When I was five years old and my brother River was seven, we were about to fry eggs for breakfast when it dawned on us that they were baby chickens. My family had been vegetarian for a short while and so we asked our parents what was the difference between eggs and meat? Weren’t they in fact baby chickens just as a burger had once been a cow? They couldn’t find a good argument to the contrary and so after my dad spread the last of his beloved butter on a piece of toast, the decision was made to go vegan. This was soon followed by a ceremonious burial of all our leather items. The vegan Phoenix family was born. At the time the only vegan alternative to meat was tofu and we had to search out a local tofu maker in the small town of Winter Park, Florida. Soon after this my sister Summer was born vegan.
There was something so powerful about our collective commitment to not harm any living thing. A long while later in adulthood, I admittedly had some years of “dabbling in dairy” and even at some junctures ate eggs! I rationalized it by making sure they were “farm raised” or “grass fed” or any and all the ways I could make myself believe I was not harming. The lines of which were ever increasingly blurry. I killed mosquitoes and washed ants down the sink and even bought leather. The cruelty of life and sad moments I had experienced had left me calloused and caused a disregard for the voiceless.
This is not about judging those who choose any and all of the things I have listed above, or who eat red meat every single day for that matter. Vegan is relative as there are animal products in photography equipment, cars, household products, etc. It’s expensive and time-consuming to be 100% vegan, and when we drive down the street the bugs we kill can quickly make us 99.9%. I truly believe there is no need for blame or judgment, even of my own “vegan enough” years. I see my foray into vegetarian as a way back to my commitment to not harm any living being, to going vegan again. I should say here that during all of this, my family had remained “militant vegan” and when they found out I was not, my guess is it pained them, but they never judged me for it. If it even came up, it only served as a reminder for me to consider that I had in fact been one of the catalysts for us going vegan in 1977.
Some years ago I began to take a hard look at my choices—the ways that I explained away, through laziness and convenience, harming other living things. I became vegan again, but still used honey. I recently phased that out too. I still have the same leather shoes I bought or borrowed or were gifted to me, and to this day I haven’t yet buried them or given them away. I only buy vegan shoes now and just purchased two fake leather jackets that I love. It’s a complex issue, this “not harming” business. How many ants and bugs will die if I dig a hole? Is Polyurethane a truly humane option if it simultaneously destroys our environment? If I’m mad at the world, cutting people off in traffic, judging others for their choices, and overall being more self-righteous because of my newfound commitment to not harming; well, is that truly not harming? I guess what I came to in my limited capacity is not harming means not only not eating animals, but also not judging anyone else’s choices.
It is no small task to keep the mind and heart compassionate and accepting when innocent animals are being slaughtered for selfish reasons, and even more maddening when nutrition experts equate animal products with the many diseases we humans face. There are many other options to that “one tofu spot in a small town,” even big chain supermarkets have health sections now and there is an almost unlimited array of fake meat products. Why is the status quo to still kill and eat animals, which is so harmful to our planet and our health? I wish I had more answers and could definitively point you in a direction that would mean less suffering for all. All I can do is share with you my story in the hopes that it will make you ponder these questions. I think debating the issue in a safe and open environment could be healthy too. As I said before, it’s a complex issue and divisiveness and judgement seem not to be the most productive routes to unifying us all. I think compassion for what we all must endure to make it through this thing called life is tantamount for there to be any understanding.
If we should meet for dinner sometime, don’t be surprised if I encourage you to order the filet or the burger as you uncomfortably look at the menu wondering what yucky veggie item you must order cause you’re sitting with a vegan. I don’t believe in shaming anyone. I don’t believe I am more right than anyone else. I don’t believe I’m more advanced. I don’t believe I’m more evolved. I simply believe in not harming.
Rain is a board member and artist ambassador with The River Phoenix Center for peace building, with the mission to build safer communities through conflict resolution and restorative justice. She and her family are also working on a vegan cookbook and food line, Phoenix Family Foods. Her band with Frally Hynes, Venus and the Moon, are preparing to record their first record. She’s been working with writer/director/activist Katie Davison on the launch of a project called SOUL BRUNCH, a facilitated group discussion that aims to bring about mutual understanding in regard to the world’s most pressing issues. Rain also volunteers her time with The Art of Elysium.