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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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

return journey

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“...the wind cut up the street with a soft sea-noise hanging on its arm... and around here it was that the journey had begun
of the one I was pursuing...”

~ Dylan Thomas, Return Journey.

journeys and returns

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Above: First Great Western train, from England;
Below: Arriva train in Wales.

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On a weekday, still with books and papers in my arms, I walked to the Oxford railway station to buy my ticket for North Wales. One sojourn leading to another. Not realizing an explanation was needed, I blithely requested a one-way ticket for Penmaenmawr. Then, after helping the ticket agent spell and pronounce “pen-mine-maOW-rr,” I helped him locate the town on his computer monitor. For the record, he was very nice about everything, and perhaps in an apologetic spirit he reserved “table seats” for me aboard each of the 3 trains I needed to get across the English Midlands, to northwestern Wales. Well this Oxford scholar with a New England accent, heading for the “Fortress Gwynedd,” was certainly grateful to look forward to a day’s train travel with reserved perches that included writing surfaces.

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Above: Looking to the mountains.
Below: Looking to the sea, minutes later.

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Packing to leave Oxford and the goodbyes (with plenty of see-you-laters) were offset by the anticipation of a return to Wales. No longer the first-ever visit, which I experienced in the previous year, but this time a return journey. The distinction is significant, as the mystery of travelling to a place charted solely by maternal recollections and childhood dreams is augmented by the prospect of returning to places remembered in personal experience. This time, I could visualize the destinations. Places, sounds, and countenances joined the stream of expectation. There were tastes I wanted to be sure not to miss, such as bakery-warm Welsh cakes, and S.A. Brains Ale with seafood. There were photo angles to retry on this visit, and opportunities to see more places for which there hadn’t been sufficient time on the first sojourn.

Bangor, Wales.

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returns and impressions

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All journeys are to be savoured, as no two impressions are alike. Return journeys are as unique as initial discoveries. The differences are in the imageries that inform the going forth. In all our journeys, we blend together the known and the unknowing. As well, we are uniquely able to synthesize the composite experience of multiple memories, landmarks, and projected hopes when we return to places of our choosing.

The aspect of returning to a place already visited- or in the case of my monthly travels to Boston, something almost errand-like, the visits are colored by the weather, the tasks-at-hand (if any aside from strolling), and indeed the kind of mood I’m in. But it is a return nonetheless, and one I elect to make. The great distinction is that a choice was made; this is not perfunctory. The dynamic, being one of choice, means that I am just where I want to be, notwithstanding how I feel, where I just came from, and any other baggage that may have come with me. Returning to a place, and wanting to be there, is actually in response to the place calling you to come back. Thoughts become enlivened by the prospects of the object of your wanderlust, of your longing for a very specific place with lanes, skies, handshakes, houses, and aromas.

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The train travel took an entire day, with transfers in Birmingham, Shrewsbury, and Chester. The transition into something very different from urban and suburban Midlands to rural mountain country became clearly pronounced as my last train reached the sea. Shoreline was immediately at the starboard side, with the mountains of North Wales above the port side. Skies alternated between stark brightness and overcast spatter. The weather of the Welsh coast, which is so similar to that of the Maine coast, one place now reminds me of the other.

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The return to North Wales came a year after my emotional first visit, having had a year to convey stories from the month of Welsh travels to my parents at Thanksgiving, and keeping in touch with new friends, anticipating the return. The arrival this time was directly from a long sojourn at Oxford. Thus, I instantly noticed the Oxford House in the small village of Penmaenmawr- even how the storefront is painted navy blue.

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In Bangor, I could notice the progress of construction projects I had seen in the prior year, and how these things (the University arts centre, and some housing complexes) had changed. Before making the trip, during the planning, I realized there wouldn’t be enough time to visit places and friends in South Wales; I could only choose one direction, and chose north. I was gratefully able to welcome the restorer of the Dylan Thomas home, in Swansea, to The Kilns (C. S. Lewis’ home- which had been my home in Oxford), as a sweet reunion. While explaining my choice to Annie Haden, she very matter-of-factly said, “well that’s your Mam’s place,” giving me the impression that if I had chosen to go south, she would’ve said. “Why didn’t you go back to Bangor, child?” I could just picture it. Indeed, I did gratefully go back to the north, following my wishes and remembrances from the past year.

Same gates, but 54 years apart: My mother and me, in Bangor.

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the call of place

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Consider the phenomenon of a place returning to you. Not as with unpleasant histories, but the opposite, life-giving kind of haunting. These are dreams we welcome, reminders of the flowering amidst our struggling thorns, gratitude as fruit of survival. When a place calls and colors our dreams, the impression is more than the of place itself. Surely, streets and squares, with addresses, can be physically visited. When a place joins the geographic arrangement of our dreams, we are included as inhabitants of such reveries. These places include our selves as resident travellers. When I revisit Paris and New York, I am there as an infant, an adolescent, a teenager, and as I am today. All the lenses are kept polished. My images of Wales evolved from retold stories and postcards to enquiries and, finally, my own footsteps. Places we hold dear to our hearts and thoughts are in our eyes. They go with us, they return with us, and cultivate our life experiences.

Below: The Welsh house blessing from my mother's time in Bangor, which she has recently given to me. I remember this from childhood in New York.

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The places and vistas I enjoyed most in Bangor are still favorites of mine. My urban penchant for strolling and browsing draws my attention to High Street, Deiniol Road, and Holyhead Road. The latter is near Bangor University, where my mother studied. At frequent intervals, among shopwindows, are cafés and bakeries. My very favorite is the Blue Sky Café, which is in a high-raftered skylit loft at the center of Bangor.

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Bangor Pier.

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A meditative stroll along the Garth Road continues onto the Victorian scenic Bangor Pier. On one evening’s visit, the winds whipped through the Menai Strait with such force that pedestrians on the pier were holding on to the boardwalk’s railings. With this return, I was better able to appreciate Bangor Cathedral- both in its general ambience and its architectural details. One of my recent visits was on a pouring rainy day, and somehow the exterior conditions caused the interior to feel much more intimate. The return journey reminded me of the sanctuary, whose foundation dates back to the 7th century, as a place of prayer. Having developed warm friendships through- and with- the Bangor Public Library, that is undoubtedly one of my favorite places in town.

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Bangor Cathedral.

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Bangor Library.

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Indeed, I did see places I had not seen before, and made new acquaintances, but that’s to be expected. Return visits are new experiences, as today is distinct from yesterday. Now it occurs to me how often I peruse the same favorite districts in Boston, noting changes, discovering new things, and visiting old favorite points of reference. When it comes to hospitable and beloved settings, familiarity breeds endearment. As for Bangor, its environs, and Wales, I am thankful for places of grateful returns. There is no honor quite as sublime as being warmly anticipated. A living sign of mutual recognition, the gift of welcome is a gesture of both extension and inclusion. As our times appear fragile and temporal, embraces represent treasured belonging and the sense of home. Thoughts that console, soothe, and endure. Sights, voices, and days return to me with the effortless prompt of atmosphere. Wafting weather and aromatic air bring words to mind and paper, collated to the volumes of a life.

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