Cole is thrilled when his parole officer, Garvey, and Edwin, the Tlingit man who facilitates Cole’s banishment on a remote Alaskan island, pull strings to allow Cole to serve his sentence on the island rather than go to jail for assaulting a classmate named Peter. At the beginning of Cole’s second attempt at banishment, Edwin goes to great lengths to try to introduce rituals and a form of spirituality that, in Edwin’s opinion, will help Cole let go of his anger and make his time on the island more meaningful. Rituals, Edwin suggests, provide a person a way to channel their energy and process their emotions in a way that’s healthy and therefore fulfilling. As Cole comes to see the benefits of creating rituals for himself, Touching Spirit Bear proposes that introducing rituals into one’s life can help a person better manage their emotions and create meaning in the midst of hardship and confusion.
At first, Cole engages in a negative ritual of his own. He lives in a cycle of committing a crime, going to a detention center, and getting out again—but this comes to a sudden end when Cole’s parents get divorced about a year before the events of the novel. Unwilling to work together and faced with the shocking violence of Cole’s most recent crime, Cole’s parents refuse to spend the money to get Cole out of trouble, forcing him to take responsibility for his actions for the first time ever. The beginning of the novel as a whole, then, reflects a process of breaking down all the violent habits and toxic rituals that Cole engaged in. As his family breaks up and as his life seemingly implodes, Cole must begin the difficult process of looking to different places and different people as he attempts to find his place in the world. Cole’s journey to Alaska begins in his hometown of Minneapolis, where he participates in a number of “circles” in which a Keeper facilitates conversations with the community about how they should deal with Cole’s crime. The circles inherent to the Circle Justice program are a ritual all their own—but because Cole is still too caught up in trying to return to his life of crime, he’s unwilling to take the circles seriously.
When Cole returns to the Alaskan island six months after his botched first attempt—this time, with the intention of taking it seriously—Edwin, who went through the Circle Justice program as a young person himself, begins to introduce Cole to the idea of developing new rituals for himself so that he can better control his anger. Edwin believes that it’s impossible for a person to entirely get rid of their anger, but through employing the right rituals, it’s possible to train oneself to make better choices. Thus, for the three days that Edwin is with Cole on the island, he makes Cole soak in a freezing cold pond with him, carry a rock representing his ancestors up a hill, roll the rock down the hill to represent rolling away his anger, and finally, dance around a fire every night to reflect on what he learned during the day. He also suggests that Cole take up carving, something that he suggests is a meditative process. In doing so, Edwin hopes to instill a kind of ritualistic discipline in Cole that will help the young man learn to channel his pent-up aggression in a more productive way.
Cole initially finds Edwin’s ritual silly and uncomfortable—but he quickly begins to see that these practices can help him feel ready for his day in the morning and sleep better at night, things he struggled with in the detention center. He even finds that the soak makes his scars (which he acquires from being mauled by the titular Spirit Bear) from hurt less. Having something—anything—to do every morning during his banishment is a good thing in and of itself. Cole continues to experiment with these rituals even after Edwin and Garvey leave him to his own devices. He begins to see the true power of ritual when, on the first morning he doesn’t go for his soak and hike, he feels inexplicably angry and begins to carve a canoe to escape. Because Cole has already begun to change his thinking, however, he recognizes the danger in this—and so he begins carving a totem pole instead. In other words, the new rituals that Edwin helped Cole create offer Cole the tools he needs to manage his emotions and continue the process of breaking his old habits—and ultimately, to live a healthier, more fulfilled life. With this, Touching Spirit Bear makes the case that while rituals can be positive or negative, if people want to be able to manage their negative emotions and get the most out of their lives, it’s important to create rituals that help a person find comfort and stability in lives that otherwise seem confusing and difficult. Creating rituals, whatever those particular rituals might be, is one way in which people can take control of their lives and change for the better.
Ritual Quotes in Touching Spirit Bear
“I did care about you. But helping others is how I help myself.”
“You need help?” Cole asked, surprised.
Garvey nodded. “I see a lot of myself in you. When I was your age, I spent five long years in prison for things I’ll go to my grave regretting. I lived my early years here in Drake, but no one cared enough to take me through Circle Justice.” He shook his head with a sad smile. “Take my word for it, jail scars the soul. And I was never able to help those I hurt.”
So, unless I go somewhere and freeze every morning, I’ll keep getting mad, huh?”
Edwin smiled but shook his head. “You only look at the left end of the stick and at the cloudy sky now because your experiences in life have made that a habit. Happiness, like anger, is also a habit. You learn to be happy one day at a time. But habits change hard. This pond will help you.”
“I just realized that I’m not a bad person. Nobody is,” he said. “People are just scared and do bad things. Sometimes people hurt each other trying to figure things out.” Cole gazed into the flames. “I hate what Dad does to me, but he must be just as scared as I am. He doesn’t want to be mean; he just doesn’t know any better.”
The next morning Cole hiked alone to the pond. He soaked as long as he could, his calmness shaken by how terrified Peter was of him. How could he have once wanted someone to feel that way? No matter how deeply he breathed, soaking failed to take away his troubled thoughts.