At Home In Wales

Gwaralt farm, Gwynfe, Llangadog, Camarthenshire, Wales Birthplace of my great, great, great, great, grandmother Anne Daniels (1801)
Gwaralt farm, Gwynfe, Llangadog, Camarthenshire, Wales
Birthplace of my great, great, great, great, grandmother Anne Daniels (1801)

Yet the Lord pleads with you still: Ask where the good road is, the godly paths you used to walk in, in the days of long ago. Travel there, and you will find rest for your soul.

~ Jeremiah 6:16

I’m not completely sure what exactly called me to Wales. Truth is I was never all that aware of my Welsh ancestry. I knew I was to embark on a religious and ancestral pilgrimage. As is true with any genuine call of the spirit, I simply followed the path that opened in front of me, and it seemed all roads led to Wales. Other plans surfaced and drifted away becoming less important as more and more opportunities in Wales appeared on the horizon.

So, on January 22, 2015, I followed the pilgrim’s heart, listened to silent guides as I honored some deeper inherent wisdom calling me home. I let the way reveal itself with each footstep, trusted what unfolded to be right and good, and remained open to the possibilities along the way. What I found was a resting place for my soul.  I was a stranger in familiar land awakening to the history, religious life, language and culture of my people in Wales.

LLan y Fan and Twyi Valley
LLan y Fan and Twyi Valley

The way opened up again and again from the early part of planning, to the days waking up in the Twyi Valley. I had explored the possibility of renting rooms in three towns – Llangadog, Llandeilo, Llandovery. I wanted a Welsh family to stay with and I wanted to feel at home in their house. Mariella’s Airbnb page caught my attention. I trusted my intuition and booked a room. I did all this before I had fully connected Llangadog to my ancestral story.   My choice to stay in Llangadog could not have been more perfect. Three doors down from where I laid my head, my 18th and 19th century grandparents where christened, married and put to rest. In the back yard a market place would have been part of the families weekly farming experience.

From day one, I felt at home with Mariella and Rhiannon; their gracious Welsh hospitality quickly became my familiar center. As I ventured out into the village, meeting and greeting people along the way, my sense of belonging rested in an oddly familiar awareness that I had come home. Here in the homeland of my ancestors, my soul was aligned, and my DNA danced as I settled into the story of my Welsh grandparents and their journey across the valley and eventually across the pond.

As I walked the land, visited the ancestral farms and met the Welsh people I repeated my greeting over and over again. “Hello my name is Carie Johnsen. I’m from the United States. I’m here in Llangadog doing ancestral research. My ancestors are from Gwynfe.” And each time, in response, my place in this valley was affirmed with the charm of a Welsh accent, “Oh you’re from Gwynfe.”

A confidence and security that comes with belonging emerged in the infancy of each relationship. I wasn’t afraid to step out of my comfort zone and look a bit foolish. I wasn’t afraid to venture off alone in the valley and  introduce myself to people I met along the way. I was from day one a pilgrim in new and unknown, yet oddly familiar land.

I felt like I belonged to some secret club by the mere fact my ancestors haled from this beautiful valley at the foot of the Black Mountains. I had come home to Wales. The spirit of the Brecon Beacons was in my DNA and I knew it in my bones.

Me standing on Black mountain looking out on the village of Gwynfe
Me standing on the Black Mountain in the Brecon Beacons looking upon the village of Gwynfe

By week two I felt like a regular in the village. People new me, greeted me by name and asked curiously how my research was going. They had welcomed me into their fold. They had made room in their lives for this strange American traveling alone in a small village for five weeks. Over tea and biscuits, I heard the stories of the Welsh people and life on the farms in the past three centuries.

In 18th century kitchens, I bore witness to the history of religious persecution and the rise of the Protestant dissenters. I tried to imagine why my ancestors would have traveled 15 miles by horse to Capel Isaac. I stood in the pulpit of Capel Jerusalem where my great great great great grandfather Samuel Howell preached. I considered the legacy of religious freedom left in the wake of my forefathers’ and foremothers’ courage and determination. I stood on the mountain and looked out on the valley with profound admiration and a grateful heart. There I stood, six generations later, a female minister, a women of independence and an equal dose of courage, humbled by all that I have because they left this beautiful place behind in search of more.

Leaving the Twyi Valley… I said good-bye to friends and watched the valley fade away as a wave of sadness ran through my newly infused Welsh blood. I had felt bits and pieces of remorse all week as I said good-bye to Ramblers and friends. Each time I observed, with deep affection, my inherent connection to Wales for I knew I would return.

Upon getting off the train in Godalming, a wave of regret washed over me, a lump rose in my throat. I wanted to turn around and get back on the train to Llangadog. I was a bit overwhelmed, yet thoroughly surprised by the way in which a familiar sadness invaded my being.

I was reminded of going off to 4H camp as a young girl and crying for days until, at the request of the camp counselors, my mother came to pick me up. I was reminded of going off to Wisconsin at age sixteen, homesick and lonely, filled with regret and crying into a dark void. I was reminded of going off to school at 18, then off to Massachusetts at 23, always, the now all too familiar ritual departure–crying as I say good-bye to places and people— yet, it was as true then as it is now, no one or thing could stop my longing to be filled by the next great adventure. Like my forefathers and foremothers, I too had an inherent longing to search for more!

And so, once again at fifty-one, there I stood on the platform in Guildford, greeted by a fellow Unitarian, eager to show me a wonderful welcome and offer me generous hospitality, as my heart ached to be back home in Wales – in the land of my people, in the company of my Welsh cousins.