As I lean against the wooden railing of the viewing platform eyeing the small dune perched on top a cliff of moraine, I ponder the legend of Sleeping Bear.
Created by Native Americans, the story describes a bear and her two cubs, fleeing a raging fire on the other side of Lake Michigan. The bears swim for hours and the cubs grow weary, falling further and further behind. Mother Bear reaches land and climbs the bluff, watching and waiting for her cubs to appear. I imagine her staring at the horizon, a thin line dividing a gray sky from a massive sheet of blue water, looking for two heads to break the surface. I hear her urging her cubs to swim harder, to stay strong, to stretch and reach land. Eventually she falls asleep, exhausted. Buried by sand, she remains today, looking to the lake, waiting, hoping. According to legend, the Great Spirit created North and South Manitou Islands, the place the cubs disappeared, to honor the love and devotion of Mother Bear.
At first, I am puzzled by the legend.
It strikes me strange Mother Bear would allow the cubs to fall so far behind, eventually disappearing from her view. Why would she not pause in the middle of the lake, place her weary cubs on her shoulders and carrying them until their little paws touched shore? Why would she save herself and not them? If she loved them, how could she just let go?
Gazing at a lake I have crossed by sailboat fifteen times, I know it is sixty miles across at this point, nine hours of sailing depending on wind. I know its deepest point lies over nine hundred feet below the keel of our sailboat. If Mother Bear had tried to carry her cubs, most likely their weight would have sunk her shoulders so far below the surface, all three would have drowned.
She saved the only life she could save. Her own. Perhaps that is the real story behind the legend. Perhaps the love and devotion of Mother Bear also required wisdom.
I think about my own family as I gaze west, staring absently across Lake Michigan’s silvery blue waters rippling with the dark lines of a light wind. Family is like a river flowing from my heart. It winds through me, cutting into the deepest core of my existence. How many times have I tried to carry loved ones on my shoulders indefinitely? Allowed the gray mist of their despair to sink into my own pores? Placed family first, ignoring my own physical, mental, and emotional health?
How many times have I almost drowned?
Perhaps, like Mother Bear, there are times I must swim for shore. Only when my feet are lodged securely in the sand can I help others; cheer for them, pray for their safety, offer my most heartfelt love. Hardest of all, sometimes I must have faith, let go, and live my own life.
Perhaps Mother Bear is honored by the Great Spirit because along with her love and devotion, Mother Bear knew when to let go.
Standing on top of the giant cliff staring at the outline of the Manitou Islands, I like to think the Great Spirit had a plan. Propelled by wind, waves, and current, the cubs bobbed and splashed across the deepest portion of the lake. Only when reaching the turquoise hue of shallower waters did they collapse. Sinking their tiny paws into the sandy bottom, the cubs created islands teaming with wildflowers, cedar trees, frogs, butterflies, insects, and birds. These islands of life exist because Mother Bear did not attempt to carry the weight of her family across the sixty mile stretch of deep, treacherous waters. She swam for shore.
I pray I will know when to do the same.
© 2012 by Mary M. Schmidt
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