How Big is Life? by Richard Harris

Some would say I lead a full and rich life. I have a wonderful partner,a large, caring family, good
friends, sufficient resources to live on. After 40 years of work, retirement has had its benefits –
being in control of my time, being able to do what I want and indulge my whims. Inevitably patterns
have been set; domestic chores, meetings and events, engaging in the myriad activities that our
9 grandchildren do. There is “me” time too. Learning a language, how to cook; experiencing Zen
through discussion with John, irregular visits to the Zendo and retreats. Ever inquisitive I like to
travel and explore. Oh and then there is watching Wigan Warriors. That old cliche of retirement “I
don’t know how I found time to work” is true for me and my friends. We find it more difficult to meet
now than we did when we worked.

So a big, structured life, full of plans, until February 2016. We are in Chapel Hill, North Carolina,
visiting our daughter and family, who emigrated there the August before. Jenny comes out of the
bathroom and says – I have found a lump.
Two weeks later we are in the Lancashire cancer care clinic, at the threshold of an inevitable
pathway of treatment, with the brutality of surgery, the invasiveness of chemotherapy.

Our emotions run the same gamut of denial, disbelief, dashed hope, fear, anger. Whilst Jenny tries
to come to terms with the impact on her (I can only imagine the journey that she is on, close as we
are), I feel the need to investigate, to try to get the best for her. But I soon realise my ignorance
and the sense of powerlessness that comes from not knowing the right questions to ask the
“professionals”. They are professional – sure of themselves, convinced of their own skills and
knowledge, caring but distant, managing, but not touched by, suffering . We are another case
travelling through their domain. It’s hard trying to play catch up as choices are put before you
before you have had the chance to look at alternatives. Do you want this or that reconstructive
surgery? Do you want the chemotherapy weekly or 3-weekly? Time is always of the essence. By
the time you might have the right questions, it’s sometimes too late.

I find a lot of this difficult. I like to be in control, of my life, of orchestrating things for others. I am not
any more. It causes me considerable stress. Slowly, the routines of Zen practice start to make more
sense. Meditation becomes a more regular part of my life rather than trying to fit it in amongst all
the other stuff. Initially it is as a way of calming me, of trying to get clarity, stopping the brain from
running through the innumerable “what ifs” that I find myself contemplating. It takes me beyond the
immediate to unexpected places and thoughts. I can only describe these as “deeper”, “beneath the
surface”. But they are random.



I find that my time horizons drop, from planning events and travel through to 2019 and beyond, to
wondering how the next day or even hour will shape up. I wake up (from fitful sleep), prepare food,
meet and greet visitors, brew up (Lancashire) tea by the gallon ( a permissible post-Brexit
measure). Travel becomes to the clinic, to the doctor. A major trip is to forage for healthy and
nutritious ingredients for meals. I dig the garden, plant flowers and shrubs. I paint and fettle.
Surprisingly this is a liberating experience. Living starts to seem more simple. I am nest building,
taking ownership of our environment. I take delight in walking through our village, in casual
conversation, in watching wildlife – seeing it all with greater clarity.I take time out on my bike,
cycling, slowly, through the byways of west lancashire enjoying the changing seasons.


I have gone from a Big life to a small life and am the better for it. Finding joy in the everyday
enriches me in a way that exploring the next city or country cannot. Focusing on the everyday of
life gives greater meaning to everything.

The stresses are still there, the concerns are as big, but the approach to them is all important to
me. I could have railed against the fickleness of fate in stopping me from leading MY life (and
occasionally I have regretted missed “opportunities”). I have managed somehow to shift to this
being my LIFE, recognising that this is how it is, I am where I am. I live in the moment. It has taken
the suffering of my life partner to get me to this point.



I don’t know how it will pan out. Is my big life just “on hold” or have I changed for ever? When the
treatment is over, will I want to return to that previous existence?
Anyway there’s another brew needs making and it wont make itself.


Richard Harris, July 2016