A Grim Account of My Most Challenging Time...
Last night the ARC finalists were announced and thankfully, I once again made the list. However, the published list is bittersweet - it reminds me of a very dark time in my life. There was a specific year when I hoped for some monetary prize - not for the esteem, but to help ease the financial stress on my family. Unfortunately, I didn’t win a prize or purchase award and relief never came that particular year.
When things in the world became financially chaotic in late 2008 I wasn’t in too much of a panic. My wife and I survived a recession once before and that lesson taught us the power of planning ahead. We never racked up debt or lived beyond our means. We also were comforted by the considerable amount of money we saved – we were fairly certain it would help us coast through our latest challenges. Unfortunately, I was wrong.
By mid 2010, I was rattled. My world seemed to be slowly ebbing into a dark struggle that both my wife and I tried our best not to succumb to. My business was slow and the news of life getting better was nonexistent. With the birth of our third child we now had five mouths to feed – I was overwhelmed and for the first time in my life, terribly frightened. Personally, we turned to God for comfort and guidance. My wife and I prayed for some miracle but God is a mysterious being and He has a way of delivering His wisdom and blessings at odd times.
Months turned into another year of hardship. I had exhausted my savings and bills became financially cumbersome. Being too proud and private, we kept our struggles to ourselves knowing that our lives always had the miraculous gift of turning around when we least expected it. However, it was taking longer than we ever anticipated. Though daunted, my wife and I trudged on – it’s what we do. When one of us becomes frightened or overwhelmed, the other remains strong and steadfast. We spent many hours sitting in candlelight discussing options and solutions – we refused to believe that the beautiful life we made was crumbling to ash.
By Christmas of 2010, it was clear we were in serious trouble. Our problems became so real, that we were on the verge of losing everything – including the gorgeous home we worked on for over a decade. Though my wife was deeply worried, she never once gave up – instead, she encouraged us to pray and work harder. By January 2011, our large home with it’s 12ft ceilings was frigid – oil prices spiked even higher and it cost me nearly $3,000 to fill my enormous tanks which barely lasted a month. The winter was brutal and the expensive heat was literally leeching out of the house. In years past, our house was never cold but with the high cost of oil, we had to keep our usage down. We soon resorted to taking quick, cold showers to reserve what little we could.
By February, I was down to my last $100.00 dollars. By that time, my wife sold all of her antique silver she collected over the years and all of her jewelry except for her wedding band and engagement ring. At times, she literally begged me to sell her diamond but I refused. That ring was the only thing she had left – the most expensive item I ever bought her and I was determined to turn things around. However, our oil tank was almost empty and so was the refrigerator. I could no longer hide my panic – I was the man of the house and I promised my wife and children a wonderful life but at that moment, I was nearly spent.
After spending the day in my freezing studio painting and trying to find commission work, I walked into the dining room to see dozens of candles lit and our fine china decorating the table as if we were expecting guests. Confused, I entered the kitchen to find my wife making soup out of the broth she made from the turkey we had a few days prior. That broth, a bag of carrots, a half of stalk of celery and some old lasagna noodles were all we had. She smiled and continued to drop broken noodles into the boiling soup. I asked her why she had the table set with the fine china and she answered, “Because we still have a lot to be grateful for, Eric. After everything we worked for, I refuse to surrender. Tell the children that dinner is ready.” I stood shocked for a moment but then understood – she was right, nothing was ever handed to us. Out of nothing, we built an impressive life full of beautiful things. I bought her that expensive china set a few years after we were married and it meant the world to her and now, it meant even more. That china represented a strange sense of hope – a belief that we could rebuild.
We ate the soup that night and the children, still young and mostly unaware of our financial apocalypse thanks to my wife, seemed satisfied and content. I helped my wife with the dishes and we went upstairs to our bedroom feeling strangely optimistic. At that moment, my Internet was to be shut off in a few days along with my phone and there was no relief in sight. My house was cold and I nothing to feed the children for breakfast the next day. In many ways, I should’ve given up but my wife and her courage seemed to pacify me.
A few hours later, I received an email from a priest in Ohio. He was the pastor of Saint Sebastian’s parish and was interested in buying my painting of the saint for his church. With my heart pounding, I sent him the price. A few seconds later, he asked if I’d include the frame. I agreed and we made arrangements for him to wire the money the following morning. My wife and I cried. We talked for a few hours how blessed we were and after a long day of trying to keep the family afloat, she fell asleep. However, I couldn’t – the news that a large sum of money was coming to save my family was too invigorating. I decided to sneak into my studio and paint. It was nearly midnight when I heard my phone ding –I read the email and nearly fell off my stool. It was a query from Howard Tullman asking a price for my painting of Cleopatra. I quickly retuned the message and without a lie, the deal was made. I ran down the hall and woke up my wife. She groggily asked me to repeat myself several times – surely I was joking since just that evening we ate peasant soup out of over-priced bowls. Needless to say, she was suddenly wide-awake and in awe. We strongly believed our prayers and efforts had saved us.
From that horrific experience, I learned more about my wife and myself than I could have ever in pleasant times. I learned that my wife and I are impervious and that our love was unbreakable. Though I knew she loved me beyond measure, I knew then how much she was willing to sacrifice for us – for my career and dreams. She willing gave up items she collected for years and precious heirlooms she cherished because she believed in me – in us. She always said that such ephemeral things were of no value if the house was cold and the children were hungry.
A few weeks later, I received a rather hurtful remark from some woman on facebook when I posted a new painting I finished. She claimed I was entitled and never had to work hard for anything. She cited pictures of my home and how easily I found success in my career eluding that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I ignored it but it festered inside me. I thought about struggle and how some people keep their trials and demons to themselves. I then thought intently about jealousy and envy and how people try to project their anger and failure on others. A few weeks prior to that remark, I nearly lost everything with the exception of my wife and children. No one knew. We chose to remain steadfast and carry on as if everything was fine - maybe that was the armor that protected us.
I hear people claim to know what it’s like to struggle all the time - maybe they decline the offer to attend some event or pass on a vacation because money is tight. Maybe they refrain from going out to dinner or buying something luxurious for themselves until the following month when money is more plentiful. When you’re not responsible for lives beside your own, financial struggles are less cumbersome. I felt ashamed that I had the audacity to complain things were ‘rough’ in the past before children, a house and mounting responsibilities. It was easy to only worry about my wife and myself – they were not hungry or cold children. During these struggles, I gained a new understanding and reverence for sacrifice and hardship.
When you work for yourself, you have no set salary to depend on. You have to work harder and be more creative with your money flow. And sadly, when the economy suffers, artists suffer because we produce luxury items. If our wealthy patrons are holding back in fear, the money flows like mud. Some artists give up and succumb to the dreadful career killer called the 9-5. And some of us forge on. We know that success and pursuing our passions are worth suffering for. My wife was willing to sell everything she loved, all her sentimental things to support me. She believed in me so much that she lived in a cold, drafty house without a murmur of complaint. She continued to remain elegant and confident – she’d dress up and smile as though all was right in our world. Her belief in me, made me stronger and more determined.
Soon after I made the double sale in one evening – a miracle I will never take for granted, things continued to improve. Though it took time to completely stabilize, we were incredibly grateful for a full refrigerator and hot showers. When you’ve hit bottom, you measure all difficulties to that dark event. You learn to adapt to life in a whole new way and you begin to appreciate the little things much more. My wife and I remind each other how bleak things became and we choose to never lose that fear – we feel it humbles us. Ever since that cold, sad Christmas of 2010, we’ve refrained from getting gifts for each other. Instead, we donate a large sum to several food banks hoping to ease the burden on other struggling families. It makes us feel better – it helps us to never forget.
To be truthful, I struggled a lot with this latest blog. I wondered how honest I could be without tarnishing my pride or image to some degree. Though I’m never shy about my struggles I’ve never been so forthcoming. But after I received that email from the ARC last night, my mind was stirred and I began thinking about the past and how far I’ve come. I felt that my story needed to be told no matter how embarrassing or difficult. And after some deep reflection, I clearly believe that failing to win a prize in the ARC was the best thing that happened to me that year. Instead of giving up, I worked harder. I gained an edge and new perspective on life – I became wise and weathered. And most importantly, I refused to live in the shadows of my contemporaries.
So in summation, I encourage you to look beyond your struggles and carry on. Know that tomorrow brings infinite possibilities if we plant seeds daily. Never stop working or give into self-pity – it will certainly delay your success. Remember that suffering can be insightful and glorious even in it’s darkest moments. Choose to believe that miracles happen every day if we believe in ourselves. And find comfort in your loving partner or supportive friend because with their love and encouragement, the world is less dreadful.