|by Laurie Hardjowirogo |
It’s a July morning in New York City, the sun is warm, not yet the heat that will come later in the day. I am heading to my job, a full-time position, my !rst in almost twenty years. I’ve just come from a check-up with my doctor as I have health insurance now, something I lost in my divorce. I feel lucky.
As I near the office building, I get a text: I am considering declaring bankruptcy. It’s from my ex. As awful as that news is on its own, the implications are far more devastating. Before we separated, he had taken out a Home Equity loan against our apartment, where I still live with my son. It takes me the length of the next block, and an elevator ride to the 3rd floor, to realize how this threatens my home. I call-not text-him back to say he needs to take into consideration what the repercussions of bankruptcy will be.
He is sorry, but informs me he can no longer make the monthly payments to the bank; admitting his poor money management skills with—you know, I’ve never been good at it. I ask how much is left to pay off the 10-year, $50,000 loan, and he says…$49,900. He had used all of the money, only paying back the minimum for 7 years. I am now blown through a wormhole of overwhelming anxiety at the prospect that I could lose the one hard-earned piece of !nancial stability in my life.
Inside I am treading water, outside I am calling anyone I think can help…the original mortgage broker, the current broker, and ultimately a good friend who connects me with a lawyer. The preliminary steps of taking action are moving me forward though between my kneecaps and my feet, there is only air. I don’t know how I am walking forward but somehow I am. And then I realize the reason I am not falling down is because a series of events pushed me to be a grownup.
A few years ago my closest friend, a screen-writer, called from LA where she had moved for work. She asked if I could help out with child care for her nine-year old daughter for several weeks. As a freelance graphic designer, I could work anywhere, but I am averse to change, so when I answered yes, it surprised both of us. And here is where crawling out of fear began.
Three thousand miles away from my comfort level, I felt changes in attitude that wanted to surface, the itchy beginnings of new growth. I watched my friend attend meetings where people critiqued her work daily, as she negotiated their demands, and fought for her story. Her battles may have taken place in a conference room, but they were not contained by it. Her strength spilled over into the rest of her life, and into mine….a kind of ripple effect, the unintended consequence of the first yes we say to a challenge.
A month after I returned home from California, I got a call from a man running for City Council. This moment was remarkable, not only because I picked up the land line, something I rarely did, but because by the end of the conversation, I asked where I could volunteer to help with his campaign. Even more surprising for me, I followed through, worked day and night making calls, registering voters, and doing the politically sanctioned accosting of innocent pedestrians while shoving flyers in their faces. I don’t think I could have been farther from myself than if I was split in two.
Eight months later, the city elected him their new councilman, and I was hired as his part-time scheduler. A repeating loop started playing in my head—it’s going to be ok, I can do this. And I did for four months until I was offered a full-time position at a publishing company. The Council office with its-9-to-whenever-we-are-done-schedule, was boot camp preparation for full-time work. Had I been asked to take the job in publishing before California, before the City Council, I would have struggled with saying yes.
Now, here I am, reading a text that threatens to undo everything. I set up a meeting with the recommended lawyer who explains that I am not protected from debt collectors. We thought, incorrectly as it turned out, that by putting the mortgage in my name, we resolved ownership. Five years earlier when my ex-husband’s finances appeared to be more solid, he willingly relinquished his rights to the apartment, only not in a legal document.
By September the lawyer has an amended divorce agreement that we both must come in to sign. Another attorney is there to represent and advise my ex-husband. I sit anxiously alone in a room across the hall beating back the old voice that urges me to run back in and say it’s ok, never mind. When I do go back, I worry that he has changed his mind, but he agrees to sign, and it’s over.
On that Summer day I !rst met with the lawyer, my co-worker left a post-it on my computer. It said—You are a warrior. A year later, it’s still hanging on a wall in the office. It’s a reminder on a small square of purple paper to be brave. For so long I feared that life would eventually present a challenge too big to bury under excuses; that inaction would instead bury me. The strength to fight for myself, and take control, came in incremental building blocks. I didn’t know I was standing on top of them until I was able to take a breath, look down, and see the tracks of the journey.