by Danielle Service
When I was ten I made friends with two grey mice living in the cockpit of the well-weathered 1972 Sunfish Sailboat my parents stored under their camp in Millsfield, New Hampshire, thirty miles from the Canadian border. The camp had no electricity and stood on log poles. I stumbled on said mice by accident, while hiding from my brothers’ squabbling and roughhousing. The whoomp-whoomp of the boys’ footsteps echoed above my head as I whispered “hello mice”. They were my buddies.
Three days of consecutive visits and we reached an understanding. Then my dad pulled out the blue-and-yellow Sunfish sail and caught me whispering to vermin amid the spiderwebs.
“They’ll infect the camp,” he said. “You could get sick.” I protested. Cried. Ran into the woods as Dad pulled my mice by their tails from the cockpit. I turned back once and saw Dad fling them into Millsfield Pond. Horrified, I watched them sail through the air in perfect arcs toward the water. As my sobs caught up to my legs running away, my youngest stepbrother called out: “That’s life, Danielle!”
The thing I have never been able to reconcile about this story is that everyone in it is right.
My father was right: the mice were vermin.
I was right: the mice were my friends.
My stepbrother was right: Death is life. We kill to live. And – though mice aren’t food – we kill to eat. But I have not made easy terms with this.
I grew up in a family of hunters who respected animal life enough to pursue them in their natural habitat on honest terms. People at school wrinkled their noses at the dead deer hanging in our garage, then went home to eat thick bloody steaks they’d purchased at the store so as not to have that blood on their own hands.
And as an adult, I ignored the ethical implications of eating meat for years. I taught in the suburbs and bought my food at the supermarket. The concept was too inaccessible, until I started practicing yoga in 2009. As my practice grew I learned of the yogic precept of Ahimsa, or non-violence – first toward ourselves, and then against all beings.
In the summer of 2015 I was washing a chicken in my sink and as my hands caressed dead skin I thought really? this died? so that I could eat?
And I pushed that thought down, uneasily, over and over again until I started teaching yoga in earnest this November. Hungry one night after class, I thought “Burger King would be good.” My mind flashed one image: a cow screaming as a knife whistled through its neck.
Fuck this, I thought. It’s not worth it anymore. I’m becoming a vegetarian. And I did.
I was a vegetarian at Thanksgiving when I didn’t eat the turkey. I was a vegetarian through the holidays, checking labels, refusing anything with gelatin. I ate more vegetables and cheese and I tried Tofurkey and sofritas. I was no longer consuming the pain and fear of an animal. I felt such relief. Some yogis believe one is not practicing yoga unless they are vegetarian. Silently, I agreed. I felt an odd self-righteousness that I tried not to convey and yet, in January, two months post decision, I could not deny that I felt odd. I was lightheaded and eating too much sugar. I dreamed about meat. I considered borrowing a rifle so I could go shoot an animal, skin and smoke it myself, and have the honest transparency of the hunt. But instead I found myself ordering a tuna sandwich at school. The dam burst. I went to Chipotle that night, ate chicken. The next day I bought turkey. My teeth gnawed the flesh I’d fought so desperately to evade for Ahimsa’s sake. The worst part was that I didn’t feel nearly as bad about it as I thought I would.
How many animals have died so that I can live? On a cellular level my body craves flesh. Perhaps this is merely a matter of acceptance. Maybe it’s different than wantonly slaying two inedible mice living peacefully in a sailboat. Perhaps I didn’t do vegetarianism right, or there’s a hybrid method of local sourcing and ethical slaying that honors a yogic philosophy. What I do know is that our current systems disconnect us from each other’s lives, mark us for failure, though the point is connection in universal synergy.
Those mice were my friends. But they are gone.
Danielle Service is a graduate of The Mountainview Low-Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction. She currently teaches seventh grade Language Arts and yoga in New Hampshire.