Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Winter is Coming

Lori and I have been working with a financial adviser on our retirement plan. We’ve been facing down a whole host of decisions regarding risk assessment, asset management, and prudent reserves. We’re not rich – we both work for the government. We’re about as middle class as they come. And in about ten years we’ll both be leaving our jobs and joining the wonderful tribe of Retired People. We hear they’re nice. We hope we fit in.
            You find yourself pouring over charts indicating that you will be eighty-years-old in 2038 and ninety in 2048, if you make it that long. We set up our plan so that we’ll be stone cold broke by the time we turn 98. If we make it past that we’ll just have to go out and get a part time job. Walmart door greeter or something.
            It’s been a revealing process. You lay yourself bare. Our financial advisor knows more about the details of our private life than all of our friends put together. It doesn’t work if you keep secrets. Think about it. Like the forensic accountants currently dissecting the Trump family’s bowl-of-spaghetti financial entanglements with Russian oligarchs, your financial planner is going to go over every penny of income and expenses with a fine-toothed comb – all your habits, foibles, obsessions, and weaknesses will be dragged out into the light of day. Sometimes when I’m in his office I feel like it would be easier to stand on the conference table and take all of my clothes off.
            One of the surprises about financial planning – it’s a lot like philosophical self-examination. You have to come clean about who you are, what you have, and what you want. You have to clearly articulate your values – what matters most, what matters least, and what doesn’t matter at all. You have to be assertive and direct, but you have to be humble and willing to be led. You have to be very, very clear on what you know and what you don’t know. If you get that wrong, everything goes wrong. When in doubt, which will be most of the time, take the advice.
            Naturally, (and I say naturally because this is the same boat the overwhelming majority of us are in), we haven’t saved enough for retirement. These next ten years are going to be austere as we try to close the gap, or more austere than I’d previously imagined.
            There are two mistakes people commonly make in their retirement thinking, and I was making both of them. One, I assumed that once you retire your expenses go down. Wrong. Most people spend more when they retire than when they’re working. They start traveling more. And of course, later in life, healthcare costs skyrocket. And two, I forgot to account for inflation. Ten, twenty, and thirty years from now, things are going to cost a lot more. Think of how much a gallon of milk, a gallon of gas, or a movie ticket cost thirty years ago – they’ve nearly tripled. This is why your savings will lose 67% of its value over a thirty year span.
            And this is why working with a professional financial planner, preferably a fee-only planner, is so important. A fee-only planner charges you for their services like a dentist, a plumber, or an attorney. All other types of financial planners earn money on commissions from the investments they steer you toward. In other words, you can never be sure that their investment advice is untainted by self-interest. Are they pushing investments that are best for you, or that yield the highest commission for them? Despite their best assurances, you never really know. I’m not saying that commissioned sales people are inherently deceitful – I’m sure they’re mostly wonderful folks – but their business model is ripe for abuse, most of it beneath the surface and hidden from view.
            The other way that estate planning is like philosophy is that you have to face the fact that you are going to fade away and die, and a good financial planner, like a good philosopher, is going to help you do it as consciously, joyfully, honestly, and compassionately as possible. In both endeavors – financial planning and philosophy – the goal is to embody the principle of no-harm: no harm to yourself and no harm to anybody else. Only when you honestly, courageously, and unflinchingly face the fact that you are going to grow old and die can you rightly set your affairs in order to maximize benefit and minimize needless suffering.
            Another benefit of financial planning is the way it challenges and changes your relationship with your stuff. As you grow older you begin jettisoning excess baggage, if only out of kindness for the friends and relatives who are going to have to endure the miserable task of emptying your house or apartment when you’re gone. Show them a little love. Get rid of all the extra crap right now, the stuff you could easily live without. You’ll be shocked by how much bigger your home feels, and how much freer you’ll feel.
            But the biggest benefit of estate planning by far is the way it lifts guilt, shame, and worry off your neck. You no longer have to regard the future as a dark, menacing cloud full of uncertainty and danger. You know that no matter what happens, you’ve seen to it that you will be financially supported throughout. Your affairs are in order. Your investments are safe. Your insurance is sufficient. Your tax strategies are maximized. In the event of your death, your spouse is taken care of. And in the event of both of your deaths, a calm and rational process unfolds for the dispensation of whatever assets remain. You just don’t have to stay awake at night worrying about that stuff anymore. How much is your peace of mind worth?
            And all of this for only a few thousand bucks. It is money well spent. I only wish I’d done it sooner. I feel like grabbing every twenty and thirty-year-old I know and forcing them to make an appointment with my financial planner. But I know I can’t. It’s not my place. But because of the miracle of compound interest, a tiny monthly investment into retirement savings over a forty year span is a gazillion times better than even the most aggressive savings plan begun in one’s forties or fifties.
            With all that being said, it’s never too late to take what you’ve got and make it better. The only thing holding most people back from hiring a fee-only Certified Financial Planner (CFP) is fear and shyness, two things I know a lot about. Thankfully, my life-long philosophical training and hard-won life experience convinces me of one simple, unimpeachable truth – problems don’t get better by ignoring them.
            Facing the fact of one's own impending decline and death, facing the facts of one's own spending habits, and facing the fact that your years of denial and avoidance have yielded little but frustration and anxiety, you finally pick up the phone and start the process. It's going to hurt. But not nearly as much as the alternative. Winter is coming. And even the squirrels know how to hide nuts for later, when all the trees are bare.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Odin's Tree

I just returned from Iceland. People keep asking me, “So, how was it?”
            “It was great,” I tell them.
But what I really want to say is that it changed my life; that when I look at the photos my heart hurts with longing and my eyes begin to shine; that something about it moved me deeply, in ways I can never explain.
As an act of reverence for the enchantment of Iceland I set myself on a course of study I’d neglected for too long – Norse mythology. In 1,000 C.E. Iceland was the last European nation to convert to Christianity, and even then it didn’t outlaw the old ways – they stayed alive and thrive to this day. Jesus and Odin walk together across her fresh green fields and glacial moraines.
Iceland was first settled by Norwegians, then later by Celts. The spiritual landscape of Iceland is a mélange of Norse mythology, archaic Christianity, and Celtic mysticism. The gods of the Aesir and Vanir jostle for space with the huldufólk or “hidden people” – the elves, trolls, and fairies who inhabit the mounds and outcroppings that rise from the fields of every farm.
The veil between the seen and unseen world is very thin in Iceland.
In Norse mythology Odin was the oldest and greatest of the gods. Long ago, when the world was young, Odin disguised himself as a traveler and went to find Mimir’s well whose waters rose up from the core of the earth to nourish Yggdrasil, the world-tree. Legend has it that one drink from Mimir’s well would make one wise. When Odin found the well he asked Mimir for a drink. Mimir told him no, the water was only for him. But Odin could be persuasive. Finally Mimir agreed, if Odin would do one thing for him.
“What?” Odin asked.
“Give me one of your eyes.”
Without hesitation Odin performed the grisly task, tossing his eye into the well. Mimir nodded, handing Odin his horn.
Odin filled the horn and drank deeply. He felt wisdom flooding through him, and he was transformed. From then on he was known as the Blind God, although he still had one good eye.
Odin has many names and often travels in disguise. He’s tricky that way. He also has two ravens, Hugin and Munin, which mean “thought” and “memory.” They fly far and wide, and are the eyes of Odin. When you see a raven, Odin is watching. They return to sit on his shoulders and whisper into his ears all of the things they know and remember. So it is that nothing eludes Odin’s grasp.
One time Odin performed a great sacrifice in order to attain a higher state of divinity. He hung himself on the world-tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nine nights with nothing to eat and nothing to drink, his side pierced by a spear. His agony transformed him – he was now able to understand the sacred runes that once had no meaning. His resilience unlocked the secrets of the world.
Like gods everywhere, Odin stands as a metaphor for that which is unrealized in us – our highest manifestation. If, as Joseph Campbell claims, “each of us is the hero of our own lives,” then Odin’s story, like the story of any sacrificial god, is our story: evolution driven by the engine of resilience.
In a farmer’s field far off the beaten track, soaking in the roughhewn hot springs at Hruni, my wife and my friends and I let the warm waters wash away the weariness every traveler knows. In the late afternoon light two ravens perched on the roof of the stone cottage across the meadow – memory and thought. Odin is here. Our traveling, our struggles, and our sacrifices pull the threads that help us unravel the mystery of our own lives. We are all on the world-tree, wounded, and longing to become who we really are. One day soon, on the other side of these hardships, we will be able to read all of the runes.

[This piece previously appeared in my "A to Zen" column in the November/December 2017 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]   

Friday, September 29, 2017

Indian Summer

Indian summer is the summer after summer. It’s that period of time – a few days or a few weeks – of warm air, wide open skies, and stillness, summer’s last stand before the chill of autumn sets in.
            Growing up, I always loved Indian summer. I still do. It feels like a secret. Regular summer is all loud and bro – high fives, keggers, and backwards caps. Indian summer is for introverts – long walks, long shadows, deep thoughts, and a tinge of melancholia. Its rewards are subtle, spiritual even.
            Is the phrase “Indian summer” racist? It might be. It’s hard to say. No one really knows how the term originated. Some sources suggest fairly innocuous origins. Others claim it’s a euphemism for “false” summer, as in shifty and deceitful, like “Indian giver” – a racist epithet for someone who gives you something and then takes it right back. Either way, naming a weather pattern after a category of human beings is probably ill-advised, or at least silly. Try these on – Irish Spring, Asian Autumn, Latvian Winter – and you quickly see how empty and meaningless they are. Even if the phrase Indian summer isn’t explicitly racist, it’s tainted by the slight possibility that it might be.
            And yet Indian summer lingers on.
            As a boy the whole idea of Indian summer captivated me. Like a lot of young white kids growing up in the United States, I fell in love with Native American culture, or rather, my image of it. I mean, these people were always camping. How cool was that? They hardly wore any clothes. They didn’t sit behind desks in stuffy classrooms. They didn’t have homework. They learned by doing stuff, not by reading about other people doing stuff. While my life seemed utterly constrained on all sides by social expectations nobody remembered creating, Indians roamed free through forest cathedrals, bathed in shafts of light, and drinking cool, clear water from unpolluted streams. But there was one problem. This was all a Romantic projection. I didn’t know much about real Native Americans. I’d seen some movies. I read a few books. I’d lingered for hours in front of the dioramas at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum with their miniature depictions of Chumash life in prehistoric Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. I’d hiked the coastal foothills and come upon pictographs in caves and foot-holds carved into steep canyon walls from a time before the Rancheros. I felt their presence in dry stream beds beneath the sycamores and on the long curve of empty beaches at dawn. Even the California missions, in many ways their sepulchers, reminded me more of the Native people who built them than the padres who prayed inside of them. Though their time had come and gone, the First People felt more present to me than myself. Such is the dizzying confusion and wild imagination of adolescence.
            In the 18th century, when Europeans were first learning about Native Americans, many of them fell under a similar spell. Influential writers and philosophers wrote glowingly of the “Noble savages” that roamed the untouched wilderness paradise of the Americas. For these European intellectuals the existence of Indians provided evidence for their assertion that “Natural man” was in every way superior to his European contemporaries. Society, Jean-Jacques Rousseau argued, turned us into phonies and fakes. Christianity compelled us into conformity, and polite society forced us all behind masks. In Native Americans many European elites saw the hope of humanity – that it was possible to return to what Rousseau called a “state of nature” and reclaim our original goodness.
            But the sad fact was, these Europeans didn’t know the first thing about Native Americans. It was all made up. They projected their own needs onto the Native people of the Americas without their knowledge or consent. In a very real sense, this phony affection was as racist as the genocidal hatred that followed.
            My captivation with Native American culture was all wrapped up in my dawning environmentalism. Moving into my teen years in the seventies, I grew increasingly aware of the terrible costs of industrial civilization – pollution, resource depletion, habitat destruction, and mass extinction. My already acute melancholia grew to alarming proportions. And so did my resentment. More and more it seemed to me that the Native Americans, and Original Peoples all over the earth, had it right, and that we ignored their wisdom at our own peril.
            All of this came to a head every Indian summer. When the hubbub of summer faded, when school was back in session, when the tourists packed up and left, my hometown of Ventura returned once again to its quiet, natural rhythms. The leaves began to lose their verdant urgency. A slow fade fell over everything. But the sun shone in the sky with a familiar ferocity. By October the ocean water got warmer – warmer than June, warmer than July, and warmer than September even. Surfing in the early evening after school, Venus rising in the twilight, the Channel Islands silhouetted against the darkening sky, I could almost hear the river-reed canoes of the Chumash oarsmen slapping the water as they plied the channel on their long journey home. But it was probably just my surfboard.
            Growing older means growing wiser. At least it’s supposed to. And as we all get better at examining our unconscious biases we feel freer and lighter with each passing year. There’s nothing better than finally admitting that you’ve been wrong all these years. It feels good to let go of bad old ideas. As the Zen saying goes, “How refreshing, the whiny of a pack horse unburdened of everything.” Maybe we can do without the phrase “Indian summer.” But if we all decide it isn’t harmful, maybe we can keep it. To me, language is poetry – all of it. Not always good poetry, but poetry none the less. And Indian summer is a two-word poem packed with deep meaning and beautiful power. It is a love-word, a word that at least tries to get at something real, something profound. Like all the best language, “Indian summer” tries and fails to express something that cannot be expressed.
            So in these long, last days of Indian summer, before all of the leaves fall and clatter down the street in colorful drifts, take a walk along the river or through the forest or down the streets where you live and let the ghosts of what was and what will be move through you like smoke from long-ago fires. Hear the voices of ancient songs in the wind, songs no one ever wrote down. Feel the warmth of the sun on your face. Move out of your knowing and into your being. Let your edges grow soft, your boundaries diaphanous. Let everything in and everything out. Know the whole of the world as yourself, and all sentient beings as expressions of the same spirit that animates you. Feel yourself disappear and surge forth all at the same time – a paradox your mind cannot grasp but your heart fully understands. These fleeting forms, this passing light, this glorious, ephemeral Indian summer – let it be the prayer you long to say, but never could.