Bear Woman

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

In her book "An Unspoken Hunger" Terry Tempest Williams tells a story of a man who returned from World War II and went hunting in Wyoming. She tells it better than I could.
"He came home from the war and shot a bear. He had been part of the Tenth Mountain Division that fought on Mount Belvedere in Italy during World War II. When he returned home to Wyoming, he could hardly wait to get back to the wilderness. It was fall, the hunting season. He would enact the ritual of man against animal once again. A black bear crossed the meadow. The man fixed his scope on the bear and pulled the trigger. The bear screamed. He brought down his rifle and found himself shaking. This had never happened before. He walked over to the warm beast, now dead, and placed his hand on its shoulder. Setting his gun down, he pulled out his buck knife and began skinning the bear that he would pack out on his horse. As he pulled the fur coat away from the muscle, down the breasts and over the swell of hips, he suddenly stopped. This was not a bear. It was a woman."
This story was strange to me when I first read it. A woman wearing a bear skin? I guess strange things like it have happened before. I know the Celtic tale of a woman who wore a seal skin, lost it, and found it again. I know stories of women inside trees, inside wolves, inside snakes. Woman inside Bear? Its mythologically both possible and plausible.

I happened upon this story as I was sifting through thoughts about my own body shame and self-worth. The putting them together made the other seemingly dance with excitement. "Yes," I thought, "there is an answer here."

I think through my life, about my experience of being in this body. How many times have I found myself wandering into a metaphorical meadow? Plenty. Its unapologetically joyful. Times when I have wandered up into the black, rocky hills of Henderson to do some yoga, just the lizards and I saluting the sun. Or when I walked the trail behind my home in Arizona, talking to Palo Verde, Mesquite, Quail, Opuntia and Saguaro. Or even when I climbed a trail in Cottonwood Canyon, and stopped at a flat rock that jutted out far enough to stand on so I could yell to the world what was in my heart. I still remember the words.

I am Channing Parker.
I do not believe the things you say about me.
I am not who you say I am.
I am strong.
I am smart.
I am beautiful.
I am brave.
I know that now,
and nothing can every take it away from me.

I walked down from that ledge tasting the salt of my tears weeping in from the corners of my mouth. I did not wipe them. I knew there were more meadows to cross.

How many times have I found myself, this bearskin body, under a the scope of predator's eyes? I've heard countless comments about the body I live in - about my mysterious green eyes, my hair so short I look like a boy, my boobs too big for a 14 year old, a 16 year old, an 18 year old. "You are so lucky to have such small feet," someone said to me once. I said "thanks" but I wanted to ask if they knew about the ancient Chinese practice of foot binding and did they know, did they know, this world can make any part of the body about sex? What does it matter, since I am too thin, I have no hips to grab onto when making lust in the back seat of a Jeep. "Bodies get you lost in the ways of the world, so keep them covered." I remember being told as a young woman. I knew that was bologna the day I heard it, but I listened anyway. I am almost thirty now. I can tell you this: no amount of clothes ever saved me.

I once walked home to my blue house on Holick Street after dropping off my siblings at summer camp at our elementary school. I was wearing blue pajama pants and a teal tank top, both with cartoon puppies printed on them, even though my parents said not to. I felt so rebellious and justified in my 13 year old wisdom. "See? Nothing bad happens when I wear these cute pjs out!" I thought. I crossed the street, my house three down from the corner. Just then, a man pulled up to the corner in a beat-up brown car to ask me for directions. I was polite and helpful, as I was taught a girl should be.

"Just follow this street straight and turn left, then right at the light," I said.
"I can't hear you!" he said, so I repeated myself in a yell.
"Come closer, I still can't hear you!" he said.

My bearskin hair stood up a bit, but I brushed it down, told myself to be nice,
to listen to that man
who was after all, just asking for directions.

I walked cautiously to the car, repeating myself again,
when I saw his face turn from a questioning gaze
to that of a leery smile.

"Can you see what I'm holding?" he asked.
I looked, not realizing yet that this was a game
and I was the prey.
But it wasn't a gun he held.
It was himself,
exposed above the waistband of his camo shorts.

I was a good girl
and in that moment I remembered that good girls don't talk to strange men in cars.
I was afraid, so I turned and ran.
The man laughed maniacally and drove away in the opposite direction.

I hid behind the large black trash can in the side yard of my neighbor's home.
When I felt like it was safe, I went home.
I threw those blue dog pajamas in the trash.
I went to my room and picked up my cello, practiced until my fingers grew blisters.
I had not grown callouses there yet.

I told no one,
because when you aren't a good girl anymore,
you don't announce it.

I had betrayed my bear skin. It had tried to keep me safe, and I ignored it. I took it off that day, tossing it into a corner with my innocence and naivete. I've worn other skins since. Girl inside Chameleon. Girl inside Badger. Woman inside Rock. None of them fit well.

For most of my life, I've distracted myself from the call of my stuffed-away bearskin. Who is my new boyfriend? My next one night stand? Move to college. Will this boy I'm dating marry me? Yes! Get my first office job. Now I'm getting married. Wooo, marriage is not what I thought it would be. Distract myself some more. Then have a baby. Babies are hard. My body is making me uncomfortable again. Better have another baby. Kids are hard. Shiz is getting real, I want out of this body. Mmmkay now that I know I have OCD, anxiety, depression, and C-PTSD, lets make things fun and...

"No. It has to stop." I said to myself soon after I moved into my new home in Utah. So began my torpor. No writing. No huge life changes. No undertaking of great philosophical and theological issues. Only rest.

I have rested like I was awake for one hundred years and never slept. I have mended and licked my wounds. I have dreamed dreams. I have asked questions and waited for answers. Elise, if you're reading this, the lipstick is the bearskin. This is power: presence in the wild nature of the body.

This week I find myself face-to-face with Bear. She is begging me to remember, remember that this body is my one and only home. It comes with me wherever I go. I can't trade it in, move out and buy up. There are no "starter bodies". Just this one, magic, wild, and precious.

Bear is the one who puts strength in my words. When someone tells my daughter to put on a shirt or close her legs when she's wearing a dress, I growl, "Its just a body. She is fine. Leave her alone." When my son shows off his new undies now that he's learning to use the big boy potty and everyone tells him to pull up his pants, my claws protrude a bit, and through a bared-teeth smile I say, "Its just a bum. Everyone has one. Its just a little baby bum." When my daughter breaks the growth plate in her elbow being rough on the swing set, but she's scared to tell me it hurts because she's already had a broken arm twice, I say, "Its your job to take care of your body. It is my job to help you learn how. I am your mama. I will always help you." I am mama bear. My children's bodies are not what you say they are. They are their own. It is my mantle to teach them that, so they know and never forget. So they never have to dismember and remember.

Bear is the one who holds me in her giant paws and says, "You listen to me, girl. You've got legs to move you faster than the trees can whisper secrets to each other in the breeze. Your eyes can see far - in depth, not distance, and you can bring up truths from the waters of a black river like a glistening rainbow trout. Your ravenous appetite is a gift. Those claws you call fingers are long for a reason - hunt down your answers and fiercely protect the precious things in your heart. Days will come when you must stand at full height and speak your native tongue. Say it with love and the earth will shake."

"I want to believe you," I say, "but I am not ready." She leads me to the mirror where my naked face and body stand before me. She shuts my mouth before I can speak. She knows all the things I will say. In the reflection I see her slowly pull one arm in close to her body, and the bearskin there falls limp, like a void sleeve of a jacket. She does it again on the other side, then lifts herself up out of the skin. I am staring at a woman - green eyes, brown hair, full breasts now limp. I would not dare call them pancake boobs like I call mine. I begin to cry.

"I am not ready!" I say, mouth open wide like a roar. "This body has seen too much. Remember all the times I lost my voice? 10 years of regular strep, throat abcesses, and eventual tonsillectomy? Remember when I was too afraid to speak, to move, to live? Remember the hallways and corners of my childhood home? Remember the bleeding at my babies' births? Can't you see the blood even still? Look at the scars on my left shoulder. I put them there when I was 14, when no one believed I had seen too much. Look at my heart ripped open, the pieces scattered everywhere from Vegas to Phoenix to the Great Salt Lake. People like me have no business being bears."

Bear Woman laughed.

She laughed at me.

"Are you not Channing Parker, smart, strong, brave, and beautiful? I heard you say it yourself on that mountaintop two years ago. I've been waiting until you are ready. Now I am here."

I felt the familiar prickle of Saguaro in my heart. When I left Phoenix, she had promised to hold me for as long as I needed. She was here now, to tell me it was okay to let go. "You will always be a queen of the desert," she said, "just not the one you left behind. But we always welcome royalty here." There are times it is dumb to hug a cactus. This was not one.

I faced Bear Woman
and promised:

"I will run to keep my legs strong.
I will eat when I am hungry.
I will rest when I am weary.
I will protect the weak
and roam this world with open eyes
and a heart wide and wild as the plains.
I will visit the rivers, lakes, and oceans
when I need to heal.
When necessary,
I will make myself tall and roar,
but these big paws will walk gently upon this earth
and weave in and out of the lives of those near me
with the quiet humility of a dove.

I am ready.
Teach me."

Bear Woman smiled, and held my very own coat of black, soft fur out to me.
It looked like the kind of bearskin I'd like to lay on naked in front of a roaring fireplace in winter.

"No amount of clothes ever saved me," I said to Bear Woman and smiled.
"Have you ever seen a bear with clothes?" she asked.

We laughed, together now.
© Channing B. Parker. Design by FCD.