Tomorrow, the last day of 2012, I turn 54 so today, December 30, invites reflection. 35 years ago, I became a vegetarian when I encountered a cow tongue in my step-grandmother’s refrigerator. Today I became a vegan (six months after giving up dairy and eggs except for two or three times eating eggs from my friend Kacey’s bantam hens who were hatched locally). I cracked open the last eggs in my fridge and as I whisked them, the thick golden yolk turned blood orange—and I knew: now I am a vegan just as I have been a vegetarian for 35 years without any intentional exception.
The clarity is useful for me not because I crave rigidity. I don’t. I seek to be more of a sapling able to bend under the weight of snow or wind without snapping than to be a mighty oak so sturdy I have no choice but to stand or fall. The clarity of choice is helpful because I am given to equivocating when I am unsure how to best achieve a sense of connection with Creation.
I do not sense there is a singular path to connection suited for all travelers. I recognize that my desire to feel harmoniously connected with more-than-human animal beings means being vegan. Concomitantly I realize in order to connect with human beings I do well not to press my choice into theirs. I can model vegan wholeheartedness all the while acknowledging my botanical kin may feel aggrieved by my plant-based diet. I live with the paradox that the serenity I experience gazing at cows grazing in an open field arises because a farmer raises cows for food. Beyond the few farm sanctuaries that exist, I know of no cows given pasture to graze in for the sheer pleasure of their lolling company.
Thus I am reminded that out of constraint and narrow places—Mitzrayim— emerges the opportunity to bloom. Surely we are related to the bulbs of narcissus and amaryllis blossoming in winter after intense gestation without light. Like the ancient Hebrews led out of Egypt into a desert that felt alienating and dire instead of liberating and familiar, we balk at the wilderness before discovering its riches.
Throughout my life I have wandered in and out of spiritual wilderness, kvetching at times (though thankfully not too often) as vigorously as those pre-Israelites hollering at Moses for water and food. Why on earth would they want to be freed from bondage so that they would wander for forty years in search of sustenance? Graciously, the forty years I have touched the soil of interior wilderness have been laden with succor—and on the cusp of 54 I can see how so much of the joy and fulfillment in my life arises from the time spent immersed in the desert. The abiding friendships cured in the brine of those years; my love dog Zuki who came directly from the wilderness; the kinships hewn from my attempts at partnership that taught me the many shapes family can take.
On the brink of this new year, the sun glints across the snow out my window. My friend Grace returns from a woods walk with Zuki cut short by the four-wheelers roaring down the trail. It is easy to disconnect from youthful riders on loud machines, to say nothing of the tormented young men wielding semi-automatic weapons in movie theaters and schools or in the face of Malala Yousafzai. Oh so easy to distance myself from the NRA officials who want armed guards in classrooms. Easy to scoff at the ridiculousness of believing the answer to gun violence is more guns. So I dig into my bag of experience and remember a previous season in my early thirties when I taught at a private psych hospital in the locked adolescent ward and caught myself leaning too far into the face of a troubled and troubling teen and told him what I could do to him. In a flash, I, the great defender of underdogs everywhere, the one who identified with the prisoners and never the officers, glimpsed my own jackboots and badge. In that moment when I felt so utterly powerless to change the troubling aspects of that adolescent’s crappy circumstance and rotten demeanor, I reached for the ersatz power of authority. Surely the NRA spokespeople who propose armed guards in schools while fighting any further regulation of the sale of ammo or guns feel as powerless as I did to stop the river of brutality that can erupt undetected from what appears an inconsequential tributary. So they reach for what is closest at hand. More guns, theoretically placed in “the right hands” to protect our young. Of course it is easier to argue about legislation than it is to join together in the toe-reaching sigh of heartbreak that we have allowed (even actively participated in) the disintegration of beingness, the severing of connection that births not simply a series of singular gunmen gone awry, but a culture of weaponry and destruction as sophisticated as drones and as crude as rape.
It is not just individuals who crawl across parched earth stumbling after mirages; our species for all its technological hurtling through space and time, slogs step by step in search of the waters of Babylon. The beauty we encounter, our capacity for awe and our willingness to descend fully into it, the palpable connection to the beings and places (alive with being) we love form the drops of water we lift to our tongue—collected from the brambles and leaves, snow and ice, and grit and dust, wings and paws that surround and sustain us.
We were not given a desert in which to find water. Rather we are left to divine water in the desertification we create; perhaps oh perhaps the aridity will summon us to savor not squander each drop. To taste the sweetness and make ourselves into rain.