It’s Only a Coincidence

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There are no such things as coincidences. I was reminded of that on Wednesday while on a Celtic Day of Reflection retreat. Carl Jung called these synchronicity. Some of us refer to fate and destiny. Whatever we call it, the world is interconnected in so many ways and those random occurrences float in and around us from who we sit next to in grade school to joining a book club, and including the world of the internet which has only brought us closer together, gathering with people who share the same hobbies, music, art, and so many other topics and then quietly moving beyond them.

In 1986, I was a college junior. I was dating a boy. Until I wasn’t.

Later that year, my friend who was student teaching in England invited me to join her there for winter break. Other than a lack of money there was no reason to say no. It wasn’t like I had a boyfriend. So I joined her. She made all the plans.

I arrived on the last day of 1986, ringing in the New Year in London’s Trafalgar Square, and we were off. Wednesday’s Celtic retreat talked quite a bit about thin spaces and in a place as old as the island of Britain they are everywhere the eye can see, and more likely beyond the eye’s sight. You will instinctively know them if you’ve ever experienced them. Stonehenge is one of those places. From the first sight of the giant monoliths, I felt something. The past swirls around it and blends with the present, and in the cold dusk of January with my breath visible amongst the stones, it was almost as if I was in another time long, long ago but also right now. It was visceral, and it defies description. Indeed that is another story for another time.

From there our itinerary had us traveling west to Wales. All of it was wonderful. Adventurous, thrilling, exciting with newness around every corner. I took it all in, and enjoyed every moment in every space.

And soon we arrived in Wales. Up until that moment I thought of Wales as an extension of England – don’t tell that to the Welsh – the thought is an unforgivable sin. The sun was setting, we were walking, trying to arrive at the youth hostel before it got really dark. However, something changed. The air? The sky? The way my foot fell on the pavement? All of the above?

From the minute I set foot in Wales, I felt something beyond anything I’d ever experienced before, including that recent excursion at Stonehenge. I’ve always believed in the supernatural, the spiritual, I’ve seen ghosts and Wales was…I don’t know what Wales was, but it changed my life completely in those few moments.

The road between Pen-y-Pass and Llanberis, North Wales, 1987.
(c)1987-2021

It was piercing, this strong feeling that permeated every fiber of my being. I felt an ache, a calling to me as if I’d returned to a home I never knew. There was something special and the word special wasn’t enough to describe the wonder. In that moment, I became Welsh in my own way. Something mystical changed in me. Magical.

It set me on a path of a mental immersion into Wales, the Welsh people, the land, the culture, even the language. It was through the language many years later that I met a native speaker who helped me translate some fiction I was writing and through that friendship that he was able to guide me where to go when the sudden opportunity to travel appeared, and this was a key in one of those not-coincidences. He recommended Caernarfon and visiting its castle. This suggestion shaped my whole trip. I stayed at a hostel within the remaining walls of the walled town. Emerging out from under the stone arch onto the Promenade, sniffing the sea air of the Menai Strait, turning just a tiny bit left, and there, right there in front of me was the huge stone wall of one of the towers of the Castle. It was spectacular.

While Caernarfon Castle is in Wales, it is not a Welsh castle; it was not built by the medieval Welsh. A few days later, upon leaving Caernarfon I went to a truly Welsh castle, Dolwyddelan. While the castle wasn’t there at the time, this was the land where Llywelyn the Great was born and grew up in the 11th century. This was one of his many strongholds where he commanded most of Gwynedd, in the North of Wales. He built the castle in the 13th century and over the years it has been added to and restored until finally falling into disrepair.

The mist and the rain of that day only added to the mystery and the mystical. Everything is green and there are gatherings of sheep in every corner of every field or so it seems. Some were so close to the road that I thought the car would hit one or two and I honestly don’t know how they were missed. They were close enough to touch their wool from the window.

In the interim, between this solo adventure in 2009 and our family visit in 2017, I went through some emotional upheaval and through that (a much longer story than what will fit here) I joined the Catholic Church, going through the RCIA program and receiving all the sacraments of to become fully joined with the church. Like the 2009 trip to Wales, my path as a Catholic was filled with an open mind and no regrets; no second thoughts about my conversion. It is the only thing I’ve done in my life that did not foster second thoughts and questions of my conviction. That in itself was an important sign in support of my choice.

But the coincidences were not through with me yet.

While going through the RCIA process, I had need to choose a saint for confirmation. It became my predisposition to find a Welsh saint. There are not that many but I felt strongly about my Welsh connection. I had narrowed my decision down to three saints (one of whom was Welsh) and in choosing St. Elen, her patronage of travelers and introducing the monastic church to Wales were both high on my list to affirming that she was who I wanted the connection through my confirmation. There were two things that really sealed it for me. The first was something that should have stood out to me from the start and that is that Ellen is my mother’s middle name. How I didn’t see it from the beginning is beyond me. The second is how the saint is known in Wales: as St. Elen of Caernarfon.

Caernarfon.

That place I’d never heard of before my friend suggested it seemingly out of the blue.

It only cemented my choice.

I tried to do research about St. Elen, but sadly there is very little. She is often conflated with St. Helena of Constantinople, mainly because of their similar names and their sons’ similar names, Cystennin and Constantine the Great. In this research I discovered a holy well named for St. Elen and was shocked and astounded to find out that its location was in Dolwyddelan, just down the road, walking distance from Dolwyddelan Castle where I’d actually been five years before.

When we made our family trip to Northern Ireland in 2017 I decided that we would add in a pilgrimage for me to visit St. Elen’s holy well in Dolwyddelan.

Holy Well of St. Elen of Caernarfon, Dolwyddelan, North Wales, 2017.
(c)2017-2021

It had come full circle. Arriving for the first time in Wales in 1987 at Betws-y-Coed by train and taking the pilgrimage to St. Elen’s Holy Well in Dolwyddelan in 2017, thirty years in between and a mere six miles apart reveals that coincidences do not exist, but providence does.

Travel – One Year Ago Today in Wales

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​One year ago today, we were winding our way back from Wales, over hill and dale, across the Irish Sea to stay overnight in Dublin, and then return to our home base and our cousins in Northern Ireland.

When I first went on my solo adventure to Wales in 2009, upon returning I was asked if I wanted to bring my family to see what I saw. My immediate answer was no. I didn’t want to share it with anyone, but the reality was that I also didn’t want them to spoil it for me.

Like when you set up a movie night for your best friend to watch your favorite movie, and while they’re watching the movie you’re watching them to see that they love it as much as you do…but…they don’t, and it kind of ruins the experience for you, and now every time you watch that movie again, you’ll think of your friend who didn’t like it, and wonder why they didn’t like it.

Wales could not impress them as it did me, and I did not want to see the looks on their faces of huh, so this is it.

I knew that if I wanted to visit Wales on this trip, and I did, not only to pilgrimage to my saint’s holy well, but also just to feel the land under my feet, the rocks under my fingertips, then I would have to bring them along. This was a family adventure and I couldn’t leave them behind for three days. I resigned myself to whatever they would feel, and I made peace with it.

From the ferry, we began the drive across Angelsey to cross the bridge into mainland Wales and the hour or so drive to our hotel, adjacent to St. Elen’s Well. Winding hilly roads bordered by stone walls, and there was finally a pull off to see the view, right before the bridge.

Leaning on the cold stone wall, looking out across the field that met the dry bed that met the water, seeing the Menai Bridge across the way, the mountain ahead and to the left of us, I turned to see where my family was, and there I saw it.

Their looks.

Even the kids.

They may not have had the spiritual connection or the hiraeth of homecoming, but they had amazement. It was about to drizzle, and it was grey, but judging by their faces and their eyes sweeping across the landscape, it was the brightest, sunniest day they’d ever seen.

And as we drove deeper into the towns at the base of Snowdon, their eyes only got wider. We got out several times between that first time and reaching our hotel. There were rivers to see, stone buildings, mountain views, sheep and cows, but oh the amount of sheep defying gravity on the side of the mountain.

I was glad I brought them.

They could maybe kind of understand my obsession connection.

I wasn’t even mad when they unintentionally one-upped me. It was at the point when I couldn’t do anymore climbing, so when we passed through Llanberis on our way back to Holyhead, they went up to see and take pictures for me of Dolbadarn Castle, one of Llywelyn Fawr’s. Actually, I believe that his grandson, Owain Goch ap Gruffydd was kept confined there by his brother Llywelyn the Last. So I was a little jealous, but I was still okay with it. Mostly. Now, they’ve been to a part of Wales that I haven’t. 

Maybe one day I can rectify that.

Dolbadarn Castle. Llanberis. North Wales. (c)2018


On the path to Dolbadarn Castle. Llanberis. North Wales. (c)2018

39/52 – Three Days in Wales

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I didn’t do the spiral journaling while I was overseas, but I thought it might be a nice idea to go back and just do the three days I spent in Wales. Some of it is the basics of where we were and the towns we visited, but there were also some reflective moments that came through despite the small writing space. It was also amusing to find that I wrote more as the days went on despite not really having done more. I think I got more comfortable in describing my thoughts and feelings, and on the last one, I really ran out of space. Continue reading

38/52 – Pen-y-Pass, Thirty Years

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​Thirty years ago, 7 January to be precise, I arrived for the first time in Wales. This was a momentous event for several reasons, even if I didn’t realize all of them until years later. It was one of the most spontaneous things I’ve ever done, and had life given me different circumstances, I may have missed all that this gave me. Our trip could be divided into three parts – England, Wales, and Scotland. We had lots of time, and that still wasn’t enough. If I recall correctly, after London and about a week in England, we took the train from Wolverhampton to Llanddudno Junction, and then on to Betws-y-Coed, where we would need to walk or hitchhike about twelve miles to the hostel in Snowdonia. The hostel was in Pen-y-Pass, which is about the middle of the Pass of Llanberis. I know all of this now more than then. Then was thirty years ago, and I was following my college roommate wherever she was taking me with little complaint. It was not an easy trek, and although I am much more out of shape now, this most recent time (and the time before this one) I had a car to get around.

Since it was January on that first excursion, Pen-y-Pass was not very crowded. This really isn’t the season for hikers up and around the mountains of the Snowdon National Park. There were only a few of us at the hostel, but we made friends quickly, and ended up traveling together to Bangor and then eventually split up, the boys, Neil and Hugh, fifteen or so to our twenty were heading home to London, Gunnar, 20-something to West Germany, and Liz, 18 was traveling with us to Kendal in the Lake District, where she lived, and where we would be spending the night (at another hostel) before we traveled to the Scottish Highlands the day after. Gunnar was kind enough to add to my collection of money, remembering to stop me in the morning to hand me two German coins.

Youth Hostel at Pen-y-Pass, Snowdon National Park, North Wales. (c)1987-2017

In order to write this, I am re-reading my journal from those days, and I must admit – it is atrocious. It is very much “we did a, b, and c, and then this happened, etc.” I read my journal from 2009 as well, and it is not much better. At least I’m conscious of it as i try to journal from my summer visit a few weeks ago and I pray that my writing has improved.

“7pm

We are at Pen-y-Pass. We got here at around 4:30. We got two rides from Betws-y-Coed, and we walked a bit less than a mile (although it seemed like forever.) This is a beautiful region filled with mountains. Not like the Oneonta [where I went to college] mountains, though. There are less trees. These are huge stone slabs against the sky. We walked towards the sunset, so it looked really great. There are lots of sheep. The view up here is absolutely wonderful. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe it. I’m sitting next to a nice, warm fire. This is really a nice hostel. We’ve changed some plans: tomorrow, we go to Bangor; then Kendal, then Pitlochry for two days and finally Edinburgh.”

“8:50pm

[I drew a little diagram of the constellations I could see.]

Just got back from a night hike up the mountain. The moon was out, and the stars as well, of course. It wasn’t too cold. We saw some sheep and heard some streams.

Kathy [my college roommate] & I are going to go up again tomorrow morning.”

I believe this was a trail called the Miner’s Track.

Snowdon National Park at Pen-y-Pass, near the Miner’s Track, North Wales. (c)1987-2017

One of the amazing things my husband noticed on our trip simply confirmed what I had learned so long ago. Ireland has a lot of sheep. A lot. They don’t have nearly as many sheep as Wales. The Welsh sheep also have this knack for defying gravity. The can stand perfectly in any clump of grass, rocks, dirt, no matter how steep. They also seem to be like the Harry Potter Knight Bus, at least the ones we encountered on the roadways, in that they were there suddenly, but miraculously made themselves small enough to not get run over, or push your vehicle over a cliff. We were very grateful for that.

Our visit this time to Wales was for one simple reason: my pilgrimage to my saint’s holy well. Everything else was like icing on the cake, actually it was like the ice cream next to the cake since for me the icing is the best part. So the well would be the icing, and the rest of the visit was the ice cream.

I have always found many of the well loved places in Wales through other people’s suggestions for me. This time was no different. I had driven past my friend’s family home near Bangor on our way to the hotel in Dolwyddelan, and he suggested we go for ice cream in Beddgelert, so we did. Well worth the trip (and worthy of its own post).

In our driving around Wales, we discovered many things, and rediscovered several things from my second visit that I could share with my family. It’s funny because when I returned home in 2009 from my solo adventure, I did not want to share any of this with my family, but after bringing them this past August, I was really excited to share with them the very things that at first frightened me.

While we were there for just over forty-eight hours, we did quite a lot of driving. 

We ended up taking a quick break where ther were a lot of cars parked, both in the car park and on the roadway, and a phenomenal amount of walkers and hikers, all sporting various hiking equipment and gear. My family decided to stop here to take a couple of pictures and grab a couple of drinks for the rest of the drive to wherever we were going at that moment. By this point in our trip, I was exhausted, so I waited in the car.

I looked around from my vantage point, and thought things seemed familiar, but of course I told myself that I must be imagining it. I mean to someone who is not a hiker/mountain climber, one mountain is pretty much the same as any other. It was a grey sky, and slightly overcast; chilly and the sky was darkening into evening, but still, there was something about this place.

The road between Pen-y-Pass and Llanberis, North Wales. (c)1987-2017

I looked around some more, and as I stretched my neck and turned my head, a woman sitting on a picnic bench moved ever so slightly, and I could read the sign that had been directly behind her head: Pen-y-Pass.

PEN-Y-PASS.

I got very excited, but couldn’t leave the car – I hadn’t known where my family went, and I didn’t have keys to the car, but I was frantically trying to see more of my discovery.

When my son came back, I excitedly asked him if there was a youth hostel there, and when he said yes. I handed him my phone and asked him to take some pictures. He asked no questions and did as he was asked, and it was in looking at them on his return that I realized that it had literally been thirty years, and I was back.

Pen-y-Pass with 30 years of changes. North Wales. (c)2017


I was astonished. I had no plans to come back here or to bring my family despite this spot being so integral to my attachment to Wales so long ago. This was where on a cold, sunny hilltop in the Snowdon Mountains did I encounter that feeling that isn’t deja vu as much as it’s deja vu times a lifetime. It has been mysterious and has led me back twice more, and it can’t be explained to anyone who’s never experienced it themselves.

On that day thirty years ago, we set out on our hike. It was January in the UK, and I expected Wales to be the same as England. Gray, overcast, damp, misty, cloudy, etc. and so on.

It was not.

Oh, it was cold. Not as cold as the Cotswolds, but damn it was cold.

No clouds, though. Just a brilliant blue sky with the snow-capped mountains set as a backdrop against the sky. There were sheep – I still can’t figure out how they managed to stand at a 45 degree angle and not roll down the hills. We walked, we stopped, we walked. And I was home.

It really was unexplainable. I felt this incredible sense of awareness of every blade of grass, the sunlight reflecting on the water, the cold snowy smell, and just the feeling that I’d been there before. This is where I was meant to be. I was supposed to be there because I had been there before. It was overwhelming and unforgettable.

It remains so.

It’sf spiritual.

And holy.

And it drew me in, and has kept me searching, even when I wasn’t looking.

It was only two months ago (and thirty years ago), and still, I can feel what I felt both times.

In that most recent time, I had this incredible feeling come upon me. This was another time that seemingly unrelated moments connect as they have between 1987 and 2017, and I wonder how destiny works, but know that it does.

Glimpses through Instagram, Part 2

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I found a few more photos that I shared through Instagram and Facebook while I was in Ireland and Wales. They’re really quite eclectic, and show the variety of things that I enjoyed doing as well as some of the local tastes. Continue reading