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shedding the skin of outgrown belief
(one of many reasons I love snakes)
Once, on a slow and lazy walk, I almost stepped right onto a snake skin lying in the middle of the road. Now I don’t have a particular fear of snakes, not like my late grandma Irene who used to faint at the sight of one. (Actually, family lore maintains that she would faint at the sight of even a plastic snake, though I was too sensitive a child to ever test the theory out.)
In a dramatic departure from maternal precedent, I encourage my children to welcome summer's onslaught of backyard garters. Look, I coax them near, see how we've made a safe home for all creation! I watch their small spines relax as unrest leaves, watch them stop shifting weight foot to foot and stand still, in awe.
But even a would-be Franciscan has to admit there is something chilling about coming across a vacated snake skin; something familiar in the emptiness beheld. Snakes have too heavy a mythological significance for it to be otherwise.
I’ve read that all animals shed their skin—including humans, who experience it in ongoing and microscopic degrees. But ecdysis, the shedding of a reptile’s skin, happens dramatically in one fell swoop. While human skin grows with a person, a snake’s skin does not. It will stretch, but just so far. Not only does it become too small for comfort, but parasites latch onto the scales. For the health and continued existence of the creature the skin must be removed, and the snake knows it.
To accomplish the grim task, the snake will glide into a body of water to loosen the old skin. Under, under, into the dark: a baptism unto new life, unto second chances, the snake arises to rub its head against a hard edge and kick starts the molting process. Eventually, the escape is made; the parasites left behind.
By the time you sidestep the evidence while crossing the street, the skin will be inside out; a discarded sock long forgotten, and still in one piece. The snake itself could be miles away, ready for life once more; unencumbered by that which it has outgrown.
No one does metaphor better than Mother Nature herself.
I, for one, know the itching of a skin stretched too thin—skin that served me well for years and years before suddenly, it didn't. I know the anxiety of willing myself not to molt, not to shed the protective layer of belief that once preserved me. It's not safe to let go of this, I've thought. This is the only right place to be. It's happened before and is happening now and will one day happen again. But I'm beginning to accept that the loss of light is grace and it is only the dark of the waters that will usher me into the emergence of a new, better-fitting self. I talk to my Creator and remember only one of us is afraid of the dark.
On my better days, I realize my understanding of the divine is a skin to be outgrown — that it's meant to be. How contrary to nature if I were never to stretch too wide for the old and require the new. And the new will form; I can trust the process. A new container to put the enormity of God in, until eventually I slither out of this one and a fresh one forms in its place. A treasure in earthen vessels, the Good Book says, but the mysteries of God are a strain on my pottery.
The grief of such shedding is required if I am to follow a God so elusive, a God who cannot be grasped. It has been neither a thing I have sought nor a thing I've been able to avoid, but rather a thing I've learned to bow to when I can tell resistance is futile. Eventually, the parasites and the overgrowth win out. Eventually I grow so uncomfortable that I am willed to find myself under, under, into the deep: a plunge of uncertainty but for the lingering presence of spirit and clay.
I am over my head, under the water, but clinging to the hope that I will emerge with another chance at a spirituality that fits, awed and made new.
This essay was first published on Ruminate magazine’s website in 2019.
Are you somewhere in the ballpark of midlife and interested in conversations about what faith looks like at this point? Join me and my fellow author Julia Rocchi (Amen? Questions for a God I hope exists) this Tuesday for a free, casual discussion over Zoom. We’ll be chatting from 12-1pm CT and you can register here.
Thanks to Lake Drive Books for having me!
For absolutely no reason other than it happens to fit the theme of the essay, please enjoy this random video of me with the longest snake skin I’ve ever personally found. (From a bull snake, this past June. I’m pretty sure she lives under the house, and once I found her in my bag of potting soil. But don’t worry, they’re harmless!)
Sending love your way,
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