Ever since I can remember I was surrounded by plants and animals as a child. My grandparents lived in a house with a big yard where we grew grapes, strawberries, raspberries, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and herbs. We had fruit trees scattered all over the yard. As far as the garden was concerned, life was organic and full of taste. And there was always someone to pet, someone to love who needed caring affection. When my family moved from Ukraine to the US, we were separated from my grandparents and from that kind of life. My mom often yearns for a piece of land to plant something and make it grow. She loves the smell of soil and the muddy earth on her hands. I miss being close to the land as well and sometimes wish that I owned an apple orchard. I would get lost in the fruit paradise on a cool summer afternoon and find that peace once again, one with nature, eating my favorite fruit right off a tree, juicy and nurturing, its nectar - the cleanest water on Earth. One day I will plant dozens or maybe even hundreds of apple trees, but for now I am content with one enormous cat tree that’s taking up a corner of the living room in my small apartment… well that, and my two amazing cats that I get to pick off it as if they were fruit.
Cats, amazing – I know, not everyone is a cat person, but they truly are wonderful little creatures that light up my life. My son and I got our first cat four years ago from North Shore Animal League as a birthday present for me. It was a very hard time for both of us because I just got separated from my then husband. I was sad, angry, anxious about the situation and worried about my son who wasn’t taking it very well. He loved his dad and being five and a half couldn’t understand why all of a sudden his parents weren’t living together anymore and why they were fighting any time they were around each other. All the yelling and crying of the pervious few months has also taken a toll on him and he was very sad and apathetic. I don’t know what was hurting me more - things that were going on between me and his father or seeing my son this way. I only knew one thing, it was going to get worse for all involved if I didn’t get my wits together and ended that unfortunate ordeal. Time heals everything, they say, so I just took deep breaths and did my best. It was a natural progression of thought, a knowing of a kind that whispered in my ear one day that we needed a cat. My son loves animals and was thrilled when I told him that we are going to adopt a kitten. And so we went to the Animal League with intent to find a perfect kitten to be a part of our small family.
There were cages full of dogs and puppies, cats and kittens. It was heartbreaking to see them locked behind metal bars, unable to run around as animals should, but these were the lucky few that had a chance of staying alive and being adopted and loved. My son and I picked up and petted different kittens, there were so many to pick from that our heads started spinning. We walked around wondering how we were going to choose. Just then I kneeled down to see a kitten in one of the lower cages, she was a skinny little thing, a tabby with big ears and intelligent eyes. My son and I asked to hold her and when we did she purred loudly, selecting us to take her home and be her family. I haven’t seen my son smile so much in a long time. Even though the kitten made herself comfortable without hesitation in our apartment, he followed her everywhere as she walked around with her tail up, purring and sniffing, sniffing and purring. And when he went to sleep, she nestled close to him and stayed there all night, occasionally grooming his hair. She did that every night until he notably cheered up and started smiling not only at home (both of us couldn’t help but smile when around her), but in school and out when playing with friends. It is amazing that one little kitten had the power to bring joy to our injured hearts with her mere presence. But that’s what pets do - they extend our hearts, heal us, show us the way to brighter more joyful lives. They are our companions and our friends. They teach us to love deeper, without selfishness, without holding back our affection and by that they fix the parts of us that were broken. They feel when we are sad or in pain and they comfort us. It is not a coincidence that Kisa chose to sleep next to my son when he was upset and that she still does that whenever he has a bad day. She cuddles next to my stomach when I have a stomachache and purrs my discomfort away.
There is an overabundance of animals in shelters and on the streets needing a home and a loving family. It is a distressing reality that many animals are killed simply because nobody wants them, as if it is their fault that they were born and haven’t found someone to love and protect them. There are plenty of families that could use some healing and an infusion of hope from feeling compassion. Why not adopt a pet and help each other? As people give love, so they shall receive. As people let themselves feel affection, their hearts grow stronger, bigger and brighter. And with that physical and emotional healing occurs and their spirits are set free from the suffering of the past.
This year has been keeping me up on my toes. One significant change in how I live, think and function has followed another in a roller coaster of happenings and realizations. At work, I am moving to a different office location yet again. An office co-inhibitor that has to move as well was seriously upset. She has been sitting there for a decade and all of a sudden there is an announcement that she will be relocated within a week. I haven't grown any roots to the new desk so my only regret is that the new office will be devoid of windows. Natural light is like food to me and I sure am going to feel its missing presence. But I am not the one to insistently complain, if I hate something I am free to find a different path. It is important to always remember that we do have a choice. No one is making us stay in a bad relationship or a job we dislike. We choose to stick around. Whether it is fear, guilt or lack of optimism that is stopping us from achieving that freedom, the cause is internal. And that is great news because once we realize that we are empowered to create our own future, we obtain the power to do so.
Sadly, people tend to gravitate toward complacency. Once a comfortable place is found they would resist with all their might to abandon its familiar feeling. The fact that future is uncertain is one of the reasons for this. Another reason is that people don't want to do more than necessary - being proactive is a rare trait in today's society. Many are content with life as long as they know what to expect. Unknown is feared and familiar is worshiped unjustly. It is hard to talk to people about things that aren’t widely accepted by surrounding society. It is almost impossible to get a person to think for themselves. One step toward the unexpected and a few words of caution from “helpful” friends and everyone is back where they started. The vicious cycle continues and people are powerless to initiate change on their own. However, doing nothing doesn’t bring stability, life keeps moving either forward or back, progress-wise. The change will either be initiated by us, in which case we have better control of the outcome, or be sprung on us with or without warning.
It is important to notice the positive in situations that we find ourselves in and to embrace the change - after all, life is constantly moving. Buddhism teaches that change is life's inevitable reality. It is a catalyst for opportunities that present us with chances to evolve as human beings. Physical exercise develops the muscle, learning exercises the brain and life challenges forge a strong unbreakable spirit. It isn't always easy and sometimes we can't see why we have to encounter certain problems until after a solution is found. There are lessons to be learned from every person and situation. A great deal of lessons are loud and clear – don’t give up on yourself, you are stronger than you think.
It’s often said that people can't appreciate something or someone until it is gone. Probably one of the most taken for granted treasures is health. Most of us are born with it and are unaware of any other way of being until we discover that sickness is truly a state of suffering. I was born with the wonderful gift of beaming health, but almost died in childhood of pneumonia which kept returning over and over again. All through childhood I have struggled with colds and flu. At twenty nine I had a surgery to remove a benign growth off my small intestine. Five days in the hospital and twenty pounds lighter, I came home with a new outlook on hospitals and sickness and an attitude of gratitude for still being alive. My time at the hospital when I was a child is forgotten, but the few days I spent there about four years ago are fresh in my memory. I remember waking up from surgery to blindingly bright light and nausea so overwhelming that I thought that I surely would vomit all over the nurse that was checking on me in the ICU. I probably would have, but I lost consciousness again and don't remember anything until I was woken up by two other nurses and asked to move myself from the stretcher to the hospital bed. I vividly remember the pain that seemed to infiltrate every single cell of my body with agony. I remember the state of hopelessness that filled hospital air and its smell of sickness and death. Coming back home was a celebration and a breath of fresh air. I truly believe that there is only so much progress that can be accomplished at the hospital before it starts getting to you and depressing you back to illness.
When again faced with illness in the beginning of this year I spent one night tormented by half woken nightmares and anguish. I saw a thousand different ways that I could possibly die, and even though I can smile about it now and say that it was silly because there can only be one way to die and therefore I would never have to suffer through the remaining nine hundred ninety nine, it was a very gloomy dark night. I couldn't imagine not only living through another surgery and hospital stay, but being drugged, cut and experimented on. And this is coming from me, a person who had a natural childbirth and considered it to be one of the most beautiful inspiring experiences of my life. There is nothing natural or magical about being sick and operated on. There is no fervently anticipated reward for suffering through pain. There is, however, a sense of deep disappointment and regret that usually accompanies a serious illness. So, once I found out that I can do some surprisingly simple things to prevent a great deal of possible future suffering, I made major shifts in my diet and lifestyle practically overnight. I am one of those people who don't need to be warned twice and therefore I am not going to wait until another health crisis to make the move. People are surprised. They keep asking me what I use for protein, whether I missed meat and comment on how extreme of a sacrifice it seems to be to live this way.
"What sacrifice?" I laugh to myself. A sacrifice is when you give up something dear to you without getting anything in return. I, on the other hand, haven't given up much beyond some acquired tastes and habits and gained a whole lot of benefits. The situation is a win-win if you ask me. I gave up pleasing my taste buds with harmful foods and in return found other pleasant tastes, clarity of mind, spikes in creativity, inner peace, more energy and stamina, and stronger health. Did I miss meat? - No!! Where do I get my protein? - Everywhere!! It's in nuts, seeds, legumes and grains. It's even in fruits and vegetables. Is it complete protein that contains all the essential amino acids? - It doesn't have to be because protein has to be broken down into smaller units which are then either used or stored in the amino acid "storage bank". This storage bank is there to be drawn from when proteins that are needed by the body are reassembled to their usable form. Moreover, as pointed out by Doris Lin in her article on animal rights, sacrifice, by definition, is surrender or destruction of something prized or desirable for the sake of something considered as having a higher or more pressing claim. She writes, "The implication is that the prized or desirable thing being surrendered belongs to the person making the sacrifice. It can't be a sacrifice to surrender someone else's prized or desirable possession." She makes an excellent point! She says that veganism is not about giving up, it is about not taking.
October is a breast cancer month. There are a number of walks sponsored by big corporations to draw our attention to the problem and to raise more money for finding a cure. As great as it is that money is raised and women are reminded to self examine their chest for early detection, it really is not enough. Early detection is not prevention, by any means. And although it greatly increases the chances of survival, the person still has to go through an incredible amount of suffering. There must be a better way! And there is - multiple studies have been done on relationship between diet and health, and diet and cancer specifically. It has been shown that a person has a huge say in the matter, even though we are led to believe otherwise. Genetics play a small role in causing cancer. It is said that in reality only about 5 percent of cases are related to inherited genes, all other cases are connected to environment and behavioral patterns.
As a society, we are conditioned to think that we need meat and dairy to be healthy. We are bombarded by endless commercials of fast food, junk food, frozen dinners, milk for calcium ads, cleaning products, makeup and such. The companies pay a lot of money to make sure people buy their products, and it works – most of the people spend their money on the things that look desirable on TV. But, if you think about it for a second, it is easy to realize that people are not the ones benefiting from consumption of those products. Most cleaning products contain highly toxic substances and we seem to be proud of that. In our obsession to get rid of germs and dirt and attempts to make life easier for ourselves we are willing to overlook that the substances are harming us as well. We inhale the toxins as we breathe. They enter our bodies though our skin. I was surprised that even something as innocent as makeup often contains cancer causing chemicals and substances that damage our nervous and reproductive systems. I think that once we realize that primary reason of advertisements is to make profit for the manufacturer, it will be easier for us to take them with a grain of salt and question whether something will or will not benefit us.
As a first step, I started with eating consciously, meaning that I was aware of what I was putting in my body as food. I looked at each item carefully, read the labels and determined if my body will benefit or be harmed by my choice. It is not about calorie counting and it is not about fat content or sugar content or how much the food was artificially enriched with vitamins. The easy way to determine if something is good for you is seek foods that haven’t been processed at all, like fresh raw fruits and vegetable and to eliminate foods that contain over processed ingredients such as white flour, sugar (choose an occasional dried cane juice, honey or dates instead), salt (choose sea salt or just go with extra lemon juice which is an excellent addition to a salad), white rice, fructose corn syrup, oil that has been heated (heating oil molecules breaks their structure converting them to something that is not only indigestible by our bodies but also to something that can harm us), frozen dinners and foods that have been microwaved (the process of heating foods in the microwave also breaks the molecular structure of the food making it toxic, even carcinogenic).
The harmful food list can go on and on. In fact, it seems that most of the supermarket foods should be on the taboo list, that’s how low we have scooped where it comes to nutrition in this day and age. Food doesn’t mean nutrition to the most of us - it means taste and convenience instead. But can you nourish your body in any way solely on taste and convenience? Of course not - and that is why there are so many overweight and malnourished individuals in the US today. There are no advertisements that tell the public that animal products such as red meat, poultry, eggs and dairy greatly increase our chances of suffering from heart disease, cancer and diabetes (among other things). There is no fast paced monologue that follows a burger commercial listing potential side effects as in case of an advertisement of a new drug that is being introduced to the market. There is no requirement for it, no profit to be made from such a disclosure and a great deal of money spent by the meat and dairy industry to deny the facts found in research.
So, since we cannot expect the entities that benefit from selling those items to acknowledge the role they play in harming our health and to spend some money informing the public of remarkable findings of various research studies, we need to rely on our own judgment and on sources that are trustworthy and don’t have vested interest in what we consume to provide us with this information. One of such examples is John Robbins, the person who was supposed to inherit Baskin Robbins and who walked away from the family business and its fortune to be true to himself. Early on he recognized the connection between diet and health and has worked hard to educate people about proper nutrition. It is easy to see that companies that make millions and sometimes billions of dollars from sales have a conflict of interest and that people who willingly walk away from fortunes have a sincere goal to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Bottom line is that people need to know and I am willing to be scoffed at and hated by the companies that might lose potential profit. If that’s what it takes, so be it! From more places we hear about products that are harmful to us - the better. The more people stand up who are aware of the benefits that a healthful diet can provide - the better. Sometimes a piece of information has to be presented to us from countless sources to convince us that there is something to it and worth looking into, even if it means that one has to go against what is widely accepted by our society. I think that we can all greatly benefit from an awareness walk, a walk that will truly contribute to preventing and possibly healing cancer. What is more beneficial - a walk for early detection of one cancer or a walk that significantly reduces our chances of getting a whole spectrum of cancers as well as other sicknesses that cause countless deaths which could have been prevented if people had the knowledge and weren’t so afraid to step out of the norm?