Passion Project

I recorded a podcast yesterday with some adult learners. This is the second time I’ve been on a podcast, and I have to admit, I find it both excellent and weird. We recorded in what I think of as the “bootleg” way — recording a zoom call, no special microphones or anything. I liked doing the recording on zoom because then we could all see each other, which I think was really helpful for making everyone feel comfortable yesterday. It also helped that the man whose podcast we were recording has been doing this for more than a year and is at ease and adept at the technical and logistic things.

I’m on the board of an organization that focuses on women’s literacy education. We produce a journal of student writing every year, and our 2022 issue will come out this week. The podcast is about the journal, and we invited three adult learners who are in this year’s journal to read and talk about their work. One of those women is far along in her journey and is now on the advisory committee of the organization. We also invited another board member, our organization’s secretary, to be in the podcast because she joined the board when she was in an adult education program, and a piece she wrote several years ago has been used every year since as the introduction of the journal.

I don’t ever need reminders of why I do the work I do. Even on my worst, most exhausted, most frustrating days, I love my work. I am always clear about why I’m in this field, why it’s important to me.

Reminders aren’t necessary, but they’re lovely all the same. I don’t get to spend time with students in my day-to-day (something I want to figure out ways to change as we start to come back to in-person programming), and that’s definitely part of what made yesterday’s recording session so special. I hear about students often. Yesterday I got to hear directly from them.

So, yes: even though I don’t need reminders of my purpose, moments like yesterday are a pure delight. It was so wonderful to listen to the women read their work and to talk with them about their writing. I’d spent some time on the phone with two of the women on Friday night, helping to prepare them for the recording. We hadn’t met before those calls, but by the end of our conversations, I was completely in love with both of them. One woman was immediately comfortable with me, and by the time we hung up, I felt as if I’d known her for years.

I just sent the recording to the learners, and I can’t wait to hear their reactions. I loved it, and I hope they’ll be as pleased as I am. I’m kind of holding my breath in anticipation of final approval from each of them so the episode can be released on Wednesday. I can’t wait!

It’s the 15th 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

Under the Influence

Yesterday, a friend and I went to the New Museum to see the Faith Ringgold – American People show. Such an amazing, amazing exhibit. The show spans three floors of the museum, and as we were entering the second of the three, my friend said the most kind and impossibly-erroneous thing to me: “If you were a quilter and a painter, you would absolutely be Faith Ringgold!”

That is one of the craziest “if” statements ever made … and also a really beautiful thing to have someone say to me. When I burst out laughing, she doubled down. “You know it’s true. You tell stories the way she does, stories with pictures, stories in pieces.”

Again, crazy to think any work of mine would have any real thing in common with Ringgold’s … and again, a lovely, loving thing to say to me.

But what’s actually true is that there is a connection between Ringgold’s work and my storytelling with pictures, and I’m touched that my friend would have seen that through line. I mean, there are the obvious connections that I can think of now that I hadn’t considered in that moment … like my comics and the stories I write for my photographs. But then I realized there’s a deeper connection, one I didn’t see until I reflected on the show last night.

Thinking about Ringgold, and thinking specifically of Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, I remembered something my friend wouldn’t have known about but which absolutely draws a line between some of my storytelling and Faith Ringgold. I took a workshop many years ago about making paper quilts with students. The “quilts” were a kind of story quilt with images in some squares and text in others or images and texts in each square. I had forgotten about that workshop. I kept the quilt squares I made that day for years — I might still have them in my boxes of teaching materials.

The story I worked on that day was a nine-block quilt about my half-sister, about my sadness at knowing I have a half-sister somewhere in the world but have never met her. I’ve written that story a number of times since that workshop, but that was the start, that was the first time I put it on paper.

Making that story quilt reminded me of Duane Michals’ photo stories, which I’d discovered by chance in the Paris MOMA and fallen in love with. I spent some time making stories with my photographs after seeing Michals’ work. I enjoyed doing it, but it didn’t feel exactly right, not yet.

Years later, when I started taking pictures for IG, I immediately went back to stories. That was my whole reason for joining IG — to take pictures and make stories to post with them. And every time I’ve participated in the 24 Hour Project, that has been my way of doing the project, writing tiny stories for each of my photos. The pictures and stories I post now feel right, so much more what I had in mind than the stories I wrote back when I first discovered Duane Michals.

My museum friend — whose name on this blog is Grace — saw that connection, one I hadn’t even seen myself. I’d drawn the direct line between Duane Michals and my IG storytelling, but I’d forgotten about those paper quilts we’d made a lifetime ago at the Literacy Assistance Center, forgot about sitting with a room full of adult ed teachers, reading Tar Beach to each other and talking about how the story works in Ringgold’s book and how we could take a story from our own lives and distill it down to a handful of collage images and sentences. It’s a way of storytelling that settled into my head and heart, and it continues to bubble up and out all these years later.

I love Grace, but there is no world in which I would have grown up to be Faith Ringgold. Faith Ringgold needed to be Faith Ringgold, and the world needed her to be. But I like seeing the connection, seeing the way her work touched me and settled in me, so deeply I didn’t need to think about it, just needed to let it push me forward.

It’s the 15th 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

Back to YouTube University

I thought I should get back onto YouTube and watch some of the 87 gazillion videos about care and styling for my 4C TWA (super kinky teeny weeny afro). Since I haven’t had short hair since forever, that seemed like a good idea. It didn’t go as well as I’d have hoped.

I should have taken a few things into account.

1) I am not patient. Despite having a reputation for being the soul of patience, I am actually extraordinarily impatient in most situations. Watching all these cute youngsters fussing and fighting their way through doing their hair, all the while telling me a lot of things I don’t need to know and pausing to mug for the camera and do length checks … No.

2) I haven’t forgotten all that much … because natural hair care is natural hair care, and I’ve been taking care of my hair forever, so what do I need to learn? This was why I got annoyed with my barber when she began to tell me what I needed to do to take care of my hair. I hadn’t walked into the shop with relaxed hair that I was having cut down to the new growth. Just as she irked me, listening to these babies give sage advice — half of which they will unlearn and move on to better methods as I did over the years — wasn’t a good use of my time.

3) I am a terrible student. I love learning things, but I don’t so much love to be taught things. I like to read ahead, or read something else, or just start trying it on my own, or daydream and doodle while the instruction is happening. Yes, I am a jerk. So watching these videos got on my nerves because I already know a lot and I don’t want to sit and watch someone play with their hair when I could turn that foolishness off and play with my own hair.

If you’re rolling your eyes, join the club! And feel free to point out that this take-myself-back-to-naturalista-school has been an epic fail due to my ridiculously bad attitude.

Of course, what’s actually true is that I have any number of things to learn. First, there are new products. I’ve been pretty set in my ways as far as what I use on my hair. I’ve got the couple of brands I love, and I stick with them. I’ve tried new things in those brands, but I don’t stray off the path much. Some of these adorable kiddos are using brands I haven’t heard of, and I should be paying attention and then doing some homework.

Also, there are new tools, and some new ways to use old tools. I haven’t been a regular tutorial watcher in ages, and I have no idea who makes the best picks, and maybe, with short hair, I might actually want to use the fabled Denman brush that I hated when my hair was long.

My foray into YT hasn’t been all snarky inattention, however. You’ll have noticed that I referred to the women making the videos as children. And that’s because, with very rare exception, they are all quite young. And, in spite of my crotchetyness, I’m actually really happy to see all these young-young women making these videos.

I was first introduced to the YT natural hair tutorial world 11 years ago. Even then, I was much older than the ladies making videos. I was fascinated. There had been nothing even remotely like those tutorials when I first went natural … because there was no such thing as YouTube in the late 80s. There wasn’t even public use of the internet yet. And, too, there weren’t tons of Black women cutting off their permed hair and growing out their kinks and coils. And even fewer people were celebrating anyone who made that decision. We didn’t call it a “Big Chop” then. We were just cutting our hair, and sometimes having to fight with barbers and salon staff to get it done.

I loved watching all those early stars of the movement showing us different styles and care tips, teaching us how to make products and how to use them, showing off how comfortable they were with their natural hair and how fabulous their hair was. And I’m just as pleased to see all these young women making videos today. It’s more common for Black women to wear their hair natural today than it was 30+ years ago, but (as I mentioned in my “it’s only hair” post) Black women’s hair is still strictly policed, and it’s hard to unlearn all the negative stereotypes that have been attached to our hair over time and which persist. There are still plenty of women who need to see how versatile and fabulous their hair can be no matter how they choose to wear it. There are still plenty of girls who need to see all these natural hair role models, who need to be aware of all the choices they have.

I won’t be spending too much time down the rabbit hole of YT tutorials, at least not right now. I’ll be refamiliarizing myself with my short hair on my own. But I’m happy to see that Naturalista World is alive and thriving, that there are so many new YouTubers out there shepherding the next generation of big-choppers into the fold.

It’s the 15th 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

My Greening Thumb — Documentation

So last night I waxed rhapsodic about my plants … but I didn’t share any of the photos! (I seem to be on a roll with getting two slices out of one idea. Hmm …)

So, here’s the little basket my aglaonema and pothos came in. This picture is from my first month or so at my old job. I’d already had the basket of plants for a few years that that point. The peace lily was long gone, but the parlor palm was still doing its thing:

And I have this pic of a sun-burned leaf on my cyclamen:

And this of my aglaonema silver bay (that for years I thought was a dieffenbachia). It’s actually much bigger now!

Here’s my cyclamen with more flowers than it has ever put out at once … with a bonus shot of my orchid after it came back from burned air roots:

And here the spotlight’s just on the orchid:

Once, before all the destruction I rained down on its pretty head, it put up long stems with multiple blooms. The most extravagant it ever shared was seven flowers at once. So incredibly gorgeous. I want to be optimistic that it could approach that level of flamboyance again. I just bought it a new pot and some orchid potting mix, so we’ll see.

Here’s my coleus before it began its wild-and-crazy development:

And this red maranta (prayer plant) is the one I eventually took home and killed. 😦

And here are all the plants when I started my job and lined them all up in the window … before the sun destroyed them! See my inherited Christmas cactus on the right? It was so pale and anemic and in such a small pot for how big a plant it was. (And speaking of plants I took home and killed, on the far right you can see the lovely peperomia dolabriformis (maybe) that I received as a welcome gift when I started my job.)

Here are some newer pics of the cactus, including its first bloom phase and its most recent:

Last but not least, are some pictures taken through my computer camera over the course of the last two years. You can see my pothos has come a long way from that little basket, and my coleus is clearly setting up for world domination. And, as you’ll see, I’m not the only one who enjoys my green office!

Several things aren’t captured in these pics. My ZZ plant peeks out in the last picture, but just barely. My new parlor palm, my glittery pothos, the three pots of pothos grown from cuttings, and the ginormity of the cactus today are all out of frame.

Now that I’m spending more time in my office (3-4 days a week!), I’m thinking about changes I need to make. So many of these beauties need repotting, I’m questioning whether I should say farewell to my overblown coleus, and I want to get another spider plant and see if I can keep it alive for half a minute.

And do I want something flowery? My cyclamen, cactus, and orchid put up flowers, of course, but I’m thinking something fragrant. Years ago, someone gave me a beautiful thing, it was some kind of miniature orange blossom bush or some such fantasy creation. That was back when I had an actual garden outside my apartment. I think the plant was a sweet mock orange and was meant to be added to the hydrangeas and hostas I was growing outside. The plant was lovely, and when it bloomed, my living room smelled like heaven.

And I killed it in less than a month. Sigh.

As much as I don’t deserve to be trusted with growing things, I do seem to be getting a little better at it. And, now that I think about that garden I had when I lived in Prospect Heights, I didn’t kill any of the things that grew there. I left them to their own devices, and they did what they were meant to do. I had bleeding hearts and periwinkle in addition to the blue hydrangeas and the hostas. And there were a couple of other flowering things.

Seems like there really is hope for me!

It’s the 15th 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

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
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot