My dogs barked from somewhere deep—a throaty, primal sound I’d never heard from them before—and bolted off the bed. I could feel the bristling of their fur as the two of them leapt down and lunged toward the door. Whatever was outside was no ordinary night visitor, no standard-fare raccoon or opossum. I checked the clock. It was just shy of 4 a.m.
I had been asleep for only two hours, having driven home that April night in 2006 from Birmingham, Alabama, where I was the storyteller at a national church conference. I’m often invited to preach and teach and lead retreats—but this had been my first request to tell stories. I was working on embracing this new vocation. I was just weeks away from leaving nine years of regional ministry, feeling some anxiety about giving up a regular salary with health benefits, but knowing that I needed to take this leap of faith to write the stories and the novel that had been marinating in me for some time.
I opened the sliding-glass door and walked out onto my upper deck, where I came face to face with the source of the dogs’ agitation. The black bear was medium-sized, clinging to a tree trunk and staring me in the eyes. I was close enough to feel the musky heaviness of its smell and to hear its breathing. After a while, it began snorting at me, blowing air in sustained puffs that made its lips flap in and out.
I was too fascinated to feel any fear. Even more so when I looked up and spied two small cubs in the upper branches of the tree. And then I gazed down. At the base of the trunk was a huge bear. A family, I thought. Mama and Papa bear with their cubs, on a little nocturnal outing to my beech tree.
Three days later I was part of an interfaith panel on spirituality, along with a Jewish rabbi, a Sufi Muslim, a Native American elder, and a practitioner of Appalachian folk medicine—all of whom I was meeting for the first time. Over lunch that day, I shared with them about the visitation of the bears. The Native American, a gracious Lumbee woman, said to me, “You know about bears, don’t you?”
I knew nothing about bears.
“In our tradition,” she said, “the bear is the only animal that cannot be summoned. You can call a deer or an eagle, but you cannot call a bear. When a bear comes to you, it’s because it has a message.”
The Appalachian woman chimed in, “And do you know how incredibly rare it is to see four of them at once?”
I had no idea. I told her that they seemed like a pretty traditional bear family to me. But she explained that the male bears don’t stay with their families. “What you were likely seeing,” she said, “were two newborn cubs, their yearling older sister, and their mother.” She paused and then added, “You know about the number four, don’t you?”
I knew as much about the number four as I knew about bears.
“The number four stands for completion,” she explained. “Those bears were coming to tell you that something in your life is being completed, and it’s a good thing. You can be at peace about it.”
I would have been in awe of the visitation, even without the interpretation of these two strangers who became sisters in the Great Mystery. That they had no idea about the transition going on in my life just amplified my sense of wonder.
Not long ago, I gathered with some friends to learn about the Medicine Wheel, a Native American healing ritual based on symbols and seasons. With the mountains draped in a light mist, and the leaves arrayed in peak hues of red and gold, we stood together in a field. Each of us in the group of a dozen was invited to position ourselves on the edge of the large wheel, which was outlined in rocks, according to our date of birth.
I discovered that my birthday is one of the four touchstones of the wheel: the westernmost point, marking the autumnal equinox. The symbol for this point, I learned, is the bear. On the Medicine Wheel, the bear invites us into fall, a time of introspection. The bear leaves “real time” for a while and hibernates, slowing its breathing while the creation creeps through a cycle of dying.
The invitation for this season is to slow down and go deeper, to let go of what’s extraneous, to examine the soul and be at peace. I’m working on it, but distractions are legion. I’m hoping that the bears will stop by again when their long sleep is over and the earth is reawakening to spring. There will be stories to tell, I’m sure.