Southern transplant that I am, the unseasonable beauty of this place never pales for me. Even the front that blew through yesterday and dropped us twenty degrees (but dropped feet of snow everywhere else it seems) couldn’t dampen my winter spirits because the day started with a dolphin sighting. Dozens of them actually, so giddy with fish flowing into the river from the marsh-draining creeks that it looked like they were turning cartwheels just below the surface.
I always start my morning walk with a detour down to the Pigeon Point boat landing to look for dolphins. I’m not burning any calories this way, I know, but I make up for the pause by stretching while I scan the Beaufort River. I’m not the yoga-affirmation type, but when the dorsal fin of a bottlenose dolphin breaks the surface I know that it’s more than a privilege to live here.
Dolphins, especially on a winter morning, remind me I can’t possibly complain about anything the entire day when I am so lucky as to live here. I wrote about how I came to trust in the luck of dolphin spotting in one of the first chapters of the memoir I’m writing. I’ll set the scene: It’s 1990 and I’m looking for buried South Carolina dispensary bottles on a sandbar not far from Pigeon Point landing, with my boyfriend at-the-time.
“Look, dolphins!” I called out to him.
He looked up from the pile of mud and shells at his feet.
“You know what that means, don’t you?” he asked. “Every time you see a dolphin, it means you’re going to have a perfect day.”
“But what if the day’s already over?”
He paused, bringing a mud-covered hand to his chin. “I never thought about it but I guess it works retroactively. Didn’t we have a perfect day?”
It was the logic of the hopeful, the rationale of a dreamer and I have judged the perfection of a day by dolphin hindsight ever since.
As the NFL playoffs continue, we will be forced to hear more inane commentary by the likes of Joe Buck. In the ongoing campaign of sportscasters to eulogize their favorite teams, they will continue to say things that make no sense. Like that a synchronized, diagonal shift to the left, by all members of a defensive side, is somehow similar to ballet.
I beg to differ. The choreography of football is clearly more aligned with modern dance. Take the position Aaron Rodgers frequently finds himself in, courtesy of his teammates somehow allowing him to be the most sacked Quarterback in the NFL. He’s flat on his back, with shoulders, head, hips and knees raised in an uncomfortable contortion that we dancers instantly recognize as the Martha Graham contraction. She described her signature move as the physical manifestation of grief. Aaron Rodgers would agree.
Even when he’s not being sacked, his moves are definitely more modern dance than ballet
Then there’s Clay Matthews signature dance move – “The Predator” compared what I call Byrne Miller’s predator modern dance move. If these two photographs don’t frighten you into believing me, here’s a technical explanation. If football were akin to ballet, as the commentator suggested, Clay’s second position plie would be done with curved, welcoming arms and toes pointed out instead of parallel and forward. Got it Joe Buck?
It’s taken me a week to wrap my heart around what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary. I say my heart because my head is still slogging through the facts and reactions to the facts, trying to apply logic and reason to it. That’s how I cope but my heart tells me it won’t work this time. There’s no logical, rational way to deal with the grief of losing a child. I know because my parents lost their son when he was a few years younger than the kids at Sandy Hook. It twisted and contorted their lives, destroyed their faith in any kind of God, changed forever their expectations for my sister and me and transformed their marriage into one of blame and denial. And all that because of an accidental death at home, under the wheels of the family truck. Nobody walked in on a Friday morning and riddled my little brother with bullets – on purpose. I can’t imagine the burden that difference will add to the grief of twenty-six families in Connecticut this Christmas.
In our family, the first few holidays after John died were torment for my parents. Every cheery Christmas card in the mail reminded them that the rest of the world had gone on with their lives when ours had been ripped apart and left shattered forever. It will be like that for those families in Connecticut, only worse.
Their children were killed on purpose and they will have to listen to talk radio show hosts defend the rest of the country’s right to bear arms and repeat simplistic clichés like “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”
Their children were killed on purpose by a mentally ill young man exactly the age when schizophrenia and other mental illnesses attack the brains of thousands of young men. And yet this country largely abandoned affordable, widespread access to mental health care in the 80s.
Their children were killed on purpose by a young man who played violent video games that have created a generation of young men desensitized to blood and gore and pain and suffering. But they will be told there isn’t direct evidence that video game violence translates to the real world.
My parent’s lives never returned to normal after the death of their son. The rest of the world moved on and seemed to forget. That process will begin for the families in Connecticut on Christmas, and it will be infinitely worse if we move on, after an initial outpouring of support, because we’re told nothing could have prevented what happened.
That was true in my brother’s case. His was a truly accidental death. Blame could not be assigned; remedies could not be taken. When kids are killed by guns it is never an accident and there is everything to do about it. There are some truths that don’t need statistics or studies to prove. There are times when waiting for evidence is just the brain ignoring the heart and the soul. Sometimes you have to do what your heart says is right, without the support of others or numbers or comforting data. I’m signing on as one of Senator Diane Feinstein’s citizen bill sponsors for legislation to control automatic weapons. But that’s not enough. I’m not sure how but I know that I have to find a way to advocate for mental health research and affordable treatment for all who need it and I will speak the truth to commerce when it results in violent video games. We in the creative community have to find ways to entertain and reach young men in ways that don’t desensitize them to violence. This may be the issue that women can come together and truly make a difference. We don’t have to wait for politicians to catch up and pass laws; we can exert moral and economic pressure on our own.
Finally, my head feels like it’s catching up to my heart.
Say hello to our spirit-of-Christmas tree – Gary’s take on the Gullah spirit tree. As my friends Marlena Smalls and Anita Prather schooled me long ago, the spirit tree keeps “haints” and “plat eyes” away from your house. Why blue bottles? According to an article in the Island Packet “spirits come out at dusk and are beckoned inside by slanting light refracted through the sparkling blue bottles. Once inside, the spirits are trapped. Some say they are vaporized when the bottles are flooded with morning sun. Others say the spirits simply cannot escape the bottle and that you can hear them moaning in agony when the wind blows through the tree branches.”
My good friends who drink the kind of white wine that comes in blue bottles provided the essential components and we constructed our first spirit tree a few years ago from a snag we found in the park (that’s snag, not hag, an important distinction) A storm blew that one down, but did not destroy our sacred bottles (as if we needed proof of the strength of tradition.)
Our collection of bottles has been tucked up out of the wind beside the house for a good many months but this weekend, Gary found another tree floating up to our dock. It was an abandoned Christmas tree from years past, stripped of all needles and with jagged stumps instead of boughs. He dragged it up to our yard and gave it a new home next to our winter fire pit. A few tiny blue Christmas ornaments and a string of little lights and viola – a combination Christmas and Spirit tree. Let the holiday spirit take root!
So here I am, writhing in the agony of finding the perfect title for the Byrne Miller book, when Gary hands me the poster for a photography show this Friday. It seems C. Steve Johnson, the genre-crossing artist and Fantastic Nobodies performer, has no such trouble with titles. He’s rented a small studio space across from the Piggly Wiggly and the Beaufort Police headquarters and the inaugural “First Friday” opening at 1815 A Boundary Street is this Friday, December 7th.
The headline title across the top of the poster for the opening is “A Cabinet of Curiosities” – a perfect description of what to expect when you pair Gary’s fascination with beautiful dead things and Steve’s eclectic artistic interests. I got a sneak peek while they were hanging the show and can tell you this. Gary’s fixation-since-childhood with natural history museum dioramas will be evidenced on the walls. Some of these giant-sized assemblages have never been exhibited. The same goes for Steve’s work – it’s a fascinating glimpse into what makes someone as creative as he is stop and capture an image on film. And for lovers of moonscapes, a woman I’ve never met is presenting a series of misty, evocative risings and settings to balance the male energy of the evening.
“An Elastic Photography Exhibition” is the show’s evocative subtitle – think flexible and mind-bending. Again, perfect in my opinion, but just in case there was any confusion Steve added a humble descriptor just to the left of the poster’s eye-popping image of an eyeball: “The Most Original Art for All Types of People!”
In the lower eyelashes of the image there’s a classic call to action: “Enjoy the Holidays! Give Someone You Love a Work of Art.” Smart – given that the three photographers in the show are competing with Beaufort’s annual “Night on the Town” celebration, a Christmas Cabaret at Artworks and a photography club show at the library. No worries, Steve’s got that conflict covered too. The inaugural show of Steve’s Independent International Art studio runs from six to eight(ish) Friday night – long after the shops downtown run out of punch and cookies. Call it the Late Night on the Town, or at least late-er, and come prepared for an intimate celebration of creativity.
Byrne Miller isn’t my biological mother, but I did inherit one of her genetic traits. I’m a dance snob; I admit it. So it was with great trepidation that I agreed to watch the final two episodes this week of “Dancing With The Stars” in Milwaukee this week– a concession to the sweetest inlaws a girl could ask for. Joe and Angie, like almost all of America apparently, love this show and they think, since I’m a dancer, that it’s a natural fit. They don’t know about my aforementioned genetic trait; I like to keep them in the dark when it comes to my failings.
This season, apparently, the point of the show was to bring back all the winners of previous seasons and have an all-star dance-off. Like all reality talent shows on TV, it managed to stretch exactly six minutes of dancing into an hour Monday night and about 15 minutes of dance into two hours for the finale. The rest was filled with hyberbole-laden “judging” and staged, behind-the-scenes rehearsal moments filled with tears, injuries, miraculous recoveries and spats between the celebrity dancers (amateurs) and their muscular, foreign professional partners.
I knew I was in trouble the minute I realized that Shawn Johnson, the former Olympic gymnastics champion with the giggly little voice, was one of the finalists. In the interest of full disclosure, I was a national-level rhythmic gymnast. My “sport” elicits the most vehement arguments against being in the Olympics (I agree) and the contortionist flexibility of rhythmic gymnasts attracts an almost morbid fascination (again, I agree, it’s weird) But what can’t be denied is that rhythmic gymnasts at the Olympic level could write their own ticket to any ballet company or Cirque de Soleil (where many of them end up) By contrast, “artistic” gymnastics – the kind Shawn Johnson dominated – are like little wind-up fire hydrants whose dance skills are more in line with cheerleaders or robots.
Shawn, cute and giggly as she still is, is no ballroom dancer. Splits and flips do not belong in cha-chas and waltzes. It was almost painful to watch, except for her exuberance. The other two finalists were, I think, soap opera actresses and reality TV stars (same thing?)– which turns out to be much better training for “Dancing With the Stars” than tumbling around a gym.
The hosts and mock-experts spent the better part of the finale hinting at rumored romances between the brunettes and their professional partners. They were both rail thin and waif-like, except for the requisite showbiz cleavage. Their mouths naturally pouted and their expressive eyes were expert at producing spontaneous tears. And they both managed to deliver lines about “incredible journeys” and “feeling so blessed” and “no matter what happens I’ve grown personally” like the professional actresses they are.
But lest you think I hated all of it, in the end I found something to love about it. The truly non-dancers (this show featured race car drivers, football players and even Kirstie Alley) actually seemed to glow when their professional partners moved them around the floor. I saw in their faces the same joy that I used to see when I taught dance classes for adults at Beaufort’s Green St. gym. Byrne saw the same thing when she turned Marine Corps sergeants, nurses, teachers, sign painters and architects into modern dancers every Saturday morning at the YMCA (when it was in Pigeon Point Park) That’s why Joe and Angie love watching the show. They don’t care if the quick step is a little less than quick, or if football players don’t all have the hip wiggle of Victor Cruz. They watch it because dance elevates the ordinary, adds a little grace and lift to the everyday and when these “celebrities” go on national TV and try something new they become a little more human. I think even Byrne would begrudgingly acknowledge that. One of her favorite quotes was “First there were people, and then there was dance, because the people just needed to move.”
I have a quick Thanksgiving week update on the Byrne Miller project to share. I’ve just wrapped up writing about Byrne and Duncan’s years in Santa Fe – a period from 1965 to 1969, just before they moved to Beaufort. I didn’t know much about this era of their lives before I began researching, only that Byrne had always loved Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams and that Santa Fe was a mecca for artists and writers back then, maybe even more so than it is now.
So it wasn’t surprising to learn that the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre actually started in New Mexico, not South Carolina. The first performance of Byrne’s short-lived choreographic career was at a brand new, Great Books college called St. John’s, where Byrne taught modern dance. I assume the debut of her own company was what prompted her to have some publicity photographs made and I came across the name of a New Mexican photographer, Robert Nugent, in some of the boxes stored in Byrne’s papers at the Beaufort County Library.
On a whim, I looked him up on the Internet. I didn’t give it much chance, assuming that since Byrne would have been 103 this year this Robert Nugent fellow probably wasn’t around. I found references to his work at the Institute of American Indian Arts (where Byrne also taught some classes) and a stub from an old website that listed a Santa Fe phone number. I was probably more surprised than he was when Robert Nugent answered my long distance call.
It turns out he doesn’t recall taking this particular photograph of Byrne, one of my favorites, but he definitely remembers Byrne and Duncan. His son was riding in the back seat of the Miller’s car when a drunk driver plowed into them, seriously injuring Duncan. But mostly his memories were sweet and tender. Robert’s wife, then girlfriend, was one of Byrne’s dance students and that’s how he wandered into their world. He tells me his lasting impression was of how supportive and dedicated to each other Byrne and Duncan were. It’s what all of us lucky enough to have known them remember, and treasure. In an email exchange I hope will continue long after the book comes out, Robert wrote “I found Duncan to be quite opaque and vaguely discontented, whereas Byrne seemed more the blithe spirit, though I’m certain she could be tough as nails when necessary. You couldn’t help but like her.”
As we all head off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, I know I’ll always be thankful for being part of Byrne and Duncan’s – if only for a little while. And for the network of talented men and women whose lives they touched, connecting us all.