Astral connections

“Zahir means, in Arabic, visible, present, unable to go unnoticed. Someone or something that, once it has established a connection, ends up inhabiting our thoughts little by little, up to the point there is nothing else we can concentrate on.  And that can be considered sanctity, or folly”

– Paulo Coelho, The Zahir

I have been swinging between maintaining a friendly relationship with French Village Boy and avoiding contact with him.  Partly because I wanted him to look for me and partly because I needed to put space, mostly mental, between us.  The other day he sent me a picture of a dawn, beautiful and pink, very romantic.  The irrational side of me thought he was thinking of me as he was talking a walk at dawn, whereas the more rational side of me thought it’s just a picture followed by the question: who was he awake with, to watch sunrise?

The thing is, as much as I try to put space between us, something about him keeps coming back. In an attempt to look for change (the irrational kind of change – move move move as long as moving keeps you from staying still) I have applied for a job in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and got an interview.  As I applied for it my mind was split into two: on the one side I felt empowered as I may be embarking on a journey with no return, on the other I am terrified because I may be spiraling down a journey with no return.

Same journey with no return, different feelings about it.

In order to prepare for the interview, which I’m going to do as best I can regardless of whether I will accept the job, I have asked on the expat facebook group of the city where I’m living if any French native speaker would be willing to have lunch with me and give me a mock interview.  An hour later I got a response and today I had lunch with her.  As it turns out she comes from a small French island in what the French (oh, the French) call the territoires d’outre mer.  Since French Village Boy’s sister worked as a midwife on said island I mentioned her.  It goes without saying, they know each other.

Now, as I apply for a job in the literal middle of nowhere and I find someone from an equally obscure middle of nowhere willing to help me, I come across the only person in the whole of the country that has been his sister’s friend for 10 years.  I do try to move on, but somehow life keeps bouncing him back to me.

I think that there’s a lesson to learn here.  I’m not sure what it is, and I’m afraid to say out loud that the lesson I need to learn is about closure.  But the truth is that life keeps throwing hints about him, his village and his family members to me, not because it’s pushing me towards him, but because it’s trying to make me come to terms that whatever there was, or wasn’t, is over.

It’s over.  Whatever there was or wasn’t is over.

And this bitch of a life keeps putting glimpses of him in front of me as if it was saying “you can’t sweep him under the rug, you have to say the words out loud.  That’s the only way you have to move on”.

But the truth is…  maybe I don’t want to move on.  All this pain has taught me so much, it has put on my way people who live half way across the world who recognized my pain as their own (thank you Kostas!) and without knowing me are offering me their support and their love.  This pain has brought closer to me friends who were already close but whose friendship had never been tested.  Likewise, it has pushed away friends who proclaimed their undying friendship but then weren’t able to handle a heartbreak.  This pain has opened a door onto myself and I slowly come out of it stronger and more self aware.

This pain is in a way comforting, and while I can say out loud that between me and French Village Boy there will never be love, I am unwilling to let go of the feeling that there may be.

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How much are we willing to compromise, for real?

Compromise.  We are all extremely open when it comes to negotiation and concessions, until it hits close to the heart.  A lot of people claim to be ok with an open relationship, especially if distance is a factor, or with adding another person to some of their sexual interactions, or to try swinging.  Very few actually act on it and fewer still are able to manage a, de facto, intruder.

Of course, a sexual intruder can be kinky and at the same time extremely dangerous, but what most people don’t seem to realize is that only in a fraction of cases compromise relates to the sexual sphere.  More often than not we are called to compromise in our daily lives.

I am struggling a lot with the realization that I want to be in a relationship, but I also want to accept none of the clauses that come with it.  I want to have a partner who is willing to put his career on hold for mine, but I also want someone who is successful in what they do. I want someone who wants to build a future with me, but I also don’t want to be bound to that person. I want a poet, better if a revolutionary AND a poet, but also someone practical who cooks dinner and doesn’t forget to pay the electricity bill. I guess that, in principle, I want everything.  Then in practice I will have to agree to some things and stand my ground on some others.

I really envy people who naturally fall into each other’s needs.  I always felt that I had to fight for what I have, and I’m irrationally afraid of losing it.  And it’s irrational because I was born privileged and I have worked hard to be where I am, but as hard as anyone who works hard, I have done nothing exceptional to be here.  However, there has been a time when I thought my dreams would never come true: it was a difficult time for my family and I had stepped up to be more responsible.  Like many people I didn’t see the end of a tough time and thought that was going to be my forever.  I even fell in love with someone who would fit into that narrative (a doctor, from my same city, very attached to his family too) so that I wouldn’t be tickled to stray and change everything.

But then of course life happens, people get better and you are less needed and that perfect partner you had found yourself is not so perfect anymore and you move on.

After being dumped in Ethiopia (Yeah, I get dumped a lot) I remember I felt nothing for a while, and then I felt this amazing sense of power: from then on I could do what I wanted because I only had to respond to myself.  And I did.  In the process I found a man who was exactly like me and fuelled my super power with ideas that I didn’t even dare dream.  We acted on them and had an amazing ride, but then we had to be amazing on our own. I got dumped again (this time in Zambia) but mostly because of my inability to compromise and give space to another person.  Again, I wanted everything.

The thing is: I literally understand everyone who dumps me/tells me they don’t want me, because I wouldn’t date me, let alone spend the rest of my life with me.  I’m unpredictable, mostly, sometimes unreliable and majestically selfish.  But also demanding.  So yeah, not relationship material.  And yet I really do want a relationship, I’m just unable to do what it takes to accommodate the need of another person.

And this is, I think, one of the main lessons that I have to learn (it only took 32 years to get there): compromise is not always a bad word.  Accommodating literally means “making space”, I need to learn how to make space for another person, because learning to love is nice, because it’s to each other’s mutual benefit to be able to live together and not always run after the next adventure.

Because sometimes the war inside us has to end, even when it has gone on for so long that it’s comforting to know that there’s one place in the world – the inner war- that identifies us.

All you need is love – But is what we need really what we want?

I think most people often ask themselves the other question: is what we want really what we need?  And the answer to that is probably easier, because it basically revolves around the of superfluous needs. If you ask yourself if what you want is really needed it means that you probably already know you don’t need it, but you still want it.

In the case of wanting what you need the questions are at least two: is what you need going to make you happy even if you don’t yet know you want it? And Can you need something without wanting it?

After months breaking down the question in a million fragments I still don’t have a clear answer, I’m more secure when I’m in a relationship, but also more compelled to make compromises to stay in said relationship (and if I found a partner who allowed me to do just what I want without mediating between our needs I probably wouldn’t be able to love them).  But I love my freedom, four years in a long-distance relationship have taught me that I want to be willing to make compromises, but I’m not good at it.  I do want to meet someone half way, but then I struggle more than I should.

During one of our conversations I told French Village Boy that my job is taking a serious toll on my life: living continuously in developing countries leaves me in awe every time I visit Europe but makes me unable to live there and comply with all the rules a developed country has.

My life is harder in so many ways (power shortages, water cuts, being faced with cultures that are so different to yours and in some cases inherently clash with your ethics, but which you still have to understand and work with, and the occasional person pulling out a gun in a random place, to name a few).  But it’s also so much easier in other ways.  It’s my life, that’s it.  But sometimes I wish I was more similar to my friends in Europe, and less of an attraction for them.

It probably goes back to the issue of perception vs. perspective: would I be as interesting to my friends if I were talking about my mortgage instead of the snake I found on my doorstep?  Would their children be as thrilled to see me if I brought a toy they can find anywhere instead of a cool African artefact?  The bottom line probably is: does it matter to me to be the centre of attention when I see them, or would I be ok with being just another number on their phonebook?

Europe has a lifestyle that I cannot grasp, I’m happy to be European and grateful to know I can go back whenever I want, but when I’m back for more than two weeks I long for something different.  My life style is ever changing: every couple of years I move to a different country and re-invent myself (within the same sector, of course, and crossing paths with several of the same people I’ve met over the years, but with a certain degree of novelty nonetheless), and I am profoundly afraid of a more stable life where this doesn’t happen.

We all change over time, and the trick is probably to adapt your change to the context around you, to grow older, and wiser, with a group of friends who move in the same direction.

I do the same thing, but get to add a layer of change that make it easier on me to accept my own change: I can blame frustration, unhappiness, sadness on the context.  I don’t have to face my own failures as much as others do.  I wouldn’t say I’m immature or not fully honest with myself: I think that I’m pretty good at analysing my own life, mistakes and failures included.  I don’t put the blame on someone else or on the situation.  What I do is escape.  As much as I don’t like to admit it I know that that is my weakness: I’m confrontational and deal well with conflict, but then I grow tired, or bored, of it and move on.  And whatever is on my way gets taken away or left behind.

Living in one place and giving it my best shot, if I knew there was no way out of it, is something that still scares me because I don’t know how it’s done.  I can pack a house in 12 hours, keep in touch with people I’ve seen years ago for the last time, I can cut branches to signal a car break down in the middle of the African forest, I can start a fire, I can learn local dialects fast and I know what to bring at a wedding, funeral, teeth filing ceremony, cremation and initiation rite of passage in a dozen different countries.  But I get anxious when I see the same people, talking about the same things and going to the same places week after week after week.

And it’s ironic, because that’s exactly what a part of me is dying to have: the safety residing in the certainty that nothing will change.

When paths cross at the wrong time

During a particularly challenging time, right after having left France and having received a mild “let me think about all this” rather than the expected “Yes, yes to everything, move here and let’s be poor but happy and breed children and puppies”, I went through the conversations me and French Village Boy had over the months that preceded our encounter.

Although he said he was (pleasantly) surprised to find out that the four days we spent together could entail a substantial amount of sex, he also said he hadn’t expected it.  The French translation of to expect has a slightly different meaning: it’s not so much as demand as it is I didn’t imagine it would occur.  Then, when I said “I love you”, he said he didn’t see it coming.

I went through the conversations at a time where I would (and I did) read into any message, written or verbal, looking for something that would suit my need to know that there was something more than “ok, we are friends, we had sex for four days, and now we can go back to being friends”.  And I invariably found it, like you do every time you look for something you need to find.

But then my heart was shattered, brisé, I grieved, I cried, I ran about 200 km in a month (I was literally out running every hour I didn’t spend at work) and then I healed.  I went back to talking to French Village Boy as friends and, after many tears and many blog posts I know that I’m still very attracted to him and to the idea that he represents, but me and him would survive one, maybe two, months as a couple.

As my belief that we are not made for one another became clearer I went back to those messages.  Many times in life I questioned myself, and asked friends, if things really happened as I perceived them.  And I think it’s a very human thing to literally “read into” things.  But sometimes second guessing yourself takes you to an even more complex realization.

Yes, things really did happen.  People really said what they said, even if they may not have meant it, or didn’t realize how the other person would take it.

It’s a pretty simple realization, no pearls of wisdom here.  But sometimes it’s important to take time for a reality check.  People around us may say things they don’t fully mean or on the spur of the moment (and be absolutely genuine as they do), but that doesn’t make how we receive them less true.

To be honest no one told me in this instance that I read into things, but it definitely is something that I’ve question myself about.  Have I read into things?

I don’t think I did.  I think that French Village Boy, for a vast number of reasons, has enjoyed reconnecting with an old friend, who is now more mature and more self aware, he has enjoyed the slight thrill of seduction and was somewhat aware that sex was on the table.  I think that French Village Boy has been deeply scarred and unhappy about his life, when his life was more exciting, and he is looking/has found a solution, in his little village, that responds to his need of changing the course of his life.  But when you’ve stared into the void the void has entered you, and a piece of him will always be tickled by what he has left behind.  I think his choice of moving to the countryside and working for his little community rather than some corporate job in a tentacular European capital makes sense, but I also think that the past always catches up with you, whether you want it or not.  And there’s always going to be that one thing that is so close to pushing you back into where you came from.  I respect him for sticking to his plan, but I finally understood where the deep connection we had came from.  I believe he felt safe pouring his heart out because he knew there would be distance and whatever we had would not interfere with the new village life he is building for himself.  The feeling, as I came to discover with a two months delay, was mutual.  Neither of us can fit into the other’s life, but exactly for this reason we are both exciting to one another.

That being said, what was said cannot be taken back, and even if now it is read under a different light, I see how the myself of two months ago would wait for his messages with excitement.  Plenty of times in my life I misread or misunderstood the message, not this time.  What I think happened this time is that the messages were hinting at something but not saying it out loud, when we saw each other we came to two different conclusions (for him the life he had chosen for himself was more important than anything he could have with me, and for me everything he had to offer – a house in a wood, quiet, no people dying, no days long-power cuts, fewer peaks in emotions but more stability- seemed like a dream come true) and that was it.

But this taught me not to always second guess myself.  Sometimes things are exactly what they seem, but they just happen at the wrong time and in the wrong place.  I honestly think that French Village Boy and I could have been happy, but our paths never crossed when we stood a chance, they crossed at the wrong time.

The memories we share

When a relationship ends what we lose is often a literal piece of our life.  Whether good or not so good, the longer we spend with a person the more ground there is under our feet and behind us, and unless the break up is necessary or longed for, this is what makes it so difficult to let go.

Even when the relationship has reached a dead end we look back and the longest we have spent with a person the harder we find it to imagine a new chapter without them.

I had a very long relationship that ended about six months ago, then, almost unexpectedly French Village Boy happened and I fell head over heels for this new love that was so different and so complete, who represented everything I never allowed myself to want (and also, as it turns out, didn’t really want) and which seemed so exquisitely unique and adventurous.

My ex-partner and I had agreed to stay in touch, and we did.  We both know the relationship is over and neither of us want to get back together, but until yesterday I couldn’t quite point my finger at why we are still so important for each other, despite wanting different things from life and actively looking for them.

Then it hit me.  It was a stream of consciousness: I was very tired and quite unhappy after a long day at work and I played some music.  Somehow the record “Searching for Sugarman” came out and I remembered how my ex and I kept playing it over and over again.  I remember we played the song “I wonder” the day before my grandma passed away.  We were in San Francisco for a wedding, I had a strange feeling but I brushed it away, blaming it on the cultural shock of finding myself in California, having left Vietnam 20 hours before; we went out and then watched MacGyver until the small hours to nurse our jet lags.

The next morning they called me and told me that my grandma, with whom I had always had a very special relationship, had passed away, peacefully, in her bed, at 92 years of age.  This was almost three years ago and a part of me is still grieving and hasn’t been able to move on.

What happened during the day and the day after is still a little blurry to me, what I do remember, behind the mist of time and grief, is that my boyfriend took me out to a diner and ordered chicken soup for me, listened to me sob, hugged me, walked with me, told me to breathe when I felt I couldn’t expand my lungs.  All these things are simple acts that any person in love does when their loved one is aching.  And this is exactly why, to go back to my point, letting go becomes so difficult.

Some people have shared with us so many and such meaningful moments that they become irreplaceable.  And that is why the lesson I learnt from my latest break up (the actual one) is that I want to stray connected to the people that have meant something to me, because what I experienced with them, however small, is something I don’t share with anybody else and that nobody else can understand.

The taste of the wine I drank without pleasure in Napa the day after my grandma died, sitting on the grass in the sun, crying behind my shades, giggling with my fellow travellers about the TV series “Empire”… These are all things that will never come back, they won’t happen again, or if they do they will be under different circumstances.  The only one who shared that precise moment with me is Paul.  The only one who shared countless other moments is him.  Other people have shared other moments.  I don’t want to lose that.  And so, maybe a bit late, my resolution for 2018 is to reach out to those I have left behind and reconnect with them, if they are willing to reconnect with me.  I would like this year to be a big canvas onto which I recollect the pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle of memories.  It’s going to be hard and, at times, painful, I expect, but I feel that at his point in my life if I want to move forward I need to make sense of the pieces that are behind me.

Everyone wants to be a Phoenix, born again from its own ashes, but nobody knows the Phoenix is condemned to eternal loneliness

In my lifetime I have seen a conspicuous number of people who got through a particularly tough time in their life and, at the end of the tunnel, have gotten a phoenix tattooed on their body.  I always felt profoundly envious of people who were so sure of wanting something to get it permanently inked on their bodies.  I’m not a forever person, I struggle to make decisions that I can’t go back on, and this is part of the reason I never got a tattoo.

The reason why I never considered getting a phoenix tattooed is that in Greek mythology the phoenix is an exceptionally long-lived animal who, however, by being reborn from its own ashes, doesn’t need a partner.  The phoenix spends hundreds of years alone, then burns to death and proceeds to rise from its own ashes and start again.

Emerging from a hard time can be challenging, both physically and emotionally, but while navigating through it, and definitely at the end of it, you almost never find yourself alone.  Being a drag tries your friends too: those who cry with you, laugh with you, look at each other with relief when you smile without being prompted to do so, those who listen to you in spite of the fact that you go over the same narrative over and over and over again.  Those who remain next to you are what makes the tattoo of a phoenix a really sad depiction of who one is.

Of course, it’s more empowering to think that you did it all on your own.  But in most cases it’s not true.  There are people around you who support you, either because they love you and they support you voluntarily, or because they simply exist and represent a reason for you to do something for them every day.

During a particularly hard time in my life I thought I was entirely alone (in a new country, without many friends to rely on – time difference is a bitch).  Every day on my way to work I dropped some change in a lady’s basket.  I was so focused on my own life that I honestly didn’t even pay attention to the person behind the rags and the babies crawling around her.  For me it was just a change of a few rupees that didn’t make a difference in my life and were too torn and dirty to keep in my pocket.  To her, of course, those few rupees meant two bananas, which was half a meal.

It turns out that, as for me she was just a daily routine, to her I was a lot more.  I was actually half a meal.  I went home for a few weeks at Christmas, I left without thinking about her or anything I was leaving behind.  When I came back and she saw me she got up and came towards me.  For the first time in my life I looked at her face.  Her English was very poor but she asked me if I had been sick, because she hadn’t seen me in a long time.

And for the first time it hit me: it doesn’t matter why she cared about me (we obviously weren’t friends and her main concern was to keep the few rupees I was giving her flowing), she cared about me.  When she didn’t see me she worried about me.

We didn’t become friends after that day, but we smiled at each other every morning, and it was a good feeling to start the day knowing that someone has your back.  Being a phoenix may sound good at first, but eternity is a bloody long time to spend alone.

Moving on, in spite of yourself

Not so long ago my long-term relationship was ended, not by me.  Or not entirely by me.  We had been together, happily, for six years and had plans for our future.  In retrospect we were probably sliding into those plans as a way to move forward with a purpose, rather than starting a new phase of our lives with excitement.  For this reason we are both happy it ended and we are both happy we managed the split in such a way that we remained friends, still care deeply about each other and speak often.  Of course, there were adjustments to be made and a future to plan on our own: no plans for two, no need to find the next duty station with suitable jobs for both, no visits to each other’s family, etc…

Like everyone I had a short rebound period (during which I got brutally stabbed by ALL of Cupid’s arrows, and probably also a switch blade he keeps in that little skirt of his, while visiting French Village Boy in France) but overall I came out of it, if not stronger, a lot more self aware.

I move on.  That’s what I do.  I suffer and cry for a bit and then shift my attention elsewhere.  This happened with my long-term partner and with everyone who came before him.

French Village Boy, however, opened a Pandora’s box that I hadn’t considered.

To be perfectly clear: part of my agony right now comes from the fact that I AM MOVING ON from him.  We speak quite often, as we agreed to remain friends, and I realized that I don’t have that drive towards him anymore (I would like to see him again and have copious amounts of sex with him, yes, but a month ago I thought I wanted to leave my job and life I had built for myself to go and make jams in his little village. Now the thought doesn’t cross my mind).  I have processed our brief and intense exploit, and realized that as much he is a lovely person and the few days we spent together were perfect in every possible way, they were just a bracket through my life.  For a few days I was a different person, in a place that I would have not found in a million years, lived the life of the village with someone whom I’ve loved deeply as a friend for almost ten years, and who happened to be a great lover.

There’s no doubt about the fact that none of us would quite literally fit into each other’s life -I’m not made for the village life and he’s not made for the highly stressful nomadic life- or at least I have no doubt about it.  I have been frustrated and emotionally crushed by the fact that our lives simply crossed path for a few days, but they will never converge again.

But the emotions he brought up by just giving me what he gives away plentifully and I so coarsely needed and hadn’t ever gotten from anybody else remain, and those are the hardest part to deal with.  Now I am left with pain but I don’t have the object of it (the love for him).  Everything would be easier if all this pain, frustration, sadness and despair, had a solution, however hard to pursue.

French Village Boy doesn’t want to be in a relationship with me, and that’s ok because feelings change all the time, but what I discovered through all these weeks of pain is that I also don’t want him.  Which is really the core of the challenge, because it would have been so much easier to convince him to want me, rather than acknowledge that now I have glimpse into a new me, that has always been there but whom I didn’t know, and I don’t know where to find the water to quench her thirst.

Sometimes it’s just so much easier to struggle to move on, rather than knowing that you are moving on in spite of yourself.  It would be so much more comforting to just cling on to something that may not be perfect but at least is known… I guess a part of me will always envy the happiness of people who are content with what they have and don’t always need to go on a quest for the best.  Because the quest, the voyage itself, is what enriches you as a person, but it also draws a distance between the voyager and the rest of the world which may then be very difficult to bridge.