Cleaning the garage is never my favorite task, which is why it only happens every few years. But Susan’s better sense prevailed over my recalcitrance last Saturday. So much dust was flying we should have been wearing our coronavirus masks, but eventually things began to take shape, and my Prius was packed to the gills for a trip to the dump – excuse me – the Wake County Hazardous Waste Management Facility.
There were dead batteries and paint to deal with, plus a couple of plastic jugs with no labels full of something I could no longer identify. You can’t just dump that kind of stuff as easily as moldy drop cloths and cassette tapes of my old sermons I’ll never listen to.
The highlight of the day came when I moved a stack of folding chairs to find a three-or four-foot long snakeskin leading under the bottom shelf of my workbench. We had a good laugh about it. Susan isn’t squeamish: We were sure it was from a common black snake or rat snake, which could explain why we hadn’t seen any signs of mice lately.
I stretched the skin out on my old golf bag for a photo before giving the clubs to a young man across the street. I figured 10 years without playing a single round meant they’d taken up space long enough.
When I got back from the dump, Susan had found the back half of the snakeskin – another three feet or so, including the tip of the tail. She gave it to our 8-year-old neighbor, who thought it was cool.
For most of my life, I’ve thought of snakes as pretty cool too. When I was 4 years old, not long after we had moved out of my grandmother’s house and into a little home of our own, my father built an outdoor grill out of brick. We were getting ready to build a fire and cook hamburgers when he sent me to bring a handful of wood chips from behind the stump of a tree he had recently felled.
How was I to know that a ground rattler (otherwise known as a pygmy rattlesnake) had already staked out the shade of the stump as his own territory? I ended up in the hospital for a few days with a giant right elbow.
It hurt, but I felt special: Nobody else I knew could brag of a snakebite.
As I got older, I ravenously read on serpentine subjects. I watched Ross Allen milk huge rattlesnakes on The Ed Sullivan Show. I learned being bitten (and surviving) conveys at least a limited immunity, so I never feared a snake again.
I probably believed that a bit too much.
In Sunday School, I learned about a serpent that could talk, and who was responsible for Adam and Eve being banned from the Tree of Life, and for all of its descendants losing their legs.
I probably believed that a bit too much too.
It reminds me of the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, a mythical Mesopotamian king who was supposedly two-thirds god and one-third man (his mother was a god). After his close friend Enkidu died, Gilgamesh sat long by his body and realized he was destined to die too.
Fearing death, Gilgamesh began a quest to discover the key to eternal life. Along the way, he ignored the good advice of Siduri, a woman who served him beer and told him he should go home and learn to enjoy life while he had it (Qoheleth’s advice in Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 is very similar).
Ultimately, Gilgamesh met Utnapishtim, a Babylonian version of Noah. After building an ark, surviving a flood and feeding the gods through the smoke of sacrifices, Utnapishtim had been granted eternal life. He advised Gilgamesh he also could find lasting life by obtaining a special plant from the bottom of the sea and then eating it.
Gilgamesh heroically dove into the sea, found the plant and started home. His plan was to feed some to an old person before he tried it himself (the first clinical trial?). Along the way, however, he set everything down to freshen up in a forest pool, only to look up and discover that a large snake had eaten his life-giving plant.
As the snake slithered away, it shed its old and crusty skin, emerging with the glistening appearance of new life.
We may sometimes wish we could shed our skin and grow younger or change into different people.
Actually, we do shed our skin, and more often than snakes. According to WebMD, humans constantly produce new skin cells, regenerating their skin every 27 days. That’s a lot of dead skin.
Because the exfoliation (short of a salt scrub) happens gradually, we don’t notice that old skin cells are rubbing off on our clothes or being washed down the shower drain, giving way to a shiny new epidermis.
Some of us can look to life-changing experiences as metaphorical skin-shedding events, but more often our opportunities for growth come more gradually.
Whatever the timeline, and whether we’re talking about physical skin or mental and emotional development, we have to give up the old to move on to the new.
Change leading to progress as individuals or as a society can be as scary as a snakebite, but that’s the way we grow.