Nikki Giovanni's Aha! Moment
Photo: Courtesy of Nikki-Giovanni.com
She still thought of herself as a hip, young babe at the age of 58. But when the poet discovered she was old, she realized she was even cooler.
For most of my life, I've thought of myself as pretty cool. I have a tattoo. I wear my hair short. Even at 58, even after being diagnosed with lung cancer several years earlier, I thought, "I'm in good shape. I'm young, and I'm healthy. I'm a babe." That's how I felt when I left my home in Blacksburg, Virginia, late one night to drive seven hours to Princeton, New Jersey, where I was to attend one of Toni Morrison's birthday parties.

I drove my candy apple red sports car. A friend joined me on the ride. We had on our jeans. We looked good. But I am directionally challenged and can't read a map, so I got us lost. We were somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania at around midnight when I was pulled over by a state trooper. He told me I was driving over the line; apparently, I'd fallen asleep at the wheel. Then he pointed his flashlight in the car to get a look at us.

Almost immediately, he backed up a bit and the tone of his voice changed. When he asked where we were going, he addressed me as "ma'am" in that solicitous way that people do when they're talking to an elder. I offered to get my license, sure that he would give me a ticket since he pulled me over, but he told me he didn't need it. Instead he gave us directions to Princeton and told us to "have some coffee, drive carefully, and just get where you're going safely." Then he left.

I turned to my friend and said, "We're old! If we were young, he would have ticketed me no matter what." I realized that when the trooper looked into the car, he didn't see what we thought he saw—two hip, young women going someplace. He saw his grandmother. It was a depressing moment. I said, "You drive—I need to think about what just happened."

At Toni's party the next day, I shared the story with her and admitted, "Girl, I'm getting old." She responded, "Yes. You are." And she was right. It was time for me to embrace the moment I'd come to and see what "old" meant. I began exercising regularly, taking better care of myself. I joined AARP. I even started asking for my senior discount! And I left this message on my voice mail: "I am a little old lady, so please speak slowly."

Today, I am 64 years old. I still look good. I appreciate and enjoy my age. While I have always liked my career, I have way more fun with it now. I've got nothing to prove, and I don't care what the critics say. When I finish writing a book, I don't push myself to start the next one; I enjoy having just written one.

A lot of people resist transition and therefore never allow themselves to enjoy who they are. Embrace the change, no matter what it is; once you do, you can learn about the new world you're in and take advantage of it. You still bring to bear all your prior experience, but you're riding on another level. It's completely liberating. Now, everything I do, I do because I want to. And I believe the best is yet to come.

— As told to Naomi Barr

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