My son is twelve years old. Which means we spend a fair amount of time watching superheroes. Inevitably the best storylines are the origin stories, where it all begins. Frequently it begins in chaos . . . .
Let me take you back to September of 2008. I was in Key West on my then annual trip with my friend Russell. As we’re strolling down Duvall Street enjoying the people on display Russell nods toward a newspaper rack.
“Evs,” Russell calls out. “It seems like the stock market’s tanking.”
Foolish Russell. Paying attention to the newspaper headlines and TV news blips . . . I was above it all . . . floating . . . Hakunnah Mattata, my soul sang, it just doesn’t matter . . .
“Seriously, I think something’s going on with the market.”
Oh Russell, Russell, Russell, that’s what the market does best, scare the hell out of you and then three weeks later you feel pranked and everything’s back to bagels and creamcheese.
“Seriously, it seems to be all over the news.”
After the Key West trip the world continued having no fun. Life had never felt so 1929. After Key West the market continued its collapse. Every time we managed a breath it seemed the Dow would calve off another 1,000 points. Worst of all it was a financial panic, not just a market plunge. Banks teetered, some collapsed. Confidence imploded. We were in for it.
I’m no keen intellect — or else I wouldn’t have this tale to tell you — but from my understanding then, when the banks go . . . it all goes.
Our sales at the art gallery — our only source of income — fell off by upwards of 90%.
Several years earlier we’d had a near-business death, from a move into what turned out to be a very wrong location. After recovering from that fiasco we rebuilt the art gallery with this intention: to be able to survive up to a 50% falloff in sales.
I can only compare the shock of a sudden 75% to 90% fall off in business to this scenario: You’re planning to repel the Russians but are instead invaded by Alpha Centaurians whose weaponry operates like black magic. The world we faced was far more severe than the casual-to-bleak, run-of-the-mill recession.
In late October my friend Gil came down from New York City. As a trader he was a keen student of the markets. He agreed this was unprecedented in our lifetime. We talked it over at length and the only conclusion we could draw was how colossally impossible it was to even conjecture.
The fallout? Unpredictable. The timeline to recovery? Unknown. How could you prepare for it? Too late. How could you survive it?
How are we going to survive for two years?! This was my burning question. I thought we had investments that would hold us for two years — in the hope a recovery might take hold by then — but the stock market was rapidly halving itself, taking our buffer zone south with it.
When you ask a question intensely for hours and days, the reasonable answers disappear. Traipsing through your mind come ideas like this . . . we could sell Zane . . . no! what am I thinking . . . we could sell Ann’s body . . . OK, better . . . make a note, talk to Ann . . . orrrr, we could sell that old kayak, what will that get us? Let’s do the math . . . Oh, six hours. That will get us about six hours of living expenses. Ummm, what else is in the house that we can sell . . . My god, the house! Let’s sell the house!
Gil is a numbers guy. So we ran the numbers.
As Gil and I reviewed our expenses selling the house started to look like the only viable alternative. The Depression ripped the country apart for more than a decade. It took the unparalleled expenditures of a world war to kick start that economic engine again. Who knew how long this one would be?
If we sold the home and moved into something at half the value, we’d eliminate the mortgage. Plus, wherever we landed there would be less upkeep, property taxes would be halved. That would save thousands a month. What else?
By asking what else I really was asking myself, What else could sell this idea to Ann? — who’d be forced to leave her dreamy home for something . . . less. Far less.
The pretty thinking would be that the economy would recover in a year to a year and a half, like most recessions. But I knew this wasn’t most recessions. If we were to survive this — business intact — we had to accept the collapse and improvise from there.
The worst part was the talk: Ann absorbing what I was saying. Ann crying. She listened. We went over details, outflow, all the outflow. The expenses that didn’t go down just because our sales had. We went over inflow, the spigot was only trickling now. I felt like an assassin, killing her dream home dream in one blow. Gil, thoughtful as ever, left for a few hours so we could could speak privately.
I told Ann to take as much time as she needed to think it over. But she surprised me. She decided within the day, Yes, let’s sell it. In three weeks we had it ready for market.
It didn’t take much — just everything we had. It was ejecting everything we could to storage . . . to space up the place for viewing. It was converting Ann’s studio back to a dining area, removing the sink we’d put in — and the curtains, and the armature to fasten paintings to the wall and spin them! Ann’s a creative lass. So damnit, when it came time to fasten painting supports onto a wall, why not make ‘em spinnable?
After the makeover, it was quickly on to painting the whole terrafloppage of house. We created space. Cleaned it up inside and out, filled dings, repaired floorboards, emptied the garage — it was so ready. The painters came in and turned that house over in days. Doors came off and were spray painted outside. Rooms were taped off and slathered in white. It was like watching icing being applied to a cake (thinly) (these guys knew what they were doing, they knew how to apply just enough).
The crew was a happy, energetic crew. Close to the end one of the painters revealed why this was so. Since the real estate crash — which had preceded the stock market crash by a couple of years — work had been hard to come by for paint crews. So the owners bid low on jobs, often taking break-even projects.
As the painter put it, “They take jobs where theoretically if all went perfectly well they’d at least make one dollar.” The owners bid obscenely low . . . to keep their guys working. To keep their guys working!
This endeared them all the more to us. When we’d sat down only a week or two earlier to face the grim music ourselves, we’d decided instantly, with only the merest discussion, that we were going to try to keep everyone employed. We had to let go the newest hire of a month or two, but everyone else we would try to save . . . for as long as we could.
There we stood. In the home we’d loved for ten years. It had been made beautiful and proud in just three exhausting weeks. We would live daintily in it until it sold.
It sold within the month, the deal finalized on Christmas Eve. We were out another month after that.
The aftermath that keeps on giving
You might think selling your dream home and moving into a space one half the size would get you through the aftermath of the crash. But no. Toward the end of the season — a season of blood-letting — we were facing bankruptcy. I had taken to the road in our big cavernous van, to return unsold consigned artwork back to the artists. The better to save the thousands of dollars it would have cost us to ship.
I remember this clearly. It was my fourth such trip in a few short months. Our season was drawing to a close. We didn’t have the money to survive the summer. As I drove I looked skyward, begging for an idea. Something I could do to save the business.
This is when I discovered the power of asking. That if you ask something intently with all your being, answers come. You ask the sky . . . it turns out the sky is connected to all things. Two days into my asking — and declaring — for I alternated declaring the answer would come, for good measure — two days into this rhythm method of solution seeking, an answer came.
It was so simple I felt a chill of This is doable run down my spine.
The answer was to get into the art transport business. I called the art transporter we loved and asked if he needed another van on the road. He had me working in a week.
I spent a year and a half on the road, circling America relentlessly, running artwork here and there. It turned out to be a good time to enter the transport business. Ironically because art galleries were collapsing everywhere. Because of this art was being moved.
It wasn’t glorious. In the beginning I slept in the cab of the van — with no money for lodging — with barely enough money for the gas. I was skimping the best I could. Standing at a gas pump was its own kind of hell, squeezing out the remaining credit on credit cards. Juggling the cards, praying some bank wasn’t suddenly rescinding our remaining credit.
One night in Houston, after midnight, I semi-slept in over 100-degree basting temperature at a truck stop, diesel fumes choking me through the cracked windows.
Two days before my 50th birthday on the far side of the country I pulled into a campground for the night. There in the cab I broke down, crying. Sobbing really. The kind you try to choke back so other campers don’t hear you. But I couldn’t.
I’d already been back and forth across the continent a couple times. From where I was I could easily count to where I’d be in two nights. In a barren little campground in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, two and half hours south and east of Santa Fe. It was a forlorn location for the road lonely. I’d been there enough already to know it wasn’t where I wanted to be celebrating my 50th birthday.
As bad as the crash had been, as bad as the subsequent months had been, nothing prepared me for the desolation I felt that night in the mountains outside of San Diego, me in my van wrapped with art images, surrounded by luxury campers.
It wasn’t the Santa Rosa campground itself — it was what it represented. The total washout of my life. Turning 50 and nothing but loss to show for it. Not even able to live with my family — seemingly stuck in a cycle of looping the country, alighting for 5 or 7 or 10 days then shackling myself into the van again for another loop.
After I was all cried out I forced myself out of the van cockpit, into a walk. I couldn’t do laundry. The laundry soap was all sold out. The woman at the check-in couldn’t find more for the machine. So, feeling dirty, feeling low, I walked, circling the campground several times. Each time hopping over a small creek bubbling along the flank of the campground.
The water, the wind, the walk brought some small bit of life back into me. Ever so slowly. The trees and rocks and inclines conspired to enliven me. I can’t say what it was — the exhausting of all my self pity, becoming grounded with the earth beneath my feet, the last of the daylight — I don’t know what or how but by the time I came back to my van I felt lifted. Slightly. No longer on the floor of despair, but maybe with my head a few inches above it.
I came back to the van and there was a little baggie tied to one of my mirrors with a note. Laundry detergent. Laundry detergent! In a small bottle inside a zip loc bag inside the plastic bag. With a note from the woman from the check-in counter.
Once she’d gotten off duty, she’d gone straight to her trailer for the detergent — I was able to locate her to offer my over-the-top thanks. She was laughing, that a little kindness could spark such manic joy in someone.
After that trip I was able to buy a pop-up tent.
At the time there was a saying making the rounds — you saw it on signs, on trinkets, you heard people say it with resignation, you heard people say it with wisdom in their heart, you heard people say it with equanimity, you heard people say it with a sense of fatalism:
It is what it is.
In the right hands, in the right frame of mind, it could be comforting. In the aftermath of the crash it too often took on a tone of defeatism. But it felt incomplete to me.
I grabbed ahold of It is what it is — I accepted where I was. This is where I was, this was the reality I’m living in. I wasn’t denying it.
Minor miracles could find their way to me with this feeling of allowing the situation to be exactly what it was. Like accepting I was in a van in a campground surrounded by luxury campers and trailers . . . and going for a walk.
At the back end of the phrase I added, but it isn’t what it will be.
Linked together it became a beautiful two step:
It is what it is . . . but it isn’t what it will be.
The first phrase was about acceptance. The second was about possibility. Minor miracles could find me at any moment! Like the generous heart compelled to bring me detergent.
Major quantum leaps of near impossibility could happen too. We’ve had help come at the most necessary yet unexpected times. We’ve been able to help others.
Things could change and I could be an active agent in that change.
Flash forward six more years. I’ve spent three birthdays on the road. This survival side business has become a real summer side business. After several years of imminent bankruptcy our business climbed back. We live in a dream home on 1.3 wooded acres, abutting a preserve. It’s much smaller, single story, older and in need of continuing upgrades — but we own it outright at half the cost of the previous home.
The property has so many of the dream elements my wife and I wrote down on a sheet of paper once that it seems ordered for us. A pool you can swim laps in. A big natural yard for our son and his friends. Hemmed in by forest on three sides this new home has become the sanctuary we sought in the storm.
More than that I acquired a superpower: Resiliency. And it’s all in my augmented phrase:
It is what it is . . . but it’s not what it will be.
In it is the surreal freedom you gain by engaging life where you’re at.
Resilience is simple. It’s comprised of two elements: Acceptance and possibility.
I’m better for the crap storm I’ve gone through. I’m more resilient. I’m more loving. I’m more accepting. I’m more understanding. I’m less in a hurry. I’m less agitated. I’m more about less now. In an essentialist kind of way. Seeking what is essential for my life and discarding what is trivial.
I value my time in the shadowlands so much that when things go awry a little tinge of excitement comes. I know from hard experience that whatever is weighing me down will be the catapult into better — if I can learn its lesson.
May you too find a way to thrive in the sometimes chaos —
For you —
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