By Megan Galbraith
I sat on the stonewall outside my studio, reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby, and thinking about how excited I’d been to get far away from my family. I’d been awarded a glorious month-long writers residency in Ithaca, NY from The Saltonstall Foundation. It was my first residency and I had no idea what to expect. What to bring? How to handle the silence? What if I couldn’t produce anything?
It had never occurred to me that I’d miss my family. I thought I’d craved solitude, but a month inside my own head was taking its toll. I was swept up in self-doubt and jumping out of my skin. I missed my husband, my boys, and my stepdaughter. I missed the dogs that I’d cursed daily for their endless silent pleading, “let me in, let me out, let me in, let me out.” I didn’t know how to be still with myself because it seemed there was so little stillness at home.
I looked up from the book and noticed a delicate snakeskin pinned beneath dead daylily leaves in the dirt to my left. The snakeskin was preserved in its entirety, from head to tail, not a rip or a tear. Its mouth was open as if it was mid-strike, and I could see the dark jeweled ovals where the snake’s eyes had been. It was nearly two feet long, a garter snake most likely, and the perfect embodiment of the reptile itself rendered like a tissue-thin sepia-toned X-ray.
The sight of it gave me pause. Here I was at residency jumping out of my own skin, trying to shed a skin, or get comfortable with the skin I was in. Back home I was mother, wife, and daughter. I was struggling to leave those identities behind. Perhaps I was struggling to find myself again and begin anew.
I tried not to tear the snakeskin as I pried it out from under the desiccated leaves. Touching it excited and terrified me. Why? As a child I’d loved to play outside. In fact one of my fond memories was of capturing a garter snake and allowing it to slither through my fingers and across the palms of my hands. I must have been five or six years old at the time. I’d had no qualms about picking that snake up. I was a curious child, without fear or pretense. What power I’d had back then. The snake was terrified of me.
Now, age and time had reversed our roles. I wasn’t frightened of the snake, but by the husk the snake left behind. Where had my curious child-self gone? Where was my sense of wonder and discovery? I’d hoped to use this time to get out into nature, to avail myself of long walks in the woods, explore the area gorges again, and take long hot baths.
Instead, I felt pinned down like that snake’s former skin, terrified of being outside, of Lyme Disease, the Zika Virus, or getting lost in the woods unable to find my way back.
I’d worked in Ithaca almost three decades ago. Cornell was my first real job after graduating from Penn State and I’d gone on to jobs in Troy, NY. Why had it taken me three times as long as Odysseus to return?
I could hear the siren song of my children, who were home plundering my refrigerator for food. In trying to complete my collection of linked essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour, I was being tested to sit with my own grief and shame. I’d been given the gift of food, friendship, a bed, quiet time, and space to write. I sensed this snakeskin was an omen, but to what? Had the 20 years I’d spent nurturing my family denatured the curiosity out of me? Could I learn to be a good mother to my child self?
There’d been an extended drought in Ithaca, NY. The roaring waterfalls and gorges that are its natural gems had been reduced to a trickle. The mayor had announced a drought emergency. We were in strict conservation mode and so, it seemed, was I.
As a child, I remember that garter snake leaving an intense musk all over my hands. It stunk like a mixture of stale urine and fresh feces. I’d dropped the snake and cupped my hands to my face inhaling deeply and recoiling. I did this multiple times trying to identify the scent mixture. Then, I ran inside to my mother and raised my hands to her face. She flinched, and told me the smell was the snake’s defense mechanism.
So, I forced myself to pry this snakeskin up and out of the dirt. I wanted to reconnect with the curious child I’d been, and to allay my ridiculous adult fears that I realized I’d passed along to my children. How could I have let myself become so fearful?
As I sat writing I realized it was August 5, my mother’s birthday. She would have been 76, had she not died nearly 20 years ago. I couldn’t run to her anymore to help me identify odd stinks, or to ask her questions about the kids, or for comfort.
You’d think my grief would have subsided by now, but it hadn’t. Rather, it had accumulated over the years and settled into parts of my body wearing me like a second skin. Grief pins you down.
The days are long and hot here. I feel slightly reptilian sitting in my air-conditioned studio, and guilty for looking out my window over the field to the view of the mountains and the horizon. I should be out there playing, running barefoot, picking up snakes, and throwing rocks into the pond, like I did when I was a child.
Within the first week, the rains came in torrents and showers that greened the grass and refilled the aquifers. I took the long, hot bath I’d been craving. I filled the tub with water as hot as I could stand, and added bubbles infused with Argan oil, which moisturizes and nourishes the skin. I eased myself down and sat there while my skin turned bright red from the intense heat. Sweat poured down my face and steamed my reading glasses. I suppose soaking in that tub, sweating the dirt out of my pores was a way of shedding my skin. Baths are an interesting paradox, enjoyable until you realize you’re sitting in a hot steamy swirl of your own dead skin cells. I was basically stewing in my own juices.
When I stood up, I imagined that the surface tension of the water was drawing up the sloughed off cells and cementing them on to my clean self. Reverse metamorphosis, the opposite of growth.
Snakes shed their skin to accommodate growth; Humans don’t shed our skin, it grows with us.
I longed for the out-of-body experience I imagined that snake must have felt after casting off the husk of its former self. I wanted to glide away to a quiet, cool place where I waited out the heat of the day, and emerged replenished and ready.
Megan Galbraith is a 2016 Fellow of the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and Director of the Young Writers Institute at Bennington College. She was also a Scholar at Bindercon. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Catapult, PANK, Hotel Amerika, Beyond, The Review Review, Literary Orphans, The Lost Daughters, and ASSAY: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, among others. Her essay in Catapult, “Sin Will Find You Out,” was in The Top 5 Longreads of the Week, featured in LitHub Daily’s The Best of the Literary Internet, and mentioned by Ann Friedman in her newsletter. She was a finalist for the AWP WC&C Scholarship in 2015, judged by Xu Xi.
She is at work on a collection of linked essays titled, The Guild of the Infant Saviour, which explores motherhood, the tension between nature and nurture, the transformation of New York City, and the many forms of shame and surrender. Megan is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminar. She also runs The Dollhouse (www.facebook.com/The.D0llhouse) and can be found on Twitter as @megangalbraith, and at www.megangalbraith.com.