My word at the start of 2020 was “shift.” What seemed so full and mysterious sounds frail and boney now in light of what has been. We have not just shifted, we have changed. We are different. Expanded in empathy I hope, as some of us steady on with stable work, and more of us scrape by with no end in sight. More aware of each other, maybe, moving forward with renewed appreciation for our grocery stockists, healthcare workers, postal service, school teachers, ballot counters, and first responders, including those who fought wildfires for months on end, or protected protests while preventing violence and looting. It’s been complicated.
What comes next? Are we still reeling or ready to restore? It’s okay to not yet be sure. But when the reptilian-limbic brain releases its grip and other deep instincts and virtues draw us out of survival mode, we will have to make a determined decision to find a more excellent way if we are to live freer lives with fuller joy. The invitation is, and has always been, to de-center ourselves in order to recenter on the meaning and restoration that we can all participate in.
“A self-serving narrative is elementally destructive,” says Walter in the Ache, the first of our six-part Contemplations series.
In that spirit, BitterSweet invites you out. Out of self and self-concern. Out of IG stories, TikTok routines, Facebook feeds, and Netflix queues. Out of a false sense of control and the numbness of apathy. Back to curiosity—back to kaleidoscopic, ever-expanding faith. Back to rest in the knowledge of all we don’t know. Our hearts enlarged and perspectives broadened. There is more to do than what’s been done, and other ways of seeing than through your lens alone. We invite you out to the excitement and energy that comes with the awareness that we can never stop learning. We have that choice.
This is a time to reorient. To fix our eyes and train our minds to seek the good, the beautiful, the true, and align our lives, our energy, our time to participate in it however we’re able to. We can welcome inconvenience as invitation and interruption as gift. Freed from the ego’s need for relevance and self-importance, we can learn to show up more significantly for one another—in joy and suffering. And in that, we’ll be brought back to life—fuller once emptied and freer once given. For, and to, one another.
As a counter-narrative told monthly, BitterSweet is the collaborative effort of dozens of artist-storytellers to reject cynicism, defy apathy, and celebrate good. For a decade, we’ve been taking what we know about the worst the world has to offer—just skimming the headlines will give you a good sense—and pausing to go deeper, looking for light in darkness, if you will. And we find it—all the time and everywhere—we find it.
Parents, principals, and shrimp-farmers in Vietnam told us the story of how libraries are authoring fresh imagination for the country’s continued rebuilding, needed especially as it faces many impacts of climate change. In Baltimore, managers and warehouse workers told us their stories of returning home after incarceration or overcoming long battles with addiction. In a multitude of pediatric cancer wards, parents have shared their stories of the days, weeks, months, years spent at their children’s bedside, receiving treatment after treatment, battling through symptom after symptom. Teachers, students, beekeepers, and government officials told us the stories of landmines, long buried but still claiming lives and limbs today in Bosnia and Herzegovina and many other post-war contexts.
Yet when asked for their story, those who have endured rarely speak about themselves. It’s a trait I’ve come to admire very much. Rather, they go straight to gratitude for those who were present, alongside, faithful—the volunteers who endured darkest nights, employers who held strong through relapses and setbacks, mentors who kept showing up, other students across the globe who’d raised money for a prosthetic to replace a crutch.
The babies of Morning Star when grown will talk about the aunties and miracle surgeons who saved their lives and nurtured them long before they could ask for help or say thank you. Congolese youth born with polio will walk with hope and dignity, all the thanks needed for the master craftsmen who welded their leg braces. The young Black boys of northeast DC mentored in leadership and character will someday tell stories of those who taught them the art of self-expression and responsibilities of power.
This chapter could go on for a lifetime, and indeed it will. To challenge the sweeping stereotypes and dismantle popular despair, BitterSweet counters confusion with wisdom, numbness with empathy, fatigue with imagination, and cynicism with conviction. We push back against distraction with attention, and isolation with intimacy. We resist individualism by committing to community, and guard against celebrity through practiced collaboration.
Stories show us a way through statistics. A way to participate in the problems we are drawn to solve and the systems in need of correction. It’s all very simple, we know, but not easy.
Another way to say it: BitterSweet is an orienting narrative—one you can trust to engage hard issues and contentious realities of our day, delivering expanded understanding and through-lines of empathy, relationship, and respect.
We want to be known by our love. Distinct and generous.
A conversation between director Jared Hogan and Shane Claiborne in April 2018 in Lynchburg, VA.
Directed by Jared Hogan. Edited by Brandon Bray.
"We have a precedent for beautiful things growing out of little groups of people, like twelve,” says Shane. “I’ve learned a lot from Dorothy Day—a great Catholic activist—and she said, ‘Our goal is not to grow bigger and bigger, but smaller and smaller.’”
I think that’s part of our reorientation work—to discipline our gaze and attention from scanning the horizon for signs of normalcy or security and refocus on the one, two, ten opportunities to give radically and love generously where we are with whomever is next to us or just around the corner.
As for our part in this, speaking practically as we look ahead to the next year, our method will change but our aim is the same: Craft a BitterSweet narrative that’s artistically and intellectually rigorous, and full of heart. We’ll invite new voices into the storytelling and stretch our seeking as far and deep as possible.
We are choosing to embrace this time as an invitation to revisit some incredible stories told long ago. With a fresh take and artistic touch, we’ll celebrate our archives. Stories of organizations like Little Lights, Life Pieces to Masterpieces, We Are Family, Healthy Babies Project, Stephen’s Children, StandProud, Red Wiggler, and many others. These organizations have endured and their work is as inspiring and essential as it has ever been, uniquely healing and restorative.
Six stories are based in our hometown of Washington, DC, which is obviously ideal from both a cost and Covid-safety perspective (not having to travel) and is extra meaningful given the impact of 2020 on our city particularly. We get to celebrate some of the least known, most wonderful people and organizations in the District.
Elsewhere in the U.S., we’ll re-feature the inspiring youth running Old Skool Cafe in San Francisco, the champion farmers of Red Wiggler in Germantown, Maryland, and the warehouse of second chances in Baltimore. And across the Atlantic, we’re reaching deep into the archives for our oldest inspirations from DRC, Egypt, and Kenya.
Of course, we are still committed to telling new stories as well, but until safe travel becomes possible again, we can’t risk the well-being of our teams or the organizations (and their people) that we’d be visiting. In 2020, we had intended to bring you the stories of Dr. Mukwege and the Panzi Foundation of DRC, and Promundo Global with their manhood work to cure gender-based violence, and Sure We Can’s innovative recycling operation employing some of Brooklyn’s most vulnerable, and Boxville in Bronzeville (South Side of Chicago) and Solar Sister in Tanzania, both nurturing an entrepreneurial groundswell.
These stories remain on our slate and we are eager to produce them when pandemic threats subside and the organizations would not be especially burdened by our visiting. To continue helping us build a story pipeline for 2022, please do nominate any organizations you’d like to see featured on BitterSweet Monthly.
By now I hope you’ve realized you’re reading this story on our new website, designed with our new brand. We have made some major investments in platform and brand infrastructure so that we can build and branch out into new content opportunities and mature into new partnerships.
Having received a tremendous response to our first podcast (a six-parter published alongside our Contemplations series), the BitterSweet team has nominated long-time contributor Robert Winship to take the helm and produce a yearlong (monthly) podcast alongside each story we publish. Angela Wu, another long-time BitterSweet contributor, and Carolina Soto will be tag-teaming on content, and we could not be more excited to debut this for you in the new year with our first episode dropping on prestigious January 18th.
Additionally, BitterSweet’s new marketing manager, Obi Okolo, is diligently shaping a vision for another first—a story film festival featuring the best submissions from you, our readers, on the BitterSweet theme of rejecting cynicism, defying apathy, celebrating good. Yes, there will be prizes and yes, we will gather (we hope). Also, yes there are a million details yet to be worked out. But start thinking, start sharing with crafters who might be interested in submitting fresh work—photographers, writers, filmmakers, musicians. Let’s dream together of all this could be.
As we wrap up an immensely challenging year and enter a new, differently challenging year, we invite you commit to this counter narrative life. It is exceptionally hard to create through chaos, to hold fast through uncertainty, but we are doing it. We welcome the hard realities and push deep into them to pull out glimmers of hope and steadfastness, selflessness and generosity that we can all be encouraged and expanded by. Through storytelling we send wind across the embers and hope they turn to flames. New light—bolder, brighter, stronger—orienting us to what’s meaningful, drawing us to the work that’s ours to do. I sure hope you’ll join us as faithful readers and sharers—and help us do more.