All I want for Christmas is good spirits

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Spirit (of Christmas) tree
Spirit (of Christmas) tree


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!


Late Night On The Town

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Not your average Xmas reindeer
Not your average Xmas reindeer

       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.

Stars Dancing

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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.”

A picture worth a thousand words

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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.

Cold sheets

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You know you’ve been spending too much time editing corrections to your novel when simple word choices become incapacitating. The realization happened last night when I pulled cold sheets out of our GE dryer. I never miss the chance to hang sheets outside to dry because they steal a little of the salty air and spring breezes sneak into my dreams. But, distracted as I was by edits to my Byrne Miller book, I forgot to take in the sheets until it was dark outside and they were too cold and damp to put on the bed.

I have never mastered dryer instructions, and after every failed dryer interaction Gary reminds me of one of two things: that writers usually can read or that I have a masters’ degree. He is genuinely confused by my confusion; he never reads the dryer instructions to begin with. But in my defense, the machine is clearly labeled in the same foreign country that no doubt manufactures it. For example, one of its three dials is marked “fabric care.” There are four choices on this dial, each labeled with a description of temperature – quick fluff with no heat, delicates with low heat, easy care (whatever that means) with medium heat and then cottons. You’d extrapolate this last setting would be high heat, but it just says “regular” so I’m never sure.

The other confusingly labeled dial is for the amount of time you want the machine to run. It’s divided into three sections, labeled in a shaded oval like an elongated pie chart. It’s far too reminiscent of math right off the bat but here’s where it gets really confusing. I’m not sure why, but the two top sections are divided into the categories of cotton and easy care (I guess cotton is high maintenance) and then you’re supposed to pick between the helpful phrases “more dry,” “less dry” and “optimal” dry. This confuses me, so I use the bottom part of the pie, where you point the knob to the number of minutes you want. I pick a spot somewhere between five and ten minutes for the sheets, since they’ve already been hanging outside all day on the line. But it turns out if you want heat you have to point the knob somewhere to the right of 10 minutes. Not optimally helpful, considerably less than easy.

I am a writer. I do have a masters’ degree. But somewhere along the line I’ve apparently become functionally illiterate.

The Grace in Gesture

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The Athens, Georgia mechanic you see in this photograph has no idea who Pina Bausch is. Or that dancers everywhere will see an unconscious grace in the gesture he chose to express in front of the camera. But the man who made this photograph knows. I met Carl Martin last month on a jaunt to Atlanta to accompany Gary to a photography portfolio review.  And since Gary didn’t really need a Vanna White to turn the pages of his book for reviewers to inspect, I had the chance to wander through the displays of work and meet the other selected photographers.

Carl told me that he takes inspiration wherever he finds it, and lately he’s been captivated by the same German choreographer I’ve been blogging about. Carl is a former architect from New York — not a dancer — and the Wim Wenders movie “Pina” was just a starting point for him. What he’s trying to capture is the intrinsic value and joy of what he calls public gesture. Pina spent years with her dancers, giving them emotional and descriptive cues and then developing the movements her words inspired. Carl doesn’t get as much time with his subjects – mostly working men from around the Athens area, where he lives now, who agree to help him. He lets his subjects come up with their own gesture, and then he stages them against an architecturally interesting background in natural light. The poetry is in the simplicity of the composition and sometimes its contrasts. Not surprisingly, Carl says he gets much bigger, more powerful “gestures” from total strangers than from the friends he’s tried to Shanghai into posing. He doesn’t explain who Pina Bausch is or why he celebrates her in the movements of mechanics, truck drivers or hospital orderlies. He figures their gestures tell the story anyway.

You can check out more about Carl Martin at – or if you happen to pass through Athens just strike a pose.

Cleaning up Duncan

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Until the winds of Hurricane Sandy made it impossible, I spent the last week trying to dry and clean up three unpublished Duncan Miller manuscripts I never wanted to see again. When a small group of Byrne Miller’s “adopted” children gathered to read them the first time, in 2009, we decided as a group that it was indeed not Byrne’s fault that her beloved Duncan’s work had never been published. Byrne had described Duncan as having “borderline schizophrenia,” and he ultimately died from complications of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But even those of us considered part of his extended family never realized how much his mind must have tormented him until we read his manuscripts.

I won’t go into detail but nobody in their right mind would want to read what Duncan wrote, let alone publish such thoughts. Gary and I buried them in 2009 as a sort of compromise – getting them out of our house but not going as far as burning the last known copies of a man’s life work.

It turns out three years being buried in black plastic lawn bags does little to preserve typed manuscript pages that were already fifty years old when they went into the ground. Dirt I expected, but water somehow seeped through the plastic lining of the manuscripts and spores of a bright yellow mold now crust each page. The archeologist who helped us find the hidden stash, Larry Lepionka, advised me to divide the stacks into smaller piles and when they were completely dry, to take a pastry brush to every page. While I dusted off each page, on the very same porch that Duncan loved to watch the river from, I forced myself to re-read one of the manuscripts. After all, that was the whole point of digging them up again.

I am writing about Byrne and Duncan’s years in Santa Fe and “The Air-Drawn Dagger” was the first of two novels Duncan began there.  Ostensibly, it’s about prejudice toward a group of people he calls “Hispanos” by which I gather he meant Mexicans of Spanish descent. But the plot doesn’t matter because you can’t get past the sexually explicit language. The vocabulary might have been a factor of the times – Duncan’s later novels would have been influenced by the beat generation and authors like Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg. But what disturbs me is more than the shock value of profane words. Duncan wrote in first person, about everything from rape to incest. I can only imagine, as I’m sure Byrne did, that these scenes came from something deep and wounding in his past. All I know of it is that he was estranged from his Charleston family and never allowed Byrne to make contact with them even when he died.

Reading the work of someone whose long-ago death means he can’t explain himself is a little like finding your father’s secret stash of pornography. You want to believe that it doesn’t mean anything, that reading nasty isn’t the same as being nasty. But you never see him in quite the same light again, and you judge his future actions, and the stories of his past, through a different lens.

What I struggle with now is how much, if any of it, I should reveal in the book I am writing about Byrne’s life. Duncan’s writing is an integral part of Byrne’s story – for the sixty years of their love-filled marriage she introduced him as a brilliant novelist. Yet after he died, she told me that her only regret in life was never getting him published. Her life included struggles like one daughter get electro-shock therapy as a young child for schizophrenia and the other daughter being killed by a drunk driver.  But it was this sense of failing Duncan that kept her up at night and I think she hoped that I would find a way to remedy that after she died. Maybe I have. Perhaps through writing about Duncan and his great love for Byrne, the essential truth of him will have a voice. But deciding how much to reveal will be what keeps me up at night.