Putting my groceries away today I realized that it’s been exactly two and a half years since I became a vegan. I can’t remember the last time I stuck with anything new for that long. I can honestly say that the journey has been full of joy. Not always a beautiful, tree-lined street with clearly marked directional signs, the road has nonetheless provided adventure, fun, reflection, surprise and education. I’ve learned that becoming a vegan – even defining “vegan” for oneself – is an ongoing process of discovery and experimentation. Mostly, though, it’s a journey to compassion; compassion for animals, oneself, the earth, and the decidedly non-vegan world we live in.
I have always been deeply affected by and drawn to animals. Companion animals have shared my life since the day I was born, from dogs and cats to fish, parakeets, Myna birds, guinea pigs, and once even a tiny injured tree frog my father brought home from a job site. But through all that time, I also ate animals.
Except on Thanksgiving when I was four. Somehow, that day I made the connection between the steaming turkey on the table and the cute, cartoon gobbler on the pilgrim calendar. I put my fork down and refused to eat another bite. My grandmother, certain that I could not survive this one-day abstinence, tried to persuade me that eating the turkey was natural and wholesome and necessary and fine. I wouldn’t budge.
It’s astonishing how connected to the truth we are as children, and how our well-meaning adult influences steer us away from that truth and into the accepted conventions of our society. I knew that eating the turkey was wrong for me. I remember growing more and more agitated as my wonderful, omnivorous grandma tried desperately to tempt me with a warm, gravy-laden morsel.
My mother firmly told my grandmother to leave me alone; that there was plenty of other food on the table. I held my little protest and ate mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. For one day. Then my four year old brain was onto something else, and I forgot about it.
I started school, and there I talked about animals in class and at recess, and sold buttons protesting the Canadian seal slaughter, the abuse of Tennessee walking horses and experiments on laboratory animals, but I forgot that moment of connection to the farm animals.
Well… not entirely. I have flirted with vegetarianism several times as an adult. Vaguely aware of and quietly bothered by what I suspected of our food industry, I experimented enough to realize my body loved eating plants. It was happier, fitter, thinner and more energetic. But I always went back. I consoled myself that I bought “free range” and “cage free” and “organic” and “grass fed,” so that made it alright. I let myself off the hook with the helpless declaration that this was “just the way it is” and “there isn’t anything I can do about it.” Something inside of me felt dirty, but I ignored it. I cooked turkey every Thanksgiving to great applause from my guests, and throughout the rest of the year I cooked just about every other kind of beast I could get my kitchen mitts on. I said a little prayer over them and thought fleetingly about their lives and deaths, but I never lingered long over those concerns. The atrocities behind eggs and dairy weren’t even on my radar.
In January, 2011, I suddenly realized that I could no longer stick my head in the proverbial sand where animals and my food were concerned. Why at that moment? I cannot tell you. Maybe it was hearing that President Clinton lost weight and helped his heart disease by eating vegan, or Ellen DeGeneres talking about her awakening to the horrors of the animal agriculture industry. It could have had something to do with the fact that I wanted to lose over 100 pounds, and every time I had eaten vegetarian in the past, I had lost weight. The fact that I was fast approaching the age when my beloved father had died of a massive heart attack may have been a factor. Maybe it was connected to the literature I had begun to receive from animal rights organizations that always included the farm animals’ plight.
I do believe with all my heart that the growing visibility of conditions on factory farms – made ever more present by our instant news internet and social media culture – was one if not the principal tipping point. With instant “sharing” across regions and cultures, the truth has become a lot more visible than ever before. All I can say for certain is that something in me suddenly grew stronger than my conformity and I knew I had to face the issue and make some decisions.
My plan: to cut back substantially on the animal products I consume, and find reputable, smaller suppliers who used humane farming practices for what I did buy. I knew, you see, that I could never be vegan. I knew without a doubt that I would fail, because I couldn’t face having no one want to come to my house for Thanksgiving or never tasting parmesan again. I knew I needed to find the “good farmers” and the “good distributors” and give them my business. I resolved to educate myself.
I watched the videos. You know the ones I mean – the videos that I had always avoided like live grenades. Because, you know, they are. They are live grenades thrown smack into the middle of our complacency. We know this. We all know this. That’s why my friends get so agitated when I post such horror stories, or suggest they watch them; suggest they educate themselves. Just like me, they flee quickly back into their plausible deniability: the ability to say, “Honestly, I didn’t realize…” We know if we watch the videos about the animal agriculture industry, we’ll be at an ethical crossroads. If we watch the videos, most of us will be “upset.” We’ll be horrified by what we see. We will cringe or cry or rage or be sick or have bad dreams or be forced to relive the horror of the image over and over in our minds.
Still, there came a day when I knew, despite all of that, I had to watch; to be a witness for the animals. For me, feeling as I do about animals, not to watch made me a hypocrite and a coward, and I did not want to be a hypocrite or coward. I was avoiding seeing the reality of an industry that I was actively supporting with my consumer dollars. I was paying someone else to do that which I would abhor and shrink from myself. I wanted the benefits of the industry but I didn’t want to witness the truth of it, even though, and perhaps because, I knew that it would force me to make tough decisions. It would inconvenience me. It would change my life.
I cringed. I cried. I raged. I felt sick. I had bad dreams. I relived the images over and over in my mind. And so it began.
I contacted Humane Farm Animal Care, the USDA, individual chicken and dairy farmers, animal rights groups, and my legislators. I learned details of the industry from those who practice it, those who oppose it, and those who are attempting to reduce the current level of systemic suffering involved. I visited websites, joined Facebook groups, bought books and watched documentaries and YouTube videos. I read testimonials from former slaughterhouse workers and stories about rescued battery hens. I learned about live export and fell into a month-long depression. I almost gave up on the planet.
As I educated myself, my plan fell apart. I realized that there was no way I could continue to eat animals or the products that are made from animals. I remember the moment when I knew it. Staring at my computer, I finally got that, even in best case scenario, the animal agriculture industry must first seek a profit. To do that, it must turn living, breathing, sentient beings into machine-like commodity. It must produce massive quantities of animals and it must do so as quickly and cheaply as possible. And the result is not a bunch of happy cows; nor chickens, pigs, lambs, goats, fish or anything else that has the misfortune to taste good or provide useful “product” to human beings. The result is suffering: immense, relentless, horrific, brutal suffering. And I knew with a certainty and finality I had never experienced before that I could no longer be a part of it.
I was overwhelmed with a rush of fears, doubts and worries. I take my holiday cooking very seriously and have received some of my biggest ego rushes of the year from the looks of wonder and the yummy noises that abound at my dining table. What about Thanksgiving Turkey? Christmas Roast? Easter Lamb? What about eating out and having friends over and traveling? What about the fact that I have about as much willpower as a politician at a fundraiser? What about CHEESE?
At that moment, God or the Universe or Neal Barnard, M.D. – or some combination – came to my rescue. I happened to see that Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine was holding a 21 Day Vegan Kickstart, beginning on my birthday. It was a sign, and for once I listened. I have always admired PCRM, of which Dr. Barnard is the President. PCRM has worked for years on animal issues ranging from medical and other animal experimentation to animal agriculture and human health. Now, they were offering online support and education for a three week vegan starter program. Still battling my trepidations about the whole vegan thing, I figured I could do anything for three weeks. I cleaned out my fridge and my cupboards, gave all my animal-based foods to friends, and hunkered down to figure out what I was going to eat.
The biggest shock was that it was easy. Ridiculously easy. I’ll admit I’m a good cook. I love vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts and legumes, so I didn’t have to get over any aversion to the basics of my new diet. I’m not saying there were no challenges. There were. There continue to be. But they are minor and easily surmountable; a few uncomfortable moments that cause me to think and make choices and learn to articulate what matters to me. I soon realized: Hey! That’s actually a good thing!
The process of educating myself has sometimes been great fun, and sometimes a confusing slog through conflicting opinions and philosophies. Occasionally it has left me feeling hopeless, and, I admit, it breaks my heart on a daily basis. But I have learned that having your heart broken isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you. Having your heart broken can be the catalyst for doing something worthwhile in the world. It has opened me up to a whole new perspective on what is important, how and where I want to spend my life and what I need to make me happy.
I am coming to a state of peace with myself that I have never before experienced. As I live from a place of compassion for the animals, I feel my compassion for my fellow human animals growing as well. I feel better physically and mentally. I feel clean about what I’m eating, knowing that no sentient being had to suffer and lose its entire life so I could enjoy one meal. Suddenly, I’m in relationship with the Earth and the other beings with whom I share it. I’m no longer just a consumer; I’m a partner, seeking balance and a gentle, ethical life. I say “seeking” because I’m not entirely there. In fact, I’m not sure there is a There.
I have learned that if you are looking for how to be a perfect vegan, forget about it. There is no way to avoid animal products in our society. The tires on your car, the asphalt on the road, the bindings of the books on your shelves, your dryer sheets, and even the refining method for the sugar in your pantry all use animal products – byproducts of animal agriculture. You can do your best to buy products from companies that don’t experiment on animals, but sometimes they buy ingredients from companies that do. If you have a stock portfolio it’s hard to avoid all contact with companies that are somehow connected to the torture or killing of animals.
I’m a vegan, and I deplore factory farming but I can’t do anything (for now) about the fact that my tax dollars go to subsidize factory farms and torture animals. For a while, my closet still had wool, silk, leather and even some down in it. I couldn’t afford to torch my home and start over, so I gradually replaced items purchased with blood for items created with compassion.
I’m still not the poster girl for vegan health. I have lost 30 pounds, but I have 70 or 80 to go. My current goal in my Journey to Compassion is to extend my care and compassion to my own body more often; to nourish it with more whole, healthy, nutrient-dense food. I wish to add more exercise to my already improving habits. I am committed to learning more about the effects of animal agriculture on the planet and to see what else I can do, besides becoming a dedicated vegan, to lessen my carbon footprint on the earth.
Finally, I want to continue to learn from those who have already hacked down the weeds of being vegan in a non-vegan world. I want to learn how to talk about my passion for this lifestyle without being strident and judgmental; to learn how to have grace when people are strident and judgmental with me. I want to make delicious food for friends and family. I wish, through my life and choices, to gently bring more joy and compassion to all animals – both human and non-human; to create a space for people to explore baby steps towards a plant-based lifestyle, rather than offering an all-or-nothing scenario that makes people run for the nearest steakhouse. Miraculously, all of these wishes have developed since I took the step of becoming a vegan.
Thanksgiving isn’t about the turkey. It’s about the Thanks. Since I stopped eating animals, I have started feasting on gratitude, love, and compassion; a much better recipe for a joyous life.
All photographs ©Catskill Animal Sanctuary.