Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Waiting


Two weeks ago, I went on a silent retreat in northern Minnesota and was rendered incapable of rushing. Pacem in Terris is a hermitage on twenty acres of wooded land. People come from all over the country to rest in their tiny cabins, to rock in their rocking chairs, looking out over forest with nothing to disturb them.

When I first started preparing to make this trip several months ago, I was nervous, excited, terrified, ecstatic. The emotional roller coaster I rode for weeks was relentlessly unpredictable. There were a million moving parts to this venture. I needed to night wean, to reduce my milk supply enough in order to not be totally engorged over the weekend. I needed to be okay with saying goodbye to my fifteen month old for two nights—this was new territory for me. That very week I was scheduled to leave, I changed my mind twenty times. I was scared of being bored. There was no electricity. Was there heat? The week though starting unseasonably warm, dipped into wintery weather of the sort that usually drives Minnesotans inside for whole days. Jada got sick and nursed fervently for several days. I thought: there is no way this is going to work. But I wanted it so badly, had been waiting for it for so long, I decided to go.

I decided to make the drive even if I didn’t stay for the whole weekend. I decided even if I drove four hours just to come back that night, I was going to try. The girls had been mentally prepared, Ryan claimed to be ready. I packed my suitcase and left.

Armed with a warm sleeping bag, two pillows, an extra furry blanket, two of Twila’s stuffed animals, towels, toilet paper, shampoo, conditioner, face wash, a variety of moisturizers and lotions, a bag of snacks, a flashlight, a note book, a drawing pad, numerous pencils and pens, a hard copy of my novel in rough draft form, a thesaurus, and a bible, I departed prepared to fend off cold and boredom.

In looking back, I think those were my two greatest fears. I was going to a tiny cabin in the woods, a mile away from the main building, surrounded by nothing, in the middle of a wintry April. I was afraid of being cold and I was afraid of being bored. But I was neither.

I guess if I’m being honest, I was also afraid of becoming engorged and of the deafening silence. Once when Jada was young, maybe six months old, right around the time she started really screaming when she was frustrated, it had been a tough day. She was tired and crabby and I had to put her in her car seat. As I leaned in to buckle her, she screamed so loudly in my ear I thought I might have gone deaf. That afternoon as I handed her off to Ryan, I walked back out of the back door and sat in my car for about ten minutes. I shut the doors and closed my eyes and leaned back against the seat. I wanted to listen to nothing, to just let my ears rest in silence. But they had been exposed to so much noise that day, I couldn’t stand the silence. In fact there wasn’t silence. There was instead a high pitched ringing that wouldn’t leave my brain. I wanted to cry because I felt like my body was damaged. I fought against resentment towards my baby for hurting my ears.

When I drove out to Pacem in Terris I was afraid instead of relishing the silence, relaxing in the peace of solitude, I would be aching in the pain of engorgement, rocking back and forth holding my ears as they were pierced with the hallow ring of deafening silence.

But again, my fears were for naught.

Sitting alone in my tiny cabin, looking out the giant picture window, I rocked for hours, wrapped in a warm blanket, incapable of boredom, incapable it seemed, of doing anything. I let my mind wander. With the windows open, I listened to the rustling of leaves, the chattering of squirrels, the chirped conversations of birds. Occasionally the wind swirled through the branches of the leafless forest. When I was tired I slept, regardless of the time of day. When I was hungry I ate.

When I was finished resting I put on my coat and walked the grounds. The tall, bare tress swayed in the constant wind of the open fields. By Friday afternoon the air temperature was dropping, the wind picking up and the sky clouding over. I walked in giant circles, listening to the wind and the creaking of branches overhead. The highest branches rubbed against each other creating an eerie squeak like an old wooden door opening and closing over and over again. The multitude of branches chorused in ghostly screeches as the wind grew stronger and stronger. When I reached the lake, the wind was so strong coming off of it, and the air so cold, numbing my cheeks and nose, I felt like I was caught in a blizzard.

Once back in my cabin, I turned up the gas heater and cranked the windows closed. There in the safety and warmth of my cabin I listened to the wind howling outside. As darkness overtook the last overcast rays of setting sun, I thought for the first time about my manuscript, printed and stowed at the bottom of my suitcase.

I lit the gas light and wrapped up on the rocking chair with a cup of tea whose herbs were supposed to help me sleep. I turned on my phone and called Ryan to say goodnight and ask him to kiss the girls for me. I rocked for a while longer, wondering if I should look at my book.

It had been my plan to use this time to read through my three hundred page novel at least once, redlining and editing, slashing paragraphs, journaling about changes. I was ecstatic about these plans. Until I got there.

Once inside the grounds of Pacem in Terris, I was blanketed with peaceful slowness. I was instantly humbled by the energy there. It was a quietly, almost regal vibe that commanded respect. No sooner had I driven through the gates did I pull over and shut down my cell phone. Like sitting in church or at a play, I felt it would have been egregiously rude to have my phone ring in this place. I was on hallowed ground.

Suddenly, my plans and ambitions for the time here seemed laughable. After helping me settle in my cabin, the kindly woman who had driven me and all my luggage to the cabin, oriented me on the grounds and acquainted me with all the amenities I might need, left me to my solitude. I realized two things as soon as I was alone. The first was that I had overfilled my itinerary with the busy work of normal life. The second was that I had overfilled my suitcase.

Of all the many things I had packed, the only things I would bring again were my clothes, toothbrush, face was and moisturizers. And maybe my personal notebook.

So well thought out and designed are the cabins there that I could have literally turned my car north on a last minute whim, or in a desperate need to escape the stress of life out “there” and rolled up to the gates with nothing. In utter saint like service, the Pacem staff provides for every need. They give you a basket of food, they make dinner each night at the main house. There are showers with towels, shampoo and conditioner in the main house. In the cabins there are beds with clean sheets, blankets and pillows, a heater, a light. In the cupboards there are plates, cups, bowls and utensils, notebooks and pencils and pens. There is a giant bible and one other book about the practice of going into the desert. There are candles and matches, clean drinking water, coffee, tea. I literally could not think of one thing I needed that wasn’t there for me.

I felt a little silly with my stacks of luggage. I was armed for sleeping in an empty and unheated shack. I didn’t just survive my weekend in the woods. I was nourished by it. And so I sat, on Friday night, my pajamas on, my flashlight in hand, my book on my lap. I wanted to read it, wanted to wrestle with the characterization, layer the plot and iron out the wrinkles. I love writing. It’s my lifeline. So why did I feel so uninterested in turning my writer’s brain on?

I couldn’t help but move slowly. Hours flowed by and I didn’t feel the need to fill them with anything but my thoughts. Awareness became the only thing that mattered; the only thing I had to do was be aware. And the only thing I wasn’t aware of, was the one thing I was afraid I would be aware of: time. I was scared of boredom, but the time flowed by.

On Saturday morning, I woke up to thick, sticky snow coating the twigs outside my giant picture window. I made coffee and rocked for an indeterminate amount of time. As I sat, watching the forest, the hot sun burned off the cloud cover and melted every clinging blob of snow. I don’t know how long it took but by the time the snow was gone and the birds were playing in the leaves, foraging for seeds, I was hungry. So I ate and then I took a nap.

Since I became a mom four and a half years ago, I have not one day of my life done so little as I did the weekend I was away at Pacem in Terris. Yet the weekend flew by. On Sunday morning I woke up to tiny balls of hail showering the roof of my cabin. It was so cold that the hail remained, scattered across the dirt paths and the open fields until mid morning. I missed the girls and Ryan and I was slightly engorged when I left. I was fully ready to be home. I had done a lot of writing in my journal and had read about two thirds of my book. It was less than I had wanted to do in theory. But in practice it was more than I felt like doing. I felt oddly like I had cheated myself by creating chores for my time there.

I came home a week and a half ago now and since my return to real life, I have yet to feel like I am back in my real life. Though the house is the same and my kids are the same, more or less, and the challenges of motherhood are the same. The unrelenting assault of viruses seems to be the same. But I am not quite the same. I seem to be missing the urgency impulse that drove me through the last 1,642 days of parenthood.

There is still a lot to do. The house still gets messy faster than I could ever hope to pick it up. My kids are still battling stomach bugs, still want to be read to and played with. The warring question of what to feed my family is still as unsettled as ever, the bills still need to be paid, the office is still a disaster and appointments still need to be made, emails checked and responded to, phone calls returned. And most importantly, I still desperately want to make books, to tell stories, and create. But unlike before, I don’t feel the bursting, manic compulsion to accomplish all of these goals today. In fact the priority order may have reshuffled itself too. Because, as I start each day, being yanked from deep sleep by one whispering child or another, just like always, I see the necessity of things differently. My impulse is to do the less urgent things first. My impulse is to make coffee, eat, sit on the floor with my daughters as I slowly wake up. My impulse isn’t even so much an impulse these days as it is a lack of impulse. I tend toward looking out the window as the morning unfolds, searching for our loon and spotting ducks with Jada, watching the direction of the waves and the caliber of the wind as it gathers across the lake.

My homing device is still drawing me on towards writing, but the pace of my vehicle is slowing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I don’t still struggle with the need to do a hundred things at once. To stop juggling ten top priorities at once would, it seems, be to stop being a mom. But I’ve stopped viewing most of the priorities as ticking time bombs. Life is short but it’s also long. It’s long compared to how short babyhood is. It’s long compared to the relative short amount of time my daughters will be here under my roof.

The time to write will be available my whole life, God willing, the time for a clean house will maybe be in the future. Now is the time to quack at the ducks with Jada and play “Jack and Annie” with Twila and have play dates with our friends and happy hours with other weary moms.

This past week was a time of reflecting, of growing and letting go. Things are shifting in my mind and in the atmosphere all around. As winter finally gives way to spring, life and vitality prevails outside. And clarity, order and a small glimmer of peace prevail inside.




Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Going Wild

Thank you all for reading my essay on animals and nutrition and thank you for all the feedback and comments you’ve sent. I was delighted to hear that my thoughts and wonderings resonated with so many of you. I was surprised and gratified to find that I am not alone in my struggle to do what’s “right” when it comes to nutrition.

Bellow are just a few of the comments I received:

“I've been very interested in your last two blog posts about the idea of eating meat and implications of eating it ASIDE from nutritional value…how much water is used, how much food is used, just to produce a little bit of meat…how have we never been taught any of this???”

“I've really appreciated your last two blog entries. I'm debating all this myself. […]In one of his books Thich Nhat Hanh talks about one aspect of all this that we need to consider. He gives an example of eating eggs. The chickens are not killed for their eggs, so it sounds okay. But he describes what happens to chickens -- often "organic" chickens, are included in this situation -- Not only are they given no room to roam, they are crammed so tightly together that their instinct causes them to peck at each other out of frustration and self-protection. Solution? The farmers cut off their beaks, so they can't hurt each other[…]So I still eat eggs, but I choose carefully which eggs I buy.”

“This post on nutrition and diet made me uncomfortable in the best way.”

I’ve also been challenged by several people about the suggestion that a vegan diet is necessarily best. As one person pointed out:

“There are exceptions to all good operating guidelines, such as people who need more calories and/or protein than they can get from low fat plant foods. People who are pregnant, breastfeeding, growing, muscle building, who have digestive difficulties or other problems eating or maintaining an adequate weight—all these people are going to need something more. [There are] good reasons to enjoy and benefit from some meat.”

As something of a follow up to these semi-conclusions, and just to add another factor to the fun and confusion, something happened that brought all of my reading and pondering to an abrupt and poignant head, turning my intended direction on yet another obscure angle.

I was nursing my fourteen month old, which is a mixed bag of joys and irritations anyway. Nursing a toddler, one has to contend with thrashing and goofing off, kicking feet, pinching fingers and, of course, teeth. But there are also the intangible joys of nursing an older baby that one almost has to experience to fully understand. There are the smiles of gratitude, the non-verbal requests and the joy they experience when their request is understood and granted, the silly peek-a-boo games and the great nursing smile so difficult to execute while maintaining a latch. So I was negotiating one such nursing venture when we switched sides and suddenly I felt like there was a knife stabbing into my chest. My body convulsed as I struggled to break Jada’s latch without losing an important part of my anatomy. Sweat rose on every square inch of my skin at the excruciating pain of nursing.

I was stunned and, after being unceremoniously removed from my body, so was Jada. In the years of my nursing career I had never experienced such agony, not even in the first days. As I caught my breath, I examined my breast only to discover that I had two, thin, open cuts under my nipple. It was during the last days of my antibiotic treatment for a raging breast infection I had just recovered from so I was wary about what on earth was going on. Nursing has always been something that came easily to me. My body produces an abundance of milk. Even after the birth of my birthdaughter, when my midwife told me my milk would likely not even come in or if it did, it would dry up in four to six weeks, it came in unexpected tidal waves that lasted for more than four months. So these recent cases of breastfeeding struggles in the last months of my breastfeeding career, have stopped me in the tracks of my complacency. I realized that I’ve been taking for granted something many people struggle for.

I started asking around to try and find out what might be going one. I polled several veteran nursers. But when I talked to a good friend of mine who has a lot of experience with thrush (yeast in the baby’s digestive tract which transfers to the nipple—ouch!), I ran smack into an intellectual wall when she told me that certain nutritional decisions can bring on thrush. Those nutritional decisions? Eating too many fruits, grains, beans and starchy vegetables. You’ve got to be kidding me. If you haven’t read my last three blog posts, I’ll bring you up to speed.

In a nut shell, I’ve been struggling with what to feed my kids and myself, questioning the very foundations of healthy eating that have long been praised by public opinion and the food industries. Namely: meat and dairy. I’ve been wrestling with food issues ranging from personal health, environmental ethics, spirituality and social responsibility. In short, I’ve been gravitating towards a vegan diet. Now this friend of mine who was sharing her wisdom about thrush was a vegan for about twenty five years. The reason she began eating meat, I just learned, was that she and her second child wrestled over and over again with thrush.

Thrush, if you have been lucky enough never to experience it, is hell. It causes excruciating pain—in your nipple. If you are breastfeeding you can’t just stop. At least, not when you produce the volume of milk I do, not without getting another breast infection. Oh, and its extremely difficult to get rid of. One of the causing factors is antibiotics. It is a long slow process of caring for the open wound, and waiting. Somehow you have to negotiate nursing when you feel like your breast is on fire. If you still aren’t grasping the magnitude of the discomfort, let’s just say: it’s enough to make a vegan of twenty five years start eating meat.

As I spoke to this ex-vegan over the phone images of my previous two weeks came flashing before my eyes: Platefuls of cut up organic strawberries, green grapes, bananas, wild rice blends, sweet potato fries…

If I felt crushed in the grocery store isle reading Robbins’ book admonishing protein, I felt ground into a fine powdery dust as this information landed. I felt betrayed by natural foods. What on earth is safe to eat? I wondered. If you can’t eat rice and beans, how can a vegan get enough protein? If I can’t let my kids snack on fruit, what am I supposed to give them? Crackers are out of fashion, cereal is a no-no, dairy contributes to yeast, soy has estrogen in it. I mean, my kids are good eaters but I can only give them so many cashews, carrot sticks and frozen peas before they’re going to start a riot. Coconut milk ice cream? The safe list seems unfairly small.

I used to think that if I just had the discipline to eat as close to nature as possible, we would be healthy and my conscious would be clear. But the closer I get to a “healthy” diet, the further I realize I am from knowing where to begin to make the right choices for my family and the planet. Last night I made free range ground turkey and organic zucchini, which seems to be the only organic vegetable Super Target can get right. It felt like the right thing to do. But my kids didn’t eat the turkey opting instead for a tortilla filled with cheese. I ate the turkey realizing how much I’ve been craving protein.

This afternoon as the girls and I sat eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches, and looking out the window at the receding snow on our front lawn, a wild turkey ran right into our yard. Really, I’m not creative enough to make that up. The girls leaped up on their seats and pointed startling the giant thing. We watched its head-bobbing gait as it circumnavigated the open expanse of grass then turned towards the woods and galloped away. Synchronicity or random chance? I have no idea. And though I know more about food and its production and the impacts of raising meat versus vegetables now than when I started reading two weeks ago, I am still very much at square one.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Straddling the Fence on Nutrition: Part II


Last week when I started contemplating nutrition I had to ask the question, if we can thrive on a vegan diet, why shouldn’t we? I began to wonder, is there something inherently unhealthy about eating vegan? I jokingly wondered aloud, are vegans running into walls, drooling, are they somehow inferior? But my reading and research has shown, so far, just the opposite.

According the The National Cancer Institute,vegetarians celebrate lower cancer rates. They say that women who eat meat every day are nearly four times more likely to get breast cancer than those who don't. By contrast, women who consume at least one serving of vegetables a day reduce their risk of breast cancer by thirty percent, according to the Harvard Nurses Health Study. Studies done at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg Germany suggest that this is because vegetarians' immune systems are more effective in killing off tumor cells than meat eaters'. Studies have also found a plant-based diet helps protect against prostate, colon and skin cancers. Maybe the Hallelujah Diet isn’t as nutty as it sounds, I began to think.

When I started reading last Saturday, I expected to find a real controversy about dietary benefits of meat versus soy raging out there on the web. I didn’t expect to be so one-sidedly persuaded that returning to a life of meatless eating would benefit not just my health but the cleanliness of the planet. As if I wasn’t convinced enough, I came across this bit of information about how meat eating directly takes food from people who most need it.

Right now, seventy two percent of all grain produced in the United States is fed to animals raised for slaughter. It takes fifteen pounds of grain to get one pound of beef. But if the grain were given directly to people, there'd be enough food to feed the entire planet. In addition, according to the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, one acre of land could produce 50,000 pounds of tomatoes, 40,000 pounds of potatoes, 30,000 pounds of carrots or…just 250 pounds of beef.

I consider myself something of a social activist. Of course, as a mother, I’m a less active activist. But I am passionate about the world water crisis and world hunger. Who when really faced with the question of world hunger isn’t passionate about it? “Do you want kids going hungry?” Of course not. No one with a heart does. The problem is we are so removed from the concept of food shortage, its hard for us to grasp the reality that right now there are people, children around the world who are hungry, suffering from one of the most basic needs of human survival, and they can’t satisfy this need.

In America food is an industry. Food is actually marketed to us. I don’t know that there are many other countries in the world that need to have commercials for food. If there is one product in the world that sells itself, isn’t it food? Yet here in the US, the TV waves are filled, packed with food advertisements. Most of us are not just faced with the question: are you going to eat tonight? We have the luxury of being asked: Where will you eat tonight?

Yes times are tough here in The United States of America. Unemployment is on the rise, salaries and bonuses are down, yet a great many of us, even those of us who have lost jobs or had our hours cut back are still lucky enough to have enough. And that means we’re a lot better off than a great many people around the planet.

So when I consider my choice to make a pot roast, I can’t just weigh the impact that red meat has on my health, or the likelihood my children and my husband will consume it. I think, as an inactive activist, I also have to consider: at what cost has this meat come to my super market? At what cost will it come to my table?

I used to feel that if I bought meat from my co-op and if it had a special sticker on it declaring that in its life, this former animal was fed only grass and was given the privilege to roam freely before it was slaughtered for my gastronomical pleasure, and if it was raised within a hundred miles of my door, I was free to consume with guilt free pleasure. After the reading I’ve fallen into these past four days, I feel it would be irresponsible to not also consider that this pound of beef I just bought required fifteen pounds of feed, and produced seventeen kg of CO2 emissions. But my questions don’t stop there.

If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you know that the world water crisis is a cause very close to my heart, so naturally I also wanted to know, just how much water is needed to produce a pound of beef. Noteworthy ecologist Georg Borgstrom, stated twenty years ago that production of a one pound steak requires 2,500 gallons of water. Of course this is a hotly debated number. Some ecologists have more recently stated that the amount of water required for a one-pound beef steak is closer to 6,000 gallons. Meat producers argue that much of the water is returned to the soil through the cattle’s’ urination.

As a person passionate about this urgent issue, I feel that whether this number is 2,000 or 6,000 or even as low as 1,000—it’s too much! According to the December 1999 issue of Audubon, “Nearly half the country’s consumption of fresh water is for the production of cattle.” This is a shocking number.

(For more on the world water crisis, watch this amazing documentary Blue Gold).

When I was in elementary school, the advent of Earth Day made school children more aware of the “Green House Effect” and how important it is to conserve energy by shutting our bedroom lights off when we went downstairs for dinner and turning the water off while we brush our teeth. We learned mind-blowing figures like the fact that leaving the water running while we soaped our hands, could waste as much as five gallons of water. We dutifully took these shocking figures home to share with our parents and siblings. We crafted artwork that reflected our passion for saving mother earth. Nowhere in these presentations do I remember hearing that the pot roast that was going to be dished onto my plate that night took upwards of a thousand gallons of water to produce. Not once did the teacher mention that when we went down to the cafeteria for taco day, we were going to be standing witness to hundreds of thousands of gallons of water wasted to produce the tiny pearls of meat floating in dark gravy in our crunchy taco shells.

There is something about eating meat, which—even since those days of elementary school leading up to my big announcement to my parents—seemed fundamentally wrong. Why is it, I often wonder, that the idea of eating animal products has always repulsed me on some level? I know I wasn’t taught this thinking by my parents or teachers and certainly not by the food advertisers who control the cultural climate of eating. But I realize now as I think about it that even in the eleven years following my teen pregnancy and my reintroduction to meat, the act of eating meat and dairy was never second nature. Rather it was a logical decision. Each time I purchased, prepared and consumed meat it was a choice I made because I believed it to be the most nutritious choice. Indeed it felt responsible to prepare meat for dinner. On a visceral level though, there was something I had to overcome each time I made the choice to consume animal protein. Over the course of eleven years, hurdling this barrier became well rehearsed and an act I no longer gave any thought to.

But a certain few instances over the last eleven years shed light on the reality that there was something deep in my wiring not okay with the exploitation of animals as a commodity; a source of protein and entertainment for people.

When Ryan and I got engaged, we were in Spain. In the weeks that followed our engagement we traveled to several cities in Spain, visiting museums and familiarizing ourselves with the local night life. It was a great draw: the night club in Madrid with a tiger. There he was right by the door, lying caged in a booming dance club. He was a huge and majestic creature and he lay splayed on the floor batting at his water dish, impotent and bored. The music thumped and blared hurting my own insensitive human ears. I couldn’t dance at all. I stood watching him, fighting an irresistible urge to reach through the thin chicken wire and rub his ears. The man standing guard said I couldn’t, no matter how many times I asked. But I’ve never stopped thinking about him, wondering where they got him, where he is today.

When I was pregnant with Jada, I took Twila to the Minnesota Zoo. There was a special cow milking demonstration while we were there so we decided to attend. A great big black-and-white Holstein was ushered out onto a high cement platform about eye level with the audience. The cows’ eyes flashed round and huge as they rolled around their giant sockets trying to size up the group of people watching her. Her udders hung low, and heavy; clearly full of milk. The handlers corralled her into a metal labyrinth through which her udders hung and over which her head could look out. It resembled a short jail cell, big enough to contain her large muscular body but not big enough for her to move away from the oncoming milking device.

The handler thumped on her udders with her fist, “simulating the head butting of a hungry calf to make the milk let down,” she explained. The handler quickly dipped all six udders into an iodine solution to kill any possible bacteria then clamped the pumping device onto each nipple. A moment later milk was gushing from the cow’s udders. One gallon, two gallons, five, seven. The milk poured into a large collecting beaker nearby. We were amazed at how fast the empty glass container was filled. As the Holstein was milked she defected on the stage. A low rumble of surprise rose up from the audience and the handler with a speaker attached to her head explained that this sometimes happened when a cow was being milked.

As she finished the milking she took questions. One person asked where the milk from this demonstration went; she said it would be sold to stores. Twila asked if she could pet the cow and the woman said no, that it might scare her. As a breastfeeding mother, I had only one question on my mind. I raised my hand, feeling anxious as I always do when I draw attention to myself. The woman recognized me and I asked: “Where is the baby? Do the babies get some of this milk?”

The handler smiled and said that the babies are mostly kept away from the mothers so they don’t contaminate their udders with bacteria from feces or their mouths and that the babies are given a milk substitute.

Leaving the zoo that day, I felt low. With a baby in my womb and a little girl holding my hand, I felt the dull sting of an injustice being done to this mother cow. And I felt like I was contributing to it. It felt as if watching the mother cow’s fear and humiliation as she was milked, was an even worse exploitation of her than stealing the breastmilk from her baby. I thought about taking her breastmilk for myself while her baby was given formula. Something about it felt profoundly out of whack.

But we went home to cow’s milk in the fridge, because that’s what everybody does. Because kids are supposed to drink milk—aren’t they? Because I had recently read that soy milk has estrogen in it that shrinks the testicles of males and increases the breasts of little girls, and it just seems sometimes like there is no other option but to follow the current of mainstream culture.

It surprised me to realize that day how much worse it felt to watch the milking of a cow than to participate in the skinning of a deer. When I was pregnant with my birthdaughter, her birthfather, an avid deer hunter, brought home a huge eight point buck. His mother and step dad were big hunters also and didn’t bat an eye at inviting his six-month pregnant girlfriend to step into the garage and help yank the pelt off of a deer hanging from the rafters. Not being one to back down from a challenge, I stepped in and took hold of its fur. I focused on the mechanical aspects of the task, removing my thoughts from the reality of what I was doing. Afterwards I was not traumatized. In fact, I have thought much less about that deer over the years than I have about the mother cow milked in front of us.

On some level, the death of the deer felt honorable, justified. He was a strong and healthy male who lived a long life in the freedom of the outdoors. Besides, I was a meat eater then. I have long believed that unless one is a vegetarian, they have no right to protest hunting. To hunt and kill meat for yourself instills a person with a much deeper respect for the animal who gave his life to be eaten than the person who picks up a plastic wrapped pound of ground beef raised for slaughter in the midst of deplorable, disgusting and depressing conditions.

So I skinned the deer and ate venison for the first time. Yet I still bite my nails over pouring cow breast milk into a sippy cup. I still agonize at the grocery store weighing an eggplant in one hand and a chuck roast in the other. I still think about the gorgeous tiger lying behind the flimsy cage in Spain. And I keep thinking about those baby dolphins filmed in The Cove, trapped, separated from their mothers awaiting slaughter. Because the whole issue isn’t just about whether or not to eat meat, it’s about how we care for and honor animals and the planet. It’s about the impact our nutritional habits and our desire to be entertained by animals have. So it’s complicated.

And here I am, falling deeper down the rabbit hole of nutrition than I imagined I would. Here I am, more confused than ever but mainly because I’ve been given much more clarity than I expected; perhaps clarity I didn’t want yet. But here it is.

So last night I made a wild and brown rice blend with vegan chili beans and sautéed red bell peppers. And I fed the girls chicken nuggets, because we moms walk a tightrope of responsibilities; and sometimes, for a while, we have to straddle the fence.