I am typing this on a borrowed laptop. The ceiling paint above me is cracked and peeling, tainted with yellow stains. The bedroom door won’t shut into a door frame deformed from years of settling. I can see out the window because several of the blinds are cracked or missing, but the view is incredible. The #riverhouse (as we affectionately call it) sits upon the side of a hill, surrounded by fields cut in half by the Shenandoah River. Just beyond the river a train track runs parallel, adding a texture of rumbling music to the feast before our eyes. Our first night here I remember every heavy bone in my body imploring to me to fall asleep, while my ears strained to make out any sound from possible creatures who had perhaps been inhabiting this 1873 farmhouse in its long vacant spell, ready to pounce on us intruders. Instead, she offered us silence, a haven. The train finally lulled me to sleep. The next morning I would awaken to a life I could hardly recognize as my own.
Less than eight months ago, everything came crashing down for my family. Now we are starting over in a old house in a small town. We had been the owners of a health and wellness gym which we started twelve years and four babies ago. We lived in metro DC, and at the time boutique studios were rare. Our first tiny, 400-square-foot space was the beginning of a business that we expanded over time. We loved our work and had big goals of growing and franchising a brand that included wellness with fitness, and so in April of 2016 we moved into our dream facility-consisting of 40 team members and four different wellness departments. That expansion was a tough climb that required much of us. We had depleted our savings, taken investments from friends, poured all our best effort into achieving our dream.
I was trying to homeschool, care for my four children—two under the age of three—and be a full-time trainer and business owner. I hired a nanny that year to help me so I could switch my hats quickly. We put aside our own self-care practices, and in many ways put even our marriage on the back burner in order to keep pushing through the incredible weight of our endeavor. It was our dream after all, and we just knew we were going to make it. During that year we experienced the highs of many successes and the sting of several betrayals, the deep satisfaction of witnessing life-changing transformations in our clients and the unrelenting pressures to stay competitive in what had become an over-saturated market. Our work nights usually ended only when we couldn’t keep our eyes open anymore. As most business owners can relate, the harder we worked, the more work there was to do. Then, in one devastating moment, we hit a financial obstacle we were too depleted to overcome. We couldn’t make payroll and we had to close our doors and file bankruptcy. Our loss was especially devastating because of the nature of our business; every name on our spreadsheet was a story, a work in progress, and a relationship we had greatly disappointed.
In the wake of our closing, we mourned the death of our dream. We carried the heavy shame of our failure like weights around our necks as we thrashed through those tumultuous waters in the months that followed. One flailing stroke and gasp of breath at a time, we compartmentalized the many tasks we faced and gratefully accepted the lifelines that were offered in many forms to get us through this crisis. Our church’s small group prayed furiously for us and with us, brought us groceries, and babysat our four kids on several occasions. Our church paid our rent that month. Friends showed up with coffee in hand on their weekend mornings, hustled at our yard sales, and helped us pack our things. We were given a cabin to stay at in North Carolina and a van to drive us there, a moment of space to figure our next move. But as far as we could see, we had nowhere to go and seemingly no resources to get there.
Then a friend and fellow business partner called and offered us their house. We have never felt more humility and gratitude in all our lives. As she was explaining the floor plan to us and the quirks of the space, I remember looking over at my husband in disbelief. At that moment we didn’t know what tomorrow held for our family of six, but we knew we would have a roof over our head and that was enough. It was an old farm house 70 miles west of the city, built in 1873. It was not only old, but it had been sitting vacant for a few years, becoming engulfed by vines housing hornets’ nests. As a fixer-upper to start with, it was also in the middle of a stalled kitchen re-model that my friend had become too busy to complete, and it recently had been vandalized by a bunch of neighborhood kids. Overturned furniture, discarded beer cans and a coating of fire-extinguisher dust on almost every surface divulged the tale of their drunken amusement. Clearly a house sitting empty was not the best option for my friends’ weekend getaway home. They told us they would be happy if we could live there while we got back on our feet. The house, like our hearts, needed some care. We would offer the house our care and she would offer us hers. We gratefully accepted, and with that our stormy sea stilled and we crawled up upon dry land.
I remember waking up that first morning late last summer to a stillness I had never known. No internet and cell phone service had something to do with it, but the vastness of space that surrounded us made us feel like we were in a bubble. The mental exhaustion we had experienced from the great unraveling fell away and in its place rested the question: “Now what?” During those late days of summer and into the fall, we feasted on quiet morning sunrises, rich green oxygen, our children’s laughter, and nine-hour sleep every night. We survived on food stamps, part-time work, and the kindness of friends and family whose support I will never forget.
Our weekends were spent painting walls and trimming away dead branches off of trees. The physical labor pulled us out of our heads and into our bodies, a welcome exchange. At dusk the kids collected sticks and we would make bonfires for no other reason than to simply sit and stare. The house was coming along. Her front patio, a modest slab of bare cement, was her most holy space, with its tangerine and magenta sky at daybreak and star-studded awning by night. This patio was where much of our new life began slowly coming into view. Little by little, the neglected parts of our hearts began to speak…or rather, we now had the space to listen. This was hardly how I envisioned we would be at this phase of our lives, to be ripped from the middle chapter so close to our awaited climax, but here is where we landed and so our answers must be here. I had no idea how else to find them other than practicing gratitude and the art of noticing. Could abundance from a loving God reveal itself in spite of having so little? I knew the answer was yes, and I was determined not to forget it.
Our first winter was cold in that drafty farmhouse. By then we had fallen into a rhythm. My husband worked every day to salvage and re-build parts of our business into an online model, and he is filled with purpose and possibility, but now as spring arrives I still struggle to find mine. Even eight months later I still feel the sting of pride I thought was gone. It hits me in unexpected places, in moments of working at a minimum wage job with people half my age, while standing in line at a food bank, while pulling out my SNAP card to pay for eggs and butter, or while scrolling through my iPhone and seeing names from a life that is no longer mine. I crave solitude and find that even here, in the middle of nowhere, it requires effort to find. It is in solitude that I find that my deepest needs are met, I am seen not for what I do, have, or accomplish, but as a beloved daughter, loved no matter what. Only recently can I dare to admit that nothing less than the upheaval of losing everything we had built could have rattled me to the core of my striving. The frantic striving, fed by a busy schedule and a rapid pace, that so easily tempts me to disengage from my heart and earn my validation, is only disrupted when I simply engage in solitude.
One can’t possibly realize how much they value being perceived as successful until their failure is exposed. I am humbled daily by what limited means and simplicity have to teach me. Our “new” life these days is not shiny or pretty on the outside, but on the inside a major transformation is underway. A transformation marked by humility, by finding the courage to ask hard questions, to listen and strain for answers, and then by finding the discipline to do the work it requires of us. Transformation comes by being tested, bracing for, and not resisting the hard parts because they are necessary, and by always remembering that the answer key can be found on our laps on a quiet morning, coffee in hand, where the incredible view compels us to look upward at a sky that is made new every morning.
Nina Elliot is a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach who lives in Front Royal, VA, homeschooling her four kids. She is a Washington transplant to Virginia via LA. Where she took her acting career as far as three seconds in a P. Diddy music video, Nina now shoots and edits home videos for her and her husband’s online Wellness Coaching Programs—very similar. 😉 Nina loves to cook and is into traditional foods, such as making her own beet kvass, ginger ale, and bone broth with chicken feet.