Disclaimer: This has NOTHING to do with feeding your kids and everything to do with helping yourself. (Read on only if you're into that sorta thing... )
This morning, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror and decided one new thing: I would not spend this week the way I’d spent the week before. I would not (could not) keep drowning in a sort of undulating uncertainty, shifting back and forth and back and forth from panic-inducing news feeds to the relentless pinging of text chains to awkward Zoom meetings to emails to unstructured family time to crying fits to news-feeds to texts chains to emails and crying and meetings and more.
I made a choice. Instead of trying to getting knocked around by all the unknowns, I’d decided to stand exactly where I was and just focus on putting my lipstick on.
When your world gets toppled you’ve still got INCREDIBLE power.
I know you’re probably thinking, ‘WTF?! Lipstick? Really?’
Give me moment, bare with me. (And if you’re sitting on the floor of your bathroom hiding from your kids because it’s the only room in the house with a lock, then what better alternative than to just keep reading?)
Here’s a quick little story about my mother and her lipstick. (Okay, I lie. It’s long. But, alternatives?)
For my mother, the official start of everything was exactly the same. She’d head to a mirror. She’d tilt her chin up slightly, a motion of confidence, and hold it there as she’d stretch her lips across her teeth to create a surface smooth and accommodating to a smear of coral red. First the top lip, then the bottom. She’d press those lips together in circles to steal the creamy stain and then deliver a forced yet rich and toothy grin.
The click of the plastic cap as she shut it closed was a signal: She was ready.
I was raised by a single mom. She had two kids, a full-time 9 to 5 job, and a bookkeeping side-hustle. Aside from work-work, she had a mortgage, a mile-long list of cleaning, cooking, washing, bill-paying, no washer, dryer or dishwasher, an alcoholic ex-husband who kept calling up asking for help, and god knows what other despicable stressors to contend with.
Throughout it all, she kept up what seemed like an absurdly militant sort of vanity. She was never seen without a hair out of place. Back room Loehmanns’ ALL THE WAY. And at the center of it all was her ritual with the the coral red.
I remember watching her put on her lipstick in the bathroom mirror every morning, the final act in a full face of makeup. I remember watching her in the rearview mirror before she headed into the grocery store, in a window reflection before every walk of the dog, and after every time she'd throw out that ridiculous apology about wearing her her ‘knock around clothes’ (aka a matching tracksuit) before walking off to do something dirty and intense, like getting on her hands and knees to scrub a vinegar solution all over our kitchen floor.
Through it all, I was too young and dumb to realize all she had going on. All I remember thinking was, “Why does she still have that f&$king lipstick on?”
The last time I remember watching my mother do her little thing with the coral red was in front of a frameless mirror that hung above a tiny ceramic sink. She’d asked me to help her get out of bed and walk her to it so she could brush her teeth.
I stared at her from behind worried she might fall. Her bony clavicles were just enough to prevent the thin sheath of her hospital gown from slipping off, the sun-stain freckles showing on the exposed skin of her back. In the hospital, the nurses had finally convinced her that keeping her own silk nightgown and velour bathrobe on was no use since the messy truths of her cancer kept spoiling them. It killed me to see her cave. To see her accept this droopy lifeless sheath. Those freckles reminded me of long-lost days on the beach, her in ridiculously oversized Jackie O sunglasses, flouncy, wide-brimmed straw hats and, still, her coral red.
I was deep in my own thoughts of grief and uncertainty, tears streaming down my face when, from behind, I suddenly sensed that familiar motion. Chin up. Confidence. A second later I heard the click of the cap. I was a million miles away, worrying into the future yet she was still there. She was ready.
She turned a bit and started shuffling her way back to bed. But first, with one swift push, she swung shut the heavy door.
I loved her fiercely in that moment. And thinking about that door shutting now, I love her even more.
Shutting the door is something hospice nurses do to protect the dying from the reality of death. It took my breath away the first time I saw it: A gurney draped with a stark white cloth being pushed through the hall. The stupid realization struck me like a sledgehammer. "People are dying? Right here? Right in the room next door?" Yes. Yes they were. Of course they were.
I didn’t know if my mom knew why the nurses periodically went around the circle of her floor shutting door after door after door until that moment I saw her swing it closed herself. She didn’t need anyone else to protect her. She could do it.
From back in her bed, she looked at me. Her gray skins were sunken making her cheek bones more prominent. Her lack of hair now gave full way to her face, the liquid green of her eyes more vibrant than ever. For two years I had been watched her breaking apart, little by little. Ovarian cancer had be destroying her body, her hope, bit by bit. Yet somehow she managed to put herself back together. In two seconds.
With a tube of lipstick. She was here. Calm. Confidence.
This morning, when I was locked in my own bathroom hiding my from kids (yes, that’s how I know where you are!) and the uncertainties of the day, I stared at my puffy eyed, broken self it the mirror and realized something supremely important: The coral red ritual wasn’t something my mother did for her children, or friends, acquaintances, or co-workers. It was something she did for herself.
So, yes, I admit it: I don’t know a lot. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or next week or next month. I don’t know if my kids are returning to school this year, if someone I love will contract a life-stealing virus, if I’m going to get pulled into medical center where I work to help on the front lines, or if I’m going to lose my job after that.
Yet I do know one true thing: when my world gets toppled I’ve still got incredible power. I have the power to make a choice.
I can choose to thrash around in my anxieties about the unknown. I can give myself over to the waves, get knocked around over and over and over as I try to tidy up all the little ports of craze rising up around me
I can stand still and lock into my calm, my confidence by putting my lipstick on.
(Of course, anyone who knows me knows I don’t wear lipstick.)
My version of coral red is lacing up my sneakers and going for a run. I’m digging back into meditation (mini meditations and 4,7,8 breathing), I’m writing my morning pages, and shipping my work. And I’m solidly shutting the door to anything that’s hurting me. (ie I’m opting out of stressful group texts that stress me out , growing smarter about the news I consume and limiting myself to once daily check-ins with three trusted resources, the CDC website, my state governor’s update, and my local mayor’s email).
I’m not suggesting we ignore what’s around us. I’m suggesting we focus on only what we can control and actively avoid what doesn’t serve us. I’m suggesting we hold tight to our rituals, incorporate them into our new routines, and then work hard to center ourselves them everyday.
I’m suggesting we do our best to avoid getting knocked around by uncertainty. Put on our lipstick, lean into whatever it is that gives us courage, centers our being, and ramps up up our calm. Then get up and shut the door on anything that doesn’t it.
Right now we are dealing with a public health crisis of epic and global proportions. Its spiraling out into mini crises all over country, throughout our communities, in our families, and in probably right on your kitchen floor. My four-year-old has started using the disturbing term ‘before coronavirus’ every time she starts thrashing about the foods, the play-dates and the school that she so misses.
This will pass. It will change us yet it will pass.
Though I’m sorry to say, the next crisis or feelings of undulating uncertainty will roll in again sometime after that. A flubbed presentation, a scary diagnosis, a bad investment (of money, or time, or friendship), a poured-your-heart-into-it project that feel flat.
What I’m suggesting is that you figure out what your coral red is and then put it on, over and over and over again. Lace up your sneakers and go for a run or walk, download a mediation app, write your morning pages, sing, say a powerful prayer, whatever it is you do. Do it now and do it again and again and again. What I’m suggesting is something as simple as:
*Lipstick can help*.
Just be sure to keep putting it on.
(Oh, and don't unlock that bathroom door until your good and ready!)