Forty is said to be the period of testing. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, Jesus was tested in the wilderness for 40 days, Noah and his family were cooped up in an ark for 40 days. Wait, let me stop there. Can you imagine being locked away with your family for 40 days? Never mind a zoo? But I digress. Forty weeks to birth a child, 40 years to birth a new generation, and during the days of the Black Plague, sailors were held in Quaranta for 40 days to prevent the spread of the disease. Along with the rest of the world, I’m in the throes of the pandemic test, the Great Resignation test, and the cherry on my sundae is the I’m-an-SBF-in my-late-40s test. The cold part about is it, I’m not sure if I’m passing or failing.
My life is a series of exams, open book, no book, closed book, blank page book tests. Stern proctors peer over horn-rimmed spectacles, eyes narrowed with disdain as I frantically flip through pages searching for answers to inscrutable questions. What does a fulfilled like look like? What if I liquidated everything and moved to Tulum? Should I drop $1600 on one art deco chair? Is cancer inevitable? When will COVID be over? Have I already met my life partner? The questions rattle around in my head like lottery balls but I have yet to find the winning numbers.
I naively thought that as I got older life would make sense. I would be settled in my career, my finances, my home, content with a life partner, and we would wield sword and dagger and battle this life, together. I live inside my head, creating realities of love, loss, recovery, hope. But then I was furloughed, COVID was snatching the lives of loved ones, and 2021 slid into 2022, already looking like a repeat performance. I rip years from the calendar, not months and now that I’m closer to 50 than 40 the truth is: I don’t know shit about life.
Tucked into the corner of my bathroom mirror is a photo of 22-year-old me, MAC Diva painted on brightly smiling lips, showing all 32 chiclets, ready to take on the world. I look at her every morning, remembering her intrepid nature, the road stretching ahead and an assurance that whatever she planned would become. This photo is my before. Before he shattered my trust in men, before my brother died of AIDS, before my parents’ divorce, before seasons of unemployment, before we parted ways and I resettled in a new city, starting again, alone.
In the span of 14 years, I traveled to a dozen countries; bought and sold a house; changed jobs twice; earned an MBA and four certifications; and buried three uncles, two cousins, and so many close friends I cannot find space to hold the grief. The instructions on starting over were redacted in my textbooks and fellow students didn’t have the answers either. The mind may not know what to do, but the body responds to routine. I pressed on, because that’s what strong black women do, we keep going.
Early in 2019 I found a therapist. I searched online, scrolled past faces and names until I connected with an image of a brightly smiling face nestled under a massive afro and knew she was the counselor for me. She responded to my email, congratulating me on taking the first step toward mental wellness. And then I ghosted her. I panicked. I had been in therapy once before, in my twenties after an especially painful breakup, but not since.
It took me five months to reconnect with this therapist and when she asked, where do you want to begin, my response was tears. They slipped from my eyes silent, steady, salty. I didn’t know what triggered them or how to stop them and I wept. I cried for all the things I hadn’t done, for stillborn ideas, for the disrespect I endured at work, for singleness, for every unfinished goal. She waited and then invited me to dream again. To recall who I wanted to be and envision the path to fulfillment. She didn’t let me focus on what wasn’t but gently redirected my attention to what could be.
Therapy has been both revelatory and challenging, accepting life’s tests as lessons to learn and not failures to avoid. I no longer hide my truth beneath layers of Il Makiage, Ruby Woo, and pasted on lashes, instead I embrace the lines and cracks and allow my authenticity to be revealed.