Wednesday, June 25, 2014

It's Time to Kick Regret's Ass

I've been thinking about my mom a lot, which is nothing new, I think about her often, but lately I’ve found myself returning to these little quotidian moments between us, the ones that just feel shot through with significance. My mother moved in with us after she had developed early-onset Alzheimer's and a debilitating condition related to Parkinson’s; she lived with us for nearly three years. One evening, as we often did, the two of us were sitting on her bed, looking through her photo albums. These pictures provided an essential gateway to the very few topics that we could still both understand and talk about together. As we were looking through some photos, I offhandedly commented on one picture of her as a teenager in a dress, telling her how pretty she looked. She deflected. “Oh, I was never pretty.”

Undeterred, I pulled out another photo and showed it to her. She had her dark hair in a beehive, refined features, porcelain skin, a confident lift to her chin. "Look at this picture. How can you say that you weren’t beautiful?" She looked at the photo and then turned to the mirror on her dresser with tears in her eyes. She said was silent for a moment, then quietly said, "Why didn't I ever know it?" My mother said it to me as well as to herself, her voice cracking. As I did so often those days, I found myself crying in the bathroom. This was a woman who was adored by her friends, who was funny, loving, unique and, yes, beautiful. Still, she couldn’t find a way to believe in herself enough to put herself out there and pursue more of what she wanted out of life - to even know what she wanted out of life - so her last years were steeped in regret. 

Regret has got to be one of the most painful of our emotions. It just chips away at us from the inside like a chisel we’ve swallowed. Chip, crack, crunch. In that moment between us, it wasn’t so much about sadness over lost beauty because, let's face it, beauty is a shallow and ultimately slippery accolade to try to hang onto in life. The deeper sentiment here - of not appreciating herself, of not enjoying what she had when she had it - was of waste and regret, and that was what struck both of us so painfully in that moment.

Of course, this is something that so many will understand. How often and how many of us have pressed pause on what we want to do with our lives because we think we’re not thin enough-smart enough-attractive enough-accomplished enough to put ourselves out there? How many of us have given up on our dreams altogether because we feel we’re not young enough, we’ve got a saggy neck, too many freckles, a less than model-perfect nose? When I think about how much could have been contributed to society in the arts, in medicine, in science, in social justice, in progress, but never even had a chance to see the light of day because those who had the talent were afraid to be seen or heard, it fills me with a profound sadness. How many people have remained unfulfilled on the sidelines and how much have we, as a society, missed out on? How many trailblazers, humanitarians, cures, advancements, innovations, works of art that could have lifted us all up but never materialized? It cannot be measured. This absence, the erasure of what could have been, is so deeply tragic. 

In the case of women, for every Nightingale, Curie, Mead, Piaf and Angelou, imagine the countless others who have never been able to explore their interests and talents, much less pursue them. Finally, we are living at a time in history when many who would have otherwise been prevented from chasing their passions can be seen and heard. Those who would never have had the option of a life outside of the home now, on the surface at least, have access to that. What are the messages women hear now, though, with strangers commenting on us online? “You’re fat.” “You’re old.” “You’re a bitch.” “You’re a slut.” Or how about all of them swirled together in a cocktail of misogyny? 

As the remarkable social work professor and researcher Brené Brown unambiguously notes in this interview, (it’s fairly long but highly, highly recommended, however, if you want to skip forward, the relevant section starts at 57:45), after reading the comments following her viral TED talk on vulnerability - there’s an irony for you - she would have gotten out of her career altogether had there not been a groundswell of momentum pushing her and her work forward. This is a woman who has gone on to write a book that became a best-seller and has had a positive influence on so many lives: not only would she have missed out on pursuing her passions, which is tragic enough, but all those who have been inspired by her work and her encouragement to put themselves out there would have missed out as well. And so would the world have missed out with the withdrawal of their gifts and inspiration.

Imagine the number of people who simply do not have the support and momentum Brené Brown did propelling them. This is more than 99% of us. People trying to make it in the arts, in the sciences, in the fields we are passionate about. When we are vilified, when we are demeaned and personally attacked, we are told, essentially, “Who are you to believe that you deserve to be seen and heard?” Even the most confident and accomplished people would avoid making themselves vulnerable to such ugly and painfully personal attacks magnified as they are today in the public domain. 

There are huge cultures that keep women out of the public arena because they are steeped in patriarchy. Just as some of us now finally have the privilege of access and opportunity, we are being pushed out the door again through a pervasive, mean-spirited culture of anonymous hit-and-run personal attacks. So this whole essay exists to make just one point: Regret is a million times worse than being embarrassed in public. Regret is a million times worse than holding yourself back. Regret is a million times worse than not putting your work out in the world to be attacked and criticized. Regret is a million times worse than not knowing what could have been. Having sat with my mother toward the end of her life and having access to her thoughts, it’s quite possible that I think there is no human emotion more painful and futile than regret. 

Whether we believe we're beautiful or unattractive, that we've got lots of opportunities or our best years are in the past, it's up to us. In other words, if you have a pimple or two, show up and be awesome with your pimple or two. If you don't have flat abs, you are still allowed to live your life fully. If you have some grey hairs, weird eyebrows, a scar on your mouth: this is still it. Time isn't going to stop and wait for everything to line up perfectly so you can pursue the life you want. There is no magic wand, either, to make the vitriolic critics disappear so you’re going to have to be stronger, bigger and bolder than they are - which you are - simply evidenced by the fact that you are sticking your neck out and they are the bitter ones spewing invective. You will still be hurt because you are not a machine, you have feelings, but, speaking from personal experience, over time it starts to hurt less and less and you start to really understand how to differentiate the opinions that count and the ones that simply don’t matter.

Don't find yourself grieving one day that you didn't know you were gorgeous, hilarious, amazing and now you realize that you wasted all that time. Now is the only time we’ve been promised, this one life and this one moment. Do it for every girl whose been told she’s a slut for daring to upload a video of herself singing. Do it for your best friend who chucked her dream of being a public speaker because someone made a snide remark about her lisp. Do it for someone who never believed she was beautiful enough, smart enough, enough enough to live the life she wants now. Do it for all those who never had the opportunity but burned with desire. Do it for yourself.

Find a way to live without regrets.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

An Open Letter to My Son at Twelve...

Dear Justice,

I can’t believe you’re twelve now. Twelve. On each of your birthdays, there is a new age to accept, and I always find it hard but twelve is one year from being a teenager, from angst, from being mortified by any association with me. I realize that I’m on borrowed time here so I’d better say this to you now while you’ll still sort of listen to me. 

I wrote the letter below this one to you when you were just a baby. Once the first contractions hit, you and I had a pretty rough time of it and I was fairly wrecked for a while afterward, dealing with hormones that were plummeting and surging and zipping around every which way, plus the searing pain with each breath and the milk that took its time coming in. Oh, and beginning motherhood after a three-day-long emotional roller coaster of sleep deprivation. Fun times. You were here, though, so I had to get it together. 

I was really afraid. Terrified. I knew what an incredible gift we had that so many would have loved - a healthy pregnancy; a healthy baby; myself, well, I would recover - and for that I was grateful but as soon as the little endorphin boost dissipated, I was so scared. I’d never been a very anxious person before but apparently another addition came into my life along with you and it was a kind of primal fear I’d never known before. Once I determined that reinstalling you back inside me for a few more weeks until I got it together couldn’t happen, I had to face the inevitable. I had made a mistake.

In the weeks after your birth, I realized that it was the height of arrogance to actually think that Dad and I could pull off this whole being trusted to raise a child thing. We could take care of our dogs, even the one who was more than a little cuckoo. We could create websites and t-shirts and non-profits -- we could even manage monthly potlucks that brought in early edition vegans of every volatile variety as well as the random senior citizens who just wandered in looking for a free meal -- but raise a baby? Just who did we think we were?

What if you came out of the womb screaming for puréed liver? What if you were born with a bacon tattoo? What if your first sentence was, “Um, what about my canine teeth?” Honestly, this is every vegan parent’s worst fear, after the universal stuff that every parent fears has receded or been faced. What if you naturally just did not jibe with us at all? What if what we thought were big, guileless, innocent eyes were actually full of a deep-seated resentment of us and all that we stood for?

It turns out that as a parent, I hit my bottom pretty early. This is not to imply that every parenting moment since has been gold star-worthy but things have improved considerably from those early days of me thinking of you as a (fabulously adorable) ticking time bomb of discontent just waiting to wail for organ meats and Cheese Doodles. It turns out, you were pretty easy, Justice. From your earliest days, you would protect ants from stomping feet and name the slugs near our kale plants. When you were two, you burst out in tears when I read you The Lorax for the first time. This wasn’t forced into you. This was you, beautiful, unguardedly kind you, shining through from the beginning. People like to claim that vegan kids are indoctrinated. It’s actually kind of funny in an ironic way, implying that the kids who do know what they are eating are indoctrinated. In any case, you always intuitively embraced kindness and, well, justice. Your name was more fitting than we could have realized. There was no struggle there: this was you.

Since your earliest days, I have watched you evolve into the most amazing child, boy, person. You are as transfixed by an anthill as you are the solar system, as excited to give a gift as you are to receive it. The world is a much better place with you in it, and I cannot wait to see all the glorious, unique, fascinating contributions you will continue to give us.

It turns out that I had nothing to fear. You were always naturally Justice. 



November 8, 2002

My dearest Justice,

If there was ever a moment when I knew that our lives had changed completely, it was the other day when the three of us were in the bulk section of the grocery store. I was filling a bag with some couscous, and, in our family's little division of labor, your father was putting the code on the twisty-tie for the cashier to ring up. When he reached for the bag, something in his hand caught my eye. Around one of his fingers was your pacifier, worn like you two had just gotten engaged. In a way, you had. I looked at you, six-weeks-old and sleeping snugly in the carrier strapped around your dad's chest, one arm casually draped across him, and I just thought, Wow. Our lives are forever changed.

I know this sounds silly. There have been so many more obvious clues than that that our lives have been slightly altered. Not sleeping more than three hours at a stretch could have been an indicator. The frequent visits to your changing table. The sound of wailing being so omnipresent, I swear sometimes I hear phantom cries even when your father has taken you along on the evening dog walk. All these things may have shouted at me that I have a newborn in the home, but, frankly, I think before the pacifier incident, I was a little too sleep-deprived for it to sink in.

In that seemingly routine moment in the grocery store, though, it was as if the fog around me abruptly lifted and I woke from a dream to find myself as The Mama, improbable as that may seem, that long-haired man as The Daddy and you as Our Baby. Before then, it was as though I was watching some other exhausted, confused couple fumble their way through caring for a newborn, peeking through my fingers as I snickered and winced on the sidelines. At that moment, I finally realized that I'd been snickering and wincing at myself.

Through a joyous, healthy pregnancy and a delivery that was, lamentably, miles away from the alternative-birthing-suite-with-a-midwife-and-classical-music-playing-as-you-effortlessly-descended-into-the-world-an-hour-or-two-after-contractions-began, you have asserted yourself time and again as a passionate, determined young being with your own way of doing things.

In my womb, you entertained us with your calisthenics every morning, flipping joyous cartwheels as you and I enjoyed blueberry smoothies. In the delivery room, you came out punching and kicking 52 hours after contractions began, daring anyone to tell you to settle down. I held off committing to your name until we met, but as I looked at you hot from my womb, red-faced and hollering with your hands balled into tight, tiny fists of righteous indignation, I thought, Well, this is definitely a Justice.

I hope you are not going to think your name is stupid. Will you beg us to change it to Tyler or Jake or Bubba? Will you be creative? Analytical? Sensitive? Brash? A little bit of everything? Will you resent your dad and me for raising you in the city? Will you be enthralled by all the energy, noise and motion?

Maybe you'll forsake your genetic predisposition and be the kind of child who loves to be organized and tidy and balances checkbooks for fun. Maybe you'll sleep in a tent in the living room during the winter, drawing maps and creating an elaborate kingdom in your mind. Maybe you'll fall in love with a girl or a boy one day and know in your heart that no one has ever loved this ardently (but, my child, I must quietly point out that we have...)

The kind of person you are to become is being formed as I write this, as you sleep like an angel straight from Raphael's sketchbook, as you nurse at my breast, as you discover your toes. I enjoy watching you unfold, my baby, with all your quirks and predilections, understanding that you have your own purpose here on earth, just as we all do. I just have one little favor to ask of you. Not too big, I hope.

Promise me you won't ever eat animals. Okay?

I don't mean to be making demands on you so soon, and lord knows I'd rather you decide on your own with all your good sense and natural compassion that eating an animal's carcass is barbaric. And that consuming their secretions and ovum is thievery. And that wearing their skins is unseemly. And paying to watch them perform in aquariums, rodeos, circuses and whatnot is idiocy. If you come to me one day and tell me all this on your own, I promise you a vanilla and chocolate sundae as big as your head, with extra syrup. Dark chocolate, of course. Is it a deal?

You see, despite the poopy diapers and unexpected hair tugs and occasional all-nighters, you are a perfect being born into an imperfect world. I look at you with your huge, glistening eyes and the soft cheeks designed to be nuzzled, and I can't help but see an angel who has decided to touch down for a while and check things out. And the things you'll see, I'm afraid, may disappoint you. I feel like a jerk telling you this, admitting to you with your absolute purity how flawed your fellow race of humans is, especially after how hard you struggled to be here, but it's true. We are flawed. Please forgive us.

We do things sometimes knowing full well that they will hurt another. We pollute and desecrate the only real home we have. We waste our time and money on things that only serve to make us sedated, angry or depressed, and then we do it some more. We do these things despite "knowing better." Yes, me too. We all started out like you, though, full of innocence and curiosity and guilelessness, but somehow, we let the world steal it from us, sometimes while our backs were turned, sometimes with our full encouragement.

In my mind, the act of eating another animal's body - though it is usually an unconscious event, at least at first - is the first time we give tacit approval of this mugging of our better selves. As we grow older, and cynicism settles into our bodies, we accept this cheapening of ourselves with little more than a shrug. I'm asking you, Justice, to not accept this at all, least of all with a shrug.

If I could protect you from all the wounds big and small that we inflict and we receive, I would. But would I be denying you the wisdom that comes from a few scrapes and bruises? Am I standing in your way if I try to protect you from making mistakes? If I don't, am I being a uncaring, negligent mother? Am I creating an irresponsible being? I'm not going to pretend that I have the answers, so we're going to have to navigate our way together.

One thing I do know, though, is that you're a precious, pristine spirit and if you can preserve some of that essence throughout your life, the earth will heave a sigh of relief.

Please, Justice. Hold on fiercely to your beautiful, proud and compassionate self. Please don't eat meat.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Yes, All Farmed Animals

For the past few weeks, awareness about the mind-numbing pervasiveness of harassment, misogyny and violence females face has been heightened in the wake of the horrific May 23 murders in Santa Barbara committed by Elliot Rodger, a young man who blamed his actions on what he considered years of unjust rejection by women. Angry at the women he thought were his birthright, envious of the men he believed unfairly received sexual gratification, he went on a terrifying, bloody spree that quickly claimed six lives in addition to his own.

In the aftermath of the violence, some very important, very painful personal stories have emerged from the shadows and come to the forefront. The meteoric rise of the hashtag #YesAllWomen on social media came in response to the #NotAllMen hashtag, which was revived after the murders, apparently by some of the same men’s rights proponents with whom Rodger was ideologically aligned. Like most defensive reactions, the NotAllMen response, intentionally or unintentionally, nearly derailed the opportunity for honest communication, almost diverting it away from the vast diversity of women who were talking about the chillingly ordinary belittlement, misogyny and violence they have experienced simply for being female. Not all men are rapists, not all men are violent, not all men are murderers. Of course. Yet all girls and all women have experienced incidents of injustice, discrimination, harassment, threats and violence simply because they are female. Shouldn’t women be allowed to bear witness to their own experiences without needing to tend to someone else’s thin skin by specifying the obvious: not all men? YesAllWomen is a bracing and vital declaration about the sheer ubiquity of sexism, both mundane and extreme, that females across the globe face. It is so pervasive, it is just life. By removing the veil of ignorance and blinders, we have an opportunity to learn, change and evolve beyond our limited worldview.

What I am about to say is not intended to detract from or minimize the #YesAllWomen movement, which I fully support and think is both very valid and long overdue. As a vegan and a feminist, my intention is to describe how the same icy, indifferent and belittling voice of privileged power is also woven through the heightened defensiveness we hear when the subjugation of other animals, especially the animals people eat, is pointed out.  

Like everyday misogyny but far more entrenched and extreme, our tyranny over other animals most often hides in plain sight. When speaking about the culture of violence perpetrated against other animals, we often hear a defensive chorus of the same rhetorical nature: Not all animals. Not all meat-eaters. Not all farmers. Not all farms. Yet all animals are considered property, and all farmed animals are exploited and slaughtered because we believe that we have more of a right to their products and their flesh than they have a right to their own lives. On the continuum of care, a tiny percentage of animals are allowed the semblance of a decent life, but this is far outweighed by the sheer number who are not and, ultimately, they are all considered ours to do what we please with in the end. We make the decisions if they should reproduce or not, if they should live and when they should die. From the tiny fraction of animals that slick marketing campaigns would have us believe are coddled on idyllic farms until they happen to naturally die of old age to the billions upon billions who suffer through lives of unimaginable brutality, all farmed animals are brought into existence and taken from it based on our desires.

In other words, #YesAllFarmedAnimals. As with the #YesAllWomen response to a culture of pervasive misogyny, if we stop protecting our fragile egos, we will see what is hidden in plain sight: an unjust, unchallenged and often unspoken supremacy bias of anthropocentrism that impairs our awareness regarding all other species. Specifically regarding the animals people eat, please consider that while there are rare exceptions in terms of overall quality of life:

* All are treated as property whether we see it directly or not. 

* All are born and killed for our purposes whether we see it directly or not. 

* Simply because we have the prerogative of not seeing or noticing, it does not mean that violence has not occurred, even under our very noses. 

* The attitude of human exceptionalism pervades and threatens to derail honest dialogue and growth. 

Can we be honest enough to acknowledge this? Can we be humble enough to admit that at this time in history, when it is easier than ever to live without exploiting and killing other sentient beings, that it is immoral to kill them?

The #NotAllMen reaction serves as a reminder that there is not much that upsets people in a position of status more than not having everything centered around and catered to them and their desires. In the reaction to what is plainly obvious about the practice of eating other animals, we see a similar defensiveness, born of the same kind of entitlement and privilege, even more starkly. 

Trying to redirect candid discourse about the experience of misogyny is dismissive, reactive, reductive and self-centered. Steering honest conversations about our treatment of animals back to one’s own hurt pride or ego is similarly dismissive, reactive, reductive and self-centered. They are harmed and killed for us and it is needless. 

Yes, all farmed animals.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Finding Sanctuary Within Ourselves...

There’s something about sanctuaries, about being in a safe setting where nothing is demanded of or taken from the inhabitants that just uplifts everyone who experiences it, human and otherwise. Each of us can relax here as our normally highly unjust relationship to other animals has been reconstructed to a more harmonious one. As vegans, we are actively engineering change in the present as well as the future: taking charge of our legacies with our actions of today, fostering liberation on literal and metaphoric levels, radically re-conceptualizing social justice as a deeply personal and engaged practice, not just empty words. This is heady stuff, clearly. Being able to breathe in the air at a sanctuary (it smells like freedom mixed with manure, if you can imagine that), hear the roosters crow, feel the hot, forceful exhalations as a cow snorts down your shoulder, the ideals we stand for have manifested in the real world and all I can think of is one word. Relax...

We’ve been going to farmed animal sanctuaries since before my son was born and at least once a year since his birth. At 11 now, visiting a sanctuary is a cherished opportunity for an urban boy to be in the company of the animals he advocates for and to deepen his connection to them, and also a chance to experience them as unique individuals. So often when we think of other animals, we think of them in the aggregate - cows, chickens, pigs, the animals - as if they were one uniform unit, but seeing them face-to-face, sitting in the grass or touching their necks as they take our apples and carrots, we remember that, oh yes, they are distinct from one another. Of course. This cow is very friendly, this goat has an obvious sense of humor, this chicken seems more curious about us. For the day at least, the animals our son meets are no longer flat concepts and just as his dog Romeo doesn’t represent all dogs, the animals he encounters are flesh and blood individuals. They are not abstractions; they are real and three-dimensional.

The first thing our son does as he enters the space at a refuge is take a deep breath. I do the same. Does it feel like we’re home again? In a way, yes, even though neither of us have ever lived in a rural setting. Many vegans I’ve talked to feel the same sense of peace, of safety. Outsiders most of the time, sanctuaries are where we have also found a soft place to land. Even when it is our first time visiting a sanctuary, many of us feel a similar sense of letting go of our defenses, of relaxing, of having nothing we need to steel ourselves against. Spending time at a sanctuary stands in stark contrast to how very much and very often we do have to protect ourselves in the real world: from a co-worker’s rude comments, from family estrangement, from the smell of searing flesh as your neighbor barbecues, from the advertising all around us. Not here. Here we all have found refuge.

Removing ourselves from the equation of exploitation is as freeing to us as it is to the animals whom we no longer exploit. This is part of why we want to shout it from the rooftops: it is so empowering and life-affirming to be liberated from the tragic cycle of habituated violence and oppression.  Some of us are vegans because we truly love the animals (count me as one); others are more driven by a sense of justice, being pretty clear-eyed that “love” is not a motivating factor or something they can identify feeling for the animals. As vegans, we are figuring out what it means to, if not love, than simply allow other beings to be without any demands. As such, it is the most integrated, encompassing and whole of the social justice movements and it is changing the tide of the historical record in real time. We’re doing this thing. We’re doing it.

Last weekend, we were lucky enough to visit SASHA Farm in Manchester, MI, not far from Ann Arbor with our group, the Chicago Vegan Family Network. Here are just some of the residents we met. I hope you enjoy the pictures and that you take the time to visit a sanctuary near you. Better yet, visit and donate. It is so enriching.

I adore turkeys, such proud and stately birds. The turkeys I have met have all seemed very inquisitive and brave, most have walked right up to me and looked me in the eye. 

Beautiful birds.

We were told that these rescued hens have combs that flop over because they are nutritionally depleted after years of laying eggs.

This goose has the softest feathers on his neck.

Seeing a pig at a place like Sasha Farm makes you grieve for all pigs who will never have anything resembling a decent life, which is nearly all of them.

This pig has identification notches in his ears; he was used in laboratory research before finding sanctuary. 

This mother stayed like this the whole time we were there, standing watch over her calf. The mother cow had been rescued from a dairy farm while pregnant and brought to SASHA; the baby is less than a week old.

This mother had given birth in December and was still completely protective of her calf, and her calf followed his mother’s every move. You can only imagine the horrific trauma and loss cows and their calves experience when they are permanently separated from one another. 

This goat. This goat. I really can’t take it. Uncle.

His name is Billy and he followed me around with this big grin on his face as if to say, "Let everyone know how happy I am here." 

And with a piece of grass sticking out of his mouth as if he wasn't cute enough without it. 


This is a goat and Helen, a dairy cow born with a condition called cerebellar hypoplasia, a brain disorder that resulted in her not being viable for the farm where she would born. Ordinarily, she would have been killed as soon as her disability was identified but, thankfully, she was rescued and brought to SASHA Farm. 

Helen stands and walks with her legs splayed out. She lives with the goats and sheep for her own safety. We stood and talked near Helen for a bit, petted some goats, took some photos, ambled around. We’d been at the sanctuary for a while, though, and the kids were getting tired. We had a long drive ahead of us back to Chicago. We started walking back to the gate when someone said, “Look at Helen!” She was running toward us, her limbs turned out at odd angles, running to us with all she had. She wasn’t done with our attention yet. Her shining spirit -- that invincible, unflagging grit within her challenged body -- was undeniable and so touching.

Living with consistency means that we will always have at least a small sense of sanctuary within ourselves, no longer fighting against what violates our conscience. If we could live perfectly happy, healthy and fulfilled lives without harming others, why wouldn’t we? Right here, right now, we have all that we need to always have a sanctuary within ourselves and stop struggling.