When I was seven years old I trapped our live-in home assistant in her bedroom for 24 hours. It was easy enough to do: I simply placed a dead snake above her bedroom door. My mother was beside herself for not understanding why Anna wouldn’t come out of her room, and of course Anna was beside herself that a snake prevented her exit.
My favourite activity back then was to hike the Koppies that protruded across the vast Johannesburg plains behind our home. Thankfully my parents were not ‘helicopter parents’ and hence I clocked a significant number of days in ravines, cave systems, forested valleys and hot, snake friendly peaks only a couple kilometers from Anna’s bedroom door.
One of the gifts of my childhood was my inability to fit in. I didn’t know how to negotiate social spaces, didn’t know how to make friends with ease. But I could walk with snakes and I could smoke Dagga. Yes, Dagga, the South African version of Weed in those days. Daniel Son Of Milk, our once a week gardener, taught me the ways of that plant. We used to sit behind the compost pile in the back corner of the yard, toke, talk of ancestors and the art of preparing beds for the next season’s vegetables. It was a good year in many respects.
Anna caught me behind that compost pile.
“You’re in big trouble! I will tell Mrs. A.”
Fortunately I was African enough to know Anna believed the missionary version of snakes. I hunted a snake inside the wood pile in a small room that used to be the “servant” pit loo, gleefully displayed my catch to Anna as she backed into her room and I attached it above her door. And I knew the following afternoon, once removing the snake, that Anna would never ever betray personal details to my mom, Mrs. A.
As a teenager I was mesmerized by the galactic story of the Garden of Eden. How amazing that one Naughty Snake was the source of every conceivable evil on earth: world wars, starvation, floods, homelessness, gang rape, murder, racism, Communism and the birth of my piano teacher. Just two bites of an Apple. To think that one of God’s own created beings could turn on Him and, in a single afternoon, spoil the entire plot.
Getting Paradise back on track was a humongous undertaking. It would take a while as 10,000 years later God sent a Son to rescue humanity in a Doctrinal fashion on a Roman Cross: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be Saved”. The wars and rape and hunger and sickness and devastation of the rainforests and the piano lessons and all manner of calamity would continue nonetheless for thousands of years more until the Son’s second visit, on this occasion to rescue a small percentage to live in Paradise with Him. The larger collection of humans who ever walked this earth—Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, atheist, liberal, feminist, Free Mason, Mormon, Hippie and Vegetarian—would unfortunately burn forevermore in Hell.
You’ve got to admire the power of that Snake. And no wonder Anna wouldn’t leave her bedroom.
Now of course I jest. But just a little.
The story of the Snake is a mammoth pull-the-plug spoiler on establishing Paradise this side of Eden. It doesn’t actually matter what we do in this little life because, ultimately, everything was buggered before we were even born and everything will be buggered until the end of Time. Our desperately evil natures coupled with our compunction to do wrong all the time only makes things worse, causing immense human suffering like we’ve never ever seen before, creating an alarming increase in the practice of Yoga worldwide, and fueling the escalation of wars between the faithful followers of our world’s main religious groups—all of whom know how to believe right, none of whom know how to behave right. We’re just biding time till being rescued from this Mess. The best we can do, if already Saved, is try to convince others to join us in a future Paradise where the few true believers will suffer no more.
Here’s the Thing: We have completely missed the point of the early text: The story of Naughty Snake was written as a
Naughty Story. It’s Satire. Satire at its best. A magnificent mockery tale of us silly human beings conceding to a worldview that proclaims all doom and gloom for us today and for our loved ones tomorrow. The Story calls out our devious intent to be resolved of responsibility for beating our wives or improperly firing an undocumented refugee or underpaying our staff to enrich our all-too-wealthy stockholders or turning our backs on the poorest of the poor by relegating them to the garbage dump of social evolution. The Story blames the Snake (and too often that woman as well) when we stomp on the elderly, the widows and the orphans or ride our SUV over protesters at Standing Rock.
Or bomb the beJeezus out of a village somewhere in Afghanistan that we cannot pinpoint on a map, whose name we cannot pronounce. The big global problems and our personal inability to love our neighbours this side of Eden are ultimately not our concern because we are the flotsam and jetsam of a big bad event headlined by a crafty, evil snake.
We were meant to laugh our heads off at this story. Truly. We are meant to tell it over and over again to our children and grandchildren, tears rolling down our cheeks, hands slapping knees, dogs barking at the absurdity of it all.
For more than a decade I was involved in a project to protect endangered jungle habitat in the Mayan Foothills of Belize. I loved all the nights and days of my life spent in our center there. My personal morning routines were a ritual: I’d make a single espresso in our jungle kitchen at sunrise and walk down to the edge of the beautiful creek that meandered along the property. I would sit as still as possible, meditating and observing. It took only a few mornings in a row to realise the jungle life had its morning routines as well. Birds followed a pattern; same with the squirrels, frogs and kinkajou. And the snakes. Yes, the long slithery friends. Upon my first morning encounter with the snakes by the creek my eyes caught motion and I slowly turned my head till I caught full view of two of them several yards away. We all stayed still and stared at each other, slightly shifting our orientation as if in a pre-teen school dance. I finally lifted my arm for another sip of espresso and they easily glided out of range.
Over time we would show up for each other regularly. The physical space between us grew smaller and smaller and if anyone on staff had stumbled upon my little private world, they would have reported back to the others that their bonkers Director was talking out loud to serpents. The bonkers part isn’t true. I’ve learned much from my conversations with snakes over the years. And I have learned how they are the pariah of much of the human world, dispatched as easily and gleefully as the snake I killed to imprison Anna.
One evening while relaxing in my jungle bungalow, writing poetry to candle light, my eyes picked up that same movement as earlier down by the creek. Again, a slow turn of the head. This time to see a two meter snake winding its way toward me. This one drew my breath. It came at me with a kind of clear intent. Stretched across the wooden floor, the flicker of candle light reflecting off its rippled scales, it was a magical sight to behold. I stood on my chair (no problem for a snake that climbs walls) then hopped over to my bed and grabbed a broom. We went into a slow dance—sweep of the broom, slither of the snake, shuffle of the human. I finally convinced it to leave via the door which I shut and then heart pounding went back to writing poetry.
Later when I went outside, there, curled up on the landing step, the snake. And so our friendship began. It moved into my bungalow. I yielded. Each night as I relaxed in my chair, meditating and writing, it slithered in through the door and sat next to me for a lovely, protracted conversation. Evenings would end with it winding elegantly up an internal post to nest in the Cohune palm roof overhead. In just about any society that isn’t “modern”, animals and people happily talk with each other. And of course in the First Bible Story the snake and Naughty Couple talk to each other with ease, as if first cousins back on the farm.
I wonder if we really understand what we have conceded by swallowing the doom and gloom story that the world is only going to get worse after which most people will go to hell? Are we not embarrassed by this elitist vision of the future? Are we not chagrined at the loss of faith and heart this Naughty Story represents in the present? Do we truly believe Paradise is only possible in the far flung future, and even then only for the few? If so we have acquiesced to a story of Horror, not Love.
We’d prefer to blame the snake, of course. But who marches to the beat of patriotic wars slaughtering scores of people who just want to have a happy family life? Who stockpiles weapons of mass destruction? Who steals? Who rapes? Who pukes into our rivers and poisons our air, plunders the earth for profit? Who enslaves indigenous peoples into poverty to ensure a cushioned lifestyle for the few? Who draws lines in the sand and proclaims them “borders” at the expense of God’s children on the other side of that line? Who discards refugee children trying to survive a boat ride across the choppy sea? Who turns a blind eye to the orphan, the outcast? Who slanders their neighbours, tells half-truths, celebrates stories that diminish the Other? Who is unforgiving? Who callously bulldozes through today at the expense of tomorrow? Who is it that proclaims from the mountain top that they are the chosen people, the greatest nation on earth, the righteous ones? Who traps Anna in her room?
I’ll tell you this much: it is not the snake. Why is there so much evil in the world today? Because we have made it so. And we continue to make it so. We have cut each other in half with a knife of superiority, fear, selfish gain, racism, sexism, belief; We have driven a wedge between brothers, between sisters, between us and trees and the rivers and the sky, we have cut ourselves off from each other’s hearts.
We can choose to exploit the myth of paradise-for-the-few. We can put our faith in weapons, Walls and Wall Street.
We can explain why it is naïve to embrace our enemies, naïve to expect miracles, naïve to trust, naïve to believe Light will overcome the Dark in this dispensation. And we can obediently live this self-fulfilling prophecy.
Or we can step through a fissure in the wall of our cynical cosmology and dance in the audacity of this infinite moment.
Late one night the snake invited me to dance with it naked around a fire. To sing praises to our Creator, to sing prayers for peace and joy and contentment and forgiveness and unity. To slither on the jungle floor in humility, to wind my way up a tree in celebration of goodness, bounty and beauty. To embrace this broken world with deep love, right here, right now. And we have danced often since that beautiful night under the jungle stars.
How wonderful that the Snake of the Garden, probably the most feared of creation (and for some, the most reviled), teaches to Embrace: to dance with our neighbors and our enemies and the waterfalls and the stars and the ravaged forests and the dried up rivers and the abandoned elderly and the fear-drenched racist and the militant believer and the naked emperor; to deny the allure of the Naughty Story, to deny separation, to deny allegiance to anything that is not Love. No shame, no judgment, no banishment, no envy, no hatred, no diminishment, no Kingdoms, no Lords, no Queens, no conquerors, no prisons, no slavery.
We have wrapped our hearts up with layer upon layer of fears, history, distortions, religion, mentoring, cultural stories, patriotic garbage, paranoia, logic and hurts. Just as the snake sheds layers of skin, we are invited to the work of shedding layer after layer of all that separates us from living this resolute Yes.
Paradise this side of Eden?
Being Everything that is Love in Everything that is Life.
Each and every infinite moment of the Day.
I talk to Jesus regularly. The conversations normally begin with me asking forgiveness for living such a Scrooged life.
That’s not a typo. And our chats lead me into spaces of immense wonder and challenge.
Once I asked him to tell me about the hours on that Roman Cross. He described being caught up in a great whirlwind that gathered into its swirling turbulent streams all that is injury, loss, debasement, destruction, all that is depravity, hopelessness, wounding, all that is death. The wider he stretched his welcoming arms, the more that poured in. Fire, and Rain, and Wind, and Thunder. The more his heart expanded to receive the devastation, the more the whirlwind transformed into a dance, a wild and joyful, heartbreaking prayer and celebration of complete surrender, a vortex, a moment of infinite love.
Descended into hell. Being Paradise this side of Eden.