Do you sometimes feel like you’ve been swallowed up by your grief, like you’re Jonah trapped in the belly of a whale? Or maybe you feel like you’re shooting through a dark, enclosed water slide, tossed round like a log, without a clue where you’ll end up, or even if you’re going to survive.
For this kind of terror, I find some solace in an ancient myth that appeared in different world cultures. The story was told that at the end of every day, the sun would get swallowed up by an enormous snake, yet would be reborn the following morning. The early Egyptians pictured this as the sun god on a boat that was being carried through the body of a huge snake. In Ohio, a similar concept is depicted at Serpent Mound–the largest prehistoric effigy mound in the world, located near Peebles, Ohio. The quarter-mile-long snake has a three-foot-high body rippling over the ground, ending in a coiled tail. Its horned head opens out to a large oval, as if it’s about to swallow it. Many think the large oval represents the sun being swallowed by the serpent because the giant maw faces due west.
When the sun of life sinks and the dark night rises, I know I am back in familiar yet frightening territory. My more recent soul journey through blackness started during 2009 with highly aggressive end-stage cancer; continued through a three-year divorce and the loss of my father to dementia; and culminated with the unthinkable: losing my 19-year-old son to a heroin overdose.
Yet during those two long years of cancer treatment, my friend Gary gave me a turkey feather. During the divorce process, I felt drawn to Serpent Mound, during which I had a waking dream: The oval filled with light, and in the center lay the body of a woman, radiance surging through her. She stood up, as if being born. I came to realize I was that radiant woman rising up out of the egg. My friend Margaret Klein heard this story and painted it for me. It became the cover for my third book, Thriver Soup: A Feast for Living Consciously During the Cancer Journey. And during a 2019 trip, tour guide Anneke Koremans gave me a little boat.
This June, when my friend Mica invited me to take a day trip to Serpent Mound, I knew it was time to return with gifts of gratitude to the Great Spirit for allowing me to survive the past eleven years.
At the mound, I sat with my back against an old tree and faced the undulating coils. I closed my eyes to meditate. I immediately found myself, in my mind’s eye, lying inside the oval. I heard the words “Life Boat.” And as if on cue, the “boat,” with me inside, slid uncontrollably into the mouth of the giant snake. I was trapped, powerless, terrified.
Night engulfed me again inside its terrible suffocating walls. Water sloshed under my Life Boat, forcing me forward. I sped through the serpent’s slimy body, rounding curves, getting splashed, ever aware of the shadowy energy of the snake. I clung to the sides of the oval and surrendered to the inevitable.
All the way to the coiled tail, and all the way back through, I hung onto life.
And then I slid back out of the mouth. I had survived. Just as I had survived the horrendous circumstances of my life.
Before leaving the park that day, I left the little boat—representing my Life Boat—and the turkey feather—representing the wings I’ve been given, as well as the wings my son Brennan gained when he flew to Heaven during 2015. It was time to let them go, to offer them to the Great Spirit, with gratitude for my survival and renewal.
A couple of days later, I found a snake skin on my drive-way. It’s the second time in my life I have encountered one, and this one was nearly intact. The Serpent had shed its old skin, transformed, and been reborn. As have I.
And today I saw a large bird of prey rise up out of my garden with a snake in its claws. The serpent was taking its final flight on feathered wings—like my son took his final flight into the heavens, carried by the wings of angels. Reborn on the Other Side.