art and photography by Kirk McConnell.
Our colleague, Kirk McConnell, has been navigating the broken terrain of the American economy since 2007. It was the year that the housing market crashed and the financial system imploded from subprime mortgages. In the Great Recession that followed, he has grappled with unemployment, poverty and the loss of a middle class life.
Ten years after the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, he is one of the 30% of Americans the economic recovery has not reached. He has not found employment to match his previous position, has not found economic stability. He would like to move from his current apartment but can’t afford to, he dreams of a family, one of many dreams he has had to postpone.
Yet McConnell is a recession survivor who has not succumbed to despair and anger, suicidal thoughts or addiction. His life is full of small frustrations, as when a bank refused to cash a check he needed to pay his insurance bill. He was forced to walk to his appointments or to space them out so he would have time to get there on the bus. But he is surviving the hard work of poverty, the insults of economic inequality, the temptation of anger and despair.
I had to ask him how he did it.
He had been working as a draftsman for a medium sized engineering firm in the high desert north of Los Angeles. Madole and Associates was headquartered in Ontario but had housing projects in Victorville, the high desert community where McConnell relocated to work as an Auto CAD draftsman. His career had advanced to the point he was considering buying a house in the high desert.
Then the housing market crashed in 2007 and six months later, he lost his job. For a year, he assumed he would find another position, searching online, networking among colleagues and friends but the home building industry had stalled. He was caught in the depths of the Great Recession of 2008 when millions of Americans lost their jobs and the economy tanked. There were no jobs in drafting, graphic design, computer aided design. He burned through his savings and a year later, returned to his parent’s home in Alta Loma.
“I don’t think I ever recovered from that,” McConnell says, “I went from making a decent salary to having to deplete my savings and losing everything. And then working odd jobs here and there. I’ve not had a steady job…the last steady job I had was working three years at a gas station.”
For someone who had been working since he was 14 years old, these were dark times.
Life didn’t stand still for McConnell just because he lost his job. In 2010 his mother died of cancer. His father remarried and McConnell acquired what he calls his “bonus brothers,” one of whom became a roommate. But then that brother committed suicide in 2015. This is why McConnell wishes to leave an apartment full of sad memories.
A month later, McConnell was injured in a serious accident that totally wrecked his truck and left him with hip and back pain. He has been dealing with grief and physical pain ever since.
What keeps him going? Aside from sheer grit and persistence, McConnell has acquired a set of tools he wields when battling loneliness and depression, tools that have enabled him to survive personal loss, unemployment and poverty. His immediate family has left the area, but he still regularly visits his 100 year old grandmother, whom he calls his tether. And he has found a church family at Genesis in Upland with a close knit bible study group.
But he has to work hard to build emotional and mental strength. He read Amy Morin’s Thirteen Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. The key, he has found, is not to go inward, not to dwell on disappointments and negative thoughts.
“When I feel I’m suffering from anxiety or depression the key is to step outside myself.”
From Amy Morin, he adopted the principles that mentally strong people don’t feel sorry for themselves, don’t give their power away, are not people pleasers.
Other tools draw on his creative talents. “I write poetry as a means to help me with my feelings about life. I paint when it feels like life is overwhelming, at those times when you have to accept that you are where you are.”
Or he literally steps outside, to walk and photograph lizards, dragonflies, hummingbirds. Sometimes it is a prayer walk, when he takes the time to pray for friends who might be struggling, who may have suffered losses. He uses his artistic talents to help friends who might need help with classroom decorations, or signs for a charity run, or a chalkboard for the church’s “Laundry Mission,” where coins are collected and donated to homeless people who need to wash their clothes. And then he volunteers at the Upland Library where he was assigned to the children’s section. “That section is always a mess,” he grins, “and needs tender loving care.”
“Part of my dream is to become a librarian.” McConnell first first worked in a library when he was a student worker in the CSU San Bernardino library. Now, if things go as planned, he hopes to earn a Masters of Library and Information Science in a program he can complete largely online.
“There’s only so long you can be sad, depressed. You have to move on. You can’t be downcast all the time,” he sighs.
“If you can be grateful for things, don’t worry about what you don’t have, be grateful for what you do have. At the end of the day, my prayer is ‘Thank you God for getting me through the day.’ Some days are more troubling but at the end of the day, my faith is what I have.”
So he has learned to let go of the old vanities and anxieties and to focus on the present. “When you feel paralyzed by life, by what you think you should do, you have to remember to breathe.”
And then he moves on.