A few weeks ago a new family moved into the old cottage across the lane. A typical family with two young girls and a happy little cockapoo, they moved in with an eyesore of a trampoline, a boat, and a boy-racer car so noisy it has become my morning alarm clock.
Over the years we have lived here more than five families have come and gone and I have never really taken much notice until recently when I couldn’t help but see the oldest daughter who took up sitting in her window, directly facing mine, for much of the day and long into the evening.
For a while I worried for her. She didn’t close her curtains and seemed to live her entire life in front of her mirror, sometimes brushing her long hair, sometimes doing Tik-Tok dances, sometimes hunched over writing at her desk, often just sitting mooning in at Finley in our living room, her crush plain to see as she rushed to the window to watch my oblivious son walk down the street whenever he left the house. I worried because she was for passers-by and casual observers, framed so perfectly in the little window of the old cottage. Gentle pink light in the room behind her, rendering her too obvious and to my mind as a fussy Mum, too obviously a target for those creepy enough to keep a dubious eye on her.
Until I realised that it was me watching her. That one day I saw her dancing like no-one was watching on the trampoline and that after that I noticed how she lived through these pandemic days and watched with a curious mix of envy and joy as she did all the things we women forget to do for ourselves. The things we need courses and books to remind us to do. All the little somethings we depend on reminders and prompts for. Rigid rituals, instead of flow. To-do lists instead of instinctive responses to what our hearts and minds need at any given moment.
I watched her as I sat and typed and I saw her dancing and singing her heart out. I saw her sitting in the swing hung from her bedroom ceiling, the room in darkness but for the fairy lights strung across her wall, just swaying, her eyes closed. I saw her applying make up for the sake of feeling beautiful, animated as she chats on Facetime, a frown as she sits in front of her laptop home-schooling. Legs swinging as she sits on the swing and reads. Sometimes just sitting staring at herself in the mirror, getting to know her face. Sometimes tidying her room. Often doing yoga. Often apparently doing nothing at all, other than watching the world go by. Once crying sad little tears she seemed to be watching roll down her face in fascination.
I was watching her purely accidentally, because it was impossible to put my head up and not see her, but as the weeks have gone by I have realised that I watch her because she reminds me of who I once was. That teenage girl still inside of me. The teenage girl still inside all of us. I am watching her because she has become a lesson in how to live. In how to just be. In how to excavate from the layers of mid-life flesh, the girl we wish we still were.
She is in fact a masterclass in living well during isolation.
She moves and she meditates, she works and she cleans. She jigs around her little room, not confined but joyous, certain that she is beautiful, and sure that anyone who encounters her, couldn’t help but feel the same. Ballet like moves turn into head banging raves and she laughs at herself and starts all over again.
I see her and I remember. I remember applying red lipstick and dancing in front of the mirror pretending I was one of Robert Palmer’s heel wearing guitarists. I remember how intrigued I was by my own face when I would come home from swimming on a Friday night, translucent with cold, but luminescent with energy and frankly astonished that people weren’t stopping me in the street to comment on the size of my enormous nose. I remember the Pineapple sweatshirt and pink legwarmers I would put on to do Keep Fit to the sound of the top forty I had taped the night before and the many hours I spent flicking through my stack of girls annuals learning how to apply green eyeshadow and be confidant enough not to like boys too obviously, but to master a heady mix of coy flirtation that would apparently send them wild.
I remember lying in the dark just listening to my own breathing. Days spent sewing at my machine, drawing fashion illustrations for the fun of it and hour after hour spent utterly puddled by maths equations. I remember back-combing my hair and taking a rubber mitt to the imaginary cellulite on my thighs. I remember adoring James Dean. And Andrew Ridgely. And Jeremy Paxman (!). Talking on the phone to friends I had just left at the school gate and hours and hours in the shower, honouring body and soul with the kind of careful attention to my own wellbeing long since abandoned on a tidal wave of domesticity. Feeling lovely and ugly and hopeful and complicated all at once.
Feeling it all because I didn’t know who I would become and yet was so very sure of who I was and absolutely certain that the world would understand when I was ready to show them. I didn’t need to try to be authentic because authenticity is something we are born with and only lose when we forget to live well for our own sake.
I remember it all and in the girl across the lane, I am re-living it all and learning all over again that it is not just ok, but absolutely necessary to dance like nobody is watching. That when we are our own priority, our days have a rhythm we do not need to force. We move our bodies instinctively, close our eyes when we need to and never need to avoid the mirror if we are only willing to remember that we are still who we were. That if we would only search our faces long enough we might just find that hopeful teenage girl staring back at us.
Right now the girl across the lane is wrapped up in a coat and woolly hat, performing back flips on the trampoline and only occasionally stopping to let the dog or her little sister join her. And I am here. Wishing I still owned those pink legwarmers as I download “Addicted to Love” and make myself giggle pouting into my dressing table mirror.
She’s still inside us you know? So let’s give her permission to dance again.