My baby sister is coming of age. The bras, the boyfriend, the school dances, and the driver’s license all slipped past me without any sort of churning or folding in of the heart. It was the plane ticket that did it. The news of her traveling without any of us to chaperone dropped the scales from my eyes, and I saw her for the first time as the woman she has become and not the girl I want her to remain.
Now she is clutching a passport and trying to get her tan ready for that new bathing suit and the beaches of the Dominican Republic. I want to press my hand against her arm and tell her I love her. Instead, I send her a copy of Julia Álvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents with a note that says, “You can learn a country’s outline with a guidebook, but to know its soul, look to its literature, its language, its dance.”
She is 16. She won’t read the book and she will read the note without really understanding it. Later, much later, when she is sitting on her own at a cafe on some deserted street in the shadows of a foreign land, she will come to know her own heart and my words will come back to her.
But for now she is 16 and she has never left the country and she is nervous and excited and trying to fit all of these things she won’t need into a suitcase that’s too big while her boyfriend sits on the edge of her bed and makes her promise that she’ll call.
I am thousands of miles away in California and I wish that I could sit on the edge of her bed and, finally, be able to provide some sort of useful instruction. As the eccentric sister who creates awkward pauses in the conversation of a genteel Georgian dinner table, I have never had anything useful to say about teenage boys or high school social scenes. But I know traveling, understand the need to slip across borders and lose yourself in new places. So while my uncle questions the safety of a young girl traveling to another country, and my mom goes through a practical checklist of items to pack, I slip literature into my sister’s hands and try to find the space to show her the indelible mark traveling has left on my hungry heart.
My sister is traveling beyond our family circle, coming of age, embarking on journeys as metaphorical as they are physical, and it shocks me how much I want to protect her heart, ensure she experiences only joy, sees only beautiful things. But I content myself with wanting her to travel, to live outside of herself, to feel her heart expand and contract as she takes in the chaos and calm of a new horizon. I want her to feel uncomfortable, confused, disoriented, and then proud when she rearranges herself and comes out the other side, knowing her own strength, exuding her own brand of joy.
I want her to read between the lines when I try to tell her all the things I’ve learned, racking my brain for the sort of advice I can give to a 16-year-old sister who is sweet and perfect, but still thinks she already knows everything.
I want to remind her to call mom, remembering the time I fought through the static from the broiling heat of a rooftop apartment in the middle of an Israeli air raid, sinking into the relief of hearing my mom’s voice, how it became a running joke when I sent emails with “still alive” as the subject heading, how those emails became affirmations of my struggle to find the difference between living and existing.
There is the practical advice, the reminder never to refuse food, to always say it’s delicious. The warnings to turn off the data roaming on her phone, to wear sunscreen, to only drink bottled water. But I am bored with these instructions and leave it to the guidebooks to tell her where to go and what not to do and how to avoid a catastrophic cultural faux pas. I want to tell her something about humility — that national pride is not a flag waving over your head, scoffing at the tradition and culture of your hosts, but something you carry tucked into your being with quiet ease. I want her to remember that she is human first and American second, that she should be patient and kind and check the arrogance that assumes the entire world speaks her language. Ask first, I want to tell her, always be polite enough to ask first.
As she embarks on her first trip, straddling the awkward gap between the girl I love and the woman I am learning to see, I want so much for her to get wonderfully and hopelessly lost, to ask strangers for restaurant recommendations, to wander through grocery stores, send postcards, and have short-lived, intensely passionate, smoldering love affairs with everything around her. I want her to be curious, to ask questions and listen to the answers, to accept the times she will appear ridiculous and embrace them with grace and humor, to stand at the edge of the world, look out across the familiar notes of a strange new landscape and have Austen’s words float to the surface of her soul, to know what Elizabeth Bennet meant when she said, “till this moment, I never knew myself.”
My baby sister, no longer a baby, is traveling, confronting her future as I reflect on her past, shocked at how much of her childhood I missed, all of my memories lumped together, rising within my chest, a thousand times the press of a stranger’s life against the beating of my heart. Out of this mosaic, there is a girl leaning against the dusty stones along the Egyptian border, nonchalantly arguing with a taxi driver about the price to Dahab, watching dawn spill its contents over red rocks. This is what I want for my sister, this quiet assurance, this appreciation for the unorthodox, this wisdom springing from love of people and place that looks out at the road ahead, stretching toward Dahab or the Dominican Republic or some other place unknown, seeing only possibility.
But mostly, what I really want, is just to tell her this:
Reach out. Stand on the shore of the beach at sunset and sunrise and give thanks for that place, those people, this culture. Let your heart be overwhelmed with the kindness of strangers and the beauty of something new cracking open the protective casing of your soul. Be vulnerable and unsure and unafraid to grow. And wherever you are, wherever you go, remember that you are loved. You are adored, treasured, revered, and learning to appreciate what home means. And when you return to us and your heart feels too big for the place you’ve returned to, remember you have someone who understands that, someone you can call at two in the morning and say, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. I need to see Paris, wander the street markets of Marrakech, skip under the cherry blossoms of Kyoto, breathe in the smoky air of Kampala.’
And I will understand.
So, go. Let your soul tremble with the deep-seated desire to move past people and places, find pockets of protection where you can steel yourself against the baser notes of human nature, find the sweeter chords to carry you through. Collect photos and stories, drink everything in with delight, and call me when you get home.