Wednesday, September 19, 2012

writing in wales

“And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

~ Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill

As my recent series of essays attest, sojourning in Wales has been thoroughly enjoyable and profoundly fulfilling. It is a destination I highly recommend, and I hope to return to continue exploring the country in the near future. Over the years, I’ve travelled many thousands of miles, with a number of these trips as a photographer, sometimes as a researcher, yet perpetually on pilgrimage. This time, I set forth as a writer. Choosing to visit Wales had been inspired by a lifetime of my mother’s enchanting recollections. Throughout my time on the north coast, I followed her advice and her footsteps, and inevitably found many directions and connections of my own. Indeed, it was an honor to bring tastes of North Wales back to her, through images, artifacts, and conveyed greetings.

Bangor University

Beyond and among these explorations, it had occurred to me during this recent journey that writing has come to inspire my travels. I found myself creating itineraries around places in which to write and to experience writing. As with visual media, the inner drive to write is greatly affected by physical places and their respective environments. The latter aspect comprises intangible qualities, though recognizable when they are sensed. Every region I visited in Wales encouraged me to continue writing and learning. How do places we visit become inspiring parts of our souls?


Great creative potential can be prompted by place; being from the Maine coast, I’m well aware of this. In my experience, though I may be looking toward trees, mountains, waterways, and skies, my written subjects may well be entirely unrelated. I recall once finding the perfect descriptive words for a silent monastic sojourn, while writing in the swirl of a loud and chaotic Boston train station. Words to describe what I craved most came to me first. Often, the imagery of a writing topic comes in clearly by its absence. Surely, in Wales I did often write directly about the landscapes and streets around me, and the writing- as usual- was never at the exclusion of my thoughts. Sights and imaginings are woven together.

Above: slate path in North Wales;
Below: coal path in South Wales.

Scenery becomes a factor, when it inspires clarity of mind, no matter the topic; the important thing is that writing is encouraged. What the writing concerns is less critical. One could write a parched poem about a dry desert, while on a salt-sprayed deck of a ship. The necessary ingredients are the ideas, words, and the will to assemble them to one’s satisfaction. Gratefully, the Welsh scenery gave me plenty to write about, being in itself a source of wonder.

When thinking of what makes Wales a great writer’s destination, the landscape and the general culture immediately come to mind. A lad from Maine finds assurance in the presence of seashores, highlands, and quiet country roads. I’m also undeterred by changeable weather. If your environment is beautiful, then it’s a beautiful day. Admittedly, precipitation does set some limitations upon outdoor writing. In Wales, I found a culture that cherishes being outside. Going for a walk can mean a stroll across town or a hike across mountains, and both are made very easy with paths and stopping places. All ages go walking; I saw groups walking together and I saw solitary hikers aperch on crags like musing poets. Happy the strolling thinkers who needn’t explain themselves.

A culture that treasures a good fresh-air outdoor walk, along with spirited conversation, amounts to a pleasant social context. Another smiling reminder of life in Maine happened each time I’d stop someplace in Wales long enough for an enjoyable give-and-take chat. I could recognize how conversation is something between a beloved pastime and an art form like, say, sculpture. When people meet and regale one another with insights and anecdotes, a harmonized summation is chiseled, filed, and formed into being. I found many words to record and ponder. Gwyn Thomas, a brilliant author from the coal-mining Rhondda valleys said it well:

“We talked endlessly. That was one way of keeping up our spirits in a universe that did not seem very encouraging. A cracked world and a love of the poets gave us all the spiritual incentive and mechanical facility we needed. If we lacked sixpence for the movies we could always float on a sea of metaphor in a session of high Socratic debate under a lamp-post.”


Coal to warm a writer's space.

Throughout my travels I witnessed how Wales is a country of the word. The words are spoken, written, composed, sung, preached, and preserved- all in two refined languages. As no explanations were needed for a pilgrim seeking holy sites, none were asked for a seeker of beautiful words. I heard countless poetic words and songs, saw them in art works, read them in printed and manuscript forms, and even recited my own words to audiences. Much as the ancient stone built structures, words delineate and fashion ideas into enduring memorials. Among treasured welcomes, living for a week in Dylan Thomas’ home brought me to greater appreciation of this man of words, as denoted by the landmark plaque on the house. His poetry reminds me of the value of sound in the assemblage of words. Sound and meaning directly affect one another.

Above: Dylan borrowing my journal, Swansea.

View from the study toward the back garden, Dylan Thomas' home, with his Imperial Good Companion typewriter.

Yet another feature I found to be favorable for a visiting writer is proximity. In Wales, no place is too far out of reach for travel within a day. As well, public buses and trains reach just about every peninsula and village. As transit itself is conducive to writing, so is the immediacy of contrasting scenery and setting. When depths of historicity and intrigue are so consistently prominent, excursions of any distance are replete with interest. In such a place of word and spirit as Wales, there is much for a writer to remark. The sounds, colors, and places are now part of me, and will all be thankfully held close to heart.

Above: Llandaff Cathedral.
Below: At Dylan Thomas' desk

While on pilgrimage in North Wales, my Olympia Splendid 33 (and I) received a blessing from a priest. He exclaimed, "this is all truly splendid!" The machine now sports the Welsh flag.

In Snowdonia (North Wales).

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

sanctuaries in wales

“My pen is not able to set forth
the solemn quiet awe, the calm,
serene state of mind that I enjoyed
for many days, so that it seemed
that I had gotten into another world.”

~ Memoirs and Journal of Hugh Judge, 18th century Quaker

We may well consider that moving through hours and days, connecting locations and occasions by our paths, a voyage of distances and way-stations has long been in progress. We need only to realize. There is a natural longing for safe havens, and these manifest in as many ways as we are individuals. Viewing the whole of living as a continuous pilgrimage, sanctuary may be found as easily in a café as in a cathedral. Opening my journal to write, during a hillside intermezzo, the book itself represented a shelter of worded thoughts. Pages already inscribed enshrine sanctified ideas and impressions. The subsequent blank pages to follow are as lands yet untracked. The recording of moments resides in the liminal, with freshly written lines shining back available light. Though not always conscious of our searches for places of tranquility, they are surely recognizable in our unguarded wonder.

Hardly able to believe I had reached the Pilgrims' Way- and North Wales- I made sure to do this.


Above two images and sculpted icon below: Saint David's Cathedral, Cardiff.

By definition, one may well think of high altars, congregational solemnities and ritual celebrations, but in general sanctuaries include places of refuge as well. Where refuge is found, tranquility, safety, and respite are discovered; these represent oases from such forces as those which exhaust and endanger the soul. Over the years, I’ve learned to seek out such locations and situations; they are vital and necessary. Sanctuaries are places conducive to strengthening, pointing wayfarers to reminders of God, of consolation, of the value in the voyage.

Above: Bible Garden, near Bangor Cathedral
Below: Bangor University Chapel.

A sanctuary may be perceived as something pulling the traveller off the road and interrupting progress. It may look to all the world like unproductive destinations, but indeed, I draw needed inspiration to retake the road undauntedly. Fresh starts are crucial, however they are tried in fresh continuances. Beginnings have their references in my continuum of terra cognita, but my journey’s end ever remains unknown to me. What I can and must do, is to hold the wise course of living faith.



Above: The small chapel at right was used by the BBC for Dylan Thomas to broadcast his poems and essays, just far enough away from the bombings of Swansea harbor during World War II.

Life as an ongoing pilgrimage of trust provides context as I string together nurturing venues amidst the constancy of transition. It is a process of learning and growth. Times of retreat provide for places of strengthening, sending me into the stream again, so that I can face the world newly intact. With a mindset of sanctuary, large and unfamiliar spaces can become intimate, with reminders of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

Recently, while travelling by train, I looked up from my writing and coffee to look around at my environs. Passengers with their belongings, and rolling scenery through the windows, brought to mind how the train itself was a sheltering passage toward future places. Returning to the view from my window, my thoughts turned to what I call “discovered sanctuary,” which is how I describe the realization of being in a peaceful place- when sanctuary is found incidentally. Then, turning back to my journal, the book itself reminded me of its own intrinsic properties as a portable refuge.

Caernarfon Castle. The photo below is the site of the castle's chapel.

In Wales, my experience was very much an incidental succession of sanctuaries, no matter where I travelled- indoors and outdoors alike. My steps crossed thresholds of holy places, paths, and homes. Each encounter was wrapped around a sincere welcome, and I was sure to express my appreciation. My seatmate on a train in North Wales happened to be from the Isle of Anglesey. I asked him what his favorite peaceful place was, and he replied with the 6th century Penmon Priory; he described the “quiet presence” there, and how much he loves to walk the grounds. I followed his advice, grateful that I’d asked.

Penmon Priory, Isle of Anglesey. Yes, I was really there.

The hospitable openness to converse, which I found everywhere, brought my steps to sacred sites I may not have easily found. Fellow pilgrims I met along the way pointed out where I could find stone circles and cairns.

Ancient cairns, Carmarthenshire.

Circle of standing stones, Bangor.

Circle of standing stones, Cardiff.

While in Swansea, I was told not to miss the colorfully-decorated Saint Teilo’s Church, north of Cardiff and Llandaff. The plain exterior offers no hint as to the brilliant frescoes that are inside.

Saint Teilo's Church :

In Cardiff, my curiosity to see the 200-year-old Tabernacl Caerdydd found the doors open to this extraordinary and majestic Baptist chapel. I’d learned just enough Welsh for salutations, and the congregants and ministers graciously regaled me in English; the associate pastor told me about how he had been to Maine. The downtown Welsh-speaking church had been the parish of the famous preacher Christmas Evans. Standing near the historic pulpit, I looked toward stained glass illustrations of the spiritual graces.

Cardiff Tabernacle

An enduring memory occurred during the deep silence of worship at the Quaker Meeting House in Bangor. As the community settled into the customary waiting upon the Holy Spirit, a tremendous rain fell upon the skylights and windows, pelting with sublime and persistent percussion upon the whole town while we were warmly sheltered inside the sanctuary. Each place I visited left profound impressions that remain with me.

Above: Quaker Meeting House, Bangor.
Below: Quaker Meeting House, Cardiff.

Above: Sign of peace, in English and Welsh, Quaker Meeting House, Cardiff.
Below: Cardiff Synagogue. The inscription is Isaiah 56:7.

While dining in a small streetcorner bistro, a glance about the place once more brought the idea of safe harbor to mind. Not unlike the train and the chapel, the quietly humming eatery was serving as a sheltering hearth. Momentarily setting down knife, fork, and pencil, I heard the dulcet chimes of porcelain, teacups, and glasses mixed with a din of soft voices. As with most sanctuaries, this was a place of temporary recess for those who had arrived and will press forward en route to subsequent places. Waystations have the inherent property of being short-term habitations. Perhaps your own discovered sanctuaries come to mind, as you ponder this. And common to the sanctuaries I’ve found is the stilling message of perseverance.

Penmon, Isle of Anglesey.