Monday, January 01, 2007

Why Begin Again

Two years ago today, Celeste sang for the first time. It was New Year's Day and we had brought her gifts of grapes which she received and consumed enthusiastically, practically drinking the fruit off the stems like wine, head thrown back, eyes closed, mouth open to receive the nectar (and to demand more). She loved treats, she loved company, she loved stimulation, she loved novelty and, as we learned that day, she loved music.

Celeste spent her short life a cripple. Hunched over, unable to use her hind legs, she sat up, on her good days, like a dog with a hump on her back. On her bad days, she just lay on one side and didn't get up at all. Rescued from a family farm the day before she was scheduled for slaughter, she arrived at the sanctuary with a broken back and she never walked more than a few steps at a time, although she did move around her safe world, her barn, by dragging her crippled hind legs from place to place, and busied herself with rearranging the straw bales, the blankets, the feed bags and, occasionally, her barn mate, Ponza.

Once in a while, she got up and walked around proper, on all fours but, as her condition worsened, she limited her activity to sitting up to greet visitors. And then, towards the end, she spent most of her time lying on her side. There were many days when the only question was: “Is it time?" And, every time, the answer was: "No". Not our answer. Hers. She didn't want to be "put out out of her misery"—it wasn't misery to her, it was her life. And it was fierce with meaning to her.

We kept trying to measure her life in degrees of comfort. And those are important measures. But she measured its worth in degrees of meaning (that absolute certainty, down to the marrow, that something is important), and degrees of joy (not happiness, not pleasure, but the fierce joy of "drinking dawn like spring water, and eating dusk like supper"), and degrees of love (not love that scintillates, but love that pulls you like a river, that draws you, body and soul, into the mystery of another day despite the pain, despite the darkness). Her eyes were always filled with light, her mind was always awake, aware, alert, open to receive the world, her spirit was strong, her will to live, learn, and grow, absolutely unbreakable.

The moments of triumph we recorded and celebrated in Celeste's life were the big, dramatic, visible ones, the moments that demonstrated our view of a full life, not hers.

Celeste stands up!
Celeste takes a few steps!
Celeste walks into the next barn! On her own!
Celeste visits with the potbellied pigs (and scares the beejeebers out of them)!
Celeste takes a mud bath in front of her barn!
Celeste leaves her barn and suns herself on the front porch!
Celeste sings!

Those are very important standards—health, comfort, happiness—but, as Celeste felt all the way down to her broken bones, they are not the reasons why life is precious.

On that New Years Day in her barn, I was singing along to an old song that was playing on the radio as I was rubbing Celeste's belly. Glacial dusk sky, dead of winter. It was an old French love ballad whose rich words are meaningless to all who don't speak French, just as Celeste's rich language is meaningless to all who don't speak pig. But the music captured and expressed what we all feel beyond language. Celeste propped herself up, sat with her face a few inches from mine, cocked her head, and looked me straight in the eye.

I sang directly to her: "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai." She uttered a sound I had never heard her, or any other pig make. A series of open mouthed, melodic, rhythmic, throaty purrs. A musical response. I repeated the refrain: "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai.". She listened, widemouthed, as though waiting for her turn. I paused. She repeated her musical reply. We did this until the song ended, each of us responding to music with music, to deep, universal feeling with like feeling. "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai." "I’ve loved you for so long, I will never forget you".

She sang in pig, I sang in human. We understood each other. Not because we were especially gifted at inter-species communication, not because we knew each other all that well, but because we both knew the love, the grief, and the hope of being alive in a soul burdened body.

That New Year's Day with Celeste was a true-blue new beginning. It revealed then, and it continues to reveal now, the only reason why beginning again—a new day, a new week, a new year—is worth doing at all.

When the darkness of the world seems overwhelming, unstoppable, soul-crushing, when beings like Celeste, who love life and sing of love, are being slaughtered by the millions every day, when the pain of loving them seems unbearable, the answer is NOT to stop loving, NOT to stop caring, NOT to add to the world’s darkness and despair. The answer is to love more, deeper, wider. To love despite the darkness and the pain. Indeed, to love because of it. To love those who need it most desperately, not only those we happen to like. To love because our love is profoundly, vitally needed, not because it is self-gratifying. To love as though life depended on it. It does.

This is what being vegan means. Building, one vegan day at a time, a space in the world where innocents like Celeste can simply keep what is rightfully theirs—their life, their freedom, their meager, pathetic, or truly magnificent shot at happiness—refusing to take their lives simply because we have the power. It is the only thing worth starting a new year, a new week, a new day, for.

How many hapless individuals like Celeste would be killed just for my taste buds this New Year, if I weren't vegan? 100? 200? More? Isn't a single one, one too many? How desperately would each and every one of them cling to life, fighting against all hope to their last breath? What would their last sounds on earth be? What is the sound of complete despair? How many times would it be voiced this year, just for my gratification? Do I really want to start a New Year like this, let alone live through every one of its 365 blood-soaked days?

Celeste left this world entirely on her own. She had been forced into existence by human greed, and was trapped in a crippled body her whole life, but she exited entirely on her own terms, just before noon one summer day.

Celeste, wherever you are, "Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai." "I’ve loved you for so long, I will never forget you". This will be a life-filled year. Maybe not happy, maybe not comfortable, but beautiful, and true - like your life. Worth living. Worth beginning again.

Joanna Lucas
© 2017 Joanna Lucas
If living ethically is important to you, please remember that there is nothing humane about “humane” animal farming, just as there is nothing ethical or defensible about consuming its products. When confronted with the fundamental injustice inherent in all animal agriculture—a system that is predicated on inflicting massive, intentional and unnecessary suffering and death on billions of sentient individuals—the only ethical response is to strive to end it, by becoming vegan, not to regulate it by supporting “improved” methods of producing dairy, eggs, meat, wool, leather, silk, honey, and other animal products. For more information, please read The Humane Farming Myth. Live vegan and educate others to do the same.