"Translating" with Michelle Van Loon

“Translating” with Michelle Van Loon

~ing podcast Season 2 Episode 17
Full Episode Transcript

Season 2 Episode 17: “Translating”, with Michelle Van Loon was released on May 3, 2022. The audio recording is available on all major podcasting platforms. More information is available here.

Episode Description:

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Over the next few weeks we’ll continue our conversations with folks who navigate spaces around mental health. In this week’s episode, ~ing producer Ben Wideman is joined by Herald Press author, Michelle Van Loon. Michelle is the author of six books, including Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma, and has been a regular contributor at Christianity Today and In Touch magazine and has a wide range of published work including curriculum, devotionals, articles, and plays. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project, a women’s theology organization, and the co-founder of www.ThePerennialGen.com, a website for midlife women and men. Today’s episode will touch on themes from her recent book, including how our family stories—including the difficult, complex ones—can carry great spiritual strength. 

Michelle Van Loon, Christian Brady, Ben Wideman

Ben Wideman  00:00
Welcome to Season Two of ~ing Podcast, a production of MennoMedia’s Leader Magazine.  What does it mean to authentically follow Jesus? Each week ~ing Podcast invites you to join us on a journey. Join us as we talk with people of faith who are creatively thinking, growing, and being… people who are reimagining and exploring what it means to enrich faith in a complex world.

Michelle Van Loon  00:27
There’s a new field of study, relatively new field of study, called epigenetics. The effects of trauma carry on top of the gene, and can affect subsequent generations. But there is good news in that the effects can be mitigated and addressed if intervention is there, if good community is there. And if some understanding is there about the way that trauma does touch areas of our lives.

Ben Wideman  01:00
Our conversation begins now. Join us as we journey together.  My friends, welcome back to ~ing Podcast. We’re really glad that you’re here with us. And I’m excited today to introduce you to our guest. I’m excited to have one of Harold Press’, authors with us. Michelle Van Loon is here today. She is the author of a wonderful book called Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues and Generational Trauma. Michelle, thank you so much for joining us today.

Michelle Van Loon  01:32
Thank you for having me. And yes, that subtitle is a long subtitle. It took me a while to learn it as well, ’cause that was something that Herald Press came up with, and I was like, it captures a lot of things in it captures the thrust of the book, but it’s a lot of words.

Ben Wideman  01:54
It’s a lot, but it makes me want to know more too. There’s enough there that there’s bound to be something in that subtitle that connects with someone, and makes them want to open the cover. So I understand why they gave it.

Michelle Van Loon  02:07
Absolutely, absolutely. I agree. I agree. And it’s an… honestly, as I’ve been talking to people since the books release, it is the generational trauma phrase, which is the third of the three that tends to kind of grab people. Ooh, generational trauma.  So…

Ben Wideman  02:27
Well, before we get to your book, I’m wondering if you could introduce yourself for those who may not know you?

Michelle Van Loon  02:33
Sure, I’d be glad to. I am I’ve been a writer for a long, long time. I am a Jewish follower of Jesus, child of the Jesus movement of the late 60s and early 70s. And I’ve been married to my husband Bill for 42 years, we’ve got three adult children, two grandchildren. I’ve… This is my seventh book. So I have a lot to say. And anyone who knows me is like, right, you do have a lot to say. Some of it is even good stuff. There’s kind of a through line in that kind of my goal or my desire is a writer is to kind of encourage believers toward maturity, and to encourage those on the margins who may not be sure if they believe that there’s there’s space for them. Not necessarily in the standard approach to the gospel. But there’s good news and all kinds of topics, either our family stories, which sometimes have a lot of bad news in them for some people.

Ben Wideman  03:50
That makes me curious, given that you’ve authored other books, what led you to this particular subject? In looking at things like family ancestry and generational trauma? How did you arrive at this particular book?

Michelle Van Loon  04:06
I think the seeds of this book were planted way back in the 70s. When anybody of my age who lived in America and probably other countries as well saw the Alex Haley mini series that was based on his book Roots, where he went back and kind of explored and interrogated his family’s history. Before that most family histories tended to be used for a membership in Daughters of the American Revolution or other kinds of things that had access, only for a certain segment of the population. And even though both of my parents were Jewish, Alex Haley’s story really captured me. For a lot of reasons that I kind of unfolded in the book. My family had a lot of mysteries in it, there were things that people didn’t want to talk about. There was a lot of trauma. Anybody who knows the history of the Jewish people, even in the last 100 years, started with pilgrams, moved to the Holocaust, lots of upheaval. And, you know, even now in the news, with the war in the Ukraine with a Jewish president, who’s the child of Holocaust survivors, those themes continue to emerge. So Alex Haley’s story in the mini series, embolden me to start asking some of those questions, and my curiosity is never really dissipated since then.  So…

Ben Wideman  06:04
Well I feel like I learn something every time I interview a guest on this podcast, but something and what you just said there about our family stories, at one point in time, just being kind of lifted up as legacy and things to sort of classify us or be proud of, and not necessarily looking at our whole family history. But kind of hiding away the parts that were maybe not as ideal as we might hope. That, that is, that’s a new thought to me. And I’m really glad to hear you say that too. And perhaps I benefited, as someone born in the early 80s, to have Roots come before me meant that it was okay, perhaps in a different way to acknowledge all of our past, although I’m sure you know, like so many other sort of progressive movements, we’re not quite there yet, we’re still, we’re still pretty good at hiding our skeleton. So there does seem like there is more space, more opportunity and more posture, I guess, for for our full selves, and in the way that we move about. And I’m assuming your book helps people to get to that point too.

Michelle Van Loon  07:08
Yes, well, and I think a lot of times when the the language of family stories comes up, it comes up in a in a narrow kind of slot. It’s either medical history, or somebody buys a consumer DNA tests like an ancestry.com, 23 and Me, and they get back results and go, Oh, look, I’m 78% Scottish, or, you know, whatever. And that might launch something, anybody who’s gathered with family, for family holidays, and they always make, you know, some special meal or whatever that grandma made, and grandma made before that, we always have those connections to the past, and those who don’t, those who are adopted or their, their childhood home was disrupted in some way. Maybe they think the big blank space I have is all that I know my family’s story, but I actually speak about those blank spaces are secrets or mysteries, because they’re part of the frame that shapes us. Even if we don’t have all the data.

Ben Wideman  08:28
My head is going in a bunch of different directions now.

Michelle Van Loon  08:31

Ben Wideman  08:31
I need to figure out where to go from here! One of the questions that you actually sent me ahead of time, I think might be a really interesting next step. This idea that people of faith often have where our primary identity is in our faith, so we are Christian, or we are Jewish, or we are Muslim, and we kind of downplay the rest of ourselves as if our primary identity is our spiritual one. And so in that it kind of begs the question, then why do family stories matter if our primary identity is in those religious spaces?

Michelle Van Loon  09:13
That is one of those things. It’s a it’s a message that I got as a young believer and as a maturing believer, if you think about the way that many churches talk about faith and family, often there’s formulas involved. Here’s how to be a good husband or wife or here’s how to parent your children successfully. You know, if you just follow these steps, and here’s these Bible verses, and here’s these models. Those things are helpful. They They absolutely are and our our identity is in our community of faith. Absolutely. But God brings us to those communities with all of our past. With us, we’re carrying that in. And sometimes that one size fits all kind of approach. Nobody actually intends for it to be that way. But the messaging is, if you just do this, then all the mess in your past or all the heroes in your past the scoundrels in your past, you know that you’ll be able to mute that and somehow forge a path forward. That’s, that’s awesome and successful and has a happy ending. It doesn’t work that way. And scripture itself doesn’t, doesn’t try to sell us that idea. Interestingly, if you pull verses out of context, and slap them together in curriculum, and I’m saying this is somebody who’s written a lot of curriculum, so I understand the temptation or the message that comes with that, yeah, and I love writing curriculum. But I, I’m recognizing that the story that you bring into a worship space is different than the one that I bring in, or that a brand new immigrant who’s just been through a lot of trauma brings in, or somebody that’s got an amazing family history of faith brings in, you know, and that’s and we’re all invited to the same table. But we are coming together with all of those stories that shaped the way that we see God and one another.

Ben Wideman  11:52
Some backstory about me, my I had a sense of a sense of call to be a minister… Somewhere near the end of high school and moving into college, I had grown up at Wideman Mennonite church, my last name is Wideman. Not knowing much of the story of why it was called Wideman Mennonite Church and it was only when I announced that I had this call to ministry that I was told, “Well, Henry Wideman was the first ordained Canadian Mennonite minister, he rode his horse from Pennsylvania to Ontario, Canada, he, you know, founded your home community, his son, and his son, sons and son, son, sons were all ministers. And really, it was only a few generations ago that there weren’t Wideman Mennonite ministers here at this church!” And all of a sudden, like, the pieces all fit but I thought, boy, that that story would have been interesting to hear. And, and how am I hearing that differently than my siblings who did not choose to be ministers? Are they sort of breaking from that… that as well? So I’m wondering, I guess two things. One, when we learn these things about our family stories that solidify our identity, is there some danger in that too, that it also may make us think we’re not living up to our family identity? Or…

Michelle Van Loon  13:13
Well, if right, and then a lot of that has to do with the kind of emotional in social patterns, no family. I share a story in the book about my maternal grandmother, she died a week after my mom was born. And my mom was adopted and raised by a second or third cousin, I’m still working on trying to figure out exactly what that connection was in history. You know, the internet is an amazing thing. And it lets us, you know, gives us access to be able to research things that two generations ago would have required letter writing and trips. Yeah, well anyway, that that grandmother lived in the pale of settlement. So that was where it includes Ukraine. It includes Belarus, and includes Poland… The borders shifted, but basically, it was a rural kind of ghetto, where a lot of Jewish people were forced to live and eke out an existence for many generations. And then at the time of the Russian Revolution, and all of the unrest in there. There were some civil war kinds of things happening in some regions as well. There was a huge migration of Jewish people to the United States. The movie Fiddler on the Roof captures that with in a much cleaned up and tidy and musically addictive kind of way, but my grandmother I came to the United States in about 1920. I never knew much about her. My mom didn’t find out. She was adopted till shortly before she got married. So it was, there was a lot of trauma involved in that. And that was part of why I always knew it was not kosher, to ask many to ask anything about her her history, it was just it was a painful and tender and traumatic subject for her. But I was very curious. And I learned that in Europe, my mom’s mother, my grandmother, her name was Molly was involved in Yiddish theater. This is an amazing thing, by itself, but I started out as a writer, not knowing any of this as a playwright, and a children’s story writer and curriculum writer. And I, when I learned this just a few years ago, I was amazed that there was this connection, that wasn’t necessarily rational. You know, and it wasn’t like Molly somehow handed that onto me, my mom wasn’t anything like that. But there was this, there was some sort of creative legacy. That is a part of my family story. And so that said, your story, you know, have you going one way your siblings going another way? Truly, it is, it’s a part of your story. It’s not the whole story. It’s not the whole reason for your call into ministry, I’ve met people who are handed a ministerial role, for example, like, now, here’s the church and father passes the church on to son. I’m not sure that’s actually how scripture presents it or how it should work. And it is, it doesn’t typically lead to healthy churches, two or three generations down the line. Sometimes it does, there’s exceptions, because God has no grandchildren, you know, every generation has to encounter and follow him for themselves. And scripture is pretty clear about that as well. There are things that get passed down in families, whether it is an interest in ministry, or whether it is blue eyes, and blonde hair, what those things get passed down. Trauma also carries from generation to generation in a lot of cases now that can make it sound like the script for your life has already been written. You know, if there’s been racial trauma, if there has been an upheaval of persecution, anybody who has been forced from their home into exile, all of those things can actually carry genetically not in the same way that the blue eyes and blonde hair does. But there is a thing, there’s a new field of study, relatively new field of study called epigenetics, that the word itself means above the gene. So trauma kind of carries on top of a gene are the effects of trauma carry on top of the gene, and can affect subsequent generations. There’s been a lot of interest in this and a lot of study about this in the time that actual DNA has been decoded, which is in my lifetime. That they started and finished that process in the span of about 20 years, and the other kinds of fields have studied populations, like indigenous Americans, Jewish people, black people, who’ve had generation sense of trauma. And the effect of that trauma can show itself in things like anxiety disorders or addiction or lower birth weights in in babies than in the general population. There’s all kinds of physiological effects for that trauma. But there is good news in that the effects can be mitigated and addressed. You know, if intervention is there, if good community is there, if some understanding is there about the way that trauma does touch areas of our lives beyond just obvious, for example, post traumatic stress syndrome kinds of things. So, lots of things carry beyond just our physiological stuff, whether it is a Heritage of Faith, or whether it is trauma from ongoing persecution. Those things go, that’s what we are bringing with us into our faith communities. Yeah,

Ben Wideman  21:22
Yeah. I I’m so glad that you talked about that hope beyond some of those generational traumas, because I think our our sacred books, I’m thinking about some verses in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, sometimes are interpreted to say, the sins of the past will sort of always be a burden for for future generations as if it’s just a curse we are meant to deal with for the rest of our lives.

Michelle Van Loon  21:51
Right. And that was I write about that in the book as well, because we do depending on where you are worshipping, you may hear a lot about generational curses, or you hear those verses read and it sounds like the script has been created in Sacramento. Yeah, there’s no hope. If, if your great grandfather was a bad, bad dude, then you have to kind of pay that off in your lifetime. Those verses are descriptive, not pre, I mean, they have a prescriptive element to them, but they are descriptive. If we are not addressing and paying attention to those patterns, we are going to be more inclined to repeat them or to react to them in ways that aren’t healthy. That is the truth. And the it’s not just in the church world, that that language is is used. It was interesting. I saw a discussion about generational curses taking place on a Food Network TV show.

Ben Wideman  23:12

Michelle Van Loon  23:13
Like, so it’s not just like, a Christian thing. Yeah, yeah, is it that kind of language has kind of made its way into lots of different places in popular culture, recognizing that the power of we see it in when we’re talking about addictions, for sure that the propensity for addiction, get definitely gets carried from generation to generation. But the awareness and the power of God in the end, a supportive community awareness can change the script, it’s meant to change the script, God wants us to be able to, to understand so that we can make other choices and and create a different legacy.

Ben Wideman  24:11
Wow, oh, I love that. But that, that really does feel hopeful in the midst of some really weighty, weighty subject matter. I’m wondering who, who you were thinking about as you wrote this book, who did you write this book for? The audience.

Michelle Van Loon  24:29
We’re not supposed to say as authors, this is meant for just about everybody. Like when we write books, we’re supposed to be able to identify kind of who a particular reader is. Now I understand from hanging around in genealogy websites and and all of the reading that I’ve done about trauma. Over the years, all of the research that I’ve done Over time, that my readers may tend to be those in the second half of their lives, because that’s who tends to start thinking about legacy and pulling together the past. I think that younger readers, which of which I have many, also would benefit from being able to realize that understanding the past is how your identity is formed, you know that we aren’t just people of faith, we aren’t just what we do for a job. We’re not just any of those things. But all of all of the past does inform us.

Ben Wideman  25:49
As you’ve taken on a task like this a really, you know, profound subject area where have you found little glimmers of hope we talked about that there is hope. But is there anything in this work that you’ve done that that has provided you with some hope for future generations?

Michelle Van Loon  26:04
It can take courage to face the hard stuff. The secrets in you know, not every family has some, but a lot more families do than don’t. The questions… and it can take courage to face them, rather than just put them on a shelf and ignore them takes it takes some work, sometimes some spiritual work, some emotional work, and sometimes the assistance of a counselor, or even a spiritual director, depending on where those questions land. But it is of such high value, I find that with every piece of a puzzle that I’m never going to be able to fully solve in my lifetime, none of us can. But every piece leads toward wholeness leads towards true Shalom as an individual, and I bring that into my community and bring that into ministry into my writing into service to others.

Ben Wideman  27:19
Well, friends, I hope you’re feeling just as inspired as I am by this conversation, I really encourage us all to pick up a copy of Michelle’s book Translating Your Past. Michelle, if people want to follow along with what you’re doing the work that you’re doing, are there spaces that you would direct them to?

Michelle Van Loon  27:35
You can start with my website, which is MichelleVanLoon.com. And there’s two L’s in Michelle. And Van Loon is like the car and like the bird.

Ben Wideman  27:46
So we’ll try and link that in our show notes here so that it’s there for folks. Thank you so much, again, for being here with us and for taking the time to be on in podcast.

Michelle Van Loon  27:57
Thanks for having me, Ben.

Ben Wideman  28:00
The month of May is recognized as Mental Health Awareness Month and over the next several weeks, we will be highlighting some voices that do work in that particular area. Next week on ~ing Podcast, we’re returning to a conversation with professor, author and minister, Reverend Dr. Christian Brady.

Christian Brady  28:20
We have to recognize everybody is going to grieve differently, and we have to give space and room for others who are grieving, especially when we are in the midst of it. It can feel like you’re forgetting or not honoring the deceased, if you are continuing to live. And that’s where then you can turn that grief becomes grace. Find ways to honor your beloved.

Ben Wideman  28:48
As always we’d like to thank our guests and all who support ~ing Podcast. Thank you for joining us on the journey. If you enjoyed the show, please leave us a review in your favorite podcasting app. And if you have something to share, send us a message at [email protected] or by leaving us a voicemail. ~ing Podcast is hosted by Reverend Allison Maus and Reverend Dr. Dennis Edwards. And produced by me, Ben Wideman. Views and opinions expressed on ~ing Podcast are those of our hosts and guests and may not represent that of Leader Magazine or MennoMedia. ~ing Podcast is a production of MennoMedia, a nonprofit publisher that creates thoughtful Anabaptist resources to enrich faith in a complex world. To find out more, visit us online at MennoMedia.org.