Defining ourselves: relationships

Moving from DC to Turkey to Uganda in the last year, plus some traveling in Europe, has led me to many similar conversations with strangers: trying to get to know each other and figure out how to distill the most important parts of ourselves into a few pithy sentences. I’ve always struggled with this and found it easy to stick to surface level descriptors (small town girl from Iowa) or activities I’m involved with (dancer, runner-albeit not a very dedicated one), how I earn my money (a teacher, a paralegal, an executive assistant, a grants manager) or interests I have (writing, political issues).

One way I’ve also defined myself is by my relations to others. The most enduring and, I would argue, defining relationship of my life is that of sister. I remember getting to know someone at a cafe in Prague last fall and nearly crying as I tried to describe how much that relationship with my sister meant-a true soulmate-and a relationship that has anchored me through the tumult of the last few years. Someone to whom I never had to explain why I found something funny, someone who always met me halfway through struggling to express an idea, someone who understood the deepest desires of my heart and could inspire me to reach for them when I doubted myself.

This year, for the first time…ever…I got a chance to be around my sister alone for almost 2 weeks straight as we spent the Christmas holidays in London and then rang in the New Year in Barcelona. London and Barcelona contrast nicely in my mind. London, cool, overcast, and full of a traditional energy perfect for Christmas: warm drinks and warm hearths and dear friends and family. Sipping on cider or hot mochas while catching up with my sister for hours. “Green Grows the Holly” playing on Spotify. Wandering around hand in hand as we laughed at what was in shop windows, and stopped into random clothing stores and wandered back out with “the perfect pair of jeans” or a dress to wear on New Year’s Eve. Finding jewelry we liked and then turning our backs while the other bought it as a Christmas gift. Barcelona, by contrast, was sunny and buzzing with a more modern energy-the perfect mood switch as we looked forward to what the next year held.

Almost two weeks of getting to hang out together was the most time we’ve been together all by ourselves, ever. It was enough time to actually get to know each other as adults again. To realize she wasn’t the same sister I’d left behind when I went off to college at 18. She’d grown up and become her own person, apart from me. This was unsettling to me in many ways.

I didn’t realize how much of my identity was wrapped up in being her older sister. After all, hadn’t I personally willed her into being? With my fervent prayers every night as a four-year-old to “please, God, give me a baby sister”. I’d always been “the teacher” to her. Always been her protector and champion. Her reality check. Her encourager, her challenger. To be honest, in many ways I had viewed her as the 2.0 version of me. We liked so many of the same things, shared the same sense of humor, had many of the same sensitivities. She was just better at athletics than me, more musically talented (or maybe just more dedicated) than me, and with an intellect that put her on a different brain wave than me. There had never been any jealousy from me towards her, how could there be? The idea was foreign to me, she was at least half me…it would be like being jealous of myself. And nothing could turn me into a protective lioness faster than someone implying anything bad about my sister. We still laugh at the day when I was about 17, cheering on Megan as she competed in a spelling bee and the man in front of us made a comment to his neighbor at the conclusion of a round that the “one tall blonde girl” had misspelled her word and the judges hadn’t even caught it. In a burst of audacity completely outside my normal character, I interrupted him to protest this version of reality. I don’t even remember everything I said, the adrenaline was flowing so high, but needless to say, he retracted his statement.

Barcelona showed me for the first time that we are separate people. We handle things differently, react differently, have different comfort levels, different preferences. And my preferences aren’t better because I am older and know best, but, shockingly to me, I have to take hers seriously! We even hit a point early in the week in Barcelona where we (gasp), argued! With this extended time together though, we were able to figure out how to work through things like this, how to be with each other as adults, how to love each other and look out for each other while still respecting the individual decisions of the other.

I’m still navigating how this new sister relationship works. For instance, knowing when to hold my tongue for the sake of encouraging open communication about anything and everything and knowing when to tell her I think something is a foolhardy idea. But in any event, I know this relationship will continue to be one of the biggest parts of me. I think how we define ourselves is an endlessly fascinating question and I’ve been following other people who are also delving into this topic, most notably my friend Chris Petrick who’s been exploring this on his podcast, or reading the wisdom of writers on BrainPickings: becoming who we are because of who we love, or ideas of “vertical” or “horizontal” identities. How do you define yourself?

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