My father is my greatest teacher. When I was little, he took me on walks and taught me about nature, how things live, grow, die and return in cycles. He taught me compassion for people and creatures. I remember him holding my hand, saying, “Don’t step on the little ant, Anichka. He has a family, just like you, and wants to go home to his mommy and daddy.” Afterward, I walked carefully, seeing creatures as beings with feelings, needs, and loved ones who deserved to live happily on earth. Later, this led to me to becoming a vegan.

He often took me outside before bedtime to look up at the star-filled sky. “Look, Anichka,” he’d say in wonder, “it’s all a great mystery!” Seeing the universe through his eyes, a mysterious tingle ran through me. He instilled in me a sense of wonder, a hunger for adventure, an ability to trust and live beyond my fears.

He embodied seemingly contradictory qualities: left-brained and right-brained, equally creative and practical—a scientist exploring the universe, steeped in physics and mathematics, while loving the universe with the heart of a mystic; and a busy man rushing through life who became so absorbed in the paradoxes of quantum physics or the minutia of running a business that he’d lose all track of time.

In Russia, where life was not a struggle for money and survival, he explored and solved abstract problems of physics and invented a device used today by physicists to measure the movement of light through space. Later, in America, life became a struggle for money and survival, so he applied his creativity to practical matters: starting a business, working long hours seven days a week, becoming successful within a year.

He never meditated or considered himself spiritual, but he loved knowledge, freedom, and adventure. Always curious and open-minded, he allowed me to fully experience life. When I was 11 years old, several of his spiritually minded friends decided to lead a group of 10- to 15-year-olds hiking across the Caucasus Mountains to the Black Sea to communicate with dolphins. When I told my father I wanted to go, he said yes.

Each day on the two-week trek, we rose at 3 a.m. for yoga and meditation. We carried our own food and supplies in backpacks. For the entire trip, we ate only black bread, dried seaweed and raw honey, and were hungry the whole time. Arriving at the Black Sea, we swam in the icy-cold water, went out on a boat in search of dolphins, which did appear. We talked to them, and they talked to us—each in our own language. I treasure such experiences, thanks to my father’s open-mindedness.

Because he trusted me and allowed me my freedom, instead of trying to control me and make me doubt myself, I later traveled around the world, trusting myself the same way. When I’d tell him my strange adventures and spiritual experiences in faraway lands, he’d say, “It’s really hard for me to understand these things. But do you really love what you’re doing? Does it make you happy and bring you joy?” When I said yes, he’d completely accept and support me, saying, “If that’s what your soul needs, then go ahead.” It wasn’t always easy for him. I sometimes traveled in inaccessible places, unable to call him for weeks at a time. I know he worried, waiting for my calls.

Because he allowed me to make my own mistakes and learn my own lessons, teaching and inspiring me by example, helping and supporting me however he could, I found my own path in life.

I’m Anya El-Wattar—and here’s to a happier, healthier us.

Anya El-Wattar Newsletter Signup