Happy Endings

Tonight I saw Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog. I never saw the original production with Mos Def and Jeffrey Wright. I imagine it was magnificent.

I’ve never known the story of this play, so tonight was entirely fresh for me. Still, I knew that people really shouldn’t have been laughing — or at least not quite so uproariously — at certain turns in the plot. I knew very early on where we were headed.

Knowing didn’t make the experience any less powerful. Maybe gave it that much more weight. There are so many reasons that this story resonated deeply for me. But, beyond the feelings of personal connectedness with this story (which, of course, could not be less like anything in my own life, but still), there was the beautiful revelation of the actors’ performances.

Not surprise that Corey Hawkins and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II are good actors. I’ve known that for some time. But the nature of the play creates such an extraordinary space for two talents to expand in, so much room to stretch fully into the roles, into the electricity of playing off one another, into owning so much real estate on the stage.

I left needing some connection, some … something to shine its light on me. Not a happy ending. I don’t always need a happy ending. But something. My walk from the theater to the subway had no magic, however, and folks on my train were very drawn into themselves. I mean, of course, but I needed some energy from them, some of the random connection this city often tosses up.

And then we pulled into Dekalb. A bunch of people left the train. A man jumped up and crossed over to a seat A young woman had just vacated. He was shouting … because she’d left her fanny pack on the seat. She was walking away from the train, not hearing him or any of the other people who began shouting for her. Whatever was streaming through her earbuds did a good job of keeping her focused away from the train.

Trains don’t sit long in stations, so there wasn’t much time. Some people in the car told the guy to toss the bag onto the platform. A teenaged boy and I had left our seats and were standing in the doorway. We shouted almost in unison: “Lady with the green hat!” And she finally turned around and saw the man waving her bag in the air from the next door down the car. She ran over and grabbed it, the doors closed, and we continued on our way.

Thank you, my city. It was what I needed. I didn’t want to feel so anonymous in that moment and New York conjured up some we’re-all-family business for me.

What’s more, I’ve been that woman in the green hat. Years ago, I walked off a tram in Budapest without my purse. I ignored the shouts behind me and kept walking. Someone on that tram made the decision to fling my bag at me before the doors closed. And that lovely soul had a strong arm and great aim. My bag slammed into the back of my head, very definitely getting my attention. I was that woman just a few weeks ago. I took off my backpack at the grocery store and was walking away after checking out when the man behind me smacked my arm with my bag. I have been that woman a number of times between Budapest and Foodtown. And always, someone saves me from my foolishness.

So thank you again, my city. We’re all family, and I’m not in this alone. Wrapped in one random moment on a southbound express train. I’ll take it.

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

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

“Tell me why you love me.”

I’m listening to Marc Rebillet sing that line. I’m listening to last Sunday’s “Brunch” FB stream. Rebillet fascinates me. Fascinates me in the way getting to watch any artist create in real time fascinates me. Watching him is scary. He just does anything, does everything. He’s so … visible. I can’t fathom letting anyone watch me in the way he let’s himself be watched. Crazypants. And beautiful and amazing. And terrifying.

I tried something with tonight’s poem, and it didn’t really work, but I’m leaving it as is and posting it anyway. The source text for tonight comes from Lucille Clifton’s poem, “my dream about being white.” I want someone to create a silent meditation retreat — maybe only for Black women — where all participants do is read Clifton for hours and hours every day and see where their minds go. Yeah, definitely only for Black women.

What I Might Want (Take 2)

It's more than a year and
I'm wondering where we go. I'm
wary, perhaps even scared. I'm wearing
confidence, self-assuredness -- a mask that looks like a white
flag. I'm giving up, giving in -- to you, to history.

Giving in, giving up. But
still, there's
magic in this surrender. No,
not defeat, not stagnation. A glimpse of a future.

National Poetry Month 2021: the Golden Shovel

As I’ve 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. The “Golden Shovel” was created by Terrance Hayes in tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks. I learned about it from my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma). I’ll be using Lucille Clifton’s poems as my starting point this month. Here are the rules:

  • Take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire.
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for each line in your poem.
  • Keep the end words in order.
  • Give credit to the poet who originally wrote the line (or lines).
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the poem that offers the end words.

If you pull a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long. If you pull a stanza with 24 words, your poem would be 24 lines long. And so on.

Should be interesting!