Snakes on a Plane (or Something Like It)

I’m starting to think I won’t be having any more thankful Thursdays this semester. For some reason beyond me, all my teachers like to have all my homework due Friday morning, so naturally, Thursdays have become crunch time for me: A fatal rush to the finish, pushing past the boundaries of bedtime into the realm of “when he said he wants us to lose sleep over this, he meant it.” But that’s alright: We grow and we adapt. We change our ways to meet the new days.

I was thinking a lot about that today, about adaptability and change. After a while, I found I’m rather thankful for it, but what does that have to do with snakes? Or more importantly, what does it have to do with planes?

31. Growth

I was just coming out of the tutoring center, where I was studying with some friends today, when I saw the back of someone, and it was a very recognizable back. The hair was most determinant, and I recalled the grey sweatshirt when I’d briefly ran into the same person earlier in the day. (For some unknown reason far beyond my scope of understanding, I briefly ran into a lot of people I know today, go figure, you know?)

So I stuck around a moment and waited, then when he was finished, I gave him a hug and we talked for a bit. Of course, none of this is at all relevant, but for reasons that go far too deep and far too personal into persons other than myself, talking with him started me thinking of a few things of incredible relevance. But for any of that to make sense, I have to go back to yesterday morning–or rather, to the morning before last.

Eight o’clock, to be precise. We started our calculus class as usual, but now we were moving onto something new: Equations of a line in Three-Space, where three-space is a three-dimensional coordinate system and the equation of a line is ax+by+cz=d, and we spent the day solving for spacial relationships of the multivariate kind. (There are other spacial relationships of the multivariate kind that we did not speak of, but the distinction is somewhat vague, except that some spacial relationships refer to the relationships within space while others refer to the relationship across space, often great spaces, not usually in straight lines, either. But I digress.)

Then today: Eight o’clock, to be precise. We started talking about how a line defines a plane in space. Think of it like this: If you draw a dot on a piece of paper, you can draw any line through it that you’d like. Now if you stretch that dot and all those lines straight out of the paper, you’d end up with a line defined by many planes (or more accurately, many planes defined by one line). This might all seem inconsequential, but trust me, it’s not.

So after my conversation outside the tutoring center, I had a few moments to think by myself before returning to my other friends inside. For some reason, something about our short talk had gotten me thinking about those other kinds of spacial relationships, the ones across space, not through it. I started thinking back to last summer when my friend and I had seen a lot more of each other than we do now, how things between us have changed (or how I’ve changed the way I see things between us, since things between haven’t really changed at all). And then I thought about how I’ve changed personally: A year ago I was laughing at the thought of ever taking differential equations. A year before that I’d have called you a fool if you’d suggested I’d ever be a math major, let alone take calculus to save my life.

I thought back to a drawing I’d done in physics of a wizard under a shooting star, and I thought how I used to draw pictures all the time. I drew rainbows and trees, lots of trees. I drew dogs and cats that seemed identical except for different ears and different faces. I drew flowers. Grass. Clouds. The sky. Once I even drew a comic of aliens creating an inverted tornado that tore up the world: the end. I drew houses on graph paper, I drew square trees within which the houses stuck, I drew symbols for everything under the sun–and then drew symbols for the sun itself.

But I’ve changed. I don’t draw nearly as much anymore. I still dabble now and then, but since I started writing, my creative juices flow through words, not through images. My drawing skills have improved greatly after having a small number of classes that I couldn’t pay attention in (so I drew: bifurcating my attention span between drawing and listening actually made it easier for me to focus on the lecture itself), but I’m still a writer at heart these days.

And a mathematician, budding, someday to blossom.

Somehow, in one of the many ways my mind never ceases to amaze me, I began thinking about astrology. There was a time when I was defined by it. I carried around my astrology book like a bible, I made charts and divined myself for hours every day, searching deeper into my soul and always amazed at how these ancient words could describe me so clearly, so intimately, so deeply–ever further into my soul than I could see myself without the window of the planets to guide me. When I learned about Chinese astrology–the real kind, not what you get on placemats at Chinese buffets–it, too, became a part of me. I began comparing the two, tying them together into a single string that crafted a portrait so perfect of myself, it was sometimes startling to look at.

This is how I saw myself: A solar Gemini and a lunar Aquarian, a double fire Snake with a Hare ascendant. First decanate, no cusps, Mars in my second house, Neptune in Capricorn, a fitting pair of couplets, all things considered. Four planets in my first house and Pluto in Scorpio. Now that one’s interesting.

This is how I see myself (on occasion–I can be very fickle whilst being incredibly steadfast, a flurry of contradictions, but I’ve always considered myself a universal exception anyways): A math major and a Hebrew teacher, a leader still learning to lead, a good speaker who’d rather not speak, a student, an observer, a writer and friend, a hopeless romantic with hopeless attractions, an idealist and optimist, born of inherent pessimism and endless perseverance.

Whereas once in the time of my life where everything was concrete, I described myself in abstract terms, now that everything is abstract in life, I fit myself into a glossary of concrete titles and descriptions. How things change.

That’s what held my attention in these few minutes I had to myself. I saw myself like a varying sine curve, an endless polynomial with rises and falls, the highs and lows of my life, and as I stared at that ethereal self, I realised it was something like a snake–that I was that snake. I watched, in these few timeless seconds, how many times I’d shed my skin and become a new person, had changed my outward appearance and how I saw the world outside. Each new year, a new skin–all the old scratched away, left only to reveal something more pure than before, readied for another year of scratches and dents, until with a fair bit of reflection behind me, I’d slither from my skin and start again.

When I was younger, I meditated and thought I was a tree. I held out my arms and caught the sun in my branches, felt the wind through my leaves, and reached deep inside the earth to ground me. I saw every time that I was growing, that my branches would reach a little further, my leaves would be a little larger, my roots always getting deeper. I think that tree’s finally stopped growing. My leaves will change colors, new layers of bark will slowly build up as more experiences come inside me, but the tree is fully grown. It can only become older now, spread out, give shade, shed seeds and pass away.

But now there’s something more in that tree that’s me: There’s the proverbial serpent slithering in the branches. I can hiss and bite and talk so sweetly into your ears, offering my fruit if you’ll take it, and slithering away unharmed if you won’t. I’m filling the branches more fully every day, and when my skin is worn and I’m tired and feeling done, I simply scratch against all that’s inside me, scrape away all that’s on top of me, and come out renewed once again.

I wish I could share the images and patterns that I saw on each of these shed skins that I saw following the curve of my life. The smallest ones were colorful but simple, whereas the newest are monochromatic but full of intricate patterns. I’m still the same snake on the inside, but everything else has changed. Nothing stays the same.

That’s the beautiful thing, though. Nothing stays the same. In the lovely words of Jewel Kilcher, one of my favorite artists of all times, “Only fools believe that / Nothing changes, nothing leaves / But I need to believe that we at least / Will have some dignity / ‘Cause everything changes / Nothing stays the same / But that’s no excuse to be casual / Or to place the blame / You have to be careful with me” (Fragile Heart).

She relates it to love, and lately I’ve been doing the same. I fall asleep at night thanking God for love, tossing and turning in a sea of unrequited wishes, an abyss of hopefulness surrounded by mirrors reflecting fear and hesitation and uncertainty. And I say to myself, and I say to God, that whatever happens, I know love will carry me through. Either it will be upon the wings of love that I fly away, or upon a cloud of love that I land when finally I fall.

It’s a subtle understanding of the fact that for all this growth, the universe is constant. What will be, will be. What has been, was. And what is now, is always. Yet just as motion can turn into stillness, and stillness into motion, constants can be solved in different variables, and spacial relationships can come together in new ways, forming new equations, new lines, new planes of existence. And like the snakes I’ve shed on this plane of life, we all keep growing, not knowing where we’re going, but all able to grasp the single hope that when we arrive, we’ll be there at last.

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