This post isn’t exactly about food – except that it is a small bit of my story and how I came to adopt a vegan lifestyle, the bumps along the way, and why I’m here now.
I can’t exactly remember the first time I went vegetarian — I remember many nights as an 8 year old, poking at meat loaf or scooting chicken around my plate in an attempt not to eat it, despite my father’s admonishments to clean my plate. I was definitely an animal-lover – we were also caretakers to a dog, two birds, 15 fish, several hamsters, various turtles, and at one point (post Hurricane Fran), a pair of baby squirrels. I know that at various points in middle and high school, I made the declaration that I wanted to go vegetarian. My parents, being the good people they are, did not make fun of me or attempt to force me to continue to eat meat, but rather concerned themselves with making sure that I was eating well (even buying vegetarian cookbooks and attempting new meals!). But though my parents were accepting, many of my peers were not – just try ordering a Big Mac with no beef in front of other 13 year olds (yeah, I cringe now, too). I found the social aspects of being vegetarian harder to navigate, and at some point, I went back to eating meat. This pattern resurfaced again, in high school, and again, in college.
During college (back in the later days of the 20th century), I was lucky enough to intern with an environmental nonprofit with a mentor who was also vegan, and I lived in a town with a wealth of glorious vegan options at restaurants, with a health food co-op only a bus ride away. It was infinitely easier to eat vegetarian and/or vegan here, with a few exceptions – I didn’t have the support of my then-husband, and I was a terrible cook (in hindsight, those two things might have been linked). I also suffered from depression, which seemed to zap away at my energy for preparing meals (when I wasn’t trying to eat my way to happiness through mass consumption of soda and chocolate) – in hindsight, those two things might have *also* been linked.
Veganism was, for my then-husband, a scary unknown, a couldn’t-be-nutritious fad, and one of my Wild Liberal Tendencies (see also: pursuing an environmental science degree; dyeing and chopping my hair repeatedly; various body piercings; visiting Buddhist temples; attending various antiwar, feminist, and LGBTQ events; reading books on homebirthing and midwifery; etc. – all a part of the path I have walked to become the person I am.) To give him some credit, the meals I experimented with back then often appeared as a foul-tasting witches’ brew, and those early attempts at vegan cheese were pretty scary. But he objected fiercely when it came to raising our children vegan, and had no desire to eat vegan himself. When we moved out of our delightful college town and back into a rural setting, things only deteriorated more – the local stores didn’t carry vegan butter or even tofu, and soy milk that didn’t come lumpy from cans was hard to find. I didn’t have Donna Klein’s Supermarket Vegan or Robin Robertson’s Vegan on the Cheap back then, either, and we were frequently strapped for money so buying “fun” ingredients wasn’t really possible. Veganism, hence, became a rather lonely existence for me – as well as one more ugly fight in a marriage that was already brimming with issues. So once again, I gave up and returned to old habits.
Fast forward 10 years later – well past the birth of children, bouts of therapy, a divorce, a lot of bitterness, several moves, a promotion or two, a desire to get back to myself, dips into vegetarianism and back again, a new relationship, and a new marriage – when I was approached by a co-worker who wanted to adopt a vegan diet after reading Eat to Live and The China Study. At some point I’d made mention of my vegan past, and she wanted me to share my knowledge. Although I told her I was probably not the right person for the job, it turned out to be a very good thing – in order to better help her, I began re-reading vegan resources and devouring books on vegan nutrition, as well as animal advocacy. We frequently had lunch together, and I found myself once again dropping the animal products from my diet. Although at first I was focused on the health benefits, it wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to rededicate myself to a vegan lifestyle with the goal of practicing what I called “radical compassion”. I realized at that time that I wanted to live (and not just talk about) a life in which I acted according to the principles of compassion and non-violence – not just in the bounds of my family or my friends, but towards the strangers I met day-to-day, towards individuals I did not know halfway around the world, and of course, to the millions upon millions of animals with which we share a planet. This meant that I wanted to live in a way such that I opened up my heart to love, to kindness, and to empathy. This meant that I wanted to make every day a practice to not inflict pain on others, to the extent that I am able. It fell into place – complimenting my involvement in environmental and human rights campaigns over the years and my optimistic attempts to be the change that Ghandi encouraged. I remember riding along in my car one day on my daily commute, listening to a Food for Thought podcast, and it was as if my heart cracked open as I realized that this was part of who I wanted to be – or rather, this was part of who I had spent my life trying to be.
I admit that I had some reservations – there was still the scariness of navigating social situations (a fear that still arises from time to time). There was the concern that my wonderful new husband or my children would completely freak out or object. There was the concern that other family members or friends or coworkers would just find me flat-out crazy. There was the fear that as in the past, I’d find it too difficult to keep up. Thankfully, I learned that I had the support of my husband, that my family members, friends, and coworkers already thought me eccentric and crazy, and that it is easier to be vegan now that it was 10-15 years ago (also, I am a much better cook). And of course, I’ve learned that it’s not just about myself, and what I’m eating today – it’s about trying to walk a little more gently on this earth.
I tell you all of this because I want you to know I don’t have a perfect vegan story. I don’t see myself as any brighter or more evolved than anyone out there reading this. I’ve bumbled and stumbled and fallen along the way. I don’t proclaim that veganism is perfection, and I’m not seeking perfection or purity. That said, as my journey has continued, I have become more aware of the cruelty inherent in our food system (having visited both pig and turkey factory farms), of the unsustainable practices that are wreaking habit on our environmental resources (having researched the air, water, and greenhouse gas pollutants from such operations), and of course, the presence and power that is in each of us when we make our everyday decisions to purchase or consume items that may have contributed to suffering (hint: it’s more than you think).
It is not my desire to browbeat people into following in my footsteps, or to tell people what to eat, or how to act. But it is my desire to share with people the peace and joy I have found in living a life practicing compassion towards all living beings, and in following a lifestyle that is kinder to the earth. It is my desire to be here as a friend or a support for people who are interested in veganism (because if I’ve learned anything on this journey, it’s that a good support system is vital). And it is my desire to pass along how easy it is to make even small changes that can reduce suffering (to both the animals and to the humans who work in farms & slaughterhouses), improve one’s health, and help the environment for future generations. That sounds like a lot, but it boils down to three very simple words that have shaped so much of my activism over the years: Do No Harm.
And that is why I am here.