Sister lives are the lives we could be living if we’d made different decisions.
For example: in this life I’m living, I have no children, but in a sister life, I married my college sweetheart and we started a family. In this life, I’m essentially sedentary except when I force myself to exercise; in a sister life instead of quitting dance when I started attending the high-performance middle school across town, I continued with those classes and I’m much more physically fit and active.
Neither life is necessarily better than the other (though I find that challenges in my present-day life tend to make the sister life look a lot more appealing) but they’re different and incompatible in some key way.
Years ago, I read Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. Strayed wrote an advice column called Dear Sugar, and this book was the “best of.” One of the entries in particular has shaped the way I think about the life I lead. The letter posed the question, Should I have children? And Strayed’s advice introduced to me the concept of sister lives.
Sometime in the early 2000s, before I knew the term sister lives, I defined my “real” life as being in Atlanta as compared to the life I could have led in Wyoming.
In Atlanta, I was surrounded by my parents’ and grandparents’ belongings. I dressed in what might be called casual chic, I wore make-up and jewelry daily, I shopped and lunched and attended cultural events. In Wyoming, I wore jeans and t-shirts, rarely bothered with make-up, and spent most of my time outside. Neither life was better, but they were different and incompatible.
I decided to buy my own home in Atlanta before my dad died, and I went searching for a place that could bring together some of these divergent aspects.
I found it in a mid-rise condo, one that afforded me a view north to the mountains (at least, on a clear and smog-free day) and a view south into the city. It felt like the best of both worlds, though the family furnishings and that fact that I was in the heart of Atlanta did pin it clearly as my Atlanta sister life.
And yet, when I’d go to Wyoming for vacation, I’d sense the sister life there: the peace, the dancing with nature, the simplicity. I would mourn the life I wasn’t getting to live.
But, we don’t get to live both sister lives… do we?
In the 18 months or so since I’ve been living in Wyoming, I’ve started to wonder whether I could bring these two parts together.
I can’t be childless and a mom, but I can bring my family belongings here, maintain the simplicity I so enjoy, and I can experiment with how I dress and what I do to find a balance that honors both of the lives I’d planned to lead separately.
The wind whispers to me, be you. Be all of you. Even the parts that appear to be in conflict, because you can honor and express those too.
Maybe not in at the same time — it’s hard to wear cowboy boots and stiletto heels at the same time — but narrowing down to a single way of being all the time isn’t living authentically when there’s another full-time single way of being that you want to explore. It’s just closing the door on who you are for no good reason.
Both/and is expansive in construct and in living.
Even when it comes to either/or choices like having children, I’ve learned to look for the both/and. I’m old enough that I no longer wish for a child, but I can share the mothering energy with my friends’ children, with The Purple Sherpa community I created, with my animals, and perhaps someday through an organization like the Big Brothers Big Sisters Club.
Sometimes the sister life isn’t actually an incompatible life, it’s finding the way to express the way of being underneath the imagined life in present day life.
Sometimes the brightest light is possible only when two seeming opposites come together.