I began writing this piece in September 2020. September often resembles a month of new beginnings in my life. Usually coupled with the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year, after January 1st, September remains the best time for me to reassess, recharge and move forward with any plans or goals I had set out for that year. I think it is safe to say that this year is unlike any other, and while I could try and make sense of what has been happening, one thing 2020 has taught me is that reality is in fact stranger than fiction.
The year began with renewed hope and optimism, as did every year before it. Newly found plans were beginning to take shape alongside a copious amount of potential holiday destinations. It began as a year of new beginnings and stepping out of my comfort zone. Weekend acting classes and studying for exams kept me insanely busy during the early stages of this year on top of regular commitments to my youth church and book club. I’m sure nearly every church had a slogan for the year playing on the term 20/20 vision, almost as if by divine intervention they’d all heard the same message from God. Ironically, I’m sure we can almost guarantee that nobody saw the year panning out the way it has.
Then January 26th came about. A regular Sunday, just like any other. As a matter of fact, it was more, as we celebrated the first birthday of my Godson. The news that came that evening was one of those memories that you always remember when and where you were the moment you found out. It was paralysing. The death of Kobe and Gianna Bryant, alongside all the other passengers in that fatal helicopter crash was an earth shattering moment that left me fighting back tears in the line for McDonald’s. Avid basketball fans and non-enthusiasts alike contested this loss, both void of words and overcome with emotion, a series of confusion and battling grief for somebody I had never met began to take root in my heart. Notable celebrities die every year, aside from taxes, death seems the only other given in life. But Kobe, coupled with the very soon after passing of young New York rapper Pop Smoke, left the sourest of tastes for the preliminary months of the year. Unbeknownst to me, this feeling of loss and grief would set the tone for large portions of the upcoming year.
At this time, COVID-19 was still somewhat of a distant feature on the news cycle. The never-ending Brexit saga still dominated front pages and daily coverage. Since that moment however, the world has been somewhat on pause for the best part of this year; brought to its knees by the ‘novel coronavirus’. How many times this year have we heard those words thrown together? Or the numerous adverts screaming ‘Now, more than ever’. Then there’s my personal favourite: ‘in these unprecedented times’.
However you like to refer to this period underpinned by COVID-19, it’s likely that some extent of ‘lockdown’ measures have impacted your ability to carry on with life business as usual. Now while some countries are still actively fighting this morbid disease, for a number of populations, outlets and festivities are beginning to open up again, in a bid to return to some degree of normality. Face masks, groups of six, temperature checks and curfews have all become the norm at some stage this year. Half-deserted public spaces and shuttered shop fronts remain symbolic of the ailing economic situation and lacking social interaction.
To be completely honest, the early days of lockdown started with great amusement. Hours spent meeting strangers on House Party, everyone and their Aunty going live on Instagram and more time than I’m willing to admit spent learning dances on TikTok. It felt like I was living in an episode of MasterChef with the myriad of cooking tutorials frequenting my phone screen. While simultaneously it’s as if the world was training for the (now defunct) Olympics with their impressive (oppressive) 5k times; although my two week stint of consistent runs would’ve left Mo Farah shaking in his boots. Teaching my Mum three times how to connect to the audio on Zoom was the highlight of my role as systems engineer of the house and constantly having to remind people to go on mute makes me never want to partake in a virtual meeting again. Somewhat heightened responsibilities around the house had me dabbling in some much need culinary practice and I was probably playing some of the best FIFA of my life come some point mid-April.
In between sound clashes, endless FaceTimes and elongated PlayStation sessions, the extended period of time spent at home felt almost utopian as I very much welcomed the initial shock to my routine and savings on my bank account. The reality outside my four walls was quite the opposite of course. But nevertheless I couldn’t help but wonder, after lockdown, when the world finally beats this wretched disease; will I continue to try new things without being bogged down by our usual schedule? What will become of that somewhat ‘youthful’ energy when not confined to the programming of our commutes? Will we continue to connect and reconnect with those we wouldn’t normally, both near and far?
Alongside the inability to go outside, the tiresome daily new cycles of new cases and untimely deaths began to take its toll. By the time Boris finally set us free, there was a lot more than a deep sigh of relief. I didn’t know how to act. Efforts to salvage what was left of summer created a sense of hope that 2020, like a reformed criminal, could also turn around for good. Needless to say, the world proved, in great measure, what we already knew to be true: humans can be oh so cruel at times. Now, I could be referring to a number of things with this statement that it almost seems unfair to only highlight three of the great moral failings from 2020. But it goes without saying that each left its individual mark in a year already littered with challenges.
The senseless killing of George Floyd, #ENDSars protests and Marcus Rashford’s efforts to feed kids from low socio-economic backgrounds, are all events that left me feeling a whirlwind off emotions at some point this year. From grief (we’ll touch more on that later) to bemusement, hopelessness and back again. These world events not only challenged individuals to speak up, fight for others and educate themselves on systems of oppression; they highlighted the dearth of empathy from world leaders, especially in the two countries I call home. Now I use George Floyd and #ENDSars representatively; racism and the plight of black people on a global scale took centre stage with demonstrations all over the world. While the protests in Nigeria speak to just some of the ongoing injustices raging on the continent. Social media, while unbearable for large parts of this year, became a life source for on-the-ground news updates and a platform for social justice discourse on a scale I have never seen before. Ironically, the aftermath of this summer’s Black Lives Matter efforts led to me taking a step back from social media, while the ongoing fight against police brutality in Nigeria brought me (partially) back. To say that Marcus Rashford is one of my favourite football players now goes beyond my steadfast love of Manchester United. In a year weathered by division across a number of fronts, Rashford’s fight to extend free school meals to the country’s most vulnerable children was a welcome period of togetherness. Restaurants and shops up and down the country pitched in to donate meals where they could, in place of the government’s failing efforts to justify not providing for some of those most deeply hit by the pandemic. Not only did it highlight the rife and growing income inequality within the UK, it also shed a light on the power of community and the need to fight for those less fortunate. Now, I could go on a lot longer about my first experience protesting or how becoming a spokesperson for black people at work left me burnt out, but for the essence of this piece, I shall leave it there.
If, like me, you endeavour to live a peaceful life with minimal stress and maximum enjoyment, this year has been one large headache. Yet, I’m reminded of the character building nature of difficult times and perseverance in the face of trials. It would be remiss of me to say that this year has facilitated a great number of ‘hard conversations’. Quite frankly between current affairs, personal challenges, the highs and lows of dating during a pandemic and processing bouts of loss. I’ve had more difficult conversations this year than majority of my previous years combined. Processing grief in the face of sudden and unexpected loss was a new found experience that I wasn’t prepared for that I’m sure many can relate to. The challenge to ‘grieve well’ felt overwhelming at points. Tasks that were naturally second nature (eating well, getting the right amount of sleep, exercising and keeping mobile, etc) became a chore, while I found it easier to refrain from certain social circles than have to explain how I was feeling. “I can’t complain” became a stock answer to questions of my welfare when in reality, all I wanted to do was complain. Complain and be angry at what I saw as plain unfairness and inherent injustice. Confusion and guilt soon set in, coupled with an innate nature to not want to talk to others about it all. In solitude, my thoughts could often run wild in an effort to appease the pain. As C.S. Lewis1 puts it “there are moments, most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all […] people get over these things. Come, I shan’t do so badly”. I found there was a certain ugliness in avoiding my grief, rather than ‘properly’ mourning I would find myself questioning whether I’ve taken too much time off work or why certain friends hadn’t reached out yet. To say that at the point of writing this I had come to terms with all the pain I have felt this year would be at best, overly optimistic, and at worst, a lie; introspection is rarely easy and hardly fun. Through it all, the ability to celebrate those we lost was a saving grace. Holding onto hope that one day, when the dust has settled, we may stand shoulder to shoulder again in the knowledge that the lives we lived were not in vain. My deepest condolences to all those battling their own grief and pain at this time; whether it be the loss of a loved one, a job, a cherished relationship or otherwise.
Where does that take me next? No word of a lie, one of the hardest things to stomach this year were the numerous delays and cancellations to hotly anticipated films and TV. I know, first world problems, but when Line of Duty season 6 production was suspended, I almost shed a tear. Now I spend a large proportion of my free time watching TV. More than I’m willing to admit. I watch so much TV I require a handwritten list to remind myself of my viewing pleasures. The 50+ series and films I’ve accommodated this year may seem jaw-dropping to some while mediocre to others. Nevertheless, the added indulgence in great storytelling was a welcome escape from the four walls of my bedroom and a numbing news cycle. Honourable mentions to Money Heist S4, The Last Dance, the epic How To Get Away With Murder series finale and my favourite short film of the year, No More Wings. The National Theatre pitched in with incredible live streams of some amazing plays such as Small Island and Amadeus. While I also, unashamedly, finally got round to some great TV classics in Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad. With cinemas shut around the world and the global box office in crisis, I can’t wait to walk down the dark aisle towards a dimly lit movie theatre; large popcorn, hotdog and Tango ice blast in hand. Without daily commutes I found myself reinventing my reading habits for the majority of the year. To name a few, Chinua Achebe’s A Man of the People, Lorraine Hansbury’s A Raisin in the Sun and Factfulness by Hans Rosling were all noteworthy reads. Great stories are indeed a big source of personal joy, so if, like me, you find comfort in the company of a good book or behind a TV screen; hopefully this year created added opportunity for that. And yes, everything I’ve name dropped in this paragraph is an official recommendation, you can thank me later.
With so much left unspoken, there we have it; 2020, a year to remember. In these last days, as with most years, I’m overcome with feelings of gratitude and thankfulness. In a year full of chaos, to still have my health, a steady income and a tribe of deeply cherished friends and family is no small thing. Writing this piece was largely a cathartic exercise for me, hopefully you found it somewhat relatable and mildly entertaining. My heart goes out to all those currently struggling in one way or another and processing how to move forward in these challenging times. As humans we often, sometimes sub-consciously, try so hard to avoid disappointment. In a year where majority of people had their plans cancelled/delayed to some extent, it’s easy to go into the new year without any pre-meditated plans or goals in an effort to avoid the heartache altogether. Yes, the misery of cancelled plans is indeed painful and had it not been for the timely release of the PS5 who knows where my mental state would be right now. But while I can’t make them for you, I deeply encourage you to make those plans, set those goals, plan that trip; with wisdom, safety and contingencies in mind. I can’t promise they’ll go ahead, but better to live in the proactive expectation of good times than simply react to whatever life throws at you. Here’s to trying new things unreservedly, choosing to seek joy amidst pain and chasing opportunities where there appears none; not just professionally, but personally too.
With 2021 on the horizon, I’m not fooled into thinking that the turning of a clock automatically makes the evident challenges of 2020 disappear. Irrespective of how the next year may pan out, I encourage you to hold boldly to the hope that the future does indeed look better than the past and present. I find immeasurable peace in choosing to have faith and hope in God and His character, that no matter what my situation ultimately looks like, all things are working together for good. Despite how challenging things may feel, trust that you’re never alone in this. I long await the time when we can unashamedly embrace loved ones again, when a cough in public doesn’t invite numerous stares and when working from home no longer feels like a prison sentence. Hopefully 2021 finally brings an end to this pandemic, until then, stay safe, make sure to find reasons to be joyful and have a great new year!
1 Quote taken from ‘A Grief Observed’ by C.S. Lewis