I became a vegetarian when I was around nine or ten. My mom sometimes tells the story about me making that decision on Thanksgiving day after attempting one bite of turkey. I imagine that there are a lot of jokes that could be told about how bad that turkey must have been. To be honest, I don't remember much about that Thanksgiving or the time leading up to it. If it weren't for my mom's memory I probably wouldn't remember it at all.
I stopped eating meat during the time in my life when my memories are scarce. Much of what I remember takes place in a non-physical landscape and involves interactions with beings that aren't human and experiences that I didn't know how to explain. People sometimes ask me why I became a vegetarian and how I managed to find the will power to stick to it for so long.
"Didn't you like the taste of meat?" they ask
Yes. I loved it. Sometimes I still miss it a little.
"You must have a ton of will-power" they sometimes conclude.
I always thought this was a strange sentiment.
No, it took no willpower and no strength and no stubborn streak for me to become a vegetarian. Yes, I've always loved animals but that wasn't the reason I stopped eating meat. The reason I stopped eating meat was simply because I couldn't eat it anymore. It really wasn't an epic decision backed by will power and determination. I just couldn't do it, so I stopped. It took no strength not to do something that I couldn't do. It was actually much harder to take that one bite of turkey that my mom talks about than it was to give up meat, but it's hard to explain that without telling my version of the story.
So here is what I remember about that decision.
It started in either May or June. I know because that is when the fair is in town and I remember sitting at the table eating cereal and seeing a packet that one of the kids in my mom's daycare had left from a field trip to the fair. It was a simple packet for young kids to explain what farm animals are used for.
one page said:
and had a cartoon drawing of a cow.
"Hamburgers come from cows."
I remembered thinking about how sad it was to learn this fact and whether the young kids were astonished or upset to learn it and then I remember not being in the kitchen anymore.
I didn't know where I was but it was crowded and the musky scent of bodies surrounded me. There was also a sharp metallic scent and mechanical clanking. I was being prodded forward along with several other cows. There wasn't much room to walk but we kept getting pushed ahead. The metallic sound clanked louder and it scared me but the room was too suffocating to feel fear as a sharp panic, it felt more like an accepted startle. There was sadness too. I was overwhelmed by grief and hopelessness. We were being pulled apart and there was feeling of death in the air.
The images and sounds I remember with a decent amount of clarity, but it was the feeling that overwhelmed me. The air felt charged with something I couldn't explain and my heart felt broken and cold and angry and overwhelmed.
When I came back to my real body I felt dizzy and nauseous and really sad. I just wanted to lay down.
Sometime later (presumably that night or the next day) I was eating a roast-beef sandwich (one of my favorites at the time). I took a bite and saw a flash of that place. I took another and felt the bodies pressed together. I took a third and my stomach was turning so that I thought I would throw up.
I took some breaths and took one more, but I thought I would burst into tears and then I felt sick. I didn't finish my sandwich. I went outside and sat on the playground, staring up at the sky near the mountains.
My parents had bought the roast beef specifically for me, so I felt like I should finish it. I tried again the next day but the same thing happened, and the next day until I confessed to my mom that I didn't want roast beef anymore.. Or any meat that came from cows. I didn't know how to explain why. I knew there wasn't a physical reason but the thought of eating it made me sick and even though I hated to disappoint my parents I couldn't bring myself to take another bite.
It wasn't something I had planned out or worked up to. I just kept seeing that place and mostly feeling that feeling. It wasn't just the fear or heartbreak either, it was a feeling I still can't describe. Something that felt really bad to me-- the same feeling came over me the first time I went to the museum of tolerance or when my friend told me about the killing fields in Cambodia. It came over me when I saw and heard about fights at school. I still can't think of what that feeling is or how to describe it. It just felt really really bad and I couldn't stand to feel it.
Between summer and Thanksgiving that feeling became associated not just with beef but with all meat.
"It's Thanksgiving" I feel like my mom said, "You can't be a vegetarian on Thanksgiving. At least try to eat some turkey before you decide."
So I tried and I couldn't.
Even though people sometimes now credit me with a certain amount of "strength of will" for becoming a a vegetarian at a young age, the truth is I became one out of weakness. I wasn't "strong" enough to face that feeling any more, so I stopped facing it even though doing so caused conflict. It had nothing to do with loving animals or being noble or standing up for conviction, I was just too weak to keep feeling that. But I'm proud of that weakness and realizing that it was weakness and not strength that brought me to that decision made me love and respect the concept of weakness.
Strength didn't lead me where my heart wanted me to go. It usually just got in the way. It didn't take strength to stop eating meat and it didn't take strength to come out or to change the way I saw life and lived it. All of those things happened because my strength failed me-- my resolve fell and I collapsed into my own weakness.
The things I like best about myself took no strength, I found them only because I was too weak not to. I admire the concept of strength, but I see that concept truly forming in my life only when I have been too weak to fight it.