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Comparisons

Have you ever found yourself caught in the comparison game? Have you ever looked at someone else’s achievements, or work, or life and thought, “Wow, I’m a complete failure?” Have you ever compared yourself (the self you actually are now) to the self you imagined you would someday be? Have you ever compared what your goals or plans were to what you are actually living out today? Have you ever been disappointed by these comparisons?

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Bootstraps, “You Didn’t Build That”, Victims, and Miracles

A while back, like last July, there was a great deal of hoopla about President Obama’s comment, “If you’ve got a business,  you didn’t build that.” Okay, I can see how the hardworking business people of this country could get really sideways about that, but reading the entire comment in context it completely makes sense. After all, in context, what Obama was really saying is that others have paved the way to make us successful…no man or woman or business person is an island.

I’ve recently heard people, friends and colleagues, espousing the ideal of “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps”.  I have been thinking about this a great deal lately, in conjunction with President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement.  I have a lot of questions.  I mean, I love the idea of rugged strength and determination overcoming all obstacles, but…I wonder…what if the bootstraps were to break?  Who’s wearing the boots?  If I’m wearing the boots, who’s supporting the ground the boots are supposedly firmly grounded on while I do my own bootstrap pulling up activities?  I don’t know.  Kind of makes me wonder.

So often people experiencing hard times are accused of taking the victim mentality just because they are experiencing hard times.  Yes, I know.  There are people out there who are making choices that lead them to a place of dependency on others’ good graces, whatever form those good graces come in.  There are many who appear content to live this way.    They milk the kindness of other people and “the system” for their benefit all the while escaping the responsibility of every citizen to give back and help pay for the freedoms and luxuries our great country affords us.  They do this, in spite of the fact that they are able to do more for themselves.  For them, it is a lifestyle choice rather than a helping hand in a time of need. We could accuse them of being lazy.  We could say it is the system’s fault.  We could point fingers at a number of different reasons why this is the case, and all of it, to some degree, will be valid.  All of it, to some degree, will also be bunk.  I know of people who have received more in food stamps than I, as a working professional and single mother of four children, can ever afford to pay for groceries.  It is these very same people who sell their food stamps for money.  This should not be.  I agree.  But not every person who is a victim has a victim mentality.  And not every person who needs assistance at some time or another requires it forever.  Not everyone collecting welfare is a victim.  And not everyone, experiencing hard times is able to get themselves out of their hard times on their own.  Sometimes, even the most stalwart need a helping hand….or a miracle.

I, myself, have been a “bootstraps” person for most of my life.  I figured if I just set my mind to it, I could make it happen.  And…generally…that was the case…when I was younger…and prettier. Two divorces and four children later and, try as I might, no matter how hard I work, or how hard I try, or how much effort and genius I put into things, I can’t catch a break financially these days. Well, okay, I lied.  My water bill was half what it was last month and I’ve paid off the surgeon that did my cancer surgeries this year.  Wow.  Big deal.  I’m still pretty, but the wrinkles are beginning to be obvious.  No one has a clue what my age is unless I tell them (they often guess I’m in my mid-30’s, I’m not).  Wow. Big deal. I have worked hard to pay off debt that belonged to me only because an ex-spouse incurred it.  I have experienced drama and demise of one disaster after another none of which I was responsible for. Try as I might, I can’t seem to catch a break.  I really am trying.  I’m not taking handouts.  I’m working extra hours.  I pay my taxes, my insurance, my bills. I’m not getting ahead.  When I am able to get a little bit together, something unexpected and totally out of my control descends upon my life to evaporate the savings as quickly as I deposited it. I mean seriously.  I couldn’t control my getting cancer.  I had no say in the decision about health insurance costs and premiums and deductibles. I have no control over my daughter, one very normal Sunday morning, getting into an accident that meant yet another cost ($500 deductible) and stress (What the hell are we going to do for transportation now?).

I have changed my opinion about the bootstraps thing.  I mean, sure, people can have an amazing impact on the course of their own lives.  A child from poverty can go to school, do well, make plans and achieve great things.  A child from wealth can squander all the benefit he/she started out with and end up being pretty much nothing.  We all have great power to do great things with the energy and intelligence we’ve been given, in spite of our circumstances.  I still firmly believe this.  Sometimes, there are things that happen that are just beyond our control.  Sometimes these things are so monumental or so continual that we can’t, no matter how hard we try, change our circumstances.  We are, in essence, pulling as hard as we can on our bootstraps, making progress even, but someone, something cut the bootstrap just a little higher up.  I know.  This is tough for people who’ve never really known hardship to fathom.  If life has always been pretty easy for you, it is difficult to imagine others’ struggles.

This bootstrap cutting from higher up has been my life this year.  No matter how hard I try, I can’t catch a break.  I worked extra hours, I cut back on expenses, I even moved and made colossal changes in lifestyle to try to get ahead.  Under normal circumstances, the efforts I’ve expended would have paid off.  What I didn’t account for was the stuff in life that no one can really ever account for.  Early this year, I knew it was going to be bad when the biopsy came back with results that required surgeries, radiation and additional out-of-pocket medical bills that I could not have planned for. (Remember, I’m a divorced, single female trying to support four children on my own salary which is decent, but not what someone with a graduate degree in a professional position should be earning.)  I also filed for bankruptcy, and that has not gone well.  I was assigned a trustee who is Evil Incarnate and completely non-communicative, so I couldn’t plan for the surprise billing she threw on me in late September. A billing of over $738.  In spite of all my attempts, and my attorney’s attempts earlier this year to avoid this scenario, it happened and it is beyond my control.  To add insult to injury, my daughter recently was involved in a fender bender.  She rear-ended someone.  No big deal, but the deductible is $500.  Since I just paid $817 on this vehicle to service the transmission and replace brakes, rotors and all just a month prior, I have absolutely no discretionary spending or savings to get this vehicle repaired.  It isn’t because I haven’t tried.  The point I am trying to make is this:  From cancer costs, to Evil Incarnate Trustee, to daughter wrecking car, to insurance deductible, to unexpected but required car repairs, none of this was in my control.

What the bootstraps people don’t seem to take in to consideration (and what I didn’t consider for years) is the fact that sometime shit just happens.  Sometimes that shit can be dealt with quickly, and other times the shit just keeps coming and you can’t recover before the next load drops.  Such has been my life this year, which gives me a greater appreciation for the words President Obama uttered when he said, “You didn’t build that.”  I understand the value of having others around to collaborate with and to support you in your efforts.  No man or woman is an island.  Though success does require our own initiative and efforts.  Our own initiative and efforts can’t always guarantee success.  There’s just too much out there that we can’t plan on, budget for, or anticipate.  Sometimes the bad fortune rains heavily on the parade we are trying to conduct in life. These days, I can’t catch a freaking break because the shit just keeps dropping.  It keeps dropping in spite of my good choices, in spite of my efforts to be a responsible, contributing, law-abiding citizen of this great country. Sometimes, the bootstraps don’t help.  Sometimes, your success is predicated on the kindness or efforts of others, whether you are willing to admit this or not.  Sometimes it is just complete chance or fortune. Sometimes it’s a miracle.

Last month, as I endured the worst month ever since my divorce and trying to feed a  family of four on $350 for an entire month, I needed a windfall.  I even whispered the prayer, “God, I know you’ve done miracles for other people.  I’ve tried.  I worked.  I couldn’t plan on the demand from the BK attorney.  I need help.  I need a windfall.  And not a $500 or $1,000 windfall either.  I’m not asking to win the lottery, but I need help with the car and Christmas.”  Okay, sometimes in desperation, we beg for the miracle.

****

Call was at 12:30.  My daughter had stressed how important it was to be on time to the call for her show, so I made sure I was ready. !2:15.  12:30.  She drove up in my Durango at 12:45.  I didn’t wait.  I hurried out, locked up the house and turned to climb into our beloved SUV that we  affectionately dubbed, “Rango.”  I glanced in the window and panic shot through my psyche.  My daughter was in tears, her eye makeup streaming down her face.  My daughter is not prone to obvious displays of emotion. I was alarmed.

“What happened?” I asked.  “Are you okay?”

She sputtered and sobbed and finally got the words out. “I was in an accident.  My phone vibrated.  The sound startled me.  I looked down.  I hit the car in front of me.”

Every mother’s nightmare.

My daughter, who is usually so very careful and cautious behind the wheel had rear-ended an F-350 which tore out the fog light on our vehicle, leaving a gaping hole.  The Durango, otherwise, seemed unharmed.

As insurance issues tend to do, this one unfolded in slow motion, as did my understanding of exactly what was going on.

“Oh no,”  I thought.  “Another at-fault accident on our insurance and a $500 deductible to fix. Great.  How’s this going to work.”

Remember, I had $350 to my name and I had to feed my family with this and I still had most of the month left.  I drug my feet for a week getting my car into a body shop to get an estimate.

****

“I’d like to take your car back to my tech to have a look at this,” the young handsome adjuster said.  He was getting to know me by name.  This was the second time this year my vehicle had reported to his shop for repairs.

Before he took the car to the garage, I asked, “So, what are the chances that this vehicle is actually totaled?”  He smiled, “I’m not sure, but that frame is bent pretty far back there.”

We waited.  My daughter cried.  I waited.  As I waited it dawned on me.  If the vehicle is totaled, then there will have to be some sort of cash settlement.  I glanced over at my daughter and whispered, “Honey, don’t despair.  This could be a blessing in disguise.”

****

Three weeks later, and I am I going to pick up my 2012 Nissan Altima tomorrow (today).  Never in a million years would I have anticipated ever driving, let alone being able to afford a recent model anything, let alone a vehicle which is fuel-efficient, comfortable, reliable, has low miles on it and is absolutely luxurious in a color I like!  I would love to sit down and detail all the ups and downs between then and now, but it would be tedious for you though it was an exciting ride for me.  The insurance settlement came in much higher than I dared hope.  It provided a substantial down on this new car, and will replace the money that Evil Incarnate took out of our Christmas/Emergency Fund coffers.  In addition, it will allow me to pay off the rest of my medical bills and pay down my credit cards. It is an amazing windfall, and not a little one either.  And one further thing…there was nothing I could do to make it happen.  It just did.  I’m grateful, but I’m fully aware that, “I didn’t build that.”

Sometimes bootstraps and strength alone are simply not enough.  Sometimes we all need a little good fortune or a helping hand.  I got an  assist through some bad/good luck and a bunch of events that were beyond my control which happened to turn out well. They could just have easily turned out badly, leaving me without transportation at all.  I’m really grateful for how things turned out, but I did nothing other than make my insurance payment to deserve this. I didn’t do any of this on my own, but all of it seems to be the turning point for my little family as the savings in gas costs and repair costs will far outweigh the new car payment, plus it will put money in the bank for us. I just wonder, does this make me a victim or does it mean I’m able to recognize that I am not all-sufficient.  I can appreciate the miracles in my life, even when they walk in clothed in disaster.

Endurance and Healing

Most nights, lately, I’ve been sleeping. I’ve been sleeping far more than usual. Now that my radiation treatments are done, I’m feeling the full effects of my body’s efforts to heal. I find I can do one thing a day, and that’s about it, before my energy dissipates. A full night of sleep, beginning at around 8:00 in the evening, and a mid-afternoon nap are the norm these days.

Tonight is not the norm.

I stayed up and watched a movie, Limitless, which was disturbing to me. Loads of violence. Of course, the movie also deals with addiction to a substance, in this case a mysterious pill that provides powers of mental clarity far beyond the average individual’s ability to think and reason. The drug, in the movie, was unknown, illegal, and highly sought after. The problem? It was instantaneously addicting and, once addicted, to stop taking the drug resulted in certain death. This created an insane demand for the remaining limited supply of pills. Thus the violence. Thus the disturbia.

I’ve tossed and turned all night. I’ve slept only fitfully and my sleep has been fraught with images from the movie. I know that just as dawn creeps up over the horizon, just as my neighbor with the fake boobs and hair weave gets up to let her noisy, yippy, little dogs out for a bathroom break while she lights up her morning smoke, just as this small little rural berg begins to hum with the activity of a new day and my youngest is waking from her slumber, my body will finally give in to some much needed shut-eye. I’m glad I have no appointments and no work obligations.

On the upside, this is the first sleepless night in forever that I haven’t been up worrying about finances. In the month since I last struggled to sleep through the night, some really wonderful things happened. I record them here, as a statement of personal gratitude and celebration and because it is something to do besides the ineffective tossing and turning, trying to block the violent images of that movie from my psyche. Also, if there happened to be a worried, frightened soul out there wondering how they are possibly going to make it, maybe this post will provide some encouragement to just keep on plugging, because, as they say, “This too shall pass.”

Most recently, I’ve been whining about the way my tenants left my old house. Thanks to a very helpful and kind group of friends, we were able to get rid of most of the salvageable stuff, to bag up the garbage and contain the bags to the garage until the time I could actually afford to rent a dumpster to dump it all into. While I was over there on one of my many trips to clean up or monitor the place, I dug out some plants from the yard. The place is completely overgrown with plants, and I figure, since I put thousands into that yard, I should take a few of my favorites with me. I have no yard in my new digs, but I do have loads of decking and driveway space that begs to be adorned with tastefully arranged containers of plants. I don’t believe the plants I dug up and carted over, using The Hesitant Boyfriend’s truck, will even be missed. Further, they really brightened up the new place. I think only two plants didn’t make it. The rest seem to be doing fine. As long as I can have a bit of nature and beauty around me, I can find the strength to keep on pushing forward.

In the last month, my bankruptcy discharge letter arrived, thus freeing me from a mountain of debt that I struggled for the last five years to pay on, all the while cutting back on groceries and other much needed things for the kids. I can now begin to rebuild my credit and hack away at the student loan debt (not discharged) and the medical bills which were incurred after I filed.

The Evil Ex and I will have a hearing in a couple of weeks to address the child support he doesn’t want to pay to help with our daughter’s medical expenses. I seriously do not think I will have any luck there, but requesting a hearing, delayed the reduction of child support (a loss of $200 of income each month). While this reduction may be retroactive, I think I’ll be okay, for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’ve diligently worked to eliminate any unnecessary expenses from our budget. I’ve easily shaved more than the two hundred I will be losing and that’s a great thing. At the same time, The Hesitant Boyfriend got some steady work. Though it was frighteningly tight for a while there when I had to help him with his bills before he got paid, he is getting paid these days and the extra he is bringing in really helps.

We aren’t out of the woods entirely financially, yet. I have a further reduction in child support coming because The Good Ex gets to begin paying our daughter directly instead of paying me. Let’s hope he actually does this, because insurance to keep her driving is astronomical. She needs to drive in order to work, so I can’t exactly drop her from the insurance policy. Further, my student loan payments start back up again next month; another expense.

A few months ago, I was also whining about the fact that my rather large tax return was taken by the BK court. To make this money up for myself, I was able to land some part time summer work which will allow me to start up a small emergency savings, which, in spite of everything I hope to be able to add to each month. This is a much different place than I was in even six weeks ago. Nothing destroys the spirit quite like ongoing financial struggle. Now that things are more hopeful for me in this area, I am sleeping better and my spirits are improving as a result.

Bankruptcy can be embarrassing and stressful. Many people don’t talk openly about it, but the folks who shared their stories have given me hope. Every single one of them told me things will get better. Things are already getting better.

On a whim, I decided to go car shopping. I drive an older SUV and I definitely need to look at getting something more fuel efficient. I haven’t been car shopping in almost a decade and I didn’t do a great job of it then, so I had no idea what to expect. I wasn’t seriously expecting to find a car and actually purchase it, but going through the process would give me a bit of a starting point. After all, I wanted to know exactly what I’d be up against in terms of interest rates, expected down payment, and monthly payments.

A cute little 2001 VW New Beetle with 50,000 miles caught my eye, so I arranged for a test drive. It’s definitely a fun car to drive and it had a moonroof. I fell in love right away. I’m a horrible negotiator and I knew I probably wasn’t going to buy this car, or even be approved for the financing, so I didn’t really haggle much on price. We got into the process right away. I told them what I wanted my monthly payment to be and so on. If you’ve ever purchased a car from a dealer, you know how this goes. You look. You drive. You talk. You fill out paperwork, then you wait. When they finally came out to me to tell me “what they could do” they gave me an offer that included cash out of pocket that was impossible, a monthly payment that was twice the amount I told them I was comfortable with, and an interest rate of 29%. I laughed when they handed it to me. Then they offered me another deal on a 2010 Ford Focus that was $5,000 more than the Beetle I wanted to buy. Now, this is where I do not understand car sales. They were able to offer me a better out of pocket, much lower monthly payment, and a lower interest rate on the Focus. How can they do that on the more expensive car where their risk is greater? I don’t get it. In the end, the interest rate was still 17.5%, and the car was the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever driven next to an old Ford Taurus I once had. I haven’t made a car payment in almost four years, and while I’d consider payments to rebuild my credit, I’m certainly not going to do this for an interest rate of 17% on a car I don’t even like. Obviously, I shook hands, thanked them for their time, and consideration and went on my way. I got the information I needed anyway.

I went home, did a quick Internet search on repairing credit after bankruptcy and on buying a used car after bankruptcy. It turns out that while purchasing a used car is a common way to rebuild one’s credit, the interests rates on the deal will be really high. One source suggested finding a car you like with a payment you can handle. Accept the rotten interest rate and make every payment on time for a year. After a year, refinance the vehicle for a lower interest rate. That sounds like a possible plan, eventually, though I’m in no hurry to rush right out and begin making payments. I want to get through these next few months first, get some money socked away in savings, and then see.

Another source suggested this plan for rebuilding credit after filing Chapter 7. Obtain a credit card with a limit of $300. Use it to buy stuff like gas or things you need anyway. Take the money you would normally spend on those items and use it to pay off the credit card in full every month. Do this for six months, then get a credit card or two with higher limits of about $1,000. Spend very little on these cards and pay them all off every month. This source emphasized staying within budget and not carrying a balance on any of the cards. After a year, your credit will have improved enough to be able to negotiate a better interest rate on a car.

This second plan sounded much safer to me. I’ve spent the last five years living on a cash only basis with no credit cards. I’m loathe to go out and rack up debt, except for the very express purpose of paying it off monthly, so I can rebuild my credit scores. It just so happened that a credit card offer came in the mail. No annual fees and no interest rate until next year. I applied and was approved. I just made the first payment to pay the entire balance, and it’s two weeks before the due date. It just feels good to be able to do that and not worry.

The first part of this year was horrible for me and many people I know. In tough times, I’ve always been fairly resilient and I try to stay hopeful. The last several months, however, have been some of the most difficult I’ve faced. We all know that nothing is permanent, even bad times. I was beginning to wonder. If you are beginning to worry and wondering if things will ever get better let me encourage you to just keep plodding. Survive today. Before you know it, a month or two has passed and things might look much better. It might be a long time before things improve, you might have to make some sacrifices and do things differently. You might just have to endure. Just don’t give up.

There are better days ahead.

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