Over the last few months, I have continued with my avid reading of FI (Financial Independence) and retirement blogs. There is a lot of great information out there in the blogosphere, and I have been impressed with the thoughtful exploration of topics, willingness to share personal stories, and the positive support bloggers provide for each other. I have learned a lot. One of the big themes is that through mindful planning and effort, both financially and personally, people can prepare for a successful and fulfilling (and possibly early) retirement. I find that people's stories really speak to me, and help me visualize my own transition to retirement.
I have always been a planner. I opened an RHOSP when I was still a university student living below the poverty line. (An RHOSP was a tax sheltered savings account for saving for your first house down payment that used to be available in Canada in the late 1970's and early '80's -- okay, I know I am dating myself.) Once I graduated and got my first career-related job, one of the first things I did was open an RRSP (Registered Retirement Savings Plan). So yes, I plan.
However, sometimes life is what happens while you are making other plans. I have learned that it is important to leave enough flexibility in a plan -- to not get too rigidly committed to it -- so that you can accommodate, adjust directions, and also stay open to unexpected opportunities. Here is my moose story. It happened fifteen or twenty years ago.
Image from Clipart Panda.
It was Christmas time. I was living in a northern part of Canada where the winters are cold and snowy. At winter solstice, just before Christmas, the days are very short. The sun comes up around 9 and sets around 4. We were driving in my extended mini-van to go to spend Christmas with my parents, a five-hour drive on icy roads.
I was tired. My job at that time always became especially frantic just before the winter break, and required long hours and intense focus. I had just finished up at work the day before. As well, I had had to do all of the shopping and other Christmas preparations, and get everything ready and packed for the trip. I was a single parent of three children aged eleven and under. Sometimes I look back at that period of my life and wonder where I found the energy.
My brother had arrived the night before and was travelling with us. We also brought the cat. The van was packed with skis, boots, and poles (both downhill and cross-country sets) for the five of us, skates, winter clothes, Christmas presents, and 20-25 of my oil paintings. I was putting on an exhibition of my work at an art gallery in a small city a couple hours from my parents. So I planned to travel to that city for two days during the break, leaving the kids with my parents, and hang the exhibition and attend the gallery opening.
After about four hours on the road, we stopped for gas in a little town. That was a signal to the kids to pile out of the van and race into the gas station store to buy candy and junk food with their allowance. It was also a chance for all of us to use the washroom. That brief little stop seemed to take forever. I was trying to get to our destination by 6 o'clock, as my Mom was expecting us for supper.
Impatient and grumpy, I herded everyone back into the van. As we left the little town, and climbed up out of the river valley, the last light of the twilight had disappeared. My headlights illuminated little but the dark track of the narrow highway and the high shadowy snowbanks on either side.
Suddenly, just to the left and ahead, a huge dark form exploded out of the snowbank. "Moose!" my brother shouted.
It ran across the road, on a collision course with the van. Moose run very fast, and I had only a split second to respond. In that split second, I debated my options: speed up so that the moose would pass behind us? Risk slamming on my brakes on an icy road? Steer into the snowbank at highway speed?
As I slammed on the brakes and steered to the right toward the snowbank, I saw the top of the moose's front legs just outside my driver's side window. The moose was so close it was within arm's length. We were all going to die. The luggage flew forward onto my children in the back seats, and the cat flew forward into the front seat.
Somehow, we didn't hit the moose. Or, the moose didn't hit us. I didn't even put the van into the snowbank, but veered around the moose and back onto the road. As the moose disappeared into the darkness behind us, I found a place to pull over and sat there shaking. A fraction of a second later or a different driving maneuver, and I certainly would have been crushed by the moose. My brother and all of my children would have been killed or severely injured.
My brother said that the moose had seemed to hesitate, or check its speed, just as it was about to hit the van. He speculated that as I turned toward the ditch, the headlights were no longer blinding the moose, and so it saw us and avoided hitting us.
We could have all died. In a split second, our dinner plans, my art exhibition plans, our Christmas holiday, and the rest of my children's lives would have been forever altered. I would not be presently planning my retirement. Or, if we had left the gas station five minutes earlier or later, we might have never even seen the moose.
But this isn't the end of the story.
Twenty minutes later on a straight stretch, a deer suddenly appeared in front of me in the circle of headlights. It was running like crazy, from left to right in front of the van. I barely had time to brake before it disappeared into the blackness again. I may have grazed its hind end slightly with the passenger side of the van.
I commented to my brother, "At least that one wouldn't have killed us all." I think I was still in shock from the near miss with the moose. I had never almost hit a deer or moose before, nor have I since. What was the chance of two near misses in one night?
We arrived at my parents' place alive, had a family dinner, and made plans to go skiing the next morning, a Saturday.
There was a big snowfall overnight. I headed up to the ski hill with the kids. We were all going to meet up at the ski lodge. Although the ski hill road is steep and tricky with lots of switchbacks, I had driven it dozens of times. I had studded winter tires on the van. Even though the van was a gutless wonder, I had always managed to make it up the hill.
Not this time. When I got to the section of road where there is a long steep hill immediately followed by three switchbacks, I discovered a long lineup of cars stuck on the hill. I knew the van would only make it up the hill if I took a run at it. So I waited at the bottom of the hill with a line of cars behind me until the road looked clear. Then I headed up the hill. I made it to the top of the straight stretch only to discover cars ahead of me stuck on the switchback. I had to stop. The road was polished to ice from all the vehicles that had been spinning their wheels. I backed over to the side so that others could pass, and ended up with my back wheel in the ditch.
At this point, one of my brothers came by in his pickup truck. "Leave the van and we'll get it out later," he said. "Jump in with us." And so we did. After all, there was some great powder waiting for us on the hill!
This still isn't the end of the story.
Last run of the day, and by late afternoon, it had warmed up and the foot of fresh powder was now heavy, wet, and chopped up. I was on a black diamond run, near the bottom, and for some reason I was skiing by myself. As I cranked a turn with my ancient heavy old Dynastar straight-cut racing skis, I felt my left knee tear. I knew I had seriously injured my knee. So, I sat down in the snow and waited for the safety patrol to come.
I ended up being taken down the ski hill in the ski corporation van to the hospital emergency room. I had torn my medial meniscus cartilage in my left knee, and spent the rest of the Christmas holidays and half of January at work on crutches, and then used a cane for a long time.
My brothers dug out the van, and brought my children down from the ski hill that day. One of my brothers drove my van full of paintings to the other town and hung the exhibition for me.
It took a long time to rehabilitate my knee. Not only did I miss the ski season, but it took until September before my ability to walk was fully recovered.
I could have been angry, resentful, or anxious about whether my knee would ever fully recover (the sports physio said I might need surgery, and might not be able to ski again). In previous years, I would have responded with those emotions. But this time I did not. I was at peace. I just kept thinking how fortunate we all were to be alive, and how close we had come to all being killed by colliding with the moose. My knee injury seemed completely trivial in comparison.
So, back to retirement planning. Am I saying don't plan? Or that we are subject to fate, so there is no point in worrying about things?
Not at all. What I took away from this experience is that it is important to plan, and to put forward your very best effort in the moment (e.g., my driving maneuver when about to hit the moose), but at the same time I recognize that I do not have full control over what happens in life. I have to be ready to accept and adjust when experiences and events do not match my plan.