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/.
I got this idea from my friend Bayo who teaches me daily that we are so much more than we imagined yesterday. Thank you, Bayo. This is his list.
These are my current irreverent and unapologetically odd resolutions. In 2017, I am somewhat inclined to:
- Accept life advice only from birds, animals, and the strangest of the strange humans I know or meet.
- More thoroughly enjoy mom’s Alzheimer’s disease.
- Write odes (aka, poems/songs of praise) to everyday people and items on good days and to people/things I am angered by on bad days.
- Watch for dragons in the woods behind our new house. Talk to them only when we’re both ready and then mostly about magic.
- March peacefully in protest to 1) show solidarity with those most hurt by standard prejudices and practices, 2) make protests safer by my presence, 3) make new friends, 4) get more exercise, and 5) fall back in love with the world.
- Dance, sing, draw, swim, daydream, or write poetry every day. See that these take priority on days when I or nearby earthlings are especially frustrated, sad, or angry.
- Hold funerals or say prayers for lost socks, buttons, and other small things that disappear unexpectedly.
- Follow the examples of Americans with disabilities and mental illnesses, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and LGBTQ+ Americans, as well as braver-than-me artists/poets/musicians, in their demonstration of what it means to be fully present and listen really well to those present. Here in my country this will be a year of remembering what it is to be a true friend, fully human, a beautiful earthling, and a strong community. A year of reminding ourselves and our institutions of our amazingly weird and wonderful nature.
- Get even more lost. Open even more space and time for purposelessness, pondering, poetry, parks, play, and pancakes.
- Take spontaneous road trips with my sweetie, my dog, and possibly, my three cats, if nobody volunteers to come watch them for us. Hint, hint.
- Enjoy dirt under my feet and fingernails. Enjoy dust, dust bunnies, stains, hairballs, and all their kin. Not just alone but with friends.
- Learn from those who unexpectedly thrive within resistance. Learn from strangely endearing scientists, off-the-charts kind religious leaders, and awkward-and-beautiful-and-trying grassroots organizers around the world.
- Financially support local poets and artists, the Standing Rock Medic and Healers Council, the ACLU, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Planned Parenthood, and my two favorite media outlets.
- Recognize that both our home and our town wants to be a refuge for people more threatened by hatred and discriminatory policies than we are. Allow our home and our town to live to their full potential.
- Write a book that surprises me.
- Learn what it takes to remove a hate-filled demagogue from government office. Take an active part in the process of learning.
- Plant trees and shrubs selected by birds, bunnies, bugs, deer, and at least one dragon for their suitability to the place and time.
There’s an article circulating this week called Why Relationships Should Be ‘HELL Yeah or No.’ It’s targeted at millennials, and about love relationships, but the headline drew us in and got some of my Gen X friends and I talking about work projects and work relationships. To the point I was told to blog about it. So here goes: ideas about finding abundant life between HELL Yeah (I love this work!) and No (I don’t want do this anymore.) at work.
1. Trust HELL Yeahs and Nos about the work itself
Here at mid-life, I’ve noticed that I use a Hell Yeah and No approach for taking on new work projects and for sticking with work projects. Not out of any particular personal wisdom (which I’m hoping comes later in life): simply because when I don’t trust my own HELL Yeahs and Nos — and the HELL Yeahs and Nos of those I’m working with — we end up having way too many Oh HELL NO! moments. On work projects now, I’m all in, I take breaks when I’m not feeling all in, and then I return when I’m all in again. I allow others to do the same. Together we work on encouraging and allowing ourselves to do this and learning not to take it personally when others need to walk away. Helps us stay happy and interested and engaged and productive. Helps us know when it’s time to take a break, time to let go of responsibilities and take on new ones, bring others in to help or take over, and move on completely from work, too. The extreme ends of the spectrum can be helpful for making day-to-day choices about the work itself. This works especially well when everyone feels they have the ability to work while energized and to slow down or stop or leave or move on when they’re not.
2. The ends of the spectrum aren’t enough for long-term friendships and work relationships
Thankfully, humans are too beautifully complex and interesting to settle for just two choices. There is so much more to learn…
a. Ask “Where am I on the spectrum between Hell Yeah and No right now?” and be willing to move away from a new-to-you No
For me, work projects eventually end, while friendships and working relationships may last a lifetime. Long-term human relationships require an understanding of where I myself am on the spectrum between the HELL Yeah and No at any given time and a courageous willingness to shift, move, and let go. For example, there are many Hell Yeah-at-our-core people in my life who I have walked away from for a year, or a decade, during years that we, or our work, became Nos for each other. But that doesn’t mean they’re out of my life forever. When we listen to new Nos and let go of each other “for now” (well before feelings get hurt beyond repair and definitely before contempt settles in), then often the parting really is “just for now.” Many friends and work colleagues return, eventually. At least here in my indie, work-for-yourself corner of the work world. For those who don’t return, I still get to love the memory of them and pop online to see what they’re up to now and then, share a recipe, or share news about work they might be interested in.
b. Notice if your No is an intuition-screaming-loudly No or a self-doubt No and be willing to move toward the occasional self-doubt No
When it comes to new people, many Nos from the beginning tend to stay Nos, simply because they aren’t given the chance to come farther into my life. That’s ok. Sometimes our No instincts are screaming loudly, and when they’re that loud, they’re spot on. Trust yourself. I’ve left jobs, social groups, and spaces when a screaming loudly Oh HELL NO-for-me showed up. I’ve never regretted those choices.
Sometimes our Nos aren’t about the other person at all: they’re about us, being stretched, and our own fears about our ability to handle something. For example, I eventually became friends with a guy at work who was a No-for-me as a work partner the first time we met. I read his fast decision making and organizational political savvy as “slick and untrustworthy.” Yet we had compatible goals, complementary skill sets, and we decided to stick together. We eventually ended up loving working together because we had opposite strengths that we could suddenly both draw on. We ended up wildly successful as a result. He eventually became an Oh Hell Yeah! friend for life. I carry him in my heart now no matter where we go or what we do: the same is true for the other three friends in that self-organizing work group. For me, reimagining the No is about reimagining ourselves together. This tends to require trust and respect that starts with trust in and respect for yourself. Can I trust and respect this someone who is remarkably different from me? And can I still trust and respect myself in their presence? If so, and if they can say the same about you, then together we can reimagine ourselves, changing our initial Nos into a mutual Oh Hell Yes! I learned a valuable lesson from this friend about work partnerships and about myself. Sometimes we need a No to grow. To round out an amazing small work group. To collectively pull ourselves from good to great. To get to another level of Oh HELL YES! for all of us.
3. Watch for the hidden gifts within Oh HELL No! at work
Everyone I know has had many Oh HELL No! work experiences early in life. Many of them are about us: part of growing up and learning to play/work well with others. Many of them aren’t actually about us as individuals and are instead the natural outcomes of the antiquated work systems and cultural norms we inherited from those who came before us and the beliefs and ideas we unconsciously hold as a result. Our Oh HELL No! work experiences point directly at the real, often hidden, work that we are actually doing: improving our cultures and work systems for ourselves and those who come next. Many people make entire careers out of their Oh HELL No! experiences: tapping the energy within THIS WILL BE DIFFERENT FOR THOSE WHO COME NEXT! to pull forth massive social, professional, and personal change.
For those of us who love to work, and imagine ourselves working across our entire lives, I suspect there is never a complete escape from Oh HELL No! work experiences. There’s just too much work left to do to create work systems, cultures, and selves that more fluidly work well together and more fairly and justly work period. If we’re lucky, we can imagine the world of work into a playground: remaking many of our own No and Oh HELL No! experiences into sparks for innovation and change together. I believe that those of us who can imagine this have a responsibility to do so: not only for ourselves and those who come next but also for all of those today who are crushed, beaten down, or killed by old ideas and outdated systems and patterns of thought. This is my belief. For me. Part of my own Oh HELL YES! I’ve yet to live in a way that allows me to get entirely past Oh HELL No! at work now and then. Maybe next month. Speaking of that…
4. Watch extra close for the gifts within Oh FUCK NO! work experiences
I can say from recent personal experience that as you age — learning more skills, better understanding yourself and peers and environments, gaining more credibility and respect, and having more work colleagues willing to connect you to perfect-for-you others — that it is possible to delude yourself into thinking that you’ve moved past Oh HELL No! work experiences. And I can also say that it’s at this self-satisfied moment that you are perfectly primed and ready to land hard, on your ass, within an Oh FUCK NO! work experience.
This fall, Daniel unexpectedly lost his day job. Just like that, 85% of our income vanished. At the same time, we were also helping my parents (mom with Alzheimer’s disease and dad a tired primary caregiver of 10+ years) pack and move across the country. At the same time we were preparing our Seattle home for sale and awash in a sea of floor repair, countertop replacement, and cleaning/beautifying projects. And I was also trying to get not one, but two, books published. We were stressed, tired, and too busy. And I lost my way again. I took on several new work projects/clients in a hurry: rushing and making decisions out of fear and while exhausted. One of those clients had work processes and systems and cultural norms and expectations that were wildly outside my own comfort zone, and I had no interest in changing myself, or connecting with them, to make things better. But I stayed anyway. Out of fear. And just six days in I totally lost it. Frustrated. Angry. Trapped. After ending my work days sobbing, for three days in a row, Daniel had to tell me to quit. I couldn’t even see it for myself. I ended up hurting myself and Daniel, and to a lesser extent an old friend who offered me the work, and an employment agency, in the process.
My own Oh FUCK NO! work experience was not primarily the result of broken old systems and antiquated cultural norms and expectations. This one was the direct result of me over-booking myself, not standing in/working from my own power, and making decisions out of fear. I know the difference now between a primarily-a-Lori-problem and a primarily-a-system-problem and this one was on Lori. Yes, their system had problems. Massive problems. As do most of our large work systems today. But I showed up to work with zero interest in connecting and becoming part of any small group that could make them better. This was work I should not have been doing. I suspected it ahead of time. I became more certain the moment I started it. I knew it more deeply every day that followed. But I ignored my loudly screaming intuition. And, surprise, surprise, I landed in an Oh FUCK NO! work experience.
Fortunately, I have a wide support system, a great partner, and generous, forgiving work colleagues. I was given the chance to say “I’m sorry. I messed up. I shouldn’t be here. I need to go. Right now.” And I was graciously forgiven my mistakes. By everyone. The employment agency even let me keep a bonus I’d been given for bringing the client to them and for connecting them with others in my field. Nothing pulls forth gratitude — and drives home noticing the deep privileges in your life — like being graciously forgiven for making big, ugly-crying, pain-inducing mistakes….
5. Be open to receiving the you-specific gift/lesson/insight
I have no idea what you took from this essay for yourself. Unless you choose to share, that’s not even my business. For me, this didn’t begin as an essay about the deep privileges of my work life or my skin color. But for me, now, how can it not be? When I get to count on gracious forgiveness, the-benefit-of-the-doubt, and getting to be fully human in my work life — even when it was definitely me who screwed up — while countless others can’t? When I get to quit a job — even when I need the money — because I so clearly should not be doing it? While countless others can’t? That’s total bullshit. We can do better. We must do better.
These are the rights I will fight for, and speak up for, for myself and others: the right to be fully human at work, the right to make mistakes, the right to be graciously forgiven for mistakes and to receive the benefit-of-the-doubt, and finally, the right to give up work and move on to something else when your intuition is screaming at the top of its lungs that you moving elsewhere will be better for everybody. This is a much needed comfort, insight, and reminder here in a month when I’m feeling down about book sales numbers and wondering where my next editing gig will be coming from.
Today, if we’re lucky, even our Oh FUCK NO! work experiences can become gifts that point us toward who we’re becoming and where we’re going next. I’m ready to help move these rights from for-a-lucky-few to by intention for everybody who wants them in their work lives. I don’t have to wonder anymore if I’m ready to go there now. I’m already here. This is already part of my own Oh HELL YES! and I have my own Oh FUCK NO! experience to thank for it.
I was 23 when my first cat found me. She leapt out of a holiday box — a gift from a boyfriend — promptly jumped into my largest house plant, and pooped. We named her Winnie the Poo, Winnie for short. Two years later (different house, different boyfriend, different house plants, same cat), I noticed something else. House cats are their own special kind of completely bizarre. They do all the same things as outdoor cats: stalking, hunting, chasing, pouncing, lounging, and playing, for example. But why they do these things requires new imagination on the part of their humans.
Winnie’s favorite hunting grounds were beneath the kitchen table and chairs. She’d bat a toy mouse into the kitchen across the slick floor and spend an hour peeking around the corner watching it, tail tip just barely fluttering: a distraction intended to lull the toy mouse into thinking the movement was nothing more than a tiny fly. Nothing to fear here. Nothing to fear here. Nothing to fear here, gentle mouse. Go about your toy-mouse business entirely unaware of the giant goofball predator planning to pounce on and embrace you. Sometimes she’d back up slowly and come around through the living room into the kitchen from the other entrance: to throw off the toy mouse entirely. Sometimes she’d jump onto a chair seat and stalk the mouse from above.
Often she’d advance quickly, slide in on her belly like a home base-stealing baseball player, with paws outstretched: the elusive mouse just out of reach on the other side of the table legs. Some days she’d never get around to capturing it at all. Other days, after she captured it, she’d celebrate by dancing and then bat it out of her own reach. And start again.
Lori learns a lesson
Winnie taught me that most of what was happening in her life was within her own imagination. House cats have amazing imaginations. And right along with amazing imaginations, most days, come made up problems…
Living in progressive and brainy Seattle, for years the primary lesson I took from Winnie was one of the dangers of privilege. Those of us who lucked into having plenty in this life, and even many who managed to work their butts off for plenty, having achieved it, can fall victim to spending a lot of time worrying about small things that don’t really matter in the long term. We can become indoor kitties: seeing table legs as insurmountable obstacles, toy mice as fierce opponents, and become out of touch with the real, or most difficult, problems of the world. Early on, I even managed to convey this idea to my husband somehow. Because for many years, when one of us got irrationally freaked out over something small, or we had a neighbor irrationally worried about, say, his fence line behind an old garage where nobody ever went, or a family member freaking out about, say, a small wardrobe decision, we’d look at each other and telepathically think “indoor kitty problem.” Extremely useful to an observer self. And extremely arrogant toward the observed. Not remotely helpful to the “irrational” people experiencing the problem, except, perhaps, as a shining example of how not to be helpful to anyone except your individual self.
Lori re-learns a lesson
I’m older now and lucky to say that six cats have opted to spend their lives with us. We live with Bella, Joey Big Paws, and Batman now (rest in peace, Winnie, Gus, and Bonzai). Lately I’ve been revisiting my early assumptions about Winnie and all the house cats who’ve followed her into my life since. If I’ve learned nothing else, here at 45 I’ve learned that I’m a person who has to listen to at least six cats to have a clue what I’m talking about.
I now strongly suspect that cats really don’t give a rat’s ass about the abstract concept of privilege. I suspect that cats don’t give a rat’s ass about most abstract concepts, or teaching life lessons to spectators most days, at all, either. They’d prefer an actual rat’s ass, thank you very much. Cats don’t teach abstract lessons to outside observers about what not to do: that would be inefficient and cats cannot be inefficient. Cats demonstrate what works for them and what doesn’t work for them. Whether anyone happens to be watching or not. Just in their being. I also now strongly suspect that it is me, not progressive and brainy Seattle, that can tip into arrogance when not paying close enough attention. So I’ve been paying closer attention…
Small things do matter.
Small moments. Small worries. Even entirely imagined problems matter deeply.
Life is lived and learned deeply in the smallest of moments.
And viva la irrational! Dear God how I love us unceasingly irrational, imperfect earthlings!
10 tips about something, I forget just what now
When a cat is walking determinedly somewhere, then encounters a sunbeam, changes her plans on the spot, and curls up to lounge and nap, that is a direct invitation into deep living to a watching human.
Don’t think about it. Try it yourself. Stop for that sunbeam. Curl up in that sunbeam. Being careful not to shade said cat. Sunbeams are a gift to be savored.
When a cat attempts a leap to the top of the tallest bookcase, or the peak of the roof, misses entirely, flails momentarily yet lands on his feet, on the ground, with surprising grace and self assurance, that is a direct invitation to try leaping and falling to learn about things like gravity, self-centering, and grace. Leaping and falling repeatedly are gifts too, for those interested in learning about grace, gravity, and the abilities of their own bodies and feet and egos.
When someone shows up to play with you, don’t think about it. Play. Play is a gift too.
Most of what is happening in my life is within my/our shared imagination. We have an amazing imagination. And right along with amazing imagination comes made up problems that actually deeply matter, whether we know it at the time or not. Problems are imagination stretching exercises coming entirely from within. Or, if you prefer, one imagination trick I enjoy is stretching my “outside” out around the problem, until it is, in fact, within me. Yep, I love this one: no matter what words we use.
Whether we find ourselves lost among kitchen table legs, alone in the jungle and listened to by no one, or living on a very pissed-off planet dripping with busy humans and insurmountable problems, deep learning and living are available as options every single small moment. With every breath. Try learning something new from everyone touched by you and everything you touch. Then try not to. Curl up in a sunbeam. Play with your own toy mice. Watch and listen even more closely. Revisit assumptions again and again and again. Allow ample time for embracing all parts of yourself. Leap and fall repeatedly to learn gravity, self-centering, and grace. Dance with aplomb. Bring back into fashion words you deeply love: also with aplomb. Know that your very being demonstrates the world you want. So lounge as if you yourself were put here to hold up sunbeams. Plans are good: play is better. Most days. Name yourself. Demonstrate what your true name is, again and again, until you could not possibly be called anything else. Then re-name yourself and start again. Later–when all the power of the world is in the palm of your hand–play with being named by others, like my friend Bernie, game designer, play guru, and CIH (chief imagination hippopotamus) of my life.
And never, ever forget to laugh at “I am just….” I am just a toy mouse, a house cat behind a table leg, and a woman watching their story unfold: three of the most important things in the universe at the moment.