Recently, mama moved from Alabama to Denver to be closer to me after she retired from a prestigious career in education and administration. At the time I was nine months pregnant with Otis, it was twelve years AB (after Benjamin), and I was thrilled that she was moving to a house only five minutes away. Mama, or as Otis calls her, Vivi, is diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer that has moved into her lungs. It’s a scary diagnosis, but we continue to get good reports that the cancer has not moved past it’s initial discovery. Her will to live, thrive, and radiate joy daily is a remarkable thing to watch and she is currently beating all the odds. She has a remarkably positive inner life, and she herself tells a story of wellness and not one of sickness. It is personal medicine that is made of pure gold, and maybe what many of us are missing. The cancer doesn’t thrive well in this habitat, and since she’s been here it has not progressed. I think because she speaks about herself in a way that builds a story of light, her whole system boosts and she gets stronger. And she has a brilliant doctor who is an avid researcher, so her medicine combined with his has been exactly the right combination.
Mama’s influence on me has been primarily through example rather than preaching, and she has quietly stood by for many years without judgment or critique. Mostly her philosophies have stayed the same, and have become mainstays for me too. They marked her a good leader without much dogma, and teachers and administrators still call her for advice. Some of my friends with absent mothers have curled underneath her wing too, and claimed her for their own. Here is some of the wisdom mama swears by.
PUT YOUR LIPSTICK ON.
Growing up as a girl in the deep south, this was a cultural thing. She actually means for me to go put some lipstick on my lips, preferably of the pink variety instead of the gothic blue I chose in high school. But she also means to go brighten up and pull myself out of the cycles of wallow and self-destruction. I went through a period time where that lipstick, even metaphorically, felt too surface and wreaked of spiritual bypassing. But she was not suggesting that I not feel my sorrow and all that comes up, but afterwards to stand up and look around for a path back. Similar to a cold splash of water on your face, lipstick, real or otherwise, can refresh the life blood. It is a jolt back into your body with fortitude and purpose, and a fresh perspective. Mama applies lipstick several times a day, both literally and metaphorically. I love that about her. And, it works every time.
This is a woman far from Pollyanna, though you might not guess that on your first impression. She has had cancer three times, lost her son, lived years within a marriage of gaslighting, and so many more small things.
The morning Benjamin died, she put her lipstick on while I watched her.
EAT/ENJOY/INDULGE IN MODERATION.
Mama is very polite as she navigates all the gluten-free/sugar-free/dairy-free/plant-based/paleo/anti-inflammatory shenanigans that my husband, myself and my friends put her through in Denver. We usually are eliminating something that feels like the holy grail answer, and she adjusts herself accordingly to what she is cooking for us. She laughs as she says…” I have to send out a group text before cooking for your people in Denver that asks about what everyone is eating or not eating that week!” If you live in Denver you know this is hilarious and also true. Mama stays fit and eats healthy with moderate indulgences that don’t feel overdone or overthought. She listens to her body and stops eating before she is stuffed. Mama’s specialty is something we call “heaven bites,” which is a crockpot chocolate candy that warms the body and the soul. She makes them too often, but none of us complain. Overall, she cooks warm, nourishing food and does not get swung around by fads, cleanses and obsessions. I think she is better off than most.
WHEN YOU FEEL BLUE- GO MAKE SOMETHING.
Last weekend mama said she was blue. I perked up because she rarely admits that so I lunged to support and listen for a way I could help. She said she was blue for about two hours, and then she decided to get up and help somebody. She made a broccoli salad and took it to someone at her church who is having a hard time. She moved it out of her body by pouring herself into service to comfort someone else. Make no mistake, she’s not preaching NOT to feel your blue. But instead, after you feel it, then move your blue into the world so that it can transform into a different color.
GET UP AND MAKE YOUR BED.
It is still hard to believe mama was visiting me in Illinois on Benjamin’s night. I still remember everything about those first moments. I was jolted awake by my phone ringing and I blinked into the screen to see “Dad”. He asked to speak to mom and I padded into the guest room to find her. She was already sitting up reaching for the phone as if she knew. I started screaming and melting to my knees before I knew how to inhale, and I heard her say, “Jimmy, I have to go. I need to take care of Buffy.” I was 27 years old and her son had just died. She knelt where I had melted and something unforgettable happened.
I looked up at her and said, “What are we going to do?” She said, without hesitation,
“Go make your bed.”
I came back to her like an unplugged robot whose insides had frozen.
“What do I do now?”
“Go take a shower.”
That’s why I remember it was Strawberry Suave. These step by step directions assembled our early morning and we cleaned my apartment as we waited to fly home. So many things strung together that day and days to follow to make a horrific story of loss. Many years have passed and there has been hills and healing. That lesson she taught me on his morning has remained as clear as a smooth, cold stone in my hand all this time.
Sometime later I found out that as soon as my dad learned what happened, he shaved. In the middle of the night, he shaved. Then, he waited until the mall opened at 10 the next morning and went and bought a suit. We all must do something. It’s primal, I suppose, when your heart breaks into pieces.
DO something. MOVE something. Go make your bed. Go take your shower. Put on your lipstick. Smooth the pillows and collect yourself even when it is hard and you are completely destroyed in the middle of things. You can manage one step to create a pathway. Then that one thing turns into another and you are eventually okay.
Make one movement towards the morning light that will allow your breath to come in easier.
This idea of mapping small steps helped me so much, especially in times of acute tragedy and deep overwhelm. I still use mama’s bed making strategy with the breakdown of challenging yoga poses, hard conversations, baby tantrums, ankle pain and everything else. It works from the mundane and ordinary spaces all the way up to the biggest moments life presents. Even in the murkiest times, taking small steps eventually maps me back to a source of good and solid ground. It is not magic, but it is practice worthy.
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