Love. Hope. Joy.

“Find A Place Inside where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”

                                                                                           – Joseph Campbell

I’d like to start with a personal story, one which is adapted from one of my monologues, Keeping Hope Alive:

In September of 2006 my wife, Kendra, underwent a partial hysterectomy due to degenerating fibroid tumors. One afternoon, after she had recovered from the operation, I came home and she said, “Honey, sit down.” A pathology report  had come back and it revealed an endometrial sarcoma — a form of uterine cancer.  Kendra  handled the news much better than I.  A complete hysterectomy followed in November and then the endless rounds of chemo and surgical procedures.  But we always kept hope alive. At one point we thought we had it licked, with a PT Scan showing no detectable cancer cells.  But the cancer came back and moved up to her lungs.

On July 11, 2008, I took her to the oncologist to discuss putting her on a phase 1 clinical trial drug. However, after hearing how labored Kendra’s breathing was, he said she needed to go straight to the ER.

We were in ER most of the day and then she was put in one hospital room and then another where she was monitored and had to wear a breathing mask. Several x-rays and a CT scan had already been taken and after studying these, the resident oncologist told us that the cancer had progressed to such a point that all we could do was make her as comfortable as possible, put her on a morphine drip and wait. I can’t tell you how much that hurt, to hear there was no more hope. It felt like a sledgehammer blow to my gut.

By Friday morning it was obvious the end was near as she was unresponsive and even with oxygen her breathing became quite poor. Her mother, stepfather and I were with her when she finally stopped breathing and was at peace. She died at twelve noon on Friday the thirteenth.

A week later we had a beautiful memorial for her under a favorite bowing oak tree where we lived.

 At the hospital when the resident oncologist had broken the news to Kendra and then asked if she understood, my dear wife had raised a finger, looked at me and rasped through her oxygen mask, “One day at a time.” At the time I thought she still believed there was hope that she would get better.  I now believe it was a message for me:  all we can do is live life one day at a time.   And keep hope alive. 

 I grieved deeply over the loss of my wife, my best friend, my life partner and still do.  But I’ve also moved on.  I joined a grief support group and that helped immensely. My family has bolstered me more than I can say. 

 But it is a spirit of hope that has kept me moving forward. Maintaining hope is not dependent upon the fulfillment of expectations. It is not merely wishful thinking.  It is, indeed, essential to living every day of my life in an often uncertain world.

In conversation last night with a new friend– a bright, giddy, impassioned young woman, a fairly new vegan whose activism and commitment to the animals is in full flower and whose embrace of life  is an inspiration —  I attempted to delineate my philosophy of hope, using the above story as an example.  I then made an attempt at connecting that idea of the essential quality of hope, and the need to maintain joy, to our activism.  In our work as animal advocates we are continually faced with grim realities: ten billion animals slaughtered each year by U.S. agribusiness;  sentient beings devoid of any creature comforts, confined and tortured; a general public in the grip of an entrenched ideology which author Melanie Joy has coined carnism which causes many people to view the work we do on behalf of the animals as extremist and the eating of animals and animal products as normal, natural and necessary.

Where’s the joy in all that?

Let me share with you another quote from Joseph Campbell:

“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”

I became vegetarian, and eventually vegan, because of the logical arguments laid out by philosopher Peter Singer.  But my continuing work on behalf of the animals and veganism is an expression of love, kindness and compassion. Knowing that I am doing my small part to help end the suffering of animals fills me with happiness.  Not naïve self satisfaction or the blithe delusion that by merely “loving” animals I am making their lot any better, but the happiness that comes from being involved in real work that matters,  in a cause with a long moral arc which, I truly believe, is bending toward justice.

My advocacy work also allows me to tap into my creativity with projects such as The Veg Monologues or Vegan Street Theater. Working in collaboration with other creative and compassionate people has been a source of bliss for me, even in times when loneliness and depression seem to have temporarily derailed me.

I tend to share intimacies, to reveal myself far too readily. My attempts at playing it cool, of adopting an aloof persona are continually thwarted by an overriding need to open up, to connect, to love. But I can’t imagine a detached life.  I can’t imagine not falling in love – not just with other people, but with ideas, art, music, life itself.   I also realize, however, that the thrill of falling in love  is temporal and often something of a distraction; working wholeheartedly to bring about animal and human liberation, to alleviate suffering,  to ensure a sustainable environment, to create real change that has positive, global implications for all beings, requires a different kind of love.  It requires an expression of love that does not often see immediate results; it requires real work that is not often thrilling or romantic; it requires hope and courage that are often met with derision or apathy; it requires relinquishing personal drama in favor of tactics that are more effective in the long run.

But it does not have to be devoid of joy. I feel a profound sense of joy in being part of a cause that is so much larger than my own personal concerns. I feel joyful to have real meaning in my life.  I feel joy in being able to feel compassionate, empathetic, even grief stricken.  Those feelings tell me that I’m alive, not just existing but fully sentient and aware, connected to Life and all its vicissitudes.  And the work continues.

–for Kara, thanks for the inspiration!

Is An Animal’s Job To Be Eaten?

I work with young children in a school which honors the image of the child as competent, capable and actively engaged in exploring materials, ideas and relationships and in constructing meaning within a social setting.  Young children have an inherent need to make sense of their world.  My role as a teacher is  to provide the space –the physical, emotional and cognitive environment– and time for their explorations, investigations and forming of theories.  After engaging in small group/project work my group of  seven five year-olds come together for a reflection meeting.  Sometimes some pretty revealing discussions ensue.

At the end of November, one of the girls, Jamie [names have been changed] and I explored different shades of blue that could be used for an ocean background for a sign for our class, “The Dolphins.”  At the reflection meeting I asked, “Why does the ocean get darker the deeper it goes?”  Jamie said, “The sun is too high and the bottom of the ocean’s too low.”

Another girl, Lisa, replied, “The sun doesn’t want to go down in the water. It’s job is to be in the sky all day.”

The next day I reminded the group of Lisa’s comment and then I asked, “What job does the ocean have?”

Jamie:  To be with the fish so they can survive.

Elaine:  To sail the boats and keep the fish alive.

Me:  What is the job of a fish?

Jamie: To be eaten.

Mark:  Because when fish come out of the water on a fishing pole, seagulls can eat them.

That’s the only job of a fish?  To be eaten?  You know what?  It’s very sad but some people eat dolphins.  Is the job of a dolphin to be eaten?

Mark:  Yeah!

Lisa:  No!

Elaine: Not all animals get eaten a lot.

Mark:  Well, shrimp get eaten.

Jamie:  Not all animals get eaten.

Elaine:  I know all about sea animals — because I eat a lot of sea food.

Jamie:  Not all animals get eaten, ’cause pets don’t get eaten.

Pets don’t get eaten.  Why don’t pets get eaten?

Jamie:  ‘Cause pets are people’s pets.

If someone had a chicken as a pet, would you eat that chicken?

[several children respond that they would]

I once had a chicken as a pet. Or what about a pig that is a pet?

Mark:  You could eat that.

I would never eat my pet.  I don’t call them pets, anyway, I call them companions.  I have a cat who is my companion and I’m my cat’s guardian.  Would you eat your cat?

Mark: [laughs] Yes.

I’m sorry to hear that.  So, is an animal’s job to be eaten?  Jamie was saying that some animals, that’s not their job to be eaten.  But some it is?  What if you had a chicken as a pet?

Mark:  You don’t eat the real chicken, but after it lays all it’s eggs and dies, then you could eat it.

So, you have to wait for it to die on it’s own?

Mark:  But when a cat dies, you can’t eat it because a cat doesn’t have real protein in it like a pig.

Some people eat cats.  Some people eat dogs.

Max:  That’s . . . not . . . good!  One time I catched a fish and one pelican swooped down and ate it from the fish pole.

What if you had a fish that was a pet?

Mark:  You can eat it when it’s dead!

Monologues vs Socrates?

In their wise and practical guide to  effective animal advocacy, The Animal Activist’s Handbook, Matt Ball (Vegan Outreach) and Bruce Friedrich (PETA) advise,

“Rather than launching into a monologue about cruelty . . . we must lead people to recognize that what they already believe (cruelty is wrong) necessitates a change in diet.”

They recommend using  “the Socratic method” which involves leading the conversation to where others are answering their own questions, leading people  “to think about what it means to choose to eat animals.”  It is a dynamic way for eliciting change in others rather than trying to impose it on them.

So is something called The Veg Monologues an effective tool for bringing about a change to veganism? I have struggled with this question. I know very well Why Vegan? But why The Veg Monologues?

I have attempted to describe  the intentions of this project on the About  page. I believe in effective vegan advocacy but I also believe that we vegans have a need to tell our stories and I believe that in telling those stories, in all their diversity, in sharing who we are as unique individuals, the general public will come to connect with us on a personal level and in that connection seeds may be planted, doors may be opened, a light might be shined.

So, yes, as advocates for veganism,  let’s reach out to others, let’s draw them into a conversation, let’s lead them to coming to their own conclusions based upon compassion, or perhaps health or environmental concerns.  But as individuals who are vegan, who care deeply for animals and our fellow human beings, let’s not be afraid to tell our stories, to be authentic to who we are.

Sharing our own stories may prove to be prologue to the many unique and wonderful stories of all those future vegans out there.