether regions, followed by nervous energy which could be labelled as ‘fear’ under certain lights and ‘madness’ under others.
I’m not one of the turbo clad wet suit slick swimming elite. I like headstands and handstands and strange yoga twists, sure, but ask me to swim out to sea, in November? That’s for ‘those people’.
I have to make my decision to swim before I leave the house, otherwise the excuses start to accompany me to the shore and prevent my passage. I put on my togs underneath my clothes. On good days I even remember to pack my knickers in my swimming bag, and my courage too.
I check the tides. The tide clock is not even a clock I had really been aware of before, but here I find myself, checking for the swell. High tide in Schull is the best. The water seems richest then, enriched with seaweed minerals and curiously dark, definitely at its most inviting.
Yesterday was calmer, sunny even. I’d seen some of ‘those people’ dive in earlier in the day braving the depths as if their life depended on it. No excuses. The kickers got packed. The togs were already on. Walking to the shore the decision was made. No backing out. No backing out.
And then: the sea. There is something about the water; all glitter and roam, a touch of sparkle and a hint of mischief. The fronds of seaweed were waving, the light dancing as it if was at the best party in town. No excuses.
I strip down to my togs. I nearly slip on the wet stones. I remember the trick: no dawdling, just straight in. Before I have time to think about it, 1-2-3. In the space of a breath I am actually one of ‘those people’ now, swimming wild and into the Atlantic, in November.
The sea will do that to you: break you and remake you all in a breath.
The fear tends to leave as the the water welcomes. The cold embraces every pour but has a touch of unconditional love in it. I have a random thought: If I can do this, become one of ‘those’, well, what else can I do?
Swim by swim, I tell myself. The first step is to become a December swimmer, then a January one. It’s not brave after all, it’s just a becoming, entering into a reinvention of what I thought was possible.
I return home. I make a coffee. I open the blank pages of my journal. I pick up my pen. I dive.
Then I wonder: where will this tide take me? Break me and remake me all in the breath of a page? I have been learning: it’s time to take on these wild words too. Finally.
What is your equivalent of wild swimming? Is it time to take a plunge?
Sometimes you’ve just got to dive in. In diving you can’t but go under.
It’s not what I had been expecting, the radio silence on my writing and creative output but that is exactly what’s happened. You see, I have been literally swimming in a world of newness.
For years I have been talking about a vision of mine- to live in the countryside while running a creative school or venture. I always saw the sea and a dog by my side, yet it always seemed in the future. But as the years move on, I realise the future is now, and the future is not coming any sooner unless I act upon my dreams.
It is such a hard thing to give up something that is going well for the risk of something better, deeper, that may or may not work. The questions and doubts are hard too- How will I sustain myself? Will I be lonely? What about my yoga classes? What about my friends? What if that dream was all but an illusion and I will come out the other end with no other dream.
But my body knew. Back in January while on a retreat in the UK, it became clear to me that, for the sake of my very being, it was time to move and the time was soon. I did not feel ready but I knew intrinsically I had to immediately take action. There was a particular part of Ireland calling too; a place I knew well as a teenager, and a place which over the last few years had re-planted itself deep in my heart. West Cork.
Once I made the decision it all happened pretty fast, which is often the case with these things.
The day I returned from the UK I sent a message to one of the few people I knew living in West Cork, asking if she knew of any housesits available. She told me that they are hard to come by but then said that her mother was actually looking for a someone. So I immediately contacted her Mum, and yes, I could bring my dog, and yes I could borrow her car.
It only took one email.
Flow is a sign of the right course of action. This almost seemed too easy.
But what about my room in Dublin? I sent an email to my friends wondering if anyone would be interested in subletting while I tested the Cork waters. Immediately I found someone.
That only took one email too.
So, ten weeks ago I found myself in Schull, West Cork, with a sea view and a dog by my side. This had been the dream for so long there were days I had to pinch myself. Has it really been that easy?
Sometimes we can be led to believe that what we really are called to do is not the right thing unless it is hard and challenging. Yet this whole experience shows me that the ease is a signpost too. The ease is permission and a gateway. ‘Follow’, it says.
Ten weeks ago I took that housesit in Schull, really knowing only one person in town. Now, ten weeks on, I find myself walking down the street constantly stopping to chat. One day I went out for milk and came home seven hours later- there was the milk, and then the many many many conversations I had with people along the way. They stop to say hello to Milly and then the conversation opens. It is that kind of place. People have time and space and it is leading to very interesting connections. I am not sure where they are heading, but what’s important is the time and space.
There have been many surprises. I had thought in moving that I would have so much more time for writing, painting and new creative projects, but instead, the silence. Over these weeks there has been a lot of quite and a lot of listening. I have walked and walked and walked the coastline. I have listened to Spring turn into Summer and watched the clouds shift in an instant. The landscape offers its daily gifts. It is a landscape which thrills and embraces and it is a landscape which is alive and supportive. Even when the weather is bad it offers its wild intimacies and the unexpected turns of its stormy ways. The sea is in constant dialogue, the birds and wildlife too. It’s never a dull moment out there. The aliveness of it all envelopes and invites me into a deeper conversation too with my own particular wildness and aliveness. I indeed feel I am living by the sea.
When I first left Dublin I knew it was a trial run of a bigger and more substantial move. Ten weeks on, the housesit is over but I’m still here. I’ve a new friend has kindly offered to let me stay with her from the summer and am looking for a longer term house, trusting that the right one is out there for me. I gave notice on my house in Dublin and packed my bags last week. I’ll miss my yoga classes, and my friends, and all the good things that Dublin has to offer, but I knew I just had to leap.
And so in the time and space, another aspect of that long held dream has evolved, with relative ease too. I launched Thrive School, and with a bit of marketing effort and conversations with people interested, it is now up and running and fully subscribed. The flow was there, telling me to keep on moving and developing it. And so, with such gladness, I can say that my vision of the school is alive and evolving too. My plan is to launch Thrive School again in Dublin in the Autumn and a new class in Cork too. How exciting is that!
Diving in, I’m sinking deeper into beingness, into an exploration of what it means to track a dream. I feel lucky, so very lucky, to have the sea and my little dog by my side, and how can I ever be lonely with the wildness outside and the bit of wildness I am rediscovering inside too.
The Creative Islanders is a new interview series showcasing some of Ireland’s brightest creative talent and enterprise. It is about people who are stepping into their dreams, purpose and possibilities and embracing their one wild life.
The interviews give a rare ‘behind the scenes’ glimpse into creative practice, motivations and mindsets- shining a light on what makes people tick, and how, collectively, Ireland is alive with creative possibility.
Back in August I went on some gallivants around the South West of Ireland. I had travelled in search of the wildness of ocean but in going I also had an ear out for innovative talent and creativity which had not previously been on my radar. It doesn’t take long in West Cork to find it for it seems to be flowing out of its very sinews. Within hours I was already being invited to exhibition openings and into artist’s homes. Fortune continued to favour me, for I got invited along to a series of short talks by makers in the region who were hosting a showcase exhibition called ‘Seven Hands’. And it was there I met Alison.
Hearing Alison talk about her work was a pure joy. She radiates enthusiasm, knowledge and a pure love of her craft. I have never met anyone more excited about chairs in all my life!
Alison is no ordinary chair maker however. She brings such respect to her material (hazelwood), that one could also describe her as a diviner of chairs- asking the wood how it wants to be shaped, what form it wants to take as she selects pieces for the legs, arms and back, and honouring the soul or essence of the tree from which it originated. That connection to source is carried right through to the final product. With some of the bark stripped and some left raw, it makes for tactile, textured and strikingly characterful chairs which are a delight look at, touch and sit on. The hazelwood Alison uses is all grown locally and sustainably. Plus, because of its growing cycle it means that the winter months are quite for her. During those times she writes. She is the author of two books, with a third on the way. She is a teacher too, sharing her craft and passion in workshops in her West Cork studio.
So, it turns out that I already knew Alison’s husband, who I met through Social Entrepreneurs Ireland. Mmm… small world Ireland indeed!
With pleasure, I hand you over to Alison Ospina. In doing so, I wish you could sit on one of her chairs as you read this. You’ll just have to enlist your imagination and pay a visit to West Cork soon…
What makes you tick? What motivates you?
I love trees and I love wood, I love working with it, polishing it, touching it, looking at it. I also have a major obsession with chairs!
What keeps you in ireland?
I moved to West Cork almost 20 years ago and it was here that I started making Green Wood Chairs. Here I learnt to make elegant, sculptural chairs that reflect the grace and beauty of the trees they come from. All my materials are grown in my immediate locality – my chairs and I are rooted in the West Cork countryside.
What do you do just for the love of it?
All of my work is done for the love of it – I can’t stop, it makes me feel so good!
What does the creative process teach you?
Initially I was so excited about making chairs from hazel that I rushed at it with only the final result in mind. Over the years I have learned to enjoy the process. I am methodical, I take my time, correct mistakes and focus on getting it as close to perfect as possible – that’s where the real satisfaction lies – I guess it teaches me self- discipline.
Why do you do what you do?
I used to work in psychiatry – I’m fascinated by people and what makes them tick. I have discovered that there is nothing more therapeutic than working with your hands to create useful, beautiful things. I enjoy the making and the learning processes and I enjoy the feel of developing skills – it is satisfying and makes me feel fulfilled.
What were some of the key moments along your own journey that helped you to get where you are today?
When I started teaching in adult education I had to write a module descriptor for Green Wood Furniture Making. I was forced to really pick apart every process and describe it in writing. It was so hard to do but ultimately really useful.
The next key moment was writing my first book “Green Wood Chairs.” Writing down all my methods and techniques turned my practice into something accessible to others. I now find that people who see the book, get inspired and have a go at green wood chairmaking themselves.
How do you get unstuck? Any secret tools?
If I do not feel inspired for a while, I do something completely different and unrelated. I read a lot of fiction and I write (non fiction) books. My work schedule is dictated by my materials to a large extent: Hazel is coppiced in December/January, it is left to stand until April/May, I make chairs and teach courses from May to September and I write books and teach in college from September to May.
Where do you find inspiration? Any hidden gems?
Much of my inspiration comes from seeing the bare branches of trees in Winter silhouetted against the clear grey sky. The shapes of the negative spaces intrigue me, these are the shapes I want to incorporate into next year’s chairs.
How do you get through tough times? What sustains you?
Through the tough times I am sustained by my husband (who says, “It doesn’t matter if you have made a loss this year – you are an artist – look at Van Gogh, he never sold any paintings in his lifetime”, my family and my dog who loves me unconditionally!
What key lessons have your learned about doing business or being a creative practitioner along the way? What have you learned from your ‘failures’?
I have learned that it is very difficult earning a crust as a creative practitioner. I have done a few courses for entrepreneurs and read lots of business books and come to the conclusion that with marketing, advertising and selling there is no “one answer.” Everything works a little bit, so you have to do everything. I have also learnt that self-employed people are generally very resourceful, reliable and hard working. I have learned (from my many failures) to never participate in craft fairs – people do not buy chairs from craft fairs!! In the early years, when my work did not sell, I got disheartened and felt that I should not be making chairs that nobody wanted. However I could not stop and after 20 years I have developed a high level of skill and now at last people are buying my work. In my case it has been a long, long game.
Do you have a morning routine? Or other creative habits or rituals?
I do not have a morning routine but after finishing work I always sweep the floor and put my tools away because nothing makes me want to work more than a tidy workshop!
What books have inspired you? Or what websites do you turn to?
After trees, books are my main source of inspiration. I have books about Wharton Escerick (Studio and Collection) Sam Maloof (The Furniture of Sam Maloof) and George Nakashima (The Soul of a Tree). The book that started me off in furniture making is “The Complete Book of Shaker Furniture”. I love big, shiny, hardback books – I even like the smell of them!
What advice do you wish you had received as you were stepping onto your own creative path?
“Keep at it, believe in yourself “- I know it sounds corny but it is true.
And what advice would you give to your future self?
“Keep an open mind, keep designing and innovating – look for ways to help yourself progress and develop”
“Listen to your students – they know nothing and they know everything” (cryptic – but teachers will know what I mean)
What is coming up next for you?
I am working in collaboration with Kerry Woollen Mills to make a Limited Edition Winter Collection of upholstered chairs. They have dyed a batch of woollen fabric especially for Green Wood Chairs.The Collection will be shown at an exhibition at the RIAI in 8 Merrion Square, Dublin November 17th – 27th.
Green Wood Chairs will be profiled on an RTE programme entitled “Designing Ireland” due to be aired this month.
I am writing a new companion book to “Green Wood Chairs” called “Green Wood Stools” due to be published in September 2016.