What does it mean to make a difference? We often follow this imperative. It carries the weight of responsibility with the idea of change or to make an improvement. There are a lot of causes to help in the world. Making a difference is solicited every day. It can feel impossible and futile when the opposing forces are all so big.
I received a message on Facebook. It was a woman from another city with an unfamiliar name. I was cautious to open a message from someone I didn’t know. As if I might open a door and welcome in a hacker to inspect all the contents of my home. She said we met in 1994.
She explained: Her name is Jessica. We met in 1994 on Ithaca College campus when she was attending a summer program. One evening, way back then, she and I spoke through her dorm window. In that conversation we discussed food and I talked about a thing called vegetarianism. At the time she wasn’t familiar with the term or diet choice to eliminate meat. Jessica did care about animals and was interested in the humane treatment of animals. She then decided to become a vegetarian and has not eaten meat since. She remembered me, my name, and attributed the choice to not eat meat to that conversation we had through the window many years ago. Recently someone in her office said my name. It was a different Jesse but it prompted her to search for me and send a message.
I was raised on a mostly vegetarian diet. Often drawn from a cookbook that had a broccoli tree on the front. Rice, squash, spaghetti, salads, etc. My mother would cook some chicken or fish but today is still not comfortable cooking red meat. As an adult I had stints of being a true vegetarian. Once after not being able to clean the fish I caught. Despite having done it a hundred times I was morally distraught and couldn’t do it anymore. I felt I couldn’t eat what I couldn’t kill so I refrained from buying any meat. Another vegetarian chapter was after being a prep cook in professional restaurants. I prepared meat by the tons. Separating, slicing, washing, baking, boiling. It was from food factories, it was off trucks, and the ability to serve it was all teetering on the line of temperature. Between the slime, the juice, and the likely chance of botulism, I couldn’t eat it anymore. Eventually these feelings faded and meat was included in my diet again. But I did want to reduce my impact. I claimed to be a discriminating omnivore eating less meat than the average American and shopped for organic local meat when available. That was my compromise between the menu and making a difference.
In 1994 having a vegetarian diet was difficult. Today we also have the cue from climate change. Being vegetarian is taking on a new role as important and being recognized for its principles based in sustainability and humane treatment. Red meat is a leading cause of deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. The United Nations considers becoming a vegetarian one of the most important things we can do to prevent a future with the very likely and catastrophic ecological events such as species extinction and global warming. That is, if you are a vegetarian you are making a difference by not supporting the meat industry in your choices.
With environmental concerns changing and the feeling that I had to do something, the feeling that I had to make a difference, I volunteered to serve on the City Conservation Advisory Council. For five years I worked with commitment and ambition to help the City be a steward of environmental values. After so many hours of meetings and failed initiatives I began to feel disenfranchised. With a claim to victory of saving two or three trees, and little more, it felt pointless. The system of policy and status quo was strong. The interest to change and improve the environment was small compared to the politics behind urban development. It wasn’t making a difference and I began to say under my breath why bother? My term was expiring and the city was eliminating the advisory council. It answered the question for me.
A few of my friends did go to that summer program in high school and I did go visit them on campus. One evening I was kicked out of the dorm by an RA when we exploded in laughter and made too much noise. I went outside and loitered in the yard, until someone said hello through a window. I don’t remember Jessica or that conversation. It’s hard to fathom my making a difference in her life but she wrote to share the story with me and say thank you. I give credit to Jessica for making the decision to be a vegetarian and sticking to it. The resolve and persistence in her choice about her lifestyle does make a difference. Her message was also a reminder to me that every effort counts. Every action and each moment can or does make a difference. She has had a tremendous positive impact on the environment. She sets an example for her son and students. Her words also bolstered me when I needed it most, when I felt outnumbered and disillusioned. It made a difference in my life when I thought it pointless to keep doing these things when no one else helps to make a change.
This year I am committed to growing more vegetables in my garden and I signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). It encourages me to have a healthy diet and vegetarian meals. It also supports the local farm network and reduces negative impacts caused by my food supply (pesticides and transportation). I try to buy organic as much as possible and I have slowly reduced our meat centric meals for dinner. A healthy body and sustainable lifestyle are priorities for me. I am aimed towards eating even less meat and planting new trees on my land. And I will be emailing my representatives to reintroduce the Storm Water Management report to our City. I recently bumped into the water commissioner. We talked about that report. He reminded me that we had worked hard on it and the suggestions can make a difference in our watershed. He said, “I really appreciated your tenacity.”