What No One Tells You About DNA

My last post garnered more interaction that I thought it would. Thank you to everyone who has acknowledged my story with their own personal history and/or kindness.

It can feel like we are travelling through this chaotic space alone, disconnected,
as though the trauma, the changes we endure are felt and believed only by oneself;
but they are multiplied individually
and with the right timing, the right words,
we are able to understand each other.

We are not alone.

Last night my partner — my fiancé — sat in our mini bergère in the corner of our Toronto bedroom journalling. At their feet was a copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath, a thin book of poetry I picked up in 2012 in Berlin, along with The Colossus, each for a couple euros.

I was in a packed Mauerpark in 2012, speaking rusty German full of sadness. My best friend of 8 years had moved out of our Toronto apartment while I was at work and the person I was dating decided on a whim to head back to Vancouver two weeks before our epic eurotrip.

Vacancy filled my body. I found myself romping around Berlin alone, wondering how I was going to pay August’s rent. I was wading in misery, anxious to get to the other side of it.

With a tote full of allgäuer emmentaler (German cheese) and red wine, I had nowhere to be and no one talk to. It was liberating, even though I fought it. I laid on the grass. I listened. Read. I turned the page and there she was again: Lady Lazarus.

…And I a smiling woman.
I am only thirty.
And like the cat I have nine times to die.

This is Number Three.
What a trash
To annihilate each decade…

I had a blog 5 years prior in 2007 called “This is Number Three.” It was about my life when I was living in East Berlin, in Moabit, the Turkish village; when I was running; when I was taking a break from North American life. I was 20 years old.

When I returned to Berlin in 2012 — when I didn’t want to run, when I didn’t think I could afford to take a break but had already purchased the plane ticket — I was nearly 25.

Last night, as I saw Ariel lay on the floor at my partner’s feet, as this layered memory washed over me, I thought about how I’m 30 and the word only.

I thought about going to Berlin this September for our honeymoon, 5 years since I’d last visited. I pinched myself and wondered how I got so lucky to share my life with someone who explores poetry and art like I do; who doesn’t question the woman who breaks down when they see a book on the floor.

I’ve been borrowing seasons of Six Feet Under from the Toronto Public Library. I’m on four of five, getting antsy as I binge at the slowest pace possible, prolonging its ending for however many hours I can; the words slow and binge an unlikely pair.

A few weeks ago I noted a scene where, I think, Nate is bending the knees of someone, Brenda maybe, and he can hear muted clicking noises. “Hear that?” he says. “That’s arthritis.”

This moment is not the crux of the episode, nor does it have any impact on the plot — I can’t even remember the details of the scene itself, the characters, the gist (because it doesn’t matter) — but I’ve been replaying this line, turning it over and over in my mind. “Hear that?” says the voice in my head. “That’s arthritis.”

I’d been hearing muted clicking noises in my body for years and I tell myself, now that I know, I’m going to be proactive about my arthritis diagnosis. I tell myself I will live a solution-oriented life. I tell myself I must teachmyself, because no one before me has exemplified how.

Why do people pronounce arthritis arthritis?

After high school I left home. I moved from London to Ottawa for University at 17 and I never looked back. The day I left, my mom and her two friends piled in the car at 6am — my mom, having a moment of her own (needing 2 friends for support). It was dark and I was still drunk from the going away party my friends held for my best friend and I (the friend who would later move out of our apartment while I was at work).

I imagine myself in this moment and feel that the young woman I see is an entirely different me. She thinks she’s free, getting into that car to sleep; about to re-write her history.

I never said it out loud but that morning I promised myself I would find a safe place to live; a place where I could lay my head and feel safe as I slept. This sounds like an achievable goal, but the feeling of safe applies internally and externally, and there was a lot I had to reckon with on both sides.

I searched for the feeling of safe in school, in parties, in partners; in movie theatres and clubs and diners, drugs and alcohol; in activism, in protest, in food, music, poetry; in vain.

“I just have to get this out of my system and then I’ll find it,” I scribbled in my journal, over and over, despite begging for a reprieve from the hunt; from myself. Instead of taking a break, I moved to Berlin to search for it. I looked in London, Paris, Denmark, Spain, Austria and Italy, too. In Dun Laoghaire, in the Edinburgh vaults, in Vancouver and Tofino, in Vegas and LA. In 2009 I went back to look for it in Berlin, and then I went to Tennessee, New York, and Pennsylvania just in case.

The feeling of safe is an idea I’ve spent my life trying to define, with and without words. I know it includes a place where I feel love, and the ability to love, but everything else is malleable; circumstantial.

Last month when I’d managed to convince my anxious, pounding heart to go to yoga because it would make me feel better, someone stomped across my mat on their way out of class. Their feet left an imprint. A red hot rage stirred within me and I grasped at calmness before unravelling completely.

“No trauma has discreet edges,” Katie Boland wrote recently. “It bleeds and is passed down, generation to generation, like dyslexia, flexibility or grace.”

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I was in Sudbury last fall working on a movie called Through Black Spruce. We were filming in a loft apartment that offered a beautiful view of the smokestack as the sun set over a city erupting with murals; part of the We Live Up Here initiative. From the window you could see the words “YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL;” white text across chunky blocks of primary colours.

At the time, I was reading Up Ghost River by Edmund Metatawabin, a memoir of trauma, self-reconciliation and indigenous history in our home province. Nearing the end of the introduction, he ends a sentence in words that echoed within me:

…the harms done to one generation become the fate of the next.

The harms done to one generation become the fate of the next. I turned it over in my mind.

“What are you thinking about?” my friend Anthony asked as I stared out at the mural.

“DNA,” I said, taking a chance. “And how we inherit the trauma of our mothers,” I said, thinking about my mother specifically. I was shocked to see his expression, his familiarity with this, his engagement. We spoke about how our bodies harbour histories we have never heard, how this is passed down to us through the makeup of our bones, how trauma-ridden tissue breeds tissue ridden with experienced, often unhealed trauma.

“Yes!” I remember him saying passionately, acknowledging my discovery. I’d never considered it before, but it suddenly made so much sense.

“It feels like I’ve spent my entire life trying to unlearn things,” I said to Anthony. “Trying to unlearn bad habits. Trying to unlearn sadness.”

“And who knows how far back it goes,” he said. “Who knows?”

It’s the end of my work day. I’m staying a little late so I can re-read and edit this post before scheduling it when someone walks into the office with a delivery. We sign forms and chat amicably before he turns to me and says gently, “You’re have very expressive eyes.”

I furrow my brow and then raise them in jest. “I do?” I say, widening my eyeballs, laughing.

“You’re a very sensitive person,” he says. “I can feel it.”

I pause, thinking of my response. I stare at his face, his expression, his body language, his position on the other side of the counter. For my protection, I give myself time to gauge how much or how little I want to engage.

I notice he is a calm white man, older, sixty maybe, in a big puffy coat. He has an accent. I don’t feel offended by his comment; I note this. As I stare at him, I notice an energy about him; a kindness. Still, the doubt in me wonders if I am opening myself to someone I shouldn’t. I like this doubt, because it empowers my decisions. I note my position in the office, how I feel safe, and how I feel like I am in a place where, if I want to end this conversation at any time, I have the power and will to do so. All of these thoughts are important.

“I’m sensitive on the inside,” I joke. “But on the outside I’m tough as nails. Can’t you tell?” I am trying to gauge his sense of humour. He doesn’t have one, at least not about this.

“You can do what I do,” he says. “But something’s blocking you from being your true self, from harnessing this.”

“Accurate,” I say, thinking about this very piece I’m writing, how I’d just read it back to myself, how I was searching for an ending. How I’d written and re-written paragraphs about the ways in which I go back over my past again and again. How I’ve become obsessed with the trauma of my ancestors and what parts of me its infiltrated. How I try to define it, pinpoint it, psychoanalyze it.

“Something in your past,” he says.

“We all have a past,” I reply.

“We do,” he says. “I don’t know where you’ve come from, but you have a gift. A natural one.”

“You’re not the first person — stranger — to tell me this,” I say. It’s true. The more receptive I feel to the ebb and flow of the universe, the more strangers I connect with. “I am scared,” I tell him. “It’s overwhelming.”

I am an empath, and I know he is one as well. The difference between us is that I am trepidatious about my intuition; I fear the positive effects of embracing my ability. I tell him this.

“We’re more vulnerable when we’re blocked,” he says. “If the wrong person senses your vulnerability, they might be a disservice to you that you cannot recognize. It’s better to embrace it. It’s safer to be the true you.”

“But how?” I ask.

“You just have to decide to embrace it,” he says. “And if you fall down and scrape your knee, so what. Who cares?”

“It’s that easy?” I say with a smirk.

“Yes.”

There is one piece of advice my mother gives me that drives me up a wall. It comes in various shapes and sizes and usually at a time when it’s not actually helpful. She tells me to stop trying to fight everything. “Just go with the flow, Andrea,” she says, as if the weight of the world can be reduced to beads of water that glide and bounce off my skin instead of soaking in. “Stop trying to fight everything,” she says. “Who cares?” ∎

First image by Mike Kotch
Second image by Roman Kraft