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Spring 2020 Newsletter

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Spring 2020 Newsletter

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Solas Awards for Travel Writing!



By Jacqueline Sheehan


If you scratch the surface anywhere in Wales, the present day falls away and the world of fairies, wee folk, and the fantastical emerges. I was teaching yoga and writing in St. David's when I heard about a man who led travelers to a mountain called Carn Ingli with the purpose of camping and dreaming. My interest in dreaming was lifelong. I jumped at the chance to contact the fellow. One other writer joined me for the hike. Don't look in the guide books, you won't find this side trip listed anywhere.

I reached Laurence by phone. "So you want to go dreaming on the Goddess," he asked.

"Carn Ingli?" I responded. I didn't yet know that Laurence referred to the mountain as the Goddess or Rhiannon.

He asked one question after hearing my American accent.

"Are you fit?"

I assured him I was as was my young companion, Fiona.

But I'd missed something about Fiona, something I should have known, something I'd pushed aside and let rattle around in a cubicle in my brain.

A writer from Germany drove us to a carpark in Newport, about 25 miles from St. Davids. I spotted Laurence immediately; he wore running shorts of the very shortest variety, the kind we used to wear in the States forty years ago, bright blue nylon with little slits up the sides. He had few teeth left. His hair and beard were long, and matted around his neck. He was tan and even in the summer, virtually no one in Wales is tan. His T-shirt was limp from sweat and stained from long days of use uninterrupted by washing. He was in his 50's and his body was oddly thick all over, arms, chest, and legs topped off with spectacular varicose veins that looked like crumpled vines climbing from calf to thigh. He was a conversation stopper.

"Someone in town told me I can't take Americans hiking with this dirty shirt on," he said. And with that, he triumphantly pulled off his shirt, and our Pan-like guide was left with only his little nylon shorts and sandals.

"Off we go then," he said.

We set off at a furious pace, making an odd parade through Newport; Laurence, followed by Fiona and me hurrying after him, all of us with our packs. We went directly to a burial tomb at the edge of town where Laurence began a lecture that would not stop until the next day, except for a few hours of sleep.

"We're going to dowse for ley lines. Ley lines are energy lines that cross the land. Ancient people built their spiritual centers along these lines," he said, eyeing me critically. "Do you know how to dowse?"

"No." I had seen dowsers looking for water, but I had an inkling that we were on a different topic.

"You'll need your compass. Do you have your own compass?"

"No," I said.

"I thought you said you were a walker?"

"I am a walker, but I don't have a compass."

Being a walker in the Isles is not the same as being walker in the States. Walkers  are serious, compassed, and they rate themselves on a number system. Laurence quickly discovered that I was the equivalent of a zero on his rating system. Fiona, who had recently participated in a triathalon in Boston, was wisely silent.

Laurence gave us each a metal dowsing rod, a light "L" shaped rod that swiveled freely in a plastic handle. He directed us to walk around the old burial tombs and then our rods suddenly swung around like crazy. Fiona and I had found a big, fat ley line that pointed from the burial tombs to the far distant Carn Ingli.

The mountaintop had long been a hot bed of strangeness. In 1100, St. Brynach came to the top of Carn Ingli to commune with the angels and died as a result of bursting into flames and shooting straight into the sky.

Laurence was a bit mad, or soundly pagan, I couldn't tell. The vast accumulation of his knowledge had to do with a mix of Welsh lore and Arthurian times and the genesis of the name of each town, geographic formation, and spiritual connection was seen through this lens. But when he suddenly leapt to an indisputable connection between Elvis Presley and the local Preseli Hills, I recognized the terrain of tangential thinking.

Laurence explained how the dreaming would go.

"I wake people in the night and record their dreams. What's your sign?" he asked.

"Capricorn," I said.

His shoulders sagged. "Well, no point in waking you until right before dawn."  He did not hide disappointment well.

"I've taken hundreds of people dreaming, more than that really. And Capricorns don't dream well on the Goddess."

My ego began to rear up with my accumulated knowledge about using dreams in my therapy practice, helping the flood of patients who tried to make sense of sexual abuse in their childhood, research and publishing about dreams, and the deeply meaningful place that dreams play in my life. Fortunately for all of us, I kept this to myself.

We started our trek in earnest, following a path along the coast at a pace that the Sierra Club in California used to call the "death march." In Laurence's world, we needed to get to Carn Ingli (roughly translated as Angel Rocks) by a particular time to see it from the best advantage.

 As we hiked closer to his mountain goddess, he appeared to walk less and to scuttle more, like a character out of Tolkien. Laurence began to transform, excitement gleaming in his eyes, openly gazing at the marvelously fit Fiona. He smiled broadly, revealing gums and tongue.

We entered the land of his beloved. We scaled fences and faced down cattle. We stopped in several fields to investigate circles of standing stones that look like miniature Stonehedges. And by miniature, I mean the standing stones were about six or seven feet high in a circle about twenty feet across. We practiced our newly found skills at dowsing for ley lines. And again, the rods seemed to have a brain of their own, spinning in a direct line to the Goddess Rhiannon.

As we walked along, Laurence briefly stopped lecturing and asked us about ourselves. Fiona said she was about to become a graduate student in English. Then he asked me what I did. All natural instinct must have left me because I answered him honestly.

"I'm a psychologist," I said.

Laurence stopped walking as if he had collided with a wall.

"And a writer," I said, trying to save myself.

"Oh no," he said. And his head drooped. A double whammy of the worst sort, a Capricorn and psychologist.

Laurence told us his wife had schizophrenia. They were no longer together, but he spent long painful years trying to find her the best cures that he could think of and found little meaningful help from psychiatrists. On this account I believed him. There were only hideous treatments for schizophrenia when Laurence and his wife were young, medications that had the subtlety of a bazooka at close range.

We came to the edge of the field and one by one climbed over another fence. As I straddled the fence, Laurence asked me, "What causes schizophrenia?"

"I honestly don't know." I hopped to the ground. This was my only good answer of the day, because he did know what caused schizophrenia.

"It's demonic possession," he said.

Fiona shot me a nervous glance. From this moment on, Laurence, who had been suspicious of me from the start, assigned me the role of western scientist, doubter of all things mystical, his nemesis.

The last hard bit in the hike before getting to the top of the mountain was through giant brackens, stiff, dark ferns, taller even than Laurence. Out of the bracken, we headed up a steep open incline, while Laurence gave us a preview of what was to come.

"When you first see the Goddess, you'll notice that she is lying down on her back with her hands clasped under her full pregnant belly, and then you'll see her legs and feet."

We climbed higher, first Laurence, nimble as an old goat, then Fiona. Our scuttling Pan, paused at every outcropping to gaze back at Fiona, the young, dark-haired tri-athlete, healthy, and most importantly, fertile. Earlier I sensed a sadness in Fiona, but sad or not, clearly she was the maiden. And according Laurence, the Goddess Rhiannon was all about young maidens and the fullness of life in the womb.

As we came to a plateau covered by rocks and heather, there was the Goddess, bathed in the low slant of dusk. About a quarter of a mile away, was a gigantic woman made of rock, laying on her back, her hair streaming long and chunky, her full breasts pointed skyward, belly full of child. He was as excited as a lover meeting his sweetheart at a train station.

She loomed high above us as we drew near. He said, "We'll go up by her throat, her neck. The camp is directly over her navel." He knew every inch of her. We were to sleep on her pelvis, right between her rocky hipbones.

We clambered up, grabbing onto to bits of the Goddess. Laurence ran up the side, every foothold familiar to him. Here was the source of all female energy and the effect on him was powerful and lusty. He speculated about where Fiona was going to sleep, in a singsong mantra, "Where shall Fiona sleep? Where shall the maiden sleep?" I shivered and wondered just how mad he was.

Fiona grabbed my elbow and whispered, "I'm feeling super uncomfortable," surely the understatement of the day.

Laurence's tent was already pitched, left from the previous day. But strangely, perched on a rocky point, sat a darkly handsome young man, still a boy really. He wore a dark cape, and he looked like a stock actor from The Trilogy of the Rings. Laurence looked genuinely baffled and whispered in my ear, "Do you know him?" I did not. Neither did Laurence.

"Ah," he said. "This often happens. Rhiannon called a surprise guest. He looks to be old gypsy stock."

The elfish young man joined us in an instant. His name was Basil and he had come to sleep on Carn Ingli as well. It was not unusual for him to walk off into the hillsides alone to wrap in his cape for the night.

Laurence looked at Fiona, then the dark haired Basil. "Where will the maiden sleep tonight?" he said, pleased.

Laurence spoke of little other than procreation.  He had escorted barren women of all sorts to the mountain: singers with their BBC crews, ordinary women, beautiful women, all with hopes of becoming pregnant with the help of the inspiring Goddess. He had slept here over 1000 times. He recounted as many of these tales as he could while he set up an additional pup tent for himself.

As the summer sun began to sink, Laurence took us on a guided tour of the Goddess Rhiannon. We started mid body and went from pelvis, back along her rib cage to her breasts. We marched down to her neck and then climbed to her head, grabbing at her chin as Basil, Fiona, and I followed to her broad cheeks. Laurence straddled her brow and pointed to her third eye, which was right between his legs. One testicle peeked out from his little blue shorts and plopped comfortably on what could only be her eyebrow.

He took out a compass, held it out straight from his left shoulder. He told us which way was north. As he brought the compass to sit exactly on the mountain's third eye, the compass spun around 180 degrees. His eyes crinkled with glee. This was one of his favorite things to do, to show off the qualities of his beloved. And I admit, I was dazzled. She could make a compass spin like a top.

He looked at me accusingly. "You're thinking it's just magnetic rock, aren't you?"

Laurence wouldn't allow me one moment of mysticism. It was the one time when my feelings were genuinely hurt, with the wind whistling and compass spinning, taking me far from my other life, and Laurence snapped me back as if I were on a the end of a long rubber band.

My hurt feelings eased as we hiked back along her west side, tickling her ribs, her hipbones, her thighs and her feet. We headed back through her center, zippering our coats, and Laurence said, "And here is the last place on Rhiannon." We were at the base of a wall of rock, perhaps 15 feet tall, unremarkable really. Then Laurence, with all the drama of a good wizard, swept his arm as if drawing open a velvet stage curtain and said, "Here is the cunt!"

And sure enough, no sooner had he said the word so rarely used in travelogues, than I saw it immediately. We stood in front of a 15 foot tall labia majora and a slightly smaller labia minora. And a very plump clitoris. This was the very door to Annwn, the gateway to the Celtic Otherworld. Yes, this was the way into the underworld through the goddess's lady parts for those who dared. We stared in wonder.

We returned to our pelvic camping spot. Laurence pulled me aside and stage whispered, "The Goddess would not want Basil excluded. Could he sleep in your tent?"

"Of course," I said. I traveled a lot and had become casual with sleeping arrangements. I just didn't want to sleep with Laurence in his pup tent.

Fiona visibly perked up at this suggestion. We departed to our respective tents. Basil and Fiona soon slipped out of our tent with a blanket. I churned the night away, shivering as the tent snapped in the wind, sleeping only in snippets. Laurence was right; this Capricorn did not dream well.

I crept out of the tent right before dawn and made my way to Rhiannon's third eye to wait for daybreak. I had had a bit of a dream, and I pondered it as the sun rose, lighting up Newport Bay. As promised, Laurence appeared, hunting me down, to record my dream. He flicked on his compact tape recorder.

"I was in a classroom with lots of windows," I started. He interrupted, "Oh yes, that would be Fiona and Basil; they were in Rhiannon's school last night."

"Laurence, this is my dream," I said, but he had already snapped off the recorder.

At the tent site, Fiona and Basil stood under the one blanket that had held their steamy bodies. "Basil and I talked all night," said a suddenly serene Fiona. Talked indeed. But the mist of sadness no longer surrounded her.

We packed up the tents. Laurence, Fiona, and I said our goodbyes to Basil and began hiking down the shorter route to town, only two miles, leading right into Newport. We said goodbye to Laurence at the bus stop. We awkwardly tried to give him money. He said, "The Goddess does not take money."

Over a full Welsh breakfast of eggs, beans and bacon, Fiona told me she had indeed had sex with Basil. To her surprise, she had been the one to initiate and she had not one glimmer of a regret. "I have never felt better about sex than I do at his moment," she said. And then her history tumbled out. A trusted family friend had sexually molested Fiona from the time she was six until she was twelve. This is what I had missed with Fiona; the way men could sense her from a block away, the way some stamp was fused on onto her flesh by a pedophile beyond her ability to laser it off, the way sex never felt like a choice.

There had been magic on the goddess despite me, or Laurence. This was the first time that Fiona chose a lover, free and clear from her history. She'd taken his hand and led him to the grassy slopes and lay with him, inoculated herself with his sex until morning.

Fiona said that the abuse had dissolved on the mountain. The goddess had absorbed it. The secret antidote for the poison of sexual abuse had been, for her, sex on Carn Ingli. This trek was never about me fussing with Laurence, I had been Fiona's Fed Ex Carrier. And it wasn't about Laurence, who had been the guide, but about Fiona giving birth to her true sexuality.

Two years later, I returned to Wales for another writing retreat. On the last day of the retreat, I dreamt that I had been wrong about Laurence.

I traveled back to Newport and hiked up to Carn Ingli alone, getting lost three times before I found my way. I thought at every turn I'd see Laurence, his toothless smile, matted hair, thick ropes of veins wrapped around his legs. But no, everything was still and quiet, just ordinary. And what had become of Fiona, who had been the focus of Laurence's procreative obsession, after her night of sexual healing with the gypsy-like Basil? My computer crashed not long after I returned to the States, atomizing Fiona's new address. She disappeared into the ether.  They were all gone, except for me, left in the quiet of a hot July day, winding my way along labyrinthine pathways.

I climbed to the top of the sleeping Goddess, to her grassy pelvis where we had pitched our tents. I waited for something to happen, now that I had the place to myself. For centuries, people had come to this spot for inspiration.

I meditated. I down-dogged. I closed my eyes and imagined all the ley lines converging on Carn Ingli. I curled up between Rhiannon's hipbones.

There is deep healing that I cannot explain, in places I cannot imagine, far outside the offices of therapists, through means that sound absurd. Almost as if the Pan-like Laurence knew.


Solas Award Winner for Women's Travel Writing

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