Do What You Can, With What You Have, Where You Are


“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

That’s a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt. If there was ever someone who took lemons and made lemonade out of the whole dang tree, it was TR. Born sickly, with asthma and poor eyesight, Teddy used exercise, boxing and determination to become a legendary outdoorsman. He wanted to fight in the Spanish American War but couldn’t while he was running the Department of the Navy – so he resigned, recruited his small regiment of Rough Riders, and took San Juan Hill.   In his Presidency, he took on big business, political corruption, brokered an international peace and started the conservation movement, showing the world what one man could do when he rolled up his sleeves and used his “Bully Pulpit.”

Pretty good for a kid deemed too sick to even attend school, and who everyone thought would be a retiring scholar all his days.

What about the rest of us? You don’t need a Presidency to create the change you crave, as evidenced by my dear friends Garth Roberts and Doug Plummer, owners of The American Hotel in Sharon Springs.

Garth and Doug, like me, were theatre professionals in New York for many years – Garth a master orchestral conductor and musician, and Doug a triple threat actor/singer/dancer. They met and fell in love.  But living in the Big Apple can take its toll, and they’d found they liked the Upstate life and the friends they’d made during their weekend stays. So they said goodbye to Bright Lights Big City and moved up to the Mohawk Valley.

Of course, the question was how do you make a living when what you’ve done for years is acting, singing, dancing, and orchestration?

You do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Doug was known to make fabulous soups. Garth was a grand baker. So despite the fact that neither had ever worked a restaurant business they opened a small eatery, the Rockville Café and Bakery. And it – and they – flourished.

Just down the street resided a huge, dilapidated old boarding house affectionately known as “The Terrarium,” because of the tree growing through the floorboards and reaching for the (missing) roof. Built during the heyday of spa cures and “taking the waters” in the mid 1800s, Garth and Doug loved the big behemoth, and hated the idea that it might be torn down any day.   “We kept thinking, ‘This historical artifact is going to be gone unless somebody saves it,’” says Garth.

They approached Doug’s father for some financial support. It wasn’t forthcoming – and as Sharon Springs was then a ramshackle ghost town of former spa glories and not much else, it was understandable. However, Garth and Doug wouldn’t let the dream die, passing the old building every night and reassuring it (and themselves) that somehow, a way would be found.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are, remember? They did. So in 1996, they bought the building for $18,000 and began its rebirth, just the two of them. It took five years, and thousands of hours of sweat-equity, and vision. It required a new roof, re-poured foundations, and the renovation of every inch of it, from furnace to kitchen to guest rooms. Prop it up, clean it up, bring it back – that was the mantra. Not to own it, mind you – that was for someone else once they’d saved it. Or so they thought.

“We just wanted to keep it from falling down,” chuckles Doug. “Then we got the insane idea to try to open it again.”

There is a happy ending to this story. (Boy, is there!) Somehow, the Rockville Café and Bakery morphed into The American Hotel. The intrepid ex-New York City boys opened a nine-room inn and restaurant in their architectural phoenix on July 5, 2001. Since then, they’ve won a slew of preservation awards, the inn and restaurant have garnered raves from all over the world, and several episodes of Rachael Ray’s various television shows have been filmed there, showing her ooh-ing and aah-ing over their corn cakes and beer-battered Palatine cheese balls with spicy apple relish.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

Whether on a national stage or a local one, we have all been at points in our lives where our goals or aspirations seemed far beyond our grasp. Everyone has had times when they look at huge situations and say, “but I’m just one person. What can I do?”

When you’re in that state of mind, focus on the central intention. Then build on it, or around it, a step at a time. If Garth and Doug had focused on, “it’s going to take $600,000 to bring this building up to code, refurbish it, and furnish it – how will we do it?” they would have been distracted by all the perceived obstacles. Instead, they first focused on purchasing the building, to stop the village from condemning it or selling it at auction. Then, they rebuilt the roof, which kept the rain from damaging the building further. Then, they shored up the foundations, which kept it steady. And bit by bit, the building came back to life. One floor sanding, one junk pitching, one coat of paint at a time.  (Sometimes Spiritual Awakening is hiding out in a can of white semi-gloss…)

Like that idea? Got something you want to make happen?  Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.  You’ve got two parts to that puzzle.   The first is to discover some projects around your town or city that needed courage and belief to undertake. Whether it’s a charter school in a tough neighborhood that’s turning out college-bound students, a community garden feeding families and flourishing where none existed before, or a cancer marathon that grew from nothing to an annual event that brings in hundreds or thousands of participants, the people who first envisioned these ventures were lone imagineers. Read newspaper articles about them, review news tapes – or if you can find one with a little time, talk to them. Find out what motivated them to step that first step into making their own personal miracle.

Another idea is to talk to someone who has recovered well from a stroke, cancer or another major health challenge. Find out what kept them going, how they found motivation, and what they saw in the future for themselves. When everyone else was resigned to dealing with the negative side of the situation, why did they say “not only no, but HELL no!” to giving up, or assuming the worst?

For both of these groups, ask about the “nay-sayers” and the folks who played devil’s advocate to their plans and enthusiasms. How did they react to such suggestions? What kept them going?

The second part of this discovery process is for you to look at your life, and find those times you knew you had to do what you can, with what you have, where you are. When did you do something that seemed impossible at the time? When was a situation extremely challenging, yet you pulled something out of the challenge?  Were you ever part of a group that faced down doubters to create a sensation? If so, recall those feelings of daredeviltry, of determination, of resolve, and let them fill you again. If such happenings have never been part of your life, give yourself an imagining. What would you make happen in your world? What do you believe it needs? Whether “your world” is your family, a part of your community, your country or Planet Earth – what do you think would happen if you challenged yourself to put your vision out there?

We are all enough. We have been given brains, and hearts, and hands, and will. There are no failures – only rerouted opportunities, and roads not taken. Today is your day to choose something you believe you could change, grow, improve – or invent. And no effort is too small.

At my father’s memorial service years ago, a woman stood up to speak. When she was a child, forty-some years before, her family was in dire straits, and her parents were both very ill. They were my father’s patients. My father knew that the children were home, alone, and scared. He took it upon himself to see that they had care that summer, and even sent them to the Catholic day camp. This was all done anonymously — my father told no one about his kindness.   But this magnificent gesture was revealed decades later, after he died.

This great and good physician could not save the parents. He could not adopt the children. But by remembering “do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” he changed the perspective of these children forever with his unlooked-for kindness. These same boys and girls, who are now my age, make a point of sending other children to that same camp – children who might not otherwise get to see the countryside, go swimming in a lake, or have a few weeks of play unhindered by lack of money or adult neglect.

Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. Because miracles, like the most gorgeous of flowers, the most majestic of trees, start with one small seed that gets planted for the future.