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omission or boundary?

One day, while I was working in my garden, a neighbor, (I'll call her Linda) walked by and asked if she could help. I'd seen her around, had said hello, knew she lived down the block, but that was it. We'd never even had coffee together.

Linda was a tough old broad who carried herself like a stevedore right off the docks. Her rough edges said she'd duked it out with life and lost most of the battles. But I took her offer as a kind gesture, considering I was covered in mud trying to move some earth around to make a rise in that part of the garden.

Gardening to me is a sort of meditation where I find myself thinking of nothing but what is in front of me. It's my way of calming my monkey-mind to focus my energy, but that day, I welcomed her into my inner sanctuary without thinking. As we worked along side each other, she talked about her life, her past, the gossip in the 'hood, her opinion of other neighbors, yada yada yada... I began to regret opening the gate into my little world since it took real effort to stay focused on my mud while listening to her.

After the first half hour, she began to speak about her family. "I just know you'll understand this," she started this next phase of conversation and inside I groaned. I seem to have some mysterious 'open for business' sign on my forehead that gives people permission to tell me their darkest secrets--whether I want to know them or not. It's always been awkward finding myself in possession of someone else's secrets. But, I didn't have the heart to interrupt her and she wasted no time in getting to the juicy parts.

"I had two older brothers who'd never leave me alone. I couldn't even take a bath without 'em hassling me...they thought it was pretty damned funny to bust in and piss in my bath water..." I stopped in mid-air with my shovel, trying to reconcile the word hassle as a description of this scene. But she didn't notice and continued talking as she dug beside me. "They'd make me stay in the dirty water, laughing their asses off... sometimes, one of 'em would even shit in the water... thought it was pretty f--king funny too. And they'd say, 'Go on, wash up..."

I was now entirely immobile with this information. I didn't even know this woman's last name, and now I had a horrific image stamped in my mind. I must have mumbled something inane like, "That's horrible..." but I could see that to her, it was absolutely normal— something all brothers did to little sisters. I suppressed the urge to signal a big T for time-out. Her matter-of-fact tone made it that much more obscene, but what was truly disturbing was that it was clear she had never had any sort of professional help with it. Still, I asked if she'd ever gone to therapy and she just snorted, "Shit, no!" as if I was implying something even more undesirable than what had happened to her.

I couldn't get her story out of my mind. The image of a little girl sitting in a bath tub full of water while her brothers pissed and shat into it stuck like Tar-Baby for a week. But something else bothered me: I was actually angry at her. I felt threatened. Claustrophobic even. Out of all the possible reactions I could have--pity, compassion, sadness, why anger? In principle, I felt these things, but not in fact. Something else threatened me. Some part of me was deeply insulted. Was I insulted for her? I asked myself. No, I was insulted by her telling me this story when we did not have enough history between to actually have a relationship.

But what was the threat? Finally, I realized that by revealing this horrific secret, she was, albeit unconsciously, trying to fast-track a friendship with me and call upon the kind of intimacy that is only built over years. By making me a keeper of her secret, however reluctant I was, she had assumed a closeness with me that wasn't there. Moreover, it was a Tar-Baby because it came with an unspoken demand for me to reveal something equally secret about my own past. Ah hah! I thought, this is why I'm angry. I felt cornered and stripped of all those tiny choices made over time that forge a close relationship.

In 'The Ways We Lie', when I write about omission, I am talking about a very different thing
—to omit a critical piece of information. But the operative word here is 'critical'. For example, to invite a close girlfriend over for dinner and fail to mention that you'd also invited her nemesis ex-boyfriend is a form of deception. It strips her of her choices.

Boundaries, on the other hand, should not be confused with omission. Boundaries are self-protection. They are wise. They decide whom to let close to you, how close and when. They're dependent on authentic relationships built over time, when the real measure of the other person can be determined. For example, I rarely reveal that I am a writer to acquaintances and neighbors. I have found that often, people treat me differently and put me on an unearned pedestal. Writing is, to me, just the work I do, no different than teaching, building bridges or selling widgets. It doesn't make me a better neighbor. I'm still a horrible housekeeper. I can still be a pain in the ass when I'm grouchy. But this boundary protects me from the kind of isolation that celebrity-worship imposes. Does that make me a liar? No. Because it isn't a piece of information that these acquaintances need to know. It's not critical to our relationship.

Linda's lack of boundaries had nothing to do with revealing critical information to me. This was the kind of thing you tell someone who can do something about it and I certainly couldn't. I'm no social worker. Had we been friends over time, become equals and built trust between us, I would have felt very differently—I would have felt compassion, pity, sadness for her. But as it was, it was a form of manipulation on her part. Now, I would have to treat her like a close friend when she was not. 

The most uncomfortable part was about to come with Linda. Several times that week, she'd knocked on my door, asking me for a cigarette or a cup of sugar and I obliged her. But, then, one day, I came out to do my daily deadheading and discovered her sitting in the private little alcove where I drank my tea and wrote in my journal. My knee-jerk response was to ask her what she was doing in my yard. She was deeply insulted. Immediately, I wanted to apologize for being harsh, but some wiser part of me zipped that reaction. This was a person who'd taken an inch and had set her sights on taking a mile very soon. I didn't appreciate her assumptions. I did not want to be buddies. And I did not feel it was necessary to explain myself. Awful as this sounds, even to me, I knew that it was a choice that I was entitled to make for myself. I had drawn a line in the sand. That's a boundary.

©2011 Stephanie Ericsson


9/11 sobs that still catch in my throat

The final piece of my series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11

I always liked to think I was tough. Not mushy or sentimental. It's a useful delusion.

Beiger & Farah Phtog: Michal Yon
But there are these sobs that ambush me sometimes, like little muggers jumping out of a dark alley.

I know most of them by now.... the Star Spangled Banner at a ball game... a picture of an American soldier... the song Danny Boy or the sound of bagpipes... any baby picture of my kids...
Steph & Jim Hinton
a photograph of me and my late husband laughing.

And just about any of the photographs from September 11th, 2001.

I've come to understand it to be the sweet side of grief. The part that made me more human.

To all of those who lost their precious lives 10 years ago, to their families who have lived with an empty place at the table, to all of those firemen and police who risked everything to save the few they could, I want you to know that I wept for weeks 10 years ago, and even now, a sob for you still catches me off guard.

Stephanie Ericsson

© 2011 Stephanie Ericsson


9/11 what would happen if we said, enough?

Part of a series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11
Years ago, I saw the documentary by Wide Angle (PBS) entitled, Ladies First, about the women of Rwanda putting their country back together. One of the most striking segments of the film was about the role that contrition and forgiveness was playing in healing the devastating wounds left over, not only among the Tutsi survivors, but among the Hutu as well. With the majority of the Hutu men in prison for their war crimes and the majority of the Tutsi men dead by the hands of these Hutu men, women had to run their lives, their communities, their economy and their government without them. There was no choice—they would pull their lives and country together or perish.

How did they accomplish this? They had been mortal enemies. There had been enough atrocities committed by neighbor against neighbor that it's inconceivable to imagine how the Tutsi and Hutu women could have even sat in the same room, much less worked together and cooperated for their collective welfare. They did something that is unimaginable to most of us... the Hutu women asked the Tutsi women for forgiveness for the atrocities their men committed. And the Tutsi women forgave them. I'm not saying that it happened in one day. Or that it was readily accepted. It happened over time, begun by a few individuals.

Another documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, chronicles the journey of the women of Liberia, who’d had enough of the years of war, of losing their children and men, of starving, of living in fear twenty-four hours a day. They determined together to put an end to it. They achieved this the way that women always do—by working together. Christian and the Muslim women put aside their differences and discovered they had more in common than they imagined. They stopped the violence with non-violent protests. They refused to be silent any longer, refused to be intimidated by the men, and even refused to sleep with their husbands until the violence ended. They used prayer, chanting and non-violent sit-ins. They did not back down. They would not go away. This is how they ended the war in their country.

It made me wonder. What if mothers, sisters, daughters, grandmothers all said, “Enough!"?  Enough violence. Enough sending our sons and husbands off to die. Enough wasting our country's time and resources on wars that never end.


What would happen if the mothers of Israel and Palestine stood together and said, “Enough”?

Better yet, what if the women of the entire world simply refused to cook or clean or have sex with their men until the war ended everywhere?

I'm sure women across the world have smiled to themselves during a quiet moment stirring a pot of soup, and fantasized about what might actually happen if all women, everywhere, were to simply stop—even for one day—taking care of minor things—like food, shelter, clothing, and raising children. How well could men run all those the important things, like politics, government and business?

© 2011 Stephanie Ericsson


9/11—america, meet evil... evil, this is america

We met the true face of evil on September 11th, 2001 and it left us standing helpless in the streets, looking up and asking "Why?"

The unfathomable scale of violence struck us dumb. Violence creates very complex grief. There's never a way to make sense of it. Why? For what purpose? What did it achieve? Why my beloved? Questions that echoed back with no answer. Questions that are asked everyday in other parts of the world, but not here. Not in America.
In my book, I defined evil as—
"Systematic brutality, usually done with an innocent expression, which seems to make insanity look sane."
"There is no conscience attached to evil. The shadow it casts over our values makes them seem trite. Evil parades as sanity so as to undermine our sense of reality... Evil is calm. It looks sane." —Companion Through the Darkness
It hides in plain sight. It seduces us into a denial of its presence. It acts with no regard for the carnage it leaves in its path. Evil people serve themselves... their emotional bodies are vacuous—incapable of empathy and others are purely disposable utensils. Understanding evil does nothing to excuse or mend the damage it does. Physical wounds will heal. It's the emotional ones that fester.

"The intangible is hard to bandage."

In the years that have followed, we've done, as a nation, what all young adults do—we've gone to extremes, stumbled from one conclusion to another looking for the enemy, and awakened to the enemy within our own ranks. We've been hoodwinked by our own leaders into wars that did not heal us, but only served the private agendas of despots among us.

We've made monumental mistakes and are paying the consequences. But we've also matured. We've pulled together, rebuilt and re-visioned our future. We've learned and forgotten and learned again. And we will continue in that direction forward because that's just what we do.
The attacks on 9/11 were not about religion. They were about power. A power-hungry minority have hijacked a religion and turned it into a mass-hysteria for pure evil. It is not the first time in history this has been attempted, and if you remember your history, it failed. then as it will fail again.

Human beings can only be oppressed for so long. We will only go along with lies for so long. Eventually, the human need for truth triumphs. The founders of our country knew all people have an inalienable right to freedom. Freedom of choice. Freedom of thought. Freedom of belief. Freedom of expression.

America is the greatest experiment in diversity that human civilization has ever known. It demands tolerance on a mass scale. But it's that very diversity that, as Darwin said, is vital for a species to evolve and thrive. Even on our knees, we continue to invent, produce, and create more than any other country in the world.

We will take our grief from 9/11, embrace it and transform it into something meaningful. That's the American way. 
Evil, meet America—your nemesis.

*(Thing Called Love, Bonnie Raitt)

 ©2011 Stephanie Ericsson

9/11 a spiritual awakening in real time

Part of a series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11

"Grief discriminates against no one. It kills. Maims. And cripples. It is the ashes from which the phoenix rises, and the mettle of rebirth. It returns life to the living dead. It teaches that there is nothing absolutely true or untrue. It assures the living that we know nothing for certain. It humbles. It shrouds. It blackens. It enlightens.
 "Grief will make a new person out of you, if it doesn't kill you in the making."

The term, a spiritual awakening, sounds so pristine, doesn't it? At least to those who've never been through one and seen the carnage first-hand. A real spiritual awakening is blood, bone and gooey entrails—up close and personal.

And grief is a spiritual awakening of mind-bending proportions. It's full of contradictions and paradoxes that threaten our sanity for a while.

September 11th, 2001, was a wake-up call for us as a country, but for those who were personally affected it was a day of true spiritual awakening. The survivors were forever transformed. Life for them would never be the same again. There was no negotiating with it. No way back to the halcyon days of pre-9/11. Worlds were destroyed. The rubble was vast. The concept of life ever becoming normal again was laughable because it was so inconceivable.

The most poignant interview I saw in those days and weeks after 9/11 was Connie Chung's interview with the CEO of Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, who lost nearly 700 employees when they were trapped on 101st to 105th floors of Tower One. He, alone survived, because that morning, he'd taken his son to his first day of kindergarten.

To the untrained eye, Lutnick is obviously distraught but he is still able to articulate his feelings and the events that happened. What it isn't so evident, except to those of us who've been there, is that, although clearly in shock, he is transcendent.

Watching this interview, I witnessed a spiritual awakening in real time. Clearly, he knew he was part of something larger than himself. Any concerns for himself were totally diminished in the face of the greater losses of those 700 families. He is humbled by the way that his remaining employees pulled together. He is lifted up and carried by it. I would even venture to guess that this became the crucial reason that he went on, not just to save his company, but to rebuild it with a new vision that enabled him to take care of the 700 families who lost loved ones that day.

Absolutely raw and intimate, this interview captures the rarest of moments, when a human being shares the true face of grief.


Cantor Families Memorial
Cantor Relief Fund
On Top of the World: Cantor Fitzgerald, Howard Lutnick, & 9/11: A Story of Loss & Renewal 

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Ericsson 


the three most important words on 9/11

Part of a series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Twenty-three years ago, on a cold November day, my life totally collapsed like the World Trade Towers would collapse years later. My husband died suddenly. I was two months pregnant at the time after years of infertility treatment and all the heart-break that comes with it. I was too young to be a widow. Too pregnant. Too married and too in love.

9-11 Fragment by Susan Crile
The most indelible part of that change was the shift in paradigm that permanently altered the way that I saw the world. It was very disturbing at first, because it was suddenly very clear that this world was deranged. How we run it, what is important, how we ignore the most precious things in life—all seemed so, well—insane.

My husband’s death led me to write the book that I, myself, needed to read during that paradigm shift.That book opened up a world of people to me who, universally have had that same paradigm shift. We often joke that we are members of an exclusive club that we would never have joined given a choice, yet all of us know that we were now in possession of something urgently important—something sacred—as if God, Himself, had shared a secret with us.

Now, 18 years after I first published Companion through the Darkness, I have a wealth of validation for all that I suspected was real, and right and true about this world.

My husband and I were on different continents when he died and I never got the chance to say my last “I love you” before he exited this world. Of all there was to deal with in widowhood, that was my greatest wound—not saying good-bye with all the love that I felt for him.

As the days passed after 9/11, recordings of the last phone calls made their way into news coverage. Again and again, the frantic messages had been, I love you. It was the most important message that everyone wanted to say, as they faced death on either side of the phone. They were a lucky minority --they would have an easier time healing, accepting and moving on.

For, when the playing field of life is leveled and we're all equally helpless, only one thing remains important—I love you. 

We who have survived devastating losses have a very special quality about us because we know this in our bones. We have survived the unsurvivable. In the new life we are given, we discover things like redemption, forgiveness, the necessity of making meaning out of our suffering, the imperative to leave this world better for our having been in it, the greatness of small things, and the indisputable reality that we are all connected to one another. This new paradigm shift automatically directs us to do the next right thing. No one has to educate us about what is important and what is not—we know this in our bones now.

©2011 Stephanie Ericsson


born on the 11th of september

Part of a series in tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9/11

I'm not superstitious. At least not anymore than the normal person. But human beings have always attached some sort of significance to births that happen on particular days... He is a Christmas baby... Born on the 4th of July... She was born on her mother's birthday... as if the coincidence says something prophetic about the child's life to come. And sometimes, it actually does.

As a writer, I am guilty of noticing metaphors, which is just an extension of the same thing, only with more thought attached. I'm not claiming that all of those thoughts are intelligent, but they are certainly more intense. I find that sometimes, symbolism is just too coincidental to ignore. I think about patterns and the odds of things happening. I marvel at how obvious it can sometimes be, and I wonder what it all means.

I was born on the 11th day of September in 1953.

On that same day in history in —

    1297 - William Wallace defeated the British in the Battle of Stirling Bridge
    1609 – Henry Hudson discovers Manhattan
    1792 – The Hope Diamond is stolen
    1943 – The liquidation of the Jews began in Minsk & Lida by the Nazis
    1944 – The first Allied troops of the U.S. Army cross the western border of Germany.
    1985 – Pete Rose breaks Ty Cobb's record for most career hits with his 4,192nd hit

See a pattern? Me neither. What about people born on the same day?

    1885 – D. H. Lawrence, English novelist
    1913 - Bear Bryant
    1935 - Arvo Pärt
    1940 - Brian De Palma
    1977 - Ludacris

Nope. Nada. I bear little or no resemblance to anyone on that list.

Until September 11th, 2001 when my entire country was collectively thrown into the agate-tumbler of grief at the death toll of 2,977 people, exceeding even Pearl Harbor.

That day began a transformation of our culture in much the same way that my husband's death set off the most profound transformation of my life in 1988.

I never envisioned writing a book about grief. Like most people, I avoided the subject at all costs and steered clear of anyone on such a 'downer.'


STEPHEN SELEY - New York Times Obituaries 
Published: May 14, 1982

"Stephen Seley, an American novelist, died of a heart attack last Saturday in Ibiza, Spain, where he had lived since 1957.

He was 67 years old.

Mr. Seley, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in South Orange, N.J., and Newark, wrote ''The Cradle Will Fall,'' published by Harcourt, Brace & Company in 1945; ''Baxter Bernstein: A Hero of Sorts,'' published by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1949, and ''The End of Mercy,'' published by De Bezige Bij of Amsterdam in 1969.

Surviving is a brother, Jason, a sculptor and dean of Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art and Planning._________________________________ End of obit.

God holding court at Bar Estrel
Seley was my father's best friend. The Two Steves were infamous in their own right on Ibiza where the locals called them Steve Primero and Steve Segundo in order to tell one from the other.

When I arrived on the island in 1972, the locals immediately named me, Steve Tecero.

Steve II Ericsson

My father was a painter and between Steve, the writer and Steve, the painter, there was plenty of trouble to get into. They'd met in 1960 when my father was working on a ship that had docked in the harbor. Seley got my father so drunk that he showed up on the docks to ship out 2 days late, and the only thing he found were his bags sitting on the dock.