Things have gotten Very Very Big around here. Taxes are due. Credit card interest rates are through the roof. The kitchen floor is filthy. The laundry is threatening to eat us alive. The Republicans have taken control of Congress. After two years of filing paperwork with my mortgage lender I have been informed that I have been bounced out of the trial program not by a letter to that effect, but by a notice from the bank that they are foreclosing on my house if I don’t make good the difference between the modified payment amount–which they set–and my full payment amount–for the months I was in the trial modification program and all the months after I had completed the program, but the lender still couldn’t make up its mind about whether I was suitable or not. I’ve run out of my anti-depressants and won’t have the money to get more for a couple weeks. And I am struggling through another bout of what I suspect is pneumonia. And the Republicans have re-taken control of the House, and are bragging about repealing healthcare before it ever takes effect. Lilo and Lila, our black, semi-feral kitten twins, have set up camp under one of the beds. The Magic Dog isn’t glowing as much as he used to, and he spends a lot of time out in the yard, looking over the fence at the full food bowl and the pretty little spaniel next door.
And yet, I’m not as gloomy as I should be. Maybe this is because I just don’t have the energy for it. I’ve worked very hard to avoid reaching this point. And nothing’s helped. The first time I saw a credit counselor last March I cried when he told me my only realistic option was bankruptcy. Like many of us these days, I shouldn’t be in this position. I worked hard. I paid my bills on time. I was responsible with my credit cards. I used extra money to upgrade my business equipment, or repair my house.
And then one day I got a note from one of my credit card holders. It said that my interest was going up from 7 percent to 18 percent. The other card companies soon followed suit. And I hadn’t missed a payment. I went from paying well over my minimums–and paying my cards off–to struggling to meet the new minimums.
And then my biggest client scaled back. Dramatically. My income dropped. I began using my savings. I applied for a mortgage modification. The paperwork got lost. Twice. The third time they hung onto it, but it was never sufficient. For two years I was required to file updated financial records every three months. The records showed that, after the initial disastrous drop, my income was holding fairly steady. I made every payment on time. I was approved for the “trial modification.” I made every modified payment in full, on time. At the end of the trial period I asked if I had been approved. No one seemed to know. “Just keep making the modified payments,” they said. “Sometimes it takes a while for everything to get processed.”
I kept making the modified payments. And every month, I asked, “Any work on my approval yet?”
“No, not yet,” they said. “But soon.”
Or not. Going on four months after the end of the “trial period” I had a rep tell me it could take “from two months to five years” to ge an answer on my modification.
I asked to talk to her manager. She said the manager was busy, and would call me back. No one did.
I called my mortgage broker. “Just hang tight,” she said. “There’s no reason for them to decline you.”
I held tight. And then, a couple weeks ago, I got a letter informing me that if I didn’t “bring my account current” by November 15 my mortgage holder would begin foreclosure proceedings.
Oh, and my taxes are due. And I’ve had to buy additional insurance because somebody in the public works department in my town did something to the levee and now FEMA says it’s not certified and my mortgage holder, who is very concerned about what will happen to their house if I get flooded, has required that I purchase upgraded flood insurance.
To be honest, the thing that’s bothering me the most is this damned cough. Partly this is because it’s a really, really bad one. Mostly it’s because this financial disaster has changed me. I will either find the money to bring my house payments current or I won’t. My sister has said she’ll help if I need it, and I may, but I’m really hoping I don’t have to ask. I’ll either find the money to pay my taxes or I won’t. I’ll either manage the additional expense of the flood insurance or I won’t. The cough will go away eventually. I’ll either keep my house, or I won’t. I’ve taken a long, hard look at the credit card bills. I’ve had hours and hours’ worth of conversations with company reps–some pleasant and sympathetic, some not–and I’ve finally accepted that what the companies are willing to offer as “solutions” don’t come anywhere near that. When I suggest that they return the interest back to what it was before they raised it without reason they either laugh or become very patronizing at my naivete. The last time I spoke to a rep they told me that, as a special concession, they would “apply everything I paid directly to my balance, without taking any interest or late fees, and then they would restore me to my usual standing.” “You could use your card again,” they said, ignoring the fact that I have steadfastly denied this option because I wanted to pay the card off, not increase the balance. “You’d be back on regular standing as a customer.”
“At the regular interest rate?” I asked.
“Yes,” they said.
“That’s what, 23% now?”
“Actually, it’s 26%,” they said. “But you could use your card!”
“And next month the interest would have wiped out everything I paid this month.”
“But you have to pay,” they said. “You spent the money.”
Actually, I didn’t. The balance on that card is composed almost entirely of interest and the various fees they’ve seen fit to add, but I didn’t bother to argue. The other two cards were even worse. I hung up, realizing that unless I got a huge windfall, which didn’t seem likely, there was simply no way I was ever going to be able to settle those cards.
I sat in my counselor’s office, talking about how very Big everything looked. She listened, as she does. And then she said, “How do you eat an elephant?”
I immediately though of a large, cartoonish red elephant with a face like Yertle the Turtle, which really wasn’t helpful. “I don’t know,” I said. “How do you eat an elephant?”
“One bite at a time,” she said. “You can’t do everything. Just do a little bit, every day.”
And that’s what I’m doing. I’m eating the elephant, and I’m starting with the poky bits. I’m not spending a lot of time trying to deal with the injustices in the mortgage modification and credit card industries. I can’t fix them. I AM working as much as I can and saving as much as I can so I can keep my house. I’m going to either get my taxes paid this month, or set up a payment plan. I’m going to continue cleaning my house, corner by corner. I’m going to keep trying to get enough sleep. I’m going to keep eating the elephant, one bite at a time.
And while I’m doing that, I’m going to do the most important thing of all–I’m going to remember that this is my life, even this dark, hard, scary bit, and I still have a great son who actually likes spending time with me, and it’s fall, and the trees are lovely, and I still need to take time every day to work on my own writing. Because that’s part of the elephant, too.
The reality is that I’ve been here before. And if I just keep my head, and do what I can, a bit at a time, eventually I’ll come out of this–and I’ll be in better shape than I was going into it. Because that’s how it works.
I didn’t choose this. I don’t like it. But I can either fight a bunch of losing battles, or I can find creative, innovative ways to navigate through these days, a bit at a time. And someday, the elephant will have been reduced to bones and tusks, which I will not sell because that would be against the law, right?
So–if you’re planning to visit, be warned. Elephant is on the menu.