Previously on Nikolas Makes Something out of Nothing…
I’m going out to seek my fortune! That’s what Nikolas told his parents as he left the relative safety and conformity of his carefully selected college preparatory school. His parents were shocked and very unhappy, but resigned. Nikolas had turned eighteen the day he left. There was nothing they could do other than worry. The Headmaster of the school knew what to do, though- he warned Nikolas that he would be very sorry for his intemperate act. He warned—no, he scolded—Nikolas: … “In this life there are no second chances for the wayward or quitters, you WILL be sorry!”
Leaving the scolding and admonitions behind, Nikolas departed school and the safe life his parents had crafted for him, and took to the road. His first port of call was the chaotic but colorful Village del’Arte, the Village of the arts. Here he learned to live freely, discovering his artistic talents as he drew and painted pictures for a few coins and worked in the artists’ community, a colorful, musical, aesthetic anarchy that is a village of artists. From there he traveled to the Village del’Oro, the money village, where he learned what it was like to live in the land of money with rigorous class divisions, golden gates, guards with guns, strict rules and Guest Worker accommodations.
We rejoin Nikolas on his way out of the high mountains, leaving Village del’Oro behind. As he walked, he ruminated about all that money and how hard it had been to earn any of it as a Guest Worker. So hard that he was convinced that if he was to find his fortune, he would have to do it some place else. The inhabitants of Village del’Oro, although kind and caring up to a point, had lots of money mostly because they didn’t give it to other people. He was also anxious about spending winter in an unheated one room mud hut perched on the exposed high mountain pass.
So it was the search of warm weather and better prospects that drove him out onto the road again, heading south with his rucksack, his Swiss Army knife, forty-one coins, and enough food for twelve days. He was fueled by anticipation, that powerful drug of adventure. Yes, there were plenty of hardships on the road and in the strange villages along the way, but more than anything, Nikolas felt free! Even though he didn’t have much to show for many months of traveling, somehow, inside, he really did feel he was getting ahead, that he was going somewhere. After all, he had forty-one coins in his pocket, his legs were stronger legs (he had walked over three hundred miles), and his back and arms were stronger because he had worked hard along the way. Feeling his new strength and optimism, he bounded down the mountain path onto a forested plane, camping, sleeping well, and wondering where the road would lead.
Winter was coming: the days were not so warm. Rain fell more often, sometimes with thunder and lighting. He talked to himself as he walked. “So I’m going south, but where in the south? So I am heading to warmer places, but where will I land next?” The words were marching through his head, over and over, mesmerizing, when he was startled by the small yellow dart of a bird whizzing past his cheek, barely missing his eye…. “Oh!” Nikolas yelped.
A goldfinch landed on a branch right in front of him. “Damn you, bird, you scared me!” The goldfinch flit into the air, did a small circle and landed on another branch nearby, and seemed to stare right back at him. Nikolas, now angry, sprung ahead. As he did, the bird flew at him again, right at his face, veering off at the last second.
“Hey,” Nikolas shouted. “Hey, what’s up with you, stupid bird!.” And he reached out to swat the bird, but in doing so, he tripped over a swollen root across his path and flew forward, hitting his head on a large stone. He saw a flash of light, heard a dull thud, and then the world went dark.
“Nikolas…. Is that your name, Nikolas?”
Nikolas blinked, a blaze of white light shocked him. Then came a crushing pain in his forehead. He blinked again, the pain now throbbing. Nonetheless he was curious. The bright light came from a window to his right, and was also reflected by the white uniformed mob surrounding him. He now could see he was in a hospital bed, its chrome bits adding to the glare and the pain
“Nikolas, welcome back,” a woman dressed in white said. “We were worried about you.”
Through the wall of pain in his forehead, Nikolas frowned. “Where am I?”
The woman smiled, placing her hand on his shoulder. “You’re in the Village del Mano Amiga, the helpers village. You’re in a hospital.”
“How did I get here?”
“An old man found you and your pet bird on the road. He bound the wound on your head, put you over the back of his donkey, and brought you here. He brought your little bird, too.” Nikolas looked to where she was pointing, at the window that was letting in the painful sunlight. On the sill, was the goldfinch, moving from side to side, first bouncing, then staring, then bouncing, again.
“That bird,” Nikolas said, moving to sit up, but at the jolt of pain in his head, he wilted and fell back onto the pillow with a groan.
Sleep and bed rest were proscribed by the doctors. All the while, the bird faithfully held watch from the sill. The nurses brought in a small mound of seed on a saucer and a child’s cup of water, and the little goldfinch bounced, stared at Nikolas then chirped as if trying say something in Nikolas’ direction.
Three days later he was talking to the doctor while she examined an X-ray of his skull. “Hard as rock,” she marveled. “You have a concussion, but in two weeks or so you should be right as rain.”
“When can I leave?”
“Well, I think you and your friend here should plan on say at least the whole two weeks, just so we can be sure. You won’t have to stay here in the hospital though. We’ll get you a comfortable apartment in the town center so you can convalesce.”
“I’m a little confused.”
“Yes,” she smiled down at him. “That is one of the symptoms of concussion.”
“Yes, but it’s not that, what I don’t understand is why you call this a helping village. What exactly is a helping village? Who do you help? How do you help?”
“Well, this village is organized to help anyone who needs help. Here in the hospital we help people who are sick. In fact, we have eight hospitals in this small village. We also have counselors, therapists, body workers—all kinds of people who help others. That is the job of this whole village. We are open to anyone in the land who is sick, handicapped or in any way challenged, and we help them with whatever it is they need.”
“But that’s crazy. Don’t people take advantage? What about gold diggers or fakers?”
The doctor smiled. Her eyes sparkled and wrinkled at the edges as she shook her head and said, “Well, it’s not like that. We’re not here to judge people, we’re here to help them. So if someone is, as you call it, a faker, well they need to learn that faking isn’t a healthy coping mechanism, and in this village we have counselors who can do that, teach them to not fake, so to speak. Gold diggers, well, I think what you mean is people who just come here to live and not work… they need to learn that just sitting around waiting for someone to feed them and act as their servant isn’t a healthy lifestyle either. So we teach them to work, to enjoy work. In fact, many of those types of patients learn how to work and then stay on here as helpers themselves. The work of helping can be very satisfying.
“I can’t believe such a place actually exists.”
“No, many people in other lands don’t approve of this type of support for people, but believe me, it works. And you, young man, are going to be a beneficiary of our care-giving. What do you say about that?”
“I say thank you.”
“Thank the Country Counsel who made all this happen. We were founded seventy-five years ago, and have become a major factor in attracting people to this part of the world. We help those in our Country who need help so they can live safely and productively without fear of being left on their own due to sickness, injury, impairment or handicap. As you will see, this is a very happy place, even though we deal mostly with sick or suffering people.”
(Note: In real life, conversations rarely pan out this way. There are unexpected interruptions, people fail to say things beautifully, and many things are said through body language rather than with words. This conversation needs to be disrupted a bit in order for it to seem realistic. Perhaps the bird can interrupt? Maybe its seed gets spilt on the floor? Anything you like.)
Nikolas overstayed his concussion by three months, not as a freeloader or gold digger, but as a paid helper’s apprentice. He worked in a counseling center, did some artwork in the children’s wing of one of the eight hospitals, learned how to do “intake” work—the administrative receiving of emergency room patients at his home hospital. Finally he worked as what they called an assistant facilitator for a cluster of substance abuse groups that met in his immediate neighborhood. The group work was the most challenging by far. He saw for himself how people could get caught by chemical dependencies, depression, lack of sleep, high anxiety, and even episodic terror. He also saw many of these people work themselves back to what was, for all the world to see, mainstream normal behavior. Person after person was freed from the poison of internal demons. If he hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, Nikolas would have never believed what helping could do for people who were, for one reason or another, in trouble. He also learned firsthand the power of skillful one-to-one contact, of listening, of positive regard, and the special healing powers of peer group involvement.
He was housed, fed and appreciated for his contribution to life in the village of helpers. For a while he was so overwhelmed by the experience that he thought he might stay forever. He celebrated his nineteenth birthday, and used the occasion to write his parents a long letter about his adventures. Much to his surprise they responded with a birthday card, hand written, with words of encouragement and love.
One thing he learned about being a helper is that humans must, from time to time, take stock, reflect on where they have been and where they are going. Nikolas knew very well where he had been, but he still didn’t really know where he was going. Oh, yes, he knew he wanted to seek his fortune, only his learnings in the village of helpers made the definition of the word “fortune” more obscure than ever. Money mattered, for sure. But would one thousand coins make a fortune, or, as he suspected, did fortune have anything to do with coins in the first place? He didn’t know. What he did know was that he now only had sixty-three coins and that didn’t feel like enough. He had set out to make his fortune and was pretty sure he wouldn’t find it by staying in this idyllic place.
So it was, after a stay of four months, that Nikolas set off early on a crisp and clear Sunday morning in December. His departure was attended by a crowd of thirty or so new friends. They gathered at the gate of the village, clapping, shaking his hand, some hugging him, promising all the things you promise friends at a departure. They gave voice to encouragement and helped him with his straps as he put the rucksack on his back. Out of a tree flew the goldfinch, landing on top of his pack, taking his place, settling in for the journey ahead. Nikolas smiled and waved one last time. Feeling the press of anticipation he pushed off, out the gate, out onto the open road toward the forest ahead. The sounds of “goodbye and “good luck” faded, giving way to the crunch of leaves underfoot and the comforting chirp form his traveling companion.
It was good to be on the road again, even accompanied by the sadness of having left behind friends and the warmth of the helping village. The energy that comes with adventure pushed him at a fast pace for five days. Since it was December, he went south hoping to avoid the worst of winter. He climbed over a low mountain pass and went down the other side at a half run, the breeze ruffling the goldfinch’s feathers. The trail dove into deep forest ablaze with newly changed yellow and orange leaves framed by the black roots, trunks and branches of trees all round him. It was eerily quiet in the forest. The leaves seemed to swallow up even the sound of his breathing. Coming out of the other side of this magic tunnel of color and quiet, the road continued out across a great wheel of the earth, a plane that fell away from him as fallow fields. The early spring sun was passing overhead, rising on the left and setting on the right. Each day’s progress brought warmer weather. The cold wind lost its bite, the frost was less frosty.
On the sixth night, he set up camp. The goldfinch pecked at fallen grain next to the fire as Nikolas leaned against his pack, writing in a journal, thinking about all that he had seen so far. He drew a little map of the world as he knew it… including his parents home, the school he’d left behind, and the villages he’d visited. After the Village del Mano Amiga he drew a bit of the road and then a big question mark. Now there is an enigma, he thought to himself; I am heading for that great question mark in the South, the one in the great blank space on this map. Suddenly he felt the cold finger of loneliness, and then an ache of homesickness in his ribs. Black sky, dimming fire, dropping temperature, and he was aching all over. The ground was cold, hard, and the pain grew until finally he looked over at his pack with the goldfinch nestled into its folds and said: “I can’t stand this, I have to go home. I can’t stand this… I…have…to…go…home!”
The goldfinch looked over at him and just chirped, one time.
“So you agree?”
The goldfinch was silent.
“I don’t care what you say, I’m going home, I’m starting back tomorrow, first thing!”
Then the goldfinch did a strange thing. It stood up, shook its little body, puffing up its bright yellow and black feathers, and flew off into the night. Nikolas lay down next to the campfire and went to sleep.
The next morning, still feeling the ache, he threw all of his provisions and supplies into the rucksack and with exaggerated long strides retraced his steps back along the trail, heading back home, heading back toward the tunnel of leaves and the mountain pass. He had taken twenty or so giant steps when he noticed that he was alone. He felt up on the top of his pack, then took it off to examine it more carefully. The goldfinch was not in its place. He called out “Goldfinch, Goldfinch where are you?” But nothing happened. I want to go home, Nikolas thought to himself, despairing. It makes my stomach ache, this homesickness, but my friend, I can’t just leave him alone out here. He went back to the campsite and carefully examined the trees around it, the shrubs, the ground, wondering if the bird might have been hurt or even killed. He walked some distance along the trail in the direction the goldfinch had flown the night before, along the trail toward the great question mark, and after about a half hour, stopped and sat on a rock. His stomach ached so badly, he felt so sad, he had to rest. Then he heard it, a chirp, not just any chirp but that chirp, his chirp. “Goldfinch,” he cried, “Goldfinch!” He jumped up and ran farther down the trail toward the chirp. And there he was, standing in the center of the road, his friend! It flitted into the air and flew about ten yards farther down the trail.
“Wait,” cried Nikolas. “Wait. I want to go home, I’m homesick!” The Goldfinch chirped and flew another ten yards down the road, landed, and looked back.
“I don’t want to go that way, Goldfinch! I….” But before he could finish, the goldfinch had already flown farther yet, then again, then again, around the bend in the trail. Nikolas, angry now, started running after the little bird, tearing up as he went around the corner, almost sprinting, and as he did, the little bird flew back to him and landed right on top of the pack, chirping over and over and over. Nikolas slowed down and started to laugh even though he was breathing hard from running and crying at the same time. He sat down, this time on a log, looked around, caught his breath and finally said: “All right already, I get it! We aren’t going home yet… I get it. This is the way.” And somehow his homesickness softened, and as they made their way farther down the trail toward the question mark, his sorrow eased and the ache receded to a recent memory.
They walked for five days. The sun shone more brightly, the earth warmed, the experience of winter in the south was oh so different than winter in the north. More exciting yet, last night, in the direction of the question mark, he and Goldfinch had seen something very curious. Close to midnight, they saw a glow in the sky, just the faintest bit of illumination painted across the lower part of the dark night, above where the road was heading, a soft white vapor-like glow.
The next morning, they found it, no longer a question mark, but a village. “Welcome to Village Mercado. Tourists and Shoppers Welcome!” The banner flapped in the warm morning breeze, bright white with red lettering. It was hung across the road, and Nikolas smiled and goldfinch chirped with joy as they passed beneath it, drawn on by the smell of cooking food and the excitement of people coming and going along the road into the village. Just inside the gates were more signs, most of them welcoming shoppers, a huge mural, a map of the village painted in bright colors, a booth with brochures about all the stores and booths and restaurants and attractions of the great Market Town of the south, Village Mercado. Off to one side stood another, much smaller, booth, this one painted white with a sign covering the entire side wall: “Welcome Entrepreneurs.” A woman in uniform stood inside. Nikolas approached the sign and read:
1. All entrepreneurs must register with The Authorities before entering.
2. Entrepreneurs must be self-sustaining.
3. Entrepreneurs can borrow no more than 1X what they bring in capital to the village.
4. Entrepreneurs pay no taxes and no booth or store rental and are granted rent-free housing for the first year of business operations. After that, if there is an after that, taxes and rent are charged at market value.
5. Entrepreneurs are encouraged, supported, and viewed as desirable citizens in Village Mercado. In this spirit, we must disclose to you that about eight in ten of you will not succeed in your business endeavor here.
6. If you do not succeed in business you must leave the village. If you so choose, you might get money (capital) abroad, at which time you may come back and try again. Otherwise you will only be welcome here in Village Mercado as a tourist or a shopper… See the other booth marked “Welcome Tourists and Shoppers” for more information.
Good Luck Entrepreneurs!
Not the most encouraging of signs, he thought, but he had come a long way and this looked a lot like the place he was seeking. Nikolas had a premonition that he had finally arrived at the big leagues, no longer a question mark, but the place where he could, and would, he hoped, earn his fortune.
Sixty-three coins wasn’t a big stake, but he found a small storefront on a good corner just as it was being vacated by someone who failed to make a go of it. It had been an art gallery called Death and Dark Goth Expressions. As the tattooed and oft-pierced young woman packed up her mostly black paintings, she handed him the keys and left.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Whatever.” She replied without making eye contact, and pulled her cart down the street in the direction of the main gates.
Nikolas was in business. The storefront was his. He pumped his fist in the air, shouted “yes” then set out to discover the village, strolling through swap meets and thrift shops, returning that evening with six old, battered, rusted birdcages. He also bought paint, twenty-five different colors, and set to work on the cages. He cleaned, straightened out bent wires, added little ceramic cups, until he had six shining, multicolored, hand-painted birdcages. He also painted over the Dark Goth Expressions sign on the storefront. He painted the whole sign a bright, crisp white, overwritten in sunny yellow and black letters spelling “Goldfinch’s Pet Supplies and Emporium.” Beside this, he rendered a huge likeness of a goldfinch in profile.
The next day, he opened for business. Surprisingly, he sold four of the birdcages, mostly because they were so cheerful and colorful, each a piece of art and handmade. He set one of the cages aside and outfitted it for Goldfinch, inviting him into his new home and leaving the door open of course. That evening he returned to the swap meets, midnight markets, thrift stores and even scrounging through the junkyard for more cages. Then he visited the corner pub to chat up the locals in hopes of finding a supplier for seed, cuttle bone, water dispensers, and … well, you get the picture. Nikolas was on his way.
Five years later we meet an older, more prosperous Nikolas. He owns four Goldfinch’s Pet Supplies and Emporiums which strategically dot the Village Mercado map. The new stores are bigger than the first one. They are bursting with all kinds of pet supplies, but specialize in one-of-a-kind art pet houses, art pet mazes, art pet castles, art pet pillows, art pet enclosures, art pet everything, all made by hand, by artisans, by craftspeople who now support themselves by selling their creations to Nikolas’ Goldfinch Emporium Enterprises Ltd.
At the age of twenty-four, Nikolas has earned his fortune, so to speak.
Today we find Nikolas on the porch of that first store. He is being interviewed by a reporter for his old hometown newspaper. They are doing a Sunday supplement, a big spread, with lots of color pictures; a special profile about Nikolas entitled “Home Town Boy Made Good.” The interviewer named Melody is, as it turns out, the Goth Gallery’s previous owner, turned aspiring freelance journalist. She sits with him on the porch of his and her first store. As she opens a reporter’s black pad, she looks over at him, making eye contact. Somehow she has acquired a welcoming openness, an easy smile. The piercings are mostly gone except for three silver studs on each ear and one on the side of her nose, like a small shiny beauty spot. Her hair is henna red and she is dressed in jeans and a white linen shirt. To Nikolas, she seems completely transformed.
“What is an entrepreneur,” she asks.
Nikolas chuckles. “Well, I think an entrepreneur is a person who makes something out of nothing, or almost nothing. Someone who organizes or creates a business, a kind of sustainable economic entity, perhaps even an enterprise, from very little.”
Melody scratches notes then looks up and smiles at him. “Sounds very mysterious. Is it mysterious?”
“No, not mysterious, just not obvious. You see, once upon a time I learned how to paint and practiced art. Now it appears in my products. But my skill, my knowing something about art, is not apparent to our customers. What they see is a nice store with lots of stuff, some of which is original art. They like the art, but they don’t bother with trying to figure out how my knowing something about art helped to create this business. So it looks like making something out of nothing, that’s how I like to put it.
“What would you recommend to those who want to be entrepreneurs?”
“Well, I think it would help if you’ve had a lot of specific types of experiences, you know, learned skills. You certainly have to know how to do something or make something that others will pay for. You also should understand money, what to charge, how to buy stuff, how to sell stuff, how to save, how to invest. And most of all you have to relate to people, you must understand how to build a community that will become your business, and you should understand the people who will be your customers.”
“Where did you learn these things,” she asked.
“I learned them by going out into the world, taking my young self out on an adventure into the real world, with real consequences and lessons that I couldn’t have learned at home. As it turns out, I was also pretty lucky. I managed to hit most of the right places. It really was quite an adventure.”
“Was there some turning point along the way you could share with me?”
“Well, there were so many things that happened. But yes, not one but two turning points, and they both happened sort of by accident,” he said. “The first was a knock on the head and being taken to the helping village. The second happened on a lonely stretch of road heading south, in the middle of nowhere, between the helping village and the question mark.”
“The question mark. You see, the whole time I knew I was going somewhere but I didn’t know where. It was a question, a question mark on a map I drew in my journal. But I was so tired and so overextended. I almost quit, in fact I did quit. I turned back and was heading towards home, feeling defeated and homesick. But good old Goldfinch, he had another idea, he pulled me out of myself and led me back down the road, toward this place.”
“Wow,” she said.
Nikolas laughed out loud and said; “Yes, wow, indeed.”
“Why was the helping village such a big deal?”
“Because that’s where I learned about people, real people. None of this would have happened if I didn’t know a lot about people. I learned a lot about myself, too. There are so many opportunities in the world if you just have a good sense about people, if you know how to get along, if you can figure out a way to contribute something of value, and if you can relate to others well enough to connect with them.
Melody stretched, arched her back all the while looking at her notebook. Tapping the page with her pencil she spoke slowly. “And so we have a helping village and a Goldfinch to thank for your ultimate success?”
“Yes, and a robin and—well, like I said, there are too many things that went right to even remember them all. I just have a lot to be grateful for.” He paused for a long moment. Then, looking directly at Melody, nodded his head, smiled. “And here’s the best part, I know how fortunate I am, I know it, I feel it, I appreciate it
“What do you suppose your parents think now?”
“I think they’re proud, but I suspect my mother still wishes I had stayed in school.”
Nikolas and Melody laughed together. She pushed her hair back with one hand then continued the interview. As evening fell, the interview was finished, but the conversation carried on, continuing with dinner at the “Hope and a Prayer,” a local farm to table, certified organic restaurant. It wasn’t until weeks later that Nikolas realized the restaurant choice was his way of beginning yet another adventure, a journey toward the next great question mark in an achingly blank part of his personal map that even Goldfinch couldn’t fill.