Sarah came running in. ''Look what I found.'' Over the top of the paper I was reading came a crispy, crumbling long object that caused me to jump. It was a snake skin that had been shed by one of our many garden snakes.
''Isn't it beautiful?'' said my wide-eyed seven-year-old.
I stared at the organic wrapper and thought to myself that it really wasn't that beautiful, but I have learned never to appear nonchalant or jaded with children. Everything they see for the first time is elementary to their sense of beauty and creativity; they see only merit and excellence in the world until educated otherwise.
''Why does it do this?'' Sarah asked.
Robert, ever the innocent comedian, said: ''We have a naked snake in our garden!''
I also try to customize every opportunity to teach my children that there is almost always something beyond the obvious; that there is something else going on besides what they see in front of them.
''Snakes shed their skin because they need to renew themselves,'' I explained. As is so often the case in my family, the original subject leads to another and another, until we are discussing something quite different.
''Why do they need to renew themselves?'' Sarah asked.
Robert quipped: '' 'Cos they don't like who they are and they want to be someone else.''
Sarah and I politely ignored her brother. I suddenly remembered an article on this page many years ago where the writer was expressing her concept of renewal. She used layers of paper over a wall to describe how we hide our original selves, and said that by peeling away those layers one by one, we see the underlying original beneath.
''We often need to shed our skins, those coatings and facades that we cover ourselves with,'' I said to my now absorbed daughter. ''We outgrow some things and find other stuff unwanted or unnecessary. This snake no longer needs this skin. It is probably too stiff and crinkly for him, and he probably doesn't think he looks as smart in it as he once did. Like buying a new suit.''
Of course, I'm sure this explanation won't sit well with bona fide naturalists. But Sarah was getting the point. As we talked, I knew that she began to comprehend, albeit slightly, that renewal is part of progress; that we need to take a good look at ourselves, and our rooms and schoolwork and creativity and spirituality, and see what we need to keep and what we need to cast off. I was careful to point out that this is a natural process, not one to be forced.
''Snakes don't peel off their skin when they feel like it.'' I explained. ''It happens as a natural consequence of their growth.''
''I see, Dad,'' said Sarah and jumped off my lap, grabbed the snakeskin, and ran off.
I hoped she would remember this. That often, in order to find our real selves underneath the layers of community and culture with which we cloak ourselves year after year, we need to start examining these layers. We need to gently peel some away, as we recognize them to be worthless, unnecessary, or flawed; or at best, store the discarded ones as momentoes of our promotion to a better vitality or spirit. Poet Richard Purdy Wilbur hints at this in his lines from ''The Beautiful Changes'':
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon's tuning his skin to it.
Many things besides beauty may lie many skins deep.