Category Archives: Thoughts

Cecil the Lion and Our Moral Isolation

Cecil the Lion
Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion. He’s everywhere on the Internet. I can’t bring myself to look at most of it. It’s something like what I felt in the years I was reading about the Holocaust. At some point, my reading threatened to overwhelm me, and I had to stop. I had to put a distance between myself and that story. I know it’s there. I know what happened. I just can’t come that close to it anymore and continue to live a productive life.

I first became vegetarian over 50 years ago. The reality of being the only vegetarian in my world through much of my life made it exceptionally difficult, and I went back and forth a number of times over the years. No more back and forth during the last twenty years.

There were many reasons for my vegetarianism, and I’ve written about some of them in my blog. The primary reason was that I felt it was moral cowardice and irresponsibility to purchase meat in plastic and styrofoam at the local grocery store. If I were going to eat meat, I should slaughter the animal myself, directly accepting responsibility for the life I was taking. That would never happen – because I don’t want to kill other creatures. Period. So why would I buy and eat the flesh of another creature just because the whole process happened out of sight?

My vegetarianism was based on a statement of Adelle Davis, that she eats only the products that animals give us without suffering. Turns out that in today’s world, there are not products animals give us without suffering. I started moving toward veganism a couple of years ago, and that is the basis of my comments about Cecil the Lion.

I’m finding this transition to veganism difficult, partly for health reasons, partly for social reasons and partly because I love cheese and eggs and am not a fan of substitute foods. I read a lot, and I experiment with cooking. I take every opportunity I can to make and share vegan foods with others so I can build a social network that still enjoys my food. I try to immerse myself in vegan culture online, because I know how acculturation works. For reasons I mentioned above, though, I keep some of the horrific pictures of animal suffering that some vegans post out of my view. I know it’s there. I don’t want to be overwhelmed.

One day when I was reading, I came to an ad about vegan boots. Vegan boots?! I read more as I thought about my new leather clogs, the first new shoes I’ve purchased in 10 years. I thought about the (two) leather belts in my closet.

But what I thought about most was that as thoughtful as I am about veganism, the whys, the wherefores, the hows of it, the fact that I wear leather shoes simply escaped my attention. I didn’t think about that.

Since then, I have thought a lot about that disconnect. It occurs to me that we all have a tendency to disconnect. The places where each of us disconnects are different, but it’s there. Sometimes it’s a conscious disconnect, as I did from the stories of Cecil. Most of the time it’s unconscious, like me believing whole-heartedly in the importance and necessity of veganism in today’s world yet wearing leather shoes.

I’ve debated what to do with those new shoes, the first in ten years. I considered giving them away and buying some vegan boots. There is a principle in my religion of not wasting the fruits of the earth. I decided that since I already have them, I will wear them for another ten years until they wear out. They will be a testament to my human imperfections and contradictions  and will keep me humble.

I continue to think about why I had that disconnect. I mentioned acculturation. I was born into and grew up in a world where the norm was to use animals for our purposes. It was sanctioned by religions, although if you read between the lines of the Bible, which is the religious literature I know best, you will see that even animal sacrifice is in part expiation for fellow creature-killing. Rabbinic commentaries suggest meat-eating was permitted after the flood as a channel for human violence. But the fact is, it is permitted, and it was a normal (and pretty much unexamined) part of every day life.

I was also born into a suburban world, a world where most of us, at least in this country, were no longer farmers and were no longer directly connected to the cycle of life and death that results from being closer to nature or living in rural, farming environments. We got our food from the local grocery store, already neatly packaged and separated from its source. Culturally we had no awareness of sources, not for food, not for clothing and not for much of anything else we used. Remember, I’m talking more than half a century ago.

And things changed so dramatically over the last half century. Grocery stores are huge compared to what they were. Fast food and cheap clothing is what we expect. And the source of those products has changed so dramatically. Factory farms have entered the landscape. Our numbers have increased, but so have our appetites. Everything became mechanized while we weren’t watching. And our separation from the issues of survival and the process of life and death is total, with devastating effects to our spiritual state and our emotional state.

It’s hard work to reconnect. It’s step-by-step work, work I feel I need to do — but I also don’t want to get overwhelmed by the suffering in the world, the suffering and pain we endure and the suffering and pain we inflict.

Maybe some moral isolation is a necessity to live productive lives. Incidents like killing Cecil the Lion remind us, though, that it’s a luxury we can’t afford. It’s not enough to condemn the action of a man who killed a beautiful creature for “sport.”

Concerned people have heard the stories and seen the pictures of what allegedly goes on at factory farms. I wrote a post titled “5 Reasons Vegans Shouldn’t Publish Disturbing Animal Pictures.” These pictures are just too disturbing, and I wonder what they accomplish.

Can we live in a world like this and not become morally immune? I did. I didn’t notice my shoes.

A friend of mine, Pauline Yearwood from Chicago Jewish News, shared this comment on FaceBook, and it seems appropriate:

From Gary L. Francione, The Abolitionist Approach to Animal Rights

If you are upset about the killing of Cecil the Lion and you are not a vegan, then you are suffering from moral schizophrenia. There is no difference between Cecil and all of the animals you eat who value their lives as much as the lion valued his.

I have been a moral schizophrenic in my life, and to an extent, I probably will always be one. But for my own spiritual health and for the health of the planet, I will work every day to be less of one.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Finding a Way Back: Giving Voice to the Quiet Story of Depression & Suicide

Run for Lisa King

Philip King's route on his Run for Lisa King.
Philip King’s route on his Run for Lisa King.

A friend asked me to “Like” a FaceBook page recently (Run for Lisa King), and when I arrived at the page, I found a story that I wanted to tell, a story about depression and suicide, a quiet story that affects so many so deeply and in such unquiet ways.

It is part of my story and the story of my family, and it is part of the story behind the page I liked and hope you will like. I admire Philip’s effort and am inspired by it. Please support his campaign. I will follow his story in this post with my own.

runforlisaking03

Philip King’s Story

Run for Lisa King
A personal campaign sponsored by Philip King
March 28, 2016 — October 5, 2016

On January 8th, 2014 I lost my mother, Lisa King, to suicide. A few months later I lost a great friend In a similar situation. Dealing with those losses has been difficult, and as usual, I turned to running to help get through the hard times.

A couple months ago, I decided that I wanted to find a way where running all those miles could help somebody other than myself.

Next year I plan to run across the country on the northern portion of the American Discovery Trail from Delaware to California to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention. The trail covers 4,803 miles, and my goal is to average about 180 miles a week. I will leave on March 28th, 2016 and hope to finish by October 5th.

Help us complete this journey by visiting my donor page. You can read more about us on FaceBook, www.facebook.com/runforlisaking.

Philip King running with his brother, Jeff King.
Philip King running with his brother, Jeff King.

My Story

Many years after the life experience I will share below, I thought that part of the difficulty was that I had no idea what was happening with me or what I could do about it and thought the way I felt might just be the way it would be for the rest of my life.

I wondered if I might have found help more quickly if depression and suicide hadn’t been such a “quiet” story. Yet 45 years later, it remains quiet. The media and public consciousness are filled with news about the things that can kill us and undermine our health. Not so much about depression and suicide.

I believe it’s important for people to share their stories. Despite my belief, I have shared my story with very few and would like to do that now.

In 1967, as a freshman in college, I struggled with my first depression, an event that occurred each year for the next five years until the birth of my first son in 1972. These experiences usually lasted at least four or five terrifying months, beginning just after Christmas and extending until summer. As anyone knows who has experienced an episode of severe depression, it can be very difficult to explain to others who haven’t “been there.”

I’m not short of possibilities for what the roots of these depressions may have been: S.A.D., hormones, genetic predisposition, extreme family instability, a beloved grandmother to whom I always looked for refuge and anchoring and who was in a long battle with cancer that she lost in 1969, the instability of changing relationships that are usually a normal part of the dating years, leaving home for a college far away (not the right thing for everyone), lack of a community network, lack of a faith community or community of any sort with common values and a sense of mission, poor diet, lack of appropriate and regular exercise, depressing music, pot, alcohol . . . and it was the sixties. It seemed as though the world was disintegrating.

The decisive moment of my depression came in 1970. I was out in a field on a night I had been in a car accident. I’m pretty sure the sky was filled with stars, but that’s not how I experienced it. I was overwhelmed with a physical sense of the blackness and emptiness of the universe and felt totally alone in it, although I wasn’t alone, even at that moment. I was absolutely certain I was going to die if I moved or left that place, although nothing in my physical condition suggested that was a possibility. That’s why I say it’s difficult to communicate to another person what you’re experiencing because it’s so out of synch with their reality.

That night I understood something. I understood that the ultimate question and answer are very simple. The ultimate question is “Do you choose life?” And the answer is either “yes,” or “no.” They got that many, many centuries ago: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that you may live . . . “ (Deut. 30:19)

I realized that I was on a self-destructive course, sliding toward suicide, and I decided that I needed to make my decision: I had to decide if my answer was yes or no, and if no, end it — and if yes, change course.

Perhaps it didn’t need to be that stark, an either-or equation. Perhaps a professional advising me would have said it’s good to recognize the question but postpone action because perceptions change. The professional wasn’t there, and that’s not what I felt to be true.

At that moment in my universe, I saw nothing that required either choice from me, that supported me or provided me with a reason that I could perceive or hold onto, to choose life. I’m not sure why I did. Perhaps I had a faith that I wasn’t able to recognize at that moment. Perhaps it was just an innate desire to live, whether or not I could see any reason for it. But the choice I made that evening was yes, and for the next three years, I struggled to find the kind of equilibrium that would allow me to live a constructive life, to overcome the yearly terror that this time, I might not make it.

Whatever the reason for my choice, I was fortunate. Others come to that moment and are not so fortunate. When you are unable, for whatever reason, to grasp and hold onto a reason for a “yes” decision, it is a profoundly dangerous moment. Not everyone makes it past that moment.

I admit, many of my decisions for years were driven by the fear of returning to that place. Eventually I did have help and support, but many of the most important steps I took away from depression and suicidal urges were steps I discovered and took on my own. That is the story I want to share here, what I learned on my own about finding emotional stability and living a constructive life. I think you will see why I find Philip King’s story so meaningful.

What I learned about depression

What I learned . . . is just what I learned, no more and no less. It’s how I came to understand the experience with depression I had so many years ago. What I want to say may correlate to some medical information only accidentally, and it’s not meant to be a guide for anyone else. In sharing experiences with each other, though, we may find commonality, and there may be some part of what I know for myself that is useful to others.

A couple of years ago, another family member experienced a depressive episode, ultimately diagnosed as a “panic attack.” The knowledge of what it feels like to be in that space never leaves you. That doesn’t mean, though, that what worked for you will work for another. Each person’s path is their own, and as painful and even frightening as it may be to see a loved one suffering, all you can do is be there. Perhaps you will have an opportunity to offer suggestions from your own experience that are useful, but in the moment of choice, the decision is theirs. If their answer is “yes,” the path back that they find is also uniquely theirs.

I didn’t even realize I was doing most of these things during the years they counted, now 45 years ago. It was later reflection that helped me understand how I had somehow managed to help myself.

12 things I did to banish depression

Today you would never imagine that I am the person I just described of forty years ago. I am happy, even joyful in my life. It is possible to get there, I can promise that.

  1. Get past that moment – somehow. If you don’t make it past that moment or moments, the rest of what follows isn’t worth much. It is possible to get to a different place, a place where you can experience joy and meaning. Take the word of others when you can’t provide it for yourself.
  2. Love isn’t always enough – have a backup. I knew my parents and others loved me. Everyone has their own life, though, and for me, there was a particular set of conditions that demanded the attention of people I loved and left me feeling as though the enormous emotions that were overwhelming me just didn’t matter. Even if people who love you do hear you and are able to let you know you matter, no other person can be present at every moment of your life, moments that may include that awesome moment of decision. I needed backup support but wasn’t sure what or where to get it.
  3. Do some simple homework on foods that contribute to mental and spiritual health, and be careful about what you eat and drink. We learn more about nutrition every day. Eating the right foods and drinking the right beverages can make a difference. I didn’t have that information in those early years. At a later time when I wanted to get off antidepressants that I took for two years, I pumped up my nutritional awareness and exercised caution and was able to discontinue the meds with no difficulty.
  4. Exercise every day, preferably outdoors. Now we know that exercise increases the production of serotonin, associated with well-being. Then I just knew I felt better when I took a walk or went running or biking along the lake.
  5. When you’re outdoors each day, no matter for how short a time, look up. I heard Deepak Chopra say this once. It works. It works especially well for me to lie on my back in the grass and watch clouds drift by overhead.
  6. Be engaged in your own survival and the natural cycle of death and rebirth. Most of us have little involvement in our own survival and are far away from natural processes. We don’t grow or prepare our own food or drinks, and most of us are so disconnected from their sources that kids can’t recognize common raw food items and know where they come from. We are sheltered and alienated from the process of life and death, including our own. I don’t mean to suggest that you go on a wild boar hunt. I found it meaningful to have an organic garden or forage for food, dig in the dirt, have a compost heap, and to make my own yogurt and cheese and bread and pickles. Cooking real food with the products of the earth satisfies me deeply, and probably one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is a way I can be involved in my own and my family’s survival.
  7. Use structure as a tool. It can substitute temporarily for meaning and helps build it. I stumbled on the value of structure. The year I was in the accident and found myself in that field, I had dropped out of school. I was always a top-level student, but in my sophomore year of college, I was simply unable to concentrate, and my grades started dropping precipitously. Although I may have done the right thing for my grades and for financial practicality, I did exactly the wrong thing for my emotional stability in dropping out of school and leaving town. I had no structure in my life. When I returned to town, I joined the YMCA and started swimming a couple of miles early each morning. The exercise provided benefit, but more than the exercise, going out to the pool structured my day and provided more benefit. As I came to understand that, I added more structure to my day. Later, in the course of my academic career, as I studied religious literature, I saw that the structure of a text contributed as much as the actual content to meaning. Initially I didn’t perceive meaning, but the elements of structure in my life helped calm my soul. Eventually those same structures allowed me to see and experience meaning again.
  8. Be part of a meaningful community, even several communities: family, work, faith, groups whose values you share. Community. Others have said it. It’s not new information. I had never gotten very involved in school or community activities. Since we moved a lot when I was growing up, I never integrated deeply into any community and hadn’t developed the skills to maneuver through communities, to enter them and exit them. Although I was involved in sports, it was an individual endeavor for me. I wasn’t part of a team and didn’t make friends through that avenue. I simply didn’t have a community network that could sustain me or give me a sense of balance and belonging when family failed.
  9. Maintain a spiritual practice. Choose a practice that points in a positive direction. Mine is Judaism. I like it because it provides a structured guide to living, a guide based on the deeply hopeful and optimistic premise that we can make the world better. In practicing according to that guide, I came to see things differently. Sitting around waiting for it to happen just didn’t work for me.
  10. Reach out to help others in some way. “Tzedakah saves from death.” (Prov. 10:2 and quoted in the Talmud). Tzedakah means righteousness, giving to others. I have always understood this verse to mean that when we reach out to help others, when we connect with them in their need, we affirm life and our common humanity. We participate in something greater than ourselves. I don’t know what the psychological or body chemistry explanation might be for why this works to elevate mood and generate a sense of well-being, but it worked for me. I wonder if this is why biblical law requires each person, no matter how poor, to contribute. I believe it expresses an intuitive understanding that reaching out to others is life-saving for all of us, no matter how much or how little we have.
  11. Find meaningful work. As I got involved in work that felt meaningful to me, my equilibrium improved. Now, at an age when many of my friends are beginning to retire, I can’t imagine not working. I don’t need to make more money than what’s required to pay basic bills, and if I didn’t need to pay basic bills, the money wouldn’t be the relevant part of work. It’s just a matter of using what I have to offer in constructive, world-building ways, even if it’s a drop of water in a vast ocean. It all counts. Like giving, work is life-saving for all of us, no matter how much or how little we are able to do.
  12. Set goals you can work toward. It’s probably also a good idea to set goals you can hope to achieve, and when you do achieve them, set more goals. The point is to keep a forward-looking worldview and feel that you are a necessary part of tomorrow. You are.

Why I like Philip King’s Run for Lisa King

runforlisaking08

As you read what helped me work my way out of depression, I think you can understand why I admire Phil King’s effort so much.

Phil’s lengthy run is a goal he set for himself, and it has a positive, world-building purpose that is greater than himself. He created a structure for his life and his project that will carry him through the better part of a year. In first creating, then living with that structure, he will have an opportunity to rebuild his own worldview after devastating loss. His run will work in some ways like a spiritual practice.

I believe Phil has found a creative, meaningful, life-affirming way to respond to the tragedy of suicide and to share his story with many others, who may also find meaning in the path he has found.

I hope you will support Phil King’s Run for Lisa King project and help him give a face and a voice to the quiet devastation of depression and suicide.

runforlisaking02

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Ways to Think About Food: Conscious Choices

image

Next spring, 2016, I will teach a class in the Retired Adult Program (RAP) at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Illinois. I’m working out a course outline and would like to share it with you, my followers, and invite your comments.

Eventually I hope to prepare videos to accompany sessions and perhaps combine theory with a little cooking practice. I envision the six sessions working together but would also like each session to stand more or less on its own:

WAYS TO THINK ABOUT FOOD: CONSCIOUS CHOICES

This six-session class will view food choices through different prisms. In the course of these six sessions, we will:

  • discover how conscious and unconscious choices about food express worldview and values,
  • learn to make conscious choices about foods we eat (and don’t eat),
  • learn to create a stronger connection between what we eat and what we value,
  • find out how to derive more satisfaction from the food we eat,
  • see how this process can influence every aspect of how we live our lives, and
  • learn how this process can contribute to greater health and fulfillment.

Sessions:

  1. Eat to Live (Survival)
  2. Meals in the Bible
  3. Food Rituals (Kashrut, Tea Ceremonies, Begging Bowls, Sacrifice)
  4. Ethics of Eating Pt. I (Vegetarian and Vegan)
  5. Ethics of Eating Pt. II (Sustainability and Fair Food)
  6. Food That Does Not Satisfy (Special and Fad Diets)

I’d like to hear from you! Please share your thoughts and ideas or any resources you think would contribute to this series.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

Bring more meaning to your life with ritual

One version of Sunday breakfast at our house. All versions include Israeli or Jerusalem Salad.

Rituals and Habits: 5 Ways They’re Different

Recently I had a reason to contemplate the difference between ritual and habit. Actually, I suspect the assignment intended that I would understand the words synonymously, because that’s how many of us view them. I believe these practices are very different, though, and one of them is life-enhancing while the other diminishes our lives.

  • Rituals define a system. Habits are isolated practices and may even be out of synch with a system.
  • Rituals are purposeful and are performed with intention. Habits have no purpose other than to make certain an action happens without thought. They may have been intentional on the first performance, but the goal of a habit is that it become thoughtless, intentionless and well, just a habit.
  • Rituals communicate. Habits communicate nothing since they are thoughtless and intention-less beyond the intention that they happen without thought.
  • Rituals are an aid to focus. Habits are an indication of lack of focus or are at least not focused on the habitual action.
  • Rituals create meaning. Habits have no meaning.

Food Rituals and Habits

Since I like to write about food, I thought I might explain these differences between ritual and habit through the prism of food.

1) Rituals define a system, and habits are isolated practices. More than the words of liturgies, which are debated and interpreted, rituals define the boundaries of a religious system, the relative value of the parts within those  boundaries and how people are required to behave within that world.  Often those definitions include what one can and cannot eat.

Something that a person habitually eats may or may not express a worldview. Initially perhaps a choice was made about an entire diet, and that diet expressed a worldview, for example that good health is important. If that initial choice becomes a habit, though, it no longer expresses anything. Not only is that habit carried out without thought, it is carried out in isolation and not as part of a systematic worldview. If information changes about what constitutes good health, a habit will continue even if it contradicts the new information.

2) Rituals are purposeful and are performed with intention. Habits have no purpose other than to make certain an action happens without thought.

I can always tell when one of my own actions is a ritual and when it is a thought. I require meaning in my life, and it is hard for me to motivate myself to do all the things involved in living a life if I have no sense of meaning. When I experience a sense of meaning, I feel joyful and energetic. When I don’t experience that sense, I feel tired and unmotivated.

Of course we all need a habit here and there, especially in a world that requires multi-tasking. We can’t give all our energy to every little thing and need to do some things on automatic. It’s all about balance, though, and when my life becomes too automatic, too filled with habit, I am likely to become depressed. Conversely, when I make a conscious choice to do something familiar that has a particular meaning in my universe, I feel purposeful, satisfied and even joyful.

I put together a breakfast bowl for myself each morning. I looked up each item in my bowl to make certain it fulfills a particular purpose for my health and my ethical consciousness. Then I evolved a series of steps which remain the same each day so that I can put my bowl together fairly quickly and easily. It may look like a habit, but it isn’t. It is definitely a ritual. I am aware of the purpose of each item in my bowl, and each ritual step I take to fill my bowl generates a sense of happiness, comfort, meaning and satisfaction — a satisfaction that is every bit as important as the mere physical satisfaction of eating what’s in the bowl.

3) Rituals communicate. Habits communicate nothing since they are thoughtless and intention-less beyond the intention that they happen without thought.

The best way I know to say, “I love you” to someone I care about is to prepare and serve them a delicious and beautiful meal that I know represents good health as we know it today. If it also represents a set of ethical values that I know I share with that person, it deepens our relationship.  Although I’m a long-time vegetarian, becoming vegan, those values don’t necessarily have to be vegetarianism or veganism. It can be values like kindness to all creatures or sharing our resources,  talents and abilities.

Similarly, religious rituals communicate a worldview.  There are reasons that certain foods are prized and others are taboo or forbidden. Food laws and rituals are a theology and an anthropology, stated without words.

4) Rituals are an aid to focus. Habits are an indication of lack of focus or are at least not focused on the habitual action.

Again, it’s easy to tell the difference between a ritual or a habitual action. As I’ve mentioned before, my knife skills are unfortunate, odd as that may be for a former restaurant owner and cook to say. I have sliced my fingers on many occasions. It’s easy to predict when I will cut my fingers.

I make a salad every day called an Israeli or Jerusalem salad. It involves quite a bit of cutting since each vegetable is petitely diced. I’m told that’s called brunoise. If I follow a little ritual I created before I start to cut, my fingers remain intact. The ritual is to (calmly and with attention) clean my counter, put down a clean cutting board, get out my knife, sharpen it, and work my way through each of the veggies, tomatoes first, then cucumbers, then red bell peppers, then red onion, then cilantro. I add each to my large bowl as I finish it. When I’m finished, I mix the salad and clean up.

If I just grab my knife and cutting board and start cutting away at my veggies in a rush with 10 other things happening around me that also require attention, I will cut my fingers.

5) Rituals create meaning. Habits have no meaning.

One of the most spiritually awesome moments I ever had was about twenty years ago when I went camping over a Sabbath. In traditional Judaism, no cooking is allowed on the Sabbath. When I went camping every weekend along the Mississippi, I left early enough on Friday that I could set up camp, make my fire and prepare my Sabbath meals before sunset.

Of course there are Jewish rituals involved in the meal, but I had rituals of my own that I added, most of them involved in the food preparation. By the time I sat down to my vegetarian Sabbath feast on a Friday evening out in the woods, I felt like I was in harmony with the natural world around me and that I could fully enjoy a beautiful meal that harmed no creature. The results of my ritual preparations spoke to me of a meaningful, loving universe, even if it was just my reality, one I created, for a space in time.

I would have missed those oportunities for awesome moments if I had been in an automatic, mindless mode, performing habitual tasks.

Another version of Sunday breakfast, also including Israeli or Jerusalem Salad.
Another version of Sunday breakfast, also including Israeli or Jerusalem Salad.

How can I make my life more meaning-filled?

Can habits be elevated to rituals? Can rituals become routinized into habit? Yes, both can happen!

Take a look at the things you repeat in your daily life. If a habit no longer fills it purpose, to allow  you to do something that is important for you to do without investing a great deal of thoughtful energy in remembering and completing the task, get rid of the habit.

Or you could convert the task to a ritual, a series of steps that involve thought and intention and that express something meaningful.

Kids thrive on meaningful rituals. My own sons used to love to get out special holiday dishes for a meal with family and friends each year. When my grandson was born, I said, “We need a ritual” and suggested Sunday breakfast.  It was a statement that would have sounded odd to anyone who didn’t know me, but my grandson’s parents accommodated me, and 11 years later, we still get together every single Sunday for a meal that we all share in cooking. The meal has evolved over the years but remains essentially the same as when we started. It is meaningful to each of us in different ways at different times — but it is meaningful to each of us including my grandson.

Fill your life with meaningful rituals.

Yummm...good to the last drop and a ritual meal we all love!
Yummm…good to the last drop and a ritual meal we all love!

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

From JewishVeg – a powerful video

I have been vegetarian for many years. A video of a presentation in a Philadelphia synagogue moved me to take the next step and explore a completely plant-based diet more seriously, that is, veganism. The video is from Jewish Vegetarians of North America and features Alex Hershaft, Holocaust survivor, speaking movingly about animal rights and veganism. This is the video:

3D Printed Meat?

3D Printed Meat???
3D Printed Meat???

I picked up an announcement about 3D printed meat today. Hmmm…interesting. As a longtime vegetarian, now moving toward vegan, I’m still not sure how I feel about this.

It does sound like it has more possibilities than the type of lab-grown meat I wrote about two years ago.

Certainly the potential impact on reducing inhumane treatment of animals and on reducing environmental stress makes it a project worth pursuing.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

5 Reasons Vegans Shouldn’t Publish Disturbing Animal Pictures

noahs_ark

Last week I got into a FaceBook discussion with someone who posted a picture that was disturbing to me, a pregnant cow whose throat was being cut.

I never, ever look at these pictures and have several times unfriended and unfollowed those who post them. That’s too bad because PETA and others have good and important information to share.

Because I want to follow certain people and organizations for the good information they share, I usually friend or follow them again at some point in the vain hope they have amended their ways. Inevitably I end up unfriending and unfollowing again, and the cycle repeats itself. Unfortunately it’s usually after yet another disturbing image has forced itself into my line of vision.

Surely someone somewhere thinks these photos are effective? A particular action-response is expected when they post? Kind of like attack political ads which I also won’t listen to or watch? I have to question that possibility, though.

Here are five reasons I think these disturbing images should not be posted:

  • Who is supposed to be influenced with these images? Non-vegans?  “I think I’m going to find those who put out pictures of animal suffering that will make me weep and gnash my teeth and friend them or follow them.” Said no non-vegan. Ever.
  • Is it vegans we hope to influence? What would be the point of that? Anyway, vegans mostly friend and follow other vegans and vegetarians, people who share their philosophy and have ideas to share with them. Vegans want those ideas. What will disturbing images accomplish with them?
  • Anger and violence generate anger and violence. If you’re not completely desensitized to animal suffering, seeing the violence and insensitivity projected in many of these pictures will generate more of the same. And if you are completely desensitized…as I said, what’s the point?
  • Images out of context may say something different than intended. That video of the pregnant cow being slaughtered? Turns out it was a “mercy killing” performed to save the calves and spare the mother needless suffering. It was done in the kosher manner, an ethical system based on minimizing animal suffering. Aversion to blood doesn’t equate to ethical consciousness — and being willing to kill an animal in certain circumstances and in certain ways doesn’t equate to lack of it. If the whole world isn’t going to become vegan today, would we not rather regulate meat production in a framework of ethical considerations? Temple Grandin thought so.
  • Responsible news agencies decline to post videos of human hostages being beheaded. Maybe there’s a reason? Maybe there are many reasons?

In recent months, I have experimented with vegan cooking and am on the path toward vegan living. To the extent that the reality of factory farming moved me in this direction, facts communicated with words and references were sufficient.

I believe that what moves people to improve the world is not generally horrifying images thrown in their faces but rather the possibility of experiencing and sharing joy and fulfillment.

I look for people and organizations to follow and friend who inspire me. I look for those who can provide me with good information on which to base my decisions about how I want to live. Finally, I look for those who are willing to share with me what they know about the practicalities of living in the way I choose.

It amazes me how many good and inspiring people there are in the world to friend and follow! How many people are working to alleviate suffering and improve lives — all lives — in practical ways. Someday those people will be the world’s biggest and most effective army.

For more, visit my blog, vegetatingwithleslie.org, “Like” me on FaceBook/Vegetating with Leslie or follow me on Twitter, @vegwithleslie.

The FoodShed: Cooperative Transformation

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Published 4/2/2015 in The FOODshed Coop blog.

I admit I am something of a skeptic about the possibility of experiencing sudden (and lasting) transformation. That’s not to say I don’t believe in the possibility that we can be transformed.  I experience that and see it around me every day. These lasting transformations happen over time, though, through small steps.

In my experience, transformation in a person happens when, by choice or by accident, they are surrounded with a different reality. In the context of that different reality, a series of moment-by-moment experiences can reshape a person, transform them. When people are transformed through experiences in a different environment, their relationships are also transformed.

It works the other way around too. In a different structure, people relate to each other differently. When relationships are different, the people in them change as well. It is a reciprocal and dynamic arrangement: transforming individuals impact relationships, and transforming relationships impact individual experience.

An example of a path to transformation is in the idea of the Sabbath. Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel calls the Sabbath “a palace in time.” Specific activities are directed toward setting aside a regular space in the long continuum of time, a “palace.” Within that palace, certain actions serve to create an ideal world, a reality that is different from the every day reality that surrounds us.

A second century rabbi says that if two Jews observe the Sabbath in all its details twice in a row, the Messiah will come. Just two people can transform the world! How?

If two people participate with whole hearts in a reality that is different from the one in which they live every day, each individual will have taken a large step in the journey toward transformation. Their relationship will begin its own journey toward being transformed and transforming. Who knows where that might lead as others see and are inspired by this process?

I have now seen Food for Change three times and recommend it enthusiastically to anyone who hasn’t seen it. One of the things that struck me as I watched it were the transformative possibilities in the cooperative movement.

A cooperative, like the Sabbath, is a structure that is different from the one in which we live every day. In the framework of that structure, people have the possibility for transformation as do their relationships. As people see and experience how this works, more will be drawn into the “palace,” allowing themselves to be shaped and to develop a different understanding of how they can relate to their world.

Something I learned from Food for Change was how the cooperative movement began to alleviate the effects of the depression. The cooperative movement was composed of many cooperatives, a different philosophical, social and economic structure than what existed at the time in the United States.

The path out of the depression via the cooperative movement was slow but steady. Sadly, we will never know the end of that story of possibility because its progress was interrupted by a world war that catapulted the United States out of the depression.  The war was a sudden change that produced welcome results for many in the economy and led the way to a period of unparalleled prosperity. The early cooperative movement declined.

Remember what I said about being skeptical of sudden transformations and the possibility of them lasting?

Despite all the supposed safeguards that were put in place after the Great Depression and despite all the claims that it could never happen again, it pretty much did happen again in our time. We scramble around looking for another quick fix. Is that what we really need?

Rich and poor are further apart than ever in our current structure. Neighbors often don’t even know their neighbors much less help them or work with them toward their mutual benefit. Our food supply has been corrupted and poisoned, and the poor, as always, suffer from the effects of a broken system more than the wealthy. Some say our democracy no longer exists.  Will a quick fix help this situation, or do we need to look more deeply at the structure of how we live and conduct our relationships?

So I wonder: what might have happened had the cooperative movement of the early 1900s continued its slow, step by step growth? If the cooperative movement, with its different philosophy and different social and economic structure, had continued to play its role in slowly bringing the country out of economic depression? Where would we be today? What would we look like?

In Woodstock, we are fortunate. It seems the time is right to try out another cooperative vision. In the course of building our cooperative, we will have an opportunity to create a structure that is different from the one in which most of us live now. Building this cooperative unit gives us an opportunity to transform ourselves and our relationships. We will be able to create a structure that provides opportunities for relationships among those at each juncture of the food chain to begin a process of transformation.

The FoodShed cooperative we are building might be just a small corner of our world right now, but our success will lead to other efforts.

Two people whole-heartedly creating a world. That’s all that is required for transformation to begin! We already have so many more than two people working hard to build our new reality.

If you’re not already active in this wonderful effort, isn’t it time for you to join us as slowly, step by step, we create the lasting structure of a better future?

What’s the Beef?

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The following is part of an article that appeared in a local publication a couple of years ago:

In early August 2013, scientists held a taste-testing for burgers made from laboratory grown meat. This report came out just about a year and a half after the “pink slime” report of March 2012.

For anyone who missed that story, pink slime is filler that was found to be present in 70 percent of the ground beef sold in supermarkets and at the time constituted about 25 percent of every hamburger.  It is gelatinous material made from the most contaminated parts of the cow formerly used only for dog food and cooking oil.  To make it USDA approved “safe” for human consumption, trimmings are simmered at a low temperature, fat separated from tissue by centrifuge and the result sprayed with ammonia gases to kill germs.  Safe and delicious.  Really?

Now we have burgers created by extracting stem cells from the muscle tissue of a dead cow, nourishing them in a chemical broth and engineering them to produce something like muscle tissue. Strands of tissue are compacted into pellets and frozen, then defrosted for cooking.  The artificial meat starts out white, so dyes are added to make it look more like the real thing.  And there we have it . . . tissue created in a laboratory from a dead cow’s stem cells bathed in chemicals and dyed to the appropriate color.  Safe and potentially delicious when they get the chemicals right.  Really?

The arguments in favor of this “magic meat” are that it requires killing fewer animals, is more sustainable and vastly more environmentally friendly.  I get it.  But there are other paths to the same goal.  For me, at least, those paths are healthier, tastier and more spiritually satisfying.

Speaking of “magic meat,” I was curious if the concoction would be considered kosher.  The Jewish dietary laws are centered primarily around meat, fish, poultry . . . and insects, in other words, living creatures.  I understand this body of laws as an expression of reverence for life.

I did a little research and found that while there is as yet no definitive ruling on this question, there is an interesting Talmudic discussion about the status of “magic meat,” meat that descends from heaven or is miraculously created by human beings.  The argument was presented (in the 16th century!) that this meat could be eaten without kosher slaughtering.  The meat could even be eaten live, limb from limb — otherwise forbidden — since normal laws do not apply to it.

Biblical and Jewish dietary regulations express deep and important values about living creatures, the line between life and death and our place as human beings.  The discussion of “magic meat” along with the rest of the discussion about the status of this manufactured meat expresses those same values and lays bare the complexity of ethical dilemmas involved in meat eating.

I’m often asked why I’m vegetarian.  The assumption is that it is for reasons of health.  It isn’t.  It also isn’t environmentally driven.  Although I disagree with the agri-business model for meat production current in our country and believe it is dangerous for our eco-system, our health and our spiritual balance, I can see there is a way to include meat in one’s diet that is healthy for ourselves and the planet.  For those who do eat meat . . . as Michael Pollan says, pay more and eat less.  There are options other than meat from factory farmed animals.

My own vegetarianism is driven by my spiritual values.  In that context, pink slime and “magic meat” are no more an option for me than supermarket plastic wrapped packages.  Meat from grass fed animals is also not an option for me.  I never eat or make meat “substitutes.”  I make good food from plants, which offer a world of delicious and spiritually satisfying options.

Here’s one: Falafel.  When eaten in the traditional way with Tahina, Falafel are a complete protein package.  Along with protein, this combo packs essential fatty acids and high fiber.  Falafel were not created to substitute for anything and in their long history were never anything but Falafel.  The beans are not cooked, just soaked, so they retain a wonderfully crunchy texture.  They can be loaded with lots of green stuff and seasoned with some of my favorite seasonings.  Occasionally frying foods in good oils at the correct temperature is, in my opinion, much less likely to damage to your health than “magic meat” or pink slime.  Certainly it will do less damage to your soul.

Keeping kosher

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As I have begun to explore a vegan pathway, I am once again thinking about the laws of kashrut. How does this practice relate to my life as a vegetarian and my journey toward a vegan lifestyle?

The Torah tells us the purpose of the dietary and other regulations put forward in it: to shape a “holy people.” What does that mean? I believe it means that following the laws given in the Torah, including the dietary laws, will teach those who follow them to stand in a particular relationship to G-d and creation.

What is that relationship? One view is that of Martin Buber, who describes two ways of relating to our fellow creatures and even G-d: “I-It” and “I-Thou”. In an “I-It” relationship, we view the “other” in a utilitarian mode. How can we use this creature to our benefit? Other creatures and even G-d are minimized to suit our utilitarian purposes.

Conversely, in an “I-Thou” relationship, we recognize and respect the uniqueness of the other and approach them in all their (and with all our) fullness. It is not a utilitarian relationship. It is not necessarily a safe relationship. It is a relationship based on freedom.

We may move in and out of these modes of relating and may relate to a particular person, for example, in an “I-Thou” mode at one point in time and in an “I-It” mode at another point in time.

One might be tempted to make a quick value judgment, viewing an “I-It” relationship as negative and an “I-Thou” relationship as positive. On that basis, we would assume the Torah requires us to maintain an “I-Thou” relationship to the world. I think this assumption would not be correct. The Jewish dietary laws provide us an opportunity to see how the Torah and Jewish ritual offer a more nuanced approach, an approach that maintains a tension between these two modes of being in the world.

Much has been written and spoken about the details of kashrut, the dietary regulations, in an attempt to understand their meaning. One thing stands out to me above all the details: these regulations center around the possibility of killing and eating other living creatures. Were that not a possibility, there would be no need for these laws since all plant foods are kosher. It is the burden of taking life that calls these laws into effect.

Like a blessing or prayer said with full intentionality before or after a meal, the dietary regulations serve to focus our attention on the gravity of what we are doing in eating a creature that once lived. These laws provide us with an opportunity to eat and be satisfied but to do it in a state of full awareness. Observing kashrut places us in a certain relationship to creation and to G-d.

There is some ambivalence in the Torah as I believe there is in most cultures about killing and eating living creatures. The first human beings, living in “the Garden,” were herbivores. Meat eating was a concession and only allowed after the flood. Killing and eating another creature once it was permitted was surrounded by ritual activity. This ritual activity served to heighten awareness of the fact that we are taking life to sustain life.

Similarly, in hunter-gatherer societies the hunt is surrounded with rituals that heighten awareness of the action in which one is engaging. These rituals guide the hunter to approach the hunt with a fullness of presence and encounter the fullness of the Other, the hunted. The outcome is never certain.

There are and have been other ways of dealing with what Michael Pollan calls the dilemma of being omnivores. Certainly one way, perhaps the most direct, is total abstention. This is the vegetarian and even more so, vegan path. At the opposite extreme is complete indifference to or alienation from the processes of life and death, a kind of thoughtless or thought-free consumption. This state of indifference or alienation is too easy to slip into today, as separated as we are from the sources of our food. We can eat and drink without much thought about the ethical dilemmas that would confront us if we were more directly engaged in our own survival.

Between these two extremes are the many symbolic structures of religions and philosophies that can guide us through the “omnivore’s dilemma”.

When I originally became vegetarian more than forty years ago, a primary motivation was that it simply felt wrong to buy the flesh of a creature neatly packaged in styrofoam and plastic at my local grocery store.  There was no direct connection to the fact that I was involved in taking the life of a creature. There was no connection to the process of life and death and survival and my place or role in that cycle. I could understand there might be an argument for eating the flesh of animals if one were prepared to hunt and kill the animal oneself. I couldn’t justify purchasing it in a styrofoam tray and having no personal connection to the life that had been.

There were other thoughts behind my vegetarianism at the time. I was inspired by the social consciousness of Frances Moore Lappe, presented in Diet for a Small Planet. I was inspired by the words of Adelle Davis, that she would “eat only the products that animals give us painlessly.”

Whether it was true at the time, that there were products animals give us painlessly, I’m not certain. I know it is not true now. The way our modern factory farms and industrial food processing operate currently means the products of it will cause ethical problems for many aware people — even when ethical consciousness allows eating meat and other animal products.

Which brings me to veganism. Personally I love eggs and cheese. Although I never gave up eggs when the doctors said we should, I was delighted they are once again on the “ok” list healthwise. I subscribe to the Sally Fallon school of thought on food, put forward so well in Nourishing Traditions and at westonaprice.org. I have often wished I lived in an environment where I could have my own milk cow and chickens, make my own cream and butter and more. I don’t live in that environment, though, and as I learn more, using these products of agri-business is becoming increasingly problematic for me.  It is even more problematic because I know this kind of food is not required for my good health.

What I have been forced to become aware of is that anything I use that is part of this system involves me in a world with a morality that is not what I consciously choose for myself. How so? There is a rabbinic statement: “It’s not the mouse that’s the thief; it’s the hole.” To the extent that I purchase and eat products that are produced through means that are unacceptable in my moral universe, I am more responsible for the existence of that system than the producers of those products.

I have learned that much of what I eat, I can enjoy only because its production is hidden from my view. Our current system is a vast mechanized empire operating under the surface and out of sight. The system engages in practices that if they were happening before my eyes would make me cry out in shock and horror.

Perhaps even more disturbing than the practices that are too often at the foundation of bringing animal products to us is the anonymity of the system. We are completely separated from this world and can remain unaware of what is happening if we wish. By the time any animal product arrives to us, kosher or not, it has been completely separated from its source in life and completely sanitized of the death involved in its production. Our beef and our cheese and our eggs have no relationship to their source.

This is a moral scenario that has particularly painful echoes for Jews, as I was reminded recently when I watched a powerful video presentation by a Holocaust survivor: http://www.jewishveg.org/ (scroll down to the video presentation of Alex Hershaft).

Sadly the kosher industry is also built on the back of agri-business which includes practices contrary to Jewish law. These practices affect the animal long before arrival at the moment of kosher slaughter. Even in the absence of deliberate physical abuse, I cannot imagine that the Torah and later Jewish values envisioned or would accept the massive destruction of life and indifference to the process that is endemic to the production of animal products today.

Others have detailed the ways in which eating meat and chicken, even kosher products, from today’s factory farm system transgress many commandments and are completely at odds with the worldview of the Torah: http://www.jewishveg.com/course.html (see in particular the sections on “Judaism and Animal Rights” and “Judaism, Vegetarianism and Ecology”).  Kosher meat, too, is sold in styrofoam and plastic packages. Cows — and chickens — “produced” in huge numbers for a utilitarian purpose live out their short lives in unnatural situations even when they are destined for kosher slaughtering.

The fundamental problem with the modern meat and animal product industry from my perspective is that the tension between an “I-It” mode and an “I-Thou” mode has been dissolved. We are not moving consciously back and forth between the two modes, guided by principles of Torah. By participating in this system, whether we consume kosher products or not, we are perpetually in an “I-It” mode in relation to the world. The world and the creatures that inhabit it are here for for one purpose, and that is for us to use in order to gain benefit from them for ourselves. Worse, we can do that without carrying any ethical burden in relation to that activity, even if it involves practices that are not in accord with the principles of the Torah. Those practices are conveniently hidden from us.

Nowadays more and more people are becoming interested in sourcing and localism — personally knowing the sources of food, knowing how that food was managed through its life. If we are so concerned that our fruits and vegetables are handled properly, that they are “sustainable” and free of substances we think are bad for our health, shouldn’t we be even more concerned with looking into the handling of creatures that produce meat, eggs and cheese? Shouldn’t we want to be certain they are not part of a system that is so devastating to our moral health?

For someone who does eat animal products in a kosher framework, tho, backward vision can stop at the meat counter of the kosher market. The product has a heksher so is ok — but where did it come from? We are always shocked when we discover that a kosher facility is engaging in practices contrary to Jewish principles — but what about before the animal arrives at the facility? What were the practices associated with life and death that brought it to this place? Was there any reverence exhibited for the life of this creature? Respect for its creaturehood?

Certainly we live in a world where we cannot do everything ourselves. Most of us cannot have our own cows and chickens, and none of us can have cows and chickens that are not the result of a massive utilitarian system. It is hard to imagine sourcing human productions without finding utilitarianism, suffering and even abuse at some point along the way. It is even harder when we consider the veil of modern marketing and labeling practices that put yet another unreliable layer between us and the sources of our food. In order to eat anything, we probably have to draw a line for our backward vision, for how deeply into sourcing we want to go. For each of us, the place where that line is drawn will be different.

As I have often said when I teach, one’s food choices depend on how much of an ethical burden one is prepared to carry. For me, keeping kosher on the back of a food production industry that operates in ways completely contrary to what I understand as the intention of the Jewish dietary laws does not solve the ethical problems involved in taking life to sustain life. Increasingly I am aware that being vegetarian is also not a resolution or even a pathway through the dilemma. I continue to experiment more with vegan foods.

I don’t yet know exactly where my line is. What I do know is that the one required task for each of us is to become aware and to make thoughtful, informed, aware choices for how we will live, specifically what and how we will eat.

Keeping kosher continues to be an important part of that process for me. With pausing as I shop to be certain that everything I purchase fulfills certain requirements, with thinking about what is in my kitchen and how it is used, with considering the counters I work on, the utensils I use and the pots and pans and dishes that are part of my environment, with a blessing before food and an extended blessing after food, I am provided with ample opportunities to think about what and how I eat and to consider my place in creation.