The lizard

Paul Fleckney

dry grass prickles     the balls of my feet
as I tread from house to hammock      hungry
     for silence and solitude               on passing
the woodshed a rustle alerts     my sensors

too loud for a bird
     too soft for a cat     a scaly tail
slithers into the dark     I halt        then a head
and two tiny webbed feet          permission

     to breathe
we are alike         this lizard and I
our skins     crave the sun     we run from
a crowd              when cornered 

we know better     than most
how to freeze         and here      with a full belly
and safe hiding place     what else must we do
     but take the alms of the day?

On page 83 of his magnificent book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, Dr Bessel van der Kolk takes the reader to a pet shop: ‘Kittens, puppies, mice and gerbils constantly play around, and when they’re tired they huddle together, skin to skin, in a pile. In contrast, the snakes and lizards lie motionless in the corners of their cages, unresponsive to their environment.’ Van der Kolk explains that when a mammal perceives a threat in their environment, their first response is to signal for help. In the absence of a response from others, the limbic brain then kicks in triggering the fight or flight response. Reptiles lack both these autonomous defence mechanisms. Their only option in the face of danger is to immobilise, to freeze. For many traumatised people, when faced with a threat, both the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system shut down, leaving the reptilian part of the brain, the brainstem, to take over. 

For many trauma survivors, acceptance can be a crucial step towards recovery. This poem explores part of my own journey of acceptance and how sometimes we can find understanding where we least expect it.

Paul Fleckney lives on Dja Dja Wurrung country in central Victoria. He is a writer, poet, researcher, educator, and urban planner. Paul teaches at the University of Melbourne and is researching how adolescents’ experiences of the public realm can impact on their mental health and wellbeing. 

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