It's the first day of spring.
I woke too early this morning because we haven’t yet begun pulling the shades shut in our bedroom. We’re still calibrated to darkness. But the sun came, reflecting off the bright building across the street. I woke with an ache in my shoulders and a furrow in my brow.
Norway is basically locked down. The government has taken drastic measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Like everyone else who can, I have been working from home this week.
Jonathan and I are taking shifts caring for (read: entertaining and educating) the Hazelnut to allow each of us to get work done. There’s also a lot of work to do, so that’s translated to our working side-by-side for hours after she has gone to bed, as well. And because my job entailed involvement in crisis communications for my company in the very early stages of all this, I’ve been stretching myself thin and working without many boundaries for almost two weeks now.
It’s getting to me.
I’m an optimist. I’m an extrovert. My whole life is geared toward outward enjoyment and I tend to take the long view on things. But when the globe shakes, I feel it too.
In the summer of 2008, Jonathan and I bought a house in Livermore, California. We were a young couple in a pretty good spot. The economy had been booming along. We had stable jobs and made money. We had the average student loan debt, a couple of small credit cards. True, we didn’t have much of a down payment saved, but that was no trouble. Banks had been competing to give us a massive loan. We shopped for a while, found a lovely, too-big townhome close to our little downtown and made an offer. The sellers accepted. We spent an hour in a little real estate office that smelled like dusty mints and signed every page of a full ream of paper. And that was that.
Only one photo remains of that day. I deleted the rest.
I remember celebrating with Mongolian BBQ. I remember watching Jonathan rumble up our rental driveway in the empty U-Haul. I remember the sound of the tape stretching out of the dispenser in my hands and around box after box of dishes and books. (We were only in our twenties! How had we acquired so much stuff?)
We had rented the truck a few days early because we were planning a long weekend away and wanted to pack as much as possible before we left. The weekend plan was to run our first half marathon at Disneyland. It was a hot August day already. I pressed our running shoes into a small suitcase and double checked our flight information. We needed to be at the airport early the next morning.
My phone rang.
It was the bank. (A big one. Too big to fail.) I knew the number. And the voice on the other side told me that they were terribly sorry, but the bank would not be funding our home loan after all. Fighting rising panic, I asked what we had done wrong. Had we forgotten something? What was the problem? Surely there was a way to fix it. No, the bank will not be funding any loans. Click.
Jonathan and I sat in the middle of our living room and I wept in his arms. Neither of us understood. It would be a few weeks before the whole picture shook into place. A global financial crisis. A collapse. It would be a few years before it became apparent that the origin of the problem was a shady system of home loan programs exactly like the ones that had been competing for our loan.
We ran the half marathon that weekend and enjoyed Disneyland in a state of denial.
We returned and emptied the U-Haul mechanically. Jonathan rumbled it away and I played with our cats in an empty living room. The boxes remained piled in the dining room. We didn’t unpack most of them for months. Towers of boxes loomed in that corner through Christmas and New Year. We ate meals upstairs and didn’t talk about it.
I’ve been thinking about that time in our lives all week. Almost twelve years ago. It haunts me still.
Our realtor called us the following spring and told us how lucky we’d been. Most people were “underwater” in their homes, unable to pay mortgages with suddenly skyrocketing interest rates. Lots of people were being foreclosed. That could have been us. Now, banks “owned” too many foreclosed properties and were selling them for pennies on the dollar. Since we’d kept our jobs, we were considered the best possible risk. She could get us a good deal. Were we still interested in being homeowners?
The call made me sick for many reasons. First, we had desperately wanted to buy a home. She knew that. Like most Americans, we knew that home ownership was a pillar of the American Dream. Of growing up. Of having “made it.” Second, as she spoke, I could only hear the echo of the sales pitch she’d made in the time just before the downturn…
You’re so lucky! House prices are going up, up, up. Getting in soon is the only way to ensure financial stability. Real estate is the best possible investment. No down payment? No problem. Every bank has a special program to get you into your first home. Look at this history of mortgage rates. It will be fixed for two years and then adjustable, but you’ll want that flexibility anyway. Rates are just as likely to go down as they are to go up. You’ll want options. And you’ll be making more money by that point, too, so it might be time to trade up. Move onto a bigger place. Who knows? Maybe by then you’ll have a couple of little ones…
Looking at the boxes in my dining room, I told her no thanks and hung up fast. She repulsed me. Desperate to pull us into something we couldn’t get out of no matter the cost to us. Callous and greedy.
(It would take me years to get out of my own head on this one and realize that, in the weeks following the market collapse, many real estate agents went bankrupt. She had a family to feed too. She wasn’t cruel; she was just another product of a desperate time.)
We watched house prizes descend to laughably low places. Suddenly, we could afford a higher down payment on a larger place. In California. Unheard of! There was a neighborhood we liked in Dublin, a brand new development before the crisis. The street was called Brannigan. We said to each other, if a nice property opens up there for this amount of money, we’ll call another realtor and go see it. Just to see. It’s not like we’re ever going to leave Livermore. Quit our stable jobs? Impossible.
One late spring day, we drove out to the beautiful, brand new neighborhood and met a new agent. He ushered us into a gorgeous four-storey townhome; 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 1,400 square feet. The carpets were sparkling clean. Immaculate. The staging was perfect. Sleek furniture. A chess set mid-match. A home theater with a gabled roof. Views of an emerald field out every front window.
I pictured a library built into the loft. A soft chair where I could drape myself and read, read, read. Jonathan pictured building out a shop in the two-car garage.
As we walked out, the agent turned and said, “This same floorplan is available in another unit around the corner. It’s about $125,000 cheaper. Just got the call this morning, so it’s not listed yet. It’s nowhere near as nice, but with the money you save, you could do it up your way. Build in some bookshelves.”
He got me. We agreed to walk around the corner to see it.
From the walkway, the rowhouse was identical. Inward facing, so no emerald views. But otherwise, the same. I got excited. The agent turned his key in the lock. A dog began to bark from inside. The man paused.
“That’s strange. I was told no one was here.”
Against common sense, he pushed his head into the house. “Oh.” That was all he said. He may have actually dropped the door handle out of pure shock. The door swung open.
Our eyes adjusted to the darkness in the home and we could see that the barking dog was contained by child gates on the first staircase. The animal was running up and down those stairs, frantic. He’d worn a path in the spotted carpet. The stench of urine and feces smacked us hard. Horrified, my eyes darted from wall to wall. There was nothing in this house. Not a picture on the wall. Not a stick of furniture. Not a chess piece. I looked back at the dog, alternating between snarls and whimpers. How long had he been there? Alone in the dark?
I don’t remember how we tore ourselves away. I think about that dog all the time.
Today, I put my slippers on and walked out of our bedroom and into the living room. Our Oslo apartment is 60 square meters (645 square feet). It’s a compact square that contains two small bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living space where we also keep a dining table. We bought it in 2016. As the real estate market in Oslo was going up and up and up. And real estate felt like the only sound investment for the future. Buyers don’t have agents in Norway, so no one talked us into anything.
Out the windows, I couldn’t see a soul on the street. Just blue sky.
I feel stressed. Stretched thin. Concerned. Wary. Tense. I have been good about finding ways to jumpstart my own creativity, but they all connect to work. (I love my job. I love my company. I miss going to the office every day.) And my daughter is the delight of my life, but also needs more than I can give her more often than I want to admit these days.
Just now, as I was writing this, she blew up a balloon until it swelled and popped loudly right in her alarmed little face. I wasn’t prepared for the bang! and jumped and said Holy shit. Almost as loud as the balloon had been. When she burst into tears in her fathers arms, I knew I’d stepped wrong. But that’s where I am this morning. Tick, tick, tick.
I’m an optimist. I’m an extrovert. I am trying to remind myself… right now, in this writing… that the heartbreak of 2008/2009 gave rise to something good for us.
Maybe it was the act of removing all our possessions from our direct line of sight, proving how little we actually needed on any given day. Maybe it was seeing behind the curtain of the American Dream. Maybe it was the fact that the crisis was global, leveling the playing field a bit so that we could see possibilities beyond First Street, professional liability insurance, and Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
But Jonathan and I are in Norway today in large part because we were not able to buy that first home.
While many of our friends struggled to stay afloat in those recession years, we remained nimble and managed to travel in Europe and around the world. When Jonathan got a job offer in Oslo, it felt eminently possible to just go. So I would have to give up my job and income for a while. How bad could it be? All we had to do was make rent and buy food for two.
Turned out to be a remarkably good choice.
The Hazelnut woke early this morning. When I heard her door open, I quickly crawled back into my bed and waited. She crawled in with us and just snuggled. Quietly. Breathing with me. Warm.
I don’t know how this pandemic crisis will shake out. The financial markets are in chaos. The Norwegian crown has never been weaker. We're isolated from everyone we know. Our planned trip to California (and Disneyland) over Easter has been postponed indefinitely. We have no idea what's going to come next.
For now, I need to do a few things every day. Among them, remind myself to be grateful for our health, cherish the quiet times with my kid and try to be more present with her whenever possible, and care for my own psychological health so that I can be a reliable resource of love, patience, and imagination for my family. We’ll get through this together. We’ve got our home. Complete with a built-in library and a soft couch to flop onto and read, read, read. And an espresso machine. Plus, we’re privileged enough to be able stay in while we work. So, if a pandemic has to come and lock us down, we’re in just the right spot to weather it.
And I wonder where we'll all be in eleven years... Keep climbing those stairs, friends. We’re apart but not really alone.