I was tugging at the hem of my dress uneasily when she bounded into the room behind me.
“That looks nice Mummy. You look pretty in that dress.”
“Hmmmm” I muttered noncommittally, turning sideways and grimacing.
She stood beside me, twisting happily in her flowery skirt and polka dot tights, stripey top and poncho. Glorious in her oblivion of the technicolour rainbow she had wrapped herself in, the poncho’s tassels swinging around her.
“What’s wrong with it Mummy?” she asked, “Don’t you like it?”
“No, I like it…” I replied uncertainly, still searching my reflection for answers it couldn’t give. “It’s just…” I trailed off. I didn’t know how to tell her that getting dressed on any occasion for a grown woman is so very rarely about what we actually like.
I turned the thought over in my head as I looked in the mirror, straining to pull into focus the half-thoughts that usually scampered through my subconscious part-formed; unspoken and unchallenged. Sure, I heard them enough to let them influence my decisions, but rarely enough to actually speak them out loud, to allow them to become actual words and sentences that could be analysed and challenged.
Maybe it was a little too much for a Sunday morning. I’d never worn this dress with this jumper over it and these boots. Did it look OK? I wasn’t sure…
And then what usually happens is this: after my brain fizzes with a few more of these ridiculous doubts and pointless questions, I do what 99% of us girls do. I sigh, both annoyed and perplexed at my own insecurities, tear off the dress and grab my jeans. Change into something safe and familiar. Revert to the predictable and uncontroversial.
In my mind, before she’d even entered the room, I had already decided not to wear the dress that morning. In my mind, I had already crossed the room and opened my wardrobe doors and pulled out those old faithful jeans and started to change into them.
But then I caught another glimpse of her standing there, and something in that innocent gaze made me stop. I looked at her.
When you’re 9, there’s no worrying about colour clash. No worrying about whether it’s OK to wear spots AND stripes. About whether anyone else at the party will be wearing a dress, or whether those heels are a little too dressy for a Wednesday night at your local. When you’re 9, you wear what you want to wear, when you want to wear it.
I wondered when I’d lost that innocence. That confident ease. Not just with what I wore of course, but with all of it. When I’d started feeling the pressure of the all-around me and stopped listening to the inside-of-me. When I started worrying more about what others thought than what I actually liked. Something flitted through me that felt like nostalgia. An understanding that I had forgotten what a treasure the uncomplicated joy of childhood really was.
It was there when we went to the cinema and watched Paddington; as I gazed up at Mrs Brown in her mustard tights and red coat and purple beret and felt something tug inside me. Why don’t I wear more colour? I thought quietly. Why don’t we all wear more colour? The subconscious answer formed slowly, taking shape.
We don’t wear more colour because black is safer. We don’t wear more dresses because jeans are what we know. And those vivid purple and red and mustard hues of life?
Those colours are risky.
Those dazzling technicolour spots and stripes, they say look at me.
A dress with heels on a Wednesday; that says here I am.
Not in an arrogant or self-promoting way, but in a happy-in-my-own-skin, I-don’t-need-anyone’s-approval type way.
But it isn’t about the clothes, not really. Those superficial, surface things that – let’s face it – none of us should be spending too much time worrying about anyway.
Ultimately, it’s about not living a life hemmed in by trying too much to blend in. Or given over so much to caring about what everyone else thinks of us. It isn’t about shying away and playing it safe, it’s about living life with a happy, childlike heart and a lack of fear of others – or ourselves – that enables us to be really us in the same way my 9 year old is really her as she stands before me that morning, gazing innocently up.
It’s about those same fears and unformed, unvoiced worries that mark so many areas of our lives. It’s about what we become. It’s about the choices we make; what we do with our time, how we spend our days. It’s about the dreams and ambitions and optimism of youth fading as we grow, giving way to the pragmatism and cynicism and pressures of adult life. And suddenly, before we know at all why or how exactly it has happened, we have changed out of the pretty dress and back into the comfy jeans. We have conformed. Blended in. Returned to the safe and the inconspicuous.
We spend all this time looking in the mirror and worrying and stressing – not about the big and important stuff, but about the insignificant and unimportant.
What will people think?
What if I fail?
What if I’m not good enough?
What if people look at me?
And it robs us, stealing away that childish joy and uncomplicated innocence; the wide open plain of endless possibilities becoming stifled by the expectations and judgements of others, or more often, our own perceptions of them.
I think of how often we do this to ourselves, do it to each other. Whether it’s that book you’ve always dreamed of writing but never felt brave enough to try, or that race you’ve always wanted to run but never made time to train for. Whether it’s a dream long-lost under the burdens and pressures of a job that you never wanted but everyone else expected of you, or a trip you’ve always wanted to take but you know those around you won’t understand your desire for. So many times and in so many ways we forget to be childish in our hope, childlike in our faith, our optimism, our belief in ourselves. We let the world roar loud around us and forget to listen to the quiet whispers in our soul, breathing bravery and desire and hope.
So I took another look in the mirror, and bit down every anxiety that told me to change out of my dress and back into my safe, comfortable jeans. I turned to face my daughter and smiled as I looked her squarely in the eye and took her hand to leave.
“No. You’re right” I said, “I like it too. Let’s go.”
Matthew 18:2 “And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”
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