I am not new to death. I’ve been with others (human and animal) during their passing. I understand death as a transition, not an end. And I have known that my 14-year-old dog, Ella, has fewer days ahead of her than behind. But there comes a day when the vet says, “there is a large mass on her liver,” and the calculation changes. The day is not a given, but the event is infinitely more real now. My beloved companion of the last ten years is dying.
That is not the only death here; there is looming death all around me. From my 90+-year-old mother to my neighbors on both sides who are in various and real stages on the path. In my own life, there are a lot of “little deaths” — peri-menopause, leaving a high-paying, high-stress career, gray hair, osteoarthritis… age… early steps on the path. I am the one supporting others in death right now, but it’s impossible not to see my own mortality in a new, stark light.
So I sit here and think about how to approach this, what to do. I am fortunate that I am teaching online and able to dedicate a lot of time to Ella and the others in my life, including myself, who are going through this transition. I am aware that I need a new level and kind of self-care so I can intentionally lean into this new season.
I have spent a large part of the last seven days since Ella’s first trip to the vet crying. I have also begun to understand what this path will need to look like for me, and part of that is processing the pain and the very tangible parts of death for a being you love dearly.
In what can only be the Universe guiding me on this journey, I also start a death doula program at the University of Vermont tomorrow. This is an eight-week program that focuses on, well, death. I’ve been silently eyeing this program for a year or so and signed up on a whim in December when I left my job at Amazon. Even then I realized I was entering a new season, and death was going to be a very real part of that.
Part of intentionality for me, feeling the feels, is making a very conscious choice to enter into the death process with a ferocious interest. I want to feel every part of this, and I want to know/understand it to the absolute best of my ability. And so I begin this strange tangent of my life; this next chapter is apparently steeped in death.
And I’m good with that. I am not afraid of death. I know there is a strange joy and grace in the death process for everyone involved. I also understand that for me, part of the process is to write, and so this blog is turning into that part of the process, at least for a while. I was gifted with the ability to research, process and write during my time at Antioch. Dick Couto taught me to face the fieldwork music, listen to it, and then report back with compassionate objectivity. Paul Stoller gave me the ethnographic lens and modeled the fearlessness to talk about all the things Western people usually like to keep silent. And Barbara Mossberg held the space for me. All of these people understand mortality on a deeply personal level. I hope this can be a tribute to them and the others who have taught me not to fear death.
I do not intend any of this to be sad, morbid, or ominous — I want this to be an investigation in the true Buddhist sense, with beginner’s mind. I held my father in my arms when he left this plane of existence. That was one of the most beautiful, profound experiences of my life… and joyful. There is grace in pain — a deep beautiful understanding of what it means to be human on this earth. To quote the wise words of Alan Anderson, “I will abandon the dull state of believing death comes at my convenience.”
Thank you for being here with me. I hope you find the solace I am looking for.
One of the biggest things I have realized about self-care is that it is a radical act of political activism. I feel this way for many reasons. One of those, not surprisingly, has to do with food. What you eat is a form of self-care. Nutrition is the science of building our bodies from the things we ingest. You cannot get around the fact that, to a great extent, “quality in equals quality out.” I am not saying you should label foods good or bad, clean or otherwise. I am also not a proponent of denying yourself or anyone else snacks, sugar, or any other thing you love and cherish in your culinary landscape. What I am saying is that the body needs a certain level of nutritional balance to perform optimally.
It is important to eat food that has been minimally processed. Eating that kind of food is a form of self-care. It’s hard to do for many reasons, and those tend to fall into two large categories: behaviors that create food preferences can make us desire highly processed foods, and less processed foods tend to be more expensive. I argue that both have a foundation in a series of historical political inequities.
For those of us fortunate enough to have access to whole foods without concern of cost, the struggle is often making sure we actually pick the healthy food more often than not. Yes, eating cake and champagne is a form of self-care, and I will never begrudge anyone that right and joy; but eating that every day is not self-care; it is self-destruction. Yep, you can do it, go for it, no judgment, but in the long game, that is probably not going to serve your body well. I know this because I lived that lifestyle for several decades, and I’m now undoing some of the damage it did to me.
As an act of complete transparency, I fall into this first group. Because of my socio-economic class and race, I can afford to eat the “outside of the grocery store” (where the veggies and meat are, as opposed to the aisles where processed foods are stacked high), but behaviourally I don’t always want to.
Another reason folks often struggle with food as self-care is the cost of unprocessed foods like vegetables and proteins. Eating fruits, vegetables, and proteins like fish and chicken is generally more expensive than many processed foods. When you have less money, it is harder to access cost-efficient whole foods. In this case, self-care in the form of food is driven by economic advantage.
There is also the question of time and ability to prepare less processed foods. It takes time to cook rice and beans from a raw state and an understanding of how to do that. Not everyone has those things, especially when they are balancing multiple jobs and other life duties, like caregiving.
You have a better chance of eating nutritious foods if you can afford them and when you have time to prepare them, which boils down to money.
One thing that continually frustrates me when I tell people I study and write about food is that they immediately want to know what I like to cook and when my cookbook is coming out. For years I struggled to explain to people that food is much more than being snuggled up at home in your kitchen with a platter of food and your family and friends (although that's a rad part).
The food system is a complex series of phases that bring food from the land to your table and away again. The phases are production, distribution, fabrication, consumption, and disposal. The longer the chain and the more levels of processing, the more resources are required, and subsequently, the more it costs to produce your food. Let me give you an illustration…
Food must be produced first; let’s pretend we are discussing a hamburger. That production might be on a local farm, or it might be in a lab in New Zealand. There's a clear difference in the cost of getting that food to you based on where it was first produced... and it might have multiple production levels. If your burger meat came from a local rancher and was butchered and processed near you, fewer people were probably involved, and it probably took fewer trips from the farm/rancher to you.
However, you might want a non-animal burger, what I will lovingly refer to as a lab-grown burger. Your lab-grown meat might come from New Zealand, but then it has to be turned into your packaged burger in Canada and shipped to the distribution center for the Costco you shop at, and then it has to be trucked to the store, and you have to go buy it. That's a lot of miles, and all those miles and all those hands that touched your food cost money. Conversely, you could bike down the street to your local farmer’s market and buy your hamburger from a rancher who is a few miles up the road.
Once you get your tasty burger home (Lab-built or otherwise), you have to cook it; or maybe you are going to a restaurant to eat it, in which case they hire someone to cook it for you and then hire someone else to bring it to your table. More miles, more hands, more dollars! Then comes the fun part... you get to hang out and eat it with your pals. After dinner, the plates get put in a dishwasher to get cleaned, and somehow that burger goes into the trash, either in the kitchen or your bathroom... at which point it is disposed of in a system that costs money to maintain.
Suddenly the $4 burger you bought at Costco, or the $16 burger you ate at your favorite restaurant, has a bunch of associated costs with it; some you pay upfront, but a lot you either pay in deferred costs we as a society pay for in our shared infrastructure.
In 2005 Jonathon Porritt published a book called Capitalism As If the World Matters, in which he outlined five kinds of capital: manufactured, social, human, natural, and financial. The food system is wound up at every turn in these different forms of capital, from our farm equipment to the roads we transport food on (manufactured) to the social networks that support each step of the process (farm communities and their banks; restaurants and their customers), human (the folks who make the whole thing go round), natural (the land we use to grow crops and raise animals), and finally - financial - the hard-earned dollars we fork over to put food on the table.
In the United States, these capitals and phases manifest themselves in our agro-industrial food complex, which heavily depends on one primary piece of legislation: the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill is a massive piece of legislation that comes up for review every five years, and 2023 is the year, baby!
This offers us a unique opportunity to look at how we prioritize food production in this country because the Farm Bill impacts virtually everything we eat. Take a moment, and let that sink in… I’m not exaggerating; that’s an undeniably true statement. The 2023 Farm Bill will be worth 709 billion dollars, up from 428 billion in the previous 2018 bill. It’s biggly, as they say, and because of that, we have a sweet little opportunity to address some severe social justice and equity issues in the system that makes our food and thus builds our bodies.
The Farm Bill has 12 titles (or sections): commodities, conservation, nutrition, credit, rural development, research, forestry, energy, horticulture, crop insurance, and miscellaneous. How that money gets allocated and to whom has a massive impact on all the phases and capitals I talked about above. The Farm Bill is our nation’s declaration of who gets to eat what and how often. It’s important, so I want to spend the coming weeks talking about it. Those conversations will cover childhood nutrition, subsidies, equal access to farming opportunities, ecological conservation, and disaster preparedness and response. Those things directly impact you and your community and how resilient both are now and in the future.
I hope you join me as I get into the weeds of the Farm Bill and how we can make it more socially equitable so that everyone in this country can access healthy, nutritious, decadent, delicious food. Next stop, childhood nutrition, and subsidies!