SMALL STEP, GIANT LEAP
If you are thinking about embarking on a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, you are fooling yourself: you aren’t thinking about it; some part of you has already made the decision to begin.
You just haven’t.
I’ve been reading Emerson lately. You know, as in Ralph Waldo. You might remember him from some high school or college literature course. I’m late coming to Emerson. I’ve been in love with Thoreau for so long that it felt like a little betrayal to open myself to Ralph Waldo. Don’t ask me why. I’m just weird like that. But I’m working on a new novel in which a woman experiences an extreme crisis of faith, and for a few months now my brain has been throbbing with the notion that I was going to have to read Emerson in order to write the book, which has to do with an Oregon farm wife whose husband has to go to prison. Ditto Hildegaard of Bingen. Ditto Julian of Norwich. If you want a soothing way to spend your day, look up the lives and writing of these three people. They are all three of the god-fearing type, which is slightly apart from my own convictions, but what impresses me most about them—aside from their poetics and abject faith in something larger than and outside of themselves—is the extent to which that faith and belief in their individual perceptions carried them. They each believed in the truth of their way of seeing and knowing.
And so it is with changing your diet. Embracing a predominantly vegan or vegetarian diet is a bid toward accessing your own truth, your own axis.
Heady stuff, I know, and maybe not what you wanted to hear.
It’s strange and sad to me to live in a time when the largesse that springs forth from this planet is so unevenly divided. Of course, if we read the record that has been left to us, it has always been that way. But then, the folks who decided what records were to be left were the folks with the largesse. Still, it’s no secret that the empowered have always lorded over the powerless. The good of the few has always superseded the good of the many. The rich have always stood on the shoulders of the working class and the poor. Those who have, gain; those who don’t, lose.
And trust me when I say, dear readers, that we in America are among the world’s rich, no matter how poor we are. No matter if our government is now shut down. Even the hungry among us have it better than billions and billions of others. Even our homeless can fall asleep and expect to awaken again at sunrise with the world as it was the night before. They can dream of change for themselves, for difference. In how many nations of our world can a human fall asleep and not even dare dream of something easier, more comfortable, more loving for him or herself—or worse, not even have language for the concept of better, of hope?
And yet, here we are. We live in a time in the U.S. when one of our worst threats to health comes from largesse. From having access to too much. But—and here is the paradox—that largesse is actually nothing; it is poison; it is air and gunk whipped up and packaged to look like food. It is not actually feeding us.
This is not news.
The fact that so many people at once are starting to be conscious of this represents some brand of awakening, evidence that, as Emerson said, “A thrill passes through all [humans] at the reception of new truths, or at the performance of a great action, which comes out of the heart of nature.” If we as people are an extension of nature, then perhaps it is Mother Earth herself calling out to us in our unhealth, offering through our own instincts a solution to our problem of unhealth. Perhaps, one by one, she is nudging us toward the awareness that it is not health care insurance we need, but someone to explain to us wherein lies health. How do we find it? How do we get to it? Where is my instruction manual?
Which is why I say, if you are thinking about transitioning from the typical nutritionally-deficient-dependent-on-processed foods-American-diet, then some part deep within you knows it is already seeking a solution to something more or less undefinable, a perception you have that there exists a lack in you, perhaps in all of us, and maybe it sounds silly, but it feels like you are missing something, you have this feeling of searching, of wanting. And I’m here to tell you that what you are searching for is nutrients. It’s been roughly a hundred years since agriculture began its descent toward industrialization, less than fifty since family farms began eroding, who knows how long since the government began controlling what farms grow via the stultifying web that are farm subsidies. Here it is in a nutshell: plant roots in the presence of fertilizer grow out, not down. Where do trace nutrients abide? Deep in the soil. And much deeper than a hundred years ago, even fifty years ago. So when you’re eating that chemically fertilized Round-up-Ready ear of corn, you might be eating plenty of it, but you might have to eat ten times as much to get the same nutritional value as an ear of corn grown fifty years ago. Those of us who have been around long enough remember what real food tasted like when it came from the same land we lived on.
Which is why I say, if you’re toying with the idea of switching to a whole foods or a vegan or a vegetarian diet, in truth, the decision has already been made for you, and it is only a matter of time before you say, quietly to yourself, “Okay. I get it. I will. I will do what I’m called to do.”
Which means, beginning the small incremental changes that are required to bring yourself back around to a state of better health than you are enjoying now. Even if you perceive yourself as healthy, you won’t even recognize yourself a year from now, and will wonder what the heck you were thinking, and what took you so long.
Also, if you are young enough that the effects of a lifetime of food-that-isn’t-food hasn’t caught up with you yet, and you start today, you just might stave off the diabetes and hypertension and cancer and heart disease that so plagues my generation. Trust me when I tell you, forty years ago these were all rare diseases.
So. Just what is that first step?
Eat an apple.
That’s it. Just eat an apple.
Don’t quit anything. Don’t give up anything. Don’t empty your cupboards—but if you do, please give it all to the local food bank, because, despite the fact that it’s food-that-isn’t-food, it will still bring some calories and some nourishment to folks who might otherwise have nothing. Even boxed mac-n-cheese gives you a tiny amount of nutrition. Just not enough. And not of the right kind. We are not programmed to extract nutrients from artificial food sources. But, still. If you’re going to make a clean sweep of your cupboards, give it to someone who would otherwise have nothing. Please. Or cook it all up and deliver a feast to those dreaming homeless folks.
So, back to that apple.
(And please, spend the extra few cents to buy organic, because that organic apple feeds a small farming family. That corporate apple makes fat, rich guys fatter and richer. And the organic one is going to taste a hundred times better. It will be sweeter and more dense and will give your teeth and gums a good amount of exercise.)
All it takes is eating one firm, sweet, organic apple to remind you of what food is supposed to taste like. Even better if you’re standing barefoot on dirt. Standing barefoot on dirt, walking barefoot on dirt reminds you what you are supposed to feel like, as a living, breathing, human extension of the natural world. You can cheat and not do the barefoot-on-dirt part, but I’m telling you, try it, and you’ll jumpstart something in yourself that will not go away. You’ll find yourself beset with the notion that you need to get out and away from the city and hike in the woods, the mountains, at the beach. Or at the very least, sit on the grass at a park. You might even give up that job you hate. Decide to try growing your own organic apples.
But if you do eat that apple, that one organic apple, and tomorrow you eat another one, and the next day another one, pretty soon, you will notice that, first of all, you want that daily organic apple, in fact, just don’t feel like yourself without it. And then the next thing you know it will be a carrot, then a hank of chard, then a few tomato slices, then a turnip, then the next next thing you know, you’ll be by-passing the steak for a pound of organic pinto beans, then white beans, then black-eyed peas and wonder how the heck you never knew there were like twenty different kinds of beans, then you’ll see a little pamphlet telling you how to sprout your own mung beans and alfafa seeds and sunflower seeds and so you start doing that and wonder where the hell you’ve been that you didn’t know how much better sprouts are when you make them yourself and how easy it is, and then you’ll decide to find out just exactly what tempeh is all about and the difference between silken and extra-firm tofu and whether you can barbecue it, then you’ll find yourself perusing vegetarian or vegan cookbooks, then jotting down recipes and ingredients right there in the bookstore, maybe cruising the Internet for vegetarian food sites and being stunned by just how many people are getting into vegan and vegetarian living, then—and this is when you know you are truly home free—you’ll buy yourself a cloth grocery bag, or several, and check out the local natural foods market or food co-op and start dividing your shopping according to who has what on sale and start making weekly lists according to what recipes you think you want to try and making most of your food purchases from the bulk bin, where you can buy an entire week’s worth of organic oats for about seventy-five cents and then you’ll get curious about quinoa, and millet, and teff flour, and then you’ll wonder if you should get yourself a blender, if you’d like smoothies, and then you’ll read something about kale being a superfood, and the antioxidant characteristics of blueberries, and the next thing you know you’ll be shopping for a natural foods wholesaler because black beans are so much cheaper if you buy twenty-five pounds at a time, less than fifty-cents a pound, and then—and this is how you really know your life has changed—you’ll be going around to restaurants asking if they have any 5-gallon buckets with lids to give away or sell, because they make such great storage bins for twenty-five pounds of flour and organic pancake mix and just about anything else you can think of and, if they’re sealed tightly, they keep stuff fresh for months.
And then, six months later, or a year, or maybe two—for me it’s taken three years, but I was very unhealthy in the beginning—you will have this moment. This moment when, as Hildegaard of Bingen put it, you are “rooted in the sun; you shine with radiant light.” A moment when you recognize yourself as being part of this greater whole, this element of the natural world. You will feel relaxed, happy, and capable. What you will be feeling is health. This is what comes of restoring your connection by eating food that comes straight from nature unabated and unabridged and of its original structure.
When you start eyeing your planters and pots with the idea of planting seeds in them, please write and tell me. And if you determine that a garbage can might be a good place to grow potatoes, take a photo, and I’ll post it.