*An essay a week in 2017*
My partner got me a DNA testing kit for Christmas. It’s been sitting on my bedside table for two months.
I can’t count how many times I’ve lied in bed looking at that DNA test kit box. I read the directions weeks ago. I placed the box amongst the stack of books (always books) I keep next to my bed. I wondered if I’d done that on purpose. This week I realized that I subconsciously did.
I went online to register the test and was prompted to do a family tree. It was basically a visual of how little I know about my family history. I don’t know my mother’s father’s last name. I don’t my father’s parents names. I don’t know what year my father was born.
I’m triggered as fuck.
My mother and I haven’t spoken in months. I can’t remember when was the last time I saw her. I know it was sometime last fall. I know I was nervous to see her.
Our communications have been via text message. A random and sporadic, “Have a good day. God bless you.”
Today I learned that a friend’s mom is having heart surgery that she may not survive, but the surgery is the only thing that can possibly save her. I thought of my mother. I texted her. She responded with surprise. Sent me a side eye emoticon when I told her I missed her. I thought it was hilarious. Told me she was lonely. Invited me over to eat my favorite bean soup. I was already lying on my couch. I knew that I wasn’t going anywhere today. I told her I wasn’t feeling well. Asked if she wanted to plan a visit. It spiraled from there.
I was reminded of why I don’t reach out to her: I can’t trust her with my heart.
My sister flipped out on me on Christmas and we haven’t spoken since. Yes, I ended up flipping out on her too but that’s a story for another time.
My father died nine days after I turned eight. I’m not much in touch with his family other than occasional likes on fb statuses and a few of them reaching out to me about something I said about my dad that they didn’t like.
I’m longing for roots. I am searching for them as best as I know how right now.
Yesterday my partner Katia told me that though my mother and I don’t have a relationship, she is still my roots. We were in the car driving downtown. I looked out onto the NYC traffic and felt the car grow smaller around me. “No,” I said. “Roots hold a tree up and keep it from toppling. Roots take nutrients from the soil to feed the tree. Roots sustain.” I looked at her, my partner, this woman who loves me like I’ve never been loved. “My mother is not my roots.” Katia navigated through the cars on 6th Avenue. “I see what you’re saying,” she said.
I am searching for roots. I know that now.
What does being unmothered look like for me?
I traveled quite a bit over the past few weeks for this writing life I created for myself. I am doing what I dreamed of–traveling for my writing, to run workshops, to facilitate workshops, to share craft talks, to be a student. I didn’t call my mother once during these trips. I didn’t text to tell her I arrived safely. I didn’t reach out to share how much I was enjoying myself, how much I learned working with one of my literary icons Lidia Yuknavitch. I didn’t call her when I got into Tin House for the second year in a row. She never called me either.
I didn’t tell her when I moved in with my partner last year.
I didn’t call her when I had to go to the ER with exacerbated asthma last January.
I didn’t call her when my yearly pap showed abnormal results. I didn’t call her to tell her about how I couldn’t sleep until I saw the doctor. I didn’t call to tell her the relief I felt when my doctor said it was minor and antibiotics for three days would heal me right up. I didn’t tell her that I cried.
I don’t call to tell her that I miss her or am thinking of her. Even though I do…all the time.
I didn’t feel comfortable calling to ask for her help with filling out my family tree; to ask what year my father was born or to get the names of his parents, my grandparents, or to get her father’s last name.
Being unmothered means something inside of me collapses when I read posts and essays and poems about how great someone’s mom is, how supportive and loving and how “I’d be nothing without her.” Being unmothered means envying that.
It means I hide out on Mother’s Day. It means having to tell my partner I can’t go with her family to Mother’s Day brunch. It means she will find me in a ball on the couch when she gets home with flowers. She will try to console me. She knows she can’t but she will try. She loves me that much.
Being unmothered and, yes, unfathered (I wrote this for the first time today), means I often feel unrooted and unachored in the world. It means that I cringe inside when I see mothers walking and laughing and sharing with their grown daughters. It means that few things can unhinge me like watching a father giggle with his daughter.
It means a feeling of helplessness on some days that makes me want to hide from the world. I become irritable and quiet. I struggle to get out of bed. It is sadness. A sadness that is a hollow in my chest where my parents should be. It is loss. It is the wound that is the root of all my wounds.
It is why I am writing my memoir. Why I’ve been trying to write it for ten years. Why I am trying to make art out of my pain. It is me looking at my life, at the girl I was who climbed up into that plum tree to watch her mother in the garden. At the little girl who decided she was going to leave at 13, the girl who was willing to take her chances away from everything she knew and loved. And the girl who repeated the “love me, please, love me” cycle she learned from her mother. And the woman who became a mother and finally became a writer because it was always the only thing that felt right and true and where I felt like I had some sort of control over my life. And the woman who lost her brother and reeled into the darkest place in her life and learned there that she had to heal that primordial wound that is the wound of all wounds–my relationship with my mother. It’s nonexistence.
I am examining myself as a mother who parents in resistance to the way she was mothered… I am looking at all the bodies I’ve lived in, all the girls and women I’ve been…to how I’ve gotten here, not healed but definitely not an open cicatrix.
And still, there are days when I feel like an orphan. This week has been one of those weeks. I had no idea that a simple DNA test would have that effect but it just be like that sometimes.
Years ago, over breakfast at AWP in Boston, my mentor and friend Chris Abani said to me: “Vanessa, redemption is easy. It’s restoration that takes a lifetime.” This DNA testing is another way of me restoring myself, my roots…or at least trying to.
It is taking a lifetime.
Once, during my senior year in boarding school, in my philosophy class, I said: “I think humans by nature are inherently evil.” We were having a discussion about human nature. I remember one of my classmate’s faces when I said it. A brown haired senior with dark eyes like mine, he stared at me open mouthed. “No, I don’t think that’s true.”
“You mean you can’t believe that’s true,” I said.
That’s when he closed his mouth, swallowed his lips and looked down at his desk. His notebook was open. A pen on the notebook was still uncapped. He’d been taking notes. His glasses lay next to the notebook.
When class was done, he walked out without looking at me.
My teacher, a kind eyed Mr. Kerivan who that year introduced me to Joseph Campbell, asked, “You really believe that, Vanessa?” He was sitting at his desk, leaning back on his chair, his hands folded over his stomach. The chalkboard behind him was scribbled with notes.
I shrugged, finished packing up and walked out. He stared at me the entire time.
I don’t believe humans are evil by nature. I can’t believe that anymore. What changed? I started looking at myself…
I want to see and know myself and the genes that make me, me. Was there an artist in my lineage who was also lured by story and words? Did she stare at her face and wonder whose eyes she had? The long nose? The long chin? The dark hair that’s started to grey on the right temple. Long strands that stick up when she ties it back.
Does she wonder about those that walk with her? Whose memories are in her chemistry…her memories. They visit her in dreams. They are around a campfire. A drum beats in rhythm to her chanting. She is rocking herself as she tells the stories of her grandmothers and her grandmother’s grandmothers. It is done in song. In ritual.
I am lost without those rituals. I am trying to reclaim them. These stories of my ancestors and their ancestors.
These memories are tied like chords into my helix. This lives in me. In the chemicals that make up my DNA. In the adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine.
They are chords like on a guitar. Except there is no guitar on which to play them. To hear their melody. I am trying to build that guitar with my hands. These hands that my Millie called “manos de madera.” If they are wood then surely they can conjure this wood I need to make my instrument.
I have to believe that. What else do I have?
It’s been proven that trauma can be carried from generation to generation in your genes.
Some Native Americans believe that our actions affect the seven generations in both directions. Think about that enormity of this. The possibilities. If I carry the trauma of my ancestors, it follows that I also carry their wisdom, yes? Can my healing help heal the seven generations that will come after me? And those that came before? Does it matter?
I have to believe that it does. I have a daughter. So much of my journey is to save her from carrying what I’ve had to…
It’s said that the brain can reformat itself. If you’re persistent, work relentlessly, the brain will be forced to build new neural pathways thus shifting your thoughts, beliefs… if only the heart could do that?
In her essay “Healing the Wounds of Your Ancestors” by Dr. Judith Rich writes:
As you step to the front of the line in your ancestry, the energy they embodied has been passed on and is now expressing as you and those of your current generation in the lineage. As you transform, the energy of the entire lineage preceding you is transformed, for it is all happening now through you, as you. You are the one who can heal old wounds for your entire lineage, forgive old enemies, shift conditioning and beliefs, release pain that has held preceding generations captive for centuries.
This is the gift you bring them, for as they departed, they left behind the residue of their unfinished business, passed down through the ages, held in place by the unspoken family agreement to perpetuate it — that is, up until now. And now it’s your turn. Bringing completion to prior generations and setting up what happens for future generations now depends on you.
If this sounds like a huge responsibility, it’s because it is…but I’m carrying this anyway, right? Their traumas. I am unmothered because my mother is unmothered. There is a long history of trauma in the women in my family. Histories of rape and abuse and hunger and suffering, most that I don’t know but I feel. I feel acutely.
I felt it yesterday morning when I had a full on anxiety attack. I felt crazy. I was pacing and barely breathing and fighting the incredible urge to lash out and scream and yell and cry cry cry.
When I described it later, I likened it to The Hell Hole, a ride in Coney Island that I used to love when I was a kid. The ride operates on centrifugal force. You stand against the wall when the center unit starts to spin. The force pins you against the wall. You can’t move. If you try to move your head, it’s snapped back so hard your neck aches. Then the bottom falls out.
That’s what the anxiety attack felt like, and no matter what I did–tried to breathe and remind myself of where I was, tried to ground myself–nothing worked. Nothing.
I locked myself in my writing room and prayed and burned palo santo. I crumbled to the floor, put my first in my mouth and screamed a quiet scream that felt like it could shatter glass. I grabbed my crystals and stones and my Indio that stared and said, “take me with you today.” That’s when I felt the anxiety start to ebb. It slipped slowly and quietly out and off of me.
I know that shit is only partly mine. I know so much of that pain is ancient. And I know I have to do what I can to heal it…to heal me.
The only part I miss of my old hood is Inwood Hill Park. We drove by it on our way downtown yesterday morning. From the highway you can see one of the paths I hiked hundreds of times. I know where it starts and where it ends, how it snakes under the highway in two areas, the tunnels underneath that would make for great photo shoots. If you chased me into the park, I’d know how to get away easily.
I read that plants and trees have their own communication system through their roots.
No tree is an island, and no place is this truer than the forest. Hidden beneath the soil of the forest understory is a labyrinth of fungal connections between tree roots that scientists call the mycorrhizal network. Others have called it the wood-wide web.
The connections are made by the filaments of fungi that grow in and around plant roots and produce many of the forest mushrooms we know and love. They bond trees so intimately that the more you learn about them, the more it is a struggle to view any tree as an individual. Forest trees and their root fungi are more or less a commune in which they share resources in a fashion so unabashedly socialist that I hesitate to describe it in detail lest conservatives reading this go out and immediately set light to the nearest copse. ~Scientific American
In his book, “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World,” Peter Wohlleben, a career forest ranger, shares scientific evidence that proves that trees can keep the stumps of long-felled companion trees alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots. No one knows why.
For a long time I thought (hoped?) that when I got here, living this life I dreamt of, I would feel fulfilled. That I wouldn’t still feel unrooted. How could I feel this if I’m living this dream? If I’m doing what I dreamt when I was up in that plum tree telling myself stories 35 years ago. And yet, here I am. I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. One by one. And yes there’s more to be done but the point is how far I’ve come from that girl I was who shared a room with her sister and brother in that railroad style apartment in Bushwick.
When I told my mother that I was quitting my editing job to live this writing and teaching life, she said: “If there’s one thing I know about you, when you say you’re gonna do something, you do it.” But there’s one thing I haven’t been able to do–think of her and not wither.
Yes, I’ve healed so much of my pain. I am no longer a raw open oozing wound. But I still hurt over being unmothered and so much of the way I move in the world stems from that wound.
This week a writer friend offered to help me with a project that has become mammoth and overwhelming. She gave me a step by step layout and even gave me homework. She made it manageable so I thought, “yes, I can do this.” When I thanked her, she put her hand on mine and said: “you do so much. You deserve this.” I bit my lip so she wouldn’t see it tremble.
I give easily. Often to my detriment. I’m learning not to be so self-sacrificial.
It is hard for me to receive though. It is hard to accept help. To ask for it is nearly impossible. And yet, when I do, it comes in open armed waves. People are so willing to offer help. They say: “Here. Take it. It’s yours.”
My brujermana shared what a teacher told her once: “not being able to receive is a need for control. You are in control when you give. When you receive you are not.”
What am I trying to control? The guilt that comes in swiftly. The feelings that I am not deserving. The worry that just maybe if I accept, I will see what they see in me and I will realize that it’s me fooling myself, that I am not undeserving, I am in fact worthy, I am loved and lovable; I work hard, I work smart, I care so much about what I do and how I do it, I deserve all the love and goodness…
Then why do I feel an acrid taste at the back of my throat like I want to throw up?
Is it the realization that I’m the fool? That it’s me who is wrong…or it is more of my shit coming up? And how is it that I can manage to make even a beautiful, affirming message coming in into something self-deprecating?
I watched the movie Arrival today. I keep hearing these lines: “If all I gave you was a hammer…everything is a nail.”
What if you could see into the future? Would you change anything? Or would you just try to reinterpret your story in a new way?
I can’t see into the future. I can only look at the past, my emotional truth in it. And I can try to reinterpret my story that way. And so I write it. I write all of it. It’s what I have…