What’s Our Destiny? Thoughts on Epigenetics While Bumming Around Provence

image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Image courtesy of Dwight Pounds

Driving the plane tree-canopied Roman roads of southern France with my parents last week, I noticed in my peripheral vision that my mom, sitting next to me in the back seat, was gripping the door handle.

Why the grip? I thought. She’s buckled in, there’s no one else on this road, Randall’s a safe driver, and we’re cruising this long, straight line. 

Mid-thought, I realized I was gripping my door handle, too. Exactly like her.

I also saw my mom was chewing gum. (I dislike gum-chewing.)

And mid-thought, I realized I was mid-chawnk.

She’s so animated, I’d been noticing all week, and look at her whip up a conversation with any stranger. Like me, my kids say.  And just like the way she used to call for us – operatically, throughout our little Utah neighborhood –– “Oh, Daaaaaltons! Come to diiiinner!” –– she sings my son’s name to get his attention: “Oh, Dalton! Come to dinner!”

Just. Like. Me.

Then I looked at my Dad, sitting in front of me in that car. Strong brow, concave temples, intense eyes, I thought.  And what’s this man got against sleep?

An instant, and in the rear view mirror I caught my own eyes staring back at me: riveted. Emphasized by those sunken temples. Underslept. My Dad’s mesmerizing green-blue-gray bloodshot.

In Rousillon, France

In Rousillon, France

I used to draw caricatures, and when I was a teenager, I did one as an anniversary gift to my parents.  It featured me as a hybrid of my Mom and Dad: Dad’s brow, Mom’s chin, Dad’s eyes, Mom’s hair, Dad’s fast gait, Mom’s theatrical voice, Dad’s cold fingers, Mom’s wide feet.

I looked like Quasimodo in drag.

What I couldn’t draw as a teenager is what fascinates me more today. There are all these parental qualities I mirror, the ones no one can see or hear or measure in a caricature: My strong inclinations toward the spiritual. My voracious curiosity.  My sometimes flamboyance, my former brooding. My perfectionism. My anxiety.  My sweet and salty composite self that, in ways still being revealed to me, are reflections of not only my beloved parents, but my parents’ parents, and their parents’ parents. And theirs. And theirs. Farther back that I can comprehend.

I am them all.

in Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

In Yvoire, France. Dad and his camera.

. . .And his camera. . .

. . .and his camera. . .

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France.  Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée, Nîmes, France. Daughter, Dad, camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad's camera.

Maison Carrée. Daughter, Dad’s camera.

When pregnant with our eldest, Parker, I had an ultrasound.  I forgot completely to check for the tell-tale plumbing showing gender, because what gripped me most – what flipped me out! – was this little thing that had to do with our baby’s hand.  The technician didn’t understand why I gasped, squealed, then grew teary: There in a swimmy, uterine vision, was that small, 5-month-old left hand, fisted (could this be true?) with the thumb tucked between the pointer and middle finger.

Just like his father.

(Next time you sit next  to Randall during a long meeting or airplane ride, take a look at his thumbed fist.)

Out walking. No one can outwalk us.

Out walking. No one can out-walk us.

. . .even on crutches. . .

. . .even on crutches. . .

“A woman is her mother/That’s the main thing,” wrote poet Anne Sexton.

A woman is her father, too.  And a man is his mother, and his father, a baby his daddy.  And we are our grandfathers, our grandmothers. We are all composites of someone, most often someone totally unknown to us, whose eyes, voice, gait or grip (on a car handle or on a thumb) we have inherited.

The question is, how?

Scientists in the field of genetics used to insist that a double helix was the essential tree of life, that DNA was destiny, and although a pretty twisted ladder, it was an unyielding one that linked generations to each other. That stance says that we are inextricably and irrefutably the result of our bundle of wiring, however prickly or sleek that might be making you feel right about now.

While that camp was nailing down that truth, anthropologists were telling us something else; that zip code, not genetic code, was our true destiny. That geography, (meant broadly or specifically), determines who you and I will become.  We can escape (or overrule) our genetic print-out by changing our environment.  Drug lords and sociopaths and saints and poets aren’t bred, they’re cultivated, and that cultivation implies culture. Tweak culture (through revolutions, political uprisings, schooling campaigns, a move to the burbs) and you’re tweaking generations of humanity. If nothing else, one can at least lean that DNA ladder on a different wall.

Behavioralists piped in. They argued that nurture, not nature and not society at large, determined the composite person. I grip the car door handle or sing my children home, not because I am neurologically wired to do so, and not because I sprang from a western culture where cars and singing are a norm, but because I was nurtured by a mother who holds tight and sings well. Caring contact, say the behavioralists, (like regular physical caressing and cooing during infancy – or the opposite, isolation and other forms of brutality) will “make” a certain person. They went further to say that enough caressing can greatly soften, even straighten, a dangerously kinked-up double helix.

You’re way ahead of me in this already, and you’re thinking, no, neither DNA, environment nor nurture have made you who you are. You have a will. And this cast iron will of yours has made you into the intelligent, compassionate, resourceful survivor you feel you are today. You are the czar of your destiny. You have overcome. You’ve mastered your genetically inherited temper, waistline, anxieties and ingrown toenails. You’ve risen from the rot of the projects, or you’ve not let the excessive wealth in which you were raised rot out your core. You’ve shaped a life around trust, love and service, although you were abused, neglected and abandoned. With such a will, you know you’ll overcome the rest.

Whatever you believe with regards to how we become who we are – DNA, geography, nurture, human will – there’s something new to consider. Its implications are huge. I talked my husband’s ear off while we jogged and walked the dusty paths of Provence last week, an apricot sunrise oozing over the silver-sage shimmer of olive trees. Here’s the thing:

All those notions are right, partially.  Our genetic imprint is central to, but not exclusively responsible for, who we are.  DNA is not rigid.  It is smudgy. It morphs. DNA is a pliable genome, a wobbly ladder. How does it change?  Through social processes. That includes our zip code, our relationships, and our choices.

The study of epigenetics (the interplay of biological and social processes on our genes) suggests convincingly that both our immediate and intimate environments as well as our will (choices) can override our genetic code, or at least change that code markedly.  Like you, maybe, I wasn’t surprised to learn this, since I’ve seen it in myself and in others. Change is possible, even change on the deepest cellular levels, the change and evolution of one’s nature. It’s just nice to find scientific research to validate my personal convictions.

“People used to think that once your epigenetic code was laid down in early development, that was it for life,” says Moshe Szyf, of McGill University in Montreal. “But life is changing all the time, and the epigenetic code that controls your DNA is turning out to be the mechanism through which we change along with it. Epigenetics tells us that little things in life can have an effect of great magnitude.”

What does this mean? This means we don’t only have some control over our genetic legacy, but we carry a great deal of responsibility.  As one researcher notes:

“Epigenetics is proving we have some responsibility for the integrity of our genome. . .Before, genes predetermined outcomes. Now everything we do—everything we eat or smoke—can affect our gene expression and that of future generations. Epigenetics introduces the concept of free will into our idea of genetics.”

With Mom, Sénanque abby.

With Mom, Sénanque abby. No, she and I did not plan our matchy-matchy outifts.

So! . . .

Sooooo . . . Where did I arrive at the end of this long Provençal walk?  And what conclusions can we draw from studies of DNA, nature, nurture and epigenetics?

First, it’s all fascinating, and second, I’m not done discussing it here on the blog.

Lastly, for me it is, as are all things, understood best in its personal application, which is where I’ll end today:

I love my parents.  How can I even begin to express the ferocity, the devouring and sweet knee-buckling tenderness I have for them? I love them. Even if for the cynic this means, maybe, I’m merely loving myself as their genetic reflection.

(What. Ever.)

In all reverence and daughterly clumsiness, I thank my parents, married 56 years this month, for being who they are, for finding one another all those years ago, for remaining together and devoted to us children (and our children, and their children to come) all these long years.

I honor them – and the whole spiraling ladder of their parents before them – for watching carefully not only what they did or didn’t smoke and eat, but what they imbibed and ingested symbolically.  The woman I am is, to a great extent, their human and spiritual epigenetic imprint, indebted eternally to them. They’ve kept a tight grip and held an intense (though sometimes bloodshot) eye on the road, as we’ve cruised this good life together.


Happy Anniversary, Mom and Dad.


How are you a hybrid of your parents? Grandparents? Culture(s)? Teachers? Mentors?

What other factors influence your nature/spirit/humanity?

Leave a note for your parents here, and copy them on this post!

23 thoughts on “What’s Our Destiny? Thoughts on Epigenetics While Bumming Around Provence

  1. Melissa, I LOVED this…..and it made me think of my own dear parents. What I don’t understand is how you can string words of my own mother tongue to express my feelings when I can’t myself. You have such a gift, dear friend! How IS your father doing? Jack and I are both concerned about him and can only imagine your degree of concern.

    We’re sorry to miss you while we’re in Europe, but will just need to plan another reunion at a better time. Good luck with everything…..and do keep in touch.

    With much love, Geri

    BTW, Global mom is the selection in our book club Dec. 5 when I’m in charge. One friend is already reading and called me to say, “this is how I would write, if I could!” I know that feeling.

    Sent from Geri’s iPad

    • Geri–Stay tuned for 24 hours, and I’ll give you and all readers a thorough blog update on my dear Dad. It seems (and I’m sickened to acknowledge this) that we actually did out-walk him, and the results involved an ambulance and the emergency room. Not exactly the anniversary gift I’d had in mind for them. . .

      And I thank you for your beautiful comments and support for my book, Global Mom. It is getting such good reviews, I wonder who’s paying these folks.

      Stay tuned!

  2. Great post! I love many things about it, but one of my favorite is “lean the DNA ladder against a different wall.” Of course I also think of decisions we made “earlier”. But I guess that is free will.

  3. Thanks, Melissa. The holisticness of epigenetics makes sense to me. It will be interesting to see the science evolve over coming years.

    I was particularly charmed to read about your reaction to your ultrasound with Parker. I had a similar experience after our second son was born. He was a tiny little mite, born at 32 weeks and 3 1/2 lbs. As a result, it took him _months_ to figure out nursing. But one day, when we were past the “please, baby, don’t fall asleep again after the first 15 seconds” stage, and he and I were snuggled together on the couch while he nursed, I looked down at his little feet and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. He had his ankles crossed, and his feet were rotating rhythmically. My jaw dropped. I called my husband over. “Look, honey,” I said breathlessly. He’s doing ‘happy feet’!” (‘Happy Feet’ is our dorky little term for something my husband does when he’s reading or otherwise relaxed and happy. His brother does it, too.) We could hardly stop marveling that this funny physical quirk had rotated its way through the DNA code along with the nose that looked just like mine and the flaxen hair that looked like neither of ours but probably looked just like some great grandfather we’d never known.

    Like you, we’ve continued to marvel over the years at the things we see in our kids that remind us of ourselves, and in ourselves that point us to our parents. We also never cease to be amazed at the strengths and longings in our boys that we sense are attributable to the fact that they’ve lived in multiple states, far from extended family, and have travelled widely — experiences so different from their parents at this age.

    Thanks, as ever, for your rich ruminations. And your parents are beautiful! Thanks for sharing the pictures.

    • Oh, my, K!

      “Happy Feet”! I’ll never twirl my ankles again without thinking of epigenetics and your miraculous little nursing preemie.

      I’m so glad you took the time to read and then to write so carefully about that connection. Fascinating, isn’t it?

      Thanks again for your being here.

  4. Beautiful. Images. Words. All of it. I laughed out loud when I read what Geri’s friend said because that’s exactly how I feel all the time: “This is how I would write, if I could!”

    Love, and most fervent prayers for your father.

  5. Love this post. I thoroughly enjoy your parents. Sorry to hear about your dad. Waiting for the update. I form the same fist as Randall.

  6. I’ve been as MIA as you have – just wanted to drop by and quickly say “Hi”. Nurture vs. nature has fascinated my husband and I for years, especially as we’ve raised our own daughter. We love debating how much behavior is due to which one, especially for each of us and for her.

    My ultrasound was totally different than yours. After the relief that it was one big baby and not two normal sized ones (whew!), she promptly flipped over and tucked under my hip. There was no checking if she was a boy or girl until she as born. She’s now 32 years old and that contrary behavior still persists!


    • Nancy, was wondering about you this morning on my jog. Honestly. How did you know to answer all that huffing-puffing inner musing by popping in here like this? 🙂

      I am hoping your daughter reads my post, and subdues her contrary behavior just long enough to tell you and your husband how much she loves you both.

      Happy anniversary, whenever that might be.

  7. love this post. years ago i wrote a poem I hope I can remember some of the lines.
    Man –
    – Become one
    – I Became –
    I am
    I am
    gave it to mom,and dad for my birthday. Title: Gods in Embryo. Parents tribute

    The tidbit about the hand, I was lying down with my hands behind my head. The tech started laughing and told Robert to come see. RJ (our baby in utero) was doing the exact same thing. take care and lots of love, cathy

  8. Sigh. I hate to be contrary (especially when I love you so) but here I am. I come from generations of, at best, neglectful, at worst, extremely abusive parenting. Both my parents suffered from truly horrible childhoods, thus I try to forgive the way they treated me. But I grow discouraged every time someone in church (because at least where I live it seems to come up every other week) discusses the traits and strength they inherited from their ancestors.

    I do have my dad’s generosity (can you believe I found anything good to say about him?) and my mother’s gift for storytelling but I am absolutely trying to push my ladder up against a different wall. And through friends like you, I believe I’ve been able to borrow some of your epigenetics. I watch the way you greet people warmly, walk with confidence and listen intently; I’m trying to emulate you. I borrowed knitting and baking from Kristin, quilting from Lisa, running from Ingunn, photography from Stacey, etc. and I hope to pass on creativity, determination, enthusiasm and a strong work ethic to my children.

    At some point, I’ll have to come to grips with where I came from. But for my children’s sake, I’m forging a new path.

    • Thanks for this other, crucial perspective. You’re right. What we inherit isn’t always what we want to propagate.

      I love your images of borrowing, pushing ladders, forging new paths. There is hope and new life in all of them.

      Blessings to you.

    • Michelle,

      This comment of yours is not contrary, not in the least! It’s underscoring the truth that we can also choose, and that the exercising of that free will does – indeed and in DNA – make a difference. That difference can possibly effect generations to come. This is, as I observe your stellar life, Michelle, precisely what you’re doing. You are provoking a positive evolution.

      That our life’s river is to some extent a confluence of parental and grandparental tributaries is unavoidable. But that’s not all we are. Here’s the question: can the individual will of one generation reroute/eradicate/dilute the abuses or simple human failings of the former generation? Can I , by my choices, reshape (for better or worse) not only the immediate environment, but a whole future of double helixes? Can I, by forgiving and reforming those failings transform the inheritance of my own children?

      Epigenetics, as I understand the science, relieves me from the tyranny of the “predetermination” of DNA. It also turns a spotlight on my use of my free will. While DNA gives a certain imprint, that imprint is mutable, and my decisions- from what I read, eat, think, hope, hold on to – will be felt in the bones and tissues of others.

      And by the way, just so I don’t give the wrong impression: I’ve got a whole gang of real, true, murderous wild west outlaws inhabiting a lean-to on a not-too-distant branch of my family tree! They’re blood, too.

  9. The marvel of reading your many thoughts here Melissa is my perception of what you express and how it causes me to reflect on the subject matter in relation to my own life. After all, as writers our greatest asset and inspiration is life and all its givings. We share our own personal experiences, so often a powerful mix of all things in humanity that give us a sense of self-worth, passion, humility, compassion or elation or frustration.

    While elements of our genetic makeup, our DNA encoding, evidently predetermine our destiny in a hereditary sense as the world around us in every conceivable sense of being, including our own existence, shape our own self in immeasurable ways and that influence would be catalyst to how we live out our lives based on our perceptions of our own life and all the combined external forces and occurrences that stand to influence our personal makeup, who we are in our youth and who we may become into the distant future.

    In our family there was a genetic predisposition which lead to the eventual loss of my parents’ first two children who succumbed to incurable disease, my brother Bruce within three weeks of birth and my sister Lynn Ann an incredibly long and painful journey through six years of illness which at the time was the longest anyone with that disease could expect to live given medical technologies, medications and other therapeutic means to prolong the inevitable. With that disease every day was a blessing and that lingering kiss goodnight could well have been the last. The incumbent realities and fear of falling asleep must have been a tremendous burden upon their souls.

    Somehow my other sister and I came along unaffected by this genetic anomaly yet the crushing reality and emotional scars in the wake of the loss of those two precious young children were always evident, most often just beneath the surface of mom and dad’s emotions at any given time. Photographs were very seldom retrieved from their place of archival existence within our home…close to the heart always but tenderly and selectively tucked away for periodic reflection, remembrance. I often wondered whether doing so, avoiding the photos that is, was more harmful than not, especially for mom and dad.

    When I saw the tears well in mom’s eyes at their mention I too felt the pain. So many ‘what if’s’ would surface and ‘what could have been’ and those possibilities that could well have existed in our lives had Lynn and Bruce lived normal, healthy lives would surely have markedly changed all eventualities, even down to our perceptions of life, ourselves and each other let alone the world around us.

    There have been so many times throughout my life when I have reflected on my family, our losses, our tragedies, our wonderful blessings…reflecting on how those life experiences and people in my life have shaped who I am, so often in their own image. I would observe what made them happy and it would in turn make me happy. I developed love, respect and admiration for those things they endeared in their lives and embraced those things as my own. My own children came along and they too have embraced many of the things that I have found positive in my life.

    From the moment we saw that unborn child in the womb through the miracle of ultrasound our lives, our very perceptions of life and how we responded to it were forever changed. Family is such a powerfully kinetic force in our lives…in the physical being of life on this earth and beyond in the spiritual sense of the deepest love, affection, remembrance and mourning of their loss.

    I too have found myself transfixed by my gaze in the mirror at eyes that have seen much and long to see more, to understand more of the past and present and foretell of the future. Self-examination can mean our own venture into the realm of destiny, disdain, forgiveness, retribution, confident and pretender, our beast of burden our saviour.

    We are bombarded daily with highly positive and negative life occurrences that shape out thoughts, our responses, our coping and survival. The factors of influence are exponential…our responses and adaptation to our existence moment by moment, our conscious and subconscious awareness reactive and proactive on so many levels. Our thirst for knowledge and survival instincts in a world of constant flux is a sum of the part and the whole, our destiny in so many ways derivative.

    In a perhaps oversimplified sense all things happen for a reason..the discovery of what makes it so is our lifelong quest and venture.

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