I am standing at the kitchen counter making breakfast for my lizards when I have the impulse to turn around and there in the doorway, inches from the door saddle, is a praying mantis, watching me. I put down the knife I am using to to cut greens and go to the mantis and kneel to say hello, but gently, in case my voice or moving mouth frightens him. I put out my hand and he climbs into my palm. (Mantes sometimes move away from me when I’m in a hurry or haven’t calmed myself enough.)
Tiny black dots in his compound eyes —pseudopupils— follow my pupils. We are looking at each other and feeling curiosity, I think, and hopefully the connectedness is mutual. As always happens when I open to another creature –bug, bird, toad, lizard, turtle, snake…– my eyes fill and my throat tightens with such built-up love it nearly hurts. (It can happen with people, too, but I’m always ashamed of feeling way too emotional. Tears only make others uncomfortable, and make me feel like a child who can’t control herself.)
The mantis doesn’t mind my weepy eyes. I feel accepted by non-human creatures.
I carry the mantis to the small garden out in front of the barn, a mix of herbs, weeds, and collard plants for the lizards. I encourage him to climb onto the broad, horizontal leaf of a volunteer squash plant, next to one of its open yellow blossoms attracting bugs. Perhaps he will catch a meal.
After settling the mantis on the leaf I start picking cabbage moth caterpillars off the collard plants. I still feel the mantis’ companionship in the garden and also that of a male spider, pedipalps swollen, who is clinging to the leg of a stool nearby. Even though we use tons of organic compost to nourish the collards about 30% of them have been eaten by the fat little green cabbage moth caterpillars. I pick them gently, placing each one in a collard leaf cupped in my left hand, and when I’ve gone over all the plants I take the caterpillars into the barn to Luna, who eats them up, plus the collard leaf.
A friend took me to a rattlesnake den where I saw my first timber rattler in the wild. He was coiled, his scales a mosaic of brown ones against ochre yellow, his body and head absolutely sculptural and his eyes were gold with vertical pupils.
I saw at least twenty rattlers that day, because it was a sunny afternoon in May and the snakes had come out of hibernation, but were still near their den, resting in coils, basking around the rocks.
Among the snakes I was exhilarated, and also at peace. I felt connected to them and to their ancestral grounds that resonated with their energy. I wanted to write it down so everyone could know about these miraculous beings and what it was like to be with them.
Other things happened that day, wonderful things I wanted to write about, but that could not be published. I wrote a personal essay about rattlesnakes, but not my visit to their den. Here is the link to my personal essay:
On St. Mark’s Place the rent was three hundred dollars a month. The apartment was on the first floor way at the back, like going back in time, and it faced a void between buildings and steel gates went across two tall windows, muddling the view, but letting in bright sunshine.
I put my futon on the floor of what might normally be a living room. If one had furniture, there might be a rug, a small couch, stuffed chairs, a lamp, maybe a coffee table and in the adjoining area, a desk and book shelves, and in the wide closet that led to the kitchen, one might hang clothes, and I did put mine there, but it wasn’t much, plus I needed the space for Mr. Boa. He coiled himself in the back and I hung a clamp light from the clothing rod with a red heat bulb.
It was my first apartment that I could set up the way I liked: Full of lizards.
When I think of St. Mark’s I see the sunshine pouring into that little room where I put Spot’s branch –the tree limb—and he is basking at the top under his Vitalite, watching over his territory.
With swollen jowls and dewlap pushed out Spot shakes and bobs his head, talking to the new young females Pooky and Snooky. Spot has never seen females of his own kind, and he watches them with wide-open eyes, awakening to the new, exciting things coming alive inside him.
The plumber stood in the middle bay of our barn, talking to my husband. Upstairs, Ava climbed down her ladder and started walking, kathump-kathump-kathump, down the hall and the plumber stopped talking and looked up. “I sure hope that’s a dog,” he said.
Ava climbs down from her sleeping box and walks her dinosaur walk, tail swishing side-to-side, from the north end of the barn to the southeast-facing deck. She crosses the door jam, claws clicking on metal, and she comes to rest on the sun-warmed oak boards. I spread a towel and sit down beside her. She tilts her head and peers into my eyes and my throat aches with love.
Ava senses the emotional shift and boosts herself like a cat, nose and tail raised, eyes shut, while I run my hand down her dry-silky flank and spikey dorsal crest. I put my cheek against hers and breathe in her sea mineral scent and I tell her what pretty nose horns she has.
When I lie down she climbs onto my stomach, scaly feet and claws not quite breaking my skin. She rests her chin on my chest, her belly on mine, and her tail drapes over my leg. She tucks an arm back at her side the way iguanas do when they are content, like it is the most natural thing for her to have a human basking buddy.
My aunt gave me VOYAGE OF THE TURTLE, by Carl Safina. One of the blurbs said: “Carl Safina is a rare breed of writer who doesn’t just do research to get the story, but enters the story and lives it [awesome so far!]… The result is a fascinating narrative that will appeal to a reading public beyond mere turtle huggers.”
mere turtle huggers
Why not just say the book will appeal to a wide audience; to readers unfamiliar with turtles?
I am a turtle and lizard and snake and tree and people hugger. Why do we shove animals and nature aside? “People first,” we say.
The clock is ticking on wildlife and biodiversity. I wonder how we will continue the everlasting fight for human rights, justice, peace, and ending world hunger on a planet that’s devoid of wildlife.
Sebastian’s grandfather Mao and Me at Finca Cyclura, 1993
This is how it’s been lately.
I picked up cellulitis in my left foot. Don’t wear sandals to the airport. Mom urges me to the ER, for which I’m grateful. All those antibiotics and shots in the butt. Years of restoring gut flora with probiotics and fermented foods gone.
A forced time-out.
One good thing, I got my memoir draft in on time for a workshop. And I’m not in the hospital, I get to keep my foot, and all five toes. My digestion is simply over, though. The “gut-brain connection.” I’m proof that gut flora imbalance causes terrible mood swings.
I’m doing Dr. Schechter’s books, THINK AWAY YOUR PAIN and THE MINDBODY WORKBOOK. It started with Dr. John Sarno. I recommend it!
This work has helped me more than any special diet or exercise! More than herbs, acupuncture, a vegan diet, a raw foods diet, juice fasting, yoga, Pilates, biking, weight training, homeopathy, deep breathing. Writing down responses to questions about emotions and physical symptoms. Connecting to the subconscious mind which regulates autonomic responses. Seeing how subconscious rage and anxiety shut off blood flow in my gut.
My own most valuable therapy is Lizard time, when I let myself have it. My lizards keep telling me to slow down. “Be with us,” they say.
My writing trudges, isn’t snappy. I blame the antibiotics today. I am struggling to let go, struggling to not struggle. Struggling for self-acceptance. I remember when Norma sent me this poem:
I have been kind of depressed on and off for a little while. It has to do with my work, my writing, not feeling connected to a writing community. Feeling under-utilized, ineffective.
Last Friday I biked to my prayer place on River Road. I straddled my bike and looked across the river and asked, Why did I have to do everything kicking-and-screaming? Everything. Becoming a woman. Getting a job. Writing.
I saw how I had to open a new file and start the memoir again.
These past few years I kept thinking I was on-track, I show up at my desk every single morning. Still, I get in my own way. Perhaps I’ve lost another year doing this. I know it’s learning, and you can’t just pole-vault over the crappy first drafts. Still. I am so frustrated with myself for being afraid. I am terrified to make a big leap; I don’t actually know how. I push myself, but I haven’t thrown myself off the cliff.
My wise friend and brilliant reader said, “Maybe when it’s all down you will feel the freedom to go back in and tell the real story, in that [adult] voice, instead of the chronicle.”
I keep thinking well, that’s what I’m doing, telling the story! My friend said my writing was “SO solid.” Why isn’t it working, though? I strongly suspect it is because I haven’t identified the core of the issue.
A few weeks ago my horoscope said something about taking my rightful place. That went right in. You can interpret a horoscope any way you like. I took it to mean it was high-time I took my rightful place as LIZARD GIRL, which is what my memoir is really about.
This photo was taken in Michigan and the suntan is hiding the acne, which is actually improving, plus I’ve trimmed down. I am maybe seventeen. I’m pretty when I’m holding reptiles, even though I’m being a ham. Take away the reptiles and I start to look lost and afraid.
I just read this on my daily horoscope –I’m an Aquarius:
“The original version of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ by Bill Withers did not chart on the UK Singles Chart until 2009, 38 years after its release. After certain disappointments you feel like no amount of time will resolve issues you have with your self-expression. Unfortunately, you might be right.
Still, there might be a possibility you were just set in the wrong crowd, and that you have given your heart and your creativity into all the wrong hands, bumping into everything but understanding on your way.”
OMG. It was one year ago that I went to Vermont College for the post-grad workshop and Martine Leavitt read my work. I remember whining to Martine, “Nobody understands lizards, nobody understands me.” She said, yes, that’s the story.
So I’m working on this bit:
When Grandpa looked at me that summer his blue eyes and worried face reflected pitiful back to me and I knew how sad and disturbed he felt about what was happening to his sweet, pretty granddaughter –because that’s what I was once, sweet and pretty and it made me want to die, the way I’d become so disgusting and how I wore that feeling about myself all over my face along with the zits.
Grandma’s expression was concerned and practical. She said, “I know it feels bad and it looks bad, too, but don’t pick, or it’ll get worse. Go lie in the sun.”
So I did, in my bikini with Weener. It had to be a bikini since my torso was so long that every one-piece I tried hiked up my butt, plus I had to have a top that tied around my neck and fastened securely around my ribs.
Grandma fixed lunch while Grandpa sat inside the screened porch with his feet up, drinking his midday martini. Weener and I basked in the sun, stretched out on the cement ledge that went around the pool and when we needed to cool down we slipped into the water like a couple of crocodiles and climbed out on the other side to heat up again.
When Grandpa looked at Weener, he didn’t see her. I tried to hide behind my lizard as though it wasn’t really happening. I’d dive down deep in the pool and transform into a lizard.
I reasoned that I must be part reptile since I was too hot in summer and too cold in winter. It’s so nuts how I tried to deny those immense mammalian things sprouting from my body right there practically under my nose.
In my memory I’ve conflated all the times adults asked how I was doing in school and then, “Still have those –what do you call them– iguanas?” I’d say, “Fine,” and “Yes.” There’d be a chuckle and shaking of the head. One time Grandma said, “Oh, she’ll trade the lizards in for boys soon enough.”
But I was quite clear, sitting very still and sober and solid when Grandma said this. Usually when an adult made a forecast about me, my stomach twisted in knots, believing it would happen because they said so. There wasn’t anything else I was ever sure of except that I would never “trade in” my lizards for anything, or anyone.
Eve told me to sit and be with Spot (that’s Goober behind us). We were talking and I was barely aware of being photographed, so she caught me smiling. My lips are pulled back too much, since I’m laughing and wrinkling my nose at the same time Spot flicks out his tongue. Otherwise, it’s a good smile.
I love this photo, maybe the last one where I’m smiling and it’s pretty. The photo just below of me at twelve is so self-conscious and sad. You can see that puberty is hitting me and I’m breaking out.
Since puberty, the minute the camera comes out, I stiffen. And when I write characters who are older than ten, I stiffen. I don’t mean to.
A lot of people freeze when the camera comes out. We’re all self-conscious to some degree. I think most of us love-hate having our picture taken. (There’s the tiny hope that maybe this time, the photo will reveal a beautiful me.) We say, “Oh, I look awful!” and our friends tell us, “You do not, you look great.”
I haven’t had a clue what hiding means, or how it affects my writing. I struggle to show myself, but I can show lizards. Martine read some of my pre-memoir stuff, and she said, “I don’t even like lizards, but you made me love them in these parts.”
Imagine if I could achieve this when I write about human characters.
When I face a camera, or write about a me who is more than ten years old, I retract like a rattlesnake coiling into her den, or a lizard trying to camouflage herself in the trees. Hiding the me who is anxious, afraid of looking ridiculous and awkward and slow and ugly and too female.
Any book on craft will tell you that Reader wants to see character vulnerability. Have I really been that scared? Why am I always the last person to know what I’m up to. The voice in my head says, “Get over yourself!”
I like my “author photo” well enough. No awkward smile; my chin isn’t too clunky. And Sebastian is there to help me.
But I’ve been told, “You’re not smiling. Readers might think you’re not friendly.”
I love this thing Clarissa Pinkola Estes says in her “Wild Woman Archetype” recording: “I’m really friendly. But I’m not quite tame.”
I live with lizards. I’ve lived with snakes, too. Boa constrictors, ball, reticulated and Burmese pythons, anacondas, pine snakes, rat snakes, and more. The only reason I don’t have snakes now is that I can’t give them the care and attention they deserve. My lizards are demanding!
Here is an excerpt about meeting a snake from LIZARD LOVE.
“I didn’t know where I could go and be okay. I walked, not caring which way I went, watching the lines of my swimsuit blur into the grass until I saw that I had come down the path where the brambles used to be.
“I stopped and held a tear between my eyelashes. It was like peering through a tiny prism. For a second I was back in the tunnel of green light, the way it used to be before Bob Ellis cut away the brambles. I squeezed out the tear and saw the snake, right there at the edge of the path.
“His neck was curved, because he had seen me and was being careful about coming out of the tall weeds. He held his head up, watching me, but I could tell that he wasn’t afraid. I knelt close to him and he didn’t run away. His red and black tongue flicked in and out. His eye moved, a black pupil inside a gold ring. He let me reach underneath his chin and touch his glossy throat. I pulled my hand away slowly and kept still and watched his sides move in and out with each breath.
“Soon he came out of the weeds. His brown-and-cream- striped ribbon body made S shapes across the path. He didn’t hurry. I wondered where he was going and what he wanted. He flicked his tongue in and out as he went, checking what was in front of him, and then he entered the weeds on the other side of the path. I watched him go, watched the dark tip of his tail slip away, and I caught my breath.”
Times when I’m upset and go for a walk, I see a snake. Either I am open to it, or he lets me see him, maybe both. It’s just the snake and me, breathing, being, and it’s as though our heartbeats and breath are at the same time. I forget why I was upset. He reminds me about what matters –that we are alive, sharing this moment.
On November 5th 2016 a RARR member shared a photo on Facebook: “They aren’t rattlesnakes, but it’s just as bad…”
The photo shows dead snakes that have been dumped in a heap on the ground, like garbage. There are perhaps a hundred dead snakes, maybe more, different species and sizes; adults, and juveniles. There isn’t much blood; the snakes were mostly beaten to death.
The caption says, “Describe this picture in one word…GO!” The edge of a red cooler is seen in the photo, suggesting recreation, as though to emphasize the tone of the challenge to “Describe” the picture in the spirit of fun.
I can describe the picture in one word: Hate.
Why? (This is not an isolated incident.) Whether it’s biblical fear of serpents, belief in entitlement to dominion, bullies who feel compelled to hurt animals, the complete absence of empathy and compassion is chilling. Each of the dead snakes had a life he or she was living, each had a right to exist and thrive.
If a person doesn’t like snakes, it’s totally fine to leave them alone. When I say this, I’m confronted with stories of being chased by cottonmouths, and if we don’t kill snakes, they will kill us.
In his article Blocked-flight Aggressive Behavior in Snakes herpetologist D. Bruce Means tells of an Eastern Cottonmouth who “rose up like a cobra and menacingly crawled toward me…When I stepped sideways…the snake maintained its original direction and did not turn to follow (or ‘chase’) me. Its ‘aggressive’ behavior obviously was a bluff to assist the snake in making its getaway into the safety of the swamp…”
Means repeated the study with different snake species, including rattlesnakes, and observed this behavior consistently.
You can also watch a video of Orry Martin setting the record straight about cottonmouth snakes.
“Snakes are more like us than people realize. They learn. They care for their kids. They care for their neighbors’ kids. …they have families and friends… They have homes with favorite places to get food, meet friends and mates, rest, and shelter from predators and inclement weather…
“…I hope that by helping people see that snakes share many behaviors with us, behaviors we value, people will choose to treat them better, and cruelty like wanton persecution of snakes and rattlesnake roundups will no longer be socially acceptable.”
THE SNAKE by P.H.W. Bachmann, 1949
Gem-bright and patterned coils you weave,
A living stream of reasoned flesh and bone
Through the familiar grass, and then you leave
Ancestral markings on the sand, beside some stone:
More delicate than spider webs, or tiger’s bristles,
Your tongue’s twin tips flick earthward—smell and taste
What there is need to, amid twigs and thistles—
Something to feed upon, or love, or flee in haste.