In the predawn quiet before the world reanimated itself, my phone lit up, announcing an incoming call from a friend I absolutely love. She’s an early riser like me, so we have high-energy conversations at obnoxious hours of the morning when everyone else is still asleep. But I was on deadline this particular day, so I blew a kiss at the smiling, tabloid-sized photo of her on my screen and whispered, “I’ll call you back, girl” (because it’s much less offensive to avoid someone’s call if you say something gentle and sweet as you ignore them).
Thirty seconds later, my phone lit up again. She was chain calling before 7 a.m. It must be important, I thought.
It was. She replied to my hello with a throaty sob, the kind that’s so guttural it’s silent at first, and I wondered for a beat if we’d been disconnected. Then her voice cracked in a series of small, helpless heaves. All I said was “Take your time” and waited for her swell of emotion to subside.
“I’m 43,” she sobbed, “and I’m still trying to accomplish the things I said I would do when I turned 30. I feel like I’m still waiting on life to start. Nothing is happening. I wasted my life.”
I wished I was able to pull her in for a hug of solidarity. That’s a lonely place to be, that chasm of underachievement, and I didn’t want her to stand in it alone. But I was miles away, teetering on an emotional, me-too response that would have affirmed her fears, not assuaged them, so instead I said, “Girl, you are doing just fine right where you are. And if you woke up today, that means it ain’t over.” It felt cliché, but it was true.
When her initial sadness passed, she explained what set her off. If you’ve never spiraled before, God bless, because it’s easy as hell to do. Start with one issue that panics, worries or saddens you, pile on several just-barely related issues that seem to support the direness of the first one, and go on and slide down that dark hole of despair.
Hers started when she regretted not snatching the chance to do a travel-intensive fellowship when she was a 20-something college student. Her parents dissuaded her then, warning her that it was an unprofitable risk, and now she’s feeling gun-shy about applying for a similar program because she’ll be the most senior person in the group, maybe even the entire graduate department. It will be uncomfortable, bordering on awkward, to be old enough to be her classmates’ mama but still on their level, in the thick of the learning and experiencing she thinks she should have checked off two decades ago.
This is a recent story, but conversations like this have been going on in my tiny corner of the world since I was in my late 20s. It’s happened with sister girls, new associates, former co-workers, college friends and even random women who confide in other women—something we often do when we’re having a moment and just need to blurt out what’s bothering us.
We are always warring with time (“We” as in “me too”). There’s a palpable and normalized hurry imposed on black women to perfect life early. The safety net to make the young and goofy mistakes humans make when they are young and goofy is rarely afforded to us. Our missteps scar our life résumés as opportunities gone to waste and we’re continuously reminded of them, particularly when the things we do later don’t immediately flourish or succeed at all. “Shouldn’t have done this.” “Could’ve done that.” White women, by comparison, are allowed to discover themselves, experience failures and setbacks, and laugh about them at Panera over coffee and cinnamon scones with their friends years later.
So we berate ourselves. We judge ourselves. We limit ourselves because we think we’ve learned better from that one time it didn’t work out. Risk becomes an unwelcome troublemaker, not the keystone of adventure and full-life living.
Listen, black girls still blooming in your late 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond: You are not done. Yes, we live in a culture that continues to level up on what constitutes “extraordinary” and celebrates achievement on an ever-shortening timeline. Yes, the entire world seems wholly consumed with millennials and intoxicated by great accomplishments done early (a Ph.D. by 25! An empire built in a college dorm! A nuclear family by 28! A multimillion-dollar company by 30!), but your art, your business, your invention, your ideas, your book, your contributions—whatever you have in you to give—is still urgent and necessary.
Life has not passed you by. It’s not too late to do the thing you and/or other people have been swearing you’re too old to do. Folks will occasionally doubt you. You will occasionally doubt you. Do the thing you want to do anyway. Be Aunt Viv in a pink leotard, back-spinning and floor-posing on them fools.
Black girls with some age on them are having a shining moment. You know what I appreciate about comedian Tiffany Haddish, beside the fact that she’s my hilarious friend-in-my-head? She ain’t 25 coming into her season in the sun. Neither is Regina Hall, who is arguably a more visible, popular and in-demand actress now than she’s ever been. Neither is Mélisande Short-Colomb, who, at 63, just finished her freshman year at Georgetown.
If you don’t experience a personal milestone until you’re in your fourth or fifth or sixth decade—buy your first house, win an award, start a business, travel internationally for the first time—you still bought a house, won an award, started a business and traveled internationally. Some of our best opportunities don’t present until later. It doesn’t matter when you bloom, just as long as you bloom.
We just turned the corner into 2018, and the reset of another year will surely flare some time and age-related fears and inadequacies. Inevitably, another friend will call me in frenzied tears about the betrayal of a timeline, maybe while she’s setting goals or framing what this fresh set of 365 days should look like. I’m not above being the friend doing the weepy calling to someone else, either. Once upon a time, I dreamed of being on a 30-under-30 list of successful writers—then, when that didn’t work out in time, a 40-under-40 list. Now I anticipate the rich surplus of blessings that accumulate in the holding pattern. I know God better cash out. We’ve been waiting.