How to Ride a Crocodile

When I first heard the story of Akhilandeshvari, my teenage daughter’s life was at stake. There’s not a pleasant way to talk about this, but every day there was a possibility of her extinguishing her own life. She had attempted and survived multiple times, the most recent attempt at the time was a vehicular attempt. Although she had crawled out of my upside-down and crushed Toyota Rav 4 miraculously unscathed, I was still spinning. At age sixteen, my only child had dropped out of school after being bullied as a gay boy, which she wasn’t. She was a transgender girl.

I had no idea where we were. I wanted a map, but we didn’t even have breadcrumbs yet. I just knew we were lost in perilous territory. My parasympathetic nervous system was wracked from being vigilant. We lived alone, so I was the only one there to hide pills, ropes and knives, the only one there to assess ordinary household objects for the ability to harm and the only one there to listen in the night. I was terrified.

During this time, a friend told me a story about the Hindu deity, Akhilandeshvari. She described her as the goddess who rides a crocodile down the river. Crocs are known for dragging their prey underwater and spinning them to death. My friend suggested Akhilandeshvari’s crocodile stead was not unlike my own reptilian brain where fear resides. “Maybe you could ride it” she said. And that was the first helpful thing anyone had said to me in a long time. Well-meaning people repeatedly told me these things: 1. My kid SHOULD be in school, which I KNEW. 2. She NEEDS professional help, which she HAD. 3. Try not to be afraid, which was preposterous.

Number three was the worst; it made sense to be afraid. Who could ditch fear in these circumstances? “Maybe you could ride it” was much better than advice; it was an invitation to try. So I tried. I imagined myself at one with this Hindu deity. I pictured myself as Akhilandeshvari, riding the crocodile bareback through a roiling river: grasping some sort of tattered leather reins, leaning into the next muddy rapid, gripping with my inner-thighs so fiercely that the scales embedded themselves into my flesh. A harrowing ride to be sure, but a ride. I was no longer spinning, no longer underwater. The image helped. Imagining helped.

Slowly over the next few years, circumstances with my daughter softened. After her third stay in a psych hospital, she came out to other family members and friends. Although she still looked liked like a tall, handsome teenage boy to the rest of the world, inside she was moving slowly but surely in the direction of being herself. And I was better and better at riding the crocodile. For a while, I almost forgot about it.

But one day, at the sight of a leather belt left on my kitchen table, I was spinning again. From my perspective, belts had lost their innocence. Fear pulled me underwater with a story, a story that had been true once, but was not true that day. I will kill your daughter, said the belt. Desperate, I called to Akhilandshvari by googling her. I was surprised by the images that came up. Only one of them, a contemporary image, looked somewhat like the Akhilandeshvari I'd imagined. Riding in roiling water on her large-jawed stead, she appears strong but river-beaten. But the rest, all of the traditional images, presented a scene which probably would have never occurred to me.

In these pictures, Akhilandshevari rides her crocodile seated in lotus position with a smile on her face and her posture erect. Her face is serene, as is the river beneath her. She wears a crown on her head and an embroidered dress. She looks pleased, the croc looks tame. One of her four hands holds a lotus blossom and another holds a perfectly balanced pot, presumably with incense for an offering. Her lower right hand is raised with the palm facing out and the lower left is dropped, palm open, showing her lack of weapons. Together these two hands make a mudra associated with peace and protection.

“So, there’s another way to ride the crocodile...“ I thought. I started trying to ride it like that, with a modicum of grace. And now I can, some of the time. I’m still practicing. Last week I couldn’t. I lost my balance, my composure, my lotus blossom and my crown all at once. I had fallen in the river, so I clambered back on the scaly back and rode it the other way, with gripping thighs. Turns out, I’m can still ride it like that. I’m glad to have options.

Learning to ride the crocodile from Akhilandeshvari addressed two lies: 1. The lie of the word “fearless” as applied to any statement that has to do with real life. Fear is a companion to living. 2. The lie of fear’s dominance.

There is yet another way to ride. In one image, Akhilandeshavri rides standing, but in this image her body is also cracked into pieces reflecting her name which means “never not broken”. Divine light is flooding through all of the cracks, and she holds a scepter. Her reptilian stead, who appears to be riding a river of stars, gazes up at her in awe. It’s aspirational, but I don’t mind telling you that I hope to ride my own crocodile like that someday. I’ve already got all the cracks. Next week I turn fifty, and I hope someone gives me a scepter.

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