The Fox and the Snake
Right now I'm tired. It's painful, both being tired and having to admit it. Tired for me often feels like fried-- like the thin skin I've so lovingly cultivated over the past few years stayed on the burner a while too long and feels a little too extra-crispy. And it's been hard to see the bigger picture, or really anything meaningful at all. Everything feels personal, and that sucks. Gratitude flops about in shallows like a stranded fish in that environment.
When I was a little girl, emotional, demanding, wanting to know why why why don't you understand me, my mother used to say: "You've got too thin a skin. You need to get a thicker skin." This used to bug the shit out of me. As if I knew how to do that. I loved my emotions. I loved the fluidity of feeling, of being able to tap into creativity, to cut up a shirt and make it a dress. To dye the ends of my hair black and the roots red.
My mother was creative, too-- she loved to make cinnamon candy, the hard red sugary slivers coated in powdered sugar. Or wooden-handled Bermuda bags with the button-on covers in kelly green, blue whales, or pink alligators. It was the early 80's.
She also liked to finish a bottle of scotch and a few packs of Benson and Hedges Menthols, the hot-glowing tip burning all the way down as a snake of ash curled its way onto the countertop. I'd come down around 11 or 12 or 1 and tap her on the arm, saying, "Mom, go to bed."
I was so afraid she'd burn our house down, or fall down the stairs. My dad, snoring, meanwhile, unaware in the upstairs bedroom.
Being emotional and creative didn't serve me well. It was better, I learned, to take care of business: get good grades, be a good girl, look good. I grew that thicker skin, layered on personalities for every occasion, took on whatever hobbies were en vogue, chased unstable boyfriends, adopted radical (but lazy, somehow) politics, eschewed any spirituality or concept that I was not the end-all be-all. If I could manage it, that was enough. Every time a crisis happened, I was on top of it. Tough. But with a smile always. Never let 'em see you sweat (or frown).
It never occurred to me that I could be both; in our household I had a lot of free time I could watch The Love Boat or Three's Company after school, make chocolate chip pancakes, draw into my own world. That was enough. I got lazy-- or, I got used to getting away with being lazy, because managing the anxiety I had about my parents was exhausting. Managing everything was exhausting. And it was probably not easy for her: she wanted a partner, a grateful child, a loving, close-knit family, an unconditionally loving (really loving) set of parents; alas, it was not to be. She numbed, understandably.
My mom left when I was 16 and nine years later, died from her inability to feel her own emotions, and the addiction that accompanied that inability. She was 50 years old and exhausted too. And I, scrambling to be the in-charge one, buried her, settled her affairs, not feeling, not wanting to miss her.
At some point, I looked into the future, saw myself, doused in red wine, exhausted, perpetually numbed-out, sick, leather-skinned. That scared me. That emotion, I felt.
I surrendered that day, and every day since then I feel like I've shed another layer. A process of subtraction. It sometimes feels like there's very little of "me" left.
Somebody said recently that snakes are blind for a while after they shed a layer of skin-- and that the process of shedding takes a lot out of them, so they are tired, blind, and vulnerable for a while. I've thought for a while I'd like my spirit animal, if I believed in such things, to be a fox: smart, introverted, able, cute. But I'm coming to appreciate snakes.
Dana Walters is an animal-loving, thin-skinned wife, doggie mom, non-profiteer and yoga teacher in Richmond, Virginia. Things change too quickly these days to write a good bio, so the above will have to suffice.