Tender and mild

So, about the Christmas story . . . I've had a strange relationship with it, and I think it just got stranger. You be the judge.

For years, the Christmas story saddened me. The image of Mary traveling in the cold, bouncing along atop a donkey while she labored, and the poor confused guy, who wasn't the father of her baby but loved her just same, trying his best to find shelter for her, then being flat-out rejected and winding up in a barn -- all this seemed terribly brutal. No midwife, no creature comforts, no community surrounding her. Just hay, critters, and knowledge that she bore something amazing and bright and beautiful and soon would bring this child forth into the world.

Having birthed 3 babies myself, it was Mary's pain I could not shake in this account of the birth of the Christian savior. That, and the lack of kindness the community showed them, which pained me in a different way.

In the 1990s, some dear friends of mine who were trying to rejuvenate the Women's Guild at the parish we attended asked me to join a Bible study group. Maybe it's changed, but when I grew up, Catholic kids didn't spend much time actually reading sacred texts. It was interpreted for us, which at the time was AOK by me. But as an adult, I began to feel illiterate when it came to this book. So I was intrigued by the idea of reading the Bible and I signed up. Around Christmas time, I agreed to host the group in my home, and we decided to read the birth stories in the New Testament for our discussion.

I'm SO glad I did that, The stories were not nearly as grim as I had built them up in my mind. In fact, they were quite beautiful, inspiring, and yes, full of grace. So thank you ladies of the Women's Guild for that!

Also about this time that I begin to feel a lifting of the sadness that had draped me each year since the death of a beloved uncle 4 days after Christmas in 1984. For the first time in a decade, I began to see the colors, smell the scents, hear the music, and feel the joy of the holidays.

Since then, my love for this holiday has grown bigger and rounder every year, and because our family does not exchange gifts in the traditional way, I am not troubled by the crowds at malls and the traffic jams. Instead, I look forward to the annual Christmas party we attend, complete with carols, dancing (in an area about 6 ft X 6 ft) to "I don't wanna be a duck," polkas, and "Hava Nagila",  little paper cups of some power spirits that whatCarl the tree farmer calls "elixir,"and then on Christmas Eve ordering takeout for dinner and playing the "dice game" as our present exchange, which is filled with plenty of merriment and silliness.

I shipped one gift this year -- via overnight delivery. The workers at the US Post Office were incredibly cheerful on December 23, after dealing with thousands of dorks like me shipping things at the last minute. I overheard one of them bemoaning the fact that she had to come to work on Christmas Eve at 4:30 am. So since I tend to rise early anyway, on the morning of Christmas Eve I took a basket of baked goods, fruit, and nuts to the postal workers to show them how much they are appreciated. I didn't get to see them, but I spied a janitor working, and he responded to my knocking and took the goodies inside to set on the counter for the hard-working clerks.

Driving away, I reflected on how much I loved training my sled dog team on cold crisp mornings like this, mornings when the stars were burning bright but the sunrise was nigh.

And that's when I had the strangest epiphany about the birth of Christ, something I believe will forever make nativity scenes hauntingly beautiful to me. It has to do with food.

Image by James Insogna

So let me back up a minute.

About a year after I had to give up my 6-dog team, I read 2 books that altered how I eat. One was by a man named Marc Beckoff who in his book, The Emotional Lives of Animals, asked readers when they ate meat to ask themselves this simple question: Would you do this to your dog?  He was referencing what is done to the livestock that
Image by Mark Peters via Wired
through the magic of modern agriculture techniques end up tidily on Styrofoam plates covered in plastic wrap in the meat section of the grocery store. (Ever noticed the welling up pink liquid in those packages?)

The answer for me, of course, was no, I could not.

For some time, I had begun detecting a vile taste in meat. The only way I could describe it was it tasted like fear. And that begin to make sense, because, undoubtedly, animals on their way to slaughter must feel absolute terror. Maybe I was tasting the biological byproduct of fear --  adrenaline. Who knows? All I can say is the taste was incredibly unpleasant, and I never knew when I was going to encounter it. Little by little, meat started disappearing from diet for one reason alone: it tasted rank.

I won't regale you with the details of slaughterhouses; far better writers than me have done that plenty well. But suffice it to say that even humane techniques just give me the willies. And apparently, I can taste the result.

In one of my favorite novels, a brilliant piece of speculative fiction, a group of Jesuit priests embark upon the first interstellar voyage to discover the source of music that has been picked up from an array of telescopes on earth. Upon finding the planet, they encounter a species of inhabitants who are sweet and gentle and simple. They are great companions, not the horrific images of aliens that have filled our screens. Members of this species have expressive tails and soulful eyes and they experience the full range of emotions that humans do. Living in hunter/gatherer communities (actually, more gatherer than hunter), they make their dwellings in caves.

The human explorers help them find ways to build their food supplies, and before long the new species is procreating far faster than before, which, as we come to find out, greatly upsets the natural order of things on the planet. See, it turns out that the species was, in fact, livestock for a more sophisticated and carnivorous species which enslaved them to serve as a food source. The humans are shocked to learn this, because the gentle species seems to live so happily and peacefully. The predator species is none-to-happy about the what the earthlings have done, and things go south pretty fast, and the rest is history, in a futuristic sort of way. One Jesuit survives and returns to earth, eventually to tell the story.

As a former anthropology major, I found this novel both beautiful and cautionary. But I didn't quite understand how personal it would become one day. And that was when I read another novel by a quite famous science fiction writer, Dan Simmons, who penned an incredible story about the doomed fate of bold 19th Century explorers who were trying to find the mythical "Northwest Passage" through the Arctic Sea. (It actually becoming not so mythical nowadays). Two ships eventually become trapped in the sea ice. Again, things go poorly for our adventurers, and only one makes it. That man owes his life to a mute Eskimo woman who teaches him to hunt for seal, and nourished by the meat of the sea creature, he survives. But readers learn quickly in this novel that hunting for seal is no easy task. In fact, our survivor comes to find out that the Eskimo woman's people believe that no seal can be caught unless it chooses to be caught, choosing, as it were, to sacrifice its life to preserve another's There is a spiritual exchange between the hunter and the hunted in this novel that can only happen in a setting of free choice.

Reading that book snapped together some powerful thoughts that irrevocably changed me. I realized that I could no longer eat the flesh of animals enslaved for the purposes of feeding the mindless masses. I also realized that I could eat meat that had been fairly hunted. So long as the hunting ground was "level." When one creature's wits are pitted against another and both are able to flee the scene as needed, such consumption seems part of the natural order of things. No fences, no industrial killing machines, just a fair fight.

We are such a predatory species - to the point that I often think we are a plague on this planet. We lost our way at some point in our evolution. We've managed to engineer so many things in a way that has brought the natural order terribly out of whack in our world, particularly with our food system.

Most mammals, humans included, have a built-in system for scaling back baby-making during lean times.  Females stop ovulating and develop what is called amenorrhea when they get too skinny. Today, we associate the phenomena with gymnasts who work out so hard that their first menstrual periods are delayed or with young women who develop anorexia nervosa and starve themselves. But amenorrhea actually can serve the species well -- when everything is in balance. Not enough food to feed everyone, slow down the reproduction until the food supplies rebuild. Wolf packs for example, will split up and individuals will go their separate ways when food is in short supply. When the number of critters they can eat increases, wolf packs are know to reassemble.

I wonder at what point we humans tipped that balance so radically that rather than slow down our reproduction we just came up with new, increasingly radical ways to boost our supply of livestock to keep up with the exploding populations. How did we ever get to the place where we found it necessary to enslave animals to fill our bellies. When did we get so cocky as to believe that we have dominion over the world, to the point that we have changed the climate of our planet, shipped so much waste into the oceans that whole drifting islands of trash have formed, and made ourselves sick?

As far as I can tell, this belief that we have a God-given right to whatever we want on this planet, comes from certain creation stories.  (I'm intentionally using the term God here, but you can substitute what makes sense for you - Higher Power, The Universe, the Source.) The one I know best is from the Judeo/Christian tradition whose sacred texts speak of the original man and woman created in God's form. As it happens, the first man and woman arrived on the scene after all the other lovely animals in Eden did. Made in God's likeness, this couple is given permission to hold dominion over other creations. And the rest is history.

Although I was raised in the Christian tradition, and will most likely always feel a little bit Catholic, you might say that I've come to reject a more than a few central tenants of Christianity, while holding on to certain others.

I absolutely no longer believe humans are superior to anything on this planet. 

Yes, we've figured out a lot of amazing things, though precious few of those things have been in praise of a creator. More so, we have put ourselves in the role of creator and we've forgotten all together just how humble our beginnings were.

Song of the Stars illustration by Allison Jay

But the Christmas story brings us full circle. 

It is a brilliant reminder of our lowly beginnings, a perennial example of how the holiest of one major faith on this planet began life in the humblest of ways.

So consider this: What if God sent his only son to remind us of just this fact, that we, too, are animals: beautiful, two-legged, scruffy, and often unbathed.

This baby was born in a stable, a place where beasts of burden are housed, often for the purpose of slaughter. But what if one of the born-in-a-manger messages is a reminder to us that what we enslave so enslaves us?

I believe that our salvation and our freedom may come from centering our lives around what is most beautiful in our species -- our language, our music, our dance (so far things plenty of other animals are also capable of doing), our ability to conceive of a creator and to praise this creator and our ability to feel compassion for all of creation.

If there is any hope for our species it will be in reminding ourselves that we are part and parcel of creation, that though we may believe that we have been made in the image of God, we are not God, even though we have been bestowed with the most remarkable ability to create.

This man called Christ went on the provide examples of living humbling, of forgiving the sins of the most scorned of peoples, calling attention to hypocrisy, and reminding anyone who would listen to love one another.

I choose to believe his birth in the stable was our creator's elegantly simple reminder that we are born together with the beasts to love together and to be kind to one another, animals included. I like to think that none of these animals nearby where this babe was born ever saw the tools of the butcher, that each was liberated as surely as each of us who have received grace as a result of this humble birth.

I applaud those people who humanely raise animals. The lives of these creatures are so much better than the lives of any animal raised in commercial operations. But these animals are still enslaved. And no matter how humanely, they've lived, I'd wager that the vast majority of them are not choosing the time of their death, not dying of their free will, not offering themselves up in sacrifice. Happy chickens headed for slaughter do not have the option of a fair fight. And that reduces our humanity. We are enslaved by what we enslave.

Am I tempted by the smell of burgers on the grill? Yes, at times. But seriously, it's one of those weird deals where one's body and mind resolve to overthrow the spirit. I simply can't bring myself to eat flesh. I get nauseated thinking about putting it into my mouth. I fully realize how extreme this point of view may sound, especially when I say I do not want to eat slave meat. But the truth is I simply cannot. I will eat some seafood (Lake Superior herring comes to mind), but only if it's wild caught. And even commercial fishing operations trouble me, so who knows if seafood will come off my diet at some point, too.

I must say how grateful that that I've never been forced into a state of starvation. (Sadly, there was a brief period when I starved myself, enslaved by the conventional wisdom of what beauty is.) I'm grateful for incredible abundance in my life, with access to all the beans, rice, kale, and quinoa I can stand. A shockingly small percentage of the people on this planet are so blessed.

As liberated as I like to think I am, I'm know I am very much an animal. But maybe that's a good thing?

So, that's my story, and I'm sticking with it.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Blessed Kwanzaa, Gentle Solstice, Peace on Earth, Goodwill to men and women, creation and Creator.

I close with the amazing script on a tattoo of a barista I encountered as I was composing my thoughts on this topics:

"I wanted to hurt you,
but I found I couldn't
stomach it."

Image by Florian Seiffert


Erin Davis said…
Beautiful and thought-provoking post, Kathleen. The Sparrow is one of my all-time favorite books!
Kathleen said…
Thank you for reading this post, Erin. It's insanely long, which makes you a saint. Actually, there are many things that make you a saint. One of these days, when I finally make my way out west and meet you in person, we should cat about The Sparrow. I think I've read it 3 times now!
Suldog said…
Merry Christmas to you! I don't share your distaste for meat (I rather enjoy it) but I certainly appreciate your principles.
Joanna said…
Wow--that is quite a thoughtful journey you just took me on Kathleen. I'm looking forward to reading both those books. Hoping to find more posts from you in 2014. All the best to you and your loved ones.
Linda said…
Lots to ponder. I'll highlight your words "We are not God" and He would probably like to see us more "tender and mild." Good thing a Saviour was born. Happy New Year!

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