Feeding the Wolves and the Paradigm of Sacred Nature

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Wolves in Norway

Jack, if you bite your bother in the face one more time, you’re grounded.

For some people, dreams are a bizarre re-hashing of ideas from the previous day; for others, they can be worlds unto themselves. I tend towards the latter camp, and get a great deal of ideas and inspiration from dreams, or insight into a problem I’ve been thinking about. This will be one of the weirder posts I’ve written, but bear with me — it gets to an important point, I promise.

Last night I dreamed I was a mom; I was myself in the future, with two teenage sons. But there was something a little different about my children: they were part wolf! Not werewolves, per se, but certainly wolf people. (Now, where this came from, I couldn’t tell you.) They were attractive people, and kind, albeit with yellow eyes, pointed ears, and sharp teeth. The real kicker, though, was that they needed to eat meat (along with other things) in order to be healthy. And I, their vegan mother, sometimes had to buy and prepare it for them!

Well now. Cue loads of mixed feelings.

In the dream, I felt overwhelming love for my sons, and the thought of them being without something they needed was painful. And so I saw myself buying venison and bison for them, and sitting down and having serious conversations about the ethics of our food.

You need to eat some of this in order to be well, I told them. You deserve to be well and to thrive, so you shouldn’t feel guilty or ashamed. But be mindful. Don’t take more than you need. Never be wasteful or wanton with this. This comes from a fellow being.

And this was the crux of our conversations: you need to take care of yourself, but you also have to take care of what takes care of you. (Incidentally, the dream ended with an image of one of the boys cooking dinner for us: a big pot of seitan and kale, with a little dish of jerky off to the side for the two of them.)

When I woke up, I had bittersweet feelings about this picture of life with my wolf-children. In the real world, my kids wouldn’t need to eat animals…or would they? We have mixed evidence regarding vegan diets: plenty of robustly healthy vegans, but still quite a few unhealthy ones, and we don’t fully know why. We’re still feeling out exactly how to exercise our rights to life and health while doing the least harm. It’s a continual search. Eventually, we’ll find that threshold of necessity where we can thrive with the least suffering for all.

The real juicy issue that this dream brought to light is the idea of unquestionable necessity. Animal flesh was absolutely necessary to my children’s health, and so I had to find the least destructive ways to obtain it for them.

I’ve found myself wondering why it is that hunting for sport is deeply troubling to me, but I feel little conflict about indigenous people hunting for survival. In my view, there’s only one condition under which violence can ever be acceptable, and that is pure survival: a last resort, self-defense, self-preservation. It’s the cases where harm is done in order to avoid even greater harm. It’s still harm, for certain (something can be acceptable without necessarily being good), but there’s an issue of urgency and necessity that places it in a very different camp than the sprawling, gratuitous, hell-on-earth violence that occurs in our slaughterhouses. We run into serious trouble when we use a romanticized notion of our old desperation to justify this torture and killing that is purely for profit.

We don’t hunt and kill with the same urgency and necessity that other animals do, or that indigenous hunters do. There’s a specific relationship to the environment that I call “the paradigm of sacred nature,” that this kind of hunting embodies. I am not an anthropologist, and I don’t mean to romanticize indigenous cultures or conflate them all. But there appears to be a very strong vein of worshipful reverence toward animals and the environment, and a deep compulsion to protect that which sustains you. I detect strong themes of conservation, balance, and recognizing total dependency on the environment: take too much, take more than your share, and the whole system is f*cked. This stands out in absurdly stark contrast to the Western patriarchal view that it all belongs to us, and it’s all ours for the taking; to the winner go the spoils, and f*ck everyone else. No no, man. You belong to it. And this was the point I was trying to make to my wolf-teenagers over dinner. Luckily, they got it. (Aw. They were such good kids. Minus the face-biting thing.)

When I read arguments against veganism and vegetarianism, one theme that often comes up is the idea that vegans don’t understand the role of death; we don’t understand that life comes from death, and we have a myopic, naive worldview for wanting to avoid killing. “Embracing our role as killers” seems to feel gratifying to some people who eat animals, like it harkens back to a simpler, wiser time. Veganism seems too fussy and complicated, too modern, artificial, and too reliant on technology and on global systems. But I think if one takes the approach of wanting to preserve the whole system, and trying to view nature as sacred, the logical result (in 2014, in the developed world) is an overwhelmingly vegan path. It’s not that vegans don’t understand or can’t accept the idea of death. Many of us believe that plants have consciousness, and we know that some insects and animals are killed by accident during farming. There’s a level of death that we can’t avoid, and these are the cold, cruel facts of our having to eat to survive. The difference is that we recognize the death that is avoidable, the violence and suffering that is totally unnecessary. We also realize that we can work to minimize this necessity as much as possible, we don’t have to give up and accept things as they are right now. And this I feel is very much in line with a paradigm of sacred nature: our seeking to sustain ourselves while also preserving our system.

So this is what I leave you with, my dear wolf-children: we have three obligations: to ourselves, to our fellow creatures, and to the system we all depend on. We may be debating these topics until the end of time. But if we can maintain this paradigm of balance and preservation, we may get somewhere. Bon appétit, and sweet dreams.

What Would Your Younger Self Think?

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DowntownChicagoILatNightI was twelve when I first visited Chicago. My mom was running the Chicago Marathon, and my dad had planned a secret trip for my sister and me to surprise her at the finish line. I was mesmerized by how beautiful the city was. And it was full of wonders: deep-dish pizza, three-story record stores, sidewalks. Then there was the thrill of being in a big city at night: something we rarely experienced in Atlanta, whose downtown was deserted after 5pm. I thought of how wonderful it would be to live in a big, exciting, walkable city.

This past fall, on the morning of the marathon, I watched for a bit from the top floor of a campus building before class… and then it hit me like a smack to the head: I live here now! I had forgotten about how excited and happy my younger self would be to see where I am now.

Since then, I have that realization over and over: my younger self would be ecstatic about so many things that I have–things I routinely take for granted. I make it a game to think, what would she love about this? What problem has been long-since solved? What goal has been long-since achieved? It is one of my favorite perspective-shifters.

When I was ten, I was so excited to have my own room. I loved to decorate the walls with pictures and drawings. Ten-year-old me would have a fit to see my apartment now: a whole home to myself! I used to love to go to Target with my mom and get a Lip Smacker or an Archie comic book. My medicine cabinet would be a treasure trove to this little girl. She would be thrilled to live across the street from a comic book store, and shocked that homes and businesses occupied the same buildings. My drawings would look like masterpieces to her. She would be elated to stay up as late as she wanted, and pick out what she wanted from the grocery store. Her dad had a five-pound car phone the size of a brick; my current phone would make her head explode.

When I was twelve, I had my first week of French. I heard an MC Solaar song, and wished I could understand all the words. One afternoon this fall, when MC Solaar popped up on Pandora, I realized that now these songs make sense! At thirteen, I loved hunting for CDs; Kid Koala and DJ Shadow mesmerized me; I wanted to be DJ Rap when I grew up. Over Christmas, I found a cartoon I had drawn of a DJ girl surrounded by crates of vinyl. I had forgotten until last fall that I dreamed about that as a kid; somehow, I pushed it out of my mind for twelve years! I now practice scratching and mixing four days a week with a group of fantastic DJs.

When I was fifteen, I went to Montreal. I had never been in a city subway, having lived in car-centric Atlanta. It felt like a Super Mario video game, climbing down into pipes and magically popping up in new places. Even now, taking buses and trains around Chicago reminds me of hopping onto a giant caterpillar or jumping into a magic pipe. (I remind myself of this when it’s ten degrees and snowing sideways at the bus stop, or I’m squished up against some sweaty dude.) Zipcar adds to the freedom. I can travel alone safely, day or night.

Fourteen-year-old me heaves a sigh of relief to see my parents well, years after loss and divorce. Eighteen-year-old me is relieved to be free of the rules of Contemporary Christian Courtship. Twenty-one-year-old me is glad those exes are history, man.

Privacy. Technology. Mobility. Freedom. Mastery of skills I longed to have. Relief from former worries. From my younger self’s perspective, current life is an outright triumph, not a project for perfecting, or a suite of anxieties. Younger me is miffed that I haven’t been to Japan yet, and that I’m not a cartoonist. But she is too excited about everything else to make much of a fuss.

Are there things that you’ve attained and accomplished that your younger self would cheer for? Is there progress you’ve made that you’ve overlooked? Problems that have resolved themselves? Even if things are bleak, difficult, and stressful right now, is there something that you haven’t yet fully enjoyed or given yourself credit for?

Looking back,

Was there a place you wanted to visit that you’ve now been to?

Did you live somewhere that didn’t feel right to you? Do you now live somewhere that suits you better?

Was there someone who frightened or harmed you whose influence you are free of?

Did you belong to a religion that made you feel diminished? Have you refined or left your old beliefs?

Did you have an illness, injury, or condition that you have recovered from, or made progress with?

Did you have to be closeted about something that you can now be open with?

Did you feel alone, and do you now find yourself with more friends and like-minds?

Have you learned a skill that once felt out of your reach?

What would your younger self feel the happiest about or most proud of? Can you imagine your future self being happy to have solved a problem you’re facing now?

Live Like a Queen

Marie_Antoinette

My high school history teacher, Mr. Drake, once expressed his disdain for when people fantasize about living in the past. I suppose any historian sees a lot of that: romanticized notions about some long-past “golden age.” When we got around to studying the court at Versailles, he told us:

“Now, you don’t actually want to live at Versailles. First of all, if you lived in France at that time, you probably would have been Bodo the peasant with no teeth. Life would have been short, and hard. But even if you lived at the court, get ready. Yes, it was very beautiful to look at. But the noblemen still pissed on the tapestries that took thousands of hours to make. If you’ve ever wondered why some of them are discolored about three feet off the ground, that’s why.

It was cold. There was no running water. There were rats. People bathed twice a year, and then they just put on perfume to cover up the stink. People wore wigs, for fashion, but also because they were malnourished and their hair fell out. You don’t see that in the movies.”

Any time a new service or technology gets introduced –say, email, Google maps, smartphones– we go through what I call the “excitement interval” where people get really excited about how much time it saves, or how much more convenient it makes things. But then the pace of life catches up, and the benefits of these things become expected, mundane. I now expect to know exactly where I am at a given time, I don’t relish the relief of not getting lost; I expect instantaneous communication, rather than appreciating the ease with which I can reach people. It’s so easy to take these things for granted and wait for the next exciting leap forward.

This morning, drinking tea in my apartment, I am enjoying conveniences that would have blown the minds of royalty from virtually all of human history. Electric light. Refrigerated food. A hot shower (probably one of the greatest pleasures known to humankind). Recorded music on demand. Teas and spices from all over the globe. Fine cosmetics that won’t poison me. A full head of hair! Access to doctors with tools other than leeches. Wireless internet! I can send a message to my fellow noblemen at the touch of a button. Reliable heat. When I want it, solitude.

I love my one-bedroom apartment. I’m sure some celebrity somewhere has got a shoe closet the size of my entire unit. But a space with these amenities is outright palatial compared to the quality of life of the past, and of much of the world today. We get fed the message that we can’t be happy with what we have; we need to live like modern media royalty, and then, one day, we can feel satisfied. But I am already surrounded by so many things that bring me health, comfort, and enjoyment. All around us is the message that it’s not enough. But even the “basics” of everyday first-world life, even the most dedicated minimalist homes, provide so much to enjoy!

On that note, I’m going to channel my inner Marie Antoinette and take a 30 minute shower before I get ready for my chariot, the #6 northbound bus, to carry me off to class.

On Being “Freshly Pressed” and Consumerism vs. Hoarding

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On Monday, I was excited to be featured on WordPress’s “Freshly Pressed” page, along with a group of other hand-picked bloggers…and I have to admit that I didn’t actually know what Freshly Pressed was until I got an email from one of the editors last week! It was encouraging, and really gratifying, to see so many comments, likes, and new followers. Thank you so much to everybody who left such positive feedback about my writing. I was so glad to hear how my piece resonated differently to everyone.

 

There is one concern that I wanted to bring up, though, which is that in the process of being posted to Freshly Pressed, the title of my article was changed without my knowledge, from “Artificial Needs, Artificial Solutions” to “More, More, More: Why We Hoard.” I’m sure this was done to generate more views and create a more specific title, but I think it is an inaccurate use of the word “hoard.” Specifically, what I had hoped to convey was why we buy things, not just hold on to them.

 

Hoarding, in a general sense, can refer to the act of simply holding on to lots of things. But it also refers to compulsive hoarding, a condition in which someone’s need to hold onto things is so strong that it endangers their health and safety. It also places an immense burden on their families and loved ones. This is the kind of hoarding that gets gawked at in the “schadenfreude shows” of reality TV, but it is a real struggle for many people. The malaise of consumerism certainly prompts us to buy excess stuff and fill our homes with clutter, but this is distinct from compulsive hoarding, which, in my understanding, comes from a place of much more severe need, fear, deprivation, or trauma.

 

Both of these phenomena have roots in feelings of need and insecurity, I think. But our consumerism is a more of a chronic affliction than an acute one. It still diminishes our experience of life, and deserves our mindful attention, but it is not quite the same as chronic hoarding, a full-blown and extremely stressful disorder. Perhaps the two are points along a spectrum, but, either way, it is worth mentioning that there is some distance between them. In my post, I did not want to trivialize or sensationalize either experience.

I also didn’t want to condemn or shame anyone’s relationship to their stuff. We are all trying to meet real needs, but so many solutions are designed not to work. Our culture is masterful at creating feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and anxiety — and making it look like a purely individual problem, not a cultural one. (And this is on top of all of the other struggles of life!) It takes effort to stay afloat within a system making massive profits off our mental and physical illnesses, however mild or severe. I hope we can all support each other in that effort.