In the mists of my childhood, I remember a wonderfully fun day of fishing with my dad at a lake somewhere in Kentucky. It was reedy and teeming with life and tall grass and all the fun creatures that live in such places. I had never been fishing before, though I had some idea that the fish we ate at home had lived in watery homes, free to swim, and that one could take a cool looking pole and bait a hook and entice them to bite.
At the time, Kentucky waters were not the safest (valley of the barrels was a phrase I heard often), so fishing meant catch and release, no eating.
The day was idyllic in all ways except one. The little rainbow fish I caught, laid on the rock under the water after I threw it back in, its white and colorful fins no longer moving.
It died. And I cried. A beautiful irridescent creature no longer lived. Something was lost and I didn’t understand.
Yet I did.
The Hebrew word for the soul’s breath is nephesh. The fish’s nephesh was gone.
Another Hebrew phrase comes to mind, tikkum olam, to mend the world. The world unravels in places like a fraying garment and we are called to reweave the threads.
The world unraveled a bit for me as I hoped without hope that the fish would leave the rock and swim away, shaking off its frightful moment in the world of human air.
I felt in that moment, for the first time, my impact on the world could be destructive and I wanted to reweave what I had unraveled and breath life back into the little fish.
Years passed and the fish memory faded. My interest in creation took on a more detached quality. I was in biology club throughout school, dissecting and classifying and facing the loss of nephesh with equanimity.
One science fair I had access to the full services of a medical laboratory and set out to prove to my fellow students the dangers of eating too many Pringles potato chips. This involved 12 lab mice and lots of chips.
I’m certain I’m still whispered about in the mouse kingdom as She-who-must-not-be-named.
The results were sobering, but there were no tears this time.
Yet, still, a dissonance lived quietly in the corner of my heart that held that earlier memory. As I recently volunteered for two years with a Boston animal shelter, fostering and nurturing abandoned cats, the dissonance became louder. As I daily watch the feathered and furry creatures that visit my balcony or are on the other side of my camera lens, the dissonance is deafening. As I get older, it seems more and more important to pay attention.
But how? Become a vegetarian? There have been a few years here and there when I’ve chosen that practice, but now reading more about factory farming and how dairy production is tied in with meat production, I’m not as comfortable with that choice. The other option, vegan, seems impossible to maintain.
And I must admit, I don’t much like vegetables.
At one point, I learned that the Eastern Orthodox Christians practice a vegan diet for Lent. That seemed radical yet possible: a 40-day peaceable kingdom written into the church year. So I decided to try it. Three days in, I crawled to my friend Kimberlee, weak and wan, and admitted defeat. I had simply stopped eating, unsure what to replace animal products with.
This past Tuesday, I mentioned my Lenten vegan fantasy to her again and she, with inestimable wisdom, suggested I only do it on Wednesdays and Fridays. I’m sure she does not want a repeat of last time.
My response: “You know I simply won’t eat on those days.”
“Fine, then you’ll fast.”
But I want to do more than go without food, I want to find joy (and even yummyness) in other options that allow little lives to not grace my dinner plate. This takes intentional effort.
So today I practiced a meal. The nice thing about practicing something, like scales on a piano, is that no one, including me, expects perfection.
“Are you vegan?”
“No, I’m just living in the peaceable kingdom for lunch today.”
I created a yummy dish of warmed chard (so much better than spinach) with sesame oil, garlic, ginger, scallions, and lemon juice. With it, I ate gnocchi filled with yams, covered in marinara and vegan mozzarella.
And I, someone who was often told “You drink so much milk, we need to buy a cow,” finished off the meal with a glass of vanilla hemp milk (actually quite good).
It’s only one meal, but it’s a beginning, in honor of that little fish, 3o years ago.
(And if you have favorite vegan recipes, please share!)