“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.