Let me let you in on a little secret about black: It cracks.
Not our faces, if we cleanse and moisturize and exfoliate consistently. Black women’s skin tends not to wrinkle. Our faces can look easily 10 to 20 years younger than our driver’s licenses say we are — if we maintain our health.
But that’s the biggest if. Our health is where we black women tend to crack.
Our black cracks from the inside out. It cracks under the weight of taking care of everybody but ourselves. It cracks under the pressure of smoothing out our rough edges and filing down our sharp tongues, lest we be tarred and feathered as angry black women for speaking our minds.
And it cracks under our need to present our lives to the world as perfect, to counteract all of the negative stereotypes of black women and black families. We crack under the black-love-is-always-a-beautiful-thing pretensions of perfect marriages, children on the fast track to the Ivy League and well-behaved pets with glossy coats and camera-ready smiles.
In February of this year, a few months before my 51st birthday, my black started to crack.
On the surface, everything appeared fine. In celebration of my 50th birthday the year before, I cut off the dreadlocks I’d been growing for 13 years and was loving my easy-to-maintain short Afro. I was accepted into the MFA in Creative Writing program at City College of New York and started taking classes at the same time that my oldest child left for college and my youngest child started high school at one of New York’s top high school. With all three of us pursuing our academic dreams, I was finally spending time on me, taking care of my own needs.
And then, last Christmas, the cracks began to form.
[pullquote]The health scares are proof that my body is someday going to wear out. But the fact that they were scares and not crises means I still have life – a lot more life – left in this body.[/pullquote]
The child who left for college returned after one semester. The child who started high school faced his own challenges. I was kicking ass in school myself but couldn’t muster the courage to submit anything I wrote for publication — the fear of rejection was paralyzing. Two teenagers at home meant the senseless deaths of young people that filled the nightly news was all too real for me. I turned to my usual comforts – food and wine — and was back at my heaviest weight in no time.
In February, little health issues started creeping up. My home blood pressure kit told me my pressure was in a watch zone. Then I had a real health scare, one in which swallowing became difficult and my chest felt like it was burning. A full battery of tests said that everything was fine. But I remembered my mother, in her early 50s, having those same tests. I remembered her coming home and telling us that everything was fine. And I remembered that everything had seemed fine with her for a long time until, suddenly, it wasn’t.
Some refer to the health challenges that turn out fine as wake-up calls. But I was already awake. Nothing affirms your own mortality like burying your mother, and I buried mine seven years ago. I know my life in this body isn’t meant to be eternal. The health scares are proof that my body is someday going to wear out. But the fact that they were scares and not crises means I still have life – a lot more life – left in this body. And I haven’t even used my body to its full capacity yet. My body isn’t as fit and strong as it can be. There are still things I want to learn how to do. And there are still places I want to see, while I am healthy enough to enjoy travel.
In the months leading up to my 51st birthday, I decided to learn how to do one of those things I couldn’t do: I took swim lessons and finally learned how to swim. I had secretly wanted a tattoo for years but was too chicken to do it. A few weeks after Prince died, I got my first tattoo – the Prince symbol on my inner left wrist. I changed my diet, went to the gym and shed some of those extra pounds I’d picked up. My blood pressure went back down. The swallowing issue went away entirely. I did what I could to help my teenagers manage through their struggles. And, in the process, I felt some of my cracks start to heal.
A friend of mine said that turning 50 reminds him that he has more birthdays behind him than ahead of him. I understand that sentiment, but I don’t share it. I don’t think of how many birthdays I might or might not have left. I think about what else I haven’t done, what more I want to learn. Now, I am in the pool every weekend, working to improve my strokes. I’m back in the yoga studio in a regular basis, looking to improve my strength, flexibility and mindfulness. I’m polishing up the pieces I wrote for class and building up the courage to submit them to literary publications. I’ve begun to work on my book-length thesis project, even though I’m still a couple years from completing my MFA. And next month, I’ll be on a plane, traveling to my next adventure.
In the process of healing those cracks, I have rediscovered the joy of finding out that my body and my mind are full of untapped potential. Being 50 means I don’t hesitate as much to try something new. I have a finite amount of time to do all the things I still want to do — but the possibilities are infinite.