My Greening Thumb

I changed jobs the summer before Covid. When I packed up to leave, I brought home the plants that had made my workspace happier: a prayer plant, a small dieffenbachia, a little pothos, an orchid, a jade plant, and a cyclamen I’d killed and resurrected at least a dozen times over the eight or nine years that it had had the misfortune to live with me. I’d kept the first three on my desk and the orchid, jade, and cyclamen on a window ledge not far away. That ledge was sunny, and they needed sun. 

I had a little over a week between jobs. As it turned out, that short time in my house was a disaster for all my plants. They hated my house. My apartment is sunny, but the difference in light, heat, and humidity between my office and my house were entirely unacceptable. My orchid, which had been setting up to bloom, dropped two leaves and the buds stopped growing. My cyclamen lost several leaves and choked off the buds that had started coming up. My dieffenbachia and pothos drooped. My jade dropped leaves and started shriveling at the base. In just 10 days! 

I installed my plants in my very sunny and warm new office immediately. I had a bright office and was certain it would give my poor plants a better environment than they’d found in my home. So I brought my leafy little friends to work … and almost killed every last one of them. 

I thought the wide window ledge in my new digs would be exactly what sun-hungry plants would love. Instead, they got too much sun: blazing, unobstructed sun through my east-facing window, sun so intense it burned the leaves on my cyclamen and dieffenbachia, sucked the life out of my jade plant and my pothos, and wilted my prayer plant. My orchid’s aerial roots dried and shriveled. And just like that, I was cast back to the bad old days of my plant-murderer past.

I grew up a plant killer, never able to keep any poor growing thing alive for more than a minute. This truth was particularly frustrating and shame-inducing given the spectacularly green thumbs of my grandmothers, my aunt, and my mother. With my office plants, I had been made brave by the years-long, in-spite-of-me survival of my cyclamen. I’d received it as a gift. Then I received a gift of the dieffenbachia and the pothos. They arrived in a lovely basket, accompanied by a tiny, elegant peace lily and an equally tiny parlor palm. The peace lily held on for a while, but my careless care soon brought on the end of it. That loss made me sad, but the pothos, parlor palm, and dieffenbachia stayed with me, greening up my windowed but surprisingly-dark office and making me think there was some hope for me after all. When I changed jobs a couple of years later, all three plants survived the move and seemed to adapt to their new space. And then the palm withered and died. I filled the empty space in the basket with a red prayer plant. Over the next couple of years, I acquired the orchid and the jade. The orchid was a gift to the office that no one else felt brave enough to attempt caring for, and the jade was left behind when a coworker moved on. I adopted both — the orchid with a little trepidation, as I’d killed an orchid once before.

And then I found myself in my new, brilliantly bright and hot office, and my plants faded fast. My new work team had welcomed me on board with a pretty little growing something that might have been a Peperomia dolabriformis (no name tag in the pot, but the dolabriformis was the closest looking plant I could find in images online). There were also two left-behind plants that I adopted: an red-brown not at all alive-looking aloe, and a Christmas cactus choking in a too-small pot. 

I did a lot of failing in the beginning. I took way too long to realize not all plants want as much sun as my window provided, took way too long to realize that the increased warmth of my office meant the plants would be thirstier and would need more water more often. The only plant that seemed happy in those early weeks was the Peperomia.

I had to unlearn everything I thought I knew about my plants and learn how they needed to be cared for in their new environment — like moving most of them out of the direct onslaught of the sun and watering them a LOT more to make up for the extra heat. In the first two weeks, I repotted first the cactus and then the pothos, jade, dieffenbachia, and prayer plant

Eight months in my new space, I was feeling cautiously successful. My plants and I had survived and I risked saying we’d begun to thrive. I further expanded the office greenery with a “fishnet stockings” coleus I’d adopted while at a writing residency. 

In those early months, I discovered that my pothos is a golden pothos — it never had variegated leaves in all the years I’d had it, but suddenly it was putting out huge, shiny, green and gold leaves. My prayer plant, which had lost its red and was putting out anemically-pale green leaves, started to grow larger leaves, started to add red again. The dieffenbachia, which never supported more than three small leaves on each … stem? stalk? (still a lot to learn!) … suddenly had six, then seven, then eight leaves, and wasn’t showing any signs of slowing down.

The coleus started working hard at becoming a tree. Its leaves stopped fish-netting almost as soon as I brought it home. They all turned bright-light green, some with a purple edging. I waited much too long to start following the care note that I found online about pinching back to “encourage bushiness.” I was wary of the pinching and I also loved how tall it was growing. 

The Christmas cactus immediately began putting up new growth, fluffing out in all directions. And then it began a spotty bloom. I’ve never had one of these plants before, and I was thrilled it was making flowers, so proud you’d think I was sprouting them myself!

The orchid made a slow comeback. It grew new leaves and put out a new set of flowers right before the pandemic, but its external roots were still in a bad place — it had taken me way too long to realize it couldn’t take the full force of the sun. 

The aloe was a big win. I’d figured it was for sure a lost cause, but I did a little reading (thank you, University of Google!) and found an article that said to move it out of the light, remove the outermost leaves so the plant could focus its recuperation energy more intensely … and then ignore it until it either revived or died, no water, no nothing. 

I followed the steps. It was in such sad condition, the drastic, ruthless approach seemed best. That was in mid-July. By mid-September, I told myself that I saw something not quite brown and not quite green happening with one of the smallest leaves. I was pretty sure I was lying to myself, but I kept thinking I saw that not-quite-green. And then I was convinced that I saw that not-quite-green spreading to other leaves. By March 2020, there was hardly any brown left, and it was only the palest brown.

And then came quarantine. 

I knew I couldn’t take the plants home. The original ones hated my house and had finally recovered from their two 2019 moves. I couldn’t risk them in my house. And the aloe and cactus had just come back to life. I couldn’t subject them to the dark heat chamber that is apparently how plants experience my bright, sunny apartment.

So I bought self-watering bulbs and angled my computer monitor so I could log into my office from home, turn on the camera and see how the plants were doing. No, seriously, I’m that person.

It’s about to be two years later … and most of my plants have survived. The peperomia gift that welcomed me to my new office was the first to go. I can’t say that I was ever caring for it properly because I was never sure exactly what it was. When it was clear it wasn’t doing well with the self-watering bulb, I brought it home … and it promptly gave up the ghost.

Next was my prayer plant (red maranta). I followed the advice of a few different online plant people, but … no.

I bought some new plants for my home … and killed many of them. I thought if they started in my house, they’d acclimate to my bad lighting, but mostly they just decided the plant hereafter was a more attractive option. The dearly departed: a spider plant (“But it’s impossible to kill a spider plant!”), a ruffled jade, an echeveria.

I also got a new prayer plant. After trying very hard to die, it has revived and is looking almost okay today. I brought home some cuttings from my office pothos, and they’re doing nicely. I bought a different kind of pothos — its leaves almost seem to have glitter on them, which is weird and fascinating — and it barely survived my house, so now it’s in my office and has come very nicely back to life. I bought a ZZ plant, a parlor palm, and another peperomia (an obtusifolia, not a dolabriformis) … and all of those were moved pretty quickly to my office after their instant rejection of my house.

My plan with the self-watering bulbs had been to work in my office once every other week. That turned into once a week when it became clear that the self-watering system didn’t give me the “two weeks peace of mind!” it claimed on the package. The larger plants barely made it a week with the bulb. So I put a second bulb in my pothos and a second and third bulb in the coleus. I spent a day a week in the office so I could take care of them and compliment them and be amazed at how well they were doing without me around. And, in addition to the newbies I’ve brought to the office over the last months, I also have three small pots full of cuttings from the pothos.

And I’ve discovered that my dieffenbachia … isn’t a dieffenbachia at all. It’s an aglaonema silver bay! And it’s done fabulously well during quarantine. It’s got two new plants, is putting out leaves like crazy, and is definitely ready for a larger pot.

I have no one’s idea of a green thumb. Not even close. But I’m realizing that I can’t think of myself as a plant killer anymore, either. Not entirely. I seem to be turning a corner. My farm-life fantasy may have a chance after all!

It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
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Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The branches of the learning tree …

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week, friends and neighbors!

Today’s Google Doodle was lovely: Fingers crossed they have one of these every day this week!

My Teacher Appreciation tonight goes out to Michael, an extraordinary adult education teacher. I met him at one of my first adult ed jobs. We didn’t work together then, but I had the chance to observe his class once and had several opportunities to get some impromptu professional development training when I found myself lucky enough to be in the teachers’ office doing prep at the some time he was there.

Years later, we ran into each other in the hallway at grad school, and he mentioned that the program where he was currently working was looking for a new instructor. I got the job and then began seven excellent years of teaching with and learning from Michael.

I arrived at that job with some teaching experience, but a lot of that had been teaching high school students, and adult education — especially adult literacy — is entirely different from teaching high school English. I had taught both literacy classes and high school equivalency classes before I started working with Michael, and I’d learned a lot in those jobs, but I wouldn’t say I was a good teacher then. I was good-hearted, and that maybe counted for something. I wanted to be a good teacher for my students, and that surely counted for something, too. But I really needed to just simply be a good adult ed teacher, not just dream about being one.

Working with Michael was the bright, dividing line for me. Before that job I was well-meaning and okay. That job helped me become well-meaning and good. I learned to calm down and trust myself more. I learned new ways to imagine what a classroom could be. I learned that I could fully lean into my creativity and bring my whole self to the classroom. I learned to create different environments and experiences for the students to offer opportunities for them to experience and exhibit mastery even while reading and writing remained steep hills to climb. I learned to ask questions and more questions. I learned how to study my own learning. I learned how to be wrong without shame, drama, planetary implosion or other catastrophes.

I was learning pretty much all the time. For all of those years. The entire team of our program were pivotal in my teaching and development. I wasn’t only working with Michael, after all, but my significant collaboration was with Michael. In our last year of teaching together, he and I received the New York City Literacy Recognition Award, the first (and I think still the only) teacher team to receive the award. Working with Michael was one of the best gifts of my career.

And one of the hidden gifts of that experience? Teaching with Michael brought me back to writing poetry. I had stopped writing poems after a horrible experience in a poetry workshop my freshman year in college. The wall between me and poetry was erected then, my firm belief not only that I couldn’t write poetry but that I absolutely shouldn’t. Poetry was for other people, for talented people, for POETS. And I was most definitely not one of those.

Michael is a poet. And we brought a lot of poetry into our adult ed program. And we encouraged learners to write poetry. And Michael pushed me to not be afraid to write poetry, too. That was when I saw that I couldn’t very well push my students to try things that were challenging and daunting for them if I wasn’t brave enough to try them myself. After 12 years of not writing a single poem, I wrote my first poems in that program, in class with my students. They weren’t spectacular, but they were poems and I had written them.

The wall between me an poetry is still high in places, but it’s also cracked and crumbled in many other places. I mean, I write at least 30 poems a year these days because of National Poetry Month, so I can’t pretend that I don’t write poetry. I still feel some of the damage from that ugly workshop so many years ago, but I also remember the fun I had in class with Michael and our fabulous students, playing games and finding rhythms and getting words on the page.

Michael. Thank you for everything you taught me in all the ways you taught me. I cannot imagine what I’d be doing with my life if I hadn’t worked with you at SINC. Those years are the foundation that has made the rest of my career in adult ed possible. Thank you, thank you, thank you. ❤

When life was slow and oh so mellow …

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no-one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow

Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow

I was talking with a friend this morning. She was telling me about a party she’d been to in the Before Times. We were laughing about the situation she described when she said how much she missed parties like that, how much she was looking forward to being able to go out like that again. And I agreed … but then I realized that I couldn’t actually remember what it was like, going out to parties, getting dressed up to go out, seeing my friends in small and large groups without a second thought, laughing and drinking and dancing and flirting. This afternoon, another friend texted me to ask what things I miss because of Covid. She was missing, among other things, travel. I miss travel, too. When I read her text, I thought about travel and going to the movies and not having to use hand sanitizer and … everything.

And still I am struck by how completely I can’t remember how to do any of the things I miss doing. I can’t imagine planning a trip. Can’t imagine getting on a train or plane. Can’t imagine dancing with a stranger (I mean, okay: I didn’t do a whole lot of that pre-Covid). Can’t imagine sitting in a crowded bar laughing and talking with a bunch of friends. Can’t imagine sitting in a crowded theater and leaning over to whisper snarky asides in my friend’s ear. Can’t imagine holding hands. Can’t imagine kissing.

I’m approaching the time when I’ll be able to slowly try anew some of the things I’ve had to go without for the last year. And that feels both long overdue and impossible. It’s certain that I can’t “go back” to anything. There is no “back.” We’ve left “back” so far in the past, isn’t it pretty much in another world at this point? Isn’t there only whatever’s next? Yes, I will start to find a way to do things I used to do, but will I ever do them in the same way? Will it ever be casual and easy to stand next to another person? Will I ever shake hands again?

I keep hearing “Try to Remember” from The Fantastiks. That song makes the past sound like a soft-focus, satin-smooth dream. My life pre-Covid was hardly dreamy, but the cruel space of this pandemic year makes that life feel ever out of reach. So what does that mean? We can’t go back, so what do we make of the future? How do we shape what comes next?

… it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt, the heart is hollow

No danger there, right? Plenty of hurt, so my heart is anything but hollow? Is that a lesson I’m supposed to be taking from the last year? That’s … frustrating at best. No, my heart isn’t hollow, but it wasn’t hollow before Covid, either. Is it all of our hearts, our hearts as a human race, that I should be thinking of? Has the world had to find its way through this horror show so that we can (finally) learn that every single life is “wild and precious,” that we have to fight for everyone in order to save our individual selves?

Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow

It’s all of it, of course. I (we) need to start figuring out how to live among people again. And I (we) need to find a way to stretch out into my (our) whole self again. And I (we) need to keep fighting for everyone, for every single wild and precious life. It’s the only way.

I still can’t imagine holding hands, still can’t imagine kissing. But I have to figure it out, find a way forward that includes all of that and more because our closeness, in all the ways that we should and need to be close, is what will save us.


* Also, I swear I’m not always trying to put ear worms in your heads, dear reader. I can’t seem to avoid thinking of songs that fit in some way with whatever I’m posting, however. Sometimes I manage not to include the song in the post, but other times …

And more also? It’s Pi Day. Hope you had some. ❤

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Grading on the Curve

My no-longer-so-new job is the largest job I’ve ever had. It’s a job I wanted for several years before the opportunity to apply for it came along. I had some ideas about what the job would include, the kinds of work I’d be doing. And I figured there’d be a world of other things I hadn’t imagined. And I knew I’d have a lot to learn.

Right on all counts. Even the familiar things and the things I figured would be part of the job have presented plenty of mountains to climb in the need-to-learn category. I’ve spent the last 18 months on a learning curve with a broader, more sweeping arc than anything I’ve ever taken on.

All that learning, all that needing to learn, has made lots of room for La Impostora to stride in and get all up in my business. (If you are new to this page, La Impostora is my pet name for and personification of impostor syndrome. She and I have a long and unpleasant history.) And she has been riding shotgun with me since the day I accepted this job.

There is a large piece of my job that has been particularly difficult for me. It involves: 1) learning and understanding two sets of rules, 2) overlaying those rules on some moving parts that tend to move in completely non-complementary ways, 3) fitting the whole swirling chaos into a governing system the logic of which I am only made aware of when a) catastrophe is about to strike or b) catastrophe has already been precipitated by me. This piece of my job impacts every other piece of my job. This is where La Impostora comes to play.

This part of the work stresses me out and calls up all my doubts and fears, so of course it’s La Impostora’s favorite place to be. She has done a great job of reminding me of all the ways I don’t understand this critical piece of my job and how I am more likely to burn everything to the ground before actually learning how to do one part of it even passably well. (You can see why La Impostora is not exactly my favorite imaginary friend.)

This week, however, I tackled this aspect of my job in a way that bordered on capable. Because sometimes I can see La Impostora coming and I can shunt her off into a side room and bar the door. I can remember all the things I came into this job knowing and all the things I’ve learned since I got here. I can actually work through messy problems and find solutions and make disparate pieces function as parts of a whole. This week has surprised and pleased me by being full of moments like that, most particularly in this one super-stressful aspect of the work. I didn’t see it coming at the start of the week, and wouldn’t have guessed that it would keep up for the whole week, but here we are.

I have so much to learn in this job (I mean, SO MUCH), and not everything this week went swimmingly. But it always feels good to be able to turn down La Impostora’s loud, resonant voice, to be able to listen to my own voice. It feels good to see that I have been learning all this time, that I’m moving further in and farther up … that I’m on a curve, not a hamster wheel.

It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

That’s not how love works, redux.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …

Yes, almost half a month into epistolary poems. I haven’t reached that crossover point, the moment that happens a lot of the time in April when I suddenly realize I’m enjoying working with the form, even when I have so much still to learn and work through. I’m no longer feeling as if I’m in a pitched battle with the form, and that seems like for-real progress.

Unscarred, Not Unscathed
Twenty-five, power and control

I want to sit with you
on the train ride home after the first date.
Could I warn you,
convince you?
I want to say
stop, sweet girl.
That man will hurt you.
Not with his hands —
he will never strike you.
But you will be years recovering.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you
and tell you the sick you feel in your gut
isn’t a giddy tickle of new love.
That’s your fear response,
your body sensing a predator,
just as he scented prey
the first time you smiled at him.
I am still recovering.

I want to say
you deserve so much better
than his shaming, his belittling, his insults.
He is the story you’ll never tell anyone.
He is every cruel question,
every angry blame you’ll hurl at yourself.
I want to shield you
call out his lies.
I know you learn so much in these two years,
but your soft heart shouldn’t bear the cost.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you,
I want to say you are strong.
I know you will resist him,
won’t give over the total control he’ll demand,
you’ll stand and walk away when you finally see him.
And that will save your life.
I am still grateful.

It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.