The Place of the Gods

I have been reading an interesting exchange of posts between John Beckett and John Halstead on Patheos Pagan, and today I read a post by Mark Green of Atheopaganism in response to this.

John Beckett: “The Future of Polytheism: Keeping the Gods at the Front”

John Halstead: “If It Doesn’t Help Me Save This World, I Don’t Want Your Polytheist Revolution”

Mark Green: “Castles in the Air”

John Halstead and Mark Green represent an atheistic branch of Paganism. They value the Earth-centered approach to Paganism and they think of Gods and Goddesses as mere ideas, or perhaps archetypes. On one hand, I have some understanding of this point of view. I did go through a phase of a kind of Pantheism myself a number of years ago, but where I am today, and with the experiences that I have had, I am having a hard time understanding how this view has religious value.

Let me explain what I see as the purpose of religion, and why I have to agree with John Beckett’s point of view that we must put the Gods first when it comes to religion. This does not minimize the problems of the world, the environmental crises, the violence, and the social disparities. These are huge issues that must be addressed. We must focus on them and take action in our own life to save our world. But I believe that is true for people of all religious persuasions and is not exclusive to Pagans and Polytheists.

The purpose of religion is not to provide morality. It can, but I think that’s a slippery project. The whole discipline of Ethics built on Reason (and not instructions from a God) comes directly out of the Polytheist traditions of ancient Greece. I am completely in agreement with the common Atheist saying that if you need the threat of eternal punishment to prevent you from being a bad person, then you are already a bad person.

The purpose of religion is not to provide answers about the afterlife. Again, it can, but I also find this slippery. There is certainly no consensus among Pagans or Polytheists about what happens after death. I don’t think agnosticism about what happens after death is incompatible with Polytheism. My general view is that we should concentrate on the world at hand.

When it comes to morality and afterlife concerns, keep in mind that Polytheists don’t believe that their Gods and Goddesses are omnipotent or omniscient. Their powers are greater than humans and their vision goes beyond what we know, but that doesn’t mean they infallibly know the future or even that they can be trusted in all things.

Religion may foster communities, preserve traditions, provide support to members. All these are great, but they’re not essential or exclusive to religion.

What religion provides – and no other institution provides – is an encounter with the Divine. Not the “idea” of the Divine, but the actual Divine. If you think Gods and Goddesses are “ideas”, you clearly haven’t met one. Anyone who knows a God or Goddess, who has had an actual encounter with one, knows that they are not just an idea. They are individual, unexpected, and specific. Encountering a God is not abstract. It is not really otherworldly. It’s immediate, specific, and real.

To encounter a deity, a power greater than oneself, does not require or imply that the God or Goddess is eternal or otherworldly. Gods and Goddesses can and do die in many Polytheist traditions, and they may or may not be reborn. I have encountered and very much believe in genii loci (spirits of place) in beautiful natural places. I encounter them in forest preserves and lakes not too far from my home. If these places were destroyed, bull-dozed, polluted, paved over, I think these spirits would be gone. There’s nothing in a parking lot to nourish them, and they would no longer exist there. They are immediate and of the world, and my concern with preserving natural places and the larger environment is absolutely one with my concern for them. This is not “other-worldly”.

I happen to have had many other encounters with Gods and Goddesses, and this is what keeps me connected to my religious path. It seems to me that atheist Pagans miss the most essential part of being a part of the religion (or the religious tent) of Paganism. If the Gods and Goddesses are just “ideas”, then perhaps they can just be dismissed. But if you only encounter them as ideas, you have missed the unique and powerful experience that Polytheist practice can provide.

Polyamory and Polytheism

When I first think of polyamory, like many others, I think of polygamy traditions in Mormonism, Islam and in other cultures. This consists of one man with multiple wives. It seems like the height of patriarchal thinking. The Alpha male gets multiple partners to make his babies and maintain his multiple households. As a feminist, it’s hard to see the appeal of this arrangement. More troubling still, this is often associated with child brides – marriages arranged for young teenage girls (or even younger) with much older men. This is absolutely not consistent with a culture of consent (as I discussed in a previous post).

But there is a different kind of polyamory, or rather, a broader type of polyamory, because it opens up possibilities for many different shapes of relationships. I have been looking into and educating myself about this lately. It is not especially easy to do. Much of the coverage is sensationalized or judgmental in nature, and much of the dynamics of a relationship are considered private by those taking part.

A number of people have referred to Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as an inspiration for polyamory. I don’t actually know the book, but I do have my own Sci Fi inspiration for a polyamorous model. It was in “Caprica”, the short-lived “Battlestar Galactica” prequel series. We see Sister Clarice Willow (portrayed by the wonderful Polly Walker) at home with her polyamorous family. She is in bed with two husbands and one wife, and there are multiple others in the household. It’s not fully defined. It is just presented as a normal part of the culture – which happens to be a pagan culture. Sister Clarice is, at least on the surface, a priestess of the pagan pantheon and a school headmistress. She appears to be the height of respectability, and this family structure is a part of her respectable life.

I think that there is a certain sense that paganism, and polytheism in particular, are congruent with a polyamorous way of thinking. As we can be devoted to many gods and goddesses, we can be devoted to multiple partners – without diminishing the value of any. I have been observing lately that many Pagans do embrace polyamory.

It seems to be a value to polyamorous people (of this more modern type) that honesty, consent and respect are necessary to make relationships function.

There are multiple structures of relationships with this new kind of polyamory. It may be couples who have open relationships in which each can pursue other partners. It may be a couple that sometimes has a third sex partner with them both. It can be two couples that switch partners. It can be two or more partners involved with one person at the center, as with the traditional polygamy, but without the strict gender definition. It can be a full triad, where each partner is involved with other two. Or, like on “Caprica”, it can be a larger and more complicated structure.

As I follow these possibilities to their logical conclusion, I have to say that I see a definite value and potential in all of these types of relationships if they are handled with respect, compassion and consent. Families with children may be a complication, but frankly having multiple parents in a family seems like it would be a benefit to the children. Child care responsibilities can be shared in a more flexible way. Although I think that most places recognize only two legal parents and that can be a limitation. The moralistic judgments of outsiders can obviously be a problem. Children could be taken away from homes where unusual family structures could be considered “immoral”.

I ended that previous post about consent with a reference to a slippery slope about same sex marriage, and that if we take consent seriously, there is no slippery slope toward pedophilia or bestiality. I do, however, think that polyamory does challenge definitions of marriage in a way that is conceptually similar to same-sex marriage. If a marriage contract is between two consenting adults, is there a compelling reason that it cannot be between three or four consenting adults? Wouldn’t the inclusion and legal acknowledgment of such relationship and family structures provide more security for children and stability for surviving partners?

Death and Remembering

Today is a sad anniversary for me. Eight years ago, my Mom died after years of illness. Dealing with grief is a complicated and difficult process. One of the things that haunted me about her final days was she reached out to me from her hospital bed, after fading in and out of lucidity, and she had real terror in her eyes. She said to me “I need you to pray for me”. I didn’t know how to respond. I gave her some assurance. I’m not even sure what I said. But I was startled and angered by her terror.

To me, she was a person who was forever giving and sacrificing herself and her needs to her family, to her church, and even to relative strangers. She could be judgmental in her opinions, in line with her sheltered, religious upbringing, but she didn’t turn those attitudes into malicious actions against people.

I was angry that after years of devotion to her faith, a faith whose key is a promise of salvation, that her reward was not peace, but fear. My mother, my hero, my treasure was rewarded for her years of devotion with terror. It has taken me a long time to get past that.

I hope that my Mom is in a “better place”. It’s what she wanted fiercely. And I want her to have her hope fulfilled. I want her to be comforted by her God and saints and the virtuous people she has known. I want it for her because it’s what she wanted.

The truth is, I am agnostic about what happens to us after death. I don’t know to what extent our personality and identity remains after death. I have encountered many spirits, but never one that I know was a human who lived and died. My spiritual path veered away from my Catholic upbringing when I was in my early teens, and I haven’t believed in the Christian ideas of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory for a long, long time. I have never felt like I need Jesus to “save” me.

 

In ancient Rome, there were various stories about the afterlife. The dead cross the River Styx. They drink from the River Lethe for forgetfulness. Heroes went to the Elysian Fields, good citizens went to the Plains of Asphodel, and those who offended the gods were sent to Tartarus to be worked over by the Furies. It doesn’t seem like most people took these stories very literally or seriously. Culturally, the Romans seemed more focused on the life here and now than on seeking any reward afterward. At least that is the view that we get from the writers, but of course they represent a more privileged part of society.

Christianity was one of several popular religious movements in the later Republic and early Imperial period, including Orphism, Mithraism and the cult of Isis, which offered promises that initiates would have an advantage in the afterlife. Christianity, in particular, started off as popular among slaves, the poor, and women – in other words, those whom Roman society kept away from many of the advantages of Roman culture. The idea of a reward in the afterlife must have a greater appeal if your current life is pretty miserable.

Perhaps it is a part of my privilege today that I don’t think a lot about what happens when this life has ended. I do live a middle class lifestyle in one of the wealthiest societies the world has known. I have the means and freedom to enjoy many pleasures, and I worry about few necessities. Not everything goes my way, certainly, and I have people around me who struggle with health problems, poverty, discrimination issues, among other things. If I am honest with myself, my advantages are somewhat precarious. Without a job, I could lose my home within months. Health is notoriously unpredictable. Accident or illness could change my fortunes very quickly.

But I am still focused on my life as I live it – the pleasures, the challenges, the relationships with people, other beings around me, the natural world, the human-built world, intellectual questions, ethical matters, spiritual meanings. Death is a part of that, but one that is always mysterious. I am repelled by unnecessary suffering and try to avoid causing it, but death still comes to all of us, as humans, as living creatures.

 

Many Pagans that I know use the phrase “What is remembered lives” as a tribute to those who have died and an exhortation and comfort to those who are grieving. I love this idea. It is a concrete way for someone to live on and a reminder that through relationship and connection, we can extend life beyond death. So memory is a powerful tool that we have to keep alive some part of our loved ones. We can tell stories. We can keep photos and mementos. We can recognize what within ourselves is shaped by those who are gone.

It doesn’t require any beliefs about what happens afterward. It’s a practical instruction on how to value the one who is lost. It doesn’t require us to take comfort in the unfathomable will of a deity.

It only requires us to hold what was special and important about that person who was once with us.

Today, just like every day, I will remember.

 

I hadn’t intended it, but I have followed Anomalous Thracian’s call to write about topics starting with the letter D this month. John Beckett wrote a great post about Discipline. “Death” wasn’t actually on the list, so I hope it’s not a problem if I add it.

Gay Marriage, Consent and Slippery Slopes

Ten days ago the Supreme Court ruled that same sex marriages will be allowed in all 50 states, ushering in a stunning victory for advocates of same sex marriage. Many states, including my own state of Illinois, already allowed it, but even my friends who were already married here gained Federal recognition for their marriage, which has great implications when it comes to everything from hospital visitation rights, survivor benefits for federal programs, immigration status matters, and many other important issues.

I’m overjoyed that this happened, and a bit stunned. I’m still amazed that progress in same sex marriage legislation leapfrogged over non-discrimination laws. Many parts of the country have no legal protection for LGBTQ people from being fired from their jobs or thrown out of their rental home because of their sexual or gender identity. The ability to get married seems a bit hollow if it means losing your job and home the next day, but that’s the reality that people may face in parts of the United States.

Predictably, the national focus on the same sex marriage issue has brought out some of the loud voices in opposition. One of the most peculiar arguments that seems to come up from the extreme religious right is that allowing gay marriage leads to a slippery slope to various shocking practices including pedophilia and bestiality.

Here’s Pat Robertson’s statements from a few years ago on the subject

Here’s Ben Carlson’s (Presidential candidate) statements late last year on the subject.

When looking at these claims, one major thing jumps out at me. These people don’t understand the concept of consent. And frankly, that’s just frightening.

Children and non-human animals are not able to consent, either for sexual activity or legal contracts such as marriage. For children, there may be varying ages of consent for sexual activity in various states, but the laws are pretty clear in their reflection of our society’s belief that children are not capable of understanding the implications of sexual activity and therefore are not able to legally consent.

The fact that these “leaders” are suggesting that somehow sexual contact and even marriage are somehow possible without the consent of those participating is very troubling. What are they teaching young people about sexuality and marriage if consent is not at the heart of it?

As I’ve noted before, consent must be taught to children – by parents, by schools, by friends. Sexual contact without consent is wrong and somehow we seem to be falling down when it comes to this. Young men somehow don’t understand that no means no, a young woman being too drunk/high to answer also means no, and nobody owes anyone sex – even if the date was expensive and even if they outfit was revealing.

Pedophilia and bestiality and clearly not going to be justified by the same arguments for anyone who understands consent, but perhaps there are other ways that marriage may evolve. My next blog post will explore some of those questions.

More Growth with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix

I have documented my increasing involvement here with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix over the past couple years. I recently had several more steps down that path, and I have deepening bond with the other men involved as well as a greater understanding of the functions and cosmology of the Order.

First, I was elected to the Council of Guardians for the Chicago chapter and made Warder. It is an honor that I was asked to do this, when it has been a relatively short time since I was initiated. The position of Warder is about protection of the Order and that manifests as being involved with certain logistical questions and also being the gateway for those who want to join the Outer Order of the Brotherhood. You can see more about the structure of the Brotherhood here in case you are interested.

It’s a position that’s associated with the Element Fire and God Mars. Fire is the element that I associate with myself least, to be honest. Part of my challenge is going to be to find that within myself in order to fulfill this role.

In addition, we had our first-ever retreat which included both Brothers and Seekers (men who love men who have not been initiated into the Outer Order). It was a wonderful weekend. I have never attended a multi-day spiritual retreat in the past, and I have to say it was a really great experience. We had several rituals, workshops, and activities, as well as down time to be social with one another. I had a small role in some of this, as I read several guided meditations to the group (not written by me) which had very positive feedback. Our regular ritual of Quintessence took place as part of the retreat (others joined us just for that), and I had some duties as part of the ritual which will now be mine as long as I am Warder. These are small parts, but it feels different to lead the action of the ritual, even for a few minutes.

As part of the retreat, we encountered aspects of the Divine as seen through the Brotherhood, and we received messages, geared to each person. I am going to have to take time to digest these, and perhaps write them out. Hopefully, you’ll see more on that here in the future.

A Progressive gives up on Progress

Most of my adult life, I have thought of myself as “Progressive”. As I have understood it, Progress in the social/political sense means the increased participation of diverse populations into American political, economic and cultural life; increased income equality; and equal rights for people of all races, sexes, ethnicities, religions, and sexual identities.

There are different kinds of Progress that we are taught to believe in. There’s technological progress, but in many ways that’s a kind of myth. Research and knowledge in certain areas certainly has increased. Certain kinds of technology are very useful, but so much of what we consider technological progress is over-hyped planned obsolescence. The economic reality that allows those of us in the developed world to access these technologies is a fragile one. In most cases, no money means no technology, and in America, household income is dropping. Our infrastructure is crumbling in much of the United States and investment in updating it doesn’t keep up, in large part because of economic crises and political deadlock. What progress we do have, in the sense of technology that improves the lives of most people, could backslide very easily. And as our technological world progresses, we often lose older, more resilient technologies. There is also the problem that we pollute and destroy the natural resources and natural places that sustain life on this planet.

With the issues of social progress mentioned above, late 20th century did bring some legal measures toward the goals of equality for people of different races, sexes, ethnicities, religions and sexual identities, but income inequality is greater than ever, racial tensions are high, many democratic institutions have eroded. When it comes to racial issues, our country has gone in tides – ending slavery establishing the Reconstruction South, but then the development of Jim Crow laws and the KKK. The Civil Rights movement and the legal gains of the 1960s and 1970s were have been eroded by the economic inequality, prejudice in the American justice system.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” LGBTQ activists, particularly the same-sex marriage activists often say that supporting the cause is being “on the right side of history”. Both of these show a belief in the inevitability of progressive social change.

I am increasingly convinced that there is really no such thing as Progress – at least not in the sense of an inevitable social flow toward equality and justice. It’s a comforting idea. But I really don’t think history backs it up. I believe in change. I don’t believe in the inevitability of anything aside from change. I’ve become fairly convinced of some of John Michael Greer’s theories about the ecological nature of changes in human history.

I was watching Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews on PBS, specifically the 3rd episode, which tells the story of dramatic social progress in Germany and Austria in the 19th century. They went from profoundly marginalized and persecuted minority to the center of cultural and financial life in central Europe. It was a startling and dramatic transformation in social position, and it persisted for several generations. Many people still held the age-old prejudices, though, and when crises hit, Jews were often targeted as scapegoats. This peaked in the 1930s and 1940s, when Jews were systematically identified, dispossessed of their property, imprisoned, enslaved and killed. In 150 years, the pendulum had swung in one direction and the absolute opposite direction. He said “German Jews had made the greatest leap that any minority has experienced in modern history.” And yet, we all know that for that great leap, there was a terrifying backlash.

A dizzying progress is going on right now for LGBTQ people in the modern day Americas, Western Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand. The narrative is in some ways parallel to that of the 19th century Jews in central Europe. There have been dramatic improvements, including the recent legalization of same-sex marriages in many places. Since the 1970’s, there have been great leaps forward. Many places have protections for LGB (and sometimes T) from getting fired from a job or thrown out of their own based on sexual orientation. Anti-Hate Crime legislation has been passed. Public opinion in most places is much more accepting of LGBTQ people in all areas of society.

Like the Jews in Germany and Austria, LGBTQ people are increasingly part of the mainstream. In business, in media, in a multitude of professions LGBTQ people are increasingly visible. Same-sex weddings are an economic engine, even adoption and parenting by same-sex families is becoming increasingly accepted. But that could all change. People in their teens and twenties today are accepting of LGBTQ people. A generation or two from now could be completely different. And hard times can mean that people look for scapegoats.

It’s interesting that many of the stereotypes and stories told about LGBTQ people are strikingly similar to what was said about the Jews in Europe. One such story people believe is that all gay people are wealthy (even though the statistics don’t back this up).

“The Gay Wealth Myth Again” from Daily Kos

“The Myth of Gay Affluence” from The Atlantic

“Are Gay Men Really Rich” by Freakonomics Radio

There is also the idea that there’s a “gay mafia” or that gays control the media (in particular). Here Bill Maher seems to be making a joke, but the kind of “it’s funny because it’s true” comment, but then the group has an uncomfortable silence on this topic.

The ideas of a wealthy, powerful Jewish conspiracy that have been the bread and butter of anti-Semitism for over a century, and seem to have been copied onto the new group to inspire fear – the rich and powerful gay mafia.

Just to be clear – by pointing out the parallel, I am not predicting that the United States will certainly swing back into a Fascist or Nazi style future where minority groups will be subject to mass extermination (although I can’t say that I would rule that out). I am also not saying that Progressive goals are worthless. But I think it’s a mistake to think that once a fight toward equality is won that it has been won forever. Legal protections don’t mean social acceptance. The openness of one generation on an issue doesn’t guarantee that their grandchildren will feel the same way. Hard times – war, economic crunches, ecological crises, shortages, etc. – will cause the seeds of distrust and intolerance to grow.

Seekers invited to Brotherhood of the Phoenix retreat

I just wanted to mention, in case any of my readers are men who love men who are interested in The Brotherhood of the Phoenix, which I have mentioned in numerous past posts.

For the first time, the Brotherhood will be hosting a retreat open to both Brothers and Seekers (any man who loves men over the age of 18). It will be March 20th – 22nd in Chicago. Registration includes food and for those who wish, a roof over your head (if you want to sleep over, you’ll have to bring your own bedding, etc.)

The programming will include workshops on the brotherhood itself, as well as covering some of the interesting spiritual projects that some of the Brothers are working on.

Here’s the link the all the information http://brotherhoodofthephoenix.org/public_event/quintessence-retreat-2015/

Does the world need another food blog?

Apparently, the answer is yes, because I have launched one. If you’re interested, please check out Hearty Vegan Cooking. I have already posted a couple recipes and some general content.

My goal is to show that vegan food can be varied, delicious and satisfying. It’s not a platform for moral debates or distressing news stories – it’s really just about the food. It’s about recipes and ingredients. It’s about cooking and baking techniques.

So, that’s my big news!

http://www.heartyvegancooking.com/

Pagan Social Support and Helping Others Follow Their Path

In this recent post, the always-thoughtful John Beckett pointed out a recent blog post by a young Polytheist blogger Conor Davis. Conor asked the very good question as to what we can do to support one another as Pagans and Polytheists, how to create community and specifically how to help the young and vulnerable to negotiate the world with their religious and spiritual identity intact. These are all excellent questions. John Beckett has a shot at addressing them, with some history of his own journey.

Conor states that young people have a five-year life span in Pagan and Polytheist traditions. There’s no citation with that, and I don’t know the source. Although I haven’t encountered that statistic in the past, it’s not surprising to me.

I have talked before about my own path in this blog. For a number of years during my teens and into my college years, I had a process of discovery that was focused on Wicca and Feminist Spirituality traditions. I read and loved Starhawk and Margot Adler. I knew that I was not a Christian and that my encounters with the Divine were likely to be with a feminine presence and not a Father God. Later, I went through a long phase of not paying much attention to my spirituality, being a Pantheist and even a brief “angry atheist” phase before coming back to Polytheistic Paganism.

In the past few years, I have been involved with the Brotherhood of the Phoenix, a Pagan group for men who love men. It is the first spiritual organization that I have been involved with since rejecting the Catholicism of my youth. It has really changed my outlook, and made me more comfortable with the idea of religious organizations. It represents a community and support network (in other words, a Brotherhood).

We host 7 public rituals open to all men who love men and 2-3 open rituals that welcome everyone over 18. There is a novitiate training and initiation process that binds together those who become Brothers in a common experience. There are other activities – business meetings, small group workshops, outreach and activist projects, etc. but the public rituals are the key to building and engaging the community of the Brotherhood.

One of the things I love about the Brotherhood of the Phoenix rituals is that there is a potluck after the public rituals. We have been through the ritual together and now there’s a time to sit together and get to know one another. The conversation can be about the ritual, about the group, about the food in front of us, about politics, about the latest blockbuster movie – whatever the topic, it helps build the community. Someone new gets to answer the usual questions – How did you hear about us? What did you think of the ritual? And the visitor asks themselves – Did this meet my expectation? Was this meaningful to me? Do I like these guys? And (let’s be honest) the Brothers ask themselves – Is this person sincerely interested in our group? Does he seem reliable, helpful, good company? Is he just here to stir up interpersonal drama?

One interesting feature of religious groups in our society, that it missing from many of our other organizations, is intergenerational interaction. The Brotherhood in particular has only people 18 and older, so we don’t have children, but there is a great generational span between men from 18 years old to men in their 70’s. The mood is about friendship and support across the differences. Many of these men are rather odd by the standards of regular society, and there’s an acceptance and even embrace of those differences.

This is a valuable support network for those involved, not just as Pagans, but also as men who love men – as doubly “outsiders” in the eyes of society.

But not every young Pagan or Polytheist has access to this kind of organization. Indeed, most don’t. Conor’s question still stands. What can we do to help support people in our pagan community, especially the young and those who may struggle with the identity?

When I was coming out as a gay man in the 1980’s, I was very involved with my college LGB group (we weren’t too aware of Trans* issues back then and Queer as self-chosen identifier didn’t really become common until the 1990’s). We spent a lot of time on Coming Out stories and narratives. There were books on how to come out to family members, we talked through people’s journeys coming out to family (which ran the gamut of being disowned to positive acceptance, with most being somewhere in between, with initial confusion, a learning process and gradual acceptance). I wonder if there’s a value in a modern equivalent of that for Pagans. Some within the Pagan community already embrace the “Coming Out” model based on the LGBTQ model, including the creation of Pagan Coming Out Day.

Pagan Pride Days have sprung up around the country, and there are still some of the occult book shops around that used to function as a kind of Pagan community center in many places. These are both comforts to those in need and hopefully resources to connect with other Pagans. There are a lot of online communities, too, which can be helpful, particularly if there’s no Pagan community in the local area. Sometimes the specificity of online communities can be something of a hindrance, though. The web allows people from across the world connect around specific pagan interests, but there may be a flesh-and-blood community not too far away that is nearly invisible because the young seeker didn’t know the exact terminology to search for online.

I don’t know if I have offered much here that is helpful, but I’m glad to have the question. I will have to keep thinking about this question, though. It’s an important one. How to we support and engage our community members? How do we help others become comfortable with their identity and their spiritual path?

Some Personal Vegan History

I became vegan in January 2010, and I wanted to share a blog (of sorts) that I did at that time. It’s interesting to me to look back on the views of a different version of myself. These started off as Facebook “Notes”, so people did respond and encourage, ask questions and share resources in response to these at the time.

Two things jumped out to me as very different from my thinking today. First, I believed that dairy and eggs could be raised humanely. The more I have learned, the more it seems obvious to me that even traditional farming practices in these areas involve cruelty and unnecessary death, and I no longer believe that “humane” animal agriculture is a viable path.

Second, I am vague and angry when I talk about my spiritual path. As readers of this blog know, I have been struggling over the past couple of years to be more open, more developed in my spiritual path. I’m no longer lonely and angry in this part of my life, I’m glad to say.

So here are the thoughts from a different time, from a different me…

__________________

My Vegan Update

January 7, 2010 at 9:17pm

So today is Vegan Experiment Day 5. I started on Sunday, January 3th. Several of you have asked how it’s going, so I decided to so this blog of sorts.

Vegan Experiment Day 3 held my first experience of dining out with the new diet. Up until then, I’ve been eating at home and bringing lunch to work from home. I’ve been meaning start bringing my lunch to work anyway, so this has actually been a great excuse. But Tuesday, I had a ticket to the opera, which means I had to figure out dinner.

Fortunately, I had done some research and determined that I can get a pretty decent vegan burrito from Chipotle. It’s actually the very same burrito I have been getting from them minus the cheese and sour cream. One thing a noticed though is that the dairy must have been really cutting the spiciness of the salsa. The medium salsa seemed a lot hotter!

Then I had a mini-crisis. With the spiciness still in my mouth, I found some mints in a pocket and popped a few in my mouth. Then it occurred to me that I had no idea what was in those little guys. I know that Altoids, for example, contain gelatin for some reason. The ingredient list for this brand (Eclipse Mints Winterfresh) was on the outer plastic wrapper, which was long gone, so I had no way of knowing.

Later, I did look up the ingredient list, which sounds like a chemistry experiment. It contains “Calcium Lactate” which sounds suspiciously dairy-esque, but I haven’t found it on any lists of non-vegan ingredients online. I’m still not sure if I cheated or not.

Anyway, I wanted to take a stab at some aspects of the question about why I’m doing this. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m not good at simple answers, but I’ll take a shot.

I haven’t eaten meat in a long time and the idea of returning to meat-eating seems bizarre to me, but to be honest that was fairly easy for me to give up. I was never a big fan of meat to begin with, so it wasn’t really a sacrifice. I’ve always said there is no reason for me to eat meat, since I gain no particular benefit, and the animals on the other side of the equation certainly would prefer I didn’t.

I have been eating fish and seafood for many years, but I never ate it on a daily basis, so going without isn’t really much of a hassle. Dairy and egg are a completely different story, though. I have always eaten a lot of dairy and eggs seem to be in practically everything.

To be honest, I don’t think that dairy and egg consumption is wrong, if the animals are treated decently in the process. Living in the city, and getting my food from grocery stores, I have absolutely no idea how the animals are being treated. Factory farming is deeply troubling to me when I care to think about it, and lately I have been thinking about it. On the other hand, I have enormous respect for people who take it into their hands to really know their food and respectfully keep free range chickens to lay or pastured, well-treated cattle to milk.

But then there’s the health question. I have a number of health issues and I thought I could probably benefit from a cleanse of sorts. I’ve never really weaned myself off dairy for an extended period of time, and I’m curious to see how my body reacts.

In the meantime, here are the good things so far:

I’m eating lots of good veggies and whole grains and I’m getting plenty of fiber and “good fats” in my diet.

I’m taking my lunch to work, which saves money. I should have been doing that anyway.

I’ve tried a number of new foods and I love the novelty. Of course some are good and some are not so good, but it’s good to branch out.

The not-too-good:

Eating dinner with my partner Jose’ is going to be something of a challenge. There weren’t a lot of things that we both ate before, and now I’m not even sure what meal we would eat together.

This has involved tons of label-reading and web research. I don’t mind some of this, but it is starting to get a little overwhelming.

In a quest for variety in my animal-free diet in January in Chicago, I’ve probably added some food miles, which isn’t good for the environment. I do love my guacamole, but you know those avocados are coming from somewhere far, far away.

Alright, that’s probably more than enough for now. I’ll try do a few more of these during this month.

 

My Vegan Update, Part 2

January 13, 2010 at 8:48pm

Today is Vegan Experiment Day 11. I navigated dining out again on Friday night and ordering in with my partner Jose’ on Saturday.

We ordered Thai food on Saturday, and there were a number of vegan selections, in terms of noodle dishes, entrees and appetizers. In scanning the menus, I think I spotted dishes at our usual Chinese delivery place and I could get pasta with meatless red sauce and a salad at our Italian place. Leona’s also has a vegan burger. So there are options. Ordering pizza is out, however. None of my local places have a soy cheese option. That seems like kind of a questionable alternative anyway.

For Friday dinner, there’s an Au Bon Pain in my building at work, and as it turns out, they have a number of vegan selections. They seem to always include one of their vegan soups in their selection, and also they make custom salads with a selection of several vegan salad dressings. Several of the regular breads are vegan. However, none of their baked sweets are vegan. All those lovely cookies and pastries have eggs and/or butter. I shouldn’t be eating that stuff anyway!

That does bring up one area where I need to educate myself. I know little about vegan baking. I actually enjoy baking, so I think that should be a fun project.

Now helping me avoid pizza and cookies may be good for my health, but I am well aware that vegan does not automatically mean healthy. Everything from sugar, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated fats, high salt foods, bleached white flour and hundreds of chemical additives are all vegan. You can be a junk food vegan!

In addition to going vegan, I am trying to stick my general healthy eating ideas like eating whole grains, lots of vegetables and avoiding excessively high fat and high sugar foods. I also try to incorporate organic and local foods into my diet.

I do have to adjust my thinking about nutrition. As a vegetarian, I’ve long been aware of how much protein and iron I have in my diet. Now, I also need to make sure that I’m OK with vitamin B12 and Calcium. I take a multi-vitamin and mineral pill each day, but it’s still better to get balanced nutrition through your diet when possible.

Another concept that I’ve been following is to not be completely dependent on soy. My friend Bernard forwarded some information on how soy, once the darling of the health food community, is not necessarily good for you, especially in large amounts. I’m not going to eliminate it entirely, but I don’t want to have soy as my primary protein source.

I’ve never wanted to have most of my meals centered on soy-based meat or dairy substitute, anyway. On a certain level, eating all my meals with a product masquerading as something else seems a bit dishonest. I think it’s OK to put some of those into the mix in my diet, but not every meal. Thank goodness that I like a lot of different bean dishes, from black bean burritos, to hummus to lentil soup, as well as tree nuts and peanuts.

To be honest, I figured by now I would be salivating at the thought of an egg-and-cheese bagel, pizza or a bowl of ice cream. I haven’t really had any massive cravings for any non-vegan foods so far, and I’m a little bit surprised about it.

 

My Vegan Update, Part 3

January 18, 2010 at 8:13pm

Today is Day 16 of the vegan experiment. I negotiated another weekend of food delivery and restaurants. Saturday, we went to Noodles & Co., which has a number of vegan options. This is a place Jose’ and I like anyway, so I’m glad they’re vegan-friendly. The Japanese Pan Noodles have thick udon noodles, which I love, plus veggies. We ordered Chinese from our favorite local delivery place, Hunan Spring. I ordered the Dry Sauteed String Beans, which is an unappealing name, but it was quite tasty. The sauce has a smoky, spicy taste.

I had a near miss on facing the challenge of the office lunch last week. Thank goodness it was cancelled. They were ordering from Portillo’s and I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t have been able to eat anything on that menu.

We took a trip to the Whole Foods next to the Center on Halsted, which seems to have a larger selection of vegan-friendly treats than my local Whole Foods. I found several interesting items in their prepared food counter and I had a hazelnut field cutlet, Mediterranean ancient wheat salad and quinoa with sweet potato and spinach. The quinoa was a bit on the bland side, but the other things were tasty. The ancient wheat (amaranth) had figs and dates in it, which was lovely. I was also able to pick up Vegenaise (recommended by Alison) and Follow Your Heart “cheese” (recommended by Kate), so I’m eager to try these new options.

I also chose a vegan chocolate cupcake, which I wasn’t too excited about. It wasn’t sweet enough, even for me, and I don’t demand that baked goods are super-sweet. Sugar is vegan, so I’m not sure what the issue was there. I just picked up the cookbook Veganomicon (recommended by Kerith) and I think I’m going to try some of the vegan baking ideas in there.

On the health front, I’m feeling fine. I thought I had perhaps lost some weight, but since I don’t own a scale, I can’t really tell. My digestive system has definitely changed, and it is for the most part calmer, which is good. The one health effect that I was really hoping for has not really materialized. I’ve heard that dairy in particular clogs pores and can cause skin issues. I have to betray a bit of vanity here to say that if my skin would have cleared of all acne, there’s not much doubt in my mind that I would be sticking with a completely vegan diet on an ongoing basis. With over two weeks without any dairy, the change I’ve seen is so modest that it’s probably still within my usual range of breakouts and clearer periods.

Well, the experiment continues.

 

My Vegan Update, Part 4

January 22, 2010 at 11:24pm

Day 20 of the Vegan Experiment and things are going along fine. I’ve had a few cravings for non-vegan foods, but somewhat to my surprise, they’ve been for foods that are nearly vegan. Earlier this week, I was craving falafel, which often contains a small amount of egg to hold them together. Another craving was pasta with pesto. Traditional pesto is basil, olive oil and pine nuts, but also contains parmesan cheese. For both of these, there are probably vegan versions out there, but I just haven’t encountered them. I know I can find vegan recipes for them easily, but they both seem time-consuming to make when I’m the only one eating.

This brings me to another topic that is one that I sometimes find tough to get around. Eating in our culture is a very social thing. I’m so pleased to have the encouragement of my Facebook friends in eating vegan. Many of you however are in different states, and encouragement and support isn’t the same as sitting down at a table together and eating a meal.

I’ve gotten used to thinking about things differently than just about everyone around me. As I get older, that seems to be increasingly true. On a certainly level, I can function quite well this way. In most social and workplace environments in Chicago, people don’t assume that everyone is Christian, meat-eating and heterosexual. Most people in my life know I’m gay and I have many gay friends. Fortunately, this is largely a non-issue.

I don’t really discuss my religious views with anyone in my life, and with those close to me I have a sort of don’t-ask-don’t-tell understanding. Most of the time, this is fine. When I was grieving the loss of my mother, this situation made me feel profoundly alone, since many of the beliefs and ideas that family members found comforting were either nonsensical or offensive to me. I still have a huge amount of anger about religion and I have no appropriate outlet for that, but that’s not what I’m writing about now, so back to the topic at hand.

Most people in my life have known that I’m a longtime vegetarian, although that still seems to fluster some people in social situations. It seems to me that the vegan thing takes this another step and that many people will see me as being difficult (i.e. they would have to go out of their way to prepare something “special” just for me if I came over or if they plan an event) or judgmental of what they’re eating. I’m really not out to be difficult or to be judgmental about what others are doing, not as a vegetarian and not as a vegan. I’m just trying to think through what I’m doing.

I have good friends who I enjoy seeing a couple times a year and our socializing centers on going to mid-range to upscale restaurants in the loop. We have always alternated in who picks that places we go. I don’t know of any such places that would accommodate my diet as it currently stands, so potentially it could be a problem. Besides, to have the choice always be mine violates the spirit of sharing.

I also mentioned the workplace lunch dilemma. If we have a social lunch meeting where they order in pizza, for example, I then have to face both an interrogation about my diet and/or an unfavorable view when I take time away to get something I can eat while the rest of the office is back to work.

I worry that since food is such a social bond, by rejecting almost all the food that most people eat, I’m isolating myself just that much more from the outer world. I certainly don’t feel like I have to be in the mainstream. I never have been anyway and in many ways that’s not really an option. What I am more worried about is isolating myself from friends and people I care about. That’s something none of us can afford to do.

 

My Vegan Update, Part 5

January 27, 2010 at 8:04pm

Today is Day 25. There was a challenge this week in that I got really sick on Sunday evening with what may have been food poisoning or possibly 24-hour flu. In any case, I was briefly, but very unpleasantly, sick. I’m still a little puzzled over the food poisoning possibility, since if that is the case then it was something I ate in my own home. There are a number of potential culprits (vegan cheese, baba ganoush, lettuce and some other items) and I had to throw away a fair amount of food to be certain I didn’t go through that again. There is something about throwing away food that truly irks me, going well beyond the loss of money involved. I suppose this is something ingrained from my parents.

In terms of sticking to my vegan diet, this wasn’t really a setback, since while I was sick I didn’t really consume anything for 24 hours, and when I did start eating again it was toast and Amy’s No Chicken Noodle soup which hit the bland spot. Hooray for Amy’s! Today I’m basically back to normal.

Since there’s an election coming up, it does cause me to reflect on the fact that animal rights issues are essentially nowhere on the political radar, even within fairly liberal communities. Dog fighting is banned, and thanks to Michael Vick we recently had a high profile example of someone getting punished for violating these laws. Blatant cruelty against pets or zoo animals does tend to be condemned. When it comes to the animals we consider food, our cultural definition of cruelty is completely up in the air, and there’s definitely a taboo against pressing this issue in a public forum.

My alderman, Joe Moore, proposed a ban on serving foie gras in Chicago on the basis that the practice of producing foie gras is cruel to the animals. This ban passed City Council, only to be reversed a short time later and Joe Moore became a butt of jokes for championing this issue. It’s hard to know what to make of this complete about-face. Were they not paying attention the first time around? The pressure to reinstate came from high-end restaurateurs who said that Chicago would become the laughing stock of the fine dining establishment. Obviously their ability to attract big-spending tourists trumped any ethical scruples. The average citizen probably has never had foie gras and wouldn’t miss it. Now if you take away their veal, which is also produced by an unusually cruel farming practice, I suppose there could be a more general outcry.

A couple of my friends are involved with a group called Mercy for Animals (MFA), which was one of the groups involved in this week’s expose on the dairy industry. There are some very disturbing images from a supposedly well-respected New York state dairy farm, where animals are kept perpetually indoors, crammed into very close quarters, wallowing in their own excrement and perpetually pregnant through artificial insemination. It’s all a far cry from the smiling cows we consistently see on the dairy ads. It’s also a far cry from the pastured dairy cattle that I saw so frequently in my childhood trips through the Wisconsin countryside (has farming really changed that much since the 1970s?)

MFA, along with other advocacy groups, have been able to apply enough pressure to the New York state legislature that there is now a proposal to ban the practice of tail-docking for dairy cattle. This is a practice that amounts to cutting off the end of the cow’s tail, supposedly for the hygienic reasons. If you saw this footage, you could see that hygiene is not at the top of these people’s priorities. The practice has been banned already in California. But it does seem like this is just one small part of a much larger problem within modern agriculture.

It’s dangerous to idealize the agricultural past, where subsistence farming came from back-breaking and often dangerous labor and chance occurrences like storms, floods or droughts could lead to famine and financial ruin. But is the combination of increased monoculture, dependence on chemical fertilizer and pesticide, as well as inhumane animal husbandry practices in the name of efficiency, the only way to feed our exploding human population?

I’m not here to present any fulminating screed on the issue of animal cruelty, but it is surprising to me how little attention these issues tend to get and how easily they seem to be dismissed in our cultural conversation.

 

My Vegan Update: The Final Chapter

February 2, 2010 at 11:40pm

Today is Day 31 and I have completed what I set out to do, which is to be fairly strictly vegan for a month. My primary purposes were to test the convenience/hassle factor and to test health benefits.

First to assess the convenience/hassle factor: Going in, I had a fear that I would be largely forced to eat only what I prepare in my own home and that eating out and eating with friends would have to go completely out the window. I don’t mind cooking, but I know myself well enough that often I don’t leave myself enough time for me to pack a decent lunch for work. Also, I enjoy the social aspect of eating at restaurants with friends. I was glad to discover that there are some good options out there for lunches. I haven’t put the dinner-with-friends challenge much to the test, but I’m certainly more aware of options that are out there.

Somewhat to my own surprise, I haven’t been filled with massive cravings for non-vegan food. I’ve really been generally satisfied with the variety and quality of foods that I’ve found.

For the health question: I’ve been pleased with how I feel on this diet. I believe I’ve lost weight, which is a good thing. I really do wish I could quantify that change, but unfortunately I don’t have a scale. My digestive system is behaving very well. With the exception of my brief illness, I’ve generally been feeling healthy. Of course diet is just one aspect of keeping up general health and I still have an ongoing challenge with keeping up a good level of exercise and sometimes my sleep patterns could be better. But, I think that the vegan diet that I’ve been following is quite good for my health.

So where do I go from here? I’m going to stick with my current diet (i.e. stay vegan) for the near future at least. I can see myself going to a less strict “mostly vegan” diet at some point, but for now, I’m actually pretty happy with how this has all worked out.

Thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement.

 

My Vegan Update – One Year

January 2, 2011 at 3:13pm

I started my vegan diet on January 3, 2010, so I am closing out a full year since I gave up eating all animal products.  It has been an interesting journey so far.  I previously chronicled my early challenges and thoughts in my “My Vegan Update” Facebook notes if you’re interested in reading those.

It continues to have its challenges, and over the holiday season in particular, I did have quite a few decisions (and made a few compromises).  The holidays have been challenging because I have always loved baking and in particular, I have loved baking cookies.  I am still really at the beginning stages of learning about vegan baking.  I did adapt a few of my old recipes and tried a few new ones, with some success.  I also have eaten some of special favorite Christmas treats this year, even though I know that the recipes contained butter and/or egg.  Fresh baked treats are an unfortunate downfall of mine, both in terms of the vegan diet and in terms of general healthy eating. I also have sentimental attachments to certain treats from childhood, and that certainly plays into emotional reasons to eat these things.

I have not set out to educate or convert people particularly, but gradually over the year, I’ve explained and discussed my diet with various friends, family members and co-workers as it has come up in conversations.  Shared meals and parties still almost inevitably include a discussion of my diet.  Sometimes it is a simple set of questions about what I actually do eat and sometimes it’s a discussion of my reasons for doing it.  I think most of my co-workers think it’s a slight oddity, but aren’t too judgmental about it.  Friends either understand it or at least, know me well enough to understand that when I decide to do something like this, no one is going to talk me out of it.

And how do I feel?  I feel pretty good, but in most ways not significantly different from before I started this.  I lost a few pounds in January, but nothing since then.  I still do need to lose weight, and being vegan has not really appeared to make much difference in that regard.  My general digestive health seems a little better, but again, there isn’t a dramatic difference.

Has it been hard to stick to this diet in general?  Actually, aside from a few small inconveniences, it really hasn’t been that big of a deal.  I really did think that I would crave macaroni & cheese or an omelette, but really that hasn’t happened.  If I’m in my regular eating patterns – eating at home, eating lunch near work or having lunch or dinner out at familiar places – I have adapted and having my current vegan diet is no problem at all.  When going to less familiar ground, I have used the web to come up with some great alternatives.  http://www.vegguide.org/ and http://www.veganeatingout.com/ are good resources.

Well, I’m going to keep it going in 2011