the oldest alive i’ve ever been

When I was sixteen this girl told me I was not really a part of things, but clearly really wanted to be. I tried hard, she said, and people appreciated that. As I grew, my hair grew wilder, and at eighteen, another girl told me that my awkwardness was still charming. I like that about you, she said, grinning, while I shoved books into my locker.

Sometimes it feels like no time has passed since I turned sixteen. Five years sounds like forever but it really it is not. In fact, in some ways, at twenty-one I am more who I was at sixteen than I was then. Habits are like tire marks through mud. The more times you take those turns, the deeper the ruts. At eighteen, I cut off my hair – my big hair that people had depended upon to find me in crowds. I called it a Buddha chop, because I thought hair could be a source of vanity and attachment, but really I think I wanted to fit in, in my new environment (a women’s college), and also I was tired of hiding behind my hair. Sometimes I miss its solid weight, and how it felt when someone who understood curly hair brushed it, beekeeper-gentle.

Yesterday, I sat in a hushed auditorium and listened to the poetry of a sixty year-old misanthropic genius who seemed to speak directly to me, and to all the misfits. She said she was the oldest enraged woman alive. She creates poetry out of rage and love. If she didn’t create she would probably shoot someone, she said. This, I didn’t understand. I am outraged, but only in theory. My body doesn’t hum with the injustice of the world like hers does. And want to know why I’m also the most successful artist alive? Not because of my bank account, ha. At a shiny institution like this, run by the moneyed and prim, her presence was a welcome rumpus. Her hair was dark, her skin was creased, and her lips were black and red. I’m successful because I’ve created everything I want to create, with everyone I want to create with. And I am still creating. I’m not done yet, oh no. She walked back and forth, and spat on the stage.

I sat in the darkly lit auditorium one seat away from the nearest person and wondered what my life had become and where it was headed. I cared about some things? I believed in some things, like how words can resonate in wordless ways.

Last week, a person who once looked into my eyes with love looked right through me, suddenly uncaring. I think sometimes I walk around all bright and loved, then suddenly, spider-webbed like a bad photocopy, loved for my former glory. Maybe fading and glowing tends to be incremental, like growing, so that we barely notice it from day to day, and only in ourselves.

I’m taking a whitewater canoeing class with my friend who thinks hitting the rapids is a good way to prepare for graduating and entering the real world. My instructor told us on the first day that if our canoe capsizes we must lie on our backs, feet high in the air to avoid getting our ankles trapped beneath roots or rocks which could kill us. The video we watched on the first day was filmed twenty years ago, and showed someone floating downstream, lollygagging almost, but actually trying her hardest to stay alive. We have not capsized yet.

I read the other day that humans don’t realize how really deeply they need to feel rooted. Our need for rootedness is under-acknowledged, I read. But sometimes I can’t stop running even when I dramatically think that I’m going so fast my heart might stop, and lately I’ve been wondering whether it hurts more to grow roots than to never grow roots at all. Maybe I’m more of a lilipad than a tree because my roots are delicate and breakable and I float.

It feels selfish to be captivated by my own rooted love above all else, but I don’t know how to pick something else to care about. I emailed someone the other day about how selfish I am when I write, and she responded: Everything people write is self absorbed. How do you not write something self absorbed? I emailed her back, romantically suggesting that she hike the entire length of Vermont with me this summer. She replied a few days later: Hiking through all of Vermont with you sounds fantastic and magical but I will have to pass, mostly probably for logistical reasons. But you’re always welcome to visit me! I sighed when I received this email, and thought about how well emails hide love and intention and feeling. I clicked “archive.” I won’t go to see her, I think, because romantic gestures sometimes require too much money and faith.

My feet are as high as they’ll go, and I can see from this vantage point that I’m too comfortable here, at this college that I will soon leave. At least that is different from how I felt at sixteen. At sixteen, I was just ready to go somewhere better, somewhere new. Anywhere else. Now I’m not sure what to look forward to and what to fear. Last week during our whitewater canoeing class, I kind of hoped our boat would capsize. Not because I wanted to die, but because I wanted to see how good I am at surviving. I wanted to rush with the cold water, awake and mostly formed, and the oldest alive I’d ever been.

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