Back to back. If snakes have backs, that is. Me on one side of the rock, the eight foot brown snake coiled asleep in the sun on the other. I had arrived at my spot in the wilderness, miles from the nearest Adirondack trail, and surveyed the state of the hundred foot circle where I would stay for a week. I’d retreated in this spot before—it had changed—two trees down and new growth where my sleeping bag lies.
There beside my sitting rock was a big dark snake with a triangular head, which means poison, as I vaguely recalled. Adrenaline pumping (in me, not in it), I watched it sleep in the sun, shy by nature, never having encountered a human before. After a time it slipped into the lake and swam away—snakes are good swimmers? This one was. I decided to stay, even though it would probably return. I thought it was a water moccasin and found out when I got home it was a timber rattlesnake; and its bite, so far out, would almost certainly have done me in. But it seemed content with its pine needle bed nestled between rocks beside the lake that has no name. Every sunny afternoon, the snake appeared, lifting out of the lake to bask, as did I.
When you stay in a hundred foot circle for a week in the middle of nowhere, without paper or books, good sitting places get important; and the best afternoon spot was on the non-snake side of a yard high rock. So we sat, back to back, every sunny afternoon. It’s not like death is ever far away, but a snake nearby does sharpen the tang of aliveness—gifts appear, I discovered anew, from the unlikeliest of sources.
Every wilderness week I perform an invented ritual called A Thousand Gratitudes. In it I recall and visit with a thousand things in my life I am truly grateful for, using fingers and sticks, my toes are too stubby, for counting. The process takes a whole day and has gotten easier over the years, even as my memory gets worse. I’ve grown more fluent in the seeing that makes gratefulness the natural response to just about everything; and now, when thinking, planning, and dreaming fall away, the one sense that remains, always present, is gratitude. The specific recollections come in waves—I am sure you were in there, somewhere between the gifts of birth and childhood and the seat on that earlier flight out of Dallas last week. My favorite waves honor the usually overlooked essentials—my spleen, the way bruises and cuts heal, the way that my septic tank works.
As I write this today, now age 60, at the end of a distorted and miserable year for our nation, in a season whose ancient truths seem hard to find, I feel that snake at my back. I recall friends in the arts-for-people-with-disabilities world referring to me as currently-abled. The snake reminds me of being currently alive, right now; right now as gratitude pervades and appears whenever the busy minds fall away. Right now, as our spleens enable us, you and me, to watch the light be born anew.