What's Tony Thinking

From the Wallowas: Bears and Bearing One Another’s Burdens


We had a bear in the neighborhood yesterday evening.

It was the last evening of a visit of ten dear friends. We were sitting around our campfire. when one exclaimed, “That’s a bear!”

Sure enough, a handsome cinnamon bear was rounding a cabin about two hundred feet from us.

I found it thrilling.

It isn’t the first time we’ve had a bear around the cabin here, near the Lake. Two years ago, there was something resembling an influx. That year the snow pack had been low. Bears came down from the higher elevations in search of food and water.

Linda is more practical. “It’s not good for bears to be here.” She’s right. There’s a sign near the highway — put up after the influx of two years ago — that reads, “A fed bear is a dead bear.” If bears get used to feeding on garbage that hasn’t been secured, they soon become a nuisance. When that happens they are trapped and usually exterminated.

So Linda is right. Better if bears aren’t hereabouts. Still, I found it somehow wonderful to see this handsome fellow, maybe 190 pounds, padding around.

After the bear went back up the hill — no garbage to be found — we settled in again in our circle around the campfire as darkness gathered. But not for long. Thunder began to reverberate between Mt. Howard and Joseph Mountain, with lightning a few seconds behind. Summer thunderstorms up here are Wagnerian, lots of sturm and drang as the thunder reverberates between mountain peaks.

They are also a source of forest fires. But morning dawned with good news — no fires set by this lightning storm. Enjoy nature’s own fireworks!

It has been a good week with ten dear friends. Perhaps the twelveth year for this group to gather. For six years, or so, we met up over the 4th on Orcas Island in the Puget Sound. But when that home had to be given up, the group accepted our invitation to the Wallowas.

Our group is getting older. Our eldest just celebrated 80. Some are struggling with debilitating illnesses, like Parkinson’s. Others have lost the spouse/ mate of their lifetime. None of us are quite so “Let’s go!” as ten years ago. Still, we did a hike most every day. One day up the West Fork of the Wallowa River — lots of wildflowers.

Another day, we scaled Harkin’s Butte on the Zumwalt Prairie, the largest remaining uncultivated grassland prairie in North America. A third day we made it to the top of the East Moraine, alongside Wallowa Lake.

Not being so “hale and hardy” as we once were isn’t all bad. There’s a vulnerability to aging that is, in it’s own way, beautiful. Friends need help, if only that others of us move more slowly than we might otherwise.

My friend, Larry, saluted me a day after one hike. Working around his Parkinson’s induced tremors, he hoisted my hand as is done for the winning prize-fighter. He thanked everyone for their help on a recent hike, but singled me out. But the champion wasn’t me. It was him. He made it to the top of moraine.

While such an illness is really sad and hard, he and his loving wife are teaching the rest of us how to bear such a burden with grace and humor.

It seems to me that the impacts of aging and disability are softened by community. Rather than knowing a person by their diagnosis, they are known by their name and their story among us. As a corollary, aging and disability are more debilitating when community is weak or absent.

When my Dad, pretty deep in Alzheimers Disease, was in a care facility about a mile from where my Mom lived, a neighbor counseled her, with the best of intentions I’m sure, to consider him as dead and gone. “You have to let go,” he told her. “You should think of him as dead.” I took his point, but it was wrong.

How we hold each other amid the challenges and changes — and vulnerability — of aging is a test of our humanity and community.

In Galatians, chapter six, Paul counseled us, “To bear one another’s burdens.” Somewhat paradoxically, he then said a few verses later that, “Each one must carry their own load.” Can both be true? Yes, I think so.

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