Some Letters to My Neighbors

Dear Frank and Betty Jo,

Thank you for introducing yourselves when you returned from your winter in Florida last spring. Oh, wait, you didn’t. Instead, you YELLED at me when my small dog startled you (but did not touch or jump on you in any way.)

I happily forgave you the following day when you apologized so sincerely, saying, “I’m so sorry I yelled at you. I shouldn’t have done that – I was just startled and had undergone outpatient surgery that morning. It really wasn’t a Christian way to behave.”

I felt awful and reassured you that the dog wouldn’t run toward you again like that. You smiled at me. I was so grateful that we were going to have a neighborly relationship.



Dear Frank and Betty Jo,

The next thing we heard from you besides some unwelcoming looks was a letter from the homeowners’ association telling Todd to stop cooking at our house because he was clearly running a catering business out of our kitchen. He wasn’t.

Then we got the visit from the Health Department. They could easily see he wasn’t running a catering business.

Then, every time you saw me in the driveway, you looked at me like you hoped that I would catch on fire. We would have preferred for you to talk to us at any time during our stay in our home.



Dear Frank and Betty Jo,

When Betty Jo looks at me like she would prefer that I’m dead, it really, really hurts my feelings. I do realize this is my problem and not yours.



Dear Frank and Betty Jo,

I don’t know much about you as you have barely spoken to me, but you did reveal on several occasions that you’re Christians. Do Christians always treat their neighbors as the enemy?



Dear Frank and Betty Jo,

I was considering Christianity, but since I met you, I learned that Christians are easily irritated, don’t forgive, are concerned with my marital status, choose reporting their neighbors over speaking to them, are mean to their neighbors’ guests, look miserable most of the time, and complain. A LOT. I can’t really get with that. Thanks for freeing me up of a lifetime of misery.



Dear Frank and Betty Jo,

I wish with all my heart I could alleviate whatever it is that’s causing such pain in your lives.

With Christian love,




On Saturday, I spoke at the funeral of one of my dearest friends in the world. The kind you can’t imagine living without. Ever. And yet…


I’m Stacey Erickson. I’m Number 5.

If you don’t know me, I’m full of spectacular advice. And if I love you, I’ll give you an assignment as quick as look at you. But the real truth is I only know about three things. And for one of those things, the jury is still out. I’m going to talk about one of the two things I’m sure of, and then I’m going to talk about the other one.

The first one is this. Miracles happen.

When tragedy happens, we obsess over every little thing that we believe could have changed the outcome “If we had just turned left, if we had just left five minutes earlier, if the door had been locked, if they had just installed a detector, if only the pool had been covered, if I had only called, if I had only known he felt so desperate, if the ambulance had gotten there five minutes sooner.”

Exactly 100% of the time, there’s no way to work out all the variables, but we feel like the tragic could have been derailed at any time. And somehow it wasn’t. It happened anyway.

In miracles, the same thing is also true. Sometimes the setup is equally long, complicated, highly unlikely, obstacle-filled, and really is just so layered and convoluted that the miraculous almost didn’t happen at all. But, thank God, Jill Conner Browne, and The Doctor, this time it did.

Please feel free to call them whatever makes sense to you, but I believe they’re miracles. Because really, what is the likelihood of all these things occurring?

  • one set of amazing parents raises a funny daughter with a smart mouth and a penchant for bossiness (You think I’m talking about Lauren, but I mean Jill.)
  • this woman writes a southern-belle-gone-all-modern-and-smartass book, and invites us all to come under her bossy tutelage
  • the book is published in 1999 at a time when the technology exists for people all over the world to talk to one another electronically
  • a message board using said technology is created for fans of the book to be able to chat with one another
  • we all meet each other on said message board
  • out of the thousands having hilarious electronic conversations there, the natural winnowing process of finding kindred spirits happens and we end up with some of the closest friends of our lives
  • we become especially close with just a few women, IN FIVE DIFFERENT STATES.
  • we all make the effort to love one another wildly (because we can’t do it perfectly) and end up with a true tribe (including the matching and dreaded Tribal Tattoo)
  • we become an iron-clad group of people who would literally walk into fire for one another

And any one of these events – and hundreds of others we don’t even know about – could have been derailed at any time. And somehow they weren’t. It happened anyway!

And that is how, after both Lauren and I made unfortunate decisions in the husband-choosing department, she became my wife. We both wanted to ensure we made one awesome marital selection apiece.

My wife was brilliant, smart, monumentally awake, funnier than you, and one of the very best, wisest people I have ever known. Lauren is irreplaceable. Forever, until the very end of time and the edge of existence, until everything winks off and we all become one again, there will never be another Lauren Popeil Norman. Lauren was the wife who loved me beyond any logical or sensible reason, for who I am today, and for who I aspire to be. If you haven’t had a Lauren believe in you and everything you’re capable of, you have missed a RARE thing. Through Lauren’s eyes, and because she was never once scared to tell me how she feels about me, I am able to see myself differently. I know myself better because Lauren loves me. I like myself more because Lauren KNOWS me and told me about myself on the regular. THAT. LASTS.

Because she was here, she changed the course of history. She changed the course of my history.

Really, how does someone who is smarter than me, more talented than me, and funnier than me STILL make me feel like the most popular girl in school?

Which brings me to the second thing I’m sure of: Everyone is irreplaceable. So, now is the time for us to pay very close attention to all the moments we get. Every single one of them can count.

Now is the time to take the garbage out to the curb and leave it there. Get the baggage down from the overhead bin – regardless if it’s packed neatly in a cute bag or in a wet box held together with duct tape – and assess whether any of it is worth dragging around for the rest of our lives. Jettison the baggage that’s slowing you down. Sure, it’s familiar and it tells a familiar story, but we’ll run so much faster without it.

Say, out loud, what you value about people and do it often. Let’s forgive each other quicker. Let’s love each other so much more than we deserve. Because we’re all irreplaceable.

Anne Lamott wrote, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”


I love you. That is all.

Telling the Truth

Today I listened to a TEDTalk from Brené Brown about vulnerability. And, what I came away with, beyond her sparkling courage and wise lessons from her years of research are three important things:

  • I’m not fooling anyone.
  • I don’t have to.
  • It’s a bad idea anyway.

Rumi wrote,

Learn the alchemy
true human beings know.
The moment you accept
what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.

This is one of the many things he wrote that touches on what he calls The Open Secret. The Open Secret, in short, is the obvious thing we’re all hiding from one another. The fact that we’re both perfect and a complete disaster. Smart and senseless. Strong and weak. Destructive and creative. Foolish and wise. Industrious and lazy. Courageous and afraid.

We’re trying to hide the fact that we’re all human.

How is it that we’re mostly running around in the world denying our humanity? What in the hell are we doing? And why are we doing it?

Why am I running around (clearly unsupervised) denying my very humanity?

Well, the real answer is this: I don’t like being lazy, weak, senseless, foolish, destructive, disastrous, or, my personal favorite, afraid. It feels awful to admit these things. It’s horrifically embarrassing. But it’s only embarrassing because we’ve agreed that weakness, senselessness, and foolishness are things we should be ashamed of. People, we’ve agreed that we should be ashamed of what we are. We have agreed that we should be ashamed of being human.

If we have arrived at the age of 30 and have never been a complete disaster, we have done nothing. If we’re 40 and have never been destructive, we’ve never been passionate about anything. If, by now, we’ve never been foolish, we have risked nothing.

I’m still not excited about this, but here we are; I’m going to go ahead.

I’m weak.
I’m senseless.
I’m foolish.
I’m destructive.
I’m lazy.
I’m a disaster.
I’m afraid.

Also, you’re not stupid! You know I am these things, already.

I’m human. So, of COURSE I’m going to be those things. These things are the entry price. The cost of the ticket to play the game. This is hardware. We show up on the planet with these things. These are the things that buy us the shiny red balls we throw at the milk bottles. Aside from a few critical relationships, I pretend I didn’t have to pay the entry price. If I met you at a cocktail party, I’d be mightily tempted to trot out my accomplishments and my successes and charm you with my pretty ponies and puppies. Because that’s what I do.

That’s what humans do. Because, holy crap, what if I were entirely honest with you? What if you asked me how work was going and I answered honestly. “Well, it’s kind of shit, really. I’m quite lucky and advanced both intellectually and emotionally. I’m a talented speaker and writer. But I’ve never been able to really make those things work for me in a job. I probably haven’t been brave enough at any of my jobs or I may have been able to. In fact, I have rarely given a damn about my job. And the fact that I’ve let this apathy drag on this long is kind of making me freaking panic. I mean, I know I should be out in the world talking to and listening to people, but I’m so scared of screwing my life up worse than I already have that I sometimes can’t even breathe. Sometimes, I wake up in the night and I worry that I’ll just keep doing this same dumb dance until I die.”

Charming, right? YOU CAN’T WAIT TO INVITE ME OVER FOR YOUR NEXT PARTY! But it’s the truth. And I’m saying it out loud – in print – because the Truth is what liberates us. The Truth is we ARE the Open Secret. Every one of us has been these things and every one of us has acted on them, as well.

We can choose, in our most courageous moments, to tell each other the Truth. We can say we’re scared of acting only on our less-than-lustrous parts. We have regrets. We have fears. We’re uncertain. We have nasty habits. Ones we’ve been trying to break for eons.

We can also stop agreeing that our basic humanity is shameful. We can.

And when we agree that our basic humanity is nothing we have to be ashamed of, we can tell the Truth. We’ll be free to tell the Truth about all our shortcomings, our weaknesses, and our fears because we’ll have admitted they are human and they are what we have in common. Keeping the Open Secret only serves to prevent us from being connected to one another; it only serves to cut off intimacy. The Open Secret prevents vulnerability, which is, as it turns out, where we can find and nurture strength, courage, creativity, and wisdom.

The Truth about my dirty humanity is what makes me able to legitimately claim the rest of who I am as a human.

I am strong.
I am brilliant.
I am wise.
I am creative.
I am industrious.
I am perfect.
I am courage.

And I will be calling you to see when I can come speak to your organization or team. I want to learn from you, and I have something important to say.

Everything’s a Lesson

Maybe a year ago, I heard the phrase, “The lesson you’re teaching is the one you need to learn.” Well, CRAP.

And then I saw it written somewhere shortly after I heard it. DAMN.

And then, again, a few days later. Clearly, ignoring this recurring phrase wasn’t an option.

“The lesson you’re teaching is the one you need to learn.”

I’ve always liked to teach. At eight, we called it “being bossy.” At 43, let’s call it, “coaching,” shall we?

To illustrate this, if we’re friends, I have asked you at least once, “May I give you an assignment?” Or, if we’re very close, I didn’t ask. I just said, “Do this.” So, upon hearing the message “The lesson you’re teaching is the one you need to learn,” three times in about as many days, I began to listen to what was coming out of my mouth as a lesson for me in addition to a lesson for someone else. As it turns out, sometimes the lesson was for me instead of someone else.

To be clear, never once have I given an assignment because I thought you were doing it wrong. Never because I thought you were behaving badly. Never because I was disappointed in you. If I’ve asked (or told) you to take on an assignment, it’s because you have honored me with your personal truth. You’ve let me behind the curtain of your life, and let me see backstage. I’m so, so lucky that some of you let me just hang out back there. Like, all the time! And, when I hear your frustration or pain or perplexity, and I think that something I’ve read or another perspective might ease your heart, I tell you the thing I believe will provide some peace.

Among these that I’ve tried to teach those I love are the following things, all of which are absolutely true.

  • It’s OK to think different things than your parents think.
  • You’re the only one holding you back. You have all the tools and skills for that dream!
  • You know more than you think you do.
  • You’re forgiven.
  • You’re not responsible for anyone else’s emotions.

Notice that these things aren’t critical, mocking, or anything less than loving. And, I still feel happy that I’ve been able to share these things with friends. But, where have I been that these good, generous, true lessons have only been for other people? Seriously. Did I delude myself into thinking I had these things worked out for myself? Maybe. Maybe so.

The one that I’ve said the most is “You’re not responsible for anyone else’s emotions.” And, in my head, and out of my mouth, I have known this for years. However, once I heard the message to learn what I was teaching, I clearly didn’t know this at all. I began in earnest to learn this lesson for myself. As a pleaser and a peace-lover, it wasn’t easy to let go of trying to fix everything so that everyone was happy and at rest. Not only is it impossible to fix everything so that people are happy, but it’s also just a REALLY BAD IDEA.

In the next several essays, I’m going to explore the stuff I’ve been learning and the ways I’ve stumbled through the lessons, sometimes falling on my face. Hard. But I think it’s worth writing about the stuff I’ve learned by listening to the Still Small Voice that clearly said, “The lesson you’re teaching is the one you need to learn.” And how things emerged from the mist and became clear when, for a few seconds at a time, I was able to shove myself out of the way enough to see them.

On Always and Never

At what point are we going to understand that generalizing and vilifying people is bigotry? And bigotry is ugly. It’s always ugly. Guess what. It’s even bigotry when we do it to Old White Guys. It’s bigotry when we generalize and vilify people who:

are gay
are black
are female
are young
are intellectually delayed or impaired
are elderly or are aging
are intellectually advanced
are very thin
are fat
have dwarfism
cut themselves
have mental illness or illnesses
have physical impairments
have physical illnesses
are impoverished
are very tall
are college graduates
are transgendered
are wealthy
are quiet
are religious
are mouthy
have tattoos
drive their kids to soccer
volunteer at schools
have dropped out of school
are unable to volunteer
are always open to new ideas
are frightened of new ideas
are wary of too much change too quickly
want everything to change now
are atheist
exude joy
exude malaise
are divorced
lead easily
follow easily
are charismatic
have been married for 48 years
hang back
are athletic
are not terribly coordinated

the list goes on.

Exactly none of the people who fit into any of these groups is “just like everyone in that group.” Every human being is an actual individual person.

I personally belong to several of these groups, and yet I manage to be a unique person.

Not all people who drive their kids to soccer are all of the things we ascribe to that group. They just drive their kids to soccer. Not all people who volunteer at schools are all of the things we ascribe to that group. They just volunteer at schools. Not all people who are female are mothers. Not all leaders love public speaking. Not all tall people are basketball players. Not all people who have dropped out of high school are unable to have highly intellectual pursuits.

There are hardly any “always” or “never” in life.

The following is my vote for “always” and “never.”

It’s always bigotry to generalize and vilify. May we endeavor to never do it.

Tolerance, and Why It’s Crap

I’ve been thinking about this topic for probably six years, maybe longer.

Today, I tell you why “Tolerance” is pile of garbage.

I ask you to hang in there with me, because I’m perfectly aware that practicing “tolerance” is an important concept for us and for modern, American society. We pay consultants handsomely to conduct whole three-day workshops on tolerance; we talk endlessly at dinner and in social media about tolerating other viewpoints, other groups of people, other religions, and other political viewpoints. Our first indication that Tolerance is rubbish is that it helps maintain the illusion of “other.”

The very idea of “us” and “them” is erroneous. For some reason, humans seem like the only ones on this planet who refuse to understand we’re one species. Rabbits seem to understand they’re all rabbits. Aardvarks? Same thing. Ants seem to understand that they’re all ants. They’re all “us.” They stay together, stay dry, everyone eats. Humans? At least in the US, we think the people we live in the same house with are the only ones in our group, the only ones who are “us.” And then, sometimes, not even those people. I have personally made the people I live with “them” in times of pain, fear, and selfishness. Believe me, it’s no fun, not for anyone. But this deeply-held, false binary “us and them” idea allows us to continue our “other” illusion. There is no “other.”

Are you thinking, “Well, at least isn’t not outright hate”? You’re right, it isn’t. Tolerance may be considered several steps up from disdain. It may be considered a couple steps up from hate. It may be considered at least a step up from intolerance. All these are generally considered improvements; however, the critical point I keep circling back to as I ruminate on this is: Tolerance is still a long, long, long way from Love.

Hatred is honest. It, like all our other emotions, may not be due to the object of said emotion, but it’s honest and true. Tolerance, on the other hand, is a way for us humans to do one of our favorite tricks: not choose. I know, because I have been, and am, the Splendid Emperor of Not Choosing in far too many circumstances. Ask my friends and my family. But you see, if I tolerate you, I don’t have to invest! What a relief, I’m off the hook! I don’t have to love, fear, or hate you. I don’t even have to know you. I don’t have to put any energy into getting to know you. I just tolerate you. So, Tolerance allows us to maintain the status quo. I could really get on board with a much more inspiring status quo. Couldn’t you?

I’ve heard many times, “Sometimes you have to tolerate people before you can love them.” This is completely untrue and, I believe, actually a deterrent from arriving at Love. Tolerance is not a gateway to Love. Tolerance itself actually creates some problems for arriving at Love. If I’m Tolerant, I’ve already put you in a bucket of stuff I don’t have to deal with; where’s my motivation to love you? Tolerance allows us to categorize and to continue to avoid.

Most importantly, the practice of Tolerance allows us to feel superior. Superiority the set point for this thing we’ve declared a virtue. If I’m Tolerant, I’m automatically superior. I tolerate a less-important person, a less-enlightened viewpoint, a less-worthy idea. See how I’m tolerant of others? See how I’m bravely tolerant, even of the utterly intolerant? Yay for me! I’m awesome and merciful. Tolerance allows me to stay distant and to approve of myself. And, damn, don’t I love that?

So sorry, but us v. them, better-than-hate, avoidance, superiority, and self-approval do not lead us down a path to Love. When we tolerate, we’ve decided to tolerate this whole group of people and their beliefs because we’re obviously better, smarter, more properly educated, more empathetic, more generous, more loving, and more evolved as humans. We’ve studied more. We know more. We can simply discount personal experiences of the tolerated. Clearly we don’t have our heads up our asses like those ridiculous, hateful, closed-minded, infuriating Union Members/Homeschoolers/ Conservatives/Liberals/ Vegetarians/Muslims/Yankees Fans/ Christians/Yoga Practitioners/Radio Talk Show Hosts/Feminists.

Who doesn’t like being right?! I know I sure as hell do. It’s just one of many of those crappy, human-brain things I battle all the time. All the time. But I’m not always right. I’m lucky if I’m right half the time. “Right” isn’t even a sensible goal most of the time. “Right” is another human-brain thing that keeps us locked safely in an Us v.Them mindset. You see, if I’m right, they’re wrong. And that makes me better.

And I’m most certainly not better. But I am wonderful, just like “they” are, and just like YOU are. If I’m content to tolerate, I’m comfortable in my own right-ness. Why would I go for the risky, messy, hellacious, infinitely complicated Love, which requires discomfort, uncertainty, and constant cognitive dissonance?

I’ll tell you why we go beyond Tolerance and go for Love. Love is the thing that heals, lifts, and unifies. Love contains mercy, grace, and generosity. Love fills up the cracks in our souls and in our lives. Love is life-giving. Love is the light that shines into a world that can be so full of Tolerance – and intolerance – that it makes us regularly sick: nervous, fearful, nauseated, and lonely. Tolerance is flat, gray, and tasteless in comparison to Love. Love is like passion fruit nectar poured over clear ice in a crystal glass. Tolerance is a nearly-dried-up puddle on hot, crumbly asphalt.

Love is the thing that, when applied wildly, outrageously, consistently, and generously actually repairs things.

Love gives families who disagree about EVERYTHING else a chance to be a safe, soft place for every member. Love is the thing that lets adult children find the parents they’ve always needed. Love gives people the grandchildren they’ve always wanted. Love is the thing that keeps forgiving him when your child has done something so morally wrong that he’s in jail. Love maintains relationships with self-destructive addicts. Love provides comfort when the answer just couldn’t suck any worse than it does. And, damn it, sometimes it just does.

Tolerance just keeps us as we are. It keeps people enslaved physically and spiritually. It keeps women hidden, abused, and oppressed in SO many countries. It keeps gays and lesbians without equal rights in the United States. It allows us to maintain an inaccurate view of Truth. It has kept me fat. It has kept me at a desk in Corporate America long after I knew it was not the place for me.

Humans! We are called out of the dark and into the light. We’re called out of Tolerance and into Love.

Goodbye, Tolerance. You’ll be missed on the days when I want my life to be neat and tidy. But I’ll run faster without you.

No one ever wanted to hear, “I tolerate you.”

Everyone wants to hear, “I love you.”

I love you.