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After veganism

§ Today it’s been a year since I went vegetarian after six years of veganism. I never did it for health reasons—it just seemed like the right thing to do. Nor, incidentally, did I stop for health reasons.

Veganism is a life-altering practice. If you succeed in keeping it up longer than a few months, you’ll of necessity learn a lot about food—and a lot more about life. I don’t believe you can practice without changing. There just isn’t room for veganism in whatever life you live prior to veganism. You have to pass through a door or two.

One of the harshest, and most surprising, lessons the practice of veganism taught me is how interrelated are death and life—how death is part of everything. I mean, everyone knows this on some level. I grew up on a small farm and knew it firsthand, and perhaps that was part of my motivation. One of the main reasons many people practice veganism is to reduce the death and suffering in the world. So, if death is inevitable, and it’s part of everything—then if you go to an extreme (such as veganism) to try to reduce at least a small part of it, and find it still with you in that new ethic, then you learn, more deeply in your heart, how constant it is.

Knowing that, you then have to find a way to accommodate this new perspective. If you’ve been raging against death, it is difficult to accept your humble place in the natural order as one who suffers, and inflicts, death. One does not practice veganism humbly: it’s an ipso facto effort to better yourself, to transcend and change the way the world is, and—on some level—to deny that you are another strand in the web of life like any lamb or tiger. Accepting your place brings you down, and any sense of your own moral purity goes down with you. If you can continue doing what’s right even after learning it can’t be done perfectly, I think you’ve learned a lot about your place in the world.

§ I still practiced for a long time. It’s still a good act. I stopped after observing my remaining rage against not death, but environmental collapse. Perhaps that’s merely another death, I don’t know.

Capitalist, industrial civilization produces a sick society and destroys its own foundation: nature. Nobody who doesn’t see themselves placed on top of the world by the industrial machine disagrees with this, but there’s plenty of room to disagree about how to respond or whether it’s possible to respond meaningfully. Certainly it’s possible for only a very few people to cause large-scale systemic change—but all individuals can make changes in their own lives. Even if you don’t change the world much, you make your own life healthier.

Veganism is one response: cut out a large, well-defined cross-section of everyday consumption. It reduces exposure to a lot unhealthy food products and dietary trends (which I suspect follow mostly from marketing rather than nutritional science), forces you to quickly come up to speed on healthy eating (which is useful to you and those around you), and substantially lowers the draw you take from the machine. It’s a good response to industry.

It’s certainly not the only response. Is it the best? Veganism is only made possible by a substantial, well-developed food system infrastructure. In the reality of day-to-day dietary decisionmaking you only have the options in front of you, and without vegan options you can’t practice veganism. In an industrial society, our vegan options are still by and large produced by industrial processes—as bad as or, sometimes, worse than the majority options. There’s a price, in the form of lowered efficiency, to creating and including specialized consumer options.

Whatever is the best response to a sick system would simply not participate. Veganism, practiced healthfully and not as a long-term hunger strike, is a participant. True non-participating responses—such as small farming, local food, and organic gardening—work with, base themselves on, and respect nature… they don’t simply do less with civilization. And those nature-based food systems involve at least some inclusion of animals among the resources managed.

So, that was the line of thought that led me to let go. I felt incoherent for my simultaneous beliefs in sustainable food systems, and vegan food options.

§ Perhaps I will continue to practice veganism someday. It’s benefitted me tremendously in so many ways, and even if it may not be (as I suggest) the most appropriate response to nature, veganism remains an appropriate response to industrial civilization, and a fantastic practice for personal growth. I suppose it is only my attitudes which will be changed.

If you are someone considering practicing veganism tomorrow, whether for the first day or one more day in a life of it, I would make three suggestions. I don’t have any practical or dietary advice—except make sure you eat a lot and take supplements. Other well-developed resources already exist for that. Instead my suggestions are for the heart and mind.

Practice because you love the world, not because you hate yourself. Veganism is itself an inherently loving gesture, but like all loving gestures it can be done badly. Self-hate is a powerful source of motivation, and enables amazing feats of transformation. It also enables amazing feats of disconnection from reality and from people. It hurts everyone else if you hate yourself, and an isolating discipline like veganism reinforces unhealthy patterns as it strengthens other aspects of personality. “Though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains—if I am without love, I am nothing.”

Don’t worry or obsess about purity. It’s not about that. It’s about love and it’s about doing what you can. Do as much as you can, definitely, but don’t try to save the world by not eating certain things. You already have the arrogance to declare that there is an ethical way to allocate and consume resources and to determine that you’ll live according to it—take the next step and decide that you make the call from moment to moment on what details matter and how the resource that is you should be maintained and allocated. “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here” and you are “a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, [the continent] is the less”.

Let it proceed naturally. Veganism is easy to pick up. It really is. It’s easy to pass on to others without even trying or pushing. Just the practice is work and advocacy for everything that you believe in (or that I assume you believe in as a vegan). And even as you work to make the world a better place by living more lightly through it—respect the world more than you respect your efforts. Just as your life should start, proceed, and end when it should, so should everything you do. “Once the river has been crossed over, the raft is of no more use”.

Life seen from the loading docks

§ Life seen from the loading dock looks different from the life seen in the lobby.

I’ve been acquainted with one or two of each in my time. I was part of the production crew for a stop on the national tour of Movin’ Out in my Missouri alma mater’s enormous theater. I still see load-in: a small crowd stood in an empty room bigger than most houses. The door was open to the weird blue spectra seen before a dawn. Transport trucks backed up to the dock. Then there was a momentary rush of activity—and the sun had set.

Another dock I know much better is outside Washington, in Virginia, shared by a florist, a retail shop, and a custom engraver. I must have taken hundreds of pensive lunch breaks there, and hauled hundreds of boxes of stock across its concrete surface. And I was just working there part-time. What would I hear if the loading docks could talk? “One box stacked on me came all the way from China and its contents went to clean a dozen homes. And that day, several dozen centerpieces waited on me before they were delivered. It was busy.”

Or, there was the back alley behind a concert venue across the tracks from Chinatown in Chicago. We waited in the cold among the bands that loaded in by order on the bill. One of us noticed she was bleeding—which was a little bit alarming, but, she got it under control. Not much else went on for us. The real rock stars networked and caught up. I imagine the enforced idle time of waiting-in-the-queue is when a lot of bands really get to chat.

§ In cities I prefer to walk half a block over from the main streets, in the alleys. It’s quieter, there are fewer people, and (to me) it’s more interesting. The back alley is reality. There’s no façade whatsoever.

Walk down Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and you’ll see storefronts, advertisements, canvassers, and lots of well-dressed people of business and/or tourism. People of wealth—not to be confused with people of substance, of course. Go down the stairs to an underpass and you’ll find different doors into the material machine that makes it work, and almost no one is there who doesn’t have a real reason to be..

Or walk down an alley in a neighborhood holding a mix of apartments and storefronts. No front doors, dressed for everyone’s eyes. Just the back porches, gardens, garages, and realities. People actually use this space for more than movement, and it’s a little more authentic maybe because there’s less point-to-point travel down these unnamed streets we call alleys. People are more still there, and mostly they’re just living.

§ People are able to live an entire life without seeing reality—at least in this moment of human civilization. Instead, they see the images—storefronts, branding, design—that have gradually built up on top of it. Reality is where substance happens, as opposed to style. I worry that too few people are exposed to substance and not enough know that it’s not the same. That’s a danger in an information age, and presents a worrisome question: are you working with and reckoning from the information or the world that it represents?

It’s easy to make bad decisions if that isn’t asked and the answer isn’t known.

The years make rainbows

§ It’s early spring around Washington, DC. Walking along the Potomac River I see hundreds of white, purple, blue, and yellow wildflowers—too many types for me to identify, unfortunately. I recognize daffodils and chicory, and the few early dandelions… the plants that have had practical or aesthetic value to me. There’s a beautiful poem about daffodils. Chicory and dandelions are edible. Ask me about something I couldn’t eat as a child and I’m usually at a loss.

Farther from the riverbanks, there are red mulberry buds and the beginnings of magnolia blossoms. I don’t believe I ever noticed mulberries blossoming before this year—I only know the buds belong to mulberries because I know which trees I’ve eaten mulberries from. It’s been nice to become sensitive to the passage of cycles and time in one place. I’m not sure it’s possible to sense that without stillness. Despite growing up around mulberry trees, I’d not know their cycles if I hadn’t been passing the same few specific trees, week after week, for long enough to observe those cycles. Unless that kind of familiarity builds, I usually only see what affects me directly.

It’s possible I could know how they work by studying mulberry trees, and I imagine many botanists and arborists could be shown a mulberry tree in some arbitrary season and identify the species and seasonal context. But then, there’s a direct affect between botanists and all plants, whereas I don’t have more than a passing knowledge of plants. Just a knowledge of the plants I’ve passed enough to be affected.

§ Flowering plants grow in ubiquity on the Earth. There’s a special stand of them here, though: the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin. The trees were a gift from Japan in 1912, and the Tidal Basin itself was built in the late 19th century as a water management tool. Since then the Basin has filled and emptied twice a day with the tides, and the trees have bloomed once a year with the seasons. It’s a nice clock of sorts, providing clear demarcation from “moment” to “moment” in high tides, low tides, and peak blossoms, although those moments are irregular in length.

I try to take a walk along the tidal basin each year when the cherry trees are blooming and I’m in the area. It puts me in my place to walk along the track of a clock keeping deep time. Japan and the United States have gone from friends to enemies to friends in the intervening century, and the trees continued to bloom. Cicada broods have come out of the ground and returned—Brood II will be out this year after 17 years. And my life has seen its own changes of somewhat less magnitude and somewhat more eccentricity.

The Tidal Basin is a good clock to synchronize with. I’m sure there are many other deep time clocks, but certainly not many people who take time from them. I couldn’t say with certainty that I do myself—only that I’ve passed through the trees, and the people who pass through the trees, and observed a little. It’s fortunate that a city like Washington, where inhabitants can sometimes lose touch in the noisy confusion, have at least the option to take similar walks.