Tuesday, October 14, 2014

i’r awyr

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“The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day,
So it must have been
after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place,
the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.”

~ Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill.

skyward (i’r awyr)

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Menai Straits.

After having considered the elemental presence of the landscape and waterways in north Wales, this trilogy culminates with the skies. As well, this essay also completes the series of 14 reflections from my sojourns at Oxford and in northwestern Wales, this recent year. While hiking at a variety of surface elevations, I consciously noticed the skies and made sure to photograph changes over ocean and mountains. Texture and fluidity of formation caught my attention. Mountaintops and sky interlocked as form and counterform. At times, both sky and landscape appeared equally solid.

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Along with these eventful skies, seasides and heights are accompanied by aromatic air. Being a Mainer, the assuring scents of pine trees and salt air have a familiarity equal to my home environment on the North Atlantic. The Welsh coast gave me plenty of reminders, with rain clouds and strong wind currents. Like the Maine weather, the skies above Wales are quickly changeable: rainstorms give way to brightness. Attuned to the subtleties of natural elements, and having time to appreciate them, it is possible to sense fine perfumes such as those of trees, earth, water, and distant woodsmoke. Even sunshine; the sky itself seems to have aromas. Moving air currents generate sounds, especially on windswept hills and mountaintops. An old favorite sound experience is that of wind currents sifted by tree branches; the effect can be astonishingly similar to the sound of ocean surf.

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Snowdonia, near Penmaenmawr.

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seeing the infinite

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Noticing skies reminds me to exercise broader perspective. Matching the contrast between intricacy and vastness, the seen and unseen, is the distinction between lightness and weight. Gaius Glenn Atkins wisely observed how life’s course imposes “the immense burden of finding somewhere beyond its restlessness and contradictions healing regions of unity and stability.” As kindredship with the ocean and landscape helps provide context to my steps, gazing skyward gives reference points to finite paths. Ironically, the heavens give ground to our souls.

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As expanse and proximate interchange, making note of sky and air finds a deeply personal connotation in that of one’s very own breathing. My deeply-embedded upbringing and life experiences in densely urban places has influenced the way I tend to perceive scenery. I remember an occasion during which I was able to see art gallery walls lined with my photographs. It surprised me to see the forest scenes and city views had in common vantage points between 2 and 50 feet from the subjects- looking straight or down. It seemed I had been recording motifs along the Appalachian Trail as though I had been looking across streets in New York. That amusing observation caused me to vary my angles of view. Over the recent years, I’ve learned to look upward. The skies are not to be missed. There is great value in seeing beyond our close confines; that is an abiding lesson demonstrated by the mountains and ocean. From very close and structured quarters, knowing to make note of the sky reminds me of transcendent immensity.

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Isle of Anglesey

Looking to the skies, and knowing to do so, is part of my training to be undauntedly hopeful. And, indeed, perseverance is easier to say than to successfully practice. Steadfastly looking forward and upward, without seeing results, is hope’s trying crucible. The biblical apostle Peter bids the readers of his first letter* to look heavenward to blessed hope. He begins by referencing historic predecessors who aspired to holiness, guided and aided by the Holy Spirit. In poetic perspective, Peter adds that “angels long to stoop and look into these things.” He then returns to his reading audience, exhorting us to “fix our hopes calmly and unfalteringly” upon the grace that comes to those who hold fast by faith. In affixing our hopes deep within, we express certainty in finding purpose to our many rugged steps and days.

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Above views: Isle of Anglesey,
Below: Blue Sky Café, Bangor (Wales).

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Perhaps when we gaze skyward, we see the same skies the ancients saw. They noticed the same sun, spheres, and constellations we can see now. When I teach architectural history, I instruct my classes to approach historic buildings with interpreters’ eyes. “Look up for the past; look down for the present.” This is to say that by looking to upper levels they will see much about when and how the building was built, and by looking at the sidewalk level they will see today’s commerce. Many throughout history have considered wide open space as forbidding and empty of life. By contrast, when I look skyward to uncontainable vastness- even to the nighttime void- it is consoling to behold something so much greater and grander than the reach of a human being. Looking to the timeless offsets the habitual fixation with the temporal.

intimate vastness

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Isle of Anglesey.

Bringing these elements together, my travels back to New England traversed land and water, via air. As with many westward transatlantic flights, my return trip spanned daytime hours, allowing for views above and through clouds. Iceland was damp and heavily overcast. The Gulf of Maine and Massachusetts Bay were calmly welcoming.

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Above: Iceland.
Below: Massachusetts Bay.

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From my busy Oxford residency to my retreat and return to north Wales, I understood among many things not to let my thoughts narrow or become too earthbound. The ancient Psalmist whose words** translate as “look to God and be radiant,” may as well have said, “look skyward and be assured.” To be awed by what is grand and unfathomable is at once fearsome and sustaining. Accepting mystery in the forces of creation remind us of our participation as mere ingredients in an immeasurable continuum, pursuing knowledge, beauty, and grace.

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Bangor Cathedral.

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Penmaenmawr, with Dwygyfylchi in the background.

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Bangor Pier, on the Menai Straits.


* 1st Peter 1:12,13
** Psalm 34

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

dyfroedd byw

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“With what deep murmurs
through time’s silent stealth
Doth thy transparent,
cool and watery wealth
Here flowing fall
And chide and call.”

~ Henry Vaughan, The Waterfall.


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Varied and abiding impressions remain with me, drawn from my experience with the terrain in Wales. Parallel to the element of the land is that of the water. The north coast comprises shoreline, rivers, islands, and mountain waterways. There are as many reminders of home on the Maine coast as there are distinctions uniquely north Welsh. The latter is surely exemplified in the Snowdonia region of mountains, steep hills, and narrow passes.

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Llyn Idwal

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Intimate spaces and valleys can somehow lend themselves to vastness, due to their proximity to the sea and openness to the skies. The juxtaposed presence of waterways came to mind while hiking the trail along which the Abergwyngregyn falls are reached. Streams and a river trim and traverse the path as it ascends toward two lofty waterfalls. With their sound and spray, falls make themselves known from a distance; at a downward bend in the trail, the presence became suddenly more evident.

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Arriving at the base of the falls, a feast of boulders, crevasses, and cold spray rewarded the navigation. Pools of collected and distributing water reminded me of the tidal basins from my home coves across the Atlantic. From the chilled depth of Aber Falls, I gazed skyward to the heights of the source. Though not quite to the massive scale of larger falls I’ve visited in North America, these waterfalls present common aspects. I was reminded of Montmorency, Niagara, and especially my Appalachian Trail adventures. These living waters attest to an endless persevering continuity. They never run dry. All day and all night; even when we’re all back at our jobs. The moving waters are a constant presence, assuring our finite senses of the emergence of creation from unseen depths. Perhaps it is an incalculable mystery as to how long these rushing waters have been tumbling over the cliffs of Snowdonia.

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wonder of tides

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Afon Glaslyn

On both sides of the ocean, I am compelled by the same traits of these living waters. One such is the timeless appearance of the forces of nature. Waterways and bodies of water are a constant wonder. Beneath reflective surfaces and still lakes are forceful currents, waves, and rapids. Capable of soothing calmness and devastation, waterways have been a mysterious presence throughout my years. Having lived my whole life near coastlines, going to the water means withdrawing from troubling burdens. Simply looking at sea currents and flowing waters is enough to assure and intrigue all at once. The fluid movements are as temporal as they are eternal. Watching the waterfalls brought to mind how a mortal person, at a fixed time, can bear witness to continuity itself. I wondered about the countless poets, thinkers, and observers through many centuries that stopped to gaze at the same mountain waterfalls that captivated me.

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Anglesey, North Wales.
Above: Puffin Island. Below: South Stack.

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Living with a connection to the water- especially the Atlantic- has bred a built-in reference point within, through which I relate to my context in the world. Following a couple of months of travels, I found myself at South Stack, in Anglesey, looking westward and thinking of Penobscot Bay, which has matching cliffs to those of northwesternmost Wales. The water’s edge is a demarcation of finitude. These margins are thin boundaries to keep in mind the proximity of physical and spiritual worlds.

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held by the source

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Nowadays, I look at the ocean, Maine rivers, and nearby cascading falls with the imagery of Wales in mind. In many aspects of life and perspective, a sense of familiarity draws together places and experiences. Beneath the physical features of waterways and shorelines are the concepts of continuity and clarity. But the profoundest unifying factor is dearness to heart.

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Above: Looking west toward Maine, in Penmaenmawr, Wales.
Below: Looking east toward Wales, in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

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I’ve described physical features which tie to rich metaphors in the life of thought and spirit. Seeking and continually returning to the water is directly related to going to the wellsprings of trust as though to a lifeline. In a culture that truncates and pushes tasks and spans so closely and immediately, thereby eroding liminal spaces for recollective thought, the limitless sources of creation provide contrasting respite. Vastness, depth, and untamed forces of nature are spellbinding while also wondrously comforting.

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Grander than all which has been tabulated and distilled into bulleted points is the compelling mystery of the unknown. My views of waterways are changed. In true pilgrimage fashion, I have re-approached my home with enhanced perspective. Adventures cultivate a deepening supply of insights and comparisons. Awe-inspiring sights and experiences help to soothe undetectable personal progress. Waterways and their constancy evoke timelessness. They maintain their forms and forces, while turbulence occurs inland, away from shores and riverbanks. It is as though bodies of water speak timelessly to the rapidity of the passage of time. Fluidity may imply changeability- even instability- yet an individual soul may decide to be equally pliant. “Loosen the grip,” I thought, while immersing my hands and self into the cold waters. The moving currents cannot be grasped; infinite flows through the finite. Like our ephemeral slices of time, the living waters become our possession by our participation and our reverence.

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* dyfroedd byw, means living waters.

Friday, August 15, 2014

y tir

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“According to thy name, O God,
so is thy praise unto the ends of the earth.”

~ Psalm 48

y tir (terra)

Timing a sojourn to Wales after an intense term of study turned out to be serendipitous. From the intricate, labyrinthine campuses and cloisters of Oxford, my steps alighted among the coastal mountains of Snowdonia. Very shortly after leaving my bags in the Noddfa house, I walked downhill through the village of Penmaenmawr, to the seashore. Immediately, I realized how soothing it was to be amidst wide open space. The same sensation struck me the following day, hiking in the mountains, and without thinking I swung my outstretched arms like windmill blades. The landscape, seascape, waves, and fresh air reminded me of home. A restful week-and-a-half in North Wales, following a profoundly scholarly experience at Oxford, drew me to savour the terrain, waterways, and skies.

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These travels have taught me to treasure each step, each setting and encounter along this providential way. An old Bostonian named James Freeman Clarke once wrote about the cultivated habit of recognizing the miraculous and the beautiful as we navigate our lives. Using the example of a classic poet, Clarke pointed out how “Milton lived in London, but he saw more beauty in one morning’s walk in the country than many country people observe in all their lives.” (Conversely, it may require a country poet to notice the nuances of beauty in places like Boston and London!) But, indeed, a change of air and place can awaken our sense of appreciation for the elements we may otherwise take for granted in our worlds of routines. As I noticed details in the urban layout of Oxford, my impressions upon returning to Wales were equally enhanced. New terrain and the beaten track become intermingled. I remember an occasion, on a boat, when I described the islands near my home on Casco Bay, Maine, as the peaks of undersea mountains. It was simply noticing what was in front of my visitors and me. The terrain in North Wales is as eventful as it is varied, and my many steps sauntered streets, paths, and mountain trails.

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enduring paces

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Reflecting upon these sojourns, my thoughts mull the distinctions between lands navigated in a place such as Wales, compared to my forgettable workaday trudges. How are my steps and strides in various lands distinguished? After all, the paths are navigated by the same individual- the same pilgrim of trust on earth. The differences are in perception- and place. Granted, and quite obviously, a trail such as the road of the ancient Celtic pilgrims is many times more exotic and rarified than Cumberland Avenue. To be able to equally regard all earthly thoroughfares might require a strong sense of self-awareness combined with a disciplined spirit.

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Similar to the old adage about the sea determining the substance of the mariner, the pilgrimage builds the integrity of the pilgrim soul. In turn, the pilgrim determines the worth of the long journey’s paces. An intensified significance especially applies when a sojourn is of our choosing. With every week’s paycheck, the first thing I do is tabulate how many earned-vacation hours I’ve accrued, and then divide that number by 8-hour days. It requires a month of full-time toil to earn a day-and-a-half of liberty. Time is bought at a price. Redeeming time which is at once longed for and cherished, as well as regretted and grieved, is a lifelong comparison. I’d do well to view these daily commutes and staff-meeting shufflings as though en route to the next mountaintop, around the next Neolithic standing boulder, or to the next wellspring. While trying to think of it that way, I hope to make my steps matter.

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If our actions produce a memory or an effect that extends beyond our reach, then our steps do as well. Pilgrimages, by definition, are intentional travels to inspiring sources and alongside the very footsteps of our predecessors. In so doing, we generate impressions, making marks of our own. It is as though we contribute to the very achievements we seek to witness. There is increasingly more to remember, as time passes. A handful of small stones I’ve saved from the trails, and the words I wrote in transit, help to recall memorable places navigated. While captivated by the idea and action of motioning and reaching forward, I suddenly wonder who will be seeking our footsteps? Considering milestones and crossroads past, directions taken now have future implications. Travelling linear paths across ancient clearings, forests, and mountains broaden perspective. Our todays may surely meet with the todays of others whom we cannot know. The proverbial pearl of great price, as we know from holy writ, is not isolated without context, but is indeed found in a field. And it is a field we will leverage ourselves to gain.

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Through my explorations in Wales and nearby England, I listened to countless pleasant stories about travels to the U.S. It was good to hear about visits to Maine and other parts of New England, with admiration for our respective homes. As well, I was both surprised and heartwarmed at the exuberance about not just the city of New York, but about New Yorkers! A group in north Wales gave me their gleeful renditions of the New York accent, so I cranked mine up, and we all had a very loud time. Learning to attend, observe, and to notice what is around us, returning to James Freeman Clarke’s words, “changes time into life.” He described the skill of observation as a great art.

“Many of us pay half-attention to what we see and hear. Then we do not remember it. Travelling in new countries is useful as calling out the faculty of observation. The traveller feels it his business to notice everything, and often while abroad, is interested in what he has seen at home, but has not noticed it there.”

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 photo tir0014_zps5be5fd41.jpgAlong the History Walk, on the Bangor High Street.

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The paces of time surely cannot be rewound like a mechanical watch, or turned back by paging through an old calendar. There is an important difference between attentively walking, compared to smothering the terra firma. Awareness is to conscientiously pace oneself. Physical motion looks all the same to the casual observer, yet the intention is as incongruent as arranging a dinner place-setting is from throwing a fragile artifact against a cement floor. We can boorishly bellow, or we can speak and attend with respect. Both require words. The distinction is in the spirit and the delivery.

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I hope very much to return to Wales, not just to explore new corners and coasts, but also to revisit familiar places. The mountains and hills of Snowdonia will always compel and console. The trails with the best views tend to be the steepest pinches of shoulder-width divots between sharp rocks. Consequently, angular descents compressed my toes into the fronts of my shoes. (For relief, I occasionally descended by walking backwards.) Navigating the notches is entirely worthwhile, with each vista cherished. The way of broadened wonder is paradoxically one that is narrowly focused.

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Isle of Anglesey

Walking the land in this pilgrimage of trust on earth lasts the length of life. Newly-found trails are combined with repeated paths. At times, I’ve made opportunities to re-walk the routes that are dearest to me. On other and rare occasions my steps intentionally overlapped past impressions in order to verify and change them. What should I have done that I failed to do? What can be corrected, and redeemed into time? Is the distance ahead worthy of the distance behind- even exceeding it?

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Our adventures teach us how to proceed. Among other things, I’ve learned about how an action such as sojourning finds its distinction in its very intent, the spirit beneath the action. Just as a pilgrim can sense the ambiance of a place, so can the ground feel human intention. Seeking the solace of the fair country, I have surely tasted that solace.

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