The little old lady at the café had typical little old lady hair, scraggly but dignified, and little old lady eyes—at once beady and gentle. She was wearing a skirt and a puffy coat and shiny black little old lady shoes. She had a little old lady bag from which she periodically pulled out various little old lady pouches full of little old lady stuff (glasses, tissues, bright blue cell phone, assorted unidentifiables). Her collapsed little old lady mouth shone with a quite classy shade of pearly pink, and her general care over her appearance was of the kind that little old ladies take who might have been head-turners in their day.
She was sitting in weak winter sunlight at a window in a café, and quietly having herself a nice cup of coffee. I waited for her coffee companion to show up. Nobody showed up. She just sat, and sipped, and sometimes looked at other people, but mostly out of the window. She wasn’t expecting anyone, and she was in no hurry. After she was done with her coffee and done looking at the afternoon, she discreetly flashed her pearly pink nail varnish at the staff to ask for the bill; paid it; put all her pouches back in her roomy handbag; said thank you nicely to the waitress; and tottered off to get on with her day.
That’s how I want to be when I grow old, I thought to myself: the sort of little old lady who can take herself out on a lovely winter afternoon and have a leisurely cup of coffee at a café, just because that’s the kind of day it is, and she feels like a bit of a daydream and a bit of a gander at the world. It’s quite likely that I’ll be in little old lady jeans, and I’m very unlikely to have my nails varnished, but essentially she seemed like a good example of the direction I want to take.
Beating the odds in this nasty, brutish and short business of life requires a few indispensible skill sets. People will tell you about some of the important ones—eat healthy, exercise, minimise stress, never leave your ATM card in the machine—but they rarely mention the big one: learning to be alone with yourself. That’s the one people tend to find out about the hard way, when life foists it upon them by killing off a parent, or sending their lover off into someone else’s arms, or giving them a new designation and putting them on a plane to a new job in a new country.
I have no idea whether my little old lady was by herself because she wanted to be or because she had no choice, but either way, she was doing just fine in that textured place we call ‘alone’. She knew how to be there. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about loneliness—the ache that pops your eyes open at 3am and that nobody can like very much but is more or less inevitable once in a while—but about solitude, which is a magical place in which all your interior spirit levels are centred.
We spend so much of our lives amid other people, however, that we don’t make any time to practice being alone (which is the sort of thing that needs lots of practice). Then, when suddenly we are, we fall apart. I know I need more practice; I’m going to remember that little old lady and take myself out to a solitary coffee or movie more often.