by Paloma Garcia-Lee
2020 has been a wild year. We know this. Everyone in some way or another has had their life affected by this. Amidst this ongoing global pandemic we are in a wildly important social justice movement on the tail-end of a heightened election, and we are faced with stress and strain on so many fronts. Yes, there are beautiful silver linings, breakthroughs, and transformations as well! We are absolutely inundated with processing our own experiences while also digesting and witnessing how this has affected others. For those who have shared their wide array of joys and pains in this time — thank you! Your vulnerability and honesty has helped me feel less alone — so, that is my main reason for opening up and sharing a little of my thoughts and experiences as well.
Something that I am increasingly interested in is seeing peoples’ processes in their lives, not just their products or landmark successes and highlights. I am interested in our rich humanity, our complex humanity. This has compelled me to share an excerpt of where I am amidst my own process of deep transformation. It is far from perfect or concise,and there aren’t any flashy ribbons of triumphant success or perfect posts that sum it up. I feel that we are living in a time where the journey isn’t valued nearly as much as the destination, and we aren’t seeing each other as fully rounded, multi-dimensional, ever-growing souls, all in process, all changing and growing and learning. I have written and rewritten this many times, and still, nothing feels exactly right. I struggle to find the format or the words to best describe how transformative this time has been. I don’t know where to start – so the best way is to just start somewhere.
Firstly, thank you to everyone at The Ensemblist for making space for me to share. I am practicing trust and writing with the knowledge that everyone has had such a massive, transformative year, and on a very real, human level we are all — as one — experiencing this together in our own singular, unique ways.
Those who know me know that I love to be busy. I am driven and restless, and if I am not burning the candle on all ends, then I am not doing enough. I’ve spent my entire life working towards having a successful career as a performer. I grew up in an incredibly supportive household — I have two artists as parents, and I have had full support to pursue a career in the arts since I was born. I was homeschooled, so I could wake up, go right to ballet class either in Princeton or in NYC, then squeeze in school work before spending 4-10 pm at my mom’s dance studio. My summers were spent at as many summer programs as I could fit on the schedule. I left home at age 14 to go to boarding school to devote myself further. I spent an entire summer taking courses at a local college so that I could skip my junior year and graduate early to move to New York and start working. I moved to New York at age 17, got a studio apartment on the UWS, and made my Broadway debut.
The drive that had been cultivated at home and boarding school conditioned me for the 6 shows, national tour, countless benefits, concerts, gigs, television appearances, pre-pro, and developments that I have been a part of. I’ve been so lucky — well — yes, lucky — but I also worked so hard, and there were so many “no’s” for every “yes.” I sometimes can’t believe the rooms I have been in and the immensely talented and creative people I have had the pleasure of working with.
I spent the past 12 years cultivating the most meaningful relationships and connections of my life in the theater. I was running on love and art — marching to the beat of my own drum and chasing my dreams. My favorite times were when I was doing double or often triple duty. 2019 was one of my absolute favorite years for that very reason — a culmination of 11 years of work led to a year of doing the MOST, and I felt like I was hitting my stride, the momentum I had been working towards since I was a kid. And I had never been more excited — that word does not even do it justice — BLISS — PURE BLISS. I overlapped and pushed together as much as I could that year while also shifting focus to a new area of my career, and I was running on fumes, looking so far ahead to the future. Everything was happening, I was so ready, so excited. Stars were aligning.
I have to also mention that this all came at a cost, one that is not often shared by professionals in our field. The cost was high — I was sick all the time, I was managing multiple injuries that had been building up for years, I had missed every family function in 12 years, and my life consisted of reminders and to-do lists and goal lists written everywhere that I could see. There was so much that I wanted to accomplish — I couldn’t stop… for anything, and I didn’t stop — for anything. At the end of February I was battling what I thought was the weirdest, longest flu I had ever had while trying to muscle through the show anyway, trying to schedule vacation time not to “vacation”, but to get a steroid injection to avoid having a larger surgery on an injury. None of it mattered, though, because I was living my total, absolute dream. Then everything came to a screeching halt on March 12th.
But what about my plan? What about the momentum and everything that I had planned out? I always had my next jobs and career moves lined up usually a year in advance, and this was no different — my calendar was marked all the way to December 18th, 2020 when West Side Story was originally set to have its world premiere in theaters. WHAT ABOUT MY PLAN.
I spent the first moments of this pandemic desperately trying to keep running on a treadmill that was unplugged. I was sick with COVID and still trying to reach out to my agents and people I knew — asking if anyone was up to anything and to please let me know if so — I would be better soon. I could still self-tape from home. I remember trying to tape an audition (when things thought they would return within a month) from my living room while HEAVING and almost passing out because my lungs were so shot from the virus. I felt like I was falling behind.
I hit a wall — a wall that one can only hit when they are truly forced to stop. I was forced by events so much bigger than I could even fathom to stop, and from that moment forward my life became a total, complete tsunami of surrender.
It all caught up to me one morning in a way I can’t describe as anything but cosmic. Rest. Healing. Recovery. I was forced to be present, right in the very center of the present moment. I started catching up on years of sleep and caring for my body. I called my family, I was FaceTiming my friends and really, really catching up. Slow days were spent reading and cooking and taking long walks through Brooklyn in the spring. I would walk to the promenade to watch the sunset. I started to learn about myself. I had the time to be with myself for the first time in my adult life. It was daunting. I was a stranger to myself in many ways, I was having growth spurts that were painful and exciting all at the same time. In the quiet, in the rest, in the healing — I realized I was changing. For those interested in the stars and energies of the universe — I had just entered my proper Saturn return — and BOY, DID I FEEL IT. I was shedding things that no longer served me, and new things were blooming like wildflowers around me — new friendships, new hobbies, new interests, new ways of looking at myself and the world around me.
I was briefly a horseback rider when I was younger, and if I wasn’t in the arts, I most certainly would be an equestrian. I started riding again — first in Brooklyn, then in Pennsylvania where my family still lives. I rode as much as I could. Full days were spent at the barn connecting with creatures so much bigger than me, and it was healing. Animals have always been healing for me. The new bullet points that were starting to define me were SO incredibly different from what they had been. What once was: “I’m a Broadway performer, I’m an actor, I live in New York, I’m in this show, I have this project coming up…” while all valid and beautiful had now shifted to: “I ride horses, I just bought a mandolin, I love hiking and adventuring, I’m reading a lot about psychology.” Who am I? Who am I if I am not in a show or filming? I didn’t have the answers for a long time, but what I am learning is that I am incredibly human and in process all the time no matter where I am or what I am doing, and I don’t need to cling so hard to things that I feel define me at one point or another. I am expanding what it means to be me. Art is forever my love and my passion, my calling — but I am so much more, and in this space where I suddenly have permission to explore these other parts of myself, I am becoming more whole.
Of course there is a bubbling inside me to feel artistic again, to be on stage or set again, but this time it is new, and the approach is changing. What once was about “doing the most” and feeling like I had to be hustling around the clock, proving myself, and being “on” all the time — is now starting to look like finding what I love and moving in the direction of it, putting my desires out there and then trusting that no matter what, the right projects and experiences will align with me. What is for me, no matter what, won’t pass me by. The present moment is the magic, and the appreciation for where I am and the pure anticipation and excitement to see how the future unfolds is the key. Often I have found that the way in which things unfold is, in fact, better than I could have even imagined. What if had I trusted that earlier instead of trying to control an outcome?
Things are falling into alignment, and paths are illuminating that I may have been looking too far into the future to ever see before. In the slowness, in intention, in this quiet place where I am listening to my intuition and allowing myself to grow and change, I am seeing opportunity and my dreams realized in new ways right before my eyes. In this place of allowance and flow I have found myself living on the west coast in a beautiful home in Los Angeles that came into my path. What once had been marked by external events and waiting for what I thought was going to be the “exact right moment” was replaced by the instinct to follow my gut and begin my bi-coastal life a year before I thought I would. My reignited passion to do the work and to study and train and create and explore comes from a pure place of desire. 12 years into my professional career as a performer I feel myself at the very brink, the very beginning of myself, the very beginning of a new chapter. I am more inspired than ever. I am humbled. I am growing. I am dreaming in new ways. I am learning about balance. I am becoming more and more whole each day.
Thank you for reading this. Thank you for listening. It’s vulnerable to share all of this, but I feel that it’s important for some reason. It’s a reminder to tune in — to listen to our hearts and to take care of ourselves. Sometimes we all get so lost in the product and the end goal that we forget about the process and the journey. We are allowed to change, and we are allowed to grow and reevaluate and continue the quest for our wholeness and most joyous and fulfilling life. I’m not sure if we ever have the answers, but something about being in the mindset of the student and allowing ourselves to ask the questions is important. It allows ourselves to try new things, to be at the beginning, to learn about ourselves where we are today — not yesterday, not 5 years ago — just who we are here today. And know that we can start, wherever we are, with whatever we have — and that’s enough.