Why I’m Vegan, Part 2: Honoring My Values

Honoring My Values

In 2005, I took an opportunity from my dad to visit Alaska.  He had grown up there and I was eager to see it.  I was working on a novel based on his life at the time, so it seemed logical that I should go see where it all began.  A friend went with me for the first week and I would stay a full month.  My dad had found two places for me to stay, both at the homes of high school friends of his.  At the end of the first week, I had decided I was moving, and my friend was eager to join me.  She returned and orchestrated the move while I continued to stay and look for a job.  The second two weeks of my vacation were spent housesitting for a couple who are vagan.  Even with my history, I found it off-putting.  I would go through their pantry and cabinets looking at all the unusual foods.  It was not what I was used to.  And I didn’t fully embrace the experience, as I should have.  I took pleasure in buying fried chicken and eating it in the living room, a secret act of defiance.  I’m still sad about that situation.

h227BB420After a little over a year in Alaska, I was alone and starting to really reflect on the person I really wanted to be and learning how to focus on myself while I developed relationships with a newly emerging group of friends.  During that first year, I was eating meat at least once a day.  I didn’t feel right.  I was having trouble staying happy.  2006 was coming to a close when I had the epiphany that I could no longer eat meat.  I was eating lamb at the time and I could feel it in my mouth as I masticated;  it was no longer food.  The lamb had been alive, every bit as much as I am alive, and it certainly did not belong inside my body.  It should have been allowed to mature, to be free, to become a sheep.  I had been a part of that creature’s death, the demand that required it to be killed and included in my meal.  I could see its little lamb face in my mind.  It was adorable, to be sure, but I was more struck by the audacity of eating another creature because I wanted to, disregarding its family and community.  Don’t kid yourself, sheep have communities.  Cows have best friends and a matriarchal society.  Chickens organize themselves into a complex hierarchy, the origin of the term “pecking order.”  These animals aren’t sitting around waiting to become a meal.  They are trying to live full lives, as much as they can with what we give them.

It all came down on my and I cried.  I cried a lot and wanted the animal out of my body.  I have not eaten meat since.

I did just a small amount of research at the time.  I had been been going back and forth with vegetarianism for ten years at that point, so I felt like I had a handle on the facts enough to not dig much deeper.  I had made a partial connection, but I was blind to part of the story.

Why I’m Vegan, Part 1: My History with Vegetarianism and Veganism

My History with Vegetarianism and Veganism

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As long as I can remember, I’ve had a strained relationship with food.  I don’t have many food memories stored up, but I remember loving pizza, fruit, cereal, and burgers.  I started gaining weight in 3rd or 4th grade.  It wasn’t so much that I craved food, but that I was eating junk.  I had no idea how to eat properly, and enjoyed chips and candy frequently. By 7th grade, I had repeated stomach problems so severe that I was taken to a doctor who told me to not eat red meat or fried foods.  Ever.  My stomach issues cleared up.  I was able to mostly eliminate red meat and no longer ate fried foods.  My diet was not actually improved; I was only doing the minimum required to not be in pain.  The candies, sodas, and other foods continued.

When I was in middle school I became friends with a kid from a family that was vegan.  He also didn’t eat wheat, salt, or sugar.  Eating at his house felt like being in a different country, and my parents certainly didn’t know how to feed him at our house.  Things were always awkward between him and most other people.  A lot of ridicule was thrown his way, and behind his back he was referred to pejoratively as “veggie boy.”   I defended him, but in my mind the family’s vegan lifestyle was akin to a minority religion.  He was always thin and short, traits that were attributed to his diet.  Vegetarianism and veganism were seem as extreme in Oklahoma culture.  The official state meal, adopted in 1988, consists of fried okra, cornbread, barbecue pork, squash, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicked fried steak, pecan pie, and black-eyed peas.  While one could make a strong argument for at least part of this being designated “Oklahoma Historical State Meal,”  as a current meal it definitely marginalizes plant-based lifestyles.

vegiscarrots-graphicsfairy009 copyI started to form my own opinions on eating meat when I was in high school.  Veganism didn’t seem right, or healthy.  My friend seemed to be malnourished, so I made the assumptions everyone else had made.  Still, the idea of eating animals seemed increasingly in conflict with my love of animals.  Love of animals is a misunderstood term, and one that has been a part of who I am for most of my life.  I liked to read about animal behavior in encyclopedias, National Geographic magazines, and in my subscriptions to National and International Wildlife magazines.  I was hooked on natural history and plastered the walls of my bedroom with images from magazines of the animals I liked the most — cats, insects, giraffes, gorillas, dolphins, peacocks, dinosaurs, and many others.  I was starting to see them as fellow inhabitants of the same planet and that belief made it harder and harder to want to see parts of animals cooked up for me to consume.  I wasn’t making a full connection.  It’s easy to forget what the thin round brown disc on a burger actually is.  It’s almost designed to prevent knowing.  I would go back and forth on my willingness to eat animals for a few years.  I found it easier in college; the student union offered a veggie patty that I could have with my Josta soda and I could get a bean burrito or veggie sub for dinner.  Feeding myself allowed me to eschew the animal foods that were generally consumed by other family members.  I still wasn’t terribly strict with myself, allowing myself to enjoy the McDonald’s where my roommate worked.

I drifted away from these values after college.  I have always been an eager people pleaser, and when I started spending time with a group of new friends, I didn’t want to seem odd.  Enjoying the meats they cooked allowed me to fit in better.  I would still try to be mostly plant-based, but did not turn down animal meals either.  I still had issues with eating the animals, but I was more than willing to trade in my personal beliefs to make sure my friends were comfortable.  It’s the only way in which I feel Southern.