this blog has moved…

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I now have my own domain! It’s a rite of passage to move from the herd onto a URL with your name in it… like buying your first house and having a permanent address…

Everything that is on this blog has been transferred over to the new one and more has been added.

As I crawl up the learning curve, more will be added. If you have ideas, send them to me at

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TaleTail by MaigoIY


spotting sanity in an insane world

photog: Stephanie Ericsson

In 1971, my last year in high school, I ended up in special English class of one with a reading list that needed my parent’s permission.

Some of the books on that list were: Franny & Zooey, Catcher in the Rye, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Lord of the Flies, Bless the Beast & the Children, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings…. pretty sophisticated stuff for a 17-year-old by the standards of the day.

But actually not too sophisticated at all. Adults like to perpetuate the myth of their own wisdom by underestimating the adolescent’s ability to think symbolically. Catcher In The Rye is a perfect example, both in the story itself, and in the book’s history as the number-one most banned book in schools, even to this day.

I confess that even now, I relate to Holden Caulfield. But it’s clear that most people miss Salinger’s message entirely. Caulfield is alienated—that much any half-wit can see. But what alienates him is missed entirely. The key to his depression is how absolutely normal ‘phony-ness’ is in the world around him. He goes into detail to describe what he thinks phony-ness is—the utter lack of compassion for others — among his schoolmates, among the movie-makers in Hollywood, among his parents’ generation, who seem to value all the wrong things.

What Holden values is so utterly simple that it is easy to miss. It is all embodied in his dead little brother, Allie who was sweet, kind, and interested in those around him. Allie was pure love. Holden prefers being with those his loves in such unadorned situations like hanging out with his little sister to just about any other activity in life. He longs for a genuine, authentic exchange between people—one that overlooks pimples and shyness because it recognizes the true value of the person. Their real heroism, integrity and courage.

When he describes the grisly taunting that led to James Castle jumping to his death rather than admitting to being a coward, it becomes clear that Holden sees what no one else wants to see — that if we bend to the tyranny of bullies of our society, we die. When no one at Pencer will go close to Castle’s burst and bloody remains, they accuse themselves of being his murderers. When Mr. Antolini appears on the scene and checks for a pulse, then covers Castle’s gory body with his own coat to carry it inside, Holden is deeply touched. Antolini’s lack of concern for his expensive coat in lieu of covering Castle’s very intimate and private viscera splattered all over the steps and sidewalk, strikes Holden as the response that should be normal. The fact that it is the exception in our society rather than the rule is what depresses and alienates Holden. And he is absolutely correct to be depressed. It is an appropriate response to Man’s inhumanity towards Man.

Holden doesn’t want to be part of that world and as he realizes that there is no escaping it, he begins to retreat behind his fantasies and can only be brought to his senses when he sees how the consequences of this choice are affecting his little sister.

The fact that Holden’s style of resistance is passive may bother people who need things spelled out for them. But what other choice does a 16-year-old have who is prematurely enlightened by the death of his little brother?

Disbelief by Robin King

In the real shoes of someone who has had a loved one prematurely snatched out of their lives, the overwhelming sensation is “This does not make sense…” The griever cannot stop asking, why? why? why? The powerlessness, the unfairness, the utter lack of logic that one feels after the sudden death of a loved one is totally alienating. But it doesn’t feel like those expectations are misplaced, but rather that there is something very wrong with the world. It is like getting a pair of glasses for the first time in your life.

The fact that within our society, there is no acknowledgment of how utterly unfair, incorrect, inhuman, and wrong it is to lose a loved one, makes the shock of the loss even worse. Not only do you feel like half of a person, but everyone around you is talking to you as if nothing is wrong. It’s sheer crazy-making. Plain and simple. And Holden’s only form of defiance, of protest, is to passively not participate. He lives in a world where his opinions and preferences do not count to the decision-makers of his life. Like all children, he has a limited number of responses available to him to get his point across. Flunking out of prep school sends the message loud and clear.

What is the societal “normal” versus what should be the norm? Salinger constantly revisits this theme in his work  — Franny & Zooey explores the same territory — and his subsequent withdrawal from the public world after his disastrous and disappointing brush with success, are really the quintessential leitmotif of his oeuvre:

What passes for insanity in our culture is often a sane reaction to an insane thing.

Reposted for Mr. Rapson‘s AP English students.


Copyright © 2009 Stephanie Ericsson All Rights Reserved

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

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

Join The Companions Facebook Group

Join other readers discuss their thoughts about grief in the Companions Facebook Group. It’s a ‘Closed’ group, which means that there’s privacy to talk about more intimate, personal things. It’s a growing, active group of survivors. Read both excerpts of my book and more recent writings of mine and become part of a very caring, authentic community. You’ll be welcome.