“I want to see an octopus,” my six-year-old said as he looked out of the window of the plane.
“You won’t see one up here,” I responded. “You can’t see them unless you’re in the ocean.”
“Nope, I see an octopus right there. See?” He looked across at a mystifyingly shaped cloud.
I admit I can be a grinch, especially after a long flight. “It’s just a cloud,” I said. He paid me no mind (he does that sometimes) and started to wave enthusiastically.
“Hi, Octopus. Bye, Octopus. See you next time.”
The image of that octopus stayed with me throughout the plane ride. It made me think back over the past few years, and the series of emotional, physical, and professional whiplashes that seemed to come in quick succession.
In 2019, I accepted an appointment as the inaugural associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody College of Communication, where I am also a professor of filmmaking. That same year, I was also named Artist in Residence at a prestigious art museum in Cincinnati.
I felt such a sense of accomplishment. The hard work I’d been doing was finally being recognized. “Finally” seems a bit disingenuous because I’ve been recognized for my filmmaking for years, but this felt different. It was like the accumulation of small accomplishments had stitched together into something finite and not fleeting. The film business, like many other creative industries, can be fickle. It can leave you in one moment feeling invincible and, in the next, invisible.
I jumped into these new roles headfirst, producing this new project, implementing that new policy, and moving the needle on things that felt like they’d been stagnant for far too long.
The high was short-lived.
A few months later, I was again rejected from a television directing lab for what felt like the 100th time. I’d always dreamt of directing big-budget television, and being accepted into a lab would have pretty much guaranteed me one of those jobs. I also found myself in a battle with my then three-year-old son’s daycare after they said he was “a threat” and that the teachers were “afraid of him.” To add insult to injury, I was so close to having a screenplay I wrote optioned by a major production company, only to be let down yet again.
And then the greatest disruption happened: we were all sent into mass isolation and told we’d be home for weeks — weeks that turned into years. I felt like a hot air balloon soaring in the clouds, only to catch fire and come crashing back to earth.
Before the terms COVID depression and social distance were thrust into the zeitgeist and became part of our everyday conversation, I had suffered my own mini-depression. After the violent murder of my cousin in 2019, I started seeing a therapist to help me process the devastating toll his loss had on me. Up until then, the way I dealt with most tragedies in my life was to throw myself into work and cope in unhealthy ways. But that would not work this time – I needed something more.
During my therapy sessions, I realized there was more going on than I’d ever expressed. After a few meetings, I felt lighter than I had in quite some time. It had taken me years to sit in this chair, to be this vulnerable, because, well, “Black people don’t do therapy.” But I had decided to “do the work,” and it was the right call.
I hadn’t known what to expect (Denzel Washington and Robin Williams — or, rather, the character they played — were my only real points of comparison), but not only did my therapist help me process the grief I was feeling, she also helped me connect past traumas with present angst.
“That loss 20 years ago is presenting itself at this moment. That childhood fear of abandonment is haunting you in ways you don’t even know.”
That was in November 2019. Then came March 2020. She wanted to move our sessions online, but it wasn’t the same. I pulled the plug when I needed to stay plugged in the most.
The lockdown hit me hard, as it did for many, but the full impact came late, and not all at once.
When we first went home, work kept me too busy to even process the fact that we weren’t “working.” My 40 hours turned into 60, homeschool became a part of the daily grind (and frustration), and Zoom call after Zoom call sent me to an optometrist for the first time in my adult life.
All of this stifled my creativity and prevented me from truly tapping in. I found myself artistically paralyzed. But that paralysis brought into greater focus something else that was plaguing me.
The stillness that came with the pandemic awakened a voice deep inside, one that made me realize that I hadn’t listened to myself in a long while. Even though I continued to create, I hadn’t tapped into my pure creativity in many seasons. The unbridled creative force that resided in me had died. Work had me in a constant state of busyness. I felt the need to say yes to everything and was guilt ridden when I took time for myself. When you’re constantly in motion, it’s difficult to really know which way to go. You’re on autopilot, and autopilot without an alert driver can be deadly.
I’d spent my life believing that if I wasn’t “on” every second of every day, that I would somehow lose out on something great, something life-changing, something that would catapult my career into the next stratosphere. But the silencing of the world revealed a new reality, one where the disruption the pandemic brought became the safe, quiet place I’d been searching for all along.
Everything is still not going the way I envisioned it would. I continue to experience emotional and creative whiplash: a high here (I finally directed that major television show) and a low there (I was close to having a job in a television writer’s room, only to have that pulled from underneath me). However, most of my time is spent in the space between those places. The difference is that I no longer see these as difficult seasons; instead, I’ve come to accept them as the norm.
There can be no good idea without a bad one first. There can be no emotional elation without some sense of turmoil. Isn’t this the human experience? Isn’t this how we are made? No tree can grow without first planting a seed, and then watering it for what can seem like an eternity.
COVID taught me that denying those feelings of sadness, of block, of feeling lost, was actually denying myself the experience of living. It taught me to slow down and accept each moment as a part of the process of not just creating, but being.
Looking out of the window of the plane, my son saw an octopus flying through the sky. I glanced back out the window, and suddenly there it was: “I see it too!” His excitement, his assurance that this octopus flew by us, even waved at us, awakened my sense of wonder and reignited the creative force within me. It reminded me that my imagination doesn’t just allow me to experience the extraordinary, but that if I allow myself to dream again and live in the moment, all the losses will lead to an inevitable rebirth.
Hi octopus, see you next time!