My mentor and friend Bernie has been told by doctors that he has a year left to live. Thanks to Bernie, I’m now aware that I—like him—have a choice here. Each new day now, actually, I have this choice: will I choose Bitterness, Sweetness, or Bittersweetness as my companion today? Luckily, thanks to Bernie, I don’t have to face this choice alone anymore.
Bernie has been playing, studying play, learning about play, and writing about play since the 1960s (as an adult, that is—I’m sure kid-Bernie did more than his fair share of playing, he probably drove his folks nuts). It didn’t occur to me until just last week that I should search his ginormous and playful database of deep fun (Deepfun.com) for the word “bitterness.” But then I did. So I did. And I was stunned by what I learned. Which is this…
I learned that playing, studying play, talking about play, thinking about play, and writing about play and deep fun and all the ways in which they manifest themselves around the world is a damn fine way to spend your life. There is a Sweetness in Bernie’s life that shows up in my imagination as a small, slightly goofy, and often mischievous creature sitting just above his right, and sometimes left, shoulder. Sweetness is an angel and a devil combined, the dappled color of a turning fall leaf, and he whispers “Let’s play!” and “Oooo, let’s try that!” and “Come on, let’s go there!” into Bernie’s ear every day. How Bernie spends his time here—the playing and the studying and the talking and wondering and the writing—all these things do a remarkable job of keeping Bitterness from stepping into his life uninvited. All those decades of writing—writing practically every day, WOW—and it’s almost as if Bitterness was listening for places to enter, waiting for just the right moment, but very few Bitterness-warranting moments appeared. So he contentedly sat on his swing, swinging.
You see, in my imagination, Bitterness sits swinging on an old tire swing dangling down from a tree branch, watching Sweetness and Bernie race around the world, and Deepfun.com, like children playing tag at twilight. Bitterness is smiling, watching, patient, and waiting. Bitterness isn’t sinister: more like the introvert kid content and enjoying the solitary swing and happy to have the more rambunctious others just slightly farther away but still in plain view. Bitterness doesn’t need to step in much at all, because clearly Sweetness and Bernie have got this. Because Bernie listens to Sweetness most days, Bitterness knows that Bernie is ok. Bernie invites Sweetness in to play most days, or vice versa. So much so, that they’ve even started to look a little bit like each other. And some days now, I notice, it’s Bernie who is the dappled angel-devil creature sitting on Sweetness’ shoulder, not the other way around. (Bernie also married Rocky, who comes from strong Sweetness-embracing stock. Lucky, lucky Bernie.)
As I wade through his six decades of writing, I notice that Bitterness moved visibly onto the Deepfun.com playground just six times. Go and look and see. And wow. Each time Bitterness stepped in, it was to visibly demonstrate how to invite Bitterness in and how to play with Bitterness. Bitterness, I learned, wants to play too. He’s just different. He’s not Sweetness. Not so easy to play with. Here’s a summary of what I learned. To get the full demonstration, search for “bitterness” yourself on Deepfun.com:
- October 13, 2003. In a post called “The Dancing Referee,” Bernie links to a video where we get to watch a man bring grace and exuberance to the difficult role/job/profession of sports (soccer, in this case) referee. Bernie notices “The officials are there, not to have fun, but to keep the way clear so that fun can be had by others. They allow the players to leave aside concerns about fairness and safety, so that they can focus everything, everything on the game. But refereeing is often a difficult role, one that leads to argument and bitterness, insult and injury. To find a space for joy in all this, to transform yourself from an official to a performer, requires courage and commitment and deep enjoyment. It kind of makes you think that anyone, regardless of role or position or function or job, can find fun, if fun is what that person is ready to find.” He ends by reflecting on a sport that doesn’t require referees (Ultimate Frisbee asks players to be their own referees) and on one that does, saying “To understand fun, we must find ways to celebrate both.” Celebrate both even though I’m not a fan of both? Hmmm. Deep fun, indeed.
- May 13, 2008. In a short post called “Pangea Day,” Bernie shares a link to a movie in which people reimagined a border wall into a volleyball net. Hmm. So Bitterness and fun belong together? Even in the presence of the worst humanity has to offer? Hmmm.
- June 28, 2008. In a post called “Sneaky Fun,” Bernie shares a link to a site designed primarily for people feeling bitter at work. People who work at computers, that is. The site transforms the Internet (a virtual place where people sneak away from tedious real-world work to explore and play) and makes the Internet look like a boring Word document on your monitor, so that you can sneak in a bit of fun under your bosses’ noses. Helping the Bitter at work be a bit naughty? I love it.
- April 25, 2011. In a piece called “Backstory,” Bernie talks about getting overwhelmed by the world and its cruelty and messes. “I want to rant and rail, to make sounds of fury, to bite the bullet of bitterness and spit it in the face of stupidity, in the hands of brutality, in the eyes of cruelty and stuff.” Damn. Wish I’d written that. And he follows that with writing down his own purpose so he can more fully look at it—simultaneously giving the world something better to read about themselves: “I write these posts to help make things a little more fun. That’s exactly, precisely what I’m here for. Fun for me, for you, for anybody who isn’t finding enough light to delight in their days… For me, play is a political act. This is what I truly believe. Playing, celebrating everything with everybody, anybody. It’s as revolutionary as a protest song, as government changing as a rally. For me, fun is healing, is health made manifest. Body health, social health, mental health, soul health.” As he writes, I think to myself “Play is an act of revolution, and clearly I’m all in.” And suddenly the whole world, and Bernie, and I are so beautiful that it makes me cry. Dammit Bernie. When did Sweetness jump onto my shoulder?
- October 20, 2015. In a post called “Elder Fun,” Bernie plays with a distant friend recovering from a stroke, demonstrating how to let go of old patterns of fun to embrace new patterns and deeper fun as we age. Fun and Bitter. Bitter and Fun. Hmmm.
- May 8, 2017. At this point, Bernie and Sweetness are living with the reality that he has less than a year to live in this beautiful, beautiful world of ours. And so am I. After reading his essay, “Play a little, talk a little, play a little, talk a little, play, play, play, talk a lot, play a little more,” (Damn, dude, your headlines just keep getting better) in the comments following the post, a friend describes the piece as “Bittersweet.” After so many years of watching Bernie and Sweetness play together, Bitterness himself, it seems, has been transformed. Finally confident that he will be invited to play, he steps onto Bernie’s own page now, feeling mostly lucky and just a tad regretful, saying “Thank you, friends, you’ve changed me. I’d like to join you in the fun. But please, call me by my true name: Bittersweet.”
And so we welcome Bittersweet into our play—a rag-tag group we are, fond of fools and filled with accidental genius—playing tag and giggling again, as glorious and warm and present now as Twilight herself.
P.S. Speaking of swings and playgrounds, Bernie has gotten a lovely company to donate some really cool swings to his local park, but they need $4,500 for the installation. If you have a little extra money, consider donating it to this most playful of causes. Go here for more details: http://www.deepfun.com/gift-family-community/.
When the wind strolls
in, my meadow friends
dance and bow.
When waves rush
to crash across
my ocean friend, wide beach
smiles back at me and the eagles
on wind above etch sky-to-horizon greetings down
all the way home
so strong, having learned to be carried.
Can you hear the old playground laughter
between the creaks of empty swing-sways?
Hear playground teasing
within little sister crow’s
following big sister eagle back and forth
back and forth
boat house to nest
nest to boat house
boat house to nest?
Smile in self-recognition as
red-wing blackbird then begins
to nag big-sister crow.
Can you cherish the faded flap-flapping flag
forgotten by neighbors in their rush to return to the city?
Cherish wind: an
absent spacious presence?
Cherish sand: a
shattered toe-hugging perfect imperfection?
Cherish the polished-cream beauty
Here stones, books, and gentle evening light
invite themselves to play—
sated, triumphant, wildly creative,
complete within themselves, which feels completely inappropriate.
Silent and awkward at just the right moments.
Welcome. Please come in.
Humans invited here are few and far between.
Only those who gleefully join the chorus
certain their voice improves upon books
dancing warm light
And those certain of nothing at all.
All those invited
come to play
certain of little more than sea
Lost accidentally or on purpose.
quiet enough within most days to hear it.
I’m so glad you asked me in with that sunbeam
when I was a crying child.
I’m more glad that invitation
is absolutely everywhere now
when I look for it.
see her there
that wide open tree out my window
the one with gray arm branches, no leaves, and peeling bark?
holding divine moss in perfectly twisted hands?
the one that all the flickers love?
I am breaking, she says,
Here in this valley between home and field
among healthy trees and young green shrubs
small ponds at our feet
ivy and blackberries
winding up and up and up and still
some of the worried
younger trees and humans
are turning blue with fright again
You are breaking, my friend,
How long have I been here?
you wonder, looking
so dead to some
so teaming with life and generosity to others?
Maybe 300 years.
Lately I’ve been creating warm rotted wood
teaming with ants, bugs
bird nests, diamonds, dripping
mosses, catching dewy golden drops
spying into windows
dancing on roof tops
For 50 years while you flew around here in terror
I’ve been standing right here
offering everything you need
waiting for you to look up
Let me be her!
let my sap harden into a million rent-free ant condos
let birds and hives find my joints the perfect place for nests
let chickadees hide seeds in my bark to re-find
when winter’s ice claims all our ground
let billions find life in the soil, where my branches fall
let me rejoice in being fully here, fully home as home to all and dead to some
We are breathing, break
and just break.
May that be me!
content and confident
teaming with life
talking to busy humans more than 50 years after my death!
May I also always be breaking,
tears and laughter
birds and trees
seeing to that very that.
Ridiculously proud of the pussy-pink hat
—a sort of low-tech asshole detection device—
a kind woman knit for me and placed, very gently
onto my bare head.
What a gift she is.
What a gift you are.
Let’s re-gift the pink hat to the crows in the yard
Ooo! Or maybe to the women in town running the thrift store!
They’ll know who most needs it next.
tree, birds, women, hat
for 46 years of remarkably patient and perfect lessons
How to Breathe and How to Break
How to Shelter, Even In Death
How to Live Strong and Laughing and Untamed
Together In Unshaken Wonder
Since the inauguration two weeks ago, I’ve been having nightmares. I was too freaked out to share them, until I read Sherman Alexie’s new poem Autopsy about his dream that his passport was bleeding. Thank you, master poet. For sharing your pain. I woke up the other morning and jotted this down quickly, before the nightmare could fade…
First they cheered their new savior
Their hearts swelled
imagining that beautiful new world
no enemies near
wealth without fear
They saluted or swooned when he walked
in the room…
Well, except the women, who
shrank almost imperceptibly
inward and back, smiles intact
eyes averted and blank
hands gently cocked, ready to defend
when he approached
to hug them.
Then they watched their new president
his pals with dark smiling eyes
suits and ties
destroy their institutions
generations of work and promise
became ash at his feet
and still they cheered
for soon, so soon now, they’d have nothing to fear
Then they watched as he cut
with our oldest allies
provoke others into terror and war
They watched neighbors beaten
in the streets
When the homes of natives went up in flames
they grew silent, confused
they turned back to FoxNews
where they could read about
The Best Cabinet Since Lincoln
How to Use God to Defend Against Liberal Jackals
(go check that out if you think I made it up)
When they looked outside each new day
they wondered why
millions around the world
marched in the streets
against the savior, who well, sure
may look like a dictator
but they knew he wasn’t
because he was their savior
So they did what they’d been taught
they kept preaching kindness
while they watched babies
terrorized at their borders
and in their heartland
They preached compassion and forgiveness
please, don’t be crude
don’t say pussy
don’t bother me with your petty politics on Facebook
all the while
white guys with dark eyes
poured gasoline on tepees
on women, on nature, on life herself
and dropped the match…
When the world went up in flames
the day World War III began
they didn’t even notice
thought they’d be saved by their new president’s best buddy
There they stood, plain to see
two great men: one bad, one good
and both, sadly,
long since dead.
And they didn’t even notice.
Until their water became too expensive to drink.
Until mom got cancer
nobody could afford to treat.
With no EPA, scientists,
journalists, backbones, or basic human decency left
poison peddlers flourished
bees across the homeland died
more than half the crops
They found themselves
looking for rest and work
anywhere they could get it
A third of their children
died that first bitter winter
another third of them
drowned crossing rivers
the gentle earth gave them stones
to mark their passing
Most of their grandparents died
in one spot
because they were too weak
to climb their own savior’s wall
one mass grave for them all
So that’s how we showed up here broken
bleeding and starving
with literally no place left to go
at the world’s front door
Afraid, no more. Of
Aka, 55 books to read to slow yourself down and reimagine yourself as part of the creative, fun, difficult, and beautiful new/old resistance. The story of creating the list follows the list. I’m refusing to organize or categorize this list. The point is to explore, find something important to you, leave the Internet, and go find some books to read!
- Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor Frankl.
- The Slave Ship. Marcus Rediker.
- The Half has Never Been Told. Edward E. Baptist.
- The Civil Disobedience Handbook: A Brief History and Practical Advice for the Politically Disenfranchised. James Tracy, Editor
- A Fighting Chance. Elizabeth Warren.
- Hot, Flat, and Crowded. Tom Friedman.
- Poetry as Insurgent Art. Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
- Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. Sunil Yapa.
- Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Danielle Evans.
- Teaching the Cat to Sit. Michelle Theall.
- We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For. Alice Walker.
- Overcoming Speechlessness. Alice Walker.
- Silent Spring. Rachel Carson.
- Ishmael. Daniel Quinn.
- A Chinamen’s Chance. Eric Liu.
- The Other One. Hasanthika Sirisena.
- Culture Jam. Kalle Lasn.
- Power. Linda Hogan.
- Mean Spirit. Linda Hogan.
- Solar Storms. Linda Hogan.
- Republic of Outsiders. Alissa Quart.
- The Twentieth Day of January. Ted Allbeury.
- Deceit and Other Possibilities. Vanessa Hua.
- Fire Shut Up in My Bones. Charles M. Blow.
- Unbought and Unbossed. Shirley Chisholm.
- The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. Lucille Clifton.
- Popular Songs: The Political Poems of 1890-1820. Percy Bysshe Shelley.
- The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Joseph Cambell.
- Women, Race, & Class. Angela Davis.
- Don’t Bite the Hook. Pema Chondron .
- When Pain is the Doorway. Pema Chondron.
- When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Pema Chondron.
- The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times. Pema Chondron.
- The Left Hand of Darkness. Ursula K. Le Guin.
- Four Ways to Forgiveness. Ursula K. Le Guin.
- Tehanu. Ursula K. Le Guin.
- Sun Dogs. Lee Maracle.
- Daughters. Lee Maracle.
- Ravensong. Lee Maracle.
- Perma Red. Debra Magpie Earling.
- Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. Edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks with Barbara Smith.
- Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. Beverly Guy-Sheftall.
- Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Melissa Harris-Perry.
- Divine Rebels: Saints, Mystics, Change Agents – And You. Caroline Myss.
- Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Audre Lorde.
- Wretched of the Earth. Franz Fanon.
- Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Sebastian Junger.
- Indian Killer. Sherman Alexie. (to start)
- Demand the Impossible. Bill Ayers.
- Rules for Radicals. Saul Alinsky.
- Ten Days in a Mad-House. Nellie Bly.
- India’s Struggle For Independence. Bipin Chandra.
- Non-Violent Resistance (Satyagraha). M. K. Gandhi.
- Emotional Agility. Susan David.
- Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto. Jessa Crispin.
This week I asked my 500ish online friends for recommendations for books to read. These are people I trust, not strangers. A diverse group, although as a middle aged white woman I know I will always be pushing to do better–no friends with disabilities responded, for example.
I need to get off the Internet more often right now, so that I don’t continue to get sucked into the complete partisan hell circus my country is unleashing every single day at us now. I want to more fully join the new creative, fun, difficult, and beautiful new resistance. Be a better accomplice and friend. I will still be online sometimes. Yet, as a creator I need big infusions of slowing down, resting, listening, wandering, and inspiration to be myself and to do my work well. Outrage helps my work too, but not all outrage all the time. That’s just not me. I’ve aged out of being able to sustain rage. When I don’t demand these other things, I become a reactor, not a creator. I become unrecognizable to myself. I end up sharing “news” that is actually lies. (Yep, I did that just yesterday. Thank God for smart friends who check when in my outrage I forget to!) I don’t think that being just another reactor and tantrum thrower is what we need right now (although I really needed to be that for a while this week). I think we need to remember who we really are. And by “we” I mean me and most of the people I know.
I asked specifically for creative, inspiring, resistance books. Both fiction and non-fiction. This is what I heard back in 3 days! Wow. I forgot what a deeply curious and gloriously book nerdy group of humans my friends are. Yay! The numbers in the list just represent the order in which I received the recommendations from various parts of my online world. I am not categorizing them–the point is to explore the list and find something new and important to you. Personally, since I want to read all these books, I will be reading them out of order in whatever order I can borrow the books from others, check them out of our library, afford to purchase them (some came very highly recommended), and find them personally inspiring. I own the Viktor Frankl book and all the Ursula K. Le Guin books if you live nearby and want to borrow them. Also, if you’re a friend and you notice that we’ve missed a creative resistance book that you love (in our few days of collective online brainstorming), please share it with me and I’ll add it to my reading list.
If you don’t have time to read 53+ resistance books this year, then follow me on FB or Twitter. I will be reading and sharing excerpts from these books online in 2017 and beyond. Trying to recommend specific books for specific friends. And hopefully, one day soon, I’ll find myself writing a book of creative resistance too. But this is not that year for me. This is a year of listening even more closely to my/our ancestors. To all of the people and groups who have already been doing this for a long time. Some for a very long time.
Note: I occasionally update this list with new books as trusted people and authors recommend them to me.