Tag Archives: Wales

Unpacking for Wales

I arrived in New Quay on Thursday and I have not yet posted a picture of the place  where I am taking up residence for the next three weeks. I am still sorting through the worthiness of such a divine grace landing at my feet.

Views of New Quay from my bedroom

Last fall I sent an email to colleagues in Wales inquiring about a ministerial exchange. Any colleague could have answered.  I could have ended up in any corner of Wales.  Clearly I would have been delighted wherever I landed. The divine muse in my life, however, brought me to New Quay Wales where the sea views from my bedroom are absolutely extraordinary,  the beach is at my doorstep, and the coastal walking path goes right by the house. This place is no less than a spiritual paradise for a minister who is restored by the shore and at home in Wales.

Beach views of New Quay

So what then to do I do with this nagging voice that keeps me from fully enjoying the bounty of this experience. I’m sure it is no coincidence that this gift arrives at just the exact moment I decide to attend to the internalized messages telling me I’m not enough! Grace is funny like that… never a lost opportunity.

Problem is I don’t listen and learn very well through the haze of overworking and the noise of the high expectations I’ve set for myself.

If only I’d listen to:

  • my colleague who said just go and be in the moment. Even after mentally unpacking unnecessary work (including zoom sessions with my therapist), my bag was still too full.
  • my friend who spoke of her recent trip to Brussels and the readings people chose to bring. We laughed at my plan to bring serious reading to Wales. Even after I unpacked “Dope Sick” and “Healing the Heart of Democracy” from my briefcase, my bags were still too full.
  • my parishioner, who is also a retired colleague, responded to my email organizing pastoral care while in Wales by saying, “My prayer is that you’ll finally stop worrying about us and go have some good fun in Wales!!! (yes, three exclamation points) Even then I wrote a pastoral prayer for the congregation for Sunday morning. Chaos is unfolding in our nation and people are hurting. Clearly, my heart is full and can you really unpack that?
  • the parishioner at Brondeifi Chapel who doesn’t want to overwhelm me during my stay gave me a few days to settle in. As such I spend my time thinking I should be doing more. Unpacking my agenda is definitely a blessing that is hard to receive.

Clearly, I need to relax, enjoy the beauty of this moment, take in as many beach walks as possible, hike the coastal path, climb a mountain or two, and find peace with a slower pace of life where expectations are reasonable. Maybe then I will internalize the feeling that I am enough! and I deserve all that is being offered.

New Quay from the mountaintop

I’ve come to Wales on this ministerial exchange to listen, witness, learn and adopt new ways and ideas for ministry that matter. Turning back to the simplicity of being in a relationship and being present to a community rather than maintaining an institution is what my ministry longs for. I’ve come home to Wales because I’ve experienced the simplicity and beauty of Welsh Unitarian communities and know they offer what my heart craves.

The divine has showered me with gifts. How shall I be open to simply receiving all that has laid at my feet? How might I hold a feeling of simply being enough?  Being present to life, to love, to g-d?

May this place restore my soul and strengthen my call to love courageously in an aching and joyful universe.

Questions to walk with

  1. When does the I‘m not enough voice surface for you?
  2. What graces in your life are hard to receive?
  3. When do you feel unworthy of all that is good?

 

 

Answering the Call

Rev. Carie Johnsen engaged in a three-month cultural immersion experience in Wales, United Kingdom. During this time she lived in the village of her ancestors, engaged in a partnership building ministry with the Welsh Unitarians and attended a Welsh language program. In this article she describes how her commitment to racial justice ministries became grounded in her journey to discover and integrate her ancestral story.

Hearing the call for white allies to engage in responsible advocacy and action, I began to discern sabbatical goals to inform my justice ministries. Recognizing the fundamental value of grounding one’s commitment toward multicultural anti-racists and anti-oppression ministry in ancestral heritage, the call to the land of my ancestors –Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Wales – could not have been clearer.

Discernment on where was just as clear: all roads led to Wales. The path to the land of the red dragon, daffodils and sheep, as it turned out, was the most developed part of my family tree. In Wales, the names of farms have been conveniently handed down through the centuries, therefore easy to locate on any map. Finding my way to the small rural village and farms of my ancestors was part geography 101 and part magical unfolding. With twenty-two Unitarian congregations, thirteen of them Welsh speaking, the second of my two prerequisites for a spiritual and ancestral pilgrimage emerged with exciting opportunities to be in community.

In Wales, much to my surprise, I quickly discovered parallel religious histories. My familial story and the Unitarian story merged in the history of the faithful dissenters of the Church of Wales. These early Protestant Christians did not conform to the governance and practices of the established church of Wales. As nonconformists they risked life and livelihood to worship as they believed. While my Trinitarian forefathers and foremothers were given legal right to worship in 1688, our Unitarian cousins would have to wait an additional 125 years until the signing of the Unitarian Relief Act of 1813.

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In Gwynfe, Llangadog, Wales, I stood in the graveyard of Jerusalem (Independent) Chapel and gazed upon the ancient barn of Pantmawr farm in the foreground. (Picture above) Both religious sites connected to my ancestors. My Great Great Great Grandmother Margaret (Morgans) Howells was born and raised on Pantmawr. Villagers tell the stories of 16th Century nonconformists worshipping in the barn, hiding under the cover of darkness with only moonlight to guide their way. My Great Great Great Great Grandfather Samuel John Howells served this rapidly growing nonconformist congregation as a lay minister. Generations of Howells filled the pews and children ran playing through the adjacent fields that also served as footpaths to their farms. In the graveyard lay their children who would be left behind when three generations emigrated to the United States in search of farming opportunities in the westward expansion.

Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel
Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel

At Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel in Pantardawe, I found, as promised, a wood fire and a warm welcome. This small chapel located on a secluded mountaintop is a stark reminder of a time when worshippers were safest in remote settings. At Hen Dý Cwrrd, Cefn Coed, I took service and sat in the ancient rostrum once carried in and out of the illegal barn services held across the valley. At Yr Gen LLwynrhydowen I attended the historic reopening of the mother church of Unitarianism in Wales. This chapel closed in 1876 when the congregation and minister were evicted for their radical non Tory Unitarian ideologies.

I had come to Wales to connect, grow and live out our Unitarian Universalist principles and values beyond our borders. What I found was a story of dissension that linked my familial ancestry with my present day convictions as a Unitarian Universalist. At the heart of both stories, I found people of faith committed to religious liberty. Dissenters who centuries later made possible a free faith, something I all too often take for granted.

I had come to Wales to the villages of Llangadog and Gwynfe to be still, to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors, and to listen to their stories. What I found was a sense of coming home to place where I never knew I belonged. In doing so, I caught a precious glimpse of why people, tribes and nations are deeply connected and spiritually rooted to the land of their ancestors. Through this experience I learned it is more than a story of belonging to the land; it is a sacred story of being of the land.

Gellionnen Unitarian Chapel

I stood on the Black Mountains gazing upon Gwynfe trying to imagine the adversity and hardship generations of my ancestors endured as tenant farmers. Like immigrants arriving today, they wanted more for their children. Leaving behind their homes, their culture and their families to start anew in unknown territories was the price they were willing to pay.

Informed by the faith and journey of my ancestors, I stand in my story: granddaughter of immigrant dissenters and Dakota homesteaders. They risked life and livelihood for religious freedom and economic opportunity. Their willingness to risk it all for their children and their children’s children is reason enough for me to stand with the immigrants of today seeking the same.

In the United States they were among the successful homesteaders and it came at a high cost to the indigenous people of this land. They directly benefited from the colonization and genocidal violence against the First Nations. Subsequently, I benefit from this history of injustice; I didn’t cause it but I do share responsibility for world we live in today. As such, I am motivated to stand up, speak out and take action to restore the future of indigenous people and their cultures.

The courage of my ancestors gave me countless opportunity; in homage to them, may my life be an expression of their fortitude, strength and courage. May I follow their lead and endeavor to build the world I wish to leave for my children’s children. May that be a world where equality, diversity, justice and beloved community led the way.

 

“…Well there we go then.”

Feb 9th Gwynfe (3)
…well there we go then.

This simple little Welsh phrase is very skillfully used to move a conversation along, to signify the topic has come to a natural close or to respectfully bring a conversation to an end, and, on occasions, to bring about an abrupt end. It may be that the conversation is inappropriate, uncomfortable, untimely or socially unacceptable, thus it needs to come to an end. Well there we go then is an effective tool. It is a conversation changer. It signifies a shift to a new topic and while it may seem to the occasionally foreigner (i.e., myself) to be a hiccup or conversation stopper, the Welsh just move along without skipping a beat.

I recall on one occasion when speaking to an elderly Welsh gentleman about a death in the village. When I had heard of the death, I immediately slipped into a pastoral response offering comfort and compassion. I, being an America who loves process, sought to be fully present to loss, sadness and grief. After a very brief interchange, the person replied, “Such is life. Things are born. Things die. It is the way of the farm and people. That is life.” Followed by, “so there we go then.” At which point I took the cue and moved, without skipping a beat, onto the next topic.

I stepped away with lingering thoughts on what had just happened. I was fascinated by what I had experienced and observed.   Having grown up in South Dakota, I am used to the pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps and move on mentality. We call it Dakota bravado. But having now lived in New England longer than in South Dakota, I have developed a practice of engaging in deep process around matters of the heart. Moving on so quickly away from conversations around death and loss and grief seemed incongruent to the social and cultural mores I have grown accustomed to. Furthermore, as a minister, I was blocked from engaging the wares of my profession. Instead I had been politely guided to move on.

I was left pondering how much of life I churn through the cognitive and emotive process mill. Just a few months earlier, I had begun to contemplate the amount of time and energy I give to assessing and analyzing the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. In doing so I kept encountering an internal impulse screaming “enough already.” Enough of the endless journaling. Enough of the frequent flyer miles on the therapists couch. Enough of the long conversations over coffee and dinner. Enough of the self-help books and self-actualization workshops. Enough already!

In the village, the Welsh wisdom in this simple phrase offered new insights worth considering, and possibly adopting. In truth there is no one-way or clear way on how to move through the challenges of being human in a complicated, messy global community. What works for one person in one culture is, as one might expect, foreign to another. Wherever we hail from or chose to live, we gather up an assortment of culturally influenced tools and tactics to help us attend to the daily moments, adventures in life and milestones as they arrive on the doorstep of our soul. How we chose, if we chose to attend lightly or process deeply is neither right nor wrong but rather a preference and choice on how to meander down the highways and byways of the heart and mind.

May your journey be an ever expanding path to a meaningful and purposeful life. And may your toolbox overflow with love, compassion and belonging to you and hold you when the times are long and hard.

Questions to walk with:

  1. How has culture influenced the way you deal with life on life’s terms?
  2. What tools in your box would be better left behind at the transfer station?
  3. What judgments do you encounter or employ when experiencing other people’s ways of walking through hardship and joy?

 

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“Oh, I don’t know about that”

 

IMG_1680Oh, I don’t now about that.

This second Welsh phrase, “Oh I don’t know about that” was equally as fascinating. While on the surface it seems to be quite benign, in reality it has weighty relevance to this American writer. Over the course of fifty plus years, I have freely adopted, internalized and pushed back on a need to know or, at the very least, not let on that I don’t know. Yeah, I know, not such a healthy way of being in the world.

The first time I encountered this phrase, I was in the village pub having a conversation with a local farmer about a number of topics. As I began to talk about the Roman settlements on the mountains, he replied, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” A simple telling statement that I had ventured into a topic about which he was uninformed. Not a big deal, right?

For him it wasn’t. He didn’t know. He offered up no explanation for not knowing. No excuses. No apologies. No pretending he was more informed than he was. No false pretenses that he wanted or cared to be more informed on the topic. No diversions to impress. No diversions to hide his lack of knowledge. No gestures to encourage or welcome my insights or “enlightened” thoughts. Just simply, “Oh, I don’t know about that.”

This simple, matter-of-fact statement took me by surprise. I don’t know that I have ever encountered someone who simply stated, “I don’t know,” while simultaneously asserting, quite assuredly, no need or impulse to know. I was caught off guard. I didn’t know how to respond or how to continue on. In that hollow space that is so often filled with curious interchange, I was left bearing witness to my inability to conjure up an adequate response where none was necessary.

I am not accustomed to people simply stating, for all to hear nonetheless, that they don’t know something. My familiar social, professional, religious, and familial circles are bursting with people who pretend to know, engage in knowing, and go to great lengths to be informed. And, let’s be clear about this, I am one of them.

Professionally people look to me everyday for an expansive knowledge base to inform our work together. My Ivy League education taught me to always be curious with an insatiable appetite for knowledge. Our American culture encourages us to be in the know. Our mainstream and social media bombards us with vast amounts of information everyday that we might stay informed on a wide variety of matters both relevant and ridiculous.

Throughout my time in Wales, in a variety of settings, I encountered people who simply acknowledged their inability to engage a topic or answer a question with such an unapologetic, “Oh, I don’t know about that.” Each time, I listened and observed with a desire to find, dare I say now, that same stillness.

Questions to walk with:

  1. Does this experience of needing to be knowledgeable have relevance in your life? How? Share an example.
  2. Where in your life do you present as if you know more than you actually do? What is your internalized response to being caught uniformed or without knowing?
  3. How might this phrase “Oh, I don’t know about that” change the way you engage with others? How do you suppose others would be changed by your willingness to simply, matter-of-factly assert without apology or fillers that you are uniformed about a topic?

 

The Discerning Storyteller

In each of us dwells a wonderer, a gypsy, a pilgrim. The purpose here is to call forth that spirit. What matters most on your journey is how deeply you see, how attentively you hear,how richly the encounters are felt in your heart and soul.
~Phil Cousineau

Standing on Mynydd Du over Gwynfe, the village of my ancestors. Photo by Phil Howes
Standing on Mynydd Du over Gwynfe,
the village of my ancestors.
Photo by Phil Howes

 By the close of the second week of my second trip to Wales, I encountered an internal resistance to posting the daily details of my travel abroad. Something about the public rumination and celebration of my deepening relationship with the Welsh people and the Unitarians seemed incongruent to the nature of a pilgrimage. About week four, as I tried to write poetry and prose, I kept circling back around to the feeling that I was telling stories out of turn. Three hundred words into a reflection and my internal critique would shut things down. I’d start a new thought and again, a few hundred words later, some internal wisdom resisted the need to write an article for public consumption about my interactions, affections and relationships with the people of Wales.

They had let me into their homes. I had met their families. I had listened to their stories of love and joy, sorrow and regret. I had called for tea and connected the relations across the field. I had come to know whose sheep where whose on the mountain side.

People knew of my activity. They knew of me before I knew them. They attended to my day. I was part of the local chatter. Some call it gossip, but I learned through experience, here in the village, it was more about knowing what was going on within the community. It was a way of expressing care and concern. It was about keeping an eye on the people you love. It was how they welcomed me into the fold. I had become part of a community that cares for each other.

I may have Welsh ancestry but in Wales I was still a visitor. I was a guest in their country. Still, having been received into the community with invites to tour the farm and show up for sheering, I was more than a passing stranger. As such I was having a hard time talking about the Welsh, my friends, my colleagues, my fellow Unitarians as an object in my pilgrimage, as an interaction along the way.

I had found a deeper place for this community in my heart; talking about them as if they were a moment in time or a spot on my map felt impertinent and irreverent. I trusted them. They trusted me. I cared about their stories and their lives. I knew who was dying. I knew who had died. I worried about who would be gone when I returned in a year. I worried with them about the future of their small chapels.

The responsibility of cultural pilgrimage, I have learned, requires the ability to be respectfully part of something beyond words and reflections and stories. I am still discerning how to talk about my time in Wales and the people I’ve met along the way, but one thing is absolutely clear, I hold them in my heart and soul as if I too were Welsh born and Welsh bred.

So there on the ridge of Mynydd Du (Black Mountain), transformed by relationships both past and present, I answered my grandmother’s call to come home and my heart ached. My spirit longed for all that I would leave behind. And that lump in my throat and the tear in my eye were simple expressions of my love for a people so precious and kind; a country so lush and green, a culture rich so textured and alive and a faith so joyful and bold.

Questions to walk with:

  1. Do you tell stories out of turn? What is this about for you?
  2. Is your conversation about others filled with care and concern? If not, how can you attend to that reality? If so, how do you speak in ways that express love and respect?
  3. How do you welcome the stranger into your midst?

 

 

Learning to Listen: Listening to Learn.

IMG_4617It is one of those age-old queries of who came first: the chicken or the egg. The same applies well to the age-old act of listening to learn. Or is it that we first need to learn to listen?

I find myself caught up with a mind that wants to hear what it wants to hear, and it is getting in my way. I am an English speaker trying to learn Welsh. Unlike those bilingual Waleans, I have spoken one language for some fifty plus years now. I am tuned into hearing certain sounds attached to certain symbols. As I lean in to listen to my Welsh tutor, the sounds blur. I am lost, frustrated and confused. As I lean in to listen, I hear what I want to hear, what I have heard before. I listen intently and work more diligently to hear what others hear but it seems my auditory and cerebral internalization of words are meet with my English perceptions, expectations and assumptions.

For instance: The North Waleans call that jutting rock formation there in North Wales the great orme but I hear “the great orb. Despite several patient requests to repeat the name, I still hear orb. I hear what I want to hear. My past learning’s, associations and perceptions shape my listening and as such my learning. My intruding assumption: it is a round protruding shape so my patient guide and friend must be saying orb. Stepping outside my worldview, an American English orientation, is a leap that doesn’t come easy. Eventually, I hear the story, the tale of the great worm, and someone points out the shape of a crocodile’s head. Now, I can see the wisdom in the word choice, and my mind finally arrives where theirs has been all along. I hear the word now, and it is orme, not orb.

Stepping outside of myself, all that I know, all that I have experienced and all that I have encountered to see the World through new eyes and hear the Welsh language requires of me an open attitude wherein I learn to listen. It requires of me a suspension of my way, my stories, my language, my sounds, my meanings, and my truth as center of the Universe. It is not an easy task but if I can be still long enough to empty my knowing to make room for other possibilities, then maybe, just maybe, I can begin to master the act of listening to learn, and truly know the grace and riches of this amazing, diverse, global community of which we all belong.

Questions to walk with:

  1. What assumptions get in your way of deep listening and new learning?
  2. When was the last time you were able suspend your knowing to truly hear what a loved one had to say? How did you accomplish this formidable task? What did you learn?
  3. What is one situation, one place, one struggle or one challenge that might dissipate or lessen, if I were to engage in the act of deep listening?
  4. Where will I make a commitment to listen to learn or learn to listen?

Ode to Silence

 

IMG_4721Here on the shores of the Irish Sea in the quiet cove of Nant Gwrtheryn, I am learning to listen to foreign sounds of silence alongside unfamiliar vowels and consonants, and combinations thereof, that form the Welsh language, Cymreig.

After a grand experiment to shut off the TV for one year(back in the 90’s), I learned to appreciate the quiet. Over the past twenty or so years, I have sinse come to cultivate with higher frequency silent spaces in my life. I have gone to great lengths to ensure that my day includes silence to center and guide my living. After five years of living out in the country off the main roads and along the shores of Maranacook Lake in Maine, I thought I had experienced the sentiment behind the words: deafening silence. But I was woefully mistaken.

So, when I first stepped out of the car on a coastal mountainside in north Wales for that grand view of the coast and the restored quarry village which would be my home for the next five days, I was struck by an eerie silence in the air, of which I was not accustomed to. The silence at Nant Gwrtheyrn was a thoroughly new experience. It was a silence like nothing I’ve ever heard, or not heard, before.

It would seem that in those seemingly quiet spaces back home, I have become accustomed to silence that includes the sounds of birds at the feeder, squirrels a play and the endless buzz of those high electrical wires as background noise.

At Nant Gwrtheyrn, there are no neighbors busy mowing their lawn or playing their music loudly then shouting over the bass to be heard down the hall. No loud chainsaws preparing wood for the winter chill. No loud marina with foghorns and boat motors filling the night sky. No motorbikes off in the distance. Here, along the Atlantic sea, in this hidden remote cove, the background hum of the electrical wires and the road noise of people going to and fro are blaringly absent, just nonexistent.

Here, at Nant Gwrtheyrn, the sheep on the hillside move softly on the edge while the bird song quiets with the setting sun. No breeze to rustle the trees. The sea is as still as I’ve ever seen. There will be no surf to interrupt the deafening silence tonight.

Just lovely silence, empty airwaves, pure as new fallen snow, and as still as dew on the morning grass.

Silence, dear silence, a welcome guest in my home. I savor the peaceful stillness beyond the chaos of love’s encounter. I crave the silence to quench my mindless and busy reaching for all the does not matter. Oh yes, how I love that last quiet moment when morning breaks on dreams dancing into the horizon.

Here ,at Nant Gwrtheyrn, the silence arrives abundant with outstretched arms ready to wrap the weary soul, the learned traveler, the inquisitive mind and the incipient muse.

Here, at Nant Gwrtheyrn, I cozy up and savor the silence, letting it wash over my being and touch the depths of my soul with restorative wisdom like an ancient sage with a young apprentice by her side.

Questions to walk with:

  1. Where in your days do you long for and savor a moment of silence?
  2. How might you find more time and space to commit to the act of being still?
  3. How do you engage in busyness to fill up the space of the deafening silence?
  4. What do you think you might find if you nurtured a spiritual practice of cultivating silence?

They say it’s Cynefin!

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As I travel around Cymru/Wales for the second extended stay (five weeks in the winter, six weeks over the summer), people often ask me why I have chosen to return to this specific place. Initially I fumbled over how to articulate and explain my affection for, connection with, and sense of belonging to this beautiful country, a place I had barely thought about until just a few years back. How does one describe an experience of arriving in a foreign country to be immediately met with a sensation of having come home? How does one describe an experience wherein one’s internal busy-ness, preoccupations and anxious habits find that still, quiet center to guide and sustain? How does one share a heart at rest, a mind at peace, and a soul sustained? Sure, some might say, it has everything to do with the slow pace of sabbatical life, but I know it is beyond the obvious.

Well, I have learned the Welsh have a word for this sense of coming home, sense of belonging and connection to place. They call it cynefin.*

…’cynefin’ would convey the sense that we all have multiple pasts of which we can only be partly aware: cultural, religious, geographic, tribal etc. The word is sometimes used to describe an environment where a person feels they belong[2][3] or knowledge and sense of place that is passed down the generations.[4] It can also refer to fleeting moments in time: “a place or the time when we instinctively belong or feel most connected. In those moments what lies beneath mundane existence is unveiled and the joy of being alive can overwhelm us.”[5]

I am told the farmers use this word to describe how a sheep knows its patch on the mountainside. The mountains are vast and the sheep could certainly wander far afield but stay close to home. Sitting here, at the edge of Mynydd Du (Black Mountain), communing with grazing sheep, I have come to appreciate their sense of belonging to a place, their own a little patch in a vast world of possibilities. If only we humans could settle in and find peace in belonging to a little patch in a vast universe.

So, as the Welsh would say, there we have it then, it is cynefin; and yes, at times my heart is humbly overwhelmed with gratitude and joy for this time of being in a place that holds me in one big Cymru cwtch (Welsh embrace/hug).

*http://encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com/cynefin

 

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.