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For any of you that were following the story… we’re now post-foreclosure panic, post-Making Home Affordable, post-waiting for the end of the story.

As of this moment, we are back into a mortgage routine, making payments, having a distinct mortgage balance (well, ok albeit daily amortization. At least I can log into their website and look at a number). We have no foreclosure on our records. We are still in our home.

Gracious, that was a tedious process. Our first call to Wells Fargo alerting them that we could no longer make our payments was in October of 2008. Sixteen months (and skyrocketing blood pressure) later, we’re all set.

Let me take on a lot of responsibility, lest we make any assumptions. Wells Fargo had no what-if-we-lose-our-job clauses when we first committed to the loan. They did not have to reorganize our payment schedule, and let us add our missed payments to the balance.

Neither one of us came through it gracefully. Wells Fargo hopefully has the headache it deserves for having to work within its own astonishingly convoluted, cobwebby network of various disparate departments multiply duplicated and unmotivated not merely to share information, but even to be aware of each other.

…and for my part, I’m bitter, even though I’m still in my home. It’s a guilt-ridden bitterness because of this voice telling me I should be grateful to my mortgage-holder. Our loan amount went up ten thousand dollars (no principle reduction like you’ve heard on the news), and our monthly amount went down 88 dollars (practically no payment reduction).  In the meantime, the value of our property dropped 40 thousand, so equity is a pipe dream.

But my family is under a roof. Even though it’s a tired old building that loses more chunks of white vinyl siding every time the wind blows, exposing the avocado paint beneath, and every time we accidentally touch the disintegrating foundation walls a cascading shower of ancient concrete pebbles builds higher piles of gravel on the floor, and even though the rain running through the moss on the roof doesn’t hit the gutters any more because they’ve sagged too far away from the building…

….this is OUR HOUSE! It’s really big, and has a basement. And Tara gets the whole upstairs to herself with her own bathroom. And there’s a lawn, and magic soil out front where I am dying to put in this year’s crop of vegetables. We have a fireplace, a guest room, a big country kitchen, and lots of places for our two silly cats to live whole lives and not get too close to each other (because they fight like demons when they do). We’ve got friends and relatives that just stop by, and neighbors that care about us. There’s a mailbox on the porch, and camellias up to the second floor that are bursting, BURSTING with blooms right now.

whew! I feel better.  ;o)

Chapter 4

My story of how we arrived at this fearful point is a long one. (Sorry!) I am sure that for many people, financial insecurity is not the result of one factor. In our case, it was a dreadful chain of events filled with bad luck and bad choices. I’ve chosen to tell it in chapters. Today (October 2009), we are in negotiations with Wells Fargo that began around October 2008, and progressed significantly around March 2009, yet today remain unresolved. Will the three of us be forced to leave our modest little fixer-upper home? Right now, no one knows.

Catch up to this part if you like, by reading Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and Chapter 3.

Unable to sell my Massachusetts home the Spring of 2007, I found a renter. I asked for a rent that was reasonable for the blue-collar community the house was in, but didn’t come close to matching the mortgage amount.

12)       The problems with my renter began immediately. She was almost a month late for her FIRST month’s rent. After a few sporadic payments, she stopped paying altogether. She eventually stopped answering her phone, and when I called her workplace, they told me she was no longer working there. I began researching how to evict a tenant in Massachusetts.

We were living at The Uncles outside of Portland while we looked for work. Mark’s unemployment check went to rent at The Uncles, and the mortgage payment, and I continued to rob my 401K to make up the difference. We spent the summer of 2007 just trying to make ourselves get up and be productive each day, and not succumb to fright or despair. Mark couldn’t take the daily reminder of his perceived failure, and took off into the desert for awhile.

All summer I filled out applications till they made me numb. I was invited to only a couple of interviews, and was not offered a position.

13)       In September I got a job with the VA. Not related to my degrees, but it was at least employment. In October, Mark got a job.

14)       School loans came due. I went into forbearance on the greater sum, and began paying Sallie Mae. They required a huge fee for a short deferral, and it was simply cheaper to make my monthly payments.

With two incomes, we were in a position to have our own home. I was sent to Baltimore for training, and while I was there, Mark found a house he wanted to buy. (We love The Uncles, but after 8 months, were ready to be on our own)

15)       We still had faith that the Mass house would sell someday, and made an offer on the Portland house in January 2008. By the last day of the month, we owned it. It was a 1925 home, basement crumbling, roof mossy, stained walls and stinking of dog pee on the carpet, but… it was large and we could afford it! Well, we could as soon as the Mass house sold, which had to be soon. In the meantime, we made two mortgage payments every month.

16)      February 2008, my daughter’s father decided he wanted to move back to California and take her with him. I disagreed with the plan. Since we had no money left, Mark put the attorney’s retainer on his credit card.

17)       Still no communication from my renter, so I hired a Realtor in Mass to put the home on the market in March, and plunked down the credit card once again for a cross-country flight and got the lady out of my house with relatively little pain. I spent a few days putting the property back in order. The electricity had been shut off. She had drained the heating oil and the pilot light went out. The water was off. The toilet leaked. There were mountains of construction rubbish in the back yard. I hired a guy to pick up everything inside and out, and haul it away. I hired a landscaping company to take care of the lawn. $$$$$$$ I went back home about a foot shorter, shrinking under the weight of the world.

18)      June 2008, Mark lost his job. It was a shocking blow. Poverty hit hard. There was no way we could survive in the new home on my paycheck only. I was earning $42 K a year. We put up a clothesline. We washed and reused baggies.

19)      The custody skirmish was over only a few months after it began. We only spent $5000. That was a MIRACLE compared to what had happened to us in California. AND, for the first time the courts ruled in my favor. Barney moved to Cali like he wanted to, but our daughter came to live with me finally. For good.

20)       I asked my family law attorney to recommend a bankruptcy attorney. Both of them were fabulous and I would highly recommend either! I was advised that bankruptcy wouldn’t work for me. My major expenses included $60 thousand in student loans, which I would still have to pay. One of the only things that didn’t cost me much was my car, and they would take it from me. They wouldn’t even wipe out my credit card debt… just rearrange it and put me on a payment plan.

We put our heads down and pressed on. We focused on getting my girl into school for 6th grade, settling in the house. Mark looked for work and tried not to sink into depression. We called Wells Fargo and explained that we were not going to be able to make our payments much longer. They told us that as far as they were concerned, our account was in good standing. We had paid every month, and on time, and our credit was great. “We can only help those people who have been delinquent for three months in a row or more.”

We began giving that statement some serious thought.

Chapter 3

This is a continuation of a brief history of what led up to our current threat of home foreclosure. We don’t have one of those crazy risky loans, and we found this modest home for a reasonable price. The problem mostly boils down to the fact that we managed to lose all our savings for other reasons (notably another home that sold for a loss), followed by Mark losing his job.

Catch up to this point in the story if you like, by reading Chapter 1 and Chapter 2.

my new community, far away from the old one

Viola! I found myself in a Boston suburb in July 2004. All alone, didn’t know a soul there, and was 34 years old preparing to enter college as a sophomore transfer from California. People said, “Wow, you are so brave.” But I knew the truth is that I can go to extremes to run away from my problems. Left my career, ex-husband, and beloved Pacific Northwest behind, in order to start out on a new track and see where it would lead.

7)      As I mentioned in Chapter 2, I put my sophomore year at Brandeis on my credit card because I was scared they would kick me out if I didn’t pay. My financial aid package finally kicked in around November, but by then I had a $17,000 balance with Bank of America. (Thank you Rita Fine ’55 Memorial Scholarship people for keeping me from having a $34,000 balance!!)

Since my student loans were insufficient to cover the mortgage, the credit card payments, filling the heating oil tank (OMG!! New Englanders heat with OIL?!), buying monthly passes on the commuter rail train, etc. etc. Not to mention cross-country flights so that either I could go see my kid or she could come see me, I was constantly broke. Because of her young age, flights for her also required a ticket for another adult, or huge chaperone fees. Because of unresolved custody, my flights usually included a bonus payment to Family Law Court in California for one reason or another.

8)      I was forced to begin pulling out money from my IRA. Twenty thousand here, Fourteen thousand there.

By the end of my junior year, the infallible courts of California had decided that my daughter had to stay with her father as long as I was going to be out of state. I was crushed and angry, and forced with an awful decision: quit school and go dragging back with my tail between my legs so that my girl could have me more often? Or bear the continued separation another year, in hopes that being the first in my family to get a classy degree would be the key to pulling her out of the white trash sludge I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of.

OK, ok, yes. The whole truth also includes the fact that I did not want to go back to live in the same small town as her dad who drove me crazy, and also the fact that I would have zero chance of getting my old job back, so I would have to scrounge around for whatever job was available there.

9)      I chose to stay in Massachusetts.

For her part, my daughter seemed fine with it all. I talked with her about it in kid terms, and – in kid terms – she begged me to stay in Mass. She loved the house, loved her friends there, and seemed to be healthy and happy. Happier perhaps, without her parents’ unspoken animosity charging the atmosphere. Her winter visits afforded her snow vacations for the first time in her life since she was a baby in Vermont. She felt very grown up to consider cross-country flights a natural part of life.

I took advantage of my distress, and piled on the schoolwork. I got myself into a program wherein I worked on both my Bachelor and Master degrees at the same time. I lived and breathed school, every waking moment.

10)       I never did find a renter, but Mark, my Massachusetts boyfriend, eventually moved in and began splitting the mortgage payment with me.

11)       In my last year there, and especially the Spring of 2007, I tried to sell my home but it didn’t sell. Something funky was going on in the economy. The stock market was faltering, real estate values were actually falling, and people weren’t so interested in buying. I heard that one of my neighbors had to move because her home was foreclosed upon. This news was my first exposure to foreclosure. It was disturbing to have it so close to me. I knocked thirty thousand off what I had purchased my home for, three years earlier, and still no one was interested in the asking price. It was a beautiful, new home. What was the problem?

Finally graduated in May 2007 with a BA in Cultural Anthropology summa cum laude, minor in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence studies. I also had an MA in Cultural Anthropology, with a focus on International Mediation. (Read this awesome profile my friend Dave Nathan wrote.)

For all the sacrifice, and the coveted sheets of embossed paper that apparently heralded my achievements… I was full of fear and doubt. I had so much debt it was staggering to think about it. Approximately $80 K in student loans, $230 K on my house, $26 K on credit cards. No job.

During my last year of school, my daughter and her father had moved to Portland, Oregon in hopes of finding a community that offered more job opportunities. He needed work and knew I would soon be needing work. It was a rare moment of cooperation. Approximately 72 hours after I graduated, I was moving West.

Portland seemed large enough to contain her dad and me together. It was exciting to anticipate my new town, my new career, new friends. I also was lucky enough to have a loving partner who had decided to leave his home state of Massachusetts and try out a new life on the West Coast with me.

Chapter 2

This is Chapter 2 of the story that led to our current state of not really feeling as though our housing situation is stable. Read Chapter 1.

3)      During the 2003/2004 school year I used the profits from the sale of my California home to live on, pay court fees, and to hire an attorney. The GI Bill paid for my classes, which were $11 a credit back then – nice!

I chose my classes so that I had a regular daytime, Monday through Friday schedule, for the first time in my life. It was great to be able to attend morning assemblies with my daughter at Ridgewood Elementary School before she started second grade classes each day, and to be home to meet her at the end of the driveway when the bus brought her home. I was free for weeknight book sales and free to schedule parent-teacher conferences at a normal hour. If for no other reason, being able to participate this way in her expanding life was worth giving up my well-paying job as a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service.

Other than that, I had my doubts.

I wasn’t rich, but up until then, I had plenty. The kind of comfortable life where I could go buy a new winter coat for my kid when she lost hers (that seemed to happen a lot). When I fell in love with some real leather, knee-high boots, I could take them home. We could go to the movies on the spur of the moment. On a particularly lovely Fall afternoon, we took a Humboldt Bay cruise on the Madaket just because we wanted to, and then stop for ice cream at Bon Boniere on the way home. It was a very good life.

After I decided to leave my job and go to school instead, I made serious cuts in my lifestyle where I could. But life can be expensive.

At the end of the school year in Cali I was able to move to Massachusetts. I had managed a painful compromise plan of physical parenting rights. We split her remaining years as a minor, and her father got the first shift. It shattered me to have to share at all, but making the best of it, it meant I could go to school anywhere. I considered living in Brandeis dormitory housing on campus to save money, but just couldn’t bring myself to rent after having been a homeowner for so long. And when my little girl was with me, I wanted her to have a real home.

4)      I took the gamble, which tends to be my personality. Big Chances = Big Gains (or Losses, as the case may be) I bought a house that was shockingly expensive for me, but I wasn’t worried. Real estate was shooting upwards like a rocket. Property values in the Boston area were DOUBLING every 12 months. Besides, this was my fifth home purchase, and I had learned that buying and selling a house was a sure thing. Once  I had lost $30 thousand of my investments…and in that same year I gained $30 thousand in the value of my home. There was no way to lose in Real Estate.

our Massachusetts house

I was a bit surprised to get the loan without a job. But… I put over 20% down, had thousands in savings, had thousands in retirement account that I could borrow against, I had a work history of 11 years of federal service, and my credit score was stellar. So it wasn’t that hard for me to believe a lender would take a chance on me. The lender asked me how I intended to pay the mortgage, and I said “with student loans.” I was serious. And ignorant. Everyone who goes to school gets a loan, right? At great rates right? In my mind it made total sense to get student loans to pay the mortgage.

5)      I planned to rent out the lower level of the house. It was a spacious split level, and the lower level seemed like a decent space to rent. That would definitely help with the bills. But I couldn’t find a renter.

6)      I had some difficulty getting my financial aid into place. I got a threatening letter from the school that said something like, “If you don’t pay your tuition now, we will kick you out!” Having been out in the world long enough to think I had to handle everything on my own, I didn’t realize that the best option would have been to go to the Financial Aid Office and ask for help. Instead, I put my first year’s tuition on my credit card. Nope, not just a semester – the whole damn year. Duh.

Me on campus, Autumn 2004

Turns out, I didn’t get to live on student loans like I had assumed. (You know, there are a lot of assumptions to overcome when a person is the first one in her family to go to college) Turns out, there is a cap on how much a student can borrow. Turns out, owning a home is reflected as wealth when the Financial Aid Office crunches your numbers. Though I had a $1600 a month mortgage payment, the house was considered an asset, and thus reduced my ability to borrow.

My first bout with poverty struck, and it was a blow.

My spending continued to be outrageous, but I wasn’t getting much pleasure out of it. I ate Ramen noodles, but forked out the dough to purchase cross-country flights to continue my relationship with my daughter and to make my California court dates. (Still battling family law two years down the line. Little advice – never attempt to reorganize a family in California) I continued paying my attorney. I had to spend on basic upkeep of the home, landscaping, maintenance, snow removal, public transportation passes, and school books are expensive, even when you buy them used.

Needless to say, I began chopping away at my retirement account, which had recently made it above $100 thousand, but wasn’t destined to remain above. I was selling stocks to pay off credit cards. It just didn’t seem right.

It actually REALLY wasn’t right, as my financial advisor told me later. But… how does a girl learn good lessons without some pain?

the house we hope to remain in

Chapter 1

Buoyed in part by the courage of a couple in LA who have made their foreclosure worries public (as well as the fact that, despite the financial shambles they find themselves in, they remain happy and in love), I have decided to come clean publicly too.

Just reading Stephanie Walker’s blog has reassured me. No, everything is not all worked out, and no, we don’t exactly know what we’ll do and whether our home will be stable… but yes, everything is going to be ok. Well, hey, the Internet is not a place I feel comfortable telling this story, but the fact is that no matter how or where the story is told, it’s simply an uncomfortable story. Maybe one person who reads this will feel a little bit more courage in their own life, and the chance for that result makes this effort worth it for me. Here goes.

How do decent people get themselves into a mess like this?

It’s just not in my personality to blame others when I’m having a hard time. Deep inside, I maintain full awareness that I got myownself here. It was not speculators and hedge funds and risky assets that turned toxic… it was me. We made gigantic mistakes that any idiot could have identified.

Our future success was dependent upon these things occurring simultaneously: a) I would find a job immediately after graduating with my master’s degree, b) both of us would retain our full-time employment at all times, c) real estate would never lose value.

Since then, of course, we’ve readjusted our definition of success. And like Stephanie and Bob, we have also redefined happiness. It has much less to do with jobs, credit union balances, and real estate value than we had assumed.

But in order to catch up to that epiphany…. I need to back up and start closer to the beginning. Since my life today was shaped by every moment since I was born, it would be most accurate to go back to January 9, 1970, around 7:26 pm, Pacific Time. Neither of us has time to read all that, so I won’t. However, I still need to back up several years to set the stage properly.

1)      Stuck against a ridiculous glass ceiling and dragging my single mom butt through rotating shiftwork in my job as a weather forecaster with the National Weather Service, I decided to leave the job in 2003. Life was like a roller coaster that year. I got married, had surgery for a partial hysterectomy, accepted an invitation to attend University of California Berkeley, went to France for the honeymoon, sold my home that I LOVED for a huge profit and moved into a teensy apartment so that I could be ready to hit the road the moment I was able to go. My husband moved on to Berkeley to begin his PhD and to wait for me.

About right then, my whole world went wonky. I didn’t begin to recover until 2009. Which is recent. Which means I am not yet well.

Listen to this: The guy I married dumped me on our one-year wedding anniversary in February of 2004. Two days later a beloved friend of ours died at age 24. That same weekend, California courts said that if I chose to leave town to go to a University then they would award primary custody of my daughter to her recovering crack addict father.

(Can you hear the brakes of life skreeeettching to a halt?!)

2)      So, I enrolled in a local community college to earn an Associate in Science and an Associate in Arts while I dedicated myself full time to the insane California Family Law court system and to being the parent I had always wanted to be, but couldn’t previously, because of the rotating shift work inherent to the field of weather forecasting. I bagged the Berkeley idea because I no longer wanted to be anywhere near that guy. I accepted an invitation to attend Brandeis University instead, which was about as far away from all the misery of California as I could get. And then I asked for a one-year deferred enrollment so that I could work out my personal life and decide whether or not to move to Boston. Bite Me, California Family Law Courts: I will take charge of this despite you!

(Keep in mind I’m leaving all the details about personal life catastrophe out, but there are CHAPTERS I could write on what it was like to live through that. My intent is only to set the stage for financial meltdown.)


The veggies are still exploding with growth. It’s too much for our small family of three to eat on our own, and we are “forced” to give much away.

It makes me feel rich. And spoiled. We pull in heaps of dark red tomatoes several times a week. I’m plucking deep red and yellow peppers off the bush. Watching the watermelon and pumpkin mature.  Tossing fresh basil into the stir fry just because we can. Best of all, my daughter has been given no holds barred permission to eat whatever she wants from the garden, whenever she wants, so she does.

I am very grateful for the beauty and wealth in my modest, little slice of life.

almost 40

That’s it: I turned 39. My “thirties” are just about over. Egad, what a tumultous time. Holy cowabunga that was a lot to go through in only ten years.

A long time ago, my grandmother (who refuses to be called ‘grandmother,’ so we combine her name, Ellarmilda, and Grandmother, and call her Gramilda) told me, “Life begins at 40.” She said at 40 she knew enough about herself to start living each day more fully, and she got more joy out of life, and she didn’t worry about the small stuff so much anymore, and her kids were grown up and she didn’t have to expend so much energy on them and could get back to her own life, etc. etc. She simply beamed.

I was so convinced, that I’ve been looking forward to 40 ever since. But now I’m awfully close to 40, and I don’t buy it anymore. Life just gets harder and harder. True living was when I was in my twenties, and just DID whatever came to my silly noggin. And I thrilled in every moment of it and spread my joy far and wide and didn’t ask if anyone was in the mood to receive it.

My thirties started off with an incredible growth spurt, when at age 30 I went through a total spiritual and psychological transformation and became me finally. I suspect that’s what Gramilda was talking about. It’s hard to live authentically, but I get so much more joy out of life now, I feel like I’m participating more fully, I am able to take more responsibility for what I do to myself. And I’m able to keep up my hope when I realize my ups and downs are entirely dependent upon my efforts to work hard, work smart, and keep a healthy perspective.

her smile is my motivation

By the end of my thirties though, I am tired. It’s not just hard to live authentically; it’s exhausting. I have a growing tendency to slip into temporary denial just so I can quit freaking out all the time. If I am aware, then I have to be fully aware. I have to care and become educated about everything, or I shouldn’t form a single opinion or make a single sentence. That’s unrealistic, of course, but I’m having a hard time finding a nice balance. I make one dumb remark, and beat myself up for it for the next 6 months.

Problem is, I can be such a spontaneous, passionate person! I love that about myself, but it sure does lead one to trouble. 🙂  I eat foot sandwiches all the time.

So what will my forties bring?

Based on the success of last year’s list, which I was so delighted to find recently, I will make another list, and try to be focused, grounded, grateful, genuine, humble, and open to my future – whatever it is.

My fantasies for 2009:
1. Have enough money to start paying the mortgage again, however that comes about
2. Make time to have fun with my daughter and not be such a mom all the time
3. See Marcus Eaton live again
4. Use my frequent flier miles to go somewhere amazing
5. See all three of my brothers in the flesh
6. Gain some self-confidence at work so that no matter how many times my coach tells me to do more, I don’t take it as such a personal blow
7. Finish my Shemya book. Even in draft form. If I wrote 45,000 words in 2008, I can do it again in 2009, and be done.
8. Stay open to what the Universe provides for me. Stop trying to bully my way through. Stop trying to control the direction. Stop trying to control the definition of my success, and my path toward it. Give it up. Have some peace. Accept help from others. Be graceful in acknowledging my ignorance, while maintaining my strength and confidence and power and beauty.

Wish me luck. And I’ll wish you love

How much fun it was today when I browsed through archived versions of my blog and found this, posted January 10, 2008:

My fantasies for 2008?
1) I’ll finally get my very own cube and desk to sit at to do my work (can you BELIEVE they still don’t have a place to put any of us new hires?)
2) I’ll gain some confidence and become productive at work
3) We’ll get settled in to our new home
4) Tara will reconcile herself to the idea that she must change school districts in two years
5) Mark will gain some confidence and productivity in his job
6) I’ll plan out the perfect kitchen and maybe even begin creating it
7) I’ll make some headway in eliminating my debt
8 ) I’ll sell the house in Massachusetts and pay back my mother and grandmother the money I borrowed from them to buy the house in the first place.

I read the list out loud to my man, so we could together find out if my fantasies came true. And what a practical girl I am! I almost got everything I wanted.

1)      I DID get my own desk to sit at, then the whole office was rearranged, and I got a new desk to sit at. But the point is, I have a place that is always available to me to sit at and do my work.

2)      I DID gain confidence and became much more productive at work. According to our productivity tracking software, I went from zero weighted actions per day, to 2.25 weighted actions per day – awesome!

3)      We ARE settled into our new home

4)      Whoah! What a gigantic difference a year makes. Rather than working my girl into the future realization that soon she will live with my honey and I on the other side of town… she lives with us already, and her dad moved to California. Wow.

5)      This one I’ll give a half point to, rather than a full point. He DID gain confidence and productivity. He single-handedly got a remediation system running out in Scio, Oregon, which had been broken for three years! He became a one-man get-things-done team for his boss, and began mentoring new staff. …and in June lost his job. He remains unemployed.

6)      This is a “no.” The economy tanked on us, and I am thinking a kitchen remodel should be part of our 5-year plan.

7)      I’m going to call this one neutral. Neither improved nor worsened the situation. Little did I know when I wrote my list above, I owed thousands of dollars in taxes. It’s now paid off. I have also dropped the balance one of my credit cards from $7544 to $1670. However, I increased the balance on a different credit card from zero to $10,000. My student loan balances are nearly the same this year as last year. I DID unload over $200 thousand in debt on the Massachusetts house when I sold it. But I owe the same on the new Portland house.

8)      Um. Unfortunately I combined two biggies into one. I DID sell the house. I have NOT repaid my family the money I owe them. Another one half point.

So that’s pretty good, really. I score myself 5 points out of 8. Maybe 5.5 if I give myself an extra half for number 4).

January 10, 2008 was a good day. The day after my birthday, and the day “my boy” was born to Elisia and Kevin, out in Massachusetts. Now, I’m staring my first real 39th birthday in the face, and Tobin is a growing healthy, happy, boy.

I will try to remind myself on January 10, 2009 to make another list. If I am as equally blessed as last year, I will be able to say I did accomplish at least 5 out of 8 goals.

One of my many guises

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