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The River Poets

The night she had her moment her uptight jawbone unhinged like a cobra gobbling up her customary talk of nature and her sons. The words golden and verdant remained a lumpy, ratlike meal at her throat as she opened up again and with a great deal of force pushed out the phrase, "big black d*ck."
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The night she had her moment her uptight jawbone unhinged like a cobra gobbling up her customary talk of nature and her sons. The words golden and verdant remained a lumpy, ratlike meal at her throat as she opened up again and with a great deal of force pushed out the phrase, "big black dick."

I hung in the back. It wasn't that a seventeen year old couldn't be a River Poet. Surely I was pretentious enough. But for all my post-pot poetic bravado, screaming out bits of verse on Main Street, inside, I was still shyly terrified to recite anything I had written to a group of sober strangers.

I was also one of the prettiest girls in the room. Dressed in my ridiculous printed polyester mid-90's thrift dress, my long dark hair shone bright beneath the plastic baby barrettes and my cheekbones, two serious glass-cutters, perched on the smooth of my white skin.

She was...well, she exists to me now as a memory which was forged by my 17 year old perception. So, old. And no longer very pretty. Her hair was a whitish blonde and cropped short, not so unlike some of my friend's pixies. The difference was, it sat atop a face that had seen the carving of time. The wear showed, not deeply or saggy, but in tight angry jags between her eyebrows and the corners of her mouth. She often wore turtlenecks and sensible shoes. She was the age I am now. My time-travel peer of 38 years.

Even absent of a more mature perspective, I knew I was bearing witness to something profound the night she decided to go off-script. Normally, when her name, which I cannot remember, was called, I settled into a deeply selfish conversation in my head while making sure to narrow my eyes in a way that indicated artistic attention. The sound of her voice reminded me of librarians and NPR. She often talked about the amount of work that went into a poem (an idea that, at 17, seemed treasonous to me) or about how a particular piece was inspired by the Susquehanna or the wildflowers in her yard.

That night, it was immediately apparent something was different. The air was charged with the excitement of new lovers about to take the plunge. I clicked off my private mental fantasy and began paying attention just in time to hear her read an original about riding on the back of her lover's motorcycle, drunk on red wine, long hair blowing in the New York City wind. By the time she was on to big black dick, there was a flush peeking its way out of her turtleneck. This was not embarrassment's rouge. No, it was reclamation. Taking back something that belonged to her, something that was either lost or stolen.

Throughout my twenties, I rarely thought of her. That evening served as a dim point of reference in the occasional disingenuous conversation with an equally young and beautiful woman lamenting over gaining five pounds since high school or needing to be in bed by 2 a.m. to feel rested.

"Yeah, sucks getting old."

I am acutely aware now of the fact that I am still young-ish. That is only because I have the perspective of having been young. I know that while I was busy not pondering my invisible aging process at 22, I was also not appreciating how truly fresh and pretty I was or how my future still splayed out uncertainly in a thousand directions. As I near forty, I am blessed with a decade plus of marriage and motherhood. The four girls we are raising make it nearly impossible for a day to go by where I am not hugely rewarded or, at least, feel I have been remarkably productive. I am healthier now than I was at 22. Less so, I'm sure, than I will be at 82. I do not plan to squander this.

Yet, I am faintly surprised by how I feel about my aging process. I am not terrified, or even scared, really. It's more that I just can't believe it, though the signs are there. The clues that are obvious to me--namely the physical blueprint of my childbearing--go unnoticed by strangers at the grocery checkout as they, nevertheless, refer to me as m'am. My three year old often steals my phone and captures pictures of me, totally unaware. Like a bad car wreck, I find it difficult to look away from the woman featured on my camera roll, her face so taught and dry. It occurred to me one day as my daughter was watching Pretty Little Liars, that I look more like the teachers than the teenage students--an embarrassing epiphany.

It is embarrassing because I am normally not so shallow. It is surprising because I thought I held the belief that aging is a beautiful and natural part of life. As my oldest daughter nears the age of puberty, I am as careful in pondering menopause as I am in speaking with reverence about menstruation.

Am I shocked that I am getting older because I still feel so young? Not really. As a teenager and into my twenties, I was prone to impulse. Often ecstatic about something one moment and renouncing it the next. I loved many men for two weeks, two days, two hours and yes, sadly, two minutes, before moving on. I began and dropped out of college countless times for reasons as varied as wanting to sit by the river or plan a trip around the world that I had no way of funding. I wrote in fits and starts, occasionally sharing poems over manic phone calls with friends but never pitching anything anywhere. In between the peaks of mood lay enough dark valleys to land me several bi-polar diagnoses. Yes, there were some amazing, high octane times, but, overall, I was unstable and unhappy.

Somewhere around twenty-five, I started to get my shit together. But, as anyone who has been in this position knows, togethering your shit is a long process. Much of it meant appearing to others as a stable, tightly hinged person. This was easy enough as I was new to New York City with few (read: no) friends. As I married and had my first child, I entered the welcoming womb of my neighborhood parenting community where I forged some meaningful relationships. There is a clear delineation here. I was no longer reckless. I began eating well and set off on the path of natural health that would, in time, heal an undiagnosed autoimmune condition and level my moods. I finished college. Most of all, I dedicated every fiber of my being to raising my girls in a way that demonstrated stability. I fought hard to be calm and level. My husband and I battled through the first five or so years of our marriage, clinging to our family, though our relationship was, at times, tremendously rocky. Somewhere in between the postpartum depression I experienced with child number one and the magical bliss I felt after birthing daughter number 2, all the faking it till making it gave way to a legitimate state of togetherness.

Although I do not think of myself as a fractured person, in a certain way it seems so. I have very few people in my life who have straddled the chasm between stable and unstable Bridget. As I grow older, the passion that I once had, though not gone, is probably not noticeable to anyone. Old friends will comment on how balanced I am. One of my closest friends jokes about how much she missies my manic phone calls. New friends never had the pleasure (or pain, depending on your perspective) of experiencing my wilder days and will, at best (if we are very close) hear the stories.

I still feel the bursts of passion and intense emotional longings that I did twenty years ago, but they are triggered by different things and carry with them a different set of attachments.
Nearly two years ago, my husband and I left Brooklyn and settled back along the Susquehanna. For the last six months, I have been running along the river. Somewhere along the way, I have not been able to get this woman--River Poet extraordinaire--out of my mind. Instead of thinking so much about her break-out performance, I have been thinking more about her customary readings. And here is my eureka moment: all the sleep inducing nature talk wasn't really about nature at all!

I know this now because as I smell the blooming lilacs, not only am I returned to a perfume I wore before my first friend died, I am achingly aware of how preciously fleeting their bloom is. I recognize this not because I am a middle aged woman with a horticulture hobby; rather, I have lived long enough to see several people die suddenly or too early. The lilacs compel me to sit in a heap at their feet, crushing and snorting them for fear of squandering even one precious petal. These petals are my friends George, Booper, Tiffany, Bill...my mother-in-law and father-in-law.

Along with those who have died, these lilacs are my children's moments. The three year old Georgie who is passing into four next month. The Izzy who has never had a boyfriend. The Hilde who still sleeps naked and plays obsessively with Barbies. The Juliet who cannot yet crawl away from me. I could pen my own nature nature haiku: purple stains my eyes/lilac fresh and so fleeting/happy petals lost. Only those above 35 have the secret decoder to understand.

When my running shoes slosh through the muddy banks, not only do I remember a blissful afternoon when, at seventeen, I, along with a boy I deeply loved, covered myself in mud we pretended was warpaint, I wonder if the mud's toxicity accounts for any of the lost potential this boy, now a grown-up alcoholic, drinks away. I think about the time that, as an adult 10 years into a committed marriage, I snapped pictures of the river to send this man, who I was feverishly sharing poems with as I quenched the tediousness of my marriage in something akin to an emotional affair. The soil needs the rain/mud to quench the tired drought/things left still dirty.

At seventeen, how was I to know all my best late night debauchery didn't hold a candle to the pastoral musings of this bland-appearing middle aged woman? Sometimes the things that are taken from us, are favors. The incessant teenage need to repeat our narratives. We, women, carrying around our stories like a thousand water pitchers on our heads. They become us, we become them. So much so that when someone offers to take them off our hands or suggests an easier way--one that doesn't erase the musculature we have developed through the lugging, just freshens the tired path--we rebuke them. Getting married and becoming a mother, I understand now, did not take away the passion. It fostered a space of stability from which a deeper creativity could emerge.

The night of the big black dick, I was not so much witnessing reclamation; rather, more of a remembrance. That was something, at seventeen, I could see. Tonight, my 38 year old self lights a candle in homage to the greatness of her other work that went unseen.