I can’t predict the future. Does that mean I have to sell my soul?
My fingers are gliding over the bindings of the books in the the stacks of the library. I have a half hour to kill before I head over to the small business management night class I’m taking. In recent months, I’ve learned that our cafe project qualifies for some grant funding that could cover a lot of our kitchen equipment. But in order to be eligible, I have to complete this class. If there’s some financial assistance with this project down the road, then I’m game for a little extra education.
While waiting, I’m reading the spines of the books when my concentration is broken by a familiar voice at the main desk. I peek around the corner of the stacks and smile. It’s Louigi’s mom, Pat. Louigi is one of my best friends from high school, and his mom, who raised both of her kids solo, always treated me as though I were one of her own. I rush out to hug her.
She wraps her arms around me, kisses me several times, and asks how I’m doing. She asks about Saoirse, about Bob and the cafe, about my latest book project, about Ula’s vision therapy. I ask her about Lou and his wife, about her grandkids. She sees Lou’s daughter regularly, because they live close to town. She doesn’t get to see her other granddaughter, who is a little over an hour away, as frequently as she’d like “The car just can’t handle it,” she confides in me. “The mechanic says it just won’t hold up to the longer trips anymore.” She shrugs. “I don’t think I’ll be able to replace it when it goes. So that’ll be that. But Lou drives me up to stay with them when he gets some free time. And then I stay for a couple days. And that’s really nice.”
I frown in sympathy as she predicts the ultimate demise of her car. “Are you okay with not replacing it?” I have to ask. Pat never had a lot. She always amazed me with all she was able to do for her kids in spite of it. She shrugs. “That’s the way it goes. I can walk everywhere I need to go here in town, and,” she holds up a stack of library books and smiles broadly, “I’ve got all these free books!”
Time passes quickly, and I need to break free to get to my class. Before we part, she throws her arms around me again. “I’m so glad to hear all the things that are happening for your family,” she whispers. “I’ll keep praying for you.” She prays for me? I feel a flood of warmth and gratitude wash over me. I walk to my car and head to class with a smile on my face.
My smile fades when I walk in the door and see the glossy business card at my desk from the financial consultant who is our guest lecturer for the night. I reach into my bag and pull out my knitting. I’ve heard these lectures before: diatribes about the importance of diversifying investments by dumping money into the very products our guest lecturer sells: large-cap stocks, midcap stocks, small-cap stocks, emerging market stocks, investment-grade bonds, high-yield bonds, municipal bonds, mutual funds, annuities, and his personal favorite for the night: life insurance.
Our teacher looks around the room and makes eye contact with me as he reports the fact that nearly a third of single women over the age of 75 are living in poverty. This ties right into his life insurance pitch.
I hate scare tactics. Especially when I know they apply to me. Someone tried to sell Bob and me life insurance before. I was about to make Bob sign on the line when I had a sudden realization. “My family’s my life insurance,” I told him. “If something terrible happens to you, I’ll have them.” We walked out the door and never looked back.
But still, these pitches bother me. Bob and I have followed none of the conventional rules for preparing for retirement, much less widowhood. It’s not that we’re careless with our money. We just can’t bring ourselves to invest in an economic machine that we don’t believe in. We have invested our lives in one place: into the health of the soil, the joys of family, in the economic vitality of our community. Our livelihood is locally based. Our investments are locally based. And the way we see our livelihood improving is through further investment in our local community. In our minds, that creates greater opportunities for our children. If there are opportunities for our children in our community, then we stay together as a family. If we stay together as a family, we can pool our resources. We can support each other. Maybe our income or future reduced circumstances will qualify Bob or me as a poverty statistic as a widow someday. But surrounded by family, friends, beautiful forests and farmland, good food and community, we would hardly see it as an impoverished life.
I want to interrupt our instructor. I want to argue these points. I want to state my case, if not to persuade him of its validity, then to hear myself proclaim my reasons out loud, to remind myself why I have not followed the investment rules being laid out before me, despite the number of times I’ve been taught them. I want to argue because I want to be right. I want to be right because….because…
…because I know I could be wrong. I can argue the futility of investing in what David Korten aptly dubbed “phantom wealth.” I can pick apart the myth that the economy can grow endlessly. I can outline the ecological, social and economic dangers in believing that it should. I can state the ethical case for my own family’s financial choices.
But what if Bob and I invest all our life energy and wealth in our community, and a giant crevasse opens up in the earth and swallows up the farmland and half our citizens? Or a plague of locusts consumes every green plant? Or our friends all move away or die, or our kids simply decide to pack up and go live someplace far away, ignoring my phone calls and emails?
Where’s my life insurance then?
I can’t bring myself to invest in the conventional economy, because I believe with all my heart in the power and importance of creating a life-serving economy. But anything can go wrong. And this is what I am thinking as this financial advisor enumerates the differences between cash and term life insurance policies. I look down at my knitting, scrutinize my pattern, count my rows, count my stitches, count anything but the dollars that aren’t sitting in an investment account someplace.
“I’ll keep praying for you.” I hear Pat’s generous words as the wool moves through my fingers. I don’t even go to church anymore. I’m sort of Pagan. Sort of Catholic. Sort of Buddhist. The only religion I don’t believe in is that of unlimited economic growth at any cost. Pat doesn’t care. She loves me. And she prays. And even in her situation, where she is losing her car, where she falls into the statistic of poverty-stricken older women, she prays for me — for someone who is loaded with great food, a beautiful home, a functioning car. She is thankful for her son, who takes her to spend time with her grandkids. She is thankful for the library, for her humble home in town, for the two legs that carry her where she needs to go, for hugs from old friends.
And then I see it. Life insurance is in the attitude: in the ability to accept change, to keep finding things in this world to be thankful for, to keep finding ways to be generous to others, to keep loving.
I go forward with my financial plans and dreams: that Sap Bush Hollow Farm will flourish for another generation, that our little pastures, our store and cafe will provide a meaningful livelihood for our daughters and their families; that West Fulton will continue to revive with arts and music and kind souls, making life here lovely and meaningful, drawing folks to this land who will care for it and for each other.
But this is what I must remember: Life insurance starts with the time I spend sitting in the dark each morning, with the time spent in the woods, with the time gazing out over the hillsides — giving thanks, sending love, contemplating change, meditating on compassion, offering up prayers. Poverty has little to do with the money in the bank. It has everything to do with the state of the heart and the mind. This is where I need to invest.