Ligeia, my ball python, is getting ready to shed. I know this for several reasons: it’s been a minute (as my students say) since her last shed, and when I photographed her recently, the lens caught her dulling scales in a way my naked eyes didn’t. Based on her feeding cycle, she ought to be prowling her tank restlessly in search of prey, but instead she’s spent days coiled in the same spot, partly concealed between layers of newspaper. When I peek in at her, she shrinks away. Her eyes have clouded over.
Snakes going into shed are delicate. They need time, humidity, minimal to no contact, and, eventually, rough places to help them scrape off the old skin. According to the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine, During this time the old layer of skin is fragile and tears easily, but the new skin underneath isn’t mature yet. To avoid damage and possible scarring, handling should be avoided and care should be taken to be gentle if handling becomes necessary. Opaque snakes normally become inactive and hide, are quite irritable, and refuse to eat.
Interacting with a snake in shed isn’t risky only for the snake. As Daniel Hill says on Ball-Pythons.net, The opaque eyes may cause the ball python to strike defensively at both you and the prey item. During this time, the ball python is visually impaired.
Based on those descriptions, my opaque snake and I have a lot in common right now. I’m irritable. I spend too much time hiding, and despite my best intentions, I often strike at anyone who gets too close. Let’s not even talk about my eating habits. And my blindness is no less real for being metaphorical: I cannot see my way forward, or through, or out of this place I’m in.
Last night I spent some quality time with Barbara Brown Taylor’s lovely and engaging Learning to Walk in the Dark (and my Amazon wish list grew exponentially because of all the fascinating books she references). Her chapter “The Dark Night of the Soul” was the best thing I could possibly have read this week. She describes this as a time when the soul [is] severely tested, often to the point of losing faith, by circumstances beyond all control. No one chooses the dark night; the dark night descends.
When it does, the reality that troubles the soul most is the apparent absence of God. If God is light, then God is gone. There is no soft glowing space of safety in this dark night. There is no comforting sound coming out of it, reassuring the soul that all will be well. Even if comforting friends come around to see how you are doing, they are about as much help as the friends who visited Job on his ash heap. There is an impenetrability to this darkness that isolates the soul inside it. For good or ill, no one can do your work for you while you are in this dark place. It has your name all over it, and the only way out is through. (p. 134-135)
That’s my week, and in many ways the past two years of my life, summarized in one paragraph. The communities I’ve found but then lost. The empty spaces so perfectly shaped like my deepest dreams and goals that they seem to have been designed with precise, barbed sadism. The people who have drifted away because they don’t know what to say or how to help. Others who have bailed because they want shiny, happy friends who don’t have problems or at least have the decency not to talk about their problems all the damn time, or whose problems are easily fixable with quick advice or a cup of tea and a good rom-com. The people who, like Job’s friends, approach under the guise of offering comfort but then, out of inadequacy or not knowing what to say or a secret wish to elevate themselves at your expense, make things worse.
(I was going to write that weaponized silence is even worse than saying the wrong thing, but that’s not always true. There is a woman at my gym who, in what I believe was a genuine attempt to express support last summer, said something so shockingly cruel and clueless and horribly timed that it took my breath with the force of a punch to the chest. Although I am striving to practice love and forgiveness, to this day I can’t look at her without feeling an echo of that fist to the heart. But treating someone as though they don’t exist is its own form of exquisite cruelty, as any middle-school girl can tell you.)
And God. Or the absence of God: chilly nothingness in the spaces where I had felt dazzling love just a few days earlier. Lack of any proof that the love was anything but a placebo or an illusion. Coming back from experiences of anguish and rapture to discover that nothing in my life has changed except me, and the box that’s always felt too small has now grown suffocatingly tight, but I can’t find the lid to climb out. And my eyes are so opaque that I can’t see what I’d be climbing toward anyway.
At least the dark night of the soul that Taylor so eloquently describes, in all its loss and silence and absence and abandonment and confusion, is not unique to me. I felt comforted that she wrote with such precision about everything I’m experiencing: others have walked this way before, and emerged on the other side as evidence that there is another side, that this journey is survivable.
But one of the razor-edged realities of my life right now is that just as I’m realizing how much I need people, my people seem to be vanishing. I am finding fewer and fewer chances for the meaningful interactions I crave. I don’t know why this is happening or what it signifies, although if I operate on the premise that there are no coincidences, it means something. I also don’t know whether I should actively seek new people or how best to do it: volunteer somewhere, do more work in coffee shops or cafes rather than on my sofa, screw my courage to the sticking place and visit a new church, look for another place to live, all of the above? I’ve thought God has been telling me to wait, that God has something big in the works. But maybe I’ve gotten my wires crossed. How am I supposed to know? All I know right now is that most of the attempts I’ve made to build connections with people have led to rejection, loss, and heartache.
Another hard — and related — realization is that, after preferring to explore my spirituality in solitude for most of my adult life, I now deeply long to be part of a faith community and to have a spiritual mentor who has taken these steps before me and can help show the way. And those are not easy to find. I needed — and, as best I could, repeatedly asked the pastor and elders at my former church, the presbytery, even the national office for — someone to walk with me through the process of confronting the unwelcome behavior, dealing with the old traumas that were excavated, and helping care for my spiritual health. Those requests were all ignored, although when anyone did bother to respond to e-mails, they invariably closed with “praying Christ’s peace for you,” which, to be perfectly frank, felt a lot like a genteel Southern Christian “fuck you.”
I’ve spent hours on the phone with my mom this week, because she’s the only person who forces themselves to tolerate me in the mood I’ve been in. Last night she kept repeating, “I don’t know what to say to help you. What do you need me to say?”
I didn’t know then, but now I’ve figured it out. I need someone who has been through all of this — loss, blindness, abandonment, grief, the dark night of the soul, despair, emptiness, absence, silence, loneliness — to tell me it’s worth walking through it to the other side. That all of this is finite and there is an other side. And that it’s not just more of the same life that’s always felt like a razor-tipped trap. That transformation and reinvention and metamorphosis are real, and that it’s not too late for me to experience them. That life on the other side might, finally, be good. Or at least good enough to be worth fighting to reach.
But only someone who has walked through has the right and the privilege and the knowledge to say those things truthfully. And while the outlines of the experience are common, perhaps even universal, and Taylor’s writing assures me that the dark nights end, at least for some people, I don’t know of anyone who has grappled with the specific combination of factors that are causing my despair and blindness and feelings of being hopelessly trapped. I don’t know anyone who has fought through these particular absences and disappointments and wounds. I don’t even know where to look for such a person.
Maybe, like Ligeia, what I need right now — even though it’s not at all what I want — is time with minimal human contact. Maybe I need to hunker down while my eyes grow more opaque and the world around me seems ever more confusing and hostile because I can’t see my way through it. Maybe I need to avoid interactions because the old skin is too fragile and the new skin too tender for any but the gentlest contact. And maybe the things that feel like knives today are the rough edges I’ll need when it comes time to catch the old husk on something sharp and separate myself from it. To slither out of it, to glide away and ahead, vision cleared and scales gleaming, toward something better.
I’ve been crawling on my belly/ Clearing out what could’ve been
I’ve been wallowing in my own chaotic/ Insecure delusions
I wanna feel the change consume me/ Feel the outside turning in
I wanna feel the metamorphosis and/ Cleansing I’ve endured in
Change is coming
Now is my time
–Tool, “Forty Six & 2”