Monday Discovery: Esther Bradley-DeTally

Today’s Monday Discovery guest writer is Esther Bradley-DeTally, a dynamo-lady who hails from Pasadena, California. Visit her at Sorrygnat, World Citizen. Thanks, Esther, for sharing this excerpt from You Carry the Heavy Stuff.

The best way to describe Esther is to let her do it in her own words:

Esther Bradley-DeTally, spirit and writer extraordinaire, and Puggy
Esther Bradley-DeTally is a writing teacher, creative process coach, author, community activist. She has written two books, Without A Net: A Sojourn in Russia, and You Carry the Heavy Stuff Just out is The Courage to Write, An Anthology. She is editor of this book and writing teacher to those within its pages.  The Courage to Write is published by Falcon Creek Books and is a publication of the Pasadena Public Library, The La Pintoresca branch/Pasadena READS.

Her writing is whimsical, spiritual, serious, laugh out loud funny and offers themes with keen observance of what it means to be human. Someone once said her stuff was “A refreshing read that combines a depth dimension with the tragicomedy that is life.” She is a Baha’i with a passion for making oneness a social reality, fascinated by ordinary people transcending their own inadequacies and limitations in homage to a vision.

She jumps out of airplanes to visit pug dogs, and her best times are with Mr. Bill, her husband and pal extraordinaire, family, and her inner circle of 700 friends.

Being on Watch—Second Bout With Cancer (Spring 2007)

What day do I run to? Does my twin Elizabeth think of this? Her body is a mere cipher. She’s buying the farm. How do I run to her call, “Help me, help me, help me,” which starts just after dawn and carries through the day and night? I jolt out of bed at 5:30 and run into her room, a two-second trip. Early mornings and late evenings require me, her twin. No one else can help at the moment. Bill covers the ritual of medicine doses, and Lindsey and Matthew—her son and his wonderful wife—are going to start staying over.

Liz worries about my dying alone. “Who will you have?” I reassure her, and then I fantasize my demise. I would not realize this was a religious choice reference—that she feared my acceptance of Bahá’u’lláh would hold me back. At the time, I laughed and said, “I’ll be fine.”

An Essay: I Feel It in My Bones

I always said, “I want to go out lying on a huge bed with hundreds of pug dogs over me, as I feebly say, ‘Put the last one on that space over my nose above my lips.’” So under a snuff and snort, I’d end my days. Strange is this getting older. This is going to be an essay. I feel it in my bones. Tonight, my words slough off this day of sitting next to Liz, trying to get hourly liquids into her.

I sit in her kitchen at the computer which makes its “Urr urr” noises, like a new baby. It’s quiet in the kitchen as I reflect on our life as twins. Now, we are beyond the personalities of our twin selves. We are finally down to what really matters. Like Liz, I am waiting to return home, except it’s not my time, and I’m still on earth duty, in dirt city, on Planet Earth. I want to go home to Pasadena.

“What Day Do I Run To?”

Today someone in the writing group posted a question, “What day do I run to?” What does that mean? Then I thought, this is one of my middle-of-the-night questions when I get up and think, when does it end? I, always the frailer twin, have survived heart surgeries and other stuff. It helps at night to sit in her kitchen at the computer and play with writing prompts from our CHPerc site for writers. The basic question is, “Where do I run?” “When do I run out?”

Did I tread the mystical path on practical feet? Did I hoof hard? Was I a solace? Now, it’s  just enough to realize, parts of me are like a big old watch. On what day will I stop ticking? Will it be 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 at night? Where will the world be then? Meanwhile, I’m on watch, and I’m writing. Here in Liz’s kitchen on a quiet Idaho night, I think of us, Liz and me. We were the survivors. We’ve always had each other—like book ends. My brother John has been missing for years, and my older sister (Meb, for Mary Ellen Bradley) died at fifty. Liz and I were it.

A Dvorak Dissonance

Meb was a Girls Latin Scholar and later an unwed mother. “Go tell Dad, he’ll understand” backfired, and she was sent away. She had the baby by herself in Quincy Hospital, but then, as she turned eighteen, she took her baby out of foster care. She married her young love and had three more kids. Her husband left her, so she became a pianist in cocktail lounges. She drank too many drinks offered by grateful customers standing by her piano in a club lounge. Life unraveled, and she ended up on the streets, in housing tenements, dying in a hospital, the same Quincy Hospital where she gave birth. She was alone, poor, alcoholic, and had emphysema. When my twin and I were seventeen, our mom died. I remember Liz and I taking the trolley into downtown Boston and answering the sales lady’s query, “Why do you have to have black dresses?”

My twin is the essence of “don’t tell,” and she never discusses feelings about family. She would tell me during last year’s radiation treatments. When she was ten, standing in our long, graveled driveway, she said to herself, “I’m on my own now. I have to take care of myself.” My mother’s alcoholism had burst out. The Twelve Steps programs were newly emerging, and the doctors would send our mother to a private sanatorium, give her shock treatment. And what about us, Liz and me? She was the sturdy one, good at sports, tree climber par excellence, devotee of “Bobby and the B-Bar Ranch” radio show and “Sgt. Preston” and his dog King. And me—softy, wimp, reader, reader, reader, pathfinder of all the childhood diseases—feeling my mother’s pain. Our early lives had a Dvorak dissonance, later transiting to the spiritual sound of “Coming Home.”

It’s a Symphony, This Life

As I await my twin’s death, I want to tell you it’s a symphony, this life. First, the sacred wounds inflicted upon the soul, and time and twists and colors and sounds, cymbals, drums, some bells and whistles of the funky kind. And the colors—fuchsia, black, gray, stripes of every hue and finally the color blue, a Mediterranean blue—an embracing veil of silken color, obliterating memories of my twin’s despair of my believing in more than Jesus. Also fading are the memories of criticism’s early work. I hope when it comes my time to pass—come to a reckoning, a passage into a final exam, a leap of gladness, the warrior path almost finished—that I be worthy to meet my Creator. I think before I go, I’ll give a final glance at a world back from tilt and furor, and I’ll catch faint sounds of a new symphony, an oratorio, celebrating unity and splendor for the human race.

For thought and action: What day do you run to? Where is your solace?  Esther and Gerry would love to have your comments here!

Somebody You’re Longing to See

For G and J

What happens when people meet again after many years of separation?  Might they find they have nothing in common and go their separate ways? Or might the bonds formed early outlast all the changes a lifetime brings?

Reunion

This past Monday, a high school friend and his wife spent the afternoon with my husband and me.  The friend and I had reconnected at a class reunion a few years ago, but just like during the intervening years after our graduation, we had been out of touch since the reunion. So we got together for lunch and wound up spending the afternoon getting reacquainted, reminiscing, and swapping stories.

Thormahlen “Swan”

His wife is a musician, so she and I have that in common (although I’d say I’m a sleeper musician; I don’t play the piano much these days). She brought her harp for me to see—a beautifully crafted Thormahlen “Swan,” a real work of art. She demonstrated how to tune it and then she played it for us, such lovely music. I brought out my almost-brand-new dulcimer, untouched ever since I broke a string about a year ago. He helped me tune it and gave me some rudimentary instruction. “Find a teacher,” they both said. “Learn it. It’s fun.” They are into adventures and new learning, a fine example for me.

Backstory

My friend and I found, just as we did three years ago at the reunion, that we have much in common, not just our upbringing, but our faith journeys, our politics, our love of travel and books and music. We grew up in the red clay hills of north Mississippi, a rural, poor part of the state (in case you have misconceptions about Mississippi, pockets of extreme poverty were not and are not limited to the Delta). His father was a Baptist minister, his family huge. My dad owned an automobile parts store; I was an only child. My friend and I didn’t know each other until he moved to town at the end of our ninth grade year. He was a shy boy, good-looking, sweet, and smart. He reminded me that he asked me to prom our junior year, but I already had a date. He moved on to date one of my best friends.

Roads Diverged

After high school, we went our very separate ways. What surprised us when we reconnected, I think, was how we had “outgrown” the place where we grew up, and yet how shaped we are, despite our different paths and experiences, by that time and place and people. Both of us had strong, hard-working fathers who sacrificed for us and for others. Both of us had home-making mothers whose chief duties were to mother us. We had good teachers who expected much. We had the good wishes of our friends—many of whom stayed behind in that small town—as we left that place behind. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We all chose our paths, but he and I chose “the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Time Lost

My friend’s wife and I have a lot in common. We talked music and children and grandchildren and shared photos. He and my husband swapped father stories for much of the afternoon, poignant memories of words said or unsaid, connections and failures. I enjoyed watching them get to know each other in that way.

Hambidge path, Spring 2011

Our reunion turned out to be bittersweet. I’m grateful for the renewal of friendship, but I grieve that interim of years, all that time lost when we might have enjoyed each other’s company, when we might have been there for illnesses or hard times. But those aren’t the only “lost years.” There’s my husband’s life before we met, and the lives of my children since they left home, and the bits and pieces of lives that have crossed with mine only briefly. The don’t-knows are endless.

As a fiction writer, it’s the most natural thing in the world to imagine them. And if they become fodder for the imagination—isn’t there some redemption in that? It’s a little like inventing character: taking the bits and pieces I know and weaving them into the don’t-know of their lives.

So forgive me, old friends, and new, if some fragment of you winds up in a story. It’s a compliment, really, to your reality. To your existence as part of my life.

Is there somebody you’re “longing to see,” as the old song goes? Somebody whose missing years you would take back or re-invent, if you could? Try writing about her. Try imagining what she would say to you if she could.

Share your thoughts here, please. I’d love to know what this piece and this little exercise trigger for you.

Nobody’s Perfect! Or, The Case of the Ugly Duckling

Perfection? Not even this.

Over at The Artist’s Road, Patrick Ross has a great post today (May 18) entitled “Does Insecurity Drive Creativity”? He started me thinking about perfectionism: a driving force? Or a recipe for failure?

Born a “Pleaser”

I’m not sure where the trait comes from, but I’ve always been a “pleaser.” When I was little, whenever I was disobedient, my mother wielded the switch (for those of you who aren’t Southern, that’s a small branch or twig, not an electrical device), but all my dad had to do was look at me—a look that conveyed his disappointment—and I would crumble in shame and remorse. I had failed to live up to expectations. My growing-up faith played a part in it, too; if I misbehaved, God wouldn’t be happy with me, either. The report card with straight A’s, the flawless piano performance, the honors and awards at school affirmed I was a person worthy of love and acceptance. It was never said; just understood. Later, it was marrying the “right” boy, having children who also measured up, being the “best” teacher. Affirmation was a deep need, and sometimes, it still is.

Recipe for Failure

Perfectionism’s twin is self-doubt. If I set impossible goals for myself—substitute “my writing” here—how will I ever measure up? I’ll never be good enough at what I do to risk putting it “out there,” which is absolutely necessary to succeed. Those countless times I read over a manuscript before I submit it—fiddling with it, putting a word in here, taking a word out there (sometimes the same word), even after major revision is done—are signs of self-doubt that must be overcome if I’m going to succeed on any level.

Granted, none of us should ever throw a story out there without careful thought and attention both to what’s working and to what’s flawed (and that includes a careful proofreading). But obsessing over it and trying to make a “perfect” product will most certainly undermine us. At some point, we have to let the work go. We have to take chances. Hopefully, the successes will come, and we’ll learn from the rejections.

Growing Pains

At some point, too, it’s necessary to give the work over to others whom we trust to bring to it a different context of knowledge of craft and insights. When we do that, we have to be prepared for criticism.

Having my work critiqued has generally been a positive experience, and I value it highly. I had a fine writer/workshop leader tell me once, though, in a private moment outside of the workshop, that I was a terrific writer, but I needed to be more confident. Duh, I thought. But she was right. I never want to be blindly confident in my work. That’s a recipe for disaster, too. But I want to strike a balance between knowing something is good and being open to criticism that might make it better.

Liken the process to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, “The Ugly Duckling.” That hatchling was an odd bird indeed among the “normal” ducklings. The mother duck looked after him, she defended him, but the cruelty of others led him out into the world time and time again, where he continued to be rejected until he found his proper place: among beautiful swans. Lucky little guy; his growth process was genetically engineered. He wouldn’t stay ugly forever, but he had to get to the beauty not only through the process of growth but also through hardship.

None of us wants to be the brunt of cruel criticism. That has no place in a productive writing community. At its best, feedback nurtures us and nudges us toward better work.

Let’s let go of perfectionism. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Let’s choose confidence  over destructive, bottom-skimming self-doubt. Let’s seek out and build a community of readers and writers who know how to be kind and supportive, yet can deliver the kind of insightful help we need.

Is perfectionism a hindrance to your growth as a writer? If so, what strategies do you use to overcome it? I welcome your comments!