A few years before I moved out of my mother’s house, hummingbirds started nesting in the roof. One, above the front door. Another in the backyard just above the kitchen window. I don’t have a single memory of what they looked like. I didn’t stop to really look. But my mother loved them, and she regularly called us over to peek. “Oh, look! The babies have hatched!” she’d say. “Come look at the baby hummingbirds!”
When my mother was dying, I kept thinking: I want a tattoo. I want a tattoo to remind me of you. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted until I thought of this memory, my mother leaning toward her window, trying to share a small moment of joy with us.
One day, in the care facility, I told her I was thinking about getting a tattoo. A hummingbird. I didn’t tell her why. She paused a second before saying, “A small one.”
It’s not a small one. But I do think she’d like it. I can hear her in my head, saying it. “Oh Colleen,” she’d say. “It’s beautiful.” As, to her, so many small things were.
Today I did a cartwheel.
A bad one, sure. I don’t think I’ve done a cartwheel since I was in grade school. They used to be my favorite, and at least in my head, I thought I was pretty good at them.
I’ve been thinking a lot about joy and how to access it. I don’t feel like joy is a thing I feel, but I have some memory of it. Having a good time and being so caught up in the moment that I’m not thinking about the moment. I am spontaneous and unfiltered. I’m not thinking, “This is good, how do I keep this going?” I’m not thinking, “This is good, don’t mess it up.”
Sometimes I feel this electricity in my body vibrating with all of the things I could do. I could travel. I could hike. I could run. I could do yoga. I could reach out and hug someone and jump up and down. I could dance. I could do a cartwheel. I could do a handstand. I think and think and think. I could I could I could. But what if someone’s watching? What if I fail? What if someone thinks I’m weird? What if it’s inappropriate? What if it’s too much?
I’ve been thinking about cartwheels and handstands and joy. I want to do be able to do a handstand. I want to be able to do a cartwheel. I want to find more reasons to do them. I want to stop feeding the idea that the electricity of joy is too loud, too attention-seeking, too much. Joy is vulnerable. I have to get past that. It’s the only way to get my feet up in the air.
We were water babies. Me, born in a bath tub. You two, near-drowned in my presence. We lived on the beach in bathing suits, our skin burnt and hair filled with sand. Dad draws faces in the shoreline, we run in the waves. We walk until the water is up to our chins. We jump with the waves.
We sit on the sea wall and point out the people, the pretty, the strange. We turn around to watch the surfers, their short-lived rides. We don’t know how tired our bodies are. We are happy for the shade of the palms. We lay on the grass on blankets and sleep deeply. We can still feel them, the approaching waves, the cool salt water, the roller coaster of the tide. We feel at home in the open. The ocean exhales and inhales. We are certain of this ebb and flow. We are certain that life began in the water. We do not know where it ends.
We have watched documentaries on tsunamis, the shore pulled back so far it looks like it may leave forever, come crashing down with force. We think this is the pattern of nature, a constant return. We know nothing of droughts or dry sea beds. So when the tide recedes slowly to the horizon line, we will hold our breath forever waiting for it, a wave to fill an empty sea.
Nothing I plant lives. I have tried the indestructible: basil, mint, zucchini. “Be careful,” they tell me. “They will overrun your garden.” I kill them. I buy eggplant, tomato, chives, parsley. I buy aloe. They wilt in the sunlight, in the water-love, in the soil. I try again. I plant flowers. I raise beds. I buy pots. I touch them, they die.
My brother smashes a pumpkin in the yard. Pumpkins grow. My mother’s mutt eats the pumpkins before I can properly envy nature’s handiwork.
In the Arizona sun I have tiny successes: a small, hot pepper already growing when I buy the seedling. It turns red in my care, then gets knocked off the stem by the wind or a passing neighbor. I am convinced someone stole it, start developing a case around who could have taken in it. I find it on the ground. I leave it on my counter and it wrinkles before I can eat it.
Another: Two bright red tomatoes I am not sure if I have let over-ripen. I pick them and can’t convince myself to try them. “You’re not going to eat them?” My mother says. No. She pops them in her mouth. “Delicious!”
I move the plants to the shade, I lovingly wipe aphids from the underbellies of leaves, I dig wells into the potted dirt so I can direct the water to the root. They die. I procrastinate pulling them from the pots but leave them neglected; the monsoon rain brings back to life a basil plant I’ve left untended for months.
Pots sit empty for months, filling up space in the driveway. My husband says, “Can’t you get rid of them? You’re not using them.” I cannot. I steel myself against purchasing another thing I know I will kill. I pass the six-inch plants looking for a home at the natural grocery store. I pause.
“I wish I could garden,” a friend says when she sees my newly-purchased seedlings. Me too.