The New York Times
MY BIG SISTER, THE WILD ONE
On my last visit home to Philadelphia, my oldest sister, Missy, told me she had bought tickets for us to see Chance the Rapper in a sold-out show.
“I’ve always wanted to see him live. And it’s a good excuse to see you,” she said. It would be at the Hollywood Bowl, near where I live in Los Angeles. I smiled nervously, choosing not to let on that I did not know who Chance the Rapper was, except that, well, he rapped.
“Have you been to the Bowl?” she asked. “Just once.”
“You’ve lived in L.A. for two years and you’ve only been there once? Who did you see?”
“I saw the L.A. Philharmonic play Tchaikovsky.” “Oh.”
This is how it is with us. My sister is 14 years older and she’s the one with her finger on the pulse of life. Slender and tan with long wavy brown hair and burnt-caramel eyes, Missy exudes vitality and adventure. Women in my family emulate her. At holiday gatherings, one can spot the same tall russet boots on three DePinos. Missy wore them first. Missy wore them best.
People commonly ask, “Who’s the older sister?” If I’m mad at her, I say, “She’s my mom.” If I’m not, I say, “We’re twins.”
When I tell them she’s 50 and I’m 36, they look at me in disbelief. She’s always up for more tequila, while I’m dragging after one margarita. On the weekends her sons are with her ex-husband, she’s booked with concerts and festivals whose performers I know nothing about, while a normal Saturday for me involves visiting the doves on the rooftop garden at the Museum of Jurassic Technology with my arty fiancé.
If you were to observe our lives simultaneously on a split screen, you might find her dancing all night at Jazz Fest in New Orleans, but see me at home, under the covers, engrossed in my tattered collection of texts by the pre-Socratic philosophers. Alternately, you might see Missy and her teenage sons singing along with Michael Franti at a live show, but find me, my fiancé and his kids assembled around a game of Risk or Monopoly.
At first glance, in the 1937 painting by Salvador Dalí, “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus,” there are two similar images. But if you look closely, one is a human shape turning inward, toward his heart. The other is a hand holding an egg with a flower sprouting out of it. It’s an apt image for us: I like to brood and reflect, while Missy chooses to do and to live.
This was true even during our respective high school years. She was a wrestlerette — one of the gorgeous big-haired cheerleaders for the wrestling team, while I was features editor of the newspaper and the lead in drama club. She was never without a dreamy man-teen proud to call her his girlfriend, while the only guy I dated broke up with me after two weeks because he liked another girl who was less intense.
Every time I hesitate to join Missy on another adventure, she asks, “Why are you so afraid of having fun?” I can’t blame money. Most trips we take are made possible with airline miles and hotel discounts, thanks to relatives who work in the industry. Instead I defensively answer to Missy that the fun we have must suit her definition of the word and not mine. But when I really explore her question, I see the rigidity in me and I don’t know how to break through. Missy possesses an openness, a willingness to dive right in and live in the moment, while I find it hard to get out of my own head. What good is thinking and reflecting without a well-lived life to reflect on and think about?
When I tell Missy my latest ruminations on what happens after we die, she says, “You’re never going to find out. Just stop worrying about it and live!”
And so I fight my reluctance and let her lead me — to concerts and festivals and on spontaneous voyages.
It was her painful divorce from her husband of 13 years that spurred a last-minute trip to Rome for us, which she announced one night over pizza and cocktails. “We’re leaving in two days,” she said, in the same tone as she would say, “Pass the oregano.”
“Wait, what? We’re missing Christmas with everyone?”
Not having the time to mentally prepare made me anxious. But I boarded the plane anyway.
The theme of the week was ruins, we joked, as we explored Ostia Antica and the Baths of Diocletian. In the evenings, we languished at restaurants for hours, savoring airy pillows of gnocchi and creamy carbonara. To our surprise, I ordered more wine. I felt my perspective stretching and my stubborn grip loosening.
But not even a year later, I became as obstinate as ever when I faced my own devastating break up, which happened on the heels of losing a mother figure, my grandmother. Missy loved her just as much. My inclination was to read and to write, to introspect my way out of despair — while Missy’s proclivity was to get up and move and be with people. I don’t know how she did it, but she convinced me to travel with her and her sons to visit a friend in Japan. It freed me from my self-induced stagnation.
When the time came to see Chance the Rapper at the Hollywood Bowl, Missy brought out the awe in the moment. She told me about his self-determined road to success and his generosity to the Chicago Public Schools. I noticed the sliver of moon rising behind us. The shadowy hills in front of us. The cool desert air. I let the rich harmonies of the singers fill me, the soulful trumpet move me. Chance’s voice sounded electric, percussive and hopeful.
“Thanks for taking me to this,” I said. I sipped the spicy ginger cocktail Missy had ordered for me.
“Thanks for coming. I’m having so much fun with you.”
As the music played on, I gave myself a mental break from the weighty work of trying to find answers to the questions that buzz in my mind. Instead, I let myself dance with my big sister.