Skip to main content


This photo was taken by my daughter Catherine, when I was about 50. I think she did a pretty good job. 

The number 70 has a kind of Biblical gravitas. It’s the number of elders appointed by Moses to lead the recalcitrant Israelites, and the number of people who went down to join Joseph, in Egypt. Jesus sent 70 disciples out to minister in his name, and the first Jewish Sanhedrin had 70 blokes in it. And, of course, there is Psalm 90:10: 

The days of our life are threescore years and ten, and if by reason of strength they be fourscore, yet is their strength labour and sorrow, for it is soon cut off and we fly away”.

All this has some personal import because I turn 70 today, and can no longer fool myself that I am middle aged. I’m old. And before you feed me one of the lines of balderdash that pass for wisdom in our culture - “you’re only as old as you feel”; “70 is the new 50”; “age is just a number” or some other such nonsense, let me tell you that I am happy to be old. Deliriously happy. 

All of us trace a kind of bell curve path through this life. Once we didn’t exist, then we are born and slowly increase our presence in the world until at some stage we reach a peak and then we begin to slowly decline. Over a period of years our energy and our presence ebbs away, until it reaches zero once more and we - all of us - cease to exist. I am well down the descending slope of that curve. Every particular part of this rising and falling line has its own allotted tasks and its gifts and rewards as well as its pains and frustrations, but our culture seems to be fixated on one part of the journey - that of early adulthood. So people in their 20s and 30s are the cultural paradigms for appearance, and the important tasks of that age - finding a place in the world and finding a mate - seem to continue to be central in people’s imaginations well into later life. In our culture the biggest insult you can offer anyone it to say that they look old, but this obsession with being young, of looking and acting young is crazy. It is a battle with inevitability which we must all one day lose, and it distracts us from getting on with the more age appropriate tasks we need to be addressing, if we are going to complete our bell-curved trajectory with the necessary panache and elan. At 70 I’ve got some stuff to be getting on with, and its the most interesting, rewarding, enlarging stuff I’ve ever done. Yep, I’m old, and glad to be so. 

But I have a more personal reason to rejoice at being 70.

When I was 56 I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Most, if not all, men will develop prostate cancer if they live long enough. Most men will die with it, not of it, but there are some cases which are dangerous and mine is one of those. Prostate cancer is graded with a thing called the Gleason score, which runs from 2 to 10, with 2 being a slow moving and non invasive cancer and 10 being a fast moving and highly disruptive one. My Gleason score was 9. In 2008 I had my prostate removed and underwent a lengthy bout of radiotherapy, but the cancer had moved into my lymph system and from there to goodness knows where else in my body. People who know about these things told me my chance of surviving for 5 years after diagnosis were about 30%. But that was 14 years ago and here I am, writing this, non posthumously. 

When Clemency and I were first told how grim things looked, we reasoned that the men with my numbers, who survived, surely didn’t do so by accident, so why shouldn’t I be one of the surviving 30%? There had to be things which I might do which would load the dice in my favour, and we set out to find them. And find them we did. There is no one magic bullet, but I think my chances of survival were greatly bolstered by these things:

  • Excellent medical care. I have had a great surgeon, skilled radiologists and wise GPs. Over the last 14 years procedures have continually been researched and progressed and I’ve benefitted from some of those.
  • Lifestyle changes. I was blessed to have some good advice soon after my diagnosis. Richard Sutton introduced me to Ian Gawler, who taught me three things which have been, literally, life saving.
    • Meditation. I was always a tinkerer with meditation, but in 2008 I went to the Gawler Institute in Melbourne where every day starts with 40 minutes of meditation, as well as other sessions during the day. I came home with a new habit of silence, which I have maintained and developed ever since. I regard meditation as the single most important factor in my health and inner growth over the past decade and a half. Meditation had healed me on all manner of levels. 
    • Diet. Ian Gawler taught me the importance of a plant based diet. For a year or two I was vegan, and now I am sort of piscaterian. I eat fish, eggs, a small amount of chicken, and as few dairy products as I can. When I’m out, I will eat what’s put before me and at Christmas there’s ham and turkey, but otherwise I avoid red meat. 
    • Exercise. We walk daily, usually for an hour or so. I’ve done many long walks (as in several hundred km) since diagnosis. Walking is good for the body and the mind. In the guise of pilgrimage it has also become an important spiritual practice.
  • The love of friends and family. I have people round me who love me. There are many people who have supported me, prayed for me, wished me well; and all of this has mattered to every level of my being and I am profoundly grateful. 

Back in 2008 my family and I looked to the future and made a “aim for the stars and you’ll reach the moon” kind of goal. I decided I would be ridiculously optimistic and set my sights on living until I was 70. And here I am. And hand on heart, the last 14 years have been the best, the richest, the most fulfilling, the most delightful of my life. Life is simple, almost monastic now. I live in a pleasant house with my oldest, dearest, closest, most beloved friend. I read books and discuss them with intelligent friends. I walk. I take photographs. I sit in silence. I have a pervading sense of being held and guided and loved by the great presence at the heart of all things; and that sense has grown exponentially over the years. 

My new doctor confidently assures me he can keep me going for a good while yet. Later his year we will fly to Australia and see the grandkids. Early next year we’ll take the caravan around the North island.  I’ve not given up on the idea of walking the Camino Santiago one more time. But these things, as are all plans, are merely maybes. Death, one of the two great certainties, has been a constant companion these last 14 years and I now have no fear of it, recognising it even, as a friend. I know that its familiar shape is the shadow cast by the blinding light of resurrection. 

So here I am at an age where I can’t sit on the floor without planning beforehand how I will get up again. Do I wish I was back then, in that sprightly age before glasses and hearing aids and creaking knees? Not for an instant. I look back 20 years to when I was 50, and that doesn’t seem very long ago. I know that in another 20 years I will certainly not be here. And that thought fills me not so much with dread, as with a growing sense of curiosity and wonder. 

So don’t start with the “gosh you don’t look that old” nonsense.  I have 70 years. Each one of them cost me something and taught me something, and gave me something, and I don’t care to be  deprived of any of them. 


David Coles said…
Happy birthday Kelvin. As a fellow
prostate cancer survivor,I've followed your journey closely since 2008. With deep gratitude for your willingness to share your story and your hopes and faith too.
Your story is one of great hope amidst the gloom of
tragedy and horror in our world on this Friday as we wait for the resurrection life in all its fullness!
Ma Rongo!

John said…
This is beautiful Kelvin, both in content and in the writing itself. I hear your call to live and be age appropriate, to get real and and to defy our culture's gold standard of youthfulness.
Thank you for your wisdom
John F
I am so glad to read this wonderful blog. You are and always will be a huge part of my, read our, lives. You are a huge gift to all who know you. I have 4 years on you. I too find life wonderful and fascinating in these golden years. I too have no fear of death. I too plan to live out this God given experience with awe and gratefulness. On Easter Sunday I sat on a crowded church in Wanaka with a predominately very elderly congregation and my first thoughts were of impending doom for The Church. Then I thought again. I was reminded that these people all had stories to share, they all have contributed and no doubt all still do. Sir Tim Wallace sat up front in his wheelchair, what better example is there. We are counting on having you around for a long time yet Kelvin. Whatever the shape of that turns out to be I know it will be bloody interesting! Much love and respect to you.
Jeannie said…
I have just read this, Kelvin, and then read it aloud to my 80 year old husband who I knew would enjoy it as much as I did. Thank you.
As I write this you will be finishing your week at En Hakkore (and presumably won't get to back to the internet world until afterwards) which I hope has been restorative and energising for all. I couldn't make it at such short notice this year but will keep it in mind for next year - understanding that plans, unlike death, are always uncertain.
If your plans do still include a caravan North Island trip I assume that will include Hamilton. I did attend St Francis Hillcrest during your tenure there. I have shared the story you told at your induction there many times - about Angus/Jock/Mungo attending the Episcopalian church as a protest against the kirk acquiring an organ - the kirk being the House of the Lord. My mother grew up in the Wee Free, and I attended a service in one of the four variants of presbyterian church (the Gaelic one, chosen for the psalm singing) in a small village on the Isle of Harris. If you have any spare time in Hamilton I would greatly appreciate a conversation in person.

Popular posts from this blog

Camino, by David Whyte

This poem captures it perfectly Camino. The way forward, the way between things, the way already walked before you, the path disappearing and re-appearing even as the ground gave way beneath you, the grief apparent only in the moment of forgetting, then the river, the mountain, the lifting song of the Sky Lark inviting you over the rain filled pass when your legs had given up, and after, it would be dusk and the half-lit villages in evening light; other people's homes glimpsed through lighted windows and inside, other people's lives; your own home you had left crowding your memory as you looked to see a child playing or a mother moving from one side of a room to another, your eyes wet with the keen cold wind of Navarre. But your loss brought you here to walk under one name and one name only, and to find the guise under which all loss can live; remember you were given that name every day along the way, remember you were greeted as such, and you neede

The Matter With Things. 2

  Last night I finished reading Iain McGilchrist's The Matter With Things, Our Brains, our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World , the biggest book I have ever read, in all senses of the word "biggest". Back in 2017 I wrote about books which had been important to me , and, however I would recompile that list now, The Matter With Things would go straight to the top. Really. It's that good. I've read every word: no skipping or coming to and realising that my eyes have been glazed over for the past ten minutes. It's taken me a couple of months to engage  with its 1300 or so pages of text, and, as well, there are another couple of hundred pages of  appendices and bibliography (well, OK, I haven't read the bibliography). At the end of the book proper there is an epilogue which is a "so what" chapter in which McGilchrist speculates about the implications of his hemispheric theory for the world in the immediate future. This epilogue is preceded by a

En Hakkore

In the hills up behind Ranfurly there used to be a town, Hamilton, which at one stage was home to 5,000 people. All that remains of it now is a graveyard, fenced off and baking in the lonely brown hills. Near it, in the 1930s a large Sanitorium was built for the treatment of tuberculosis and other respiratory ailments. It was a substantial complex of buildings with wards, a nurses hostel, impressive houses for the manager and superintendent and all the utility buildings needed for such a large operation. The treatment offered consisted of isolation, views and weather. Patients were exposed to the air, the tons of it which whistled past, often at great speed, the warmth of the sun and the cold. They were housed in small cubicles opening onto huge glassed verandas where they cooked in the summer and froze in the winter and often, what with the wholesome food and the exercise, got better. When advances in antibiotics rendered the Sanitorium obsolete it was turned into a Borstal and the

Turn Sideways Into The Light

David Whyte speaks in his audio series What To Remember When Waking of the myth of the Tuatha De Danann. They were a mythical race from Ireland's past who were tall, magical, mystical people devoted to beauty and artistry. When another more brutal people, the Milesians invaded Ireland the Tuatha De Danann fought them off in two battles, but were faced with a third, decisive battle against overwhelming odds. So, lined up in battle formation and facing almost certain defeat, the Tuatha De Danann turned sideways into the light and disappeared. Whyte's retelling is, to put it mildly, a gloss, but I am quite taken with the phrase and with the phenomenon it describes. Turning sideways into the light is the realisation that there are some encounters that are damaging to all involved in them: no one wins a war. Faced with such an exchange, to turn sideways into the light is to seek another, more whole form of relationship. It is to reject the ground rules of the conversation as they

Prayer as Relationship

  This is a reconstruction of the talk I gave, last night, at the 3 in 1 group at St Michael's Church, Anderson's Bay, Dunedin.  We have all had unhelpful experiences of prayer . I remember the clergy colleague who would sometimes correct the theology of my sermons 5 minutes later, when he led the intercessions; or the prayer groups when you dreaded THAT person speaking, because you knew they would speak for a quarter of an hour and list everything they knew to be wrong with the world. I've heard prayer used to share gossip, or to preach sermons, or to make announcements. I've seen prayer used to shame, or to control or to boast. In all these instances I have to ask "who, exactly is being addressed here?" and find myself asking again what, exactly, is prayer anyway?  I know what it's not. Prayer is not telling God what God should do with the universe. Neither is it barking into a silence in which nothing is ever heard. Prayer is not exercising some positio