Samantha Wallen

Portrait Image

location

Mill Valley, CA.

occupation

Writer, Poet, Teacher, Mentor, Spiritual Economist

interview date

08/29/2014

“[After foreclosure], I lost the authority over my own life.”

INTRO

Samantha is the founder of “WRITE IN POWER—Create, discover, realize your limitless potential!” She is currently working on a memoir based in her search  for the true meaning of home in a time of foreclosure. 

In this interview she talks with me about how she built and lost a house, as well as her search for home as a child and as an adult.

PROLOGUE

Where do you think the story of your relationship with money begins?

What first popped into mind is that it began probably around the time I was nine years old. That’s when I had more awareness of what it means to have money, and what it means to not have money. My parents were divorced when I was 3 or 4. My mom has been married six times. My dad was her second marriage. Then she ended up marrying a man named Jerry who agreed to marry her to put her on his insurance so she could have open heart surgery. My mom was the type of person that was like, “Okay, well, I’m going to try to make this work as maybe something else, like an actual marriage.” But it just didn’t work.

[Then, around the time I was 9,] we ended up having to sell the house because she had to file medical bankruptcy. I was aware of having to lose that house. I think I really started to understand more clearly that not having the money to pay for your medical bills could cause you to have to sell your house. At the same time, my dad, who was a banker, had married the woman he had been having an affair with and had started another family, and they had a house that I envied.

My sister and I usually would have dinner and hang out with them on Wednesday nights, and that was it. I didn’t see myself fitting in there. It was just a sense of feeling the exclusion. My mom ended up being really sick and spending the year in and out of the hospital. So my sister and I lived for that year in the basement of my dad’s house. But it felt sort of like we were the peripheral guests rather than part of the whole unit.

How many homes did you live in as a child? Did you ever count them?

Yes, I have counted. It is 11 houses in 6 cities in 5 states by the time I was 17.

I

I think that today home is more of an experience of creating a home wherever you are rather than the structure itself. I think the impact for me was to make a decision very early on, I think at the age of nine or so, to have a family. I didn’t think I was going to do that as young as I did, but I knew that I was going to have a family and buy or build a home. That was what I wanted to do so that then I could really be who I was meant to be and really have the life that I wanted to have. For me, my whole sense of what I wanted for myself and my life was to create a sense of safety and stability to anchor myself so that then I could expand my life out from there.

And yet, I’d become so used to constant change that in a way, I kind of thought, well that’s really what I want—a constantly changing life because on some level I saw it as “better” or exciting. I paradoxically had a conception of stability as being boring or limiting. When we got approved to build our house in Jackson, Wyoming, I actually freaked out a little bit, because, all of a sudden I was like, “Oh no! This means I’m going to be stuck here.” I told my husband, I don’t really think I want to live in Jackson my whole life. Stuck and rooted… I wanted to be rooted, but then I was scared and thought, “Oh wait, no! Wait, no, no, I don’t think I want to do this.” And he said, “What are you talking about? “This is just our ticket to retirement or whatever’s next. We can sell this and move on.”

But I think somewhere in there it was very important for me to create a stable structure and environment for myself, and for me that meant the family and the relationship with the soul mate, which really is this idea of the American dream. You’re going to meet your person, you’re going to have your family, you’re going to have the house, and then once you have that sense of stability, then all the rest of your life can happen. You will have arrived at a place of security that then allows you to do these other things. And, well, we all certainly know that isn’t…true (Laughs).

II

Samantha’s husband, Aaron, developed then became the Executive Director for a nonprofit, low-income housing organization. Separately from his work, he and Samantha bought land then built, with their own hands, a home for their family there. They later sold the house and moved to Boulder where he was going to pursue a Ph.D. With money from the Jackson house, they were able to purchase a modest, 1,000-square-foot ranch home in Boulder.

Aaron later came to a point in his doctoral studies where the program wasn’t meeting his needs and he decided to take a break to decide if he wanted to continue , so the couple asked themselves, “If we could do anything, what would we really want to do?” And Aaron said, “I’d like to buy and flip houses for ourselves.” Aaron got a Colorado Contractor’s License and then they bought a second house to remodel in a different part of Boulder with the intention of gutting it, adding two floors then selling it.

We were using our own money. It may have been wiser to establish a business at that point, but we just didn’t. Our thinking was that this is for us, and we’re just going to do it and make it work. He didn’t have any income, and I was making less than $30,000 a year. We dream big, but…

So we put the big house [that Aaron had rebuilt] on the market. But then nothing was really happening with it. We were freaking out because we now were trying to pay for two houses at once. We had created a lot of debt to finish the big one. We used our credit cards; we had a line of credit at Home Depot; we had that kind of thing. We were expecting to get maybe at best $100-$200,000 profit off of it.

But then nothing was happening. We ended up putting the house we lived in on the market to see what would happen. We had a contract in less than five hours. Up to that point, we’d been living on essentially credit and my income. Eventually, we moved into the big house and tried to maintain that as long as we could. Basically, we were living in a house that we never were supposed to live in. (Laughs)

A friend, someone who had been on the board for Habitat for Humanity in Jackson who really liked us and supported us in a lot of different ways, came down and talked with Aaron. He agreed to become an investor and actually go into business with Aaron to create a construction company for flipping houses. So he gave us a loan to move into the big house, maintain the credit or the debt that we had, then began to build a business with us.

The business he and Aaron created paid Aaron a salary, and we were making it. So I left my fulltime [office job] at Naropa University. I wanted to teach, and I got to do that as an adjunct, but my pay was like nothing next to nothing. I was only making $3,000 a semester. I also wanted to focus on writing because I had completed an MFA in Writing and Poetics while I was working full time at Naropa. Writing has always been a passion, but was always on the backburner—the thing I did after everything else.

By the time the house Aaron remodeled via his construction company was done and went on the market, we were into 2008. That’s when the housing market and financial crisis was really coming to light, and we were realizing that it wasn’t a viable market to be doing this right now. Basically Aaron’s construction company only broke even on that house. Our friend understood that it wasn’t Aaron’s fault, but because of the overall financial loss, he was like, “Well, we need to dissolve this.”

I made several calls to the mortgage company to say, “Hey. I know we’re going to miss our next payment which would be the first one we’d ever missed. What can I do? Is there some way that we can get leeway?” At this time too, we were on the front edge of all the foreclosures [that were about to happen], so there wasn’t any kind of support for people or even a thought that there should be support. I just knew that we’d had great credit for 12 years and never missed a payment. Did they have some sort of program?

And they basically said, “Well, no, you need to call back once you’re three months delinquent, and then we can work with you.” So we made a decision to stop paying the mortgage and the home equity. I was looking for higher paying jobs again, even though I loved my teaching job, and so was Aaron. My mom and my stepdad were temporarily giving us about $500 a month to just buy groceries and food and the basic things we needed. Shortly into that, we visited a bankruptcy attorney and knew that we were going to have to go through the process of filing a Chapter 7.

I made a trip that year for my dad’s 80th birthday. My dad, my half-sisters from his last marriage, and I came out to California because I have two half-sisters from his first marriage who live out here. I remember sitting with all of them and they asked me, “Well gee, what are you guys gonna do and where are you gonna go?” And I said, I have no idea. You know? I have no clue.

The one thing I did know is that if worse came to worst, we could move into my mom’s basement for awhile until we figured something else out. I knew we weren’t going to end up on the street, so that was comforting, but I didn’t want to do that. Neither did my husband, and my daughters at the time were in seventh grade and third grade. And so I think the hardest part was just sitting there with the unknown, with not having any control over what was going to happen. And you just have to settle into that in a way, otherwise you’re going to go crazy.

How do you “settle into” the unknown?

This is kind of the theme in the book I’m working on: that we have this idea that we have control over things or that we always want to know what is next, that we want that sense of security and safety. That is ultimately why I wanted to build a house in the first place, way back when I was nine and got my Home Magazine subscription. But, you know, I did a lot of meditation practice, which was to just sit and breathe and on some level find a trust that something was going to happen for us. And, in a way, there was a little bit of an excitement to it. Obviously, it’s fear also, but there was a little excitement of like, Okay. I actually have no control of knowing what’s going to happen for us next.

We decided to expand our search for jobs. Aaron applied for jobs in San Francisco, Portland and Honolulu. He ended up getting a job offer in San Francisco, and he moved in April of 2009. I stayed in the house with the kids from April to June so I could finish teaching my semester and the kids could finish school. He moved into a rental there, a place where we had a landlord who seemed to be emotionally unstable. Then in June, Aaron came back for us, and we all drove out with all of our stuff and moved into this place in Mill Valley.

I can remember realizing the tremendous impact that such a situation and such a big move actually has. I had moved a ton as a kid, and I just did it and I was used to it. But, yet, in my ten years of living in Boulder, I think it was the first time I’d ever really become more rooted in a community. That [the first house we bought] was the quintessential house that I had wanted. It wasn’t a big fancy thing I dreamed of as a kid, but it was, enough.

III

I think the most impactful part for me was not when we went through bankruptcy and had to move. Obviously, those are huge impacts in and of themselves. But it wasn’t until we moved to California and into this place with this landlord who really was an unstable man, and we realized very quickly like, Oh God. Oh God! (Laughs) Very needy, very. He had certain ideas about how he wanted us to be his family, his friends, and his community. He had expectations of us that went well beyond the landlord tenant relationship. And he’d just come into our house, lots of stuff like that. He also refused to fix the leaking roof and a mold problem in my daughter’s bedroom. We realized we needed to move somewhere else, so we found another place. We dealt with an agent who helped us.

We were really good tenants, but because we had a bankruptcy, we had to jump through these hoops and prove ourselves. That was when I was really starting to feel more and more of what I’d lost: the authority over my own life and our own selves that we’d lost when we lost the ownership. That we have to prove ourselves now. We have to go through credit reports, we have to prove that we actually are worthy people. Because of our bankruptcy, we’re considered deficient until we prove otherwise.

On some level we always knew it was kind of a house of cards. We always had this feeling that everything was a gamble. We didn’t have a nest egg; we’d never made money, we were always living on the edge. Even when we bought our house in Boulder, after we sold our house in Jackson, we’d rolled over our credit card debt into a new mortgage. We always knew it could all come crumbling down. We’d even joke about that.

But it was at that point, when we were trying to move out from under our mentally ill landlord, that the whole weight of the impact of the loss hit me. It wasn’t just that we lost the home, which I could deal with. I’d dealt with that my whole life. What I hadn’t really realized before is how much a sense of yourself and a sense of autonomy and freedom and belonging in society came with owning your own home, and, even just the credibility and the tax breaks.

Do you internalize that?

Yeah. Definitely. I definitely do. We had been told we were essentially approved for this house that we had found to rent that was still in the school district. We were like, yeah, we can make this work. And then the woman called back and said, “Oh no, I’m sorry. We can’t approve you.” It was after she had talked to our landlord. Who knows what he had said. We didn’t really disclose to her all that was going on with him, because we didn’t feel like that was appropriate. But when she said that, that was the moment for me where I felt immediately trapped and powerless and like, Oh my God, my whole life has entirely changed. Am I ever going to get that power and authority back? For me, that was really the biggest impact.

It was in that moment — when [the agent] took the word of this landlord precisely because he was the “owner,” — that the loss fully hit me. She and society gave him the authority to make decisions about us, our lives and who we were! That was when I literally collapsed to the floor and felt like, “Oh my God, we’re trapped. And we have no more power, we have no more social or upward mobility, like it’s gone.” For me, that was really the most devastating moment. At that point, our house in Colorado hadn’t actually been auctioned off yet, but it was essentially gone to us. So that happened in December of 2009. There weren’t many things available that we could afford and still have both our kids go to the new schools they had just started.

Now when I look back, I think what it really did is reveal how much that [sense of unworthiness] existed in me already. That’s what I’ve really been discovering, is how much that sense of unworthiness or not-enoughness was the impetus behind creating the whole idea of my life and the house and the sense of security and safety that I wanted.

Going through this process helped reveal how much I was trying to create this identity and this sense of safety for myself through these external things. But through my developed sense of opportunism and optimism: I see foreclosure as an opportunity, as a kind of birth, in a way. Metaphorically speaking. The root of the word foreclosure means, “to be put out.” I see my time and our collective time of foreclosure as being the process of being put out of any external structure we’ve invested a part of our identity in, a sense of who we are. When we are put out of these structures, we are forced to see who we really are without them. We have to find that part of ourselves within rather than without.

The work that I want to do and I’m attempting to do through my writing and through working with other people, is to help people come back to knowing and experiencing and understanding their own essential worth and value that we have just by the very fact that we’re here. I think that’s been taken away from us through the capitalist society as it’s structured right now.

EPILOGUE

My response to all that happened was to start writing my book. That’s what actually peeled me up off the floor after we were turned down for the rental. I realized in writing this story, which essentially is my story of home, that I did it for me. I had to write that story actually for me. At the time I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as, I’m writing it for other people, to help them understand and know that they have value as they go through this process of foreclosure even if society says otherwise.

Through my story, I’m interested in tapping into people’s own experience and history and story of home, because as you delve into what that is, there’s a certain level of empowerment. You understand that what you’ve been looking for, you aren’t going to find in an external structure, whether that is a physical home, a job, or a relationship, or whatever the thing outside yourself may be.

When I got up off the floor, I was determined to not be disempowered. I really felt the impact of what we lost, but I felt like, Well, I’m not going to give all of myself over to that. I want other people to be able to have the experience of having a different vision about what it means to belong and be at home in society, and not have it be connected to what you own. I want to name this for other people.

That’s what motivated me to get off the carpet, both physically and metaphorically. Foreclosure, it turned out, was the opportunity to see how much my sense of worth and value was too invested in these structures and ideas that had actually failed me.

POST-SCRIPT

Five months after this interview, I received this update from Samantha:

Aaron and I have since found a rental house that was less expensive, in the same school district, without an “emotionally unstable” landlord, and with a view of the Pacific Ocean. It is a house that isn’t our own. We can’t decide to move a wall, insert a window, or add another floor, but it is a home that allowed our oldest daughter to graduate from a good high school and go to a prestigious east coast college, and is allowing our youngest, who just started high school, to do the same.

It is a home made affordable by Aaron’s stable federal job in San Francisco. It is a home that has allowed me to write and become intimate with my story of foreclosure and home in my memoir, When the House Fails: One Woman’s Story of Foreclosure and Finding Home. Writing helped me discover that who I am and what I do is home. I embody home. I always have, and I always will. Based on this discovery, I started a business that offers programs and mentoring, called “WRITE IN POWER”—Create, discover, realize your limitless potential!

Through this work I provide the structure and space for clients to come home to themselves—to write and give ink to what lives within them and the story their unique lives yearn to tell. Each story is a direct pathway to getting clear on who you are, where you are, how you got there, and where you want to go. It is the realization of fundamental value and worth. It is the gateway, the threshold to arriving at the life your heart longs for.