24-Hour Flight of Fancy

Saturday July 24th was the 24 Hour Project, an international street photography event. It’s been happening since 2012 – with a gap last year for COVID – and I’ve been participating since 2015. The “rules” are that participants document the life of their cities for 24 hours. From midnight Saturday morning to 11:59 Saturday night, people are out on the street taking pictures and posting at least one picture an hour on Instagram, noting the time, the city, the country, and themselves. This year there were 4,395 official participants from 924 cities across 95 countries.

Leaving my house at 11:30 at night, knowing I’ll just be out on the street all night long is always strange. It was more strange at the end of July, after 18 months of really just being in my house, and always being locked up tight long before 11:30. And I suppose it was actually more surprising to see just how much I wasn’t alone on the street that whole time. There were folks out and about all night long, making me feel as if I really am the last person to come out of quarantine.

I love street photography. I’m no artist in this area, but I like getting to play along. The friend who introduced me to the 24HrPrj is a true magician. His pictures are extraordinary. I like taking pictures on the street, but for me the real fun of the project is the piece I added: for every photo I post, I write a tiny story.

I like making up the stories because it connects me to my fiction brain, a piece of myself that mostly lies fallow these days. And creating histories for strangers feels familiar. It’s what an old friend and I used to do whenever we were out – in cafes, in bars, on the street. Imagining strangers lives was a game we returned to again and again. (It got us into trouble a few times when we were a little too loud in our imaginings, but we kept at it all the same.)

As much as I like taking these candid photos of people, I also struggle with it. I’m taking their pictures without their permission. I’m posting them online. I have had the experience of having someone photograph and film me without my permission and do it with the express purpose of mocking me. It was demoralizing and shaming and enraging and painful. Seeing people looking at candid photos of me and calling me a beast and a monkey is one of the most hateful things that’s ever happened to me.

I think about that when I post my pictures. I know that I am not the same as the people who took and shared images of me. I don’t post pictures maliciously, don’t post with the intention of mocking the subject. I have posted a few stories that are less than flattering … but those have usually been verbatim conversation I’ve overheard from the subjects because I’ve been amazed (and sometimes scandalized) by what they’ve actually said. But those are extremely rare.

Sometimes, the stories I create are inspired by what’s happening in the photo. One picture I shared from the three o’clock hour is a young white woman standing outside a building. She’s talking on the phone and has one arm crossed over her chest. She looks peeved. And she’s looking right at me. I titled this picture “Karen,” because it was just too easy to imagine her calling the police to come see about me being on her block minding my own business. To be clear, that’s 100 percent NOT what she was doing. I blurred out her face because it seemed unfair to label her a racist when she had done not a single thing wrong. But the story had formed the moment I saw her.

Sometimes the stories are a catalyst to tell something from my own life, just draped over the strangers I’ve photographed. A picture I took in the noon hour is of a Black man sitting and eating a slice of pizza. He’s looking at the pizza very thoughtfully, and it made me think about the pizze place down the block from my house that closed during the height of the early pandemic. It wasn’t a great pizza place – there is far superior pizza all over the place – but I really liked the Italian couple whose place it was. The husband with his funny little hat like the one Art Carney work on The Honeymooners. He always asked after me, noticed when he hadn’t seen me in a while. Just really nice. And then, suddenly, while I was holed up in my apartment hoping Covid wouldn’t kill me, the shop closed. And no one could tell me what had happened, whether business was bad or Covid had come for either or both of the owners. There’s a new pizza place there now. And it’s got slightly better pizza, but I miss the old shop, the old owners.

Sometimes people make a particular gesture or I hear a snippet of their conversation, and I try to make a story about who they seem to be in that moment. In another picture from the three o’clock hour, I was on the 6 train headed north. The man across from me had his hand over his face. He caught my attention because I gave ther most exhausted sigh I’ve ever heard. And immediately I imagined his work schedule was to blame. It was three-thirty in the morning. How many jobs did he have? What was the goal he had in front of him that kept him dragging himself to work at that hour? And there was the story.

Years ago, I got into writing 420-character stories because I’d heard an interview with Lou Beach, and (as I’ve established) I love a challenge. I wrote a bunch of those stories, a few of which I really loved. I was surprised by how much of a narrative could be squeezed into so little space. I was also surprised that most of the stories I wrote were sad or dark. Was it easier to get to those feelings quickly? Did pleasure and joy need more expansive language to sound real?

Where I decided to create and IG account a couple of years later, it was with the express purposed of using the pictures as story-starters. A thousand years ago, when I was 20, I fell in love with Duane Michals and the tiny stories he wrote to accompany his photos. I was in the Modern Art Museum in Paris, and seeing his pictures felt dramatic, like a shifting of the ground beneath me. Those words and images were exactly what I wanted, all the right pieces pulled together. So obvious, and yet I hadn’t see anyone do it quite that way before. I tried my hand at a few, but I was still much too timid then, not yet comfortable with my storytelling voice.

On IG, I was ready. I could stretch out and see what worked for me and how it worked. I had a lot of fun with it … And then I got busy, got lazy. It just became easier to take and post a picture with some silly or snarky hashtags and move on.

When I learned about the 24 Hour Project, I knew I wanted to come back to stories, wanted to stretch again, remember who I was as a fiction writer with the most micro of microfiction.

In theory, I could take a picture of anything, of anyone, and there would be a story there. That’s probably true. But it’s also true that I look for the stories before I snap the photos. Something has to click in that part of my brain for the picture to look interesting for me. I mostly take pictures of people, which makes that easy for me. I find people fascinating (even as I find them horrifying, infuriating, irksome …).

I look for stories: a gesture, a pose, a surprise clothing choice, beautiful hands, a longing glance, a torn sleeve, an operatic laugh. I want to be drawn in, and I want to try to capture a tiny piece of a world that might draw viewers and readers in.

I reveal a lot more of myself in my 24-Hour stories than I could ever reveal of the people I photograph. Of course. And that’s okay. I’m pretty much the Queen of Oversharing, so giving myself away in these bits of telling feels entirely on-brand. But I hope I’m also shining a light on other people, on the simple face that each of us has beauty, has something that makes us interesting, something that showcases our worthiness.

Those women who shot video of me on that bus in Mexico and then held it up next to a caricature of a monkey, they didn’t have the ability to see something beautiful in me, something interesting, something that could have made me worthy of kindness, respect, human decency. I want to give that to the people I photograph. Humanizing strangers makes us see one another more clearly.

I don’t know if I’ll ever go back to writing short stories outside of IG, if I’ll ever go back to any of the novels that are moldering in my file boxes. I don’t know if I have the same pull toward longer fiction that I had for years and years. But these wisps of story, these tiny moments coupled with an image grabbed on the fly and (mostly) on the sly … this is a telling that feels like home for me, like I’ve found a place where fiction and I can be comfortable together.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

24 Hours: Do I Dare?

What is it with me and challenges? I can’t resist them. Cannot. I never used to think of myself as a competitive person, but I so am. And that’s part of the driver behind my saying yes to challenges. I’m competing: against the ridiculousness of the challenge, against myself.

I think it throws me back to taking a dare as a kid. Someone would thrown down some petty or foolish gauntlet, and I would immediately feel the pull to dive in and prove … who knows what, but prove it all the same. Clearly, I’ve never outgrown the inability to resist that pull.

All this to say I can’t resist. Generally speaking, the challenges I take on are fairly mild. They come in the form of, say, doing NaNoWriMo. Or the 30/30 poetry month challenge … and sweetening the pot by choosing a poetry form and writing that form all month long. Not easy for me, but pretty harmless.

The 24 Hour Project is one of the challenges that keeps captivating me year after year. It tests me on different levels:

  1. Can I stay awake and mostly functional for 24 hours?
  2. Can I find something or someone to photograph every hour of the day?
  3. Will I be able to imagine a story to write for each photo I post each hour (this is the “sweetener” I’ve added to the basic rules of the 24HrPrj)?
  4. Will I be able to get all the photos of people that I want without being spotted (I fail this every year, always get busted at least once)?
  5. Will I venture into neighborhoods I haven’t visited on previous 24HrPrj days?
  6. Will I post all my “leftovers” after the day — all the pics that didn’t go up on the challenge day but which I still want to make stories for (I haven’t succeeded with this one this year … yet)?
  7. If I’m going out alone, will I settle into the fun of the challenge and not let the worry and discomfort of being alone on the street in the middle of the night sour my good mood and make it hard for me to take pictures (this one is really a crap shoot and has as much to do with me as it does with who else is out on the street in the middle of the night)?

Is it any wonder that I love this challenge when it has so many challenges baked in?

I had a lot of fun this year … after I managed to succeed at Number 7, calming down about being by myself. Both of the friends who’ve gone out with me in the past weren’t able to do the Project this year. I did wind up running into my friend S, the person who introduced me to the challenge. I spotted him in Times Square around 4 am and hung out with him and a few other 24 Hour Photogs for a couple of hours then met up with him for another couple of hours in the evening.

I was rusty with the story-making. Not only was the Project Covid-canceled last year, being in quarantine for the last forever has meant not being out and about that much, not taking pictures, not having the catalysts/inspiration to make up stories.

So yes, quite rusty. But after a couple of hours it began to feel easier. There’s a picture from the two o’clock hour that was the turning point. I had found an all-night diner (key establishments for making it through the Project, to be sure) and took a picture of a police officer who was having dinner and a very involved conversation with his partner. In the picture, he is studying the menu. The combination of his serious face and the fact that he reminded me of a friend’s son and echoed her older brother who had been a police officer all clicked for me and the story just fell into my head. From that point forward, the stories came more quickly and smoothly.

*

I miss my city. Eighteen months in my room is a long time to be separated from people watching, grabbing a coffee at a favorite café, chatting with store employees, having random and excellent encounters with strangers.

That last one is one of the things that struck me hardest during the 24 Hour Project. I miss talking to strangers, something I’ve always done quite a lot of … but not since Covid came to town. Around 7:30 Saturday morning, having seen my way through the long midnight-to-dawn of the challenge, I was headed home to charge my devices and recharge myself. I stopped in my grocery story because I still needed a photo for the hour. I saw an elderly woman I wanted to take a picture of. I did take a picture, but she surprised me by starting to talk to me.

Not only did she talk to me, but she was funny and sweet. At two moments in our conversation, she reached over and put her hand on my arm. You know, the way you reach for a friend’s arm when you’re talking and you want to emphasize your shared feeling at that instant. And she did it twice.

I am a toucher. I like affectionate physical contact. Not with everyone, of course, but yes, I like it. Having this woman touch me in this conversationally intimate way — after a forever of almost no physical contact, when we were strangers, when she was a tiny elderly white woman and I a big, Black woman — it was absolutely beautiful. It made my heart smile.

I have missed this type of sweetness my city has always given me. Yes, the city has given me some ugly moments, too, for sure. But I get much more of the random kindness and connection of that exchange in the chips and cookies aisle.

* * *

(My 24-Hour experience this year was a warm welcome back to my city. But what a difference a couple of weeks can make. I was out taking my pictures on July 24th … and now, Delta is threatening new lockdowns. I’m glad we got the Project in before the tide started to turn, and I really hope we can stay on the safer side of this variant wave.)

Do I dare? Well, I certainly always do when it comes to the 24 Hour Project. It’s such a great idea and a fun event, and I love following people from around the world, getting to see a day in their cities. This year I followed two Italians, a Pole, two Mexicans, one Turk, a couple of Australians, and a handful of people around this country. In a sense, I guess it’s a virtual way to have a random conversation with a stranger.

I need to get back to posting my leftovers … and some of the shots I’ve captured since the event. I’m already looking forward to next year!


It’s Tuesday, which means it’s Slice of Life day!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the other slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

What I Would Give for Surprise

Officer Rusten Sheskey of Kenosha has returned from administrative leave. He will not face any disciplinary action for shooting James Blake.

And it’s Tuesday. A Tuesday like any other. Nothing shocking, nothing out of the ordinary. One more in the forever line of days of being at constant risk in this land of the free (whites) and home of the (trigger happy) brave.

* * *

Let’s talk about Golden Shovels, shall we? I’ve been so tired the last few days, I haven’t had time to think about how hard this form is for me. All I’ve been able to do is churn out a poem and get it posted. I posted a comment earlier that showed me at least part of what the road block is for me with these poems. Yes, having a prescribed set of words and word placement is restrictive. The bigger issue is that the lines I’m using as my source text are from Clifton’s poems. Using them feels rudely audacious and makes me even more self-conscious than I would normally be. So yes, the task I’ve set for myself for this month is specially designed to trip me up. Brilliant!

Despite all of this, I am actually starting to feel more comfortable with the form. Not snuggled in the way I was with the tanka. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel that cozy in another form, but I am feeling less like a combatant, less under siege. That’s a good sign, of course, and it’s kind of right on time. It’s usually around the middle of the month that I stop approaching my chosen form as if we’re cage-fighting. It remains to be seen if I can approaching something closer to actual ease with this.

Tonight’s source text is from “the times.”

No Charges

That confidence, safety, certainty is so white,
so very, blindingly white, and
the heat of it burns, glowing, as I
watch it dance, saunter, flaunt its might.
I understand.
I do. I might be the same, except
nothing in this unwelcoming birthplace has afforded me that
freedom, that comfort. Instead, I
have built every good thing I am.
And today what I feel is tired,
as again I spit out a bitter draught of understanding.

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!

Endings and Beginnings

We finished the giant work project that has been consuming so much of my brain space for the last three months. We finished it, in fact, a full day early. I am exceedingly grateful for the massive effort made by the team I work with. There were more than a few times in the last weeks when I wasn’t sure we would reach this place, wasn’t sure we would finish, but here we are.

I spent the evening on zoom working with Fox, my sister, mapping out a project that she and I will be undertaking. I feel as if she and I have just completed a couple of months of pre-reading activities and are about the dive into the book at last. (Today is also Fox’s birthday!}

Today is the last day of the 2021 edition of the Slice of Life Story Challenge. It’s been a long and often difficult slicing month for me. Yes, I’ve posted something every day, but I haven’t been as much a participant in the community as I usually am, and I’ve missed that. I haven’t had the strength to join in, all my energy sapped by work. I’ve missed catching up with some of my favorite veteran slicers, missed getting to discover new slicers. The end to this year’s challenge feels too soon, too soon.

And tomorrow is the start of National Poetry Month, the start of my 2021 poetry 30/30. I had thought I would give this month to exploring the pantoum again, but I’ve changed my mind. I was zooming with my friend Sonia (aka Red Emma) last night for our biweekly writing date, and she introduced me to a form I’d never heard of, the “Golden Shovel.” Apparently, poet Terrance Hayes created this form as an homage to Gwendolyn Brooks. The idea is to take a line from a poem or other text and use each work in the line as the end of a line in your poem. Hayes’ idea was to do this using lines from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poems. Sonia learned about the Golden Shovel in a NYTimes article that introduced a twist on the form: use, instead of a line of poetry, a headline from a news story. Sonia’s going to do a 30/30 using the headline version of the Golden Shovel. And I’m going to do the Golden Shovel, too … but I’m going to use lines from Lucille Clifton poems. We’ll see how it goes.

And maybe, if I don’t chicken out, I’ve got another couple of beginnings on the horizon for April. We’ll see how they all play out.


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

Under the Sea

Okay, one last Grand Cayman story. At the end of yesterday’s post, I mentioned that there was a lot of snorkeling on that trip. It makes sense, of course. We were in the Caribbean, of course a lot of our activities would involve the water and seeing what was in the water with us.

I’m not a great swimmer. I can swim, and could probably swim well enough to swim out of trouble if trouble approached me slowly, but Diana Nyad, I’m not. I’m fascinated by the ocean, however, and by sea creatures.

Backstory on me and snorkeling: The first time I went to Jamaica, I was excited to go snorkeling. My friends and I got gear and marched ourselves into the water. And the ocean didn’t disappoint. I saw lots of fish — including a beautiful moment when a school of silversides swam around me. I saw sea urchins, a conch, lots of coral … After I’d been paddling around a while, I was annoyed because there was a terrible noise that was distracting me from my leisurely sea-gazing. It was a loud, rasping noise, as if Darth Vader was about to tell me he was my father. I kept looking for what could be the source of the nuisance. Finally I realized that I was the source. What I was hearing was the sound of my own panic breathing, loud and terrified, amplified by the snorkel and maybe by the water. I don’t know, but it was LOUD.

Panic breathing even though I was totally fine … and would always have been totally fine because I was snorkeling in such shallow water I could just stand up when the going got too unnerving. Seriously. The second place we snorkeled on that trip was a sand bar. I couldn’t even swim there. I just lay on the ocean floor and looked around.

Why panic breathing? Because I am fascinated by the ocean, but I’m also pretty entirely afraid of it. And when I’m fully in it, swimming around with the beings that live there, I’m out of place. I’m the alien, unable to adapt, inserting myself into someone else’s territory. The landscape is foreign, the atmosphere is inhospitable — I can’t breathe there unless I have special equipment — and no one speaks my language.

And being underwater in the ocean, I discovered, makes me feel claustrophobic. Really, really claustrophobic.

All of this adds up to panic breathing. I consciously calmed my breath and forced myself to keep going. There was so much I wanted to see. And I got to see a lot, but my snorkeling fear took hold from that first day. I snorkeled a few more times on that trip — even had a barracuda swim on his own leisurely path right in front of my nose! I kept snorkeling, but my fear didn’t abate.

So when I agreed to be a chaperone on the Grand Cayman trip, I knew there would be snorkeling on our agenda. I figured it would be like what I’d done in Jamaica, and I’d make it work. I also figured that, with two other adults sharing the chaperone duties, there would be times when I could opt out of being in the water. And then the other chaperones announced that they had no intention of swimming because they couldn’t swim and were terrified of the water. So I would have to do all the snorkeling. All. And keep a brave face on while doing it so the kids who were nervous would feel better about giving it a try.

Our first outing, we got on a boat, and motored out further from shore than I’d ever snorkeled before. Our captain and guide announced that the spot he was taking us to would be great for seeing lots of things … and would be between 75 and 80 feet deep. And, while the kids were oohing and aahing at the thought of such deep water, I was repeatedly confirming for myself that no, in fact I wouldn’t be able to just stand up if I was freaking out. I’m tall, but I am woefully human-sized, so no toes on in the sand and head above the waves options there.

We put on our gear when we reached the designated spot, and our guide and his crew began helping the kids into the water. I descended the ladder and pushed off from the boat and, before I even put my face in the water, I could feel my panic breathing start. Under the guise of monitoring the kids, I treaded water and did some deep breathing exercises to calm myself. I finally got my breath back to something that could pass for normal, and went under.

And I saw lots of fabulousness, including rainbow parrotfish, who I fell in love with instantly, and gorgeous, enormous sea fan coral (gorgonia ventalina), which is one of my favorite corals. I also saw how far the floor was below me, and I had to fight back the panic breathing again. And I saw a stingray … and I decided to swim back to the boat … which at first I couldn’t find but located before a full panic attack could erupt.

I don’t remember how many snorkeling outings we had during that week. At least five, including one day when we snorkeled at two different venues. Vidalys, one of the older girls who had held my hand across the aisle on the plane because she was terrified of flying, told me she was excited to get better at snorkeling because she could see how much I loved it. I almost laughed. Then I realized that a) my “Whistle a Happy Tune” approach to being a snorkeling chaperone had worked for both Vidalys and for me because b) I was loving the snorkeling. I was loving seeing all those rainbow parrotfish and seeing corals and seeing all the other underwater-world things there were to see. And by the last couple of excursions, I no longer had to calm myself because the panic breathing had stopped clawing at my throat.

I’m still not Diana Nyad, nor will I ever be. I am, however, making some undersea plans. I have a gift I want to give myself when I hit my 60s, and it involves some serious undersea activity. Just thinking about it calls up the old panic, but Grand Cayman taught me the cure for that: I just have to keep diving in.


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