“You will regret much more in life the things you don’t do.” My older sister told me this when I was seventeen, and it’s still the best advice I’ve ever gotten. We grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota – a town in which you can pick a direction, drive for five miles, and be in sunflower fields that seem like the middle of nowhere. Being a teenager in Bismarck is sort of like being a passenger on the Titanic: it’s beautiful; it’s so huge you feel claustrophobic; it’s really, really important that you get on a life boat and start paddling if you don’t want to become a permanent resident. I dreamed of cities, adventures, travel – I pictured my chic twenty-something self with a scarf knotted at the neck, a writer on assignment, a woman with a purpose. But school counselors were baffled by my intention to apply to out of state colleges. Teachers told me over and over that I could get a free ride at the University of North Dakota. Fellow students scoffed at what they considered my grandiose goals – writing? C’mon, are you Stephen King or something? I mooned over a brochure for Tulane in New Orleans, but I began to resign myself to the small-town truism that I belonged exactly where I was.
When I told my sister I’d just apply to UND, she pointed at my bedroom walls, where I’d compulsively scribbled poetry and quotes in permanent marker, words united in the common theme of decency, greatness and escape.
She told me I’d regret much more the things I didn’t do, and I listened.
I went to Tulane, triple-majored, traveled the world, wrote books, made friends, loved and lost and loved again. My sister has lived on four continents and speaks five languages. We buy each other cheap scarves for birthdays and Christmas, knotting them at the neck for family get-togethers. I often want to thank her, but have never found the words. She wrote me a permission slip to go out our front door and succeed, regardless of my bank balance, regardless of the fact that I’ve never graced the cover of a magazine. She taught me not to be afraid, because I win the battle by fighting it, by showing up, by being who I am and not apologizing for myself unless I’m sorry. She entreated me to live, when I could have simply survived . . .
And I have no regrets.
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