Being told that Jenny may not last a year takes some adjusting to. I had looked forward to adventures over perhaps two decades of active retirement with my wife. We might have less than twelve months of failing health. On the road to work I see a hearse and my eyes fill with tears.
We men are not good on mortality. Unlike womenfolk we don't have the monthly cycle reminding us with blood of life and death. We don't have the possibility of giving birth, to jolt our egos into the necessary perspective that growth is painful and brings with it withering and certain death.
If I lived in a more "primitive" society as a young man I would have been taken through an initiation ritual by my elders. Shown the terrors of some little death I might learn better respect for the natural order and my humble place in it. The old men would have taught us young bucks that we none of us are in control. Death is the only certainty.
In western culture we are not good at aging, frailty and death. We tend to marginalise and mask it to concentrate on immediate and sustained gratification in the prevailing 'me' culture.
Just now I am making a picture to remind me of my own Men's Rite of Passage a few weeks back, aged 55 years. The sheep's skull in the bottom left corner is there for a reason. The retreat was four days, sleeping under canvas, close to nature, in the rain swept Lake District. Late in the programme we fasted 24 hours spending most of that in solitary contemplation out on the fell sides. My picture captures something of that silent waiting on the Divine.
I sat by a cascading beck, underneath a little willow tree on a crag. I could see right down the valley the length of Windermere. I watched the rain circling, choosing its direction to run in at me. In one brighter spell two farmers herded sheep up the valley, just as generations have done the world round.
As the mists of rain cleared I could see how the valleys had been scored in the land eons ago by the last ice age. I was a speck on the landscape in a flicker of time.
Huddled in my cleft in the rock out of the wind I imagined a conversation with my dead dad. It would have been better when he was alive, but better late than never. I concentrated on the words given for contemplation. 'Life is hard'. 'I am not important'. 'My life is not for me'. 'I am not in control'. 'I will die'. Inspiration came for an initiation name – the full appropriateness of which I only realised later. In the damp and the cold I maundered about death but was surrounded by the lush green growth of the bracken cloaked fells.
Walking back to camp I passed the remains of the dead sheep, then the sun came out. I looked up and spouting off a crag was a fall of water. Stripping naked I washed myself clean in this natural shower. They were healing living waters. All around green. The warm sun glinting on the lake below.
"The water I give them will turn into a spring of water deep inside them and give life to the full". John 4:14
My retreat helped me look forward. In the months ahead the picture I am making will help call on those living waters, to refresh me in the emotional roller-coaster that is the unavoidable cycle of life and death.
(First published in The Friend on 19 September 2008 and reprinted with permission)