I was treading oh so carefully through the mid-summer dry weed when I saw it. For a few seconds my heart pumped a little faster. Then I realised that the snake had gone, probably months ago, leaving behind a skin that said “I was here”.
The ‘here’ was Tarella, the place where my mother was born, where my grandfather died and my feisty grandmother continued to plant wheat and run sheep before reluctantly handing it over to one of her sons and moving into town. The old house, like the snake, is gone now, the dug-out cellar gradually filling with sandy soil and the old feed shed, festooned with the wire stretchers of long ago rabbit skins, creaks in the mid afternoon heat.
My eyes and my camera registered the length of the departed snake and an appreciation of its fragile beauty, then I turned away. Months later in a rush of discontent and angst I recalled that hot afternoon in the Mallee, the snake skin caught in the yellowed grass. I was caught in one of those moments when it would have felt so good, so therapeutic, to slip out of my present unwanted self, to peel it off like a dirty sock at the end of a tiring day.
It passed, just as it had all the other times when I ached to leave my current skin behind – the one marked mum or that really tight one when money was scarce and it felt as though my very skin was imprinted with dollar signs. Ordinary things can be such a drag and we long to be free of them. I look at my aging skin, at its lines and wrinkles, the blemishes that I try to hide with make-up and other aids and I remember that at my age I am invisible. But it doesn’t stop me from wondering what it would be like to slip out of my saggy, baggy skin and find it replaced with the unappreciated smoothness of young adulthood.
Most of us surround ourselves with a skin of possessions, both precious and every-day. Whether it’s a well-stocked pantry, your grandmother’s tea set, every Mother’s Day card your kids ever made or a dress you can’t bring yourself to discard, there is a comfortable sense of belonging and memory webbed through such familiar and everyday things. They make up the ordinary of our lives and say something about who we are. Which is why I find myself imagining the heart break of people who lose their homes in flood or fire as they see the remains of a precious past swept up and shovelled on to the kerb. Seen as landfill, rubbish. That is such a brutal skin shedding.
Our pasts are littered with the slipped skin of other times and places. As a mid–teen along with my first pair of high heels and what I considered a very fetching hat, I left my parents and young brothers without a backward glance, so focused was I to try on the very adult skin of religious life. Sixteen years later I left it behind, its skin fragile and badly damaged, but eying my new outer covering and wondering about its possibilities. Then, not many years later, I had to adjust to a yet another new way of living when my baby daughter slipped into eternity taking a layer of me with her.
As the years have brought other bereavements and changes it seems that my outer skin thins and slips more easily, somehow starting to catch up with the inner woman. Each skin shedding in its own way has been an invitation to move closer to the real person within. I have faith that as each layer of the self I mistakenly assume is the real me is peeled away, as I am more prepared to recognise and live with my vulnerability and brokenness, I am coming closer to the centre of who I really am, the woman made in God’s image, whom God knows by name. Judith Scully