Friday, March 30, 2012

Leap of Faith

About two years ago, as my 39th birthday peeked menacingly around a large, craggy rock and snickered, I decided that I needed to do something spectacular to knock it on its ... bottom. 39 was clearly in cahoots with 40, and they both needed to be put in their collective place.

I've never had any desire to jump out of a plane or scale a snowcovered peak. But I was a bit thrilled by the idea of gliding on a trapeze. It looked like a grown-up swingset.

First off, heights do scare me. But a trapeze's height seemed much more doable than that of, say, a bridge with only a bungee cord holding me to life.

So one cold, sunny day,  I went off to Jordan Furniture's Trapeze School, bundled up but still shivering from the anticipation. Would my weak arms be able to hold on? Would I feel that terrifying rollercoaster drop in my stomach?

Before climbing up to the platform, about eight of us were given a prep class to show us what we'd be doing way up there. I made an effort to appear confident and nonplussed, though I'm certain my efforts were wasted. I did this not in an attempt to make myself look good, but to convince myself I wasn't, in fact, terrified. This ruse seemed to work like a charm until the very moment I stepped to the edge of the platform. One has to lean one's hips way forward while holding the bar and having one's back end temporarily secured by the trainer, gravity tugging you down threateningly all the while. It goes against every survival instinct that screams defiantly, "Pull your butt and shoulders back! Curl up away from the edge! Hello? A little help here? Trying to save your life!" It sounds melodramatic, but I felt like two parts of me were in a great internal battle. The brave part quickly cowered up in a corner and said "Okay...This was a cute idea, but never mind."

My voice shook in a kindergartener's-first-day-of-school fashion, as I whimpered to the ridiculously muscled, practical trainer standing behind me, "I'm really, really scared. I'm scared. Oh God. I'm really scared." I think part of me was hoping he'd say, "Do you want to back out?"

His actual reply? "Yep. I know you are. Now bend your knees and get ready." He mercilessly huffed the commands to me, which consisted of a "Hep!" kind of yell. He clearly wasn't going to allow me leave this platform by any means but this unexpectedly heavy bar, which suddenly felt very loose, wobbly and uneven in my sweaty hands.

So I moaned softly in complete terror.

And jumped.

And the amazing part? It was GLORIOUS! It was the most wonderful feeling! NO drop-in-the-stomach at all! It was like being a little kid again on your bike for the first time with no training wheels. I pulled my legs up to the bar, which on our ground practice had been extremely hard. Up there, though, with the momentum, it was a snap. Legs locked over the bar and, upon hearing the command, I let my arms go.

I'm telling you, there is no way to describe it. But I knew that I wanted my own trapeze.

About an hour later, I successfully did a catch, where I swung upside-down again, grabbed the arms of a trainer swinging on a different trapeze, and released my legs from my own trapeze. 

So all the fear was groundless (no pun intended) and I was glowing with excitement, pride, and flushed joy. Like a kid at a carnival, I didn't want to leave.

That was two years ago. I'm now tackling a new challenge. No planes, no bungee cords.

Instead, I've started to write a book! I've always wanted to do this, but didn't think I had the imagination left in me to make up a story from my piddly little brain. I loved that scene from Out of Africa, when Meryl Streep's character is asked by her dinnertime visitors to tell a story. She asks for the first sentence, which Robert Redford gives her, and then she spins an elaborate tale over soft candlelight. They all end up at the fireplace, where she tells the last line of the story to their blissful faces.

So that's how I sort of envisioned the process.

Ends up, it doesn't quite work that way. And I couldn't help but notice that Robert Redford was absent. (Sorry, Ryan, you know you're my favorite. A girl has to have her harmless crushes, though.)

This all began last fall, when a seed of a story suddenly showed up. It floated about, even after I smiled politely at it with a thanks-but-no-thank-you look. Yet it kept peering expectantly at me at odd moments. I ignored it for a good while, assuming someone with more flair for fiction would adopt it. But it didn't leave my side. It was very patient.

So I nervously decided to make a new leap of faith, all the while afraid that it would end up being yet another project that would fizzle out, much like my attempts at knitting. Despite feeling unequal to the task, I took Nike's advice and made up my mind to just do it.

The story is a kind of fantasy/mystery/adventure with great promise. And, of course, I'm not going to breathe a word of it here. I'm jealously guarding the idea, not because I think anyone's going to steal it, but because it just feels more exquisitely possible when I keep it to myself. There's more freedom in it.

This is why I haven't been posting as much in the last couple of months. I wrote the first thirty or so pages with great fervor. And then the story unexpectedly stalled. It felt like I'd painted myself into a corner. I couldn't see where it would end, nor how I would even get there. So I stopped and am now outlining its course, giving it room to breathe, of course, but trying to capture the essence of it so I have a roadmap.

It's a delicious experience. :)

I'm still going to write posts here. It's fun, and it makes me feel like I'm doing something that can help both the animals and the environment in my own small way. Neither, unfortunately, has a voice, so we need to speak up for them. (More on the environment later.)

So that's it. I look forward to the day when I can share the completed story with you. And maybe Robert Redford will come to hear me tell it in his safari outfit.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Starfish Tale

There's a great story that you may have heard. I was introduced to it years ago, though I'm not sure where and in what context.  But it always stuck with me because it speaks to everything I know to be true in this world. If you love it as well, then I'll venture to guess that you won't mind a friendly retelling.

A couple of months ago, in fact, I had been thinking about this particular story and entertaining the idea of writing about it here. A day or two later, Ryan and I were enjoying some fantastic vegan Thai food in Brookline, and I heard a man two tables away from us mention "the starfish story" to his dining companion, asking if she'd heard it. I leaned over, very excited, and said, "I hope you don't mind my butting in, but I LOVE the starfish story! I was just thinking of it the other day!" He smiled generously and asked, "Do you want to tell it?"  I laughed, a bit embarrassed, and said I preferred to listen to it told by someone else. So I indeed sat back, eating my green curry with tofu (perfectly done!)  as he shared the story with his friend. I had this foolish grin plastered on my face, like some unnameable force had come hovering over our tables in a very My Dinner with Andre way. (If you haven't seen that movie, SEE IT.) One of those funny unforgettable moments in your life where you feel like all the stars lined up somehow.

And while I prefer to hear the story, I'm happy to give telling it a shot. So here goes.

Early one morning, a young girl stood by herself at the shore's edge, where thousands of beautiful starfish had washed up on the beach. They were still alive, but as the tide was going out, they would surely die. Knowing this, the girl began to pick up starfish, one at a time, and throw them as far as her thin coltish arms would allow, back into the churning sea. 

In the midst of this activity, a man passed by on his morning run. He noticed the girl and what she was doing and curiously slowed down to watch her throw starfish after starfish into the water. "What are you doing?" he asked in that tentative way that some adults use with children.

She glanced at him and remarked with a light optimistic voice, "I'm throwing them back in the water!" 

He smiled at her enthusiasm and asked, "Why are you doing that?"

"'Cause they won't grow up if I don't!" She giggled at his somehow not knowing this obvious fact, and went back to work.

The man glanced up the beach, dotted with thousands of starfish. He hated to see this nice kid disappointed and gently pointed out, "But there are miles of beach and endless starfish. This really isn't going to make a difference."

She listened politely and then bent down to pick up another starfish, throwing it to the sea with its comrades. Looking back at him with a contagious smile, she said with triumph, "I made a difference to that one!" 

He laughed, shook his head, and then turned to continue his run down the beach. But then he stopped and looked back at her. Bending down and glancing back at her, he picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea.

Isn't that great?

When I first decided to divorce myself from the ugly world of animal production, I had a couple of well-meaning folks say to me in a kind way, "I can understand why you're doing this and it's nice and all. But your giving up animal products isn't really going to make a dent. The animal agriculture industry's just too big."

Like the little girl, I find that comment almost funny, and yet troubling. There are thousands of animals in shelters who are doomed to be euthanized. Perhaps you brought one or two home and saved them from that fate. Would you say it made no difference? You see the joy in that animal every day. Their quirky wonderful ways.

Of course it makes a difference. It's so self-evident, that it feels silly even talking about it.

Different studies show that, on average, each U.S. citizen eats about 95 land animals per year, which doesn't even take into account marine animals. (And I assume the figure is the same for many other countries.) Will this make a dent in the animal agriculture industries? YES YES YES! Substituting cow's milk for almond milk (or any of the other delicious plant-based milks) will make a big difference to one cow, whose babies continue to be taken from her quite brutally. Using flax seed with water in your muffins instead of eggs will mean fewer male chicks will be ground up alive in a hatchery for egg-laying hens. Everything we do matters.

What's more, when you give up eating animal products, it becomes the topic of discussion with everyone you know, whether you want it to or not. (But who wouldn't want it to?) People are naturally curious and want to talk about it. Which forces everyone to think about it, at least for that particular moment. The number of people who have changed their own eating habits since Ryan and I went vegan either by going vegan or replacing certain meats/dairy/eggs with plant-based fare has astounded me. I've talked to other happy plant-eaters who have had the same experience, so I know it's not unusual.

It makes all the difference.

And isn't that what we all really want? To make a difference in the world? What a truly easy way to do it.

So throw those starfish back in, politely smile at the naysayers and send them your love, and before you know it, you will have plenty of company with you on the beach. And soon, all those doomed starfish will rejoin their brothers and sisters in the water, where they'll get to grow up and do their starfish thing. :)


PS. Here is a recent video making the rounds that shows beached dolphins, rather than starfish, who were brought back to the sea. Sure made a difference to them, didn't it?