Abiding Snakes

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“Oh, I like your ring,” the customer said as I reached for the books she had set on the counter to purchase.

“Thank you, ” I said, holding out my hand so she could see it more closely. The band was very simply designed, understated–a sterling silver coiled form of a snake with tiny faux gemstones atop it’s head. It surprised me she even noticed it.

“It’s a snake,” I said and the customer immediately recoiled. “I thought it was a leaf,” she snapped, shocked and agitated. “I cannot abide snakes!”

Cannot abide snakes?

Of course I didn’t have to inquire further as to my customer’s meaning, nor should I have, given the shift in her demeanor and attitude. It seemed clear her mind was ensnared by the story of Eden, Eve and the Serpent. I did say, as I casually scanned and bagged her items, “Well, I chose this ring because in many cultures it symbolized transformation, resurrection and union. That’s where my focus was.”

She didn’t respond, nor did I expect her to. In my former incarnation as a retail bookseller I experienced such attitudes often enough that it didn’t surprise me much. And to be fair, even at that point in my life, it did take some effort, this abiding of snakes. I was raised on the same stories as my customer, after all. Her inclinations, from a cultural standpoint, were much more understandable than my own.

So what does it mean to abide snakes anyway? To tolerate the intolerable? To invert the story and ignore the judgment of God? I know plenty of people who, when they see a harmless garter snake on the trail or highway will go out of the way to kill it. And in the aftermath of such senseless murder they feel no guilt at all, but rather gleeful.

And you will bruise his head and he will strike at your heel.

There is a lingering tug of war for me between the old version of this tale and the new. As a child about eight years old, wandering through the woods with my father, I once saw a black snake and screamed! Dad turned around, saw the snake and immediately crushed its skull with a shovel. I stopped screaming as he carried the dead moccasin to a patch of earth off to the side of the makeshift path we were on.

Poor snake? Even then I believe I felt that mixture of confusion that accompanies senseless killing. By senseless I don’t necessarily mean without purpose–I mean without consciousness and without full access to an inner, grounded sense. So many of the things we do, say, believe, even feel, are cultural downloads. My father saw the snake as a threat for reasons both immediate and hidden, I believe now. I clearly saw the snake as a threat though I don’t recall ever seeing a snake before, except maybe on television. I did, of course, know all about the story of the fall of Eve, and that the snake played a significant role! So, yes, I was afraid of snakes. They were bad. They were evil.

And yet as I type these words, some part of me lingers in the woods that morning, crying over the death of innocence lost. Even then I remember staring at the long, crushed moccasin for a long while, thinking, it doesn’t seem so bad.

Now I no longer feel threatened by snakes and in fact find them rather intriguing, even charming. At the same time, snake’s metamorphosis–in the shedding of its skin– does not, cannot ignore our complicated past. Snakes are cunning and wary. Even so, some are slightly companionable and harmless. I’ve literally stumbled over a few in recent years, and once saved one from being a crow’s dinner (which, unfortunately, didn’t improve my standing with the Corvids….) But others are justifiably deadly. So abiding snakes does not ignore the need for discernment.

But does it really take such a great confrontation with the story of original sin to believe in the goodness and value of snake? For my customer that day (at least at that time) this is not even a consideration.

I don’t know any magic tricks to turn snakes into leaves or to turn the fall of Eden into a fellowship of travelers on an adventure. But I cannot help wondering: if a snake can appear as a leaf from a distance, and be no threat–and actually appear somewhat lovely, even beautiful…then maybe Eden isn’t as far away as it sometimes appears from this cruel, deceptive distance?

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