Bitter. Sweet.

Coming to the end of a snowbird visit to Phoenix, I reflect on looking back, looking ahead, and being in the moment.



Off to my left, four mourning doves explode from cover and I jump involuntarily. My heart pitter-patters from the unexpectedness of it all. As they flap awkwardly off to what they evidently see as better cover, I mutter a bit. After all, I hadn’t even seen them before they exploded. Just how exposed were they?

Tramping across the undeveloped piece of land that borders four Town of Gilbert water reclamation ponds, I am, of course, watching for birds. Northern harriers alternately soar overhead and swoop low over bushy patches. Killdeer scold, practically at my feet. Yellow-rumped warblers and house finches hubbub in low, scrubby shrubs. Unidentified hummingbirds sway in the breeze atop the highest branch of mesquite bushes. Kestrels perch all still-like in trees: Go about your business, little lunch-size creatures. There’s nobody here but us chicken(hawk)s.

Usually I am entirely relaxed on this walk, allowing for small intervals where those stealthy doves practically make me swallow my tonsils. But today, some part of my brain is anxious, regretting the impending end of these morning walks.  

Since finding this artificial bird habitat in February, I’ve been making the six-mile return trek several days a week. It’s a win/win, adding to my daily Fitbit step tally while offering me a fun destination. But our stay in Phoenix is coming to an end and, with it, these walks.  And so it is that my pleasure in these walks is overlaid with the pain of knowing they are almost at an end, at least for this year.

Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.

With due respect to Forrest Gump’s mama, sometimes you know exactly what you’re gonna get in life: bittersweet chocolate.

On our annual two-month sojourns in Phoenix, the first month is all sweet, as activities carry the promise of time enough for repeat engagements.  The second month brings the bitter, as the end nears. Like my own mortality, the end of the sojourn was always implicit in its beginning, but my awareness of it comes only with time.

Picking my way across the scrub land, I reflect ruefully that I would not make a good Buddhist. How could I ever be ‘in the moment’ when half my brain is focused on coming changes?

Am I cheating myself by not staying in this moment? Maybe I would do better to ignore the future barrelling down on me. Yet awareness of one’s own mortality seems to be part of the human condition. I see no way to put it out of my mind entirely, any more than I can see a way to forget that one of these walks will be my last, at least for this year.

As I get to the crushed-rock walkway along the desert wash — the path to what passes for home these days — I stop to look back, literally and figuratively. My memory does not hold each walk as a separate, shining thread; instead, it has woven them into a single tapestry that somehow brings together the entire range of light and temperatures, the breezes some days and the still, almost suffocating air on others, the swarming aphids and the drifting tree pollen, and the birds of the day, varying with the level of water in the ponds and with migration schedules.

Each walk since my first has benefited from the previous walk and then paid it forward, adding to my appreciation of — my love for — this small patch of land and its denizens.

As I turn homeward, I relax again, secure in the knowledge that for me at least, past and future do belong in this moment. Just as the past flavours the present, the bitter foretaste of the end of things, large and small, adds to their sweetness now.

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10 Responses to Bitter. Sweet.

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Amazing — you beat me to what I wrote for next Wednesday’s column. There is only now.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – I find that we often write in the same space, don’t you? Truly, that’s one of the best things about the internet – finding friends you’ve never met and may never meet!

  2. Lovely post, Isabel.
    The most surprising thing about aging is this huge thankfulness for being alive. I’m not THAT old, but can see a kind of grace granted to agers who are grateful and appreciative of the miracle of life. I begin to see mortality looming. I hope to let go as graciously as possible — just not yet!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Thanks kindly. I seem to have heard other (much) older folks express similar sentiments – especially the “not yet” part!

  3. Carla says:

    Lovely, Isabel!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Carla – Many thanks! Although you’re entirely too young to have intimations of mortality . . .

  4. Judith says:

    I noticed the same thing in undergrad, but the funny thing was that if I had 2 weeks off, the 1st week was pure pleasure, and the 2nd week I was dreading going back to school. If I had a 4 day weekend, the 1st couple of days were delicious, and the next couple felt like the end was nigh. If I had a 2 day weekend, Saturday was great and Sunday I was thinking about school…Somehow I don’t have that feeling so much anymore, and I’d forgotten about it until I read your article.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – Hmm. I get how the feeling would translate into a schooling context (even though I’m a long way past that now!): that sounds like a direct analogue. And I, too, don’t really remember having it so much when I was working full time. (Too busy? Too little time off? Too happy in my work? One of these things is not like the others . . .) But somehow, I really notice it here when we are, fundamentally, on an extended vacation.

  5. Oh, that the glimpse of future
    given to me yesterday
    of blazing youthful strength and laughter
    that will bless someone today
    were a promise to me of time reversed
    but time moves from birth to death
    the greater Light informing me
    only that plans beyond my capacity
    for reason or foresight
    make an indelible print on all our times.
    My gift was to see and know
    and to be comforted for someone I love
    who has been suffering.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Oh that I had your gift of poesy. Thank you. Again. And if it reflects your life right now, may your loved one soon be relieved of suffering.

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