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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.

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The brain holds on to memories but so does the body. This morning I drove alone to work and I was struck by the feeling, delirious with it, that I was headed to Utah, my mother beside me. I tried to figure out what it was – the sunrise ahead of me, the particular chill of morning on my thighs (the first time I’ve worn shorts in months), the fact that I’d woken up with Rhiannon playing in the back of my mind – but I don’t know.

I do know that as I drove to work I thought of the large, red walls of Zion, the white noise of a man-made water fall in my ear at our hotel, a sense of peace coupled with a new sense of dread.

Lately I’ve been asking myself, when did you know mom was going to die? Part of me says from the moment she knew there was a mass part of me from the moment the doctor called to say it was cancer but I think in truth, I didn’t know until I really knew, when I saw that she wasn’t getting better. I remember feeling like a fight was coming but that me and my mother would win, because we had always won. When she had an ulcer burst two years before and ignored it for three days, she lost weight and I saw her weakened body, the needles and tubes coming keeping her stable, I remember thinking, You made it. Of course you made it. In no world could the universe take you from me.

I think that stuck with me. I think I thought that it would be a hard fight, but of course we would win. How could we not?

I didn’t know that in Utah. In Utah I looked at her as this sure thing in my life. In Utah, in the particular chill of the morning, I didn’t think I could lose her. And I’m glad I didn’t know.

Beards and a chance to hide yourself

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Like everyone, I am partial to having really weird thoughts. 

Earlier this week, I thought: I really like being a lady, but I kind of wish I could have a beard.

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Beards via

Style has never been something super important to me, but lately I’ve been thinking about what do I *like* wearing, what makes me feel good?

Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow have discussed their deep love of caftans as a wardrobe of choice, and although I love this idea, I have a feeling my general large-boobedness would make me look like a tent and not in the cool chic way, but in the grimace-at-old-photos way. I recently said to a coworker that I want to wear old, worn-in hippie clothing that drapes over me in a casual-chic kind of way.

“Do it,” she said.

“Yeah, but I’ve gotta come to work.”

“Oh,” she said. “Maybe not at work.”

All of these things – beards, caftans, worn-in hippie clothing – have a common thread, which is to be seen but to be protected. 

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I’ve found myself reaching out to different online communities lately, joining in, reveling in the conversations and replies and chance to interact with people outside my daily norm. But this, too, is a way of being seen but also shielded. I can duck out of the comments if I want. I can carefully craft what I mean to say. I can pick and choose who and what I interact with. 

“Lady beards would be great,” I told a friend, “because you are allowing yourself to be seen but you are also unknowable. Only you know what your face looks like underneath. They’re like yoga pants for your face. It’s comfortable and kind of lazy but still socially acceptable and protective.”

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I guess that’s the balance we’re all trying to strike, anyway. What is me? What is the best version of me? What is the vulnerable version of me? What is the version of me that has her walls up? What is the version of me that is acting in my interest instead of responding to the expectations of others?

And anyway, I’m not sure beards are a particularly good look for me.

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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.

Grieving, in-process

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My mom died on January 10th.

I guess you could say that means I’m in the process of grieving.

Grieving looks different from how I imagined it. I am not immobile in my bed. I am not bursting into tears at inopportune times. 

My eyes well up when I talk about my mom. I don’t like telling people my mother is dead. I don’t like the idea in their head: Dead mother. Dead mother girl. Her mom is dead.

My mom was alive for so long, for my whole life. It means infinitely more to me than her death. My mother is not my dead mother. She is my mother.

I am not hiding secret pieces of her clothing. I am wearing her pants. They were her pants but they were not her pants. They were her sick pants. Stretchy sweat pants from Target, $12. Her belly was swollen and painful and she couldn’t stand the waistband hugging her abdomen.

I don’t understand it, they hug mine. I am fatter than my mother. For the most of my life, that wasn’t true. But then the cancer shrunk her appetite and she said, I guess my metabolism is finally working and she lost weight and told me I finally fit into a size 12.

When she started getting thin, too thin, I told her I would fatten her up. I can’t have my mom being thinner than me, I joked. At her first surgery, she told the doctor, Can you give me a tummy tuck while you’re in there?

I am wearing her pants and they don’t make me think of her, except when they do. They are comfortable pants. They look casual chic, so I feel less frumpy around the house. I don’t think: these were my dead mother’s pants. 

Her orange shirt, the one she wore in all the photos from our last trip together, is sitting on my dresser. I don’t know what to do with it. It is not my shirt, unlike these pants, which are now my pants. I would not wear that shirt. It isn’t my color. It reminds me of her. I see it and I see her in it. Where do you put a dead person’s shirt? What about your dead mother’s?

My grief, if that’s what you want to call it, comes in waves. They are tiny, I think, like the ripples you see on the open ocean. They don’t come when someone talks about their own mom or when I read about cancer or when someone says, How are you doing? 

They come when I think of her, in all her specificity. The way she would congratulate us when we said something funny, That was a good one or appreciate a delicious meal or the manic way (the manic way that I have always thought was mine) she would solve a problem, talking it through and through and through again. And how I can no longer tell her about these things and the way they have shaped me. How I wish I could say thank you, and can’t. 

There is a quote for which I cannot find the author: “My mother taught me everything, except how to live without her.”

I find it to be completely untrue. My mother taught me everything, especially how to live without her. I want you to always stay, but I haven’t done my job if you want to.

Thank you thank you thank you.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

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The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

This book was really powerful for me. It’s a series of essays that starts with the author describing her experience as a Medical Actor – someone who plays a patient with a script of symptoms and issues that a doctor in training must then diagnose. It continues on to tell stories of 100 mile hell marathons, Morgellons disease and the people who believe they have it, and more. 

Jamison does a really lovely job of blending philosophy and fact, being smart but accessible and really teasing out the ways in which we relate to each other – whether it’s our ideal selves or the reality of how we judge.

A few pieces that I underlined:

“This was the double blade of how I felt about anything that hurt: I wanted someone else to feel it with me, and also I wanted it entirely for myself.”

“Which is the sad half life of arguments – we usually remember our side better.”

“I needed people… to deliver my feelings back to me in a form that was legible. Which is a superlative kind of empathy to seek, or to supply: an empathy that rearticulates more clearly what it’s shown.”

“That the hardship facilitates a shared solitude, an utter isolation that has been experienced before, by others, and will be experienced again, that these others are present in spirit even if the wilds have tamed or aged or brutalized or otherwise removed their bodies.”

“I’m tired of female pain and also tired of people who are tired of it. I know the hurting woman is a cliche but I also know lots of women still hurt. I don’t like the proposition that female wounds have gotten old; I feel wounded by it.”

“We shouldn’t have to turn every scar into a joke. We shouldn’t have to be witty or backtrack or second-guess ourselves when we say, this shit hurt.

Read it if you want a good think about what it means to be a person trying to relate to other people… and someone to lead you through it.

What I’ve written lately

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3 Amazon Echo features that will blow your mind, and 5 it still needs

Mark became a beta tester for the Amazon Echo, so I wrote up a review of what I liked and didn’t like about it.

16 Cheryl Strayed quotes that will make you want to tackle the motherfucking shit out of life (err… I mean, this is the title of the piece in my soul, anyway)

Cheryl Strayed’s work has meant a lot to me, so rounding up her quotes only seemed natural.

7 Gym bag must-haves from SheKnows staffers

I worked with a bi-coastal photography team on this one.

21 Innocent phrases that are actually incredibly dirty

This was an idea brought on when my teabag was even more delicious the second time around. Yeah…

Things I’ve written lately

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I worked with the design team at SheKnows to create these awesome pumpkin carving templates:

Pop culture pumpkin carving templates only adults can appreciate

I was asked to share my “love story” – a phrase I have never used without sarcasm regarding my marriage:

I got married at 17 to a man I met in a chat room

This was a fun piece because I totally dug Cary Fukunaga’s debonaire braid:

Why gender-bending hairstyles are good for feminism