Duxbury’s Powder Point Bridge, looking inland.

I forget who said it first, but I know it’s true. You can learn a lot about a person by using this simple test: Take him to a river, stand him on the shore, and just watch. Very likely, he will look one way and then other, observing the river in both directions. But eventually he’ll settle on a view: either upstream or down.

You can tell a lot about a person by the way he watches the river. Is he paying attention to what’s gone by or is he looking to see what will come next?

Clark Kent (not his real name) and I are standing on Duxbury’s Powder Point Bridge at sunset. He’s turned one way, I’m turned the other. It’s windy — so much that it hurts my ears. The day, now ending, has brought the first chill of fall. There’s no doubt about it now: summer is really over, like the water flowing under the bridge and out to sea.

There’s this thing about rivers — about bodies of moving water in general — that crosses my mind from time to time. You can trace a river upstream all the way to its source and see for yourself where it has come from. But you can only plot within a reasonable doubt where it’s going next. You can never really be sure — unless you follow the river and see where it takes you.

Clark Kent and I were a couple. We broke up last spring, and after a few half-hearted reconciliations, it is now really and truly over. At least as far as romance goes. The river flows on.

Rivers, constantly changing shape and form, have become a central metaphor in my life. Sometimes I’m tidal — moving back and forth over the same ground, changing a little each time — growing, aging, gaining wisdom and experience. Other times I’m the rapids — tumbling forward, headlong . . . out of control.

But most often I’m a stream flowing out to sea. I’ve got a purpose — a direction to follow — but there are obstacles in the way. At times I am stopped short like water against dam and I must find another route or cut new ground. I always manage to get where I’m going . . . eventually.

Clark Kent and I are in that awkward in-between place: no longer intimates, not quite friends. It is often a struggle, but since we continue to learn so much from spending time together, we’re willing to pick through the briars along the path. We have this conversation all the time: Where do we go from here? And how? I’m looking forward, seeing the potential of our friendship, and he’s looking back, still trying to figure out what went wrong. No wonder we can’t seem to move on.

Have you ever been in a canoe with someone, and instead of both facing the bow, one person is turned sternward? You each try to paddle forward, but your energies are only working against each other. You end up going around in circles. That’s what this friendship feels like sometimes.

So we’re standing at sunset on the Powder Point Bridge. The sun is behind us, and he’s watching the tide go out, while I observe it pouring forth from the bay. It’s a beautiful sunset — they generally are down there on the beach. The colors are changing by the minute.

Beautiful as it is, a sunset is always fleeting. Day must fade into night, and in between, when we’re lucky, we might see a spectacular show. Are all beautiful things in life like this — temporary, or at least constantly changing? Are they all like fall foliage or freshly fallen snow, “good for a limited time only?” Is their very impermanence what makes them so precious to us?

What about Clark Kent and me? What’s next for us? We’ve experienced beauty together: nothing can take that away. But now, with eyes that are sad sometimes — or angry, or bitter — we’ve seen it fade.

Beauty lives on in memory. The power of a sunset is diminished when darkness takes the sky, but never erased.

Commenting on a relationship recently ended, a friend once said to me, “I wasted three years of my life with him.”

I’ve never understood that. “What’s wasted,” I asked. “Who were you when you met him? Who are you now? You’ve learned, you’ve changed, you’ve grown. Would you give that back?”

I keep coming back to the river. I take solace in what it has to teach me. How does that old saying go? “The only thing you can count on is change.” Sometimes it is easy, sometimes you don’t even notice, sometimes you think you’ll never make it through. But you adjust; you move on.

You never really know what’s around the next bend. You can’t hold back the river, nor can you push it forward. You can only go with the flow.

by Kezia Bacon, Special to the Mariner
November 1997

Kezia Bacon serves on the Board of Directors of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association.