Why I’m a Vegetarian

I’ve been a vegetarian for most of my life and I’m often asked why. There’s a cute little story about how it all began, and I’ll follow it up with why I still am, after more than 20 years.

I grew up on a small farm in Maine. We had horses, rabbits, chickens, and a garden. I grew up eating meat but I never liked it very much, except for my grandmother’s delicious turkey soup. I didn’t like steaks or burgers at all. Once we got a flock of chickens I spent my afternoons playing in the yard with them. One chick in particular was my favorite – a beautiful Bantam hen I named Peeps because she was always making little peeping sounds. I’d come home from school, pick her up, climb the willow tree, and lounge in the branches, reading a book, with Peeps in the crook of my elbow. I would often give the chickens scraps of whatever I was eating. One day I made the connection between the fact chicken nuggets are made out of chickens – the very kind of chickens I was playing with each day. Chicken nuggets look nothing like living chickens – very few meat products resemble their roots – so although I’m somewhat embarrassed it took me so long to make the connection, I’m not surprised.

It took me about two months to completely give up meat and ensure my family respected my decision. I received cookbooks from my grandparents but my mother would continue to feed me chicken-and-rice baked dishes, telling me to “eat around the chicken,” although the entire thing was simmering in chicken broth. I remember during that time we visited a bison farm, and for the first time in my life, I enjoyed a burger. Bison was the most delicious red meat I had ever tasted, but a few minutes later when a bison approached the fence and let me pet his nose, I knew no matter how delicious it was, I wasn’t going to eat it again.

This was the mid-90s when vegetarianism among teenagers was quite popular, and I would be lying if I didn’t say the choice was also partly social. I had friends I respected and admired who were already staunch vegetarians and as we talked about their choices it made sense to me. So, the last meat I ate was bacon at my grandmother’s house – because it smelled so good the morning she cooked it during a visit that summer – and I gave it up after that.

These days my body can’t process meat. If I eat a soup made with chicken broth, or have a bite of a party dip with chopped chicken, or even eat veggies cooked on the same griddle as meat, I find myself in the throes of gastric distress within a few hours. People often don’t believe that when I first explain, but science proves that when one foregoes meat for long enough, the body stops creating the enzymes necessary with which to digest meat. It’s been more than 20 years – those enzymes are long gone. Should I ever choose to eat meat again I’d need to introduce it slowly and carefully.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I fought with myself a couple years ago when I began traveling, especially to countries in which meat is extremely popular (especially South America). I wanted to be able to enjoy eating whatever the locals are eating without worrying about tummy troubles due to confusion over ingredients or shared cooking surfaces. I read recipes for meat dishes and considered ordering a chicken dish when I was in a restaurant.

And then I went to the grocery store and saw the meat products sitting in the coolers and I knew I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take raw flesh and turn it into something edible. Today, I’m not only a vegetarian because I care about animals, but also because I care about my health, and – probably most importantly – because I don’t believe it is my place to take the life of another living being. Of course, the response to that is often, “plants are alive! Plants have feelings too!” Well, yes, that’s true. But I personally have no moral issue pulling a carrot from the ground and eating it.

I could not take the life of an animal – cow, chicken, turkey, goat, sheep, deer, mouse, caribou – with my own hands. I have absolutely no problem with people who choose to do so, and I actually believe strongly in the ability to hunt. I think hunting is a fantastic way to enjoy healthy, fresh meat with which to feed your family, and I much prefer hunting to the industrialized “agriculture” system on which this country currently runs. But I couldn’t do it myself – I don’t even kill spiders or bugs in the house. I put them in my hands and set them free outside. Who am I to decide who lives and dies?

I’m a vegetarian because I believe in treating life with respect – all life. I do my absolute best to never waste food: we freeze our vegetable scraps to create stock and have begun composting on a small scale in our condo. Unless food is clearly and truly spoiled I can find a way to use it or preserve it (soups are awesome for cleaning out the veggie drawer and even giving stale bread a new life). I’m respecting my body by feeding it what feels good. I’m respecting animals by not eating them. I’m respecting the planet as a whole by not supporting industrialized “farming” and not throwing food away.

My life as a vegetarian hasn’t always been healthy and wasn’t nearly always so easy, even for me, to understand. That’ll come in another post. It’s important to make an educated choice to become vegetarian. It’s not difficult but it does involve some effort in terms of nutrition – and that’s why I often offer recipes here too.

Thank You for Your Service

Last Friday I was buttering my bagel at work when a colleague married to a former marine walked into the room.

“Happy Veteran’s Day,” she said softly. “Thank you for your service. I mean it.”

Somewhat flustered, I mumbled, “Um, Happy Veteran’s Day, you too.”

It’s been years since someone thanked me for my service. I frantically racked my brain in a flustered silence, trying to figure out if, at some point in the last year, I’d made some statement that implied I had been the one in the military – not my ex-husband. But after a few minutes, I remembered her husband was a marine before they got married, and I remembered that, while I was married, I was thanked for my service regularly.

Military spouses don’t “serve” the nation in nearly the same capacity as those in uniform, but the sacrifices of those spouses absolutely helps the contributions of their loved ones. I felt strange and almost guilty accepting her gratitude for those years so long past for me, but then I thought about just how much the military shaped my life, without my ever donning a uniform.

My brother joined the Navy right after high school. He’s super smart but wanted to see the world instead of going to college. Joke’s on him: he spent most of his active time stationed 20 minutes from our grandparents’ home in Rhode Island, and he attended the Naval Academy after applying on a whim during his third year. Now in the Reserves after getting married and starting a family, his service was the closest to my heart for years.

Both of our grandfathers were in the military. Our father was a merchant marine – not the same thing, but still gone for months at a time “on duty.”

And then, I married an Airman-turned-Soldier in the process of earning his Green Beret. I didn’t know anything about the Army. I remember Googling some of the peculiar terms he’d use in our phone conversations: BDUs (now-obsolete), ACUs, TDY. I didn’t realize “redeploy” meant coming home, not going overseas again. I couldn’t read ranks and although I knew he was a lieutenant, I had no idea where that fell in the chain of command.

I learned all of the above in less than a year. I ended up working at a military museum, reading books and speaking with veterans every day. I spent 300 days of each of the first three years we were together alone in our house while he was TDY or deployed. 300 days out of every 365 for three straight years. How do you even begin to build a relationship with that kind of schedule?

Thanks to geography, I was surrounded by people either currently serving or retired from service. My rock band ended up touring with a couple other bands comprised primarily of vets and active-duty soldiers. We performed at benefits and September 11th memorial concerts and huge July 4th celebrations. An interview I gave made it into the Army Times and, to this day, is still some of the biggest press I’ve received.

Being married to the military 100% changed my life, for better or for worse. I learned how to fix a toilet that wouldn’t stop running, how to mow a lawn, how to shoot a gun, how to bake cupcakes in jars so they wouldn’t spoil, how to be even more independent than I already was, despite being in a relationship, how to be patient, and how to stay strong when I was worried. In return, I now have friends the world over, in various stages of life, and I’ve visited many of them. There’s a subculture sisterhood these other wives (and former wives) and I share, and there’s a nearly-brazen “do it yourself/get it done” attitude I share with those who served, male or female. I can’t find those connections with other civilians. You had to live it to understand, and it shaped so much of who I am now.

In the end, the military lifestyle wasn’t for me. I also learned I wanted a partner who could be there for me, not only mentally but physically. I wanted a partnership in which my goals and dreams carried equal weight. My self-reliance borne of necessity eventually led me to want to rely solely on myself. I felt guilty for so long, for leaving a lifestyle that had changed me so much, for letting down the people who said I’d be great at this, and for leaving a good man who just wasn’t good for me. I think that guilt is why I felt so strange accepting my colleague’s thanks last week. But those years are absolutely 100% a large part of my history and who I am, and I’m glad for that. That time in my life wasn’t easy but it taught me a lot about myself and the people with whom I choose to spend my time. I didn’t serve in uniform, but I did serve, in a small way, by being there for my loved ones and friends.

Memoirs of a Slacker

Last spring I signed up for a memoir class at the local college that started in June. I’ve been working on my book since I was living it but haven’t done much in the way of formatting, editing, or adding to it since I finished the Arizona sections upon completion of the list. I know I need to do it. The book isn’t going to write itself, and although many things have happened in the years since I turned 30, this story is a memoir of one specific year in my life. I’ve struggled with figuring out how to weave the items on the list together in a cohesive manner and how to make my reader care enough about me and my goals to keep turning the page. I’ve also struggled with whether I really learned enough to make it a true and compelling memoir. I haven’t traveled internationally in over a year now, and I’m not a diplomat (we’ll discuss the current state of American politics another time), and I’m not working to make the world a better place, and I’m barely making music. What happened to those big dreams? What happened to what I learned that year?

The memoir class was awesome, and just the kick in the pants I needed to get back to writing the book. In class I wrote a rough draft of a section of the book I’d been afraid to write this whole time. “What if my grandma reads it?” I’d wonder. Well, there was a delightful 82-year-old woman in class who told me she wants a copy of the book after I read that section aloud. There’s my answer. “What if writing about how I crossed 30 things off a to-do list isn’t very exciting?” Well, the professor actually inhaled an “Oh, that’s good!”when we went around and discussed our topics. After we took turns sharing in class and giving feedback, I remembered not only do I have a story to tell, but I’m telling it to connect with others. At my core, that’s what I am: a communicator. I communicate words, music, ideas, stories, solutions. I try to connect with others. Maybe that stems from often feeling like a loner or like I was just on the fringes, never really part of the action (until I made the action happen when I was 29).

my poor handwriting from a non-list-related piece I wrote in class
my poor handwriting from a non-list-related piece I wrote in class

I also had to face up to the fact that I was the only thing holding me back. I’ve been choosing to browse around online instead of writing my own story. Both acts involve staring at the screen, but one is active and the other is very passive. (I’ve also been taking a class online about music/arts and social action – maybe that’s helping motivate me too. Writing is an art…) I’d like to lead an active life. I don’t want life to just happen to me. If I want to write a book, I need to write the damn book. If I want to book a ticket to somewhere new to me, I need to put up the credit card. I know that wherever I have ended up in life has always been because of myself and my choices, and I need to get back on track to make better choices.

I’m the type of person who thrives on having goals and checklists – probably why my 30 Before 30 list worked out so well. When things are up in the air it can be really challenging for me to focus my energy on any one area and I tend to feel stagnant even when going in a million directions. Right now we’re trying to figure out our next move, but since a lightning bolt has yet to appear with a flashing sign saying “you two are supposed to move to New Zealand and own a winery” or something similar, we’re weighing our goals and dreams with our options. But just because I don’t know where we’re headed I can’t stop writing about what I’ve already done. I lived it. I turned 30. I had those experiences, and I’m not really honoring the person I became through that year by letting the writing take up space on my hard drive.

So here we are, after I’ve barely posted for the month I was taking the memoir class, and I’m publicly renewing my goal to make at least one blog post per week (as an average, by the end of the year…clearly I’ll have some catching up to do). I’m not telling myself how long they have to be or what they have to cover, but I need to write. My professor suggested even 20 minutes a day will get the cobwebs out of our brains and help us focus on what we actually, really, truly want to say. I can most definitely find 20 minutes most days that I’d otherwise squander on clickbait and recipe-planning. But I like goals and to-do lists, so it’s my concrete goal:

Average 1 blog post per week for the year of 2016. That means 52 posts by the end of December.

Good luck to me.

The Places Where I Came From

I was driving home today and an idea for an engaging blog post came to mind. I considered making a note in my phone to remember but chose not to because 1) I was driving and 2) it was such a good idea, and so relevant, I wouldn’t possibly forget.

Well…I forgot.

I know it had something to do with family, and geographic locations, and my 30 Before 30 list, but I can’t seem to make the connection right now. So what you’re getting instead is a smattering of those. Maybe by the end I’ll tie it together…

**

For people who’ve met me relatively recently – meaning pretty much everyone I’ve met in the last 5 months since I moved to NJ – I appear to be “from Long Island” because that’s the answer to the usual “so where did you move here from?” question I’m asked. It’s not that I don’t want to elaborate, but I sometimes feel like it would be impossible to try to explain where I’m really from in a linear fashion. Hint: it’s not Long Island. I did spend the longest time in one apartment as an adult in LI, which is an achievement for one with nomadic bones like mine, but my personality wasn’t really shaped there.

I did most of my growing up in the deep South – Georgia and North Carolina, to be exact. Yet I can clearly remember a time in my life when I was nearly fired from a new job because I told the caller “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Southern, may I put you on hold and find someone who does?”

I wasn’t born in the South.

I was born about as far away as you can get, in Maine. I lived in the same house until I went to college, in a small rural area where we had a small farm with chickens, rabbits, horses, cats, and dogs.

For many years I was embarrassed of where I came from. I felt like it made me poor, or “country,” or unworldly. I went to college in Westchester County, New York – a beautiful upscale suburban area just outside Manhattan – and realized how sheltered I’d been in Maine. Looking back on my time in college I wish I’d taken more risks. I wish I hadn’t been so afraid of where I came from, or what others thought of that, or what it meant for my future. Newsflash: your past does not dictate who YOU are. Sometimes I feel like I’m STILL learning that lesson, nearly 15 years later.

I got my first apartment in Boston. It didn’t last long, but I learned a lot from the experience…most especially that if I could survive the cutthroat September 1st move-in-date in the Boston rental market, I’d probably be okay as an adult. I’ve lived independently since then.

Here’s the potentially-confusing linear progress my life has made:

Maine > Westchester County, NY > Boston > Westchester County, NY > Cape Cod, MA > Westchester County, NY > North Carolina > Georgia > Long Island > New Jersey

Granted, the Westchester days were all between the ages of 18-23: the college years. I transferred out (and subsequently returned) and spent months away, but I graduated on time from the college at which I started. The big moves slowed down after a while, but I moved – if I remember correctly – 12 times in 10 years. Even in NC and GA, I usually moved apartments when my lease ran out. I once owned a home and sold it and don’t plan to get on that train again anytime soon.

All of these physical locations have helped shape me in some way. Right now, of course, eating farm-grown local food is en vogue and more people are heeding the marketing call to get outside. I grew up in an area in which I could be outside all the time. I did multi-day backpacking trips in the Maine wilderness – including portions of the AT – before I graduated high school. I climbed trees in my backyard and rode a snowmobile to school. Hell, I even ran to – and from – school on those quiet rural roads sometimes. I spent more money than I’m proud of on a quality Pendleton flannel shirt that looks suspiciously like the one I’m wearing in my 6th grade class picture. What’s old is new again. I’m actually kind of proud to be “from Maine” these days.

That in-between time – my time in the South – is a little harder to explain to new acquaintances. I did a lot of growing up there, and learned how to take care of myself in ways I probably never would have needed to do had I stayed in the Northeast. I was there from ages 23-28. At first, I refused to utter the word “y’all” and I couldn’t stand having conversations with older people who pronounced my name with more than two syllables. I didn’t understand football and moonshine wasn’t something you actually got in an unmarked jug from this guy who knew a guy. Now, however, my Southern accent comes out en force when I’m in standstill traffic (“what are y’all doin’?”) or I’ve had a drink. Every time a rendition of “Georgia On My Mind” comes on the radio – which is pretty often since I listen to the jazz station – I can’t help but smile and sing along, thinking of that sweet, slower-paced life I once lived. I’m actually kind of proud to be a little bit Southern too.

I’ve struggled with feeling like an imposter in my own life – like I’d managed to “Gatsby” myself somehow and create who I am, despite whatever my background may have been. However, I’ve learned that’s…actually what you’re supposed to do. Circumstances shouldn’t dictate who YOU are as a person. Your choices do. I CHOOSE to backpack, cycle, sing, write, be a vegetarian, travel, explore. Would I make the same choices had I been born into different circumstances? I don’t know. I don’t know if I would be the same strong person with the same pull to the outdoors if I didn’t spend my childhood outside. I don’t know if I would be so easily adaptable in unfamiliar situations if I hadn’t been thrown into a whole bunch of them in rapid succession. I don’t know if I would appreciate how fantastic it is to have a peaceful place of my own if I hadn’t lived with some really difficult people. I don’t know if I would value sleep and quiet time so much if I hadn’t spent so many late nights gigging in a rock band or wondering how I was going to pay the bills.

Choosing your own path is not being fake if it’s genuine. It takes a really long time to get to know yourself. I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” which resonated deeply with me. It can be really hard to “Be Sarah” sometimes, but at the core, whatever it is that makes me who I am is what will make me happiest. And if that means embracing the bit and pieces that shaped who I am, that’s great – regardless of who anyone else may expect me to be. As the Hebrew on my wrist reads – loosely translated – “If I am not myself, who is me?” Not what I know, not where I’m from, not what I do. But who I AM. Choosing my own path, being Sarah, being ME, is the best way to honor the experiences who shaped me into who I am.

The People Who I Was Once

That title isn’t a proofreading error; it’s a reference to a song by a dear friend I lost a few years ago to suicide. As usual, I had a different topic I wanted to write about today, but we’ll see how well that goes. Griff’s song has been stuck in my head for a few days. Each year, around the first of March, his songs seem to float back to me in the breeze and stick in my soul for the entire month that marks the anniversary of his passing. This particular song is the one that stood out to my ears this spring as I’ve undergone so very many changes this year. In some ways I find myself clinging to the people who I was once, and in other ways, trying to be strong and move forward.

How do I connect the two stories I want to tell today?

Yesterday would have been the 33rd birthday of my ex-husband, and today would have marked our 8th wedding anniversary. But the world lost him, too, to suicide last fall. In the months since I’ve often wondered how my life could have been different. Did I contribute to this somehow, because I left to strike out on my own? Did I ever know somewhere deep inside that he was struggling with something I couldn’t reach? Is there a reason I’m not the widow here? Am I making the best choices for my life now and living life to the fullest?

I suppose part of the answer lies in the story I planned to write today. Last week was my birthday and I made my third annual birthday trip, this year to Washington, D.C., with Travis. The previous two years I’ve traveled alone to more adventurous destinations. Traveling with a partner changes more than the itinerary. In the years since I chose to go my own way I’ve been the one in charge: I choose my destination, how I’m going to get there, when I’m going to go, and what I’m going to do. Sometimes I’ve purchased tickets or made reservations after an extra glass of wine, but it’s always worked out and made for great stories in the end. Now, I have a partner to consider – and not the type of partner I ever expected to find. I didn’t think it was possible to find someone who wanted to have the same adventures I do – which is a large reason I chose to leave my marriage. Travis wants to explore the world with me, and that’s exactly what I wanted to find. So why is it, in some ways, more challenging to travel with a partner?

I’m reminded of this article that arrived in my inbox some months ago. You do have to give up your single self in a partnership, and to let yourself grieve that loss. (Side note: I’ve done too much grieving over the last few years. I really wasn’t expecting to grieve more when I found what I wanted most). On the other hand, it’s important to see the past – the people who you were once – the way it truly was and not through “graduation goggles.”

Did I enjoy exploring the world on my own and meeting strangers in strange places? Definitely. Was it scary – but worth the reward – sometimes to push myself way out of my comfort zone? Absolutely. Was it so much more easy to follow the beat of my own drum when I was traveling solo? Yup. Was it freeing to not take anybody else into consideration when planning a location, activities, what to eat, or even when to go to bed? YES.

Would I trade Travis in to have all of that back?

No.

Those experiences – and all the experiences I’ve had – shaped who I am. My idiosyncrasies are unique to me and I know I can plan too much and make one mistake that could throw off the entire day (e.g., locating the wrong restaurant with a similar name which only served a prix-fixe brunch, when the restaurant I really wanted to find turned out – upon hours-later Googling – to have been less than a block away). Someone gets to see those blunders now, instead of me going about my adventure lost in my own head. But on the other hand, someone is there to share my joy. We saw a little girl in a bright-pink shirt and tie-dye backpack skipping and twirling alongside the Reflecting Pool on the National Mall and I asked Travis if I could be her.

“Why not?” he countered.

“I’m not four years old and I don’t have a tie-dye backpack.”

“It’s not the backpack that’s making her happy. She’s happy. Be happy.” So I, too, skipped along the National Mall, holding his hand, the weekend I turned 32.

Without him, I would have stayed quietly on the sidelines, trying to blend in. Without him, I wouldn’t have had a bottle of champagne waiting in the hotel for me…because I wouldn’t have told anybody it was my birthday. Without him, I wouldn’t have taken the Amtrak train down and enjoyed the freedom of not driving a car. He’s added so much to my adventures – much more than I’ve had to give up. Sure, I can’t just spin the wheel and choose a destination and dates now. We need to consult our work schedules and our household budget and our adventure priorities. But that’s not a bad thing.

The people who I was once are in the past. They no longer exist on their own, but weaved their way into the fabric of the person I am now. The people who I loved once who no longer exist on their own have also woven their way in. Their impacts on my life shaped me in many ways and continue to surprise me. It’s possible to grieve my losses and still feel joy. And it’s okay to  let down my guard, make compromises, and become part of a true partnership. I don’t have to navigate this wild world alone anymore, and that is, perhaps, the greatest way my experiences shaped me. Every moment in my life has lead up to this.