I was nine when I got glasses, my first bra, and a purse. It was as though the site of a random nipple suddenly made my mom rush to the department store for the Womanhood Kit. We had just moved away from our family and the pine trees and rain of the Northwest to live in Northern California. My dad was traveling all the time for a new job. My mom had to find her way around a strange town with two little kids in tow. This was before cell phones or Google Maps or Uber, so getting lost with a two year old tended to just suck.
I was feeling my mom’s stress and stuffing it way down deep so she didn’t have to deal with my stress compounding her stress, but it didn’t work very well because I started crying myself to sleep.
The sound of crickets at night freaked me out.
And now I was the owl-faced nerd pulling up a bra strap with the hand that wasn’t holding her round, taupe, snakeskin-esque over-the-shoulder purse.
By the time I was in middle school a few years later, back in a town north of Seattle, I was the tallest girl and often the tallest kid in any class. I was wearing grown up plaids and sweaters, I had huge feet, and those damn glasses didn’t start to fit my face until about ten years later.
So coming of age happened young, and there was nothing fun, adventurous or sexy about it. For me, growing up was worry, and concern. It was feeling awkward, big, the kid who stepped on things and broke them, the kid who was too fat to fit in a ride.
I describe all this because recently the question arose of finding one’s spirit animal. A friend was telling me about a ritual she’d heard about, folks going to great lengths to find their spirit animal. She had been describing the ritual in some detail before she got to its end goal, and I was so surprised by what that goal was that I practically scoffed.
“Spirit animal,” I said. “That’s an easy one, isn’t it?”
She blinked, probably thinking I was scoffing at the idea of spirit animals in general rather than the ease of knowing one’s own.
“Do you know yours?” she asked.
Suddenly bashful, I fidgeted with my napkin. “Well… yeah. I think it’s a bear. I used to have dreams.”
To me, it was a no-brainer. Years ago, in the depths of depression, a bear appeared in a few dreams that had a significant quality. I don’t remember the plots but I do remember the relief when the bear would turn up in the dream, a protective force. The right dream at the right time can leave you with an emotion that is almost as strong as the real thing. The idea of having help made me feel stronger, eventually strong enough to move to the East Coast and create a completely different, much more interesting life.
And c’mon, bears are just badass. They’re devoted parents, cuddly as fuck, fierce and fearless, strong as any beast invented by Tolkien. They’re smart enough to sleep all winter, which, as someone who’s lived in mostly cold places her whole life, think is an excellent idea. And right alongside all that strength is a super mellow groove, just jammin’ along – okay maybe here I am a little influenced by Baloo.
I write fiction about bears, I have bearlike friends. But in spite of my total openness to the idea of a helper bear-spirit, until this conversation with the friend, I had never really reflected on the idea of embodying a bear’s energy. It was more like, this is the creature who shows up to comfort and urge me on. Not a creature I resemble.
Meditating on it, I discovered this silent, super sneaky, totally unacceptable resistance to the idea… “Because a bear is masculine.”
But think on it. Here I am, a woman in her mid-thirties who’s spent most of her adult life overcoming a childhood sense that “I am a troll.” I’m talking a lifetime of hiding my feet, sighing as I walk by the Juniors section, laughing at the idea of “the Boyfriend Jean” as though the man you’re dating is bigger than you are.
And not’s just about being physically robust – it’s about doing work most men are embarrassed to admit they don’t understand, looking over your shoulder to see if he notices you harmlessly flirting with someone else, covering up your cleavage at the office when you’d rather be on an island somewhere dressed like a total slut, stifling the metaphors and poetry and philosophy in your brain because they’ll call you “intense,” feeling like everyone at the party has devoted their lives to a cult of normalcy you abandoned somewhere after the third joint.
Now, the upside of being a big crazy bear of a woman? Guess who you want at your side at a bar late on a Friday night when a guy is hitting on you too hard. Guess who you want around when you’re not sure how to get home afterward. Guess who’s going to find the straightforward solution, say the tough truth, or stay silent when everyone else has started complaining?
I’m not saying any of this to brag. I’m sharing the possibility that you too could feel this wild-good. I sat there meditating on what it would feel like to be a bear, and I just started busting out of myself. It was the most exhilarating sensation. It was like my tits and my hair and my height and my might just busted forth in a furry, irresistible, merciless YES. The forest heard it and I rumbled with satisfaction deep in my fur.
Are you picking up on the crazy yet? Good! Go there too!
I hadn’t felt that ever before in my life, in fact, I’ve worked very hard, year after year, as I grow stronger, wiser and so on, to hide, stuff in, repress, clothe in multiple layers, the emerging bearforce (it’s a word now).
If I compared myself to an animal it was always, laughingly, to a bunny. A bunny is super feminine, in fact, thanks to Playboy, it’s iconically feminine. A bunny is meek, timid, hiding out until made to feel safe. A bunny is cute. A bunny is tiny.
A bunny is what a girl is supposed to be. A bear is what a girl is cursed to feel like – ala the mom in Brave.
I think most of us know, in the year 2018, that traditional gender roles suck and must die. My point is not to inquire into why a strong animal seems “masculine,” and why an animal with only defensive skills, like a rabbit, might seem “feminine”. At this point I think these questions can be answered with a simple, “Well duh.”
What is so exciting and moving and magnificent is what’s beyond that. On the other side of the wall of gender dumbness. On the other side of the wall is, Wow.
And I’m not talking about recognizing one’s strength. If you have this kind of struggle, it’s because your strength and its implications seem too present.
It’s about not having to hide anything.
On the other side of trying to be meek is being free to be strong. To be big. To be, at the risk of sounding like a 1960s feminist (apparently our society’s least favorite kind) furry. Wild, magnificent, fearless, and yeah, maybe now and then, crush a few pine cones just for the hell of it. Because you can. Because your paws are as big as my face.
I dig that groove.
Let yourself experience wild energies beyond the little spectrum that you think is available to you.
Let the forest hear you.