A year in review: Reflections, expansion, and growth at 50

I entered 2023 with a profound fear of dying early. I was turning 50 in January—the same age that my mother was when she died (and not even a week after that birthday, no less). Six weeks before her death, I had just turned 31.

For 19 years, I lived with this overwhelming fear of turning 50, partly because of my fear of following in her footsteps but also because turning 50 would mean no longer having any sense of a road map about life. Until this year, I always had a memory of my mother at my age. But 50 meant no more memories like that. Uncharted territory. No landmarks.

Well, 2023 had a lot more to put on my plate than my fears. It would turn out to be a year of great growth, pain, and transition. 

In hindsight, I should have known that 2023 was going to be a year of challenges. After all, 10 days into 2023, life went topsy-turvy when my now ex-partner’s life went unexpectedly sideways and some of the fallout led to canceling my birthday plans. My 50th birthday plans. I have no regrets about canceling the plans; it was the right thing to do. Still, it should have been a harbinger of things to come. 

Globally, this year has been a shitshow. From ever-rising levels of homelessness to emboldened white supremacy, along with the Hamas attack on Israel and the Israeli government’s unrelenting punishment for that attack on the Palestinian people.

Oh, and there is still that pesky COVID thing—a virus that our leaders have tried to convince us is “just like a cold” with no lasting impact, except that the numbers tell another story. Our global healthcare systems are sagging under the weight of COVID and our battered immune systems, which now appear to be more susceptible to any and everything.

In case you don’t grasp how dire things are, at least in the United States, life expectancy is on the decline. Essentially, the structural problems that we pretend don’t exist in the United States are shortening our life spans across all demographics. 

No matter where you look, we are living in a world of relentless pain and widespread suffering. At the same time, we are quietly being asked to normalize pain and suffering and carry on as if this were all normal. We have become so good at playing along with this mass delusion of normal that we have almost fooled ourselves. Except that our spirits know the truth. Our internal selves know that we are stuck in a distortion but the rules of society that are fixed by systems of whiteness keep us from speaking truth to power—until we reach our breaking points. Or things come out sideways. 

I lost two friends this year: one a newer friend; the other, a dear friend well known in Maine and beyond. A friend who, over the years, was one of my rocks. In both cases, these were vibrant professionals in their 50s who died suddenly without warning. 

As I write this, a friend and former colleague of mine is dying. According to a Facebook post by her daughter, she has end-stage liver disease, brought on by acute alcohol hepatitis, superimposed on alcoholic cirrhosis. I had to do a double-take. This woman is younger than me, vibrant and dynamic—but also a painful reminder of how too often, our true struggles are hidden. Even when in reality, they are right in front of us. 

Ours is a culture that tells us we must carry our burdens alone and keep our struggles buried, because sharing our truth can hurt us. Though from where I sit, increasingly it seems that not sharing our truth is what absolutely will hurt us. It will probably even take us to an early grave, and when we die early and unexpectedly, we will leave behind hints of what was really going on along with a slew of unanswered questions.

It is this belief that led me to take a detour this year in my professional and personal life and become open about what’s really going on—or at least, as much as I am comfortable sharing publicly or can legally share.

From navigating the travails of being diagnosed with hypertension and finally making the decision to be medicated to admitting to burnout and exhaustion. Admitting either of these things—much less both—as a Black woman and the director of a small non-profit, isn’t without risk. However, being open about my truth has given me the spaciousness to be real and open about my healing and my needs.

It also led to hearing from others about their own struggles, including a number of perimenopausal women who had been struggling with hypertension and decided to treat it. And, more generally, hearing from people who are struggling with challenges and feeling alone. 

In these tumultuous times, what will hold and sustain us is our connection to ourselves and others. The building of community; making space and time for ourselves and others. Showing up in meatspace beyond the texts and social media posts. Allowing moments of vulnerability and creating real accountability with those whom we share community. 

That has been my biggest takeaway: that, as important as advocacy and activism work is, it means little without the human touch. That fighting white supremacy is more than a checklist, letter writing, attending protests, or social-media-ready sharings. That as bad as things are for many across the globe, many of us are trapped in our own personal hells and paralyzed by fear—or overwhelmed by the enormity of everything.

In recent weeks and months, I have seen an increase in people canceling their patronage because they are overwhelmed. They don’t have the bandwidth to read, much less actually take any action. Just getting through the daily rounds of life is all they can manage, and they are barely doing that. 

I understand it, because until seven weeks ago, I was there. Life on autopilot, except when you are so good at keeping the plane in the sky while operating on autopilot, no one really knows how close you are to crashing. It’s a skill until you can no longer fake it and the insomnia turns into full-body hives and other visible symptoms and you are forced to face reality. Not everyone gets the in-your-face types of wake-up calls that I have received.

This year taught me that being real, raggedy, and raw is necessary for growth beyond the performative and that there is no shame in being my truest self out loud. This year also taught me that while we organize around larger social change, we must also apply that passion to taking care of ourselves and the community. That our praxis for change cannot be rooted in the efficiency tools of white supremacy culture. We cannot build or organize a better world with people who can’t extend grace or make space for our raggedy selves. We cannot ask people to do more simply because their lives seemingly aren’t as bad as someone else’s even though they are literally running on fumes and ready to collapse. 

Our movements cannot survive on the undercurrent of “Oppression Olympics” and the denial that we are all battling forces hell-bent on our demise. Whether it is literal bombs, failing healthcare systems, or just the ruthlessness of capitalism. 

I lost a lot this year, and if I am blessed with longevity in life, I suspect that as I grow older this loss will become more common. 

Professionally, this was my most challenging year in decades with the weight and responsibility of an entire organization in my hands and more challenges than I dare to count. Any failures at this stage in my career are not private. And, if I fail, it is a real possibility that the organization I lead may close. I am at a crossroads with Black Girl in Maine Media entering its 16th year. Our future is at risk due to ever-changing algorithms, social justice fatigue, and the changing marketplace for writers and trainers. 

I leave 2023 knowing that 2024 will take me to the edge of my professional skills and it will be the biggest challenge of my career. I leave 2023 knowing that my inability to honor my own limits and boundaries led to deep harm in a number of relationships. 

I also leave 2023 knowing that in many ways, the exhaustion that I have experienced and continue to experience is the catalyst for change that, while unexpected and unwanted, was very much needed. A change that has made me confront my own shortcomings and mortality and realize the need to do better—for myself and others. To once again prioritize time for true self-care, like making time every morning for meditation and for movement in the evening—which sounds easy but is easier said than done. 

I enter 2024 with my blood pressure stable and my spirits feeling a shift, knowing that while I may face failure, no matter what, it will be okay. I enter a new year feeling a deeper sense of my purpose, vision, and mission. I am more clear in my “why?” of how I do things. I know moving forward that my work cannot rely solely on the head but also needs the heart and the spirit and that it is vital to sustain and nourish my community, both for myself and others.  What lessons did 2023 provide you? What are you taking into the new year that will help you better sustain and nourish yourself and your community? While our reality continues to inch closer to a dystopia, I am reminded that even in the most terrifying dystopian novels, it is shared humanity and the small moments that keep people from going over the edge.

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Image by Michael Skok via Unsplash.

1 thought on “A year in review: Reflections, expansion, and growth at 50”

  1. “No matter where you look, we are living in a world of relentless pain and widespread suffering.” Reading your words this morning, my heart did a double take–oh, I thought, that’s why I can barely move through this morning. Each morning needing to choose again to try to embrace the day, be grateful for small things, and yet all around me, the relentless pain and suffering. My partner and I are both retired, with chronic illness–(so grateful that I was able to retire, that we have our so-far adequate limited income.) But I feel so much isolation since COVID, and the fatigue of chronic illness that makes any connections more challenging, and the activism I used to do, impossible. As a (retired) minister, I too was/am not good at sharing with others the turmoil or raw challenge of my own life, after years of being a “voice for hope” in my public role. Yet I am inspired by your willingness to share that side of your life, and want you to know how healing your words are for me this morning. Maybe in 2024 I will find more ways to share that side of my life too.

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