Sometimes a word gets stuck in your head and you can’t shake it, no matter how many other words you say or songs you listen to.
That happened to me recently. My latest word is “Bittersweet”. During a recent run when I was talking out loud to myself (I’ve been doing that a lot lately… it’s a sign that I’m incredibly old and eccentric) I finally threw up my hands and said “FINE. You want to be in my head? Let’s talk about Bittersweet. You win. Bring it on.”
I love the singular words that make up this simple compound word. When I was a kid I hated the word bittersweet because it was associated with chocolate that didn’t taste good. Eventually I didn’t shudder at the thought of something bittersweet and even came to like the dark chocolate and the complex flavors of something more pure and unsweetened. Dark chocolate was raw, nuanced and substanative. It had heft and form and my more informed palate didn’t crave sugar; it craved real taste and flavor. And sometimes there was a slight bitterness to it that told my mouth that not everything is sunlight and sugar.
My musical palate was growing too. By the time I was a freshman in college Big Head Todd came out with a song titled “Bittersweet”. I worked the show at the event center as a stagehand at the University of Northern Colorado.
“I said I know we don’t talk about it.
We don’t tell each other…
All the little things that we need.
We work our way around each other
As we tremble and we… as we tremble and bleed.
As we tremble and we… as we tremble and bleed.”
- Big Head Todd and the Monsters
I didn’t really understand the lyrics too much, other than it was a beautiful song that was incredibly sad. At the tender age of 18, how could I possibly understand the bittersweet sting of being in love and still being lonely?
Fast-forward twenty years to 2011 and my 38th birthday. My husband gave me the camera that I had coveted for years. It was a bittersweet moment because we had already decided to separate; he would be moving out three days later. This would be my last gift.
I read the instruction manual and a few hours later we walked to downtown Louisville to take some pictures. While looking for interesting textures to use as backdrops, I saw a word painted on the wall in the alley:
It was a word of sadness, transition and possibility… how apropos of the moment. A new coffee house had opened in Louisville called the Bittersweet Cafe, just a half mile from my house. I couldn’t bring myself to even walk through the door until three full seasons had passed.
During those months I frequented a lot of coffee shops in the Boulder area where I met with clients. I drank gallons of coffee and eventually noticed that I gravitated to specific shops. If I wanted a cup of drip coffee I would only buy it from one or two places; the rest of the coffee houses served junk that always tasted burned. If I met with a client at a place that had lousy coffee I would spring for a more expensive drink like a latté or a dirty chai; anything to keep me from having to drink the dark, bitter swill. Some of the coffee houses felt inviting and cozy; others existed to serve beverage to people on the run. I had a few I liked a lot, but no “favorite” hangout.
My broken heart alternated between bitter and sweet, sweet and bitter. Some days I rode a high on happiness and possibility, and other days I crashed into the depths of melancholy and despair. Through it all I caffeinated and kept coming back for more.
And then one bright, sweltering day in the midst of summer a friend introduced me to “Bitter Sweet Symphony”. I liked it; I liked it a lot. The melody was good, the lyrics caught my attention, and I found myself running to the beat of the lyrics many mornings thereafter.
“I am here in my mold
But I’m a million different people
From one day to the next
I can’t change my mold
No, no, no, no, no.”
- The Verve
“I’m a million different people, from one day to the next, I can’t change my mold…” What a bittersweet thing to say, and feel. We all have so many incarnations, so many roles to fill and hats to wear. It’s a bittersweet life that we are so many things to so many, and yet there are times when we can’t master the one or two incarnations that are required.
I woke up today feeling fragile. The weather forecast called for a massive snowstorm to dump crap from the sky this evening. The grey of the clouds felt ominous and pinpricks of my own tears were close to the surface.
I got my kids ready for school and helped pack backpacks with homework assignments that need to be worked on over the weekend; they’ll spend the next three days with their dad. We drove to a coffee shop where they exited my car, jumped into their dad’s car, and left for school. He doesn’t come to my house to pick them up anymore; the wounds of divorce are still healing and boundaries are firmly in place.
Afterwards I headed to the Bittersweet coffee shop to meet a friend for breakfast. We started talking music, one thing led to another and I found myself confessing my preoccupation with the word “Bittersweet”. With a knowing look in his eye he directed me to iTunes and I downloaded my third Bittersweet song, from an album released in 1985.
“We’ve grown and times change
When we meet now it feels so strange
Well I hold you like a sword
And you won’t cut me, cut me like you did before.”
- Hoodoo Gurus
After a yummy breakfast my friend left for work. I got a free refill on my coffee and while standing at the station adding a little cream to my cup I chatted with the owner of the shop. The first thing I told him was how much I like his coffee house. He asked me the next obvious question; Why?
And because I didn’t feel like making up any b.s., I told him the truth. The place feels good. The colors on the walls are beautiful and I love the way the light comes in the windows. The layout of the place flows, the tables are comfortable, the bathrooms are rustic without being pretentious, and the people that work there are people that I would engage in conversation any day of the week. I’ve daydreamed about getting to work there just so I could be in this beautiful place that acts as a salve to my heart.
It may be named Bittersweet, but it feels more sweet than bitter and this image is burned in my mind: