31 December 2018

V is for plant-based


At eleven-twenty on Christmas Eve, we left the house to walk up the hill to St Peter's for midnight mass. The girls were singing in the choir for the third or fourth time in two days, and we came into the alcoves in the entryway of the church, as the community carol service was ending. I could see Father Graeme through the glass windows on the inside doors, wearing a black robe and collar and as I looked past the vergers, I could see him leaping in the middle of the sanctuary, willing the carolers with their coats on but open, to sing more loudly, more clearly. One doesn't always take one's coat off for worship at St Peter's. In practical terms, the heating may or may not be working, but in theological terms, you may also need to make a run for it. The community carolers were singing loudly, but not as loudly as they could and were looking at Graeme with a begging, collective weariness. It's eleven-thirty on Christmas Eve — surely, this level of enthusiasm is sufficient.

The Pihlajas of Harborne stood waiting under the tower, the belfry, like penguins staying warm, the candle prayers burning and the muffled sounds of carols from inside. I had lit a candle here before, I remembered, for some death, but I don't remember which one and I stood wondering if I had mistaken it for a candle I lit this summer, in Sacré-Cœur in Paris as a prayer. I couldn't manage actual words there, but I could pay the two Euro fee and put it up among the others. Now too, I stared at the candles as burning prayers for family members or relationships, and got lost in thoughts of the past, of marching my brother around Parisian museums. After a minute, Yoko and I started taking pictures as we waited, first of me and the girls and then when someone else appeared, pictures of the whole family.

Whatever it was, something changed in July of this year, and I couldn't bear eating anything with milk or eggs anymore. I don't know why exactly, except that it's been the year of the vegan — all the millennials like me have all quit milk and eggs anyway, because we are concerned about global warming and plastic in our food. We read some article on some hipster blog that won't be around in three years, all of us running the risk of it being a passing phase, that in ten years, when I'm eating meat again, I'll look back at myself with pity. This generic storyline is made of up hundreds of thousands of individual stories in the conversion genre and mine is simple enough. For years, the cognitive dissonance of not eating meat, but eating cheese and eggs, hadn't really bothered me and then it did. I know I could go to McDonald's tomorrow and have a Big Mac and fries and coke, like that, like I'm fifteen again, and eat it without any consequences, but it feels as impossible as flying. I'm embarrassed to say all this, like I have finally really converted, and now, I'm the religious person among non-religious, the way that your friend circle collapses after you're born again, and find yourself surrounded by other born-again Christians.

The real truth of my story is that I want to feel less culpable, whether I actually am or not. I want to sate that disciplinary driving force which is behind all of my life decisions. I stand with the children in the fruit section of the supermarket and we buy or don't buy something based on how much plastic it's wrapped in. I'm thirty six, I'm not a child anymore. I have a mortgage and a pension and three kids. You can't get drunk when your daughter is old enough to use euphemisms for you being drunk. Yoko scolded one of the girls for taking something off her sister's plate without asking, and I realised I did this all the time — they learned it from me. Everything I do has consequences now.

The community service let out and we shuffled in to replace the people going back to Christmas whisky, almost midnight now and the girls and Yoko disappeared to the vestry to change. Father Graeme came out again in robes, white ones and we stood and sang and lit candles. I held mine until it had melted all down my hand then picked off the dried wax as we worked our way through the service and shared the peace in the darkness. I stood when I needed to and we knelt at the altar to take communion. Naomi and I walked back to our place, the place the Pihlajas of Harborne sit in St Peter's, the choir singing around us. Our little family with all our problems. I was wearing my coat still, and smoothed it behind me as I sat in the pew and looked up at the stained glass, darkened in the night. Earth stood hard as iron, Water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, Snow on snow. The service ended at some point and we sat waiting for the Yoko and the girls to take off their robes and get their coats and walk home.
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