She sits alone, eating a bowl of soup. Her hands are knotted and speckled with age but they move elegantly, weighing each spoonful with a delicate flexing of her wrist.
She wears no make-up. Her hair, uncovered and cropped short, is grey. She is unashamed of her age and her sex.
She has been focused on a point in front of her, as if instead of eating soup she is sight-reading a difficult but satisfying piece of music. Now, sensing my gaze, she looks up and skewers me with fierce eyes. In that moment it is easy to see her as 20 years old, a woman possessing an obvious and abundant prettiness made interesting by its directness and suspicion of flattery; its refusal to suffer fools.
A social scientist watching her would assume, perhaps rightly, that she has had a comfortable life. She wears some of the trappings of someone who has travelled, or at last cast the net of her life wider than some: a necklace, half-hidden under her collar and clustered with beads and small amulets, hints of a love affair with some part of Asia that once meant something to her. Or perhaps just a love affair.
But what lies under that silence and solitude that she carries so easily? Was there a love affair? Were there many? Are there children? If she had children, 50 years ago, is she alone because she wrecked them, sending them spinning away like whipped tops? Did she raise them as neatly as she is eating that soup, tight-lipped and organised? Or do those careful eyes hide a love that is generous and warm but shown only to those close to her?
Then again, perhaps there are no children. By choice or by chance? Is their absence a quiet, private tragedy that softened into acceptance long ago, or a hard-fought victory that is sometimes tinged with regret?
It occurs to me that I am doing her the disservice of thinking of her as a mother of children rather than a doer of deeds and a thinker of thoughts. She is infinitely more than her biology. But I realise that these questions occur to me not because of her gender but because of her age. Age is the shadow of youth, and to look at that shadow is to instinctively look for the light, to think of the young.
Not that we need much prompting. In South Africa, Youth Month has powerful and specific resonance, but the reality is that every month of every year in almost every country on the planet is Youth Month. We are infatuated with youth, for good reasons and bad. Cynics might point out that capitalism has realised that young people will spend large amounts of money on items of no material value, and that the entire economic system we live under has therefore turned its voracious gaze onto this group of people who are, with all due respect, suckers. But we gaze at the young for more gentle reasons. Youth is desirable. The older one gets, the more it changes from something visual into something almost edible. It is no wonder so many myths involve the devouring of youths by some ancient, dessicated creature desperately trying to prolong its unnatural existence.
It is also the incarnation of rebirth and endless potential. Each new generation gives us a clean, shining screen on which to project our hopes for the species. We can look away from our own lives, slowly becoming tarnished with one small compromise, one minor disappointment after another, and hope for something better.
We invest so much in our fantasies of youth that we ignore the simple reality that youth is the product of maturity; that Youth Month means nothing without hundreds of consecutive Parents’ Months. And acknowledging the existence of parents means acknowledging that we are an anthology rather than an original.
It is good to celebrate the courage and beauty of youth. But this month it might also be worth looking at the shadow, resting our eyes on its depths, and recognising its own courage and beauty. It offers us the beauty of wisdom, of perseverance, of sacrifice, of acceptance. It brings knowledge of how young we truly are, of how terribly short our lives are. The old learn that they have only just arrived but are already being shown the door.
To be able to live like that, to eat soup quietly, without raging at the cosmic unfairness of having only another 15 or 20 years on a planet that will last another billion or two – that is an act of the most extraordinary courage.
First published in The Times and TimesLive