Growing up, I caught snakes in my backyard with kitchen tongs and fearless ignorance. All sorts of snakes, mostly random garden snakes — usually black racers.
My sisters and I would keep them a day or two in a laundry hamper on the screened porch, “tag” them (writing their names on their cold-blooded bodies in hot pink nail polish), and then release them back to the wild. We probably did irreparable damage — to their scales and psyche. I meant no harm. I thought I was Jack Hanna.
Once I came face to face with a cottonmouth. I was close enough to see the whites of his tonsils. To feel my heartbeat in my own set of tonsils. It was terrifying. And exhilerating. I was a fool, but also fairly fearless. And definitely naive.
And then there were the all the spiders. The black widows beneath the crawl space — red hourglass floating in the wide expanse of black belly, hypnotic with danger and beauty. The secretary spider in the window of the garden shed, weaving her Charlotte-style salutations and leaving me wide-eyed with wonder and respect. The wolf spiders in the pine straw, crab spiders in the peonies, tiny jumping spiders on the sidewalk.
Some creepy-crawlies were venomous. Others not. All were fascinating.
I’ll never forget a rat snake we found out in the gulley behind our backyard. I used Childcraft’s Magic of Words to name her Theodora Dean, meaning “Gift of God from the Valley.” I thought I was brilliant.
And I’m pretty sure that is the point in my life where my snake-infested early childhood and my love affair with words collided.
Besides that name dictionary inside the pages of that Childcraft yearbook, there was an abbreviated version of Beowulf — featuring a child-friendly translation of the battle with Grendel.
Grendel was a hideous creature who slithered and slunk. And killed. Beowulf was a long-haired hero who battled monsters with bare-hands. And won.
Which is kind of what I’m attempting to do with my writing. I’m crawling into the darkness and slime of my past — doing battle with all those snakes and spiders — some harmless, some deadly.
And like Beowulf, I plan on winning. With bare-handed skills.
Unlike Beowulf, I’m not trying to kill my past. I’m just trying to expose it and diminish its danger. Because it was definitely dangerous.
Good thing I was fairly fearless.
I didn’t know at the time how dangerous those slippery-tongued serpents and flame-bellied spiders out to seize my soul from the hotel podium could be.
Or maybe I did.
Even today, rereading some of my journal entries, I can feel the fear of my sixteen-year-old self. I knew what those bearded elders were spewing and spinning wasn’t Christ’s love; it was paranoia and hate. It was exclusion and isolation. It was slick and poisonous and contagious as hell. Friends around me were dropping like flies.
But even back then, at the tender age of sixteen, with no one in my corner, I knew the only weapon I had against their wickedness was words.
So the lined paper of my journal absorbed what my heart poured into it. Torn, conflicted — knowing the danger of the poison inside me — I cloistered myself within its pages and allowed myself to feel the deep, insistent syphoning off of poison and emotion. It was the only place I could allow myself to purge it all.
The cool paper accepted me unconditionally. All the passion; all the poison. Recorded there. Preserved there. Honored there. Kept there to this day. A repository of life fluids. A hidden quiver. A womb of contention. An apple of discord.
As my hemorrhaging heart spilled into it, ripening more with each passing day, the pages performed their magic. They took each pounding pulse beat, each dangerous insubordination and drained it quietly into its depths. My secret embalming tool. My monument to life. A record of my heartbeat. To prove I once lived if I never made it out alive.
But I did. Those words kept me alive as the serpents and spiders coiled ever-tighter around me.
And those words give me strength today. To tackle my past. To record it. To tag it and release it into the wild. So others know and recognize the danger.
Faith isn’t dangerous. But fanaticism is.
Looking back, my anger is gone. Now, I turn an observant eye to the stains of my childhood spilled on the pages of a yellowed notebook. They are mere bruises now. Mellowed. But I can still feel the hectic red flush of their decades-old fever when I poke around.
So I poke and prod and prepare to record all the species of spiders and snakes from my past.
I may do damage — to their scales and their psyche. And this time, I do mean harm.
Because right now I see a similar, serpent-friendly climate out there in this world. I see a lot of people searching for something. And a whole lot of serpents ready to prey on their insecurities.
I see a whole lot of snake-handling going on. And that terrifies me.
Because on more than one instance, I came face to face with cottonmouths. I could see the whites of their tonsils, and I could feel my heartbeat in my own tonsils — and in theirs — when I recognized them. I wrote about it to save my life.
And I will write about it still to save someone else. Because the function of freedom is to free someone else.
Faith isn’t dangerous. But fanaticism is.