How awesome of the Fourth of July to fall on a Thursday, giving us a four-day weekend and a chance to try out something new: a stay-cation. Normally by July we’re swelteringly in need of a break from 100% humidity. But after a week in Santa Fe last month I’ve actually developed a renewed appreciation for humidity (a broken down air-conditioner at the moment notwithstanding) So instead of hitting I-95 ourselves for a getaway, we invited some friends down from Washington DC. I can’t remember a nicer four days staying in one place, so I thought I’d share my top 5 tips for anyone else hanging close to home this summer.
1) Invite out-of-towners to join you. It’s so easy to take your hometown for granted and the best cure is to see it through fresh eyes. It might take some convincing – most non-Southerners would rather slit their wrists than face the sizzling heat and oozing humidity we’re famous for. But tell them to check the weather stats. Right now I’d argue we’re having the best weather in the country. Eating at Duke’s BBQ in Walterboro never tastes as good as when two friends sitting across from you are groaning in ecstasy. I’d forgotten how quirky and hospitable antiquing in the Lowcountry can be, or how sumptuous and eccentric the squares of Savannah appear to outsiders.
2) Invent a signature cocktail for the stay-cation. Think about it. When you go stay at a hotel in some resort destination you probably don’t sit around the pool drinking the same old cheap beer. You try new cocktails and find yourself reminiscing for years about the perfect habanero margarita you had in Tulum. For our stay-cation, I adapted the signature martini of a famous New York restaurant: The Indochine. It required some preparation: infusing a bottle of vodka with the core of a pineapple and a plug of peeled ginger and not touching it for two weeks. But when I filled the silver-bullet martini shaker with 3 oz. of the steeped vodka, 1 oz. of Cointreau, 1 oz. of fresh squeezed lime and a gulp of pineapple juice it was the beginning of a new story for me and my DC friend Marlene.
3) Go camp. As in, remember all the best parts of summer camp when you were a kid and recreate them. Here in the Lowcountry we have winding tidal creeks to explore by kayak and loggerhead turtle beaches to comb for hours. But even if your stay-cation is in a big city I bet you’ll have a blast tooling around it by fat-tire bicycle.
4) Stay up way past your normal bedtime and sleep in like a slovenly teenager. It’s all about breaking the routine and indulgence. Now I’m usually nodding off by 11pm so this was tough for me. The solution was another Beaufort treat: the drive-in movies. Nothing says you’re on vacation like lawn chairs under the stars while you congratulate yourself for not paying full price to watch Lone Ranger.
5) Finally – unplug. It will never feel like a vacation if you’re checking emails and tweeting your every thought and observation before you’ve even experienced it. Here’s a game to get you started. Have an Indochine martini or two and then throw out a theoretical question. Actually banter back and forth with conversation instead of looking it up on your phone or I-pad. I bet you’ll remember those answers and conspiracy theories long after Wikipedia becomes cliché as the word “stay-cation.”
Art can transport you to another place. It can pause time. But it can’t stop it. Yes, I’m on about time again, because on our New Mexican ramblings I got to see two places I assumed art had immortalized.
The first was the site of the adobe church in Hernandez where Ansel Adams famously captured a lonely moonrise. It’s my favorite of all his images because I’ve always imagined this desolate, remote place as protected, looked over each night from above. I’m not religious but this photograph explains why people have faith. It reminds me of the aloneness I felt as a kid living on the road with nomadic parents. No matter how far from home we traveled in our dilapidated camper the same moon still rose and set above me.
Ansel Adams could not make his photograph today. The dirt road where he set up his tripod to capture the moonrise is now a four-lane highway, minutes from a sprawling, dusty city called Espanola. Even under the glow of a rising moon you couldn’t see the church’s cross from the road’s high vantage point because it is obscured by ordinariness. Its foreground is subtracted, diminished by squatty buildings, power lines, unloved yards and broken down cars.
We drove down to the church anyway and I asked Gary to take this picture in the dog hours of the afternoon. He didn’t have a wide-enough lens to document the surrounding squalor so this shot makes it look better than the harsh truth. The sun felt like it was peeling back my skin, branding me with disappointment. Even the graves to the side of the adobe church seem abandoned and overrun by time.
The same disappointment washed over me when we stopped at Francisco de Assisi – in Rancho de Taos. The view of this church that Georgia O’Keefe painted was never meant to be photo realistic. She isolated the lines, blended colors and smoothed shapes into the weathered strength she saw in all of New Mexico. But it had always been real to me, my favorite of all her paintings, until I saw it in person. It’s hemmed in by Taos now, buildings so close on three sides it feels claustrophobic.
It was under renovation when we arrived — the patched up adobe still wet and the smell of straw filling the air. In a way the construction debris made me feel better – this place is still revered enough for periodic face lifts. I have no right, I realize, to demand that time stand still for my benefit alone. I don’t even worship in these structures built by those who do. And that’s the crux of it. I’m clinging to an aesthetic while those for whom Hernandez and Assasi were intended experience it as a living house.
It was less unsettling, in a sad way, to find these ruins on our way to Georgia O’Keefe’s studio and house in Abiquiu. This once beautiful adobe outpost of faith is returning to a state of rest – dust to dust, literally. There are telltale signs that it will be missed – a giant handmade cross leans into a patch of dead cactus and someone tacked a rosary to a crumbling wall.
Perhaps, when it is gone, its absence will be more present than famous churches, forced to coexist and change along with us.
The hiking brochure they hand you when you get off the shuttle begins with: “Evidence of Human Activity in what is now Bandelier National Monument dates back more than 10,000 years.”
I was about to embark on a trip back in time that made me question the nature of time itself. I’ve never been one to ponder many existential questions; I’m too busy setting goals and rushing to meet them to do anything but wonder where time went. But after a morning at Bandelier I’m no longer sure what constitutes wasting time. Consequently I probably am, just thinking about it.
In school, natural history never seemed as interesting as it did in the James Michener books I stole from my parents. But in the Frijoles Canyon history is mockingly relevant. I’ve felt the awe of National Parks before – the way places like Yosemite make you feel so puny and inconsequential. But at Bandelier it wasn’t just the physical grandeur of nature that humbled me, it was that damn first line of the brochure: evidence of human activity.
Somehow, in this most isolated and environmentally harsh place, ancient peoples not only survived but thrived. I was worried whether I’d get carsick on the shuttle ride out of the canyon but the Ancestral Pueblo people contended with threats monumentally more serious. The heat, for one thing. It reached 97 degrees on the day I visited — a dry, high-altitude heat that reminds you that a few days without water and you’d be a pile of bones picked over by coyotes. These amazing people, without the wheel or a single written instruction, literally carved a life out of a desert canyon.
Which brings me back to the human activity part. The Ancestral Pueblo people figured out how to use tools to enlarge the openings of small, natural caves in the canyon’s cliff face. It’s called Tuff rock – the eroded remains of volcanic ash that compacted over time. It conserves the coolness of the desert night. It also serves as a permanent blackboard for ancient attempts at art. I say attempts because the figures and symbols seem less visionary and inspirational than utilitarian. If there were creative outlets for these ancient people they were stories, songs and dances lost to time.
You can still climb into the caves at Bandelier and see the discolored walls where fires burned thousands of year’s worth of nights ago. What stories got told around those fires? Were the cave dwellers dreaming of enough free time to pursue the arts or new worlds to explore? Or were they just staying warm?
What really gets overwhelming is when you sit in the cave openings and look out over the canyon valley floor. By virtue of a small stream these Native Americans did something radical – they raised crops to augment hunting. They built a village whose remains are still visible from the rocky overlooks. The brochure again:
“Imagine this village filled with the sights, sounds, and smells of daily activity. Women grind corn between two heavy stones. The air is filled with the enticing scent of ground corn as it bakes into delicious flat bread. Loud thumps reverberate in the air as a stone axe meets a heavy wooden beam. Men are busy constructing new homes. Children laugh and shout while dogs bark; together they herd turkeys and play games. As today, each person has his or her role and responsibility.”
I tried to imagine me in this village, ten thousand years ago. Would my life have had meaning or true fulfillment? What “human activity” would have kept me motivated? The Ancestral Pueblo people had religion- their faith was part of every aspect of their lives without sectarian separation. I do not identify with any one religion. I have no useful farming skills. I don’t even have children. If more than a weekend goes by without writing something I get fidgety. I feel like I’m wasting time and yet I have more of it to fill in the manner I choose than the Ancestral Pueblo could even imagine. It’s the mark of progress, we’re told, when labor becomes so specialized that not everyone has to spend their days on redundant, common tasks of survival.
Yet what does it all mean when “progress” means spending hours each day tweeting and blogging? It’s part of every writer’s job – building a platform so that readers will buy the books that keep publishers in business – so I’m not complaining. But is my multi-tasking life really any more advanced than the brochure’s hunting, weaving and heavy construction? My gut says no, but my brain says it is more fulfilling. I’m happiest when I’m swimming in the creek in front of my house — thinking of nothing and thankful for everything — but I couldn’t let myself float in that happiness if I didn’t spend the days planning the next project, the next challenge. I can change the circumstances of my life at will if my will is strong enough.
The caves of Bandelier haven’t left my thoughts since I returned to South Carolina. I keep going back to that cool, dark window on a world I can barely imagine. The closest I can come to understanding what the “human activity” of survival was like ten thousand years ago was how it felt when Gary and I drove through Latin America in a camper. Despite all my mental fidgeting and fastidious documentation for a future book, we had to stop driving by two each afternoon to begin the menial tasks of finding a place to camp, buy food, get water and bathe. I was happy. I learned I could survive without alarm clocks and internet access and deadlines. But would I choose that “simplicity” permanently? No. I need external stimulation like art and museums and daily challenges to what I think I know.
Bandelier made me appreciate just how little that is.
While I was out hunting for ghosts of Byrne and Duncan in Santa Fe, I stumbled across an artist they both would have loved. Check him out.
I met absurdity out West and now he’s a friend of mine. I stole that, actually, from the title of a book published by an artist we discovered at a flea market outside Santa Fe. What’s absurd is that Kelly Moore isn’t as well known as Thornton Dial or Howard Finster. He’s so outside art that he actually makes art outside – almost year round, in his Tesuque Flea Market “stall.” He bungie-cords this three-sided gallery closed during the week, more to keep out the snow or desert summer heat than thieves.
If it was just the wack-factor, I probably wouldn’t be writing a blog about this guy. We have plenty of crazy right here in Beaufort, South Carolina. But Kelly Moore’s work stopped me cold and it was 97 degrees out at the time with forest fires burning on two sides. He was adding the finishing touches to an…
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I have been lucky enough to window shop along some of the most famous art streets in the world, from Paseo Prado in Madrid to West 27th Street in New York and M. Alcala in Oaxaca. But never has one road peaked my curiosity as much as Canyon Road in Santa Fe.
My “Other Mother” – Byrne Miller – lived in a rented house at the base of Canyon Road in the 60s, long before this 6/10ths-of-a-mile-road was the home of more than 100 upscale galleries. Back then it was a dirt road in the cheap part of town; many of the artists who lived and painted there built their own homes and studios out of adobe.
I tracked an address down from an old advertisement for the Byrne Miller School of Dance and set out to find the house where she danced and where Duncan began his third novel. But it turns out artists back then weren’t really into organization. The numbers don’t always go in order and some houses were torn down and replaced in different locations with the same number.
The closest I got was this cluster of buildings that now house two wonderful galleries. Somewhere behind me was the portico where Duncan paced and smoked his pipe while writing the Santa Fe Fiesta Melodrama and the kitchen where Byrne brought her dance students from St. John’s College for some home cooking.
What a heady time to be two artists in their nomadic prime. The Santa Fe Writer’s colony thrived from the 20s through the 40s… think Willa Cather and “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” D.H. Lawrence called Santa Fe home as well as the great poet Witter Bynner, who threw parties at his house for guests including Martha Graham, Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keefe. Mary Austin’s “Casa Querida” was home to literary readings, salons and a fine arts school – and her own writing was very concerned with Native American rights.
The first Santa Fe artist’s colony owed its impetus to the Museum of New Mexico which held unjuried exhibitions for local artists starting in 1915. It attracted famous artists like Robert Henri, who showed in 1916 and 1917, and modernists like Marsden Hartley and John Sloan…then spawned a Santa Fe style local “school” with the 5 painters – los “Cinco Pintores.” You can still find their paintings for sale on Canyon Road.
By the mid 60s, when Byrne and Duncan arrived, commercial galleries had made Santa Fe a tourist destination, with the chance for artists to sell their work on a regular basis.
The owner of the gallery where I think Byrne and Duncan lived, Mark Greenberg, has family on Hilton Head but adores the town he chose to make his home. He’s on the board of the Canyon Road Arts Association and told me that in Byrne’s day, Canyon Road was as known for bar fights as painting – there was practically a shooting every weekend. Now there are as many famous actors in residence as painters: Alan Arkin and Gene Hackman have houses just up the street.
Byrne loved her years here. Duncan, not so much. The novel he began here is depressingly bleak, his query letters to publishers almost desperate in their defiance. It’s all a fascinating part of the memoir. Duncan was a Charleston SC native and he felt claustrophobic, without any bodies of water nearby. After a week in Santa Fe I felt the same. It’s a beautiful city, with incredible art and architecture, but so dry I literally had to stick my toes in the Rio Grande on a day trip out of town just to feel human again.
I like my ghosts bite-sized, the connections to the past manageable. And so my visit to Santa Fe’s St. John’s college today was perfect. I wanted to see the beautiful campus where, in 1965, Byrne Miller talked her way on to the faculty without a college degree or any other experience teaching dance at the college level. And I wanted to see where the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre was born.
I snapped this picture on the walk up to the college. It doesn’t do the beauty justice. It’s a fifteen minute drive up canyons from Santa Fe and it feels as remote as a ghost town in the summer. The air smells of wild sage and fragrant Russian Olive tree blossoms. The arroyos are dry as a Georgia O’Keefe painting and the sky is a hypnotizing blue. The college was brand new when Byrne and Duncan arrived in Santa Fe nearly fifty years ago – an experiment in using the Great Books as the entire syllabus. It still does, only in the summer you can sign up for seminars like “Humanity Exists in a State of Rupture from the World”: Hegel, the Fall, and Spirit’s Alienation from Nature. Or the tidier-sounding “Reductionism, Naturalism and Undecidability.”
But I wasn’t here to check out the courses. There was a chance that I’d find more photographs of Byrne’s tenure here. On the back of one of her best publicity shots Byrne hand wrote the name Robert Nugent. During the research phase of writing “The Other Mother” I’d tracked down the accomplished photographer on the internet. We’ve talked on the phone and while he remembered Byrne and Duncan, he shot so many photos at St. Johns that he couldn’t place a specific shot. Since he did most of his work at the college in the 60s for hire, he thought the college would have copies in the library. Alas, they did not. At least not easily accessible on a random visit during the summer break.
But when I showed the photographs I already have to the college’s two librarians on duty (and their dog, behind the desk, it’s that kind of cool school) their faces lit up. It was like they’d seen a ghost – just not the kind I envisioned. It turns out the setting of this photograph of Byrne leading a rehearsal of “The Walls Between” still exists at St. John’s College – only now it’s a coffee shop.
And this photograph of Byrne’s collected son, Ben Barney, using a chair as a prop representing his departed grandmother… well the chairs still exist too. They’re called Jonnie chairs – St. John’s iconic piece of furniture.
It gets even better. The stage where the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre began is alive and well too. It’s called the Great Hall on the second story of the student center and it’s still used for lectures and dance performances.
Again, my cell phone photo doesn’t do it justice, but these plush red curtains open up to a stunning view of the Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) Mountains. I can’t say for certain, but if there are ghosts of Byrne’s life work, they were dancing in the beams of light streaming into the Great Hall of St. John’s college this morning.
Memoir is usually written in first person, a slice of biography told by the person who lived it. But “The Other Mother: a rememoir” is only half traditional memoir. I visualize the book as having two movements: one is mine and the other is Byrne and Duncan’s story. That other half is why I call it rememoir – it is the truth of their lives as they and I remember it.
This doesn’t mean that I just sat around and typed out conversations from memory. I’ve used every available source to get at the truth – from interviews with other “collected children” to newspaper articles written about Byrne and Duncan wherever they lived around the world. Another great source of information is Byrne’s papers – including a sporadic journal – which she donated to the Beaufort County Library’s Special Collections.
I’m blogging from Santa Fe today because I had the chance to see, first-hand, one of the places the Miller’s lived and left a lasting mark. They moved here after a sojourn on St. Thomas in the 60s. Right away, Duncan managed to get selected to write a stage play for the annual Santa Fe Fiesta. It was a big honor, especially for an outsider. The headline of a July 31st, 1966 article in the New Mexican declared “Miller Pair to Direct Fiesta Melodrama.”
The melodrama portion of the fiesta continues today – a new one staged each fall in conjunction of the burning of Old Man Gloom. But I’ve always wanted to see why Duncan chose the title and topic he did. His melodrama was called “The Sinister Secret of the Sawdust Sepulcher, or, A Capital Conspiracy.”
I knew from archival research that he was referring to the newly built New Mexico capitol – a controversial building that replaced the traditional capitol dome with what was called a Territorial Design. Duncan hated it and thought the round, stuccoed building looked like sawdust. Apparently he had company – it was quite a controversy in the mid-60s.
But I wanted to see if for myself, to see if Duncan was just being curmudgeonly. The first thing I noticed was how unpretentious and egalitarian it is. We pulled our boat of a rental car right up in front and parked without any meters or guard gates. We walked into the building itself, cell phone camera clicking, without being stopped. Guides, not guards, greeted us with information brochures and invitations to look at all the local art on display. The heavy wooden doors to the House and Senate chambers were unlocked – practically inviting admirers. I wouldn’t call the architecture beautiful but it felt so American to me, in the best possible way. Government by and of and for the people.
I walked out of the capitol thinking Duncan arrogant, even a little mean spirited for satirizing the statement the architect was trying to make at the time. Byrne used to tell me he never liked it here in Santa Fe – too dusty, monochromatic and void of water. He didn’t see the beauty in it she did, that now some 68,000 people who live here do. But then again, to be fair, in the 60s it wasn’t nearly the artsy-glamorous mountain town it is today. Compared to Charleston, where Duncan was from, it must have seemed a desert outpost. He took no comfort in the company of other artists and writers who had discovered the town and made colonies and studios here.
I have no script of “The Sinister Secret of the Sawdust Sepulcher, or, A Capital Conspiracy.” For all I know Duncan might have meant it as a joke, making fun of the controversy more than protesting the architecture. But given how happy Byrne told me he was to leave Santa Fe for Beaufort in 1969, I suspect he lived here as an expat in his own country.
It’s part of the mystery of rememoir. One of my dearest sisters-by-Byrne is a yoga instructor in Savannah. Judean said that when her mother died, her siblings had such different memories — even resentments — that she wondered if they were remembering the same woman. She told me to expect the same confusion as I wrote about my “Other Mother” and the man who shaped her life.
What it comes down to is being true to the truth of the person I knew, and I knew Byrne’s Duncan. All I have left is Byrne’s memory of the man who wrote that snarky play. She saw the Santa Fe Fiesta and it’s annual burning of Zozobra (Old Man Gloom) as a way to discharge demons. She hoped Santa Fe’s dry mountain air would clear the cobwebs in Duncan’s mind and allow his creativity to blossom. When it didn’t, she didn’t judge him – as I find myself doing.
What I learned on my tour of the Santa Fe capitol is how difficult it is to withhold judgment. Byrne could, because her love for Duncan was so strong and tested. Santa Fe released the gloom and reaffirmed her faith in the power of their partnership instead.