Sweet peas

I just saw Amazing Grace, a new British movie about William Wilberforce, the MP and reformer who brought about the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807—yes, 200 years ago. Wilberforce’s portrayal is a little too saint-like for my taste (his laudanum addiction notwithstanding), but what struck me were the moments of epiphany that brought him to activism. At a crossroads between politics and religion, a tireless group of activists, including a former slave whose accounts of slavery became a bestseller, inspire him to campaign in service of his Christian values.

This took me back to my moments of political epiphany.

On gay people, there were several: ooh, gay people exist (age 10); I seem to like them and think they should be free to love (age 12); I had a strange dream about a girlfriend (age 14); my best friend (the guy with the diamante earrings, flowing black shirt and eyeliner) is gay (age 18); I like to be supportive of my best friend by accompanying him to his gay student events (age 19); my best girlfriend who occasionally sleeps naked in my bed had an affair with a woman (age 19 and a half); I seem to have feelings for said girlfriend (age 20); ooh la la (ongoing).

My awakenings around issues of race were inevitably less comfortable. There was first the awareness that black people actually exist in my community and not just on American TV shows (remember, this is 1970s England). I have an intense school photo showing a smiling group of white four-year olds and one black boy, who seems deeply disconnected and isolated from the group; I think he was the only black child in my entire primary school. As a teen I started to be horrified by the things coming out of my parents’ and grandparents’ mouths—jokes about “running off with a black man” were considered hilarious—and I took pride in my anti-racist moral high ground. This was shattered in college with the patient education of black friends who showed me that one can be anti-racist and yet subtly racist at the same time. Not such a fun lesson.

But a life-changing revelation happened at age 16. I wish I were telling you about a moment inspired by Mandela or Ghandi or Marx, but my personal bolt of lightning came from a b-list actor. The Professionals were Britain’s answer to Starsky and Hutch, but, you’ve guessed it, set in Britain. Bodie and Doyle were tough detectives with questionable hairstyles, and it turned out that actor Martin Shaw (Doyle) was a vegetarian. Somehow I was reading the newsletter of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection, which interviewed Shaw about his convictions. I remember him saying that the only justification for eating meat was his palate, and that simply wasn’t enough. He was right.

And sitting in my bed at 10 o’clock at night I realized I should be a vegetarian. My Mum came to say good night and I told her about my decision. She said it was fine provided I cooked all my own meals. She was waiting for me to crack, but the wonderful thing about being 16 and crystal clear about your convictions is that nothing can stand in your way.

I would like to say that no meat has crossed my lips since, but accidental carnivorism is rife. There is no end to the dishes in restaurants that have no hint of meat in the description, but surprise you with, for example, a topping of crabmeat on spinach and artichoke dip! Or there’s the random chicken nugget that has fallen unsuspectingly among battered vegetables. I lived in France for a while, which is no place for the faint-hearted veggie. Meat is a word used to describe steak whereas little pieces of chopped ham are considered practically vegan. I voluntarily chose to break my diet in recent years to eat an oyster—I’m too much of a hedonist to want to die without trying this mythical food. For the record, I kind of liked it, but felt guilty. I don’t anticipate any future animal consumption.

One of the big challenges of being a vegetarian is the sheer boredom of having to talk about it after 24 years (yes, I know I’m writing a blog). Meat-eaters are so challenged by my silent abstention that they question me endlessly and drone on about the time they went vegetarian for a whole weekend, but enjoy pork chops too much to change. At this point, I’m so bored I don’t care. I don’t care if you fill your body with decomposing flesh. I don’t care if you don’t like tofu. I don’t care if you think I’m a hypocrite on some level. Just please, please don’t make me talk about this again.

Beyond the conversation, there are the endless vegetarian jokes, most of them from my Dad. I prefer the jokes to the conversation because they’re just daft and, after 24 years, the repetition is so absurd that it’s funny. And in case you’re wondering, they’re usually as simple as asking me if I want a steak. Yep, it’s all in the delivery and the timing.

Becoming a vegetarian was deeply empowering at 16. It’s such a rush to be fired up about a political issue and to feel like you can do something. And no doubt, as a teenage girl living with a controlling mother in a post-divorce household, this was a way of taking control of my body and my identity. And best of all, I can look a cow in the face and know we’re friends. (Just don’t let her see my shoes.)

24 responses to “Sweet peas”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    Sweet pea,
    I relish in personal posts which share our thought process, especially the inner workings of the teenate mind. Thank you for sharing. I’ll admit that I have teased some of friends who are vegitarian, and your post made me decide to do it no more. TGIF.

  2. Stephanie Wells says:

    Here’s one masterful part of your post: the nipping in the bud of any tedious explanations (which would have been made by every single commenter otherwise) about who once tried to be veg, who just can’t bear to give it up, etc. We will not make you talk about this again!

  3. Scott says:

    Way to kill your comments number Stell. I was totally going to tell a tedious short-term vegetarian story, but now, nuthin’.

  4. Rachel says:

    Can we talk about how much we love vegetables? Because I get totally hot for a bunch of rainbow chard.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Maybe I’m misinterpreting, but I don’t think Stella was necessarily suggesting (or insisting) that no one tell the story of his/her own vegetarianism or omnivorism, but that she herself just never wants to talk about it ever again. Nice try. I mean, that’s like saying you never again want to talk about that extra foot growing out of your head. Kidding. Kidding!

    But seriously, Stella, I admire your fortitude in sticking to the resolution you made when you were 16. I think when I was 16 I was saying things like, “I will always and forever love the albums of Uriah Heep and Vanilla Fudge.” Somehow, even that didn’t stick.

  6. Marleyfan says:

    omnivorism. Gotta love it (well most do).

  7. Lisa Tremain says:

    Stella, I broke my vegitarianism in Germany, with a big sausage.

    Incidentally, this former vegitarian is on her way to have some “Sbacot” right now (see the comments section of “End comment”). It’s lunch time, y’all.

  8. Dave says:

    broke my vegetarianism in Germany, with a big sausage

    Is that a double (triple?) euphemism?

  9. Sbacot says:

    Ouch, ouch, and ouch!

  10. Dave says:

    Also, it occurs to me that “Sbacot” may be one of those human-animal hybrids that Bush warned us about. Is this what TGW hath wrought?

  11. Lisa Tremain says:

    I’m so glad someone’s finally acknowledging my euphemisms. Thanks, Dave.

  12. Lisa Tremain says:

    By the way, I do know how to spell vegEtarian.

  13. bryan says:

    when you spell it that way it sounds electronic

  14. bryan says:

    oh — and stella has already heard me tell this one, i’m sure, but the punchline is that my ladyfriend would kill a pig for bacon. and not the kind that lives in kalorama.

  15. bryan says:

    bacon, that is, not pig.

  16. PB says:

    I love the paragragh about your gradual awareness and recognition epiphanies “on gay people.” All of us could track a strand of identity from the outside to the core of who we are, but alas with less poetry. You have this gift for wide expanse distilled into few words.

    I had an interesting conversation with someone last week who was feeling overwhelmed on how to contribute change on a big issue. I said, we just have to start walking. I think that is really what it is all about–one piece of broccoli at a time.

    great post, Stella

  17. Dubya says:

    if it is one piece of broccoli at a time, wouldn’t we all just have to start stalk-ing?

  18. Stephanie Wells says:

    Okay Dub, the moniker is a little upsetting. Even if you’re a Republican, please give us something else. I hate that I have to think of the Great Satan when I log onto the Great Whatsit. (Note that I am not speaking on behalf of any other Whatsitsers)

  19. Scott Godfrey says:

    That last comment was me, not Steph. Sorry.

  20. Jeremy says:

    WW = dubya.

    yeah, i like WW better. or dubdub.

  21. Stephanie Wells says:

    I like how he says he’s not speaking on behalf of any other Whatsiters, then writes it in my name. Nonetheless, he is speaking accurately for me on this one, cause I too find the comparison upsetting. You’re selling yourself a little short there, WW, by aligning yourself with Dubya (it’s my initial too, but I can’t even bear to use it). Please, give us something less negative in its connotations . . .

  22. bryan says:

    i’ve kinda found dubya to be an interesting call. but the thing i liked about WW was the association it called up with Wonder Woman.

  23. Wendy West says:

    Okay okay. Sheesh. So much for trying to embrace “the other” with a name….

  24. Scott says:

    So you were neutralize a slur? If that’s the case, you’re much smarter than me; sorry that I didn’t get your brilliance.

    From now on I’m going by Condi.