I’m on tour with “The Other Mother: a rememoir” – right now, from the comfort of 75-degree Beaufort, South Carolina, where I watched dolphins gliding through the creek this morning. Yes, tour – only this book tour isn’t the usual sit-near-the-bookstore-door-and-politely-tell-tourists-where-the-bathroom-is kind of tour. It’s a virtual tour, with each stop over a ten-day period “hosted” by a blogger I’ve come to know and admire. Or, in the case of a fellow writer Ann-Marie Adams – a Q&A everyday of the tour!
The beauty of blog tours is their flexibility – and not just because I can jump into online conversations in my slippers. What’s been so fun about this one is reaching out to a wide variety of bloggers to see if they’ll read the book and share their thoughts and questions with new audiences. Some are planning on posting reviews and others on challenging their readers to pose questions of their own. It is as creative as the bloggers themselves – and if this collection of writers is any indication – you might want to subscribe to their blogs now and follow them for years to come.
So here are the official blogs stops on “The Other Mother: a rememoir” tour:
Beaufort and Philadelphia readers might already know Ann-Marie Adams. She’s a study in reinvention herself – which is why I knew she’d love Byrne’s “womenism” that “there is no contract on earth, especially between a man and a woman, that cannot be rewritten.” Like Byrne, she’s taken her gift with words and illustration and segued it into a career ranging from a lobbyist for Cornell University to the Hilton Head Island Hospitality Association. Her blog “SC Mornings” kicked off the tour and every day she’s pulling quotes from the book, turning them into a provocative question and blogging my answers as well as comments shared by her readers near and far.
The only other semi-local blog stops on the tour are two of my favorites – and they couldn’t be more different.
Stephanie Hunt writes even more than I do – from Charleston Magazine (I’m still pinching myself over her November issue review) to SKIRT to her own, fascinating blog called Charleston Grit. We discovered we have a mutual friend through Byrne – one of Stephanie’s closest friends is a modern dancer who used to make the trek to Beaufort for Byrne Miller Dance Theatre master classes. The cool thing is, Stephanie’s blog tour stop will include the review she wrote for the magazine – available for the first time only on-line!
Louise Hodges is a chameleon – a very sassy chameleon. She turned a small-business incubator grant into the way-environmentally-cool Green Bug All Natural line of pesticide free bug sprays, right here on Lady’s Island. In her business blog she writes about everything from how to get rid of bed bugs to why Monsanto is the scourge of the earth. The connection to Byrne might not be obvious, but Byrne Miller’s first professional writing gig was writing for a magazine in the 1930s called Nature’s Path. But Byrne would have loved her for another reason. She can sing and hustle a tambourine with the best of them – which is handy since her husband is in a band.
The point of a blog tour is reach – so I’m also excited that several far-from-Beaufort bloggers have agreed to host a stop. Not all of these will be posting between December 1 through 10 – but start following them now so you won’t miss it when they go live with “The Other Mother” tour.
Dance fans will be twirling in their imaginary tutu’s because Heather DeSaulniers has signed on. She’s a former professional ballet dancer, now dance critic and host of her own dancer’s blog which got tapped as one of the top ten dance blogs in the country. I love her blog because, unlike dance critics in New York, she isn’t about impressing you with snarky reviews. While Byrne herself was a tough dance critic (she wrote for Jacob’s Pillow and reviewed Spoleto dance performances in The Beaufort Gazette) she would have seconded every Heather motion.
Then there’s possibly the coolest indie bookstore west of the Mississippi – Santa Fe’s Collected Works. Byrne Miller Dance Theatre began in Santa Fe, in her home studio on Canyon Road, and while I was out there doing research for the book I stumbled onto Collected Works. It’s the kind of bookstore that builds community, that author’s dream of reading at.
Only it’s too far away for an actual tour stop so I was thrilled when reviewer Christopher Johnson said he’d read “The Other Mother” and ask questions via the official bookstore blog. I can’t wait to get his questions (no pressure Christopher, I know you’re swamped) because he never falls back on the usual, pat Q&A. Check out this question he posed of poet Shaun T. Griffin “What is the difference in your mindset when you are working on a poem or a translation or a book of scholarship? Do these works all come from the same place inside of you or are they separate places?” My writer friends — commence drooling.
I knew I wanted Melanie Page to be on the tour when I read her “about” quote at Grab The Lapels. She went straight for Maya Angelou’s “I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch and you’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Any blogger who writes about women writers and books about women is kick ass. Plus that quote reminds me of one of my favorite Byrne “womenisms:” – “A whim of iron simply rejects rejection.”
The final two stops on the blog tour might not be what you’d expect. They’re in the category known as mommy-bloggers and why not? The title of the book is “The Other Mother” and I’m curious to know what these modern-day moms think of Byrne’s unconventional parenting techniques (her daughters lived in a treehouse, for a spell) and the concept of other-mothering.
I’ve always believed that needing and cherishing the love of other mothers, as I did, in no way competes with biological parents. While it’s cliché now to say it takes a village – there’s a reason cultures over the world and through the ages have embraced the concept.
Now we’ll get a chance to see what hip young mom and pro-blogger Andrea thinks – I learned of her Northern Virginia Housewives blog through the friend who hosted my Other Mother Soiree last week in Washington DC. And no – she’s not in any way connected to the hot mess of the other “real housewives” of NOVA. She’s just getting the book now, so it’ll be a while before she can join in but I can’t wait.
And last but not least is Motherhood and Miscellany. Amy had me at Oshkosh, Wisconsin – which is where she blogs from. Followers of my blog know that the family that “adopted” me when I married Gary is all from Wisconsin. So when Amy said yes, I poured a glass of Leinenkugel and sent a book off to the wilds of northern Wisconsin. I especially loved her “The Mother Comparison Game” post. It reminds me of why Othermothering can be so rewarding. I admire any woman who becomes a parent in this era of labeling – if you’re ambitious you’re a “Tiger Mom” and if you’re too involved you’re a “Helicopter Mom.” I’m hoping Amy’s blog will help “Byrne” the tables and encourage women to stop judging and start loving. Let the comments flow!
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.
I’m about to step into a time warp, only it’s all in my head. I’m flying to Santa Fe tomorrow, one of the four key settings in my memoir about Byrne Miller. She lived there in the early 1960s, a contemporary of Georgia O’Keefe. Santa Fe, not Beaufort, is where she started the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre.
I’ve never been, unless you count back porch conversations with Byrne and research for the book. Santa Fe exists only as a backdrop for me, a place frozen in time, and I’m a little nervous that the contemporary city won’t feel as magical.
Byrne reveled in the chance to reinvent herself and Santa Fe was a willing stage. This is how I described her driving the family out West.
Of the three westward-bound Millers, only Byrne allowed the stark freedom of the landscape to lift and thrill her. She drove with the front seat pushed all the way back to accommodate legs meant more for the stage than a station wagon. With her chin up-thrust and wrists draped over the top of the steering wheel she could just as easily have been racing a horse-drawn chariot around a Roman coliseum.
The Millers arrived at the tail end of its artistic heyday, when writers formed colonies and housing was cheap enough for artists to afford. Byrne rented a house at 203 Canyon Drive and turned it into the studio that would become the mother ship of the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. That address will be my first stop in Santa Fe – to see the building where it all started.
I know that Canyon Road today will be a very different place – it’s been discovered and prettied up – the heart of the city’s gallery district. But I’ve braced for this kind of reality check once before, in the course of writing this memoir, and I’m learning to appreciate even whispers that places still offer from the past. Last summer, I found the building where Byrne and Duncan lived when they were first married, in Greenwich Village. Morton Street is nothing like the bohemian, immigrant-filled place it was in Byrne’s day, but I still felt a connection.
In Santa Fe, I feel certain I will find a sense of connection again. I am about to launch “The Other Mother” so it seems fitting to visit the place where Duncan also began a new novel.
For months he paced the portal that ran along the length of their Adobe house at 203 Canyon Street, his pipe in one hand and a writing notebook in the other. When ideas came to him, he shoved the pipe between his lips and exhaled through the corner of his mouth, keeping his hands free to scribble down dialog or exposition. He eased into a curved leather Equipal chair to sharpen his pencils or refill his pipe, catching the loose crumbs of tobacco in a soft Mexican blanket folded on his lap.
I suspect that one of the reasons Byrne and Duncan decided to relocate to Santa Fe was because Byrne hoped the company of other writers would inspire Duncan to write something fresh. She couldn’t have known that almost 50 years later, it would be a place that inspires one of her collected daughters to write the story Duncan never could.
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.
It took me longer than I expected to finish Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” I am not a fan of priests, nor do I have any history with the American Southwest. The only connection I have to Santa Fe, where the novel is centered, is borrowed from Byrne Miller. She lived there in the 1960s, a hundred years after the priests that so intrigued Cather. I wonder what they would have thought of Byrne: a modern dancer from Manhattan, Jewish, uninhibited, radical and experimenting with open marriage.
I suspect they would have been no more astonished than the Native American students Byrne took under her wing. Here came a tall white woman who walked even taller, confidently aware of her shapely legs and jutting breasts. She wore cat-eye glasses and scraped her jet black hair under silk scarves, except when she posed for publicity photos – wild-haired and wilder-eyed.
When she guest-lectured for a class called “Man and his Arts” at the Navajo Community College, students wrote thank-you letters about how she made them aware of their posture. When she taught dance at the Rock Point Community School, the Title IV Coordinator would later become one of her adopted sons: Benjamin Barney. Her class consisted of nine adults, two little girls and five onlookers – probably their mothers. Ben’s own mother might have been among them; she was deeply suspicious of dance as entertainment. Which might explain why in her journals, Byrne wrote of showing dance films, leading improvisations like “walking through phone booths” and emphasizing movement as a “teaching tool.”
I always found it odd, maybe even a tad imperial — the thought of a modern dancer from New York, teaching dance to a people whose very religion celebrated it. Dance came long before the priests in Willa Cather’s novel:
“The Bishop stood watching the flowing, supple movements of their arms and shoulders, the sure rhythm of their tiny moccasined feet, no larger than cottonwood leaves, as without a word of instruction they followed the irregular and strangely-accented music.”
I wonder if, at the time, Byrne watched as much as she demonstrated. She could be terribly intimidating, as my brother-by-Byrne attests. Ben was one of her best dancers but dance, in his culture, is a vehicle of faith. Movement is literally transformative. Byrne wanted him to wear tights and perform on stage – for strangers. She choreographed a role for him in a piece she called, ironically, “The Walls Between Us.” Against his mother’s wishes, Ben danced for Byrne.
It still haunts him. He writes letters to me, helping with the memoir I am writing of my own time with Byrne. “The performance happened, even when I felt bad about it.”
It circles back to Cather and her Bishops, the novel that made me slow down and study the rhythm of the words. Byrne’s journey was no different than that of any outsider. The bishops had to pay for their awakening in years of travel – by horse, or burro, through Mexico new and old. Understanding wasn’t a souvenir. Byrne was much luckier. She collected children who grew to love her, faults and all.