While I would much rather contemplate the swirling waters of a river and watch the birds take their morning bath, there is nothing much to do in an urban traffic jam except people-watch. The stream of humanity, though, offers its own gifts. From the children making their way to school, those who walk quietly and those up to obvious mischief, to the old man with the elderly collie, both hobbling arthritically in the chill morning air, or the young mother pushing the next generation in a hi-tech contraption that makes your car feel like a museum piece, there is always something to see and a train of thought to follow.
This morning, it was a young woman who caught my eye. She would, undoubtedly, have caught eyes other than my own. She was very conscious of that too… hair, make-up, dress…even the way she was walking, completely conscious of herself to the exclusion of all other considerations. Not through any kind of selfishness, but through need and insecurity. When you are young, the world exists only through that blurred lens that seeks validation and an understanding of one’s place in the world… from the self or from others. I remembered that feeling… the discomfort of being young.
There was something about the way she checked every car driver in the traffic jam, to see if they were looking. Not just hopeful, but appraising, as if only in their admiring glances could she find some reflection of herself that reassured. Everything about her was designed to draw all eyes, yet her own were not happy.
If I could turn back the clock, I thought to myself, I really wouldn’t want her youth, with all its self-consciousness and insecurity. I wouldn’t go back there at all. Just a few years ago, I couldn’t have understood that. Youth, when you are in it, is far better than some imagined decrepitude… like reaching forty….
The words of an old song wandered through my mind…
The Fountain of Youth is dull as paint
Methuselah is my patron saint
I’ve never been so comfortable before
Oh, I’m so glad that I’m not young anymore
Let’s be honest though, I’d love to turn the clock back just a little bit, just on some things… I’d love to run up hillsides the way I used to and I wouldn’t mind the body going back five years… as long as the rest of me didn’t have to go with it! But I wouldn’t choose to be any younger than I am. I like the comfort of maturity. The quirks, the odd creaks and the grey in my hair all have stories to tell that a younger me would neither appreciate nor understand. I like the idea of having served my apprenticeship at life, yet still having so much to learn, to see and to do. It is only now, when that once-dreaded ‘forty’ seems to belong to the years of youth, that I really begin to appreciate the adventure… and realise that ‘being over the hill’ just means you have a whole new landscape opening up before you to explore.
Watching the stream of humanity through the windscreen, I saw us all as both the river and the vessels tossed upon its surface. The very young as paper boats, fragile and taken where the current wills. A little older and we become sleek vessels, sailing a course of our own, yet easily damaged by current and obstacle. Older still and we adopt a more leisurely pace, choosing both our moorings and our journeys with a little more care and thought.
The cliché of time as a river has been overused, but for good reason…the water that flows from the source to the sea has seen many things on its journey and carries within it traces of every landscape through which it has passed… and the memory of every moonlit night, every star and every creature that has been reflected in its surface or swum in its depths. It knows life and death, birth and renewal; it is made of the stuff of tears, yet it flows in silence or in laughing ripples towards a place where it is no longer an isolated stream, but joins with the waters of the oceans and the skies, to begin the cycle again. And where that water will fall once more, no man can tell. To be part of that cycle is the true adventure.