Reflections On My 36th Birthday

I’m not the jetsetting 20-something with the world at her feet anymore. I’m more like the 30-something with her feet in comfy socks.
Publish date:
July 31, 2012
growing up, birthdays, your 30s

My very first birthday. I used to love those things.

Up until recently, I’ve always loved my birthday. I never thought it was fair that since it was during summer vacation, I didn't get to hear my birthday announcements over the loud speaker at school.

I used to sit in front of the TV every August 3rd watching Entertainment Tonight, waiting for them to announce my birthday. They never did. Neither did the Today Show or Jet Magazine. I’m still a little bitter.

My birthday is on Friday and if I could find a way to just skip that day all together, that would be awesome. I’m 36 this year. I’m officially, officially over 35. I’m firmly in the dash part of 35-40. And I feel like I have nothing to show for it. Nothing that feels 35-40, anyway.

I never really pictured my 30s. Due to my illness and bouts with depression, I could barely see the end of any given year, let alone the next decade of my life. So I can’t say that my 30s didn’t turn out like I expected. I wasn’t expecting anything.

For years, older friends would sing and dance about their 30s, "Oh you won’t start LIVING until you’re at least 33.” Well, I’m going to be 36 and I can’t say I’m really living now.

I'm not sure what I envisioned, but I know that after living as an artist in New York for seven years, living in my parents’ basement with a soon to be 6-year-old calling me mommy and being single weren't anywhere on my list of things to do after 30.

I’ve made my mistakes; ironically, most of those mistakes started around 29. This birthday anxiety isn’t about regret, though. Not really. It’s about, as Janet Jackson once cabbage patched into our heads, “What have you done for me lately?” I can blame my illness on a few things, but I refuse to use it as an excuse for all this fear I’m carrying.

Because I’ve been so afraid of not doing well or falling apart, I’ve settled into this safe space. It's a comfortable, unchallenged existence. I thought of all the things that I've been afraid of: bills, boys, bank accounts, Brazilian waxes (not really that last one, but I liked the alliteration).

Backstage after performing at Def Poetry Jam with Mos Def

My entire life, I've taken all kinds of huge risks but it’s the small things that shake me. I'm the girl who places her hand over the screen at the ATM so I won't know just how much money isn’t in my checking account. The bill from the hospital and the subsequent letters from lawyers remain unopened, stuffed in a drawer in my bedroom. The dude I've had a crush on since last year? After a few clumsy attempts fizzled, I’m too afraid to find out what happened. Sad? Pathetic? True. And that’s just the stuff I’m comfortable sharing.

Now I've decided that I need to let go of the handrails in order to get my life back on track. And it's been terrifying.

I’m going to Nigeria in a few weeks by myself and I’m so nervous that it’s been affecting my health. I’m just a mess of trembling and anxiety. This is the first trip I’ve taken to Nigerian since I was 18. My beloved grandmother died in Nigeria last fall and I’m sad that she never got to see her “MmaBassey” do well.

Actually, I’m probably projecting. She was proud of me because she loved me but I wanted her to be proud of me because I did something worth it.

Despite being terrified, I’m trying my best to pretend that I'm this brave person who can handle everything in the hopes that she'll show up.

In Nigeria, I'm doing a few performances, plus hosting and producing the first nationwide poetry slam. I’m also shooting a campaign for The Siwe Project and fundraising for it. Have I ever shot a campaign for anything? Um, no. Having to fundraise for this aspect of the trip makes me.uncomfortable. My friends reminded me that being a "grown up" doesn't mean never needing help, sometimes it means being able to ask for it when you do. I'm taking that and running with it, using it to keep me moving forward despite all the fear.

It might be cheesy to say I'm doing this for my son, but I am. I want to provide a good life for him. One that's not just based on doing the safe thing. I want my family to stop worrying about me and wondering if I’ll ever get it together again.

I used to dream really big. I accomplished a lot more in my 20s than most could imagine during a lifetime. I’m proud of then, but I can’t say I’m thrilled about now. I don’t want to feel like my 30s are just a slow descent into uselessness. I want to feel like I’m finally doing this life thing right.