Why I Am Writing about Vegans in a Blog Like Mine

“You can be a vegan but still have an unhealthy diet,” one of my tablemates at a pre-Thanksgiving vegan potluck informed me. “Think French fries and all that grease.” I nodded sympathetically. It is hard enough to push people’s eating habits in one direction, let alone two at once. Another vegan sitting there with at least three varieties of cranberry sauce on her plate next to her tahini-topped zucchini pancakes asked how long I had been a vegan. I had to confess that I was there only because decades ago, my husband had belonged to their Baltimore-based group when it first formed. (It is now called the Vegetarian Resource Group.) He wanted to reconnect with old pals during our recent visit there; I came along to enjoy the food and meet offbeat people like myself, two of my favorite pastimes.

When my tablemate next asked a bit about me and I told her about this blog, she hopefully asked, “Does it have something to do with veganism?” Once again I felt compelled to spill out the unvarnished truth and say, “Well I can’t really say that it does.” Luckily, I rescued the conversation from dying prematurely by asking her to tell me a little about her interests as I ate my first ever vegan enchilada. After hesitating, she risked letting me know that certain meditation techniques could take you back four thousand years to one of your previous lives, and help you resolve things that happened then that will heal you now. I cannot help but be skeptical, but if a concept relieves spiritual distress then I am all for it. Still, I do think she outranked even me in qualifying as an offbeat person.

On my way back home from Baltimore, I mulled over my hasty answer that my blog and veganism have nothing to do with each other. While there is no obvious surface connection, I thought about what I had heard and seen at that potluck. For one thing, they were handing out T-shirts that said, “Expand compassion” on them. Well there you are. I noticed too that several people brought their own plates and silverware, so that less paper- and plastic ware would be used, thus showing their consideration for the health of our planet. Posters abounded that reminded us to “be kind to animals: don’t eat them.”

Perhaps it is fair to say that vegans and my blog followers and I are/aspire to be: purveyors of offbeat varieties of compassion.

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A Contest between Prejudice and the Angel of Death

My husband Steve will do just about anything to obtain a hard copy of the Tuesday science section of the New York Times. If we are at the airport and the Times is sold out, he will search newspapers abandoned in the terminal’s seating areas or left behind in the plane. Now that’s devotion authors would maybe not kill for but do at least one hundred pushups for. Today I am glad to have my copy in hand, because an article about the racism that doctors face reminded me of a related issue I have confronted in hospice care. The main point of the article was that doctors tend to focus on how to avoid being racist, but not enough on how to handle the reverse, when it is the patient who is prejudiced against the doctor.

I may never know when a patient is prejudiced against my gender, race or religion, but I have faced patients who have confessed to me their prejudice about someone else’s race or other characteristic. Unfortunately, this most often has to do with race, but sometimes I get comments about religious groups, gays, the wealthy, and even party affiliation and geographic location. I feel very ill-at-ease during such conversations, but if the patient is unwittingly referring to me, I can be amused by the irony. Oh my, a liberal right under their nose under cover!

Ordinarily, if people disparage minority groups, I speak my mind if I feel physically and emotionally safe doing so. But with hospice patients I have to balance accepting them with all their moral failings versus considering what harm they are doing to myself as well as others they still affect, such as a home health aide of color. Be that as it may, in the face of the demise facing them and the current trials of the disease, those concerns drown out anything I have to say about that anyway. This is no cop out on my part; the times I have tried to voice disagreement I might as well have been speaking an unbreakable code.

I remember when a patient herself, Miriam, expressed her prejudice but at the same time consciously struggled with it. She was an Orthodox Jew, thus she did not recognize the ordination of female rabbis as legitimate. Since I knew beforehand that she was Jewish, I identified myself as a Jewish chaplain as I approached her bed for the first time. At first she was not sure she would or should talk with me, but her need to talk about her beliefs and her final days to a willing listener got the conversation rolling. With nary an Orthodox rabbi in sight, she settled for what she could get. As if in an aside to God she looked at me doubtfully and said, “I guess at this stage in the game it’s alright to have a woman rabbi visit. I’ll give it a try.” While hers was not the most enthusiastic reception to my identity, when it comes to a hospice patient, I will go more than halfway (about 2/3rds of the way give or take). With this help from the Angel of Death to clear a passage for Miriam and I to connect in an authentic way, she proceeded to lighten the burdens on her soul.

What is offbeat compassion?

When I told friends, family and Twitter followers I would be starting a blog, they wondered if my anecdotes about people in Act 3 Scene 3 of their lives would be comforting or inspiring. They wondered  (and either hoped or feared) whether I, a hospice chaplain, had a religious agenda.  Hospice after all is a heavy-duty subject. Chaplains after all are, well, chaplains. Despite this, I have foregone any such goal. There are plenty of other books and blogs that already perform that service. Rather, my purpose in all of my writing is to bring readers  close-at-hand to places they are ambivalent about approaching, yet respect their need for space. Rather than perform the distasteful task of selling you a message, I feel my task is to let you see for yourself what hospice patients think about, value, believe, and avoid.

My attitude towards the hospice patients and their families is similar. I am not there to promote anything, though my presence may be of comfort. As a quiet nonjudgmental presence, they have full leeway as to what they want out of my visits, whether it be a listening ear, song, prayer, touch, casual chatter, or even simply just sitting silently with them. So one of my definitions of “offbeat compassion” is making room for persons who call upon us for help and letting them freely sort out for themselves how we can be there for them.

In the coming months, I will blog about anecdotes about the dying and with grievers, or  tell you about my experiences with such groups as a threshold choir (they sing to the dying), my responses to others writing about similar topics to mine, give book reviews, and provide excerpts from my hospice memoir. As this evolves, I look forward to amplifying comments you make and answering questions you may have. I plan to ask you challenging questions too. Who knows, I may give a pop quiz.

Since this is my maiden post, above all I want to thank all of you for venturing with me into this sometimes soothing, sometimes strange, sometimes curious, and sometimes funny ride.