When we are on a journey through personal growth and transformation, we need to be alert to the lessons and revelations life provides. A camping trip, and a hungry bear, taught me that trusting the soft power of my feminine being was wiser than competing on male terms. The excerpt that follows, titled ‘Cookie Monster’, is a chapter from my latest book, Broth from the Cauldron: A Wisdom Journey through Everyday Magic.
As soon as Elie and I pulled into the campground in upper Yosemite, we knew there was going to be bear trouble. Little sparkling rounds of car window glass were piled as high as a gnome king’s diamond stash in the parking place beside our campsite.
Even in the summer when the Yosemite Valley floor was packed with tourists and the smoke from their combined campfires created a haze to rival the worst days in the LA basin, these upper campgrounds didn’t usually fill up. Partly this was because they were primitive: pit toilets, no showers, no electrical hookups. And partly it was because of the bears, which in the backcountry are plentiful, and fearless. They are the trolls under the bridge of the wilderness, and they expect a tithe from those who come to share in their territory.
We became more nervous when we saw the bear in question winding through flowering shrubs with her three cubs. Having been camping since I was a kid, the sight of bears was familiar and not scary to me. But I knew that mother bears, being fiercely protective of their young, could be aggressive, especially toward anyone who inadvertently steps between a mother and her cub. In those circum- stances, they often attack first and ask questions later. So as Elie and I continued our hike, we sang, whistled, and talked loudly so as not to take the bears by surprise. We made dinner while it was still light, and carefully hung our food from a tree. We made sure there was no gear anywhere on our car seats that could be mistaken for food. Of course, we knew not to have food in our tent. But we weren’t sleeping in a tent. The weather was so gorgeous we had decided to just put our sleeping bags on the ground. Now, viewing the shards of glass near our parking space, we had some minor second thoughts about our decision.
As it grew dark, our neighbor at the next campsite invited us over for cocoa and cookies. His wife had brought some awesome homemade chocolate chip cookies and the hot cocoa with marsh- mallows kept us warm as the night deepened. After a while the wife took their two young kids to the tent to put them to bed. Elie and I continued to sit around the picnic table with our gregarious neighbor.
“These cookies are so great,” I enthused, helping myself to another one.
“Yeah. I’ll bet he’d like one,” the man said, gesturing toward the end of the table. I followed where he was pointing and saw a bear just past the end of the table, nostrils flared with interest. I looked at Elie and the other guy with alarm. They were continuing to laugh and joke as if nothing were wrong.
Fine, I thought to myself. If they’re not excited, I’m not excited. I’m not going to be the girl and get all scared and anxious. So I simply nodded and said coolly, “Yeah, I’ll bet he would.”
Now you have to realize that in my twenties, I had quite the feminist chip on my shoulder. Like many women in the 1970s, I had experienced severe sexual harassment, been fired from jobs for not sleeping with the boss, and experienced other consequences of sexism. I had begun lowering the timbre of my voice, convinced that men responded to lower tones as being authoritative. And I was determined to show no weakness that would give any man the ability to dismiss me as “just a girl.” So I crossed my arms beneath my chest and tried to look casual. These guys think they’re tough? HA! I’ll show them tough.
The bear began slowly moving around the corner of the table. I kept a smile on my face. The bear sniffed my lower back as it went by. No big deal, I said to myself. The bear padded silently past Elie and then—WHAM! A huge paw slammed down onto the table, right on top of the cookies. Elie and the other camper jumped up as the bear dragged the plate of cookies over the end of the table. The other camper whacked the bear on the nose with a newspaper as if it was an unruly dog, and the bear scampered off with a mouthful of cookies.
“Holy shit! Did you see that!” the man exclaimed. “That bear came out of nowhere!” Elie said.
“What do you mean, out of nowhere?” I said. “You were just talking about him!” “No, we weren’t. What are you talking about?”
I gestured at our new friend who was shakily stacking the remaining cookies back on the plate. “You pointed right at him! You said, ‘I’ll bet he’d like one.’ Then I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll bet he would.’” “I was talking about my son—in the tent—he can’t get enough of these cookies,” the man explained.
“You saw the bear and you didn’t say anything?” Elie asked incredulously. “Why would you do that?”
Then I realized that the bright light of the Coleman lantern on the table had blinded them to the darkness beyond it. Only I, seated near the end of the table, had seen the bear. While I was competing, they were oblivious. I looked at the guys, their heads cocked, waiting for an explanation, and right then, I got how incredibly stupid it was for me to try to “prove” myself to men by competing with them and trying to look tough.
I stopped chasing after tough. I allowed my voice to return to its normal soprano range. Instead of being soft on the inside and wearing a hard shell on the outside, I allowed my softness to show on the outside and became strong on the inside. My vision of strong was no longer tough: it was flexible, like the willow for which the path of Wicca is named. It was firm and loving rather than defiant and competitive. I began describing the power I was acquiring, and teaching others to acquire, as “soft power.” And the strange thing is, the more I softened, trusting in my true strength, strong enough to express myself compassionately, the more respect I got—from men and women both.
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Excerpted from Broth from the Cauldron: A Wisdom Journey through Everyday Magic by Cerridwen Fallingstar. © 2020 by Cerridwen Fallingstar. She Writes Press, a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.
Cerridwen Fallingstar is a shamanic Witch who has taught classes in magic and ritual for over thirty years. She gives lectures tying together psychology, spirituality, history, contemporary issues, and politics in an entertaining, enlightening, and humorous format. She is the author of Broth from the Cauldron: A Wisdom Journey through Everyday Magic as well as three historical novels based on her past lives: The Heart of the Fire, White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Fox Sorceress, and White as Bone, Red as Blood: The Storm God. She lives in Marin County, California.