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/.
Flash poetry (created and shared online in <10 minutes) inspired by an amazingly prolific and resilient researcher friend. I turned a research abstract into a poem on the fly for him. That’s me apparently: nerdy poems on the fly, no waiting. Isn’t life beautiful?
Loving to Pieces, Autopoiesis
from reduction mind-sets
with holist approaches
squeezing self-organizing systems
loving to pieces, autopoiesis
misty-eyed chaotic systems
tickling multi-agent systems
running across the field
lighting up aspects and helpers
in understanding emergence
falling down laughing with stories
research and measures
to greet agent organization
at your own dawn
We would like to announce the arrival of our new baby, aka, our new book, Year 1 Poet.
She was born in paperback form at 2 p.m. on November 30, 2014, weighing 100 pages.
She is a little genre-bender already. She tells the true story of a writer getting lost and becoming a poet. She also contains 32 poems and 15 beautiful accompanying illustrations. Near the end, she also contains tips for writers becoming poets (tips I had to create for myself to undo my training as a writer) and tips by emerging artists for other emerging artists from both me and her three illustrators (aka, her aunties and uncle).
Starting tomorrow, she will be available at Open Books: A Poem Emporium, my favorite bookstore in Seattle. She’s also available on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com. She’ll be available on Whidbey Island soon too.
We intended to get this announcement out weeks ago, when she first arrived in the world, but we were swamped with new-book-parent things. She keeps us up at night, planning for and imagining her future. She keeps us scurrying here and there, learning how to create e-book and audio book forms, how to best share her with the world, and meeting local book sellers.
Here’s me—exhausted, unkempt, and glowing—holding her for the first time. Notice that her professional-photographer father was so excited that he forgot entirely about proper lighting. Oh well, if book parenthood is about anything at all, it’s about humility, about not being able to do it all, and about falling more deeply in love with yourselves: eye bags, unwashed hair, and all.
Her auntie Tabitha made a whole bunch of birth announcements for us in the form of postcards, e-postcards, flyers, and bookmarks. Thanks Tabitha! Distant friends, you’ll see them on social media for the next month. Forgive our oversharing. We really love her and we think everything she does is adorable and world-changing. Nearby friends, you may encounter her birth announcements on community boards, in coffee shops, and in bookstores.
In lieu of cards and gifts, please purchase a copy for yourself or friends, write a review on Amazon.com or Goodreads (her baby books), and/or tell those you love about her so they can find her for themselves. Thank you so much for your support. We couldn’t do this without you.
Bas did a really brave thing this week.
And given that he is so beautifully Dutch–reserved and humble and whatever the opposite of self-centered is—he would never toot his own horn about this. But I’m an American, dammit. My friend deserves a bit of frickin’ horn tooting.
For years, Bas researched, wrote, spoke, and breathed project management. He worked as a PM. I’m certain that he got things done more efficiently and better and faster and all those other things PMs care about. And his blog, the Project Shrink, was very popular in PM-land. He had those thousands and thousands of followers that most other bloggers secretly long for.
But he grew weary of his expertise. Tired of the PM box he’d built for himself.
Over the past few years, Bas has been moving in new directions: trying on different hats.
His Project Shrink blog eventually became Shrinkonia, the name of his own created-via-imagination country, as he embraced more of his true, PM-box-smashing self.
He’s been Project Ethnographer. Story Home Builder. Geographer-at-Large. Story Wrangler. And Writer that Draws.
And all the while, he’s been studying and talking about what he himself is doing: from the struggle to answer the question “what do you do?” to letting go and savoring transitions, from storytelling to map making, from identity crises to recovering your sense of direction.
Growing ever more playful, lately he’s also been Wile E Coyote. Metaphor Man. Faux Travolta. And The Guru. And my personal two favorites—At Dawn We Ride guy and fellow wandering Chicken Pirate—both of whom feel most like the fun, smart, brave spirit that I spend time with and know best.
His shadow side shows up too. Often in Darwin, his snarky blog who calls him a Hippie and Sherlock and Sparky, lest he get so far out into woo-woo land that he can’t ever catch the boat back to Normalsville.
I don’t think anyone has told him yet that that ship has sailed.
Personally, I keep waiting for the day The Dude shows up, a version of Bas from one of his favorite movies.
But I digress.
Everything that Bas has been doing the past few years is brave. However, what happened this week is bravery of the highest degree.
Bas removed all of the PM books and PM talks from his Web site.
Those last links to his former professional self.
By his own hand.
In Lori Land, bravery doesn’t get much more impressive than this.
This is believing that your world will reward you, eventually, for being the real you.
This is believing in your quirky self and quirky ship mates, even in the face of your fears.
And despite the fact that what you’re doing is so very different from what the rest of the world seems to be doing. And what the old you did.
Believing even in the face of your own loud and snarky shadow-side voice. Walking away from the boxes of the corporate world, the boxes that you yourself helped build and that you yourself must tear down. Walking away from dreary work that you know people will pay you for toward creative play/work that far fewer people may recognize as valuable, at least at first.
This is walking your walk.
Dancing your dance.
Disco-ing your duck.
When people learn what I do for a living, and that my creative partner lives on a different continent, many ask me how Bas and I met and how we ended up working together.
I usually tell the long story, as is my way, that involves him writing about my blog, new-blogger-me being so thrilled that I offered to do his laundry for him, and how we started talking regularly via our blogs until we decided to work together on our first book.
I now see the shorter story.
I knew the moment I met Bas that he was doing exactly what I was trying to do: creating worlds in which who we really are—the whole quirky, smart, oddball us—is terrific. And documenting the journey as we go in case our experience proves useful to others.
Together, it seems, we’re finding those worlds. First Shrinkonia, then Lori Land, and now Oddball Empire: a whole real world of quirky, brave souls that were here all along, patiently waiting for us to trust ourselves completely, do what we’re called to do, and join the fun.
My advice now for anyone trying to find Oddball Empire is simple…
Find the person who hears your crazy story for getting there, jumps on the tricycle next to yours, tilts his/her paper hat into the wind, and shouts “At Dawn We Ride!” Stick together.
Everything else you can invent as you go.
I love working with Bas. He’s part childhood pen pal, part imaginary friend, part work colleague, part informal cultural attaché, and part best friend. And the fact that we’ve both been writing about transitions for several years without fully knowing we were writing about transitions dovetailed so perfectly, the timing couldn’t have been better for collaboration on this book. So I came into creating A Travel Guide for Transitions overflowing with enthusiasm and gladness for the opportunity.
Then a whole bunch of real life crap happened. April was an unexpectedly tough month for me.
No, that was my grown up filter using the words unexpectedly tough.
April sucked, my friends. It SUCKED.
Daniel and I adopted an 8-week-old puppy — my first puppy ever — and I got to learn some hard truths about myself. For example, I become a shell of my former self on just 4 hours of sleep per night. And to be my creative best self, I really do need 4- to 8-hour chunks of empty alone time and space most days. When I don’t get them, I flail and plot my escape and I questioned all my life choices to the point that I saw fear in Daniel’s eyes. That made me want to weep.
No, that was my grown up filter again. Made me want to weep, geez.
I spent 2 or 3 days each week in April weeping. I pretty much became the anti-me.
As it turns out, I am not the amazing puppy mom that I imagined I would be. I hate much of it actually. There’s a fun pill to swallow: I hate being a full-time mom. She’s just a tiny dog, arrgh, this should be easy! For frick’s sake, I have friends who raise a gaggle of human children with laughter and smiles on their faces most days!
Guilt piled high and dug deep within me this month. At least I can take comfort in the fact that 20- and 30- and 40-year-old me were all correct to trust their own intuition on this whole mom thing. No actual children were harmed in the making of this blog post or this life of mine.
Also during April my neighborhood partner-in-crime, Knox, left the country for a month, leaving me in charge of event planning for a giant neighborhood-spanning summer event. Ugh. Bleh. I love my neighborhood, and getting closer as a community, and I’m really looking forward to our new event (Yay Hopscotch CD–1.8-miles of fun!). But a solo large-scale event planner I am not. I can do it, and I’m even pretty good at parts of it (like blogging about what’s happening–surprise, surprise). But most of the tasks involved drain me of energy. Presenting to large groups? Convincing faceless strangers at the Seattle Department of Transportation that a temporary hopscotch path of flour, sugar, and water won’t hurt people? Bleh. Draining.
And there wasn’t much energy to drain in April, since I was running on 4 hours of sleep a night and already drowning in guilt about being a terrible mother, and partner, and friend.
Message received universe.
Transitions help me learn about myself, and, wow, do I have a lot to learn.
On the up side, going through several transitions at once meant that I got to learn about myself in almost record Lori Land time. Didn’t feel like an upside at the time. Felt more like I was a bug being stepped on by a giant shoe and its deliberately nasty wearer.
I asked Bas for forgiveness for working far slower than I had planned. Instead of being upset, he drew me a funny “This Sucks” doodle, and checked in with me to see how I was doing more often, and then sent me an amazing map doodle of Lori Land (yeah, that’s going in the book!), and then he did an entire fun doodle trailer for the book so I could imagine the end.
I asked Daniel for forgiveness too, repeatedly, for dumping so much on him and being so entirely not myself for so long. Really, you’d have to go to reality TV to find a worse wife than I was in April. He of course was amazing. Doing more puppy parenting, working from home so I could get a little time to myself, picking up home and yard chores that I usually do, making me juice.
Asking for forgiveness comes easily to me now, it seems. But forgiving myself? That’s apparently what I’m working on now.
Sometimes life allows us to savor transitions, and other times just surviving them sounds pretty damn good.
Don’t beat yourself up if this is not your time to savor a transition.
Ask for help or at least allow yourself to be helped.
Make time for self care, even if this means allowing others to do a whole lot extra for you right now: people who will help you make time for yourself.
Forgive yourself and survive this time around.
“You can always savor the next transition, right?” I said to myself this morning. “And ditch the guilt, girl. It’s just not you.”
And in an instant, the moment I feared would never come again is back.
I’m back to savoring.
Back to wanting this exact life.
Back to work as play.
Back to me.
I even love that damn little puppy.
I love the Friedrich Nietzsche quote “One must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.”
This quote found me mid 2004 at the beginning of my marriage, my doctoral program, and the beginning of two years of amazing, life-changing work. That was a crazy year. Before then I’d been primarily Order Girl, individual superhero seeking many of the good things that her ancestors imagined for her: physical safety, financial security (money), expertise, seriousness (being taken seriously), respectability, and certainty. These were the tools of order, passed on to me by my ancestors, who used them to pull themselves away from isolation and fear. And these tools really worked for them in the past, at least in part.
And when I say ancestors here, I include my former self, Order Girl. Hey girl.
Once I’d felt all of these things within me though—in that very moment—it was time for me to begin letting them go, as hard as that was and at times still is. I don’t mean tossing them out like trash. I mean holding them lightly, swaying away from them, eventually circling back, and then moving away again. Dancing.
If I hadn’t been willing to let go of these tools, and let go of Order Girl herself, I think the tools would have become gods for me, idols. If I hadn’t let go, and begun to dance, I would have become something less than my former self, a mindless follower of them (Order Doormat?) in my unending pursuit of them. As if I believed that the old tools of order are it. All there is. All we’ve got. All we want. All we can be.
On the radio yesterday, I heard someone—it was either Tavis Smiley or Cornell West—say that you cannot simultaneously love money and love poor people. You can want money and love poor people, but once you LOVE money, there arises within you a callousness about poor people, about poverty.
To my ear, they—and frankly far more eloquently than I—were talking about this same dance.
The old tools of order take us only so far. Grasped too tightly, for too long, and they don’t see enough in us. Don’t expect enough of us. Cannot help us imagine ourselves beyond where we are right now. You know, the place where humans, open and eager to love and learn at birth, are led to believe that distrusting each other, hating each other, killing each other, and destroying the environments that support all of us are our only options.
We hang on too tightly to the old tools of order, and we cannot move ourselves beyond that place. We’re stuck.
So yes, brother Nietzsche, one must have chaos in oneself in order to give birth to a dancing star.
But I think for two it’s easier. Right Daniel? Bas? Smiley and West?
Because two can just dance.
As we dance we become sweet and shifting chaos ourselves. We feel new limbs and accept the gifts of chaos: uncertainty, fun, vulnerability, learning, flaws/connection points, freedom, and her fraternal twin, responsibility.
Yes there are still big, monster problems to solve, Order Girl. And yes, picking up a tool of order and using that tool to death has been the choice of many folks before me. And of me.
But it’s not my choice anymore. Not when dancing is a viable option. And dancing is almost always a viable option.
Play. Dance. Shake your booty in your pants. Renew yourself and others and notice that we become more responsible as we become more free.
To me, these are the gifts of chaos. They aren’t wielded. They’re not tools. They are received. Gifts.
Often we see them first in our dance partners, and then within us, as we notice that they are us too. I think our part is just to notice, to remember, to take hold of another hand, and to join the dance.
So if you are feeling alone in your decision to step away from the tools of order, dear Order Girl, accept at least this much good news…
You are not bat-shit crazy. You are human. And we humans long to dance.
Welcome to the dance.