Shedding Skin and Accepting Change
My baby cornsnake, Calliope H. Danger, just shed her skin for the first time. I woke up and was thrilled to see the translucent outline of her body, left where she’d wriggled out of it the night before.
Having grown in the past month, she needed a larger sheath of skin to inhabit. And the paper-thin, scaly remnants (which I took pictures of like a proud mother) are all that remain of the old Calliope. Now, with her old layer of skin gone, she’s ready to continue expanding.
Snakes intuit when it’s time to begin shedding (a process called ecdysis). Once they’re ready, they rub their head against an object to loosen the skin, which they can then slither out of. Immediately afterward, the snake enters the “resting stage”, according to Harvey B. Lillywhite’s book How Snakes Work. Then, the skin enters its “renewal stage”, in which fresh, more vibrant skin is formed.
Though the cycle’s length varies for each species, all snakes go through this process. Because their scales contain the rigid material keratin, their skin can’t stretch and grow with them. To grow, they must leave the old scales behind.
I learned once in a yoga class that when you chant the syllable Om, you release everything that no longer serves you. Now whenever I chant this syllable, I imagine no-longer-helpful patterns and habits dissolving away, falling off me like an old skin. I imagine stepping out of these old ways of being, the rigid rules I used to wear that now keep me from growing.
Like snakes, we must shed the old structures of our lives in order to expand.
I’ve come to think that rigidity is the antithesis of growth. If we refuse to be flexible in our habits and lives, we’ll find ourselves stagnant and frustrated. Rigid rules do not work well in real life; there are too many wild factors, too many changes and emotions and unpredictable occurrences.
We must be able to face each day with fluidity, with the ability to adapt and shift. We need to be able to change our minds, to admit mistakes, to see things differently. We need to shed our old, stiff skin, and embrace something fluid and new.
This often means letting go of ideas about who, and how, we are. We become so many different people in the course of our lives. Who you are today is a vastly different human than who you were a year ago, or five years, or ten. You’ve shed your skin many times, even if you weren’t aware of it. You released notions of who you were—where you lived, how you looked, how you identified.
Identity is empowering and important, of course, but identities change. And refusing to accept that is like trying to stuff ourselves into skin that no longer fits.
Take, for instance, the identity you assume when you’re in a romantic relationship. You become someone’s significant other, and you fully adopt that role. You identify as part of a pair, and you often identify with the other person’s life path, family members, etc. Then, when you break up, that identity shatters. You must assume a new identity; you don a newer, vibrant skin after shedding the papery remnants of the old.
Of course, this can be an extremely difficult and confusing process. Saying goodbye to an old identity can be heart-wrenching. But when we turn to embrace the new—that shinier level of fresh skin that arises during the “renewal stage”, we find something that fits us even better. An identity that’s up-to-date, a skin that fits our current needs to move and shake and grow.
That’s why it feels so good to make physical changes during phases of transitional “skin-shedding”; a drastic haircut or a new look is a way of announcing to ourselves and the world that we’re newer, wiser, different. After a particularly special women’s retreat recently, during a tough transitional time, I cut off nine inches of my hair on impulse. It felt so intensely right. It was a clear signal to myself that I was entering a new phase of my life. I’d shed an old skin, and symbolizing it physically felt liberating.
This morning, Calliope peeked her head out from beneath her water bowl (her favorite hiding spot). In the glow of the infrared light I could see the more vibrant grey-brown skin on her growing body. Me too, Cal, me too, I thought.