A couple of weeks ago a black bear surprised me. Showed up on my deck seeking the origin of that bird seed he must have gotten a whiff of down in the woods. It was my fault really. It’s late spring and the thought had crossed my mind that my neighbors, the bears, would be out of hibernation by now. And looking for food. But I hadn’t yet taken in the feeder.
When I heard the heavy thump, thump, thump up my deck stairs I thought my son, who was home from college, had returned home for the evening. But it was only 11 o’clock, so that was unusual. Even more unusual — when I peeked out at the front door, Davis didn’t appear under the porch light. I waited. No Davis. That’s when I got scared.
Although I feel safe here surrounded by trees, this was one of those rare moments when I wasn’t feeling too secure. I turned on the deck lights, phone in hand, just in case. A tall, black figure stood on my deck, facing out towards the woods.
“Someone’s out there,” I thought. “And he’s wearing a black cape!”
For a brief moment, I wondered if a deranged person had found my hideaway in the woods. But then it struck me that he hadn’t turned around when I’d flipped on the lights. I stared just a bit longer before realizing it was a black bear intent on figuring out how to get to the bird feeder hanging from the iron hook extended off the deck. He finally wrenched that hook right off the railing, plunked himself down, and proceeded to take apart my squirrel-proof feeder that had so far survived the jumping and swinging antics of numerous rodents, fierce windstorms, and just about every other force of Nature. That is, until Mr. Bear came along. And Mr. Bear had none of the protocol I use when carefully unwrapping a present, hoping to reuse the bow and paper. Within minutes, he demolished that feeder and made himself comfortable as he feasted on sunflower seeds.
Perched on my spot on the living room rug with its floor-to-ceiling windows I had a wide view of the action. I watched until Mr. Bear finished his meal. Just wanted to be sure he didn’t intend to join me inside after he was through. The thing about it is, it was exciting to watch him. I’d never been this close to a bear. I’ve occasionally spotted bears on my hillside, but always from a safe distance. None of them have ever dared venture onto my porch or deck. Until now.
Once again the writer in me grew curious about the metaphor. I discovered that in Native American culture, the bear has the qualities of being free in spirit and unpredictable. It symbolizes protection, strength, power, courage, motherhood, and discernment — this last quality a surprise to me, but it comes from the bear’s cautiousness. And, despite its size, a bear prefers peace and tranquility and is therefore considered a symbol of harmony and balance.
I recognize these qualities in the steps I’ve taken in this journey of my heart, especially that of discernment. Certainly my days of quiet and solitude here in the woods have provided a necessary time for discernment. Not that it has been easy to spend so much time alone over the past couple of years, questioning my purpose, seeking the next steps on my journey. In fact, at times it’s been downright painful. But I believe that Spirit brought me to this isolated place because it’s where I needed to be in order to seriously question, to truly seek, and to listen to the inner voice of love guiding my heart forward. There are times when going underground is necessary.
Two of my favorite more contemporary spiritual writers, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, valued solitude and considered it a necessary part of “conversion.” Nouwen called solitude “ the furnace of transformation” — a path that offers spiritual guidance in rediscovering “the way of the heart.” For Merton, solitude was a necessity in his hunger for intimacy with God. Through solitude he discovered the path to compassion and empathy.
I believe that I, too, have begun to discover my capacity for compassion through solitude, which led me to discern to serve in El Paso and recently to San Antonio. Could it be these times of solitude have freed my spirit to follow the way of my heart? To gain inner strength and be more courageous in going where I do not know? To simply pray for guidance and follow?
It’s been a hard place to stand — this in-between place — teetering on the threshold of the life I’ve known on one side and the who-knows-what life on the other side.
It can feel lonely to be in that in-between place, not sure where home is anymore. And yet I don’t feel lonely. I feel as though I am waking up to an aliveness stirring within me.
Alive. That’s what I felt living on the border. Alive with the people and the presence, the dirt and the heat, the simplicity and the generosity. Alive in the recognition of my gifts that showed up in surprising ways. Just like Mr. Bear.
Alive. It’s the same word I used to describe my experience in Peru last November. During one of the native sacred rituals I participated in, the first word that popped out of my mouth was “alive!”
And, just like Mr. Bear, I’m ready to venture out. Out of the woods. Out of the dark cave. Awake. Alive. Ready to follow the scent of what feeds me.