I'm sitting outside a cafe at a wobbly iron table, my pen moving lazily and messily across my notebook as I dream and write, dream and write. I sip from my mug-sized chai latte. A European wasp hovers hungrily above the frothed milk.
I look up and see a slim young Asian woman, neatly dressed in white shirt and charcoal bootlegs, smooth, dark hair in a ponytail, discreet silver rings in her ears. She tugs gently on the padded front bar of a walker.
Behind the walker is an elderly woman, bent sideways and stooped over like a crooked L. She shuffles one foot forward and slides the other up to meet it, swollen ankles hanging in soft folds over slippered feet. Her skin is crumpled and spotted with age, her white fly-away hair scant and dry, her patterned shirt and pleated skirt thrift-shop polyester.
She lowers herself carefully onto a bench. The young woman fetches a cup of tea and an easily digested sweet biscuit, and sits and chats about whatever comes into her head: the balmy weather, a boyfriend who left her, how she likes to sit in the garden after work. The older woman listens attentively, a small smile on her carefully lipsticked mouth.
Here is a greater humility than I have yet learned—not just to serve, but to receive service—to patiently accept help with simple tasks like walking, personal tasks like choosing which bread rolls to buy, and intimate tasks like showering. It would be even harder (for me, at least) to respond graciously when, inside, I'm longing for solitude and silence—to trade this lovely coffee shop stillness (how I love sitting alone in coffee shops!) for a constant companion who feels the need to make cheery conversation.
It looks like the younger woman is serving the older, but I suspect a different dynamic is operating. A sweet and unassuming gift is being given from older to younger—a gift of experienced wisdom, cheerful forbearance and patient stillness. It's a wisdom gained through a lifetime, a cheerfulness won during who knows how many battles with irritation and anxiety, and a stillness that has been reached after many years of cooking and washing and cleaning and serving.
How easy it would be to become bitter and self-absorbed and grumpy and anxious and shrill as I grow old! Instead, I pray that I will become like this woman, whose gentle spirit shines from her sweet face with a soft radiance. I pray that as my joints ache and my skin wrinkles, my heart would grow more lovely year by year. I pray that even now, I would be planting the seeds of humility, gentleness, cheerfulness and forbearance that will one day blossom into the beauty of lovely old age.
Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. (1 Pet 3:3-4)