Bitterness, Sweetness, and Bittersweetness

Bitterness, Sweetness, and Bittersweetness

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 ( 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, 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 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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.
  6. 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:

How to read a mind across thousands of miles/kilometers

How to read a mind across thousands of miles/kilometers

Reading a human mind across great distances is easy for some. I have friends who do it all the time.

As near as I can tell, we need just three things to do it: dear friends, silliness, and our true self. Pain also works, but I recommend silliness over pain when you can swing it, which you often can with dear friends, I’m learning.

At some point, friendship + silliness (or pain) + your true self = knowing each other’s hearts. And when we know each other’s hearts, and trust each other completely, it’s only a matter of time before unbelievably cool things begin to happen. Mind reading is just the tip of the iceberg.

So let me tell you about three dear friends of mine: Bernie, Natalie, and Bas. I love these humans. Writers all. Silly all. Perfect playmates for me all.

I haven’t met them in person yet. I’ve known all of them for roughly 1 1/2 years. None of them live close to me: Bernie, at 2,200 miles (~3,600 kms) away is the closest, while Bas, at 7,900 kilometers (~4,900 miles) lives the farthest away. They aren’t my only friends who read my mind recently, but they are the three who did so from the farthest distance, which makes them Olympics-level champions at mind reading. And they are all people with whom I feel 100% free to be myself. Not my day-job self (not that I have one of those anymore) but my whole, true, silly, fun, frustrating-at-times, wending, messy self.

I noticed this year that sometimes these people read my mind. Sometimes they appear to feel what I need—before I can recognize what I need—and they’ll share just what I need, just as I need it. All of them have anticipated a difficulty for me and taken steps that smoothed my way. They’ve all taught me what I needed to learn, just when I need to learn it. I am amazed by this ability and can’t say much about it (ha! yeah right) except that it very much appears to be more a function of heart than of head.

That, and it feels like magic. It makes me feel 6 years old again, back when I could believe in magic because I could feel it.

Let’s skip to the examples.

My beloved Bernie invited me to join a Google+ group this past month, saying “this group is a “little” “heady” – but I thought you might enjoy and perhaps give it some soul.”

That week, I’d begun quietly removing myself from many “heady” Facebook and Google+ groups—that is, groups in which the vast majority of what goes on is talking about, debating, and arguing about theories. “Too much head, and not enough heart and soul” had been in my mind as I decided which groups to leave, although I love Bernie’s shortening this thought of mine to “heady.” I didn’t tell Bernie that I was doing this. I didn’t tell anyone. And I haven’t pulled myself out of a single group that Bernie is part of, so he couldn’t have witnessed it. But there he was, telling me to improve a heady group by giving it a little time and bringing it the soul it needed. Wow. I joined the group he recommended and decided to stick with one of the groups I’d been about to leave a while longer. He’s right. They need me.

Then there’s Natalie.

As my heart was quietly breaking over the life-threatening illness of our dear dog Grady in mid December, she prompted her talented artist daughter, Frankie Blue, to make me this avatar.

Lori and Grady avatar

I love it. And it came at such a perfect time I couldn’t quite believe it.

Later, near the end of December, in my own mind I made the decision that we would need to put Grady to sleep. He hadn’t eaten a meal of his own volition in almost 5 weeks. He’d dropped from 53 to 39 pounds, despite the fact that we were syringe feeding him more calories a day than he used to eat. He began to lose the ability to walk. Nobody knew of this painful thought in my head, not even my husband Daniel, because it was too hard to give voice to.

So I was feeling alone, beyond sad, and in a stunned, helpless place that meant I wanted to speak to no one and do almost nothing. I felt wretched. I knew I’d be saying goodbye to one of my dearest friends of the past 12 years in the coming week. I felt horrible for making the decision at all and also horrible for not making it sooner. On December 29th, beyond hanging out with Grady, I had energy for just one thing: I read Facebook to see what some of my favorite humans were up to.

And I found this list, created that day by Natalie, for me, apparently completely out of the blue.

Nat's List for Lori

This gave me the courage to talk to Daniel about Grady being ready to move on. Without words exchanged, and from the opposite corner of the country, Natalie’s heart knew that mine could really use this right that moment. Wow.

And then there’s Bas: my creative partner-in-crime who has rapidly become a new best friend this year.

From The Netherlands, Bas so often reads my mind and anticipates my needs that for me it now feels like a completely commonplace state of being for humans who live on different continents. He shares links to articles almost the moment I think to myself “Hmm, maybe I should read about that.” He uses new-to-me words that feel like they were just on the tip of my brain, waiting for me to say them out loud: this fall, words like the slow web and transplanetary storytelling. He shares ideas that I recognize as mine the moment I hear them: “Maybe we should call Different Office a creative co-op?” (I’d thought this weeks prior but failed to tell him about it before he thought it too.) This fall, when I was freaking out because roof patch repair folks accidentally trapped four baby squirrels in our attic (while Daniel was away on business, of course), Bas and Simone (his fantastic wife) worried across vast distances about stressed-out me and mama squirrel and her babies. They sent us music to sooth our souls. It worked. It took 18 hours–the last few of which we were all rocking out instead of stressing out–but we got all four babies reunited with mom.

So how do you read a mind across thousands of miles/kilometers?

I know it has everything to do with being dear friends, being silly together, sharing your pain, and sharing your self to the extent you possibly can. I know it has something to do with profound trusting of your friends, your self (at least for a moment), and the nature of the universe (again, at least for a moment)–a trust so profound that it lives beyond individual thoughts and the skeptism of grown-ups-ville. And I know we don’t control it in the traditional sense. We don’t think our way into it exactly. We believe in each other, we care for each other, we give our attention gladly to each other, and somehow we make and find space for the amazing to show up and happen.

I don’t think we learn how to do this at all. I think we wake up and remember that we can. We unlearn that we can’t. We remember the existence and the power and the sass and the amazingness of the 6-year-olds still within us, always within us. Turns out, those 6-year-olds are still holding hands.

For more perspectives on the subject, consult your own 6-year-old self and the people you are silly with. You could also maybe ask Bernie, Natalie, or Bas if the mood strikes. They may call me crazy, but from my perspective, they are all old hats at this.

What lessons are self-organizing groups teaching you right now?

What lessons are self-organizing groups teaching you right now?

Here are a few self-organizing groups I’m learning with/from this week…

1. A touching and cute self-organizing group (love the response of all the different adults in the video):

2. A brave self-organizing group within my neighborhood:

3. A very visible collection of self-organizing groups right now. There are tons of videos and stories online. This one was shared with me by a community member who is occupying Vancouver (and inspiring everyone within earshot, including me):

Related FYI links:

  • Coordinated national gathering in the U.S. July 4, 2012
  • How to leave a bank. Daniel and I are leaving our BIG BANK for one of our many local credit unions this week. Tired of the lack of human connection and the “Suprise!” fees, we’ve been planning to make this move for months but hadn’t found the few hours time to make the switch. A little push from the community this month was all we needed. In all things, who we spend our time with matters. Local credit union here we come! Will this small act change the world? It’ll change ours.

4. An emerging self-organizing work group:

  • My fabulous friend Bas and I have decided to write a series of books about different ways of working. We’re both fans of writing about what we ourselves are doing right now so that learning isn’t optional. Co-learning is exponentially more fun than individual experting! How do I know this? 
    • Exhibit A: Bas ran out and spontaneously bought himself a huge white board to draw on, while at the same time—on the other side of the planet—I was out excitedly buying some rainbow-colored post-its for brainstorming.
    • Exhibit B: I can’t wait for our 11 p.m. (9 a.m. his time) Skype meeting later this week. Woo hoo! 

Think we’re going to write our own stories and gather stories from people and groups who are co-creating different work for themselves and their communities. At the moment, “different” meaning (at least to me) working in ways other than your previous self’s definition of work and redefining what “successful work” looks and feels like for yourself/selves. Don’t hold me to this off-the-cuff definition. It’ll evolve as we learn.

  • Request: if you have lived a great story about a different way of working and redefining success in work for yourself and/or your community, or you know somebody who has, will you contact me and share it? We’d love to connect!

5. My cats partnering to scare a squirrel off the bird feeder (through the window glass). One cat can’t do it. Two cats can. Now we know.


Five things my self-organizing groups taught me this week

Some of the things I learned this week thanks to my self-organizing groups:

  1. Chaos and order are both within us, and both ok. It’s in our nature to be chaotic, silly, ridiculous, and huge risk-takers. Within these groups, I can accept chaos as rewarding and even fun. Yet it’s also in our nature to appreciate order and structure and to minimize or avoid risk. Within these groups, I can accept order and structure as rewarding and even fun too. I have both within me, and both around me, and I’m ok with that. Honestly, I really like that. Both support creativity.
  2. These groups change me as an individual. As I change, everything around me changes. My self-organizing groups are a doorway into seeing and learning more about who I really am and who we really are. The more I learn as and with these groups, the less fearful I become and the more perspectives I’m willing to accept about who I am and who we are.
  3. “Us vs. them” is becoming less relevant for me, most days, thanks to these groups. These groups are teaching my individual self valuable lessons about my tendency to experience and think about things as “us versus them.” My individual self needs “us vs. them” as a way to decide who is safe (us) and who isn’t (them) in any given moment. My self-organizing groups pull more and more people into my “us” category. Today I believe that the more self-organizing groups I spend time with and reflect on, the more “us” I will discover as part of myself. Sometimes I shift to a place where I can see that there is no “them” at all. I shift back, as needed, to protect my individual self. Thank you individual self.
  4. These groups unleash creativity in ways my individual self couldn’t even imagine. The very moment I recognize myself as my self-organizing group (valuing the group to the same extent as my individual self) all sorts of good things start to happen within me and around me.
  5. Life is hard, yes. And aren’t we still so very lucky to be here?

Here are some of the pictures and stories from my life the past week that document my learning experiences…

A picture of my friend Julie and her friends and family in the lovely, chaotic Seattle solstice parade. Thanks for sharing the photo Julie. Go Julie! Go chaos!

A dung beetle float in the solstice parade (photo by my friend Josh—thanks Josh). Does this image capture order, chaos, both? You tell me. Regardless, from my perspective it’s a big rolling pile of awesome!

And here, in her YouTube debut, is my friend Annie demonstrating in one minute how to play the lifesize Jenga game at the Georgetown Street Fair: Listen to her self-organizing group members cheer her on. Yea! Go Annie!

Photo of the life-size Jenga game. Order and chaos working together. Go Georgetown! Go Annie’s friend Neils, co-creator of this work of art/game/life lesson!

Here’s a picture my dad sent me of his lake cabin garden this week. Check out those straight lines! Check out the thoughtful placement of vegetables by size, growth habit, and sunshine needs. Bee-attracting and wildlife-repelling flowers circling the vegetables and working hand-in-hand with fencing. Yea structure and order!

Here’s what wildlife in northeastern South Dakota face when attempting to eat my parents’ veggies! Experience and creativity combine to create a veritable vegetable Fort Knox. Beautiful. Go mom and dad!

Shifting gears. Here’s a brief demonstration of a transglobal self-organizing group creating an effective conflict-soothing meditation mantra instantaneously via Facebook. We are not proprietary about this just-developed technique. Feel free to use it and share it as you see fit.

Janice: Very very very annoyed with British Airways right now.

Lori: Here, try my breathing meditation: 1) Breathe deeply in for a count of 6, thinking “What can I learn right now?” Hold the breath in for a count of 8. 2) Breathe even more deeply out for a count of 6, thinking “Fracking idiots!” Hold for a count of 8. Repeat as needed.

Janice: They are winding me up over child vs. adult fares! Grrrr. I’ll sort it out eventually, but in the mean time I’ll focus on Lori’s recommendation part 2!

[A few hours later…]

Janice: They are making it up to me today with a free upgrade to business class, in the upper deck of the plane which I’ve always wanted to see!

Lori: Like!

Lastly, as a self-organizing group this past weekend, my friend Doug and I facilitated a workshop about self-organizing groups at the annual Organizational Systems Renewal conference on the Seattle University campus. After attendees identified their own self-organizing groups as individuals (the source of their learning and expertise on the subject from my perspective), they organized themselves around the questions that mattered most to them and then began working as small groups to answer their own questions. Before they presented their ideas to the larger group as a whole, the small groups were asked to co-draw a picture to represent what the words “self-organizing group” meant to them. Some of the comments (paraphrased) that I can recall hearing from the various groups as they moved into co-drawing pictures:

  • We need way more colors than just the four markers that are on our table. We need to get more colors! Who has more colors?
  • What color do you guys think should we use to represent life force?
  • We need modeling clay, not paper and pens. That would make this easier.
  • This flat flip chart paper doesn’t really work, does it? We need to represent the groups in 3-D. How do you think we should do that?
  • You know what would be cool to have? Water. I think water would do a better job than paper and pens to demonstrate what we mean.
  • I want to dance to represent these groups. Should we dance? We need to at least make sure the image includes dancers or dance steps.

Um, wow. Just wow. The creative force that emerges from within these groups gives me goose bumps and causes tears to well up in my eyes.