When I was a kid, I came home after school and watched cartoons. I was amused by the antics of Bugs and Daffy and Sylvester the Cat, among other vibrant characters. Daffy and Sylvester were always on the receiving end of some kind of blunt force. Those guys couldn’t get a break.
But what I also remember is some of the commercials that aired repeatedly in between those cartoon assaults. The ones that stood out depicted an elderly man or woman in their home. (You may recall these.) These folks were lying on the kitchen or bathroom floor, hollering: “Help me! I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” Of course, the point was to advertise a devise that would alert others. Help, we viewers in TV Land were assured, would soon be on the way.
You know … I think that we all could, at one point or another, benefit from such a device — at least emotionally and psychologically.
Over the past month, I’ve recalled those commercials, and other parts my own past. (Not that I need an excuse, there are about five planets in retrograde at the moment — if you follow that sort of thing: Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, and Mercury. The time is ripe for reflection.)
So, yes, thinking about those commercials made me take pause — for me, those commercials would play out like this today: “Help! I think I have fallen down an epigenetic rabbit hole and I can’t get out!”
Needless to say, I have arrived at another fork in the road — who knew there would be so many of them? I am at a profoundly challenging (23.5 percent exaggerating; the rest of the percentage is real truth) juncture on my quest to more deeply understand the concept of home and the idea of having a sense of place in life; the sense of feeling settled and rooted in the most healthiest of ways.
Let’s face it. It’s likely that all of us, at one point or another in life, find ourselves at a crossroads and in some kind of deeply unsettling transition. We may leave home in search of a new one. We leave a job, a lover, lose touch with somebody who used to be a very close friend. It happens. Sometimes, we just wish to find a sense of normalcy — to rush through these transitions because, well, they may not feel that comfortable. But what happens when we feel thrust upon what seems like a spiritual odyssey that defies reason and, for that matter, an easily digestible explanation? Life always seems to want us to experience it; to learn, grow, evolve. Good lord — it can be exhausting, however, for now, the alternative isn’t pretty.
I thought my current misadventures began about four years ago, when I finally stopped resisting something that needed to be done: write about my Polish family, who were deported to Siberia along with with nearly 1 million other Poles. I was deeply impacted after learning about their refugee experience.
But what did all of their survival stuff have to do with me?
Quite a bit.
I chronicled their story in the memoir, “Grace Revealed,” which was published last year. However, now that I have fulfilled what felt like a cosmic mission to shed light on this under-reported part of history, to the best of my ability, I have come to believe that the Universe is not ready to sign off on me —just yet.
Writing about any family trauma can be rife with emotion. There were many times where I felt as if something deeply existential was taking place. (I still do.) I felt that by writing about my family’s plight — and the terrors many Poles faced — that I had touched upon emotions and family traumas that had possibly been tucked away underneath the carpets of my Polish family’s psyches. For some reason, unbeknownst to me, I have not fully been able to shake off a deep, harrowing sense of loss, of grief, of displacement … as if it were swimming through my veins with no emotional bay to pore out into.
I wondered: In writing my family’s story, had I opened up a Pandora’s Box?
Through my recent haze of lingering depression and an overall distorted sense of self, I recalled a term I wrote about in the book and which I had tucked away in the wake of varying stretches of emotional exhaustion: Epigenetics. I found articles that referred to something called “inherited family trauma” and the “echo effect.” I read case studies about how unresolved trauma can be passed down through the genes, and how, in cases of extreme stress, something is triggered; something like, for lack of better terminology, “echoes of the past.”
Recently, my attention once again fell upon the Epigenetic rerun that could be playing out within me; this in the aftermath of another major life change.
I discovered an article by speaker and nutritionist Niki Gratrix, which suggested: “the fact that emotional trauma can be inherited is part of understanding the science of ‘epigenetics.’ This is the study of how environmental factors can affect how our DNA is expressed. Remember health isn’t really about what genes you inherit — it’s whether your genes express themselves or not — and that is controlled by factors in the environment, which are in our control: diet, exercise, lifestyle and psycho-emotional factors.”
Yes, and … the idea that traumatic experiences influence the children of, say, Holocaust and other war survivors, is not really breaking news. Virginia Hughes wrote in a Nature article that many people who were traumatized during the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia had the tendency to have children who suffered from depression and anxiety. Another study noted that children of Australian veterans of the Vietnam War had higher rates of suicide than the general population.
So, I began to ask myself: were my current mood swings more than just your garden-variety mood swings? Are they in essence, giving me a “sign” to explore something much deeper, and, truthfully, kind of trippy. I love how “Women Food and God” author Geneen Roth notes that an eating disorder is about something much deeper than just “food” — it is, in fact, a bold signal from one’s inner world to look at what the food issue is attempting to numb; a deeper wound calling out for “attention” or healing, if you will.
And then … maybe I am just making everything up. Maybe I was just burnt out and am having a tough time maneuvering through life’s transitions.
To know for sure — to really understand the so-called “powers” of epigenetics — I decided to sit down and write. My family was among hundreds of thousands of Polish refugees. For many years, they were homeless. They felt misplaced.
And me …?
In winter of this year, I had moved to a new town— my umpteenth move in two years. One day, I looked out at the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs proper from the temporary home I was in, and created a list of bullet points for the last two years of my life. I sat back, looked at my list and straddled the amusement and confusion that arose. Was it possible that I was being given a very vivid opportunity to see something that, on the surface, sounded completely ludicrous yet, somehow was positively fascinating … for it seemed as if ever since I fully stepped into my family’s odyssey, I was never given a roadmap out of it. For that matter, it now appears that it could very well be possible that I (and perhaps others like me) now find myself curiously floating on the invisible epigenetical coattails of my refugee family’s traumatic “echoes” of the past.
- Spring 2014: Newspaper you run as editor in Northern California for 14 years gets bought out by a media conglomerate; editorial staff, yourself included, gets laid off. The very next day, the daily newspaper runs a political cartoon depicting me on the countryside as Russian Prime Minister Putin and members of the new media operation sit above a tank practically bulldozing the land. (Haunting coincidence or …?)
- JUNE 2014: Decide to finish writing the memoir so that it can be turned into publisher by August. Head to the Midwest, wind up in Wisconsin. One day, after a long day of editing and drinking three double lattes, I drive around and ask the Universe: What the hell I am doing in Wisconsin? Stop at an intersection along a country road. To the left: cornstalks. To the right: cornstalks. I’m about to drive off when it hits me: I’m surrounded by farmland in Wisconsin. My Polish family — they were taken from a farm. The hairs on my arms stand on end.
- AUGUST 2014 – MARCH 2015: Bop around from one person’s home to another; from one sublet to another; in suburban Chicago. Can’t shake the haunting feeling of displacement. Something feels “off.” The book is released in late January. By some miracle, a colleague and I arrange a vigil that takes place on February 10, 75 years to the day from the first deportations of Poles. Outside of Chicago’s Copernicus Center, where the vigil takes place, a procession of community members and leaders stand outside — several meters away from … traintracks.
- MARCH – JUNE 2015: After heading back to California for book events in March, I nearly take a full-time job at a magazine in Palm Springs but … the day before an interview … receive an email from a former acupuncturist. She invites me to watch over her property in Maui from July to September. They have … farmland. They need somebody to watch over 300 olive trees. I say yes. I spend the next three months couch surfing and feeling … displaced.
- JULY – EARLY OCTOBER 2015: Become the olive tree whisper on Maui and experience a spiritual unfoldment that defies articulation. Wonder if Maui is “home.” Notice there is fear about staying. Feel lost in a timeless place.
- OCTOBER 2015 – EARLY FEBRUARY 2016: Return to Chicago, live with my mother, and help care for family member in need, as well as participate in book-related events. Experience rising grief and feel displaced and home-less. When funds run low, swing from fear to faith and back again. Marvel at the miracles that occur. Still feel displaced.
- EARLY FEBRUARY 2016 – APRIL: Accept job in Palm Springs. Wander (read: drive) more than 2,000 miles from Chicago, settle into a temporary home in Palm Springs. Begin work. Notice that it feels like a toxic environment. Realize that it is a toxic environment. Resist what gut feeling tells me: Leave the job. Finally accept what gut feeling tells me. Leave job after nearly two months. Feel better. And then, feel … displaced.
That’s some list, one that warrants a cocktail perhaps.
What happens when the quest to feel deeply rooted cannot, for whatever, be fulfilled? In that floating space of in-between, where do we find grace?
And a sense of home?
One thing is certain: My journey continues. I have no clue where the road leads to next for me, however one thing is evident: It won’t be boring.
More reports from the road soon …