Thursday, October 19, 2017

Me too.

Sunday was supposed to be a day of rest for me, something I don’t do very well or very often so I really have to schedule it in. The past few months have been particularly harried and hectic, going from the weeks that bookend Chicago VeganMania to an ambitious project that has taken up a lot of my life as well as my regular work and activism. I was looking forward to Sunday with a little too much anticipation. The day before, I’d participated in a rainy protest, high-fived my sister Handmaids and booked home to finish preparing the house – and the food – for hosting our annual vegan Halloween party. These are things I wanted to do but not exactly relaxing. All I had on the docket for Sunday was a yoga session and lounging in my PJs. Yes, I actually wrote that on my calendar. Even when I’m in relaxation mode, I get all Type A about it, apparently.

Sunday morning, dutifully in my PJs, I went on Facebook to get caught up with what was happening in the world and with my friends and within minutes, I saw my first “#MeToo” post. (Read this first, please.) I didn’t realize at the time that it was part of a larger momentum; I felt sad when I saw her post and commented on it but I thought it was just from her. Then as I scrolled on, I saw more and more of these same posts pouring in, copied-and-pasted, many with long threads under them, often with just those two stark, staccato words: Me too.

My intention of not getting up off the couch Sunday was kind of fulfilled in that I really did not get up much but it was because I was sunk into place as I saw the steady stream of #MeToo posts filling my feed. In fact, it was so pervasive Sunday that if something wasn’t a #MeToo-inspired post, it was noticeable. Some people just commented #MeToo but there were also women flooding in with their own stories of being sexually harassed, threatened, abused, attacked and more. I couldn’t look away. My chest felt a little more compressed with each passing minute. It felt like a grey cloud, heavy with rain, had settled within me and was pressing against my heart, a familiar feeling when these thoughts return.

There is a lot that I have stuffed away in order to remain a functioning member of society. I suppose this is probably true of most of us. But for many females, especially when we’re younger, sexual abuse in its many manifestations is just the environment we live in. It is our normal. As such, we accrue a lot of wounds without really even keeping note of it. If we weren’t raped at knife-point, we consider ourselves lucky and, in fact, we are lucky but isn’t setting the bar this low very sad?
It is just so normalized, though, so much the water we swim in and the air we breathe that we scarcely notice it. As Marshall McLuhan observed, “If a fish could talk, water is the last thing it would identify as part of it’s environment.” Feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon built on this, saying, “All women live in sexual objectification the way fish live in water.”

On Sunday, the dam sprung a leak. It was a trickle of water at first, seemingly pushed out by the Harvey Weinstein scandal*, and it quickly became a deluge of water we were wading in, surging together to become a tidal wave of shared experiences. If I may beat this metaphor into the ground, on Sunday the floodgates crashed open for many of us, sweeping us all up in the murky waters. I was surprised but I shouldn’t have been. My peaceful, lazy, chill plans for Sunday were forgotten as I sat captive, wiping away tears and quietly sobbing, as story after story of everyday and monstrous abuse filled my eyes and stoked new life into some long-shut out embers of memories.

The thing is that I am safe now. I am in a home of my choosing, with a loving family of my choosing and the kind of support network I could have only dreamed about when I was at my most vulnerable. I can say without reservation that I love the life I’ve cultivated. It wasn’t always this way, though. I practice yoga and meditation in large part to file down the jagged edges of trauma and for the most part, I’m successful with this practice. It truly does help. Sunday rather gutted me but underneath that was a foundation of knowing that I’m safe and loving the life I’ve created. Some old ghosts, though, boy did they howl at me.

Sitting on the couch, unwelcome, disembodied hands touched me again, grabbing newly developed, tender breasts without consent. Adult hands, young hands, familiar and unfamiliar hands. Particularly awful catcalls in my ears, threats of rape. There were less impressionistic memories, too: Passed out the first time I ever drank, waking up on a pile of coats and someone on top of me, the older guy who got us into the party, someone I was lead to believe could be trusted. More unwelcome hands groping me at my first and second jobs. Daily. The guy rubbing himself and trying to lift my skirt on the train. (A whole different time, a CTA employee screaming at me in public as I paid for my fare for having the gall to wear a skirt on the train – I hadn’t even remembered that nugget until just now.) The guy from the band cornering me in a room and his band mate driving me home to help me out; I had to run out the door to get away from him, too. The family doctor who had his hands under my shirt before I even knew what was happening for an impromptu breast exam at age 19 when I’d gone in for an earache. The stranger who grabbed me on the street, hand over my mouth, easily twice my size. Stuff in my home growing up that left a permanent scar along with a lifetime of issues. Much more that is too gruesome and private to say here but was revisited Sunday, playing like a slow reel in my mind.

I am just one, though, and a pretty lucky one, all things told. Magnify it by pretty much 100% of females, and you get a clearer picture of the breadth, scale and ubiquity of what has happened and is happening to our mothers and grandmothers, daughters and nieces, neighbors and co-workers, dear friends and acquaintances, mail carriers and cashiers. This is the water they – and we – swim in. My stories are not particularly unique or horrible in the context of that massive body of water.

The thing is, less than a week out, I can already sense that people are getting sick of hearing about it. It’s the same mentality that told me to push this stuff away: Can we just move on? Don’t be such a victim. The problem is that we have always ultimately “just moved on” and if we don’t want any more deluges, we will finally have to face and dismantle what we do to females in this world. There is a name for this disease – it’s called patriarchy and it’s called misogyny – but what can we do now to heal survivors, stand up for women today and to raise future generations of girls and boys who are free from its clutches? (Remember that everyone suffers under patriarchy, even those who seem to rule.)

Some random thoughts…

- We can listen without defensiveness. This includes listening without arguing. This includes not hijacking stories. This includes not interrupting.

- We can tell our stories despite the pressures to stay silent.

- We can also respect that we know what is best for our sense of safety and maintain our boundaries around that.

- We can stop “joking” about sexual violence and rape.

- We can stop using gendered words to verbally attack and demean women.

- We can treat one another as more than our perceived sexual value.

- We can stop calling women teases if we change our minds.

- We can be honest about our own transgressions against others. We can apologize if it is appropriate. Most important, we can vow to do better.

- We can stop victim blaming immediately. No matter where she was, what she was wearing and if she was drinking or not, we must shift the responsibility of sexual harassment and abuse away from victims/survivors and onto the perpetrators and enablers without qualification.

- We can stop slut-shaming immediately. We can excavate the virgin/whore complex we’ve internalized and give it a proper, permanent burial.

- We can raise our daughters and mentor young people to understand that they should have no pressure to accept unsolicited comments, touches and attention.

- We can forgive ourselves for the things we accepted that have left us confused, conflicted and full of self-doubt. (This is very important.)

- We can do what is necessary to make females feel safer in a world steeped in rape culture: don’t sit next to us if there are empty seats elsewhere; don’t walk too close behind us, especially at night or in secluded areas; don’t stare.

- We can raise boys who aren’t entitled and arrogant. We can start a conversation when we see images of sexual harassment and violence in everyday life, including cartoons. We can raise boys who opt out of the “masculine ideal.” We can raise boys who respect girls and women. We can raise boys who aren’t restricted by gender stereotypes. We can raise girls like this, too.

- Especially if you are a man, you can immediately and decisively call out rape culture, sexual harassment, abuse and exploitation when you see it. You can support others who do the same. Yes, it may be uncomfortable. Do you think it's comfortable to be harassed?

- If you have friends, relatives, coworkers, etc. who treat women with disrespect, creep on women and otherwise make the world unsafe for females, call them out, especially if you are a man. Stop making excuses for bad behavior immediately.

We need to create a world where sexual harassers and abusers have no place left to hide instead of hiding in plain sight as they do today. If we can create a groundswell of unity behind the idea that sexual abuse and misogyny are not acceptable, we can change the world. We need to change the culture around it, though, for that to happen. For us to do that, we need to step up to the plate in tangible, transparent, confident and consistent ways.

Men, I am challenging you to do more for women, a lot more, so that a girl being raised today doesn’t grow up in a climate where she feels lucky if she wasn’t raped at knife-point. That isn’t too much to ask for, is it?

Are you sick of hearing about it? Too bad. We're sick of living in it.


*This is really not a scandal but the underbelly of the status quo no one talks about. The “scandal” is it’s finally being talked about.

Friday, October 13, 2017

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Nathan Runkle

Back when Vegan Street was in its original incarnation, we had a P.O. box we’d check a couple of times a week for picking up t-shirt orders – so, yes, this was the olden days – and we would sometimes get a check from a young teen in Ohio named Nathan Runkle. We got orders from all over the country but there was something about these orders, written with a young person’s handwriting, sent from a town we’d never heard of in Ohio that really gave us a sense of hope and excitement for the burgeoning vegan movement we were just starting to notice rising up everywhere in those early days.

Today, of course, this young teen in Ohio has grown up to be one of the most formidable, respected and well-known voices in animal advocacy through his work with the organization he founded as a 15-year-old in 1999, Mercy for Animals, which has grown into a powerful force of change-making for farmed animals with Nathan at the helm, leading a dedicated, talented staff, inspiring countless volunteers, awakening many, many more and, most important, saving lives. I have so much admiration for Nathan and what he has accomplished so far, which is really still in its infancy, I suspect. Now, Nathan is doing a tour in support of his new book, Mercy for Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals. Despite everything, though, Nathan will always be that sweet farm kid from Ohio to me, the one who gave me so much hope back in 1999 and has gone on to far exceed my expectations. Love you, Nathan Runkle! I am honored to feature Nathan as this week’s Vegan Rock Star.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

My “vegan evolution” started with an evolution in my perception of animals. Sometimes big lessons come in small forms. In the book, I tell the story of Caesar, a beautiful Siamese rat, whom I rescued from a laboratory breeder when I was just six-years-old. Caesar became my best friend. He was playful, smart, and social and would come running when I called his name. But when I’d bring friends over to meet Caesar, many would shriek at the sight of him. "Eww! His tail!" they would say. They judged Caesar based on what he was, not who he was.

I began to realize that the prejudices we have about animals are really about us, not them.

It’s because of Caesar that I started to challenge the arbitrary lines our society draws between animals considered "pets" and "pests," "friends" and "food."

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

Simply having a positive, healthy, joyful vegan role model would have been super helpful for pre-vegan me. Someone who showed me that there was a way to live that reflected my compassionate values, was healthy for my body and spirit, and easy and delicious. I think for many people, having someone show them that there is a better way goes a very long way.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

I always try to be authentic and share stories – whether they are stories of animals I’ve met, how great I feel being vegan, etc. Anytime we can speak from personal experiences with “I” statements, the less judgmental and threatening it is to others. No one can discount your own experience and feelings. I also always try to communicate from a place of love and understand, rather than judgment or criticism.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

We have love, compassion and truth on our side.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Willful ignorance.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

If you don’t want to pay people to abuse animals in horrific ways on your behalf, going vegan is a beautiful way to live a healthy life that’s centered on compassion for all.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Too many to list.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Balance is so crucial. We have an epidemic of burnout within the vegan and animal rights movement. It’s something we need to talk about and address, as we are loosing far too many people and with them all of their knowledge and skills. For me, it means taking care of myself – mentally and physically. Facing the reality of factory farming on a daily basis can be emotionally traumatizing. It’s important to recognize that, first and foremost, so we can nurture ourselves. For me, that means going to therapy, yoga, meditating, eating well, traveling, spending time in nature, exercising, laughing, and focusing on loving freely and openly.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

There are so many – from LGBTQ rights to the protection of our environment. But the cause of so many of the problems facing our society today is the same: apathy. When we open our heart to the plight of “others” the world begins to transform in wonderful ways.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

…the ultimate expression of love.

Friday, October 6, 2017

SASHA Farm, October, 2017...

We've been lucky enough to be able to visit SASHA Farm since my son was a wee one with the Chicago Vegan Family Network and it remains one of the highlights of our year. Even at 15, our son still looks forward to our annual SASHA visit. Being able to interact with these innocent beings who have found freedom and sanctuary is so enriching to the vegan spirit and to see them in such a beautiful environment where they can just live their lives without fear or exploitation is gratifying beyond measure.

We met up with some of our vegan family crew and were able to bring along two additional young friends who are vegan. As soon as you pull up and hear the roosters crowing, see the sheep peacefully grazing, you know you are in a special kind of place. In all, it was a beautiful day, though, as always, bittersweet. Heartwarming to know these animals have found their way to sanctuary and heartbreaking to think of the billions more - no less full of personality and a capacity for pain than these individuals - who live their short lives, day-in and day-out, in the kind of sheer horror few of us could imagine. For now, though, we will keep sharing their pictures and their stories, hoping that humanity one day stops inflicting the needless brutalities we inflict upon them. Maybe then we'll begin to find peace? One can hope.