I never thought that turning 30 will be so painless. Just two years ago I dreaded this date, vaguely aware of the existential void it would unveil. Last year, having departed from most certainties of my life, I was coping with the realization that my life lacked any clear direction.
At this time I was reading Viktor Frankl. His words struck me:
“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked”.
Without avoiding the crucial question of man’s existence, but also without prescribing any dogmatic truths, here was an invitation to self-examination, a compassionate wake-up call.
This powerful message has made a strong impression on me. It meant that feeling uneasy and anxious about life’s emptiness isn’t a fact of life. Instead, it can be taken as an impulse for self-discovery and change. Because if meaning is personal, unique and realistically attainable, than it can be taken as a challenge that is available to anyone.
These days feel like the right time to look back on the passing year, with enough distance to be able to recognize a pattern, but without much accumulated hindsight which would invalidate it. But talking about personal growth without making it personal feels hollow. This is why I have chosen to share my and Oxanna’s story. I hope that my insights will be relevant to those of us who start on a path of self-exploration. And since any self-exploration starts from within, this is where the story starts.
My previous relationship has ended around December 2009. Despite a natural sense of loss and longing, I also felt strangely optimistic of the future. And that’s probably because I felt that now, better than ever I understood what was important for me in a relationship. I felt enriched, matured by the experience, that I wasn’t back to square one, but rather that I was starting from a new level of self-understanding.
Trying to figure out where the break-up leaves me, I started reflecting on the qualities that are important for me in a partner. With time, the list boiled down to this:
• Easy-going (open, flexible, unselfish, considerate, generally happy, enthusiastic, emotionally stable, sufficiently confident)
• Warm (feminine, tender, supportive, empathic, compassionate)
• Intelligent (sophisticated, emotionally intelligent, with sense of humor, open to new ideas, interested in the bigger world)
• Attractive (chic, neat)
Distilling the experience, accumulated from my previous relationships, this list (which was going through multiple revisions) was giving me a strange sense of comfort and reassurance. Probably that was because I felt that now I knew better what I really need in a relationship. This kind of self-reflection can help us feel confident that our chances of building a firm relationship are better today than they were yesterday.
Self-examination, books, personality tests, psychotherapy, allowing self-doubt, writing down insights about yourself, adopting beginner’s mind towards self-concepts – these are all building bricks of self-understanding on which better decisions of tomorrow may lie.
Opening to the World
I met Oxanna in a couchsurfing Purim party in Netaniya. We were both dating at the time, so our interest in each other wasn’t romantic. After the party we met again for a drink in a pub, and talked for hours about Russia, Israel, culture, society and everything in between. Now I see that this genuine interest in a person, in a conversation, detached from any long-term goals is an act of opening to the world. There was no hidden agenda, no plan. Just two people enjoying the most basic human gifts: company and conversation.
Opening to the world is about realizing that you don’t really know what the future holds, and where your happiness lies. It’s also about stopping trying to devise a plan or control your destiny. Instead, with the renewed connection to your core self, your needs and abilities we can let go of this grip and just let things happen. Having a good measure of self-understanding reassures us that whatever circumstances arise, we will know how to act. And this knowledge allows us to open to new, unexpected opportunities.
Around May I was beginning to plan my big trip. Soon being between jobs, with enough money and without any liabilities, I felt that this is my opportunity to travel. But where can you find a partner for a 2-3 months trip, in the middle of everyone’s busy life?
Setting on an idea, even without having all the conditions perfectly aligned, helps you realize it. After mentioning my plan to Oxanna in a random Facebook chat, she told me that she was planning to travel to Mongolia, and invited me to join her. Somehow I felt that it wasn’t a mere courtesy call but a real invitation. After learning a bit more about Mongolia, and becoming fascinated by its wild beauty, I took the invitation. Coming to know Oxanna better during the past months through her commentary on my blog, I felt she would be a great companion for the trip.
After a month of preparations, we met in Ulaanbaatar during the July Naadam festival. Oxanna’s friend joined us, and for the next two weeks the three of us immersed ourselves in what central Mongolia had to offer. Oxanna’s easy-going attitude, my preparedness and Zhenya’s childlike happiness mixed exceptionally well, and allowed us to enjoy the trip by enjoying each other’s company. But it wasn’t only the nomadic way of life that caught up my attention. Having spent long hours tucked together in a ger or on an ox cart, I was becoming enchanted by Oxanna. Her joy of life, the depth of her personality and her unmistakable sensuality made me see her in a new light. But not willing to disturb the friendly atmosphere of our company, I wasn’t going to do anything about it, at least not at the time.
After returning from the steppes of Arkhangai, we spent our last days together in Ulaanbaatar. The girls planned to return home to Ulan-Ude, while I wanted to spend some more time in Mongolia. On one of the last evenings we decided to go to a popular nightclub in the city, but Zhenya insisted that she was tired, and so I and Oxanna went there alone. When we returned home, I felt like we were a couple. Zhenya’s sensibility helped us reveal our feelings.
Two days later the girls returned home, but I stayed for a week to teach English in a children summer camp, and so our romance that had just begun, had to be postponed. Surrounded by mountains and curious kids, I could hardly subside my restlessness. The happiness of our mutual affection and the sense of something unreal happening were mixed with anxiety. “What does she expect from me?”, “Is it serious, for me, for her?” These were the kind of thoughts that were rushing through my head. I returned to Ulaanbaatar nervous, and took the next bus to Ulan-Ude.
We spent the following month together, living in Ulan-Ude and traveling through Buryatia. My nervousness disappeared once we were back together, because Oxanna’s attitude was so different from mine. For me, if something was good, it meant that it had to be pursued further at any cost. But for her, what counted was the here and now. Her willingness to enjoy the good things life can offer meant that she wasn’t preoccupied with other people’s perceptions, or her own plans. Instead, she was thankful for the happiness we shared in those weeks. And apparently her easygoing attitude was catching up with me, because my worrying was soon replaced with calm assurance that everything will be all right.
Taking one step at a time, giving time and space for the right words and gestures to take place, we were able to explore our romance, our affection and fascination with each other, without the inevitable pressure of long-term prospects. Embracing the uncertainty of our future together, we allowed ourselves to grow closer.
Traveling together may seem like an experience that is removed from the usual daily routine, enough to create an illusion of a romantic relationship, where in reality there was just the romance of the situation. And while that may sometimes be true, in our case often there was nothing inherently romantic in the experiences we shared. Shaky hostels, flooded tents, freezing weather, stolen money, lost personal items – these experiences in themselves don’t hold much romantic potential. But the potential for intimacy, for opening up and revealing very personal parts of ourselves is tremendous. There is nothing more binding than night-long conversations when tucked in a tent, nothing more intimate than being there for each other, when exhaustion and frustration get a grip on you.
Our month together was coming to an end, and with it our time outside of time. I knew that I wanted to see Oxanna in Israel, but I also knew that this meant commitment. She was through with experiments, and I certainly wasn’t going to lay out promises which I wasn’t going to deliver. As the parting day was drawing near, there was no sadness in me. I knew that I had to do some thinking alone, but I also knew that our separation won’t be long.
My way home lay through a short trip to the Gobi desert. Its vastness, isolation and alien landscapes were an ideal background for the kind of thinking I needed to do. When I finally landed home after two and a half months abroad, the choice was obvious to me. In a couple of days we had a ticket and a date.
Choice is an intricate matter – it punishes both hurry and indecisiveness. But it may award courage and ignorance that are based on intuition. Robert Heinlein said that “in choice we grow”. By that he probably meant that making a choice is an experience that requires us to bring awareness to the gained and lost possibilities that are carried with it. And comparing the pain and the disillusion that following through with an opportunity might bring with the regrets we might have from not following with it, is a maturing experience.
Seeing Things Through
The month and a half we had to wait was tough for both of us. I was having periods of restlessness, second thoughts and general anxiety. Often referring to the photos of our time together, I was looking for a reassurance and an emotional support. In the same time Oxanna was having her own doubts – was I certain that I knew what I was doing? And what about my parents – how would they react? Being sincere about our worries in a sensitive and tender manner allowed us to support each other through this difficult time.
On the night Oxanna was arriving to Israel I went to meet her at the airport. After waiting for more than three hours past her arrival time, I was contacted by the border patrol officials and told that Oxanna wouldn’t be allowed to enter Israel. Pleas for common sense didn’t help. Shocked and confused, I called Oxanna and for a brief moment that we were allowed to talk, I tried to put on a brave face and support her.
Fortunately for us, the long inquiry that the officials put Oxanna through meant that the plane she came with has already left. The next plane of the same air carrier was leaving in three days – enough time to try to do something about this absurd situation. While Oxanna was waiting for her deportation in the detention center, I was trying to muster help. Three days of phone calls, trip to Tel-Aviv to meet with a lawyer, and two court appearances later, the hell was behind us. Home, reunited, feeling liberated and relieved, we were starting our life together.
Good things don’t necessarily come easy. If there was one thing I was going to learn, this was it.
Starting over in a new place isn’t easy. Communication barrier, lack of friends and familiar faces, uncertainty regarding visa and status, the inevitable tensions with parents – these make for enough reasons for a distress. But seeing your loved one being taken out from the familiar surroundings, like fish removed from water, and thrown on a shore, being expected to learn to adapt isn’t easy as well. And so is the realization that it’s on you to provide the life support system.
But strangely enough, happiness isn’t always deluded by difficulties. Sometimes, it’s reinforced. With proper communication and sensitivity conflicts can be discussed and resolved, tensions relieved and harmony regained. And when it does, time seems to stop. Passing timeless moments together in a leisurely conversation over breakfast on a Saturday morning, understanding each other without words, feeling your heart fill with joy without any particular reason – this puts things in perspective.
Whatever the past is, the future is never guaranteed. After all, as all human beings, we are capable of ruining everything. If we aren’t tender, sensitive, forgiving and able to see past immediate issues to the core of our connection, then there will be no one to blame if things turn badly. But I guess this is what “seeing things through” means – carrying on through difficulties, with patience and endurance. Not because of some stubborn stoicism, but because it’s worth it.
How I know? Because if there is one time in life when you can’t lie to yourself, it’s on your 30th birthday.
Today, I am not much more certain, accomplished or enlightened than a year ago. But in the same time, I guess I learned something about the nature of love, choice, change and maturity.
Am I content? Certainly. Am I happy? I am learning to be. And I couldn’t wish for a better teacher.