It would be so easy to make this a metaphor: A 3 and 1/2 foot python with a teenage temperament was on the loose, lurking and evil, (hush, herpetologists) in my house waiting for nightfall.
In fact, the metaphorical python on the loose is much of the reason why I’ve not written in so long. Who has time or inclination to write about navel gazing issues like parenting or relationships or joy or self doubt or grief when YOUNEEDTORUN’CAUSETHERE’SASNAKEINTHEHOUSE! That’s what the world has felt like – threats and outright harm to the rights of women, minorities, immigrants; slithering attempts to transfer wealth from the poor to the wealthy, to disempower and undermine freedom of speech, rule of law, legitimacy of governing, and basic transparency that even W. upheld; bombing other countries without due process or consulting Congress; toothy strikes at undermining our major regulatory agencies, research and science and technology agencies, our complex interconnected engine of foreign affairs and diplomacy – Christ, even Big Bird and Elmo.
Who wants to read about my tales of parenting or juggling work with life or healing old hurts in such a country?
Who would care to even write about those things in such a country?
But y’all, a g—d ball python really did get loose in my house on a recent Sunday afternoon. And ironically, it’s the tale of the real python at large that’s been a catalyst for me get over the chilling effect of the metaphorical python and write again.
I need to preface everything by saying – we have a pet ball python. We have a snake on purpose. That we have a snake on purpose is a hard thing for me to make peace with, much less explain to anyone with any real coherence. But I can tell you that my son, who I secretly think likes only the idea of owning a snake, had begged and begged for years. After an attempt at parenting a bearded dragon went tragically south, and after tears and more lobbying, I said yes in a weak spot on a Saturday afternoon, an hour before Pet Smart closed.
Life with Luna the snake had been pretty uneventful during her first year, largely because she never came out of the faux cave in her aquarium during waking hours and because I pretended to know nothing and see nothing regarding her rodent feedings. (thanks, Steven).
Until a few weeks ago when my daughter casually asked, “Why is Luna’s aquarium door open?”
Here’s another important background detail: I am not a together enough grown up to not totally lose my sh*t, when warranted, around my children. I did, however, have a pause of guilt after shouting OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD while climbing on top of a nearby table, that my first instinct was not to save my kids. Fortunately, they are just as high strung as I am, so were almost immediately right there beside me on the table chanting OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD OHMYGOD. All except Henry, who thought this was all pretty funny. “Huh!” He mused, a hand on his hip, “I didn’t know she could do that.”
Steven found me with a glass of wine and all 3 kids on the front porch when he pulled up a few minutes later.
As he flew into the house, assuring me I must have just not seen her curled up in the corner of the aquarium, I felt that old familiar feeling of automatic pilot turn on. Do you know this calm, numb feeling of active crisis mobilization? Time slows down. Your brain begins speaking to you like you are a small, tantrumming child, who cannot process more than 3 or 4 words at a time. My brain said to me: Don’t panic. Yet. Give it a bit. Then PACK A BAG.
I told Steven he had 60 minutes to find the snake and then the kids and I were going to a hotel. Moving robotically across the kitchen like a Stepford wife, I began to impersonate a calm person while continuing to listen to the Manual Override voice in my head. Now it was saying things like:
“For the next 56 minutes, pretend like everything is fine.
Boil water for pasta.
Slice a bell pepper.
Wait – go put on your tallest boots – then slice a bell pepper.
Slice it lengthwise.”
Occasionally, Steven would walk by, sweaty, holding the broom he was using to slide under the couches, and say something I’m sure he must have thought was helpful. (He must have. Otherwise, why would he have said these things?) Things like: “these are docile snakes, you’re overreacting.” Or this gem: “Hey! I just found several websites that say the best way to find an escaped python in the house is to wait until night fall, cover the floor with plastic bags and turn out the lights, then wait for them to come out and make a noise.”
What kind of degenerate, post-apocalyptic world do we live in that there are entire websites telling terrified people to find snakes by putting Target bags on the floor and waiting for the dark?
With each of his helpful comments, I turned mechanically from the cutting board, large knife in hand, and with forced Stepford calm countered that the character qualities of the snake really didn’t matter. And he had 44 more minutes. Or that I would not be here for the plastic bag / darkness experiment, but would keep him updated on our kids and remember to send school pictures. 31 minutes.
Once, I allowed a break in character, and texted my best friend.
Charlotte, meanwhile, had put Felix the dog on a leash and taken her baby brother to find high ground on the upper bunk bed. I could tell she was riding an excited, nervous high – like when a tornado is coming through and you don’t want anything really bad to happen, but it would be kind of fun to hide in the laundry room with flashlights and maybe miss a day of school. She kept calling out from her bunker: “How many days should we pack for? Should we bring food and water? What if she’s never found, will we still live here?”
But I knew to actually answer her questions would mean to ramp up my crisis mobilization, to panic, to climb back on the table shouting OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD! So instead, I added the smoked salmon to the peppers, poured the noodles into the boiling water and replied evenly, “Daddy has 24 more minutes, sweetheart. Then we’ll decide where to live.”
At minute 55, with all major appliances pulled away from the wall and disassembled, and just 5 more minutes left on my internal freak-out clock, Henry – who had been happily bopping around beside his dad, offering his little bemused commentary, “She sure is a good hider!” hollered out that he’d found her. He’d found her by noticing the pattern of her skin in the 2 inches of space between the wall and our craft cabinet, where she’d wedged herself by curling into a ball 3 feet off the ground.
Praise Be! There would be no chemical burn of the house and property that night. No divorce. No hasty fleeing to the nearest Marriott. It was possible that life as we knew it might resume. And the pasta was only a little overcooked.
During all this, there wasn’t enough therapeutic distraction in vigorously chopping vegetables, so I’d taken to posting updates of the drama to Facebook.
What I didn’t expect, and what was so interesting, was the reaction – the ENORMOUS, VISCERAL REACTION and DEFINITIVE OPINIONS that people have about snakes.
To be expected, there were snake-a-phobes like me, many who write and communicate for a living, but who were responding from a deep and primitive place of recoil and fear where “no” occupied most of the vocabulary:
In fact, there were many, many snake-a-phobes — or as I like to call them, normal sensible people who we can credit for our survival and evolution as a species.
There were some who understandably drew up new, tighter boundaries and taller border walls on our friendship as a result of this unholy breach.
Finally there were the snake lovers, the bleeding heart herpetologists, who tried to reason with the rest of us. Some approached it with a good-natured logic and perspective that was simply not-hear-able when a python’s whereabouts were unknown mere moments ago.
In these cases, I didn’t always handle it well.
A subset of this group tried to offer perspective more subtly by inquiring after the snake’s well being (and thereby implying I might try to worry about something worth worrying about).
This resulted in what I feared would become an us v. them battle, yet another polarization in our country, when the anti-snakers fired back with:
Fortunately and no doubt in part to the ADHD of social media, the online dialogue didn’t escalate. But what emerged as clear from the nearly 100 comments (and the occasional queries I still sometimes receive now, a few weeks later) is the deep and primitive nerve a python-on-the-loose touches in us all. And why wouldn’t it?
That night I insisted we wrap tape around the aquarium. When Steven started to protest that this was unnecessary, that she had gotten out because he’d left the door slightly ajar after the last feeding, that she would never really try to escape on her own. I turned just a quarter turn, Stepford-wife style, and blinked. Meaningfully. He quietly wound the tape around the aquarium a second time.
If only the metaphorical python-on-the-loose were as manageable.