What not to ask a college student at Thanksgiving

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Thanksgiving is a tricky trip home for college age family members. They’re getting free food and use of a washing machine and that’s welcomed. But the minute they lift a forkful of mashed potatoes to their lips some uncle or grandmother is going to ask what they’re going to do when they graduate. This blog posting is a plea to cut them some slack.

I was reminded of just how stressed out college students are when I talked to students at a leadership conference sponsored by the College of Charleston’s Higdon Student Leadership Center. There’s no way I would have said no when a student who watched my TEDx talk liked it so much she lobbied for me to be the keynote speaker. They even themed the conference after my talk: The Wisdom in Quitting. Still, I was nervous. I had an hour to fill and I wasn’t sure that College of Charleston and Citadel cadets would really “get” Byrne Miller’s words of wisdom.

It turned out they wanted mine. Not because they all want to be writers, or dancers. But because they could relate to the fear I had of disappointing my parents when I had to quit my Olympic quest. I make no secret of how much I hated competing — now. But I’d been raised never to quit and back then I felt like my parents, my coaches, my college – hell even my country was depending on me to represent the U.S. in the Olympics. It seems ridiculously pompous and self-absorbed but that’s how successful kids are raised – when you are the center of your parents’ universe you think their happiness depends on you.

I was terrified to quit anything… from a boring book to an abusive boyfriend… because being perfect was my entire identity.  It took the wisdom of my Other Mother to choreograph the steps of my own life.

So back to the talk at the College of Charleston. I’m used to smaller audiences, where it’s easy to make eye contact and get a read on the room. The students were polite, but I couldn’t tell if I was getting through. I offered to take questions but the organizer interrupted and asked if I would meet with students one-on-one after the conference. As it turns out, he knew that the silence during the talk was actually the sound of brains churning. I ended up talking to Citadel and College of Charleston students for 45 minutes and it hurtled me back to my broken back and the days when I had no idea who I was supposed to be. They told me of being the only person in their family to go to college. How they were finding out that they didn’t want to be the doctors or lawyers their parents expected. One African American cadet in her impressive Citadel uniform asked me how to tell her proud family that she wants to walk into another room – and not into the military.

Suddenly Byrne’s sassy womenisms didn’t seem appropriate. I didn’t want these vulnerable students to think that there’s an easy answer for one of life’s most difficult transitions – the one from following our parents dreams to speaking up for our own. I told them that they were way ahead of where I was at their age – it took a broken back for me to even begin to think of quitting what wasn’t right for me. And I told them that change doesn’t have to be instant. Researching, exploring and planning alternatives before taking a major step isn’t the same thing as procrastination or indecision in the same way that quitting isn’t the same as failing.

We took some pictures, had some hugs and they were off – bravely plunging into the confusion and pressure of lives still on the threshold. And of course, I thought of the advice I should have given too late – on the long drive back to Beaufort. So this is for any of them reading this blog – or any 20-something at your Thanksgiving table. It’s one of Byrne’s wisest womenisms: “There is not a contract on earth that cannot be rewritten.”

I take great comfort in the truth of this — even now. It gives me the courage to trust my instincts instead of pre-judging every step I take. After all, identity is just a contract we make with ourselves.





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.