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.
Like friendship, magic shows up when you invite her in. She sits to stay a spell when you take a deep breath and say “This is who I really am.” After that, to stay with magic becomes easier and harder. Easier, because now she’s an old friend. Harder, because old friends don’t let you get away with being less than real or less than true to yourself. We don’t make old friends stay. That’s not what friendship is about, and it’s not what magic is about. The best we can do is walk blindly into our old walls, bitch or laugh about those walls and selves together, and then haltingly, stumblingly, walk through the veils of our old selves, becoming more fun and aware versions of ourselves. If we’re serious about staying with magic—and I highly suggest we not be—then it is we who must get lost, fall down, look the fool, and receive help. It is we who must learn to move with magic wherever she takes us…
makes all my decisions.
live in the fog across the sea from me
I’ve visited them.
are my advisors
rabbits, eagles, dogs, and cats
my closest friends.
for the pure joy of it.
I edit for joy, sure, sometimes,
and also to pay the bills.
At 45½, aka, today
I learned that I love
easy-listening country music
when I dropped my guard
and just let it help me
(My love didn’t have to leave me,
my car didn’t break down,
nor did my dog have to die.
Bye bye, silly old beliefs.)
Today I prefer the company
of poets, artists, musicians, and farmers
caregivers, scientists, and new parents
the wildly curious, the extremely vulnerable,
the very young, and the very old:
basically, all the people who won’t notice
let alone mind
that I wore these same socks and this same sweater, yesterday.
I don’t have the high adult walls that some other grownups seem to.
You might spot me in the front yard
to attract bumblebees,
to hold friends or embrace demons:
But you know
surely you must know already
if only within your soul
or you wouldn’t still be here…
It takes extra-terrestrial freedom
to not have high adult walls today
to not fear some humans
in the world right now.
It takes extra-terrestrial control
to let unimportant things go
to go where your heart takes you
to go all-in
on what matters most.
It takes extra-terrestrial guts
to be kind in the now:
to offer the benefit of the doubt
while also bravely speaking your mind.
It takes wonder, awe, and magic
to have true courage, deep power, and trusted change.
This is my known.
For the longest time I forgot this.
I did what was asked of me.
Then I went to school after school.
Then I went to leaders, gurus, and, God help me, even to politicians.
I searched Google and Facebook, too:
went spelunking for all good ideas known to man and
still I came up empty on this.
So now I’m back to me.
I’m back to intuition and dragons.
Back to well-worn sweaters, cozy chairs.
Back to baby steps, random leaps, and deep love in all directions around me.
Back to writing poems, building sand castles, and paying bills.
Because it takes extra-terrestrial magic within
to breathe fully now.
It takes extra-terrestrial magic within
to answer the question:
Who am I, really?
Open space + invitation = finding that magic within.
Saying “This is the real me today.” is sitting with magic, old friend.
muster all the courage you have
Then get up and walk away
Do whatever you’ve got to do
to leave your beloved old self and ideas behind
hit the road
and stay with magic.
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.
If you’re in the central Seattle area this weekend (June 6th 2015), come join us and hundreds of neighbors on Saturday, between 10 a.m. and 8 p.m., for the third annual Hopscotch CD – 1.8 Miles of Fun!
Block captains (aka, deeply awesome neighbors) will be wandering the route handing out maps, sidewalk chalk, toys, and prizes. In addition to hopping the path and decorating the path, there are also dozens of neighbor-planned activities along the path (face painting, magic shows, yard sales, for example), plus music, food, local business sidewalk sales, a carnival, not to mention the countless spontaneous activities that pop up along the path when neighbors are inspired by so much fun. More details on the Hopscotch CD website here.
We’ll be out there somewhere on the route! Come find us!
FYI, the temporary hopscotch path lasts between 3 and 5 heavy rains and typically can be played on throughout June. So if you’re busy June 6th, don’t let that stop you.
Here are some images of spontaneous fun from year 1…
It’s really foggy here today. I can see the end of the dock but not much else out there. The whole world looks like a down pillow from my window.
As Eva and I walked the beach this morning, a curious seal poked her head out of the water to watch. Thanks to the fog and the tide, she was really close, perhaps just 30 feet away. She followed, popping up to see us every 15 seconds or so. Seals never get this close. In fact, Eva has never noticed seals following us until today.
I was standing in the sand at the rounded, low-tide beach right at the point of Sandy Point. Looking back into the neighborhood, with the fog surrounding the brightly painted little homes, was like looking into a snow globe that we ourselves live in. Fog is cool.
Eva raced ahead, pretending to chase a rabbit while really looking for a stick for me to throw. I squatted down to look at the seal from her vantage point. I was a little impressed with myself for thinking of this. Aqua Woman, talking to seals, that’s me.
My actions caused Eva to come running back to the point and look out toward the black waters of the foggy sea with her head tilted into living question mark like a proper Aussie. When the gray seal slipped back up out of the ocean, this time just 20 feet away, I was startled. But Eva’s mouth dropped wide in wonder. Her whole body wiggled. She bounced forward, giddy, into the dark water, until she was chest deep, to meet her new friend. She’d never seen a seal before.
The fog was hindering our vision. The water was ominous and black at that really deep corner where two tides collide and dig in. But Eva wasn’t scared. She was certain that she’d found somebody new to play with. In that moment she trusted her gut, her intuition, the seal’s body language, and maybe, my body language. She sprinted back and around the beach, looking for a stick to share, then bounded back in, hoping for a connection and holding a piece of long seaweed—the closest thing to a stick she could find—in her mouth as a play offering. This time the seal decided to go play with her less brave companions farther out in the water. Eva didn’t take offense. She just kept on walking and enjoying the beach.
I was less impressed with my own seal greeting abilities after watching Eva’s. I’m going to start honing my own intuition, work on trusting my gut, and on recognizing body language I can trust implicitly. Fog and darkness and difference don’t necessarily mean danger. Sometimes they arrive to help you stand at a turning point, mouth open in wonder. Or to meet a brand new soul mate. Next time, I want to greet mine smiling, curious, friendly, and chest deep in their world, not my own. Like my own personal superhero, Aqua Dog Eva.