5 Things I Learned from My Month as a Vegetarian

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Black bean & chickpea salad

Meatless March: A 31-Day Challenge, or Shall I Say, Lifestyle Change

A few months ago, I wrote a post about me contemplating the idea of becoming a vegetarian. While I haven’t taken that leap as of yet, I did go meatless this past month and have decided to make it an annual tradition, one that I’ve cleverly named—you guessed it—Meatless March.

Meatless March turned out to be not as difficult as I’d thought it would be. When I first began, it was more about shifting my mindset than resisting meat cravings. In fact, my meat cravings were surprisingly minimal. (There was that one time on the bus when a guy sat next to me with an oil-stained paper bag filled with fries… the smell reminded me of burgers, and, well, I had a few daydreams about eating a burger. End of confession.)

A month may not be a very long time, but it was long enough for me to reflect on my food choice tendencies. So now that Meatless March is over, post-reflection time is at hand. Here are my 5 takeaways from the month:

1. An Experience for the Palate

When you think about putting restrictions on your diet, you don’t think expansion, you think elimination. But Meatless March actually expanded my palate by encouraging me to experiment with new vegetables and ingredient combinations. I’m sure it helps that I’m in no way a picky eater and I love vegetables, but even if that’s not the case for you, going meatless can be a great way to branch out of your regular go-to foods. It will just take some additional thought and effort. Which brings me to…

2. Creative Cooking Fun

I had a ton of fun discovering new recipes and food blogs! I would have never come across this delicious West African peanut and sweet potato stew were it not for this awesome recipe list, which I would have never sought out if not for Meatless March. And because I enjoy cooking, it was a fun creative challenge coming up with new recipes or making vegetarian versions of familiar ones. Also, this eggplant lasagna is amazing.

I’ve heard that people who become vegetarian can sometimes gain weight because they end up eating more carbs to substitute the lack of meat. I made a concerted effort to not fall into this trap. I love pasta, so I could have easily forged a million different pasta recipes to get me through the month, but I ended up making pasta only twice. I actually became addicted to lentils—there are so many ways to make lentils!

As a result of these cooking adventures (and the consequent commitment to meal planning), I ended up dining out less frequently and packing lunch for work pretty consistently. So I saved money that way, in addition to saving at the grocery store since I wasn’t buying meat.

3. Mindful Eating & Living

Taking a break from eating meat made me more mindful of my food choices. When you have to be selective, you naturally have to think things through and scan for options you may not have considered before.

One of the main reasons I did Meatless March was a desire to become more aware of my eating habits. It was also part spiritual, as practicing this restraint made me appreciate food more—as well as my easy access to the plethora of food options around me. Fasting of any kind opens up windows for reflection.

We tend to live on auto-pilot most of the time, reaching for the same ingredients whenever we grocery shop, rotating the same recipes whenever we meal plan. It’s comfortable and easy to stick with the familiar. But comfortable and familiar is not how we expand our perspective.

That said, grocery shopping and meal preparation definitely required more thought. Because I’m a nerd and love learning new information, I took it a step further and actually took to looking up nutritional facts on various vegetables (curiosity for what I was eating had increased) as I thought about what to buy for the week.

And Meatless March was a great conversation starter. By talking with friends and family about what I was doing and why, I’d like to think I was shining a light on our culture’s obsession with eating way too much meat. (There’s endless information out there on how meat consumption direly affects our health and the environment, not to mention the unimaginable cruelty animals suffer in the meat industry, so I will not even open up that can of worms. That’s another post entirely.)

The point is—everything we do, every choice we make, has an effect. Too often do we turn a blind eye to those effects because we’re too afraid or can’t be bothered to face them. This experience has really made me want to know where is my food coming from?

I believe we are all connected—all living creatures, the earth, our consciousness, all of it. So I want to know where I stand in the context of the larger system. That chunk of meat in the freezer section, how did it get there? How long has it been sitting in its packaging?

I want to know what are my choices contributing to? How can I make better choices? I don’t want to be a blind consumer. I don’t want to feed an ugly beast.

4. I Eat a Lot of Cheese

c23214a0f75f661f6f12d5a1dea27e72Okay so now to lighten things up a bit: I love cheese and I have always loved cheese. 🙂 (I even love cheesy jokes—ha.) This would have been an ENTIRELY different experience, and a true challenge, if I had gone vegan instead of just meatless.

As I look back on the meals I’ve had over the course of the month, I must say… I see a lot of cheese. I’m not really sure if this has always been the case and I’ve become more aware of it because no meat cleared the way for a clearer view—or if I ate more cheesy dishes and snacks because of no meat.

I try to avoid processed foods as much as possible, but cheese… cheese is a processed food VIP in my book. Still, now that I’ve observed that I probably eat more cheese than I should, I will take some steps towards moderation. (Yes, there was cheese in my dinner tonight…)

5. I Don’t Really Need to Eat Meat

I suppose my biggest takeaway is that meat doesn’t need to be on my plate in order for me to enjoy a meal. Meat to me is definitely delicious but it’s not a necessity for deliciousness. And while I admit that the last week of the month had me craving certain meat dishes, I think it was more that I was craving those dishes as a whole, as opposed to the meat specifically.

Throughout the month I rarely felt that my meals were lacking. I always felt full and fulfilled after eating. In the beginning it did take some getting used to and I did miss the substance of meat, but after a while, it felt pretty natural.

A month may not be a long enough time to make me officially “enlightened” on the subject of vegetarian living. I’m sure this blog post would look differently if I’d gone an entire year without meat. But the truth is, if you would have asked me a few years ago how I felt about vegetarianism, I would have probably told you that I didn’t understand why people did it.

But over the years, and especially now, I finally understand it in a way that I hadn’t before. To all the vegetarians and vegans out there—I respect you, and I guess I feel that my increased understanding has helped me connect with you more.

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So Now What?

Without going too deep into this, I feel I must also share that I don’t believe there’s anything inherently wrong with eating meat. But I do believe there’s something horrifically wrong with the way the meat industry operates. And this desperately and urgently needs to change. 

I don’t have any grand solutions to offer (I’m no Temple Grandin), but my own personal solution is to reduce my overall meat intake, to incorporate more vegetarian and perhaps even vegan dishes into my eating rotation.

Because at the end of the day, I enjoy food very much. I love trying new recipes and cuisines. And I love my body. And I love animals. And I love the earth and the bountiful gifts she has to offer. So moving forward, I will strive for variety when it comes to my food choices. Variety and balance and mindfulness and always—without exception—deliciousness.

So until next year’s Meatless March, stay healthy and merry… and savor your food as you chew!

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My zucchini & chickpea stew creation

Ta-Nehisi Coates On Writing

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I’d never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates until the 3-minute and 40-second clip below that I happened to click on yesterday. His take on writing is so accurate and so heartfelt that I’ve watched this clip several times now.

He talks about writing being an act of courage because it’s a process about failure, which he says is the main reason more people don’t write. Writing, after all, is the desperate and often obsessive attempt to transcribe an idea in such a way that it becomes a mirror image of what you’d imagined in your head. This being an impossible feat drives a writer to madness revising over and over again:

You try to go from really bad, to okay, to acceptable. You never really get to that perfect thing that was in your head.

He talks about pressure being a catalyst for creative breakthroughs. Which makes sense when we think about survival of the fittest, and the way diamonds are made. Comfort zones are breeding grounds for perspiration and daydreams, but being under pressure triggers the fight or flight response—you either fight (persevere) or flee (give up).

I’ve heard and read endless advice on writing. This section of my blog is dedicated to the writing process because I find it therapeutic write about. So of course I’m aware, as I’m sure you are, of the number one advice on writing—that perseverance is key.

But there’s something about the way Coates delivers this familiar advice. Perhaps it’s the look in his eyes or the honesty in his voice or the eagerness with which he shares his thoughts. Whatever it is—his words had an effect on me, and I hope they have an effect on you too.

What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?

Writers, Where Do You Write?

Finding time to write is undoubtedly a struggle sometimes. But what about the “where” of writing? In what kind of environments are you most productive? Do you enjoy the silent company of fellow writers or do you prefer the silent company of your pet instead? How about couch vs. desk, kitchen table vs. bed? Coffee shops, anyone? The library?

Today I had a date with my writing and a writer friend at a very cool place called Story Studio. The occasion was simple and wonderful: all writers were welcome to come in between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. for a Write In. All you had to do was show up with your laptop and inspiration in tow, find a comfy spot to call your own, and WRITE.

We make appointments for doctors, meetings, social gatherings, romantic dates. We schedule vacations, dinner time, and for the dog owners out there—you know the importance of scheduling your routine around little fluffy’s bowl movements. So it makes perfect sense then the importance of making an appointment with your writing.

“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t guard my writing time as well as I should. I’m too flexible and easily prone to putting it off if an occasion or commitment presents itself. But if you have an appointment to go somewhere for the purpose of writing—well, I’ve found that that can make a big difference as far as follow-through and productivity are concerned.

Home is where comfort (and the dog) is so of course I can conveniently promise myself that I’ll write on such-and-such day or when I get home or after I hang out with so-and-so or once this episode is over.

But home being where comfort is can be the problem in and of itself sometimes. Home’s comfort can quickly turn into napping or binge-watching your show (because let’s face it, the next one is already loading) or sudden inspiration for washing dishes that can effortlessly overthrow your writing goal.

They say when you’re preparing for a phone interview to dress the part even though they can’t see you. Why? Because if you’re too comfortable, it can relax your mindset too, so you won’t be as sharp and alert.

I think the same thing applies to writing. Of course I’m going to write at home 80% of the time probably. (Winter in Chicago, enough said.) And if you have an office in your home or the perfect little writing nook that you decorated with inspiration—my point still stands. Because you’ve created a designated space that you can go to for writing time. The trick is to set yourself up for success.

Because if I wake up on a beautiful weekend morning and tell myself, I’m going to write today, my chances of writing will double if I actually go somewhere for the purpose of writing. They’ll triple if I make plans to meet someone to write with. Because once I reach my location, I’m going to have to write. I’m suddenly on a concrete mission that involved putting on pants and leaving my house (and my dog). And as much as I love coffee and my own company, I probably won’t sit in the coffee shop sipping and daydreaming while my laptop is closed before me and others are writing around me.

And that’s the other thing. Other writers. Surrounding yourself with productive energy—with others who are on a similar mission—can be positively infectious. Invite a writer friend  or find a local Write In to attend.

Writing is a solitary, low-maintenance activity. I read somewhere that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book—or a large chunk of it—on napkins. You don’t need much to write. Unlike making music, you don’t need a producer, a sound engineer, a studio, accompanying musicians, audio equipment—you don’t need anything but yourself and something to write on.

So try making an appointment with yourself to go somewhere the next time you plan to write. It can really help tackle self-discipline and procrastination. Put it on your calendar, tell your friends: sorry, I can’t; I have somewhere to be. Dress the part, pack some snacks, put your laptop in its case—you’re on a mission, after all—then show up.

Swap comfort zone for writing zone and see how much you can get done.

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The Spirit’s Strength is Infinite

My triathlon experience taught me many things last year, but the biggest lesson remains this: Persistence, dedication and hard work can take you anywhere. You just have to have the courage and will to keep going, no matter what perceived obstacles litter your path. The body may be limited in its physicality, but the spirit’s strength is infinite. Discipline is channeling that strength, and perseverance is believing in its power.

The Miracle of Mornings

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Even though waking up early can be a struggle, I’m glad I have somewhere to go to every morning. I’m glad that I’m needed, that people are expecting me, waiting for me, and happy to see me when I arrive.

Sure, I could opt to live a life of sleeping in. Of dreaming for just a little bit longer as I clutch my dog and smell her ears for just a little bit longer. I could opt to wake when I please, without urgency, and I could make showering optional (imagine the gallons of water I’d save).

But what kind of life would that be? A cyclical drudgery. An eventual restless wandering. Even larvae live with purpose.

We are creatures of habit. Some of us thrive on routine, some of us thrive on the thrill of not knowing what’s next (though really, nobody knows what’s next). But we are all creatures of habit. So I will make my new habit this:

To rise each morning purposefully and gratefully, a willing recipient to the day’s embrace, which is in no way owed to me. To recognize the miracle of mornings. The way they kiss my cheek each day, without fail, without judgement, never wanting anything in return save for gladness, as I flutter my eyes awake.

What if… I were a vegetarian?

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I’m thinking about becoming a vegetarian… possibly, maybe. I love eating chicken, beef, turkey, lamb, bison, goat, and seafood. So if I do become a vegetarian, it would be purely an act of mind over matter.

I was privileged to be raised in a household where we could afford to include these meats in our diet. And I was fortunate to have an excellent cook for a mother (from whom I draw so much of my cooking inspiration).

My mother was so good about keeping our diet balanced with plenty of vegetables, many times making veggie-only dishes for the occasional break from meat. I guess my mother was pretty fortunate too to have non-picky eaters for kids. (My brother doesn’t like onions but I’ll give him a pass…)

I’ve never questioned eating meat because… eating meat is something I’ve done all my life. I love food. How can you question something that smells and tastes so good? Besides, meat is deeply integrated in the cuisines of my heritages, so it’s a cultural experience too. Plus there are nutritional benefits.

But… now that I’ve experienced and been exposed to more of the world and lived through some pivotal years of my life, I’ve decided it’s time to reevaluate my values and ideologies on matters that I’ve always accepted as is. I think it’s good practice to reevaluate your way of life at various intervals, in an effort to live consciously. A sort of “Are you good?” “I’m good” “Okay, let’s carry on then” check-in with yourself.

The winds of life inevitably bend us, break us, or make us determined to stand our ground. So where am I determined to stand my ground? And where would I rather adapt, change, grow… based on what I know now that I may have not known before?

Deciding to become vegetarian is definitely not something I would do overnight, for a New Years resolution, or off an emotional whim. This isn’t an announcement that I’m moving in that direction (a- I’m not one for announcements and b- I have turkey chili waiting for me at home). This is merely an exercise in reflection… me sharing a topic I’ve been ruminating over recently for a number of reasons. So I welcome your thoughts… meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters alike.

More to come in an upcoming blog post.

Absence.

When there is no writing,

I find myself in the middle of a road,

as alone as one feels without a phone,

night draping my shoulders — a long,

heavy cloak dragging behind my heels.

Trees so tall they morph into darkness

bulge beside me — grand, continuous

borders blocking all muses from my mind.

A half-moon follows me, casting a grey

gaze on this place of no words, and

all I see are shadows.

 

 

 

Midnight Cigarettes

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I miss sneaking
a smoke
on my parents’ porch;
those silent moments,
anxious in bed,
waiting for family
members
to fall sleep.

I miss whispering
“good night”,
my pretend sleeping,
the soft night light,
the crack of my door,
me creeping through,
holding my breath
to listen.

My bare feet
tiptoeing on carpet,
shoes dangling in hand,
mind wrapped up in plan,
passing sleeping sounds,
to the front door locked,
loud heart pound,
the echo of the key
click.

I miss the cold
air that greets my face,
my slow motion exit, a
cigarette in a sweaty palm;
the no regret.

I miss —
inhaling, exhaling
in folds
of nighttime’s
morning,
alone but all right,
adrenaline gushing,
thoughts whooshing
and buzzing,
city lights like
fireflies,
my current life
unrealized,
staring out in wonder —
the moon’s sad face.

Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

Spoiler-free zone.

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Before dusting this book off my shelf, the only dystopian novels I’d read were Fahrenheit 451  by Ray Bradbury and the YA trilogy, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, both of which I’d enjoyed thoroughly. Though they’re both thought-provoking and impactful in their own ways, nothing compares to the chilling power that is 1984. 

If you’ve ever heard the terms Big Brother, Double Think, Newspeak… these were all coined from this haunting dystopian novel written in 1949.

This book wasn’t meant to be a prophecy of the then near-future, but a warning on how our world could — or would — transform if we continue on our path of destruction and lose our humanity. If the world ceases to be a place of thought and wonder and imagination, and sinks into a dark realm in which freedom is no longer a concept understood by the masses, let alone a word in the dictionary.

And it makes sense that Orwell, whose real name was Eric Blair (George Orwell was a pen name), would write such a book. Not only was he a political essayist and novelist living during a war-torn era, he despised totalitarianism, which makes 1984 then a hyperbole of government domination. The heavy, dark tone of the book was most likely a reflection of attitudes and moods after World War II.

“It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same — everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same — people who had never learned to think but were storing up in their hearts and bellies and muscles the power that would one day overturn the world.” George Orwell, 1984

This is a book that creeps up on you. It starts at the micro level and widens with each chapter, before jolting you into a wave of emotion. Orwell takes his time setting up the stage, intimately introducing us to his protagonist, Winston Smith, and the world in which he… exists.

I was disturbed, yet very much intrigued, by the eerie world that Orwell gradually reveals. From the very first line it’s clear that the world of the book is unlike ours (a great thing to note for writers; crafting time and place is not always easy). The details of Orwell’s world in the year 1984 dance right out of the page.

Orwell covers the type of food and drink that’s consumed, the clothing, the living quarters, the buildings, the streets, the expressions or lack-thereof on people’s faces, people’s mannerisms and moods, the lyrics of songs that are sung, even the language that’s used, and its direct translations. Leaving barely any specifics to the imagination, his precision serves a very keen purpose.

Towards the end I felt like I had been immersed in a nightmare, and that’s exactly what 1984 sets out to portray.

The third-person narrative follows the story of middle-aged Winston Smith. We learn about Orwell’s vision of 1984 through Smith’s eyes and internal monologues. He is our guide through this unfamiliar world that ends up resembling certain aspects of our current day: the feeling of being constantly watched, monitored, and contained — the struggle between wanting to fit in and wanting to be free from that pressure. (And indeed with each year that goes by, 1984 becomes more and more relevant.)

Orwell’s precise prose make Winston’s desires our own; his fear, distrust, and desperation we come to understand as though we were born in his world. As a writer, I appreciated this accomplishment because it’s so hard to create the circumstances by which your reader can completely understand the high stakes of a world they’ve never experienced. This begs for the book to be read again as a writer.

One of my favorite aspects of 1984 is that it tackles the essence of Truth. Orwell challenges us to question what Truth is — if it’s a figment of our own making that can be altered and erased, or an eternally rooted reality. He makes you think about how society may be brainwashing you, or striving to mold you, your thoughts and ideals, in ways you were previously unaware, simply because you perceive what’s around you as the norm. You are made to question the norm and your role in perpetuating certain perceptions.

As applied to our world today, this case in Saudi Arabia where a blogger was prosecuted for speaking his mind, for speaking out against what is deemed as definitive truth in that society, came to mind. This article too made me think about some of the concepts that Orwell dissects in his book.

“It was as though some huge force were pressing down upon you — something that penetrated inside your skull, battering against your brain, frightening you out of your beliefs, persuading you, almost, to deny the evidence of your senses.” George Orwell, 1984

1984 is a struggle between the individual and the larger entity that is government and society. It’s about power, oppression, and control — and the role technology can play in all of these. It challenges us to think about what makes us human, what can happen if we don’t live our lives, and rule our world, in accordance with those values. And it presents to us two important questions:

Can human beings lose their humanity to the point of no return?

Can we handle the enormous responsibility that comes from achieving great power, without shattering the moral compass?

In short, this is a book that stays with you. You begin to find traces of its allusions all around as you go about your day. It’s a book you could read over and over and discover new meanings and symbols each time… no wonder its significance has endured throughout the decades.

So if you’re in the mood for a fun, light read, I’d encourage you to look elsewhere. But if you’re interested in a psychological horror story, one that will analyze human thought, society, and behavior, that will nudge you into asking philosophical questions about man’s innate nature and the structure of our world, then this book will take you on a memorable ride. One that will inevitably tilt the lens through which you view the world, if only slightly.

Have you read 1984?

My Mother’s Yard Sale — A Poem

It’s spring on my side of the world! And the season for yard sales is here. Or is steadily approaching at least. Spring cleaning and purging is underway, and the people in my neighborhood are readying their sidewalk signs and organizing potential sale items into bins and baskets (or so I imagine). I love yard and garage sales… the treasures that can be found amidst the random rubble of years gone by. I love random. And of course, I love a bargain. As well as the feeling of reusing and re-purposing… of giving away and letting go.

What’s the coolest thing you’ve picked up from a yard sale?

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My Mother’s Yard Sale

Laid out on the lawn on folding tables, all no-longer needed items are listed at a fair price. Cotton dresses with faded polka dots hang limply on hangers; the long sleeves of blouses long gone out of style wave in the breeze, sweeping through the neatly organized memories.

Brown boxes with torn corners hold stacks of used books and bent magazines. Mother’s old toaster might be of use to someone who collects simple but respectable antiques from the fifties. Buckets filled with old but sparkling silverware sit and wait, continuously

overlooked by passing faces. Kenny Rogers cassette tapes with scratched off labels border the gray surface of the yard sale tables. Shoes once squashed in the bottom of a box in a basement finally smell the outside air, the pair’s not-as-striking color desperate

to shine one last time in the sun. Wooden picture frames that once held my family’s faces stare at eyes that don’t give them much notice. My mother sits in her folding chair, sipping tea, checking off the number of items she has left to part with. I watch her from inside

the house, through the window, wondering who would possibly want a poster of David Bowie, a poster creased with folding lines. Solid-colored t-shirts flap like flags, calling to neighbors, dog walkers, anyone interested in place mats with a few unnoticeable stains.