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.’

As a child, I was seriously happy-go-lucky. My mother’s nickname for me was Sunshine. To anyone who knew me then, I was destined for a life of puppy-dog tails and cotton candy. Whodathunk that my life’s calling would be to work with people in grief?

But that’s what happened.

James Hillman, in his book The Soul’s Code, In Search of Character and Calling re-visions the way that we think of our tragedies–that they are not tragedies at all, but simply the on-the-job training for what we were born to do. He changed my entire view of my life when he tells a story of how people described a man by saying: The man married his mother… Hillman reconfigures the logic… but what if he chose his mother to prepare him to be married to that woman?

Elsewhere in the book, he describes a therapist whose particular genius is helping people through the darkness in their lives. Her on-the-job training was being forced, as a small child, to stay in a closet for days as punishment. In our traditional Freudian paradigm, we would consider her as deeply damaged from such an experience. We’d shake our heads and say “Such a shame…” We’d think of her as deeply wounded—(read defective, inadequate, blemished…)

And that would be right if you do not figure in the phoenix-factor. But the damage is not who she is. It does not define her in her totality. Human beings are far more than the mere sum of our experiences—particularly our injuries. Furthermore, it isn’t so easy as the stereotype that she made lemonade our of the lemons of her childhood abuse. She forged something bigger than herself out of it that could be given to others. Something that transformed the lives of others. Something that will last far beyond her own lifetime. I’d say that was a calling, wouldn’t you?

September 11th opened up our nation to the deluge of feelings that grief is all about—those things I speak about in Companion Through the Darkness

“Grief is a tidal wave that overtakes you, smashes down upon you with unimaginable force, sweeps you up into its darkness, where you tumble and crash against unidentifiable surfaces, only to be thrown out on an unknown beach, bruised, reshaped. Grief will make a new person out of you if it doesn’t kill you in the making.”

Until that day, grief was something in our culture that you quietly hid from others. Grief made you a pariah among our American culture obsessed with all things beautiful and fun. After all, it could be contagious. The grieving were reduced to stories told in bars as ways to pass the time.

After 9/11, people wept openly. They reached out and hugged each other. They told their stories and those who listened did not feel so alone anymore. They volunteered and donated. Some even quit their jobs and reinvented themselves.

These were only some of the ways that my own life was transformed by grief. Over the years, I have companioned many people through their grief, and those numbers continue to grow. Loss is something that will happen to all of us, eventually, so my work is never done. To anyone who hasn’t walked this road, it would be easy to imagine that I’ve grown more serious, even morose. But those who know me know that isn’t true. I’m back to that natural state of joy I had as a child. I’m not afraid of pain anymore. It doesn’t define me. But it has certainly given me an appreciation of life that I never would have had without it.

I believe that collectively, as a nation, we could say the same of September 11th, 2001. It gave us our hearts back.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

~ Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

© Stephanie Ericsson 2011

Steve Primero & Steve Segundo

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

Writer, Stephen Seley

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.

“Baxter, tingting, looked, tingting, at tingting, the tingting, clock, ting-ting.” Random thoughts churned around in

Steve I & II with cronies in Ibiza

Baxter’s stream of consciousness like rampaging underwear in an electric washing machine. “Goddamn you, Archibald Mac-Leish!” he thought: “And you, Dos Passes … So Hitler must be stopped? . . . Oh, but—and—oh, but—what’re yuh doin’? . . . Oh, the lousy lousy lousy LOUSY mess! Why isn’t it 1922 instead of 1942? And I—twenty-two, walking through the Tuiler-o-o-o with a copy of Ulysses . . .” And where was Lisa, murmuring with her “pink-lipped, delible pout”? In her place was a “dolled-up drab” named Inez, upon whose knee Baxter laid “a pitying hand.” She squealed: “Oh, sugar, we’re sure gonna have a time!” ~ Baxter Bernstein: A Hero of Sorts, Stephen Seley

Steve Seley was my father’s best friend. The Two Steves were infamous 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

We’d stumble down to the Estrella every morning for coffee and yerbas, some  local hangover remedy based mostly on the hair of the dog. Seley’d be reading the well-worn, passed-down newspaper that regularly made the rounds. Who gives a shit if it’s a month old? he’d growl, wearing his permanent scowl replete with foul expletives and ranting about something or other—I learned early on not to pay attention too closely. My father would be holding on to his basket (the traditional Ibizenco all-purpose bag that doubled as a shopping bag, overnight bag, booze-hiding bag, whatever…) freshly scrubbed, shaved and combed, ready to do his daily grocery shopping. He’d already been awake for the past 6 hours, painted another picture, and eaten breakfast. I, on the other hand, would still be blasted from the night before and didn’t care what those two were up to.

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.

My father’s moniker for Seley was God. Did you see God today? he’d ask me. What did God have to say about your antics last night in the disco?…  I’d snort and say, I’m sure he enjoyed them immensely, the dirty old man that he is…

God holding court at Bar Estrella

Seley’s nickname for my father was The Nurse, because he’d nursed Seley back to life on several occasions from his renowned binges. Seley had returned the favor when my father ran away from his wife, The Warden, which happened so regularly that he finally rented an apartment across the street from Seley.

My father died suddenly in Jan. of 1981, of a stroke in his sleep. Seley was inconsolable. He’d lost his best friend, drinking buddy, partner in crime and nurse. He died less than a year later. I will forever treasure my memories of these two cracking private jokes at the Estrella and stumbling home drunk, holding each other up. I sure hope that there’s a well-stocked bar in Heaven…RIP Steves I & II, with love, Steve III

Old Town ~ Steve II

more of my father, Steve II’s paintings in Ibiza

remembering Lonne Elder, III, mentor

Years ago, I asked the writer, Lonne Elder, III, what it was like to start on a blank page. This is the sort of thing that one writer would ask another writer.

He said,

“It is like being caught, at high noon, in the store front window of Bloomingdales, making love to my mother…”

I worked for Lonne in the early years of my career. He isn’t a household name for the masses, but within the national Black community that grew out of the sixties, he was a lion, revered by the Black intelligentsia. He is most famous for his movie, Sounder, for which he was one of the first two African Americans to be nominated for an Academy Award and for his brilliant play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, which was nominated for a Pulitzer. He was one of the founding members of the Negro Ensemble Company where the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Laurence Fishburne, and Lou Gossett, Jr. began their careers. He championed of a whole generation of black performers who broke through into mainstream entertainment during the sixties and the seventies.

Lonne Elder, III

I met him one day when someone sent me over to his house to help him with some typing. I was 23, bouncy and very white. He met me at the door with his signature Swisher drooping out of the side of his mouth, grunted then turned around and walked back into the house. Since he didn’t slam the door in my face, I assumed that I was supposed to follow him. He was built like a small bear and he lumbered more than walked. He showed me a desk and a typewriter, gave me some blank paper and a manuscript. When he finished explaining whatever it was that he wanted done, I realized that I had not understood a single word he’d said. This was the beginning of my ebonics education, long before that term was ever coined.

It was a test. Would this skinny, white girl tough it out until the eloquent Lonne emerged?

Well, I did. He left me alone in that little room in his house with the first draft of what would become Splendid Mummer, and that day, I fell in love with his words.

I don’t know why he kept me on as a typist in those early days. I’ve never been able to type. Back then, before computers, before even the correctable Selectric, I had to be hooked up to a 55 gallon drum of Liquid Paper. His drafts looked better than my re-typed ones. I used to marvel at the sound of his typing in the next room, bursts and fits of machine-gun fire. But, for some reason, he tolerated me and I tolerated his shuck and jive until the manuscript was done and I moved on to my next project. In those days, as a baby-writer, I was working with a co-writer/comedian, and living a bi-coastal life between L.A. and New York, which may sound glamorous, but it was just the way everyone in ‘the biz’ lived: work like hell and then move to the next job.

Within months, he called me and somehow, I guessed through the thick jive and stuttering that he wanted me to come and work for him again, this time on a made-for-television movie, Thou Shalt Not Kill, for Warner Brothers and NBC. From that point on, I became part of his team for the next 3 movies, and although the work was irregular, and I was busy working on a million other things, we fell into a rhythm and pattern of working that became the foundation of my own writing career.

Every day, I’d do clerky things for him until about 4 in the afternoon, when the typewriter would go silent. “Ah, ah, ah, ha, Sweetheart…” he’d call out, “come here,” was my signal that the grunt-work was done and it was time to discuss the writing of the day.

Elder with Jimmy Carter

That is when I got to know the eloquent, erudite Lonne Elder, III, not just from the page, but in the flesh. It became tradition for him to pour us both a healthy glass of Cognac, chop up a few lines of coke, and talk until 10 at night, discussing character development, language, human psychology, and anything else that came up. This Lonne I had no problem understanding for the ebonics disappeared as his natural eloquence emerged. He’d trained as an actor at Yale and knew the power of speech better than anyone I’ve ever known, before or since. I treasured those talks. They taught me the essence of drama, the discipline of writing, and the brutal honesty that a writer has to achieve on the page.

We did three movies, a mini-series (A Woman Called Moses) and a play together, and during that time, I became his story editor. My love for his words grew as I watched him work. He made me aware of my own intuitive understanding of people as he relied more and more on my opinions in his character and story development. This was a good thing because I was a hopeless typist.

My favorite expression

He came to visit me in 1988 when my husband died, and asked me to come back and work with him again but I was too destroyed in my own grief at the time to even consider it. That was the last time I saw him, for he died a few years later in 1996.

His standard of being brutally honest on the page was the most vital mentoring I could ever have received. It set the bar very high. Unless I was terrified of saying what I wanted to say, I wasn’t telling the truth.

THAT is what it is like for a writer to face a blank sheet of paper.

© 2011 Stephanie Ericsson

out of the ashes

 A couple of years ago, a girlfriend sent me this photo with this note attached:

Graffiti at Ground Zero after 9/11
“This was on side of the road at ground Zero in NYC after 9/11. Taken by a gal that I know. It’s one of my favorites. I have the original and often find myself staring at it. Can’t imagine the horror of it all and yet having the courage & guts to spray paint this…bet it was a #cowboyupgurlz…
Her note arrived during my own personal 9/11 when the entire infrastructure of my life had collapsed and I was wandering through my days, confused and stunned like those ghostly, ash-covered pedestrians caught nearby when the Twin Towers collapsed. Notes like this one were lifelines for me. I wasn’t alone. And I wasn’t dead. I could cling to the love of our “#cowboyupgurlz club” of women who also had risen from a pile of ashes. 
When the playing field of life is flattened, the way it was for our whole nation on 9/11/2001, nothing else is important except saying, “I love you” before it’s too late.  
©2011 Stephanie Ericsson