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Posted by tinako on May 13, 2018

20160516_195758A few years ago, I was taking a meditation class and the teacher asked us to, over the next week, make a mental note any time we had a judgemental thought.  I got a lot of chances to notice.

This noticing brought to the forefront a question I’d always had.  I hear “don’t judge,” but how am I supposed to relate to a world in which bad things happen, if I don’t judge them to be bad?  Is the alternative to judging just saying, “Sure, whatever”?

Because of the way my brain works, I need to break a problem down to its structure to move forward.  The intuition that guides others doesn’t work for me, just makes me uneasy.  I realized I needed to really understand what it means to judge, and I came up with this definition:

To express an opinion, usually about morality, as though it is a fact.

Most of us understand the difference between fact and opinion most of the time, but I think there is still confusion, often I think because of the way English works.  I say “spiders are scary” as though it is a property of the spiders.  Spiders = scary.  But it isn’t at all – it’s a property of me that I find spiders scary.  I = scared of spiders.  They are just what they are, flesh, eyes, legs, spinnerets, silk.  If you think spiders are beautiful and I think they’re scary, we could each believe the other person is wrong and have an argument.  Or… we can realize that I am scared of spiders and you are not.  No conflict.  As two examples of real-world confusion on this, my relative is absolutely convinced that all snakes are scary and that therefore they should all die (there are no dangerous snakes where we live).  My friend believes that New York State wine is disgusting and therefore should all be poured down the drain.  They believe I am mistaken for believing snakes to be neat and NYS wine to be tasty.  They are expressing their opinion as though it is a fact.  The only reason we may not experience their statements as judgement is that we are not their targets.  If I were a snake I probably would feel judged by this relative, because scary in this case is negative.  If she says I am scary in my Halloween costume, that is probably good.

As an aside, decades ago I realized that the fear of spiders was part of me, not the spiders, and I decided not to act on it any more.  It is not their fault that I am afraid of them.  My fear went way down.

So, we can usually recognize opinions like that.  But what about opinions about morality?  I think we sometimes think that morality can be a fact.  I don’t think it ever can.  We can say “stealing is wrong” but this is not a truth of the universe like “the earth revolves about 365 times before it goes once around the sun.”  “Stealing is wrong” is an opinion.  “Stealing usually causes harm to the victim” is a fact.  But “causing harm is wrong” is still an opinion.

So where does that leave us?  Do we just throw up our hands and say “anything goes”?  Of course not.  First of all, we are allowed to have an opinion.  When you catch a thief, I don’t think it is judgemental to say, “your actions harmed someone and I think people shouldn’t hurt others.”  A fact and an opinion, clearly stated as such.  The other person can respond, “I think it’s fine to hurt others,” and you are clearly disagreeing about an opinion, which is OK.  (If I say, “You’re bad,” and the other responds, “No, I’m not,” now we think we are arguing about a fact.)  Note that the law is allowed to punish people based on opinions.  That doesn’t make stealing wrong – it just makes it illegal.

I like to do better than us just stating our opinions with folded arms, though.  Instead of shoving my opinion onto others, I prefer to find out what they think and ask them to reflect.  I call this “discernment,” and it’s my functional replacement for judgement.  Here’s the structure:

  1. A conditional regarding what the other person believes.
  2. A humble expression of questioning.
  3. Asking about their strategy.

and in practice it looks like this:

If you believe it is wrong to harm others, are you sure that taking what belongs to others is going to support who you want to be?

The conditional (#1) is hopefully something you have discussed with the person just before this.  You don’t blast forward and assume the person shares your opinion – you ask!  “Do you believe it’s wrong to harm others?”

The question (#2) has to be genuine, not snotty or sarcastic (“Do you really believe that!?”). You are leaving space for the other person to enter into a genuine dialogue with you, a space that is obliterated by a finger-pointing “You’re bad!” – what is anyone supposed to do with that?  To do this you need to open your heart to the possibility that the other person may be “right” – anything less and the other person will see you are not genuinely interested in hearing them.  This is scary because it makes us vulnerable – what if his argument is better than mine!?  But if our opinion changes as a result of open dialogue, that’s good, right?  As long as our well-being is not wrapped up in being right, we will not suffer if we decide to change our mind.  The wish to be open is what makes me try to use humble wording at all times – so that 1. if I am wrong, it is easy to admit it and change, and 2. I am causing less harm to others.  I have come to like finding out I am wrong, because it gives me feedback that I am open, which is how I want to be in the world.

Asking about their strategy (#3) is where we suggest that they reflect on whether what they say they are doing supports the person they have said they want to be.  Do you see that I have made this all about them and what they believe, and I and my opinion are nowhere to be found?  Sometimes the question part takes the form of “I’m not sure that…,” but that’s pretty gentle, and I’m inviting them to help me figure it out.  An important part of asking about their actions is to scrub every whiff of judgement out of your description – just the facts!  Watch for opinions or even trigger words that imply your opinion, or the goodness and badness of something – let them figure out for themselves the compatibility of their actions to their values, when they are plainly laid side by side.

I use this everywhere.  If you talk to me for very long, you will hear this kind of sentence.  I’ll use it now.  Instead of saying “judgement is bad,” I’ll say, “If you’d like to reach people instead of driving them away, I’m not sure that forcefully stating your personal opinions is going to get you there.”  And this isn’t some sort of act I put on – I think this way.

This is a vegan blog, and here’s the alternative to “You’re bad for eating meat.”  First I work out whether the person believes it’s wrong to harm animals for no good reason.  Usually you can just ask people that and 99% of people will agree.  Then: “I can see that you are a caring person.  If you believe it’s wrong to harm animals for no good reason, I am not clear on why you would want to eat animals or anything coming from them.  It all causes them harm, which is the opposite of who you say you want to be.”  I may need to follow up on the issue of what is harm, and what is necessary, but those are pretty easy.  The conversation would be larger than this – just asking what they believe and then throwing my discernment statement at them could be perceived as aggressive.  But you get the idea.  There’s no “You’re wrong, you’re bad, you should change.”

Discernment is a gentler, more loving, and I believe more effective, way to relate to a world where people are doing things we disagree with.  It allows us to engage while being the peace we want to see in the world.

Posted in Buddhism, Musings | Leave a Comment »

What I Can Do

Posted by tinako on June 28, 2015

Native plants support native animals.

Native plants support native animals.

I was tabling for our local vegan society and a GMO Labeling Bill a few weeks ago, and I was struck by the despair expressed by a few people who came up to me.  “No one cares, even when they know the facts about animals,” said one woman.  An organic farmer said, “Monsanto is so big.  People don’t know.  Who will tell them?”

My responses?  Who will tell them? “Me!!”  No one cares? “On this side of the table, I return to the same locations and every year hear from people who have come to care based on the info that I gave them last year.  In my personal life, I know several people who are vegan directly because I am.”

While I am sad at the effects of animal exploitation and GMOs, I am undaunted by the scope of the problem, because that is not my task.  Someone said,

It is not for us to peer dimly into the future
but to face the issue clearly at hand.

What I can’t do is not my job.  My job is to do what I can do.
What other people do is not my job.  My job is to do what I can do.

And I can show up with a table and some vegan and GMO materials, stand there a few hours and do my best to answer questions.  This is not impossible.

Vegan educator Colleen Patrick-Goudreau says, “Don’t do nothing because you can’t do everything.  Do something.”

I thought about all this as I have spent many hours pulling and bagging invasive alien Garlic Mustard from woods by myself (with permission), and knowing I will have to repeat this for several years in each site before the seeds existing in the soil are all gone.  I would look up and see a large area infested, but before I could lose heart, I looked down at my feet and said to myself, “That area is not my job.  Next year is not my job.  This right here within my reach, this is my job right now.  Now it’s this plant.  Now this one.”  I would think about the relief the remaining, native plants will have with this individual allelopathic poisoner gone, and the relief the animals who live here will have when a co-evolved native plant of use to them can flourish.  After a while I looked around and the area was cleared.  This year.

My son thinks I’m nuts with a goal of eventually clearing an entire woods, but I see no contradiction in attempting the seemingly impossible.  I can’t rid the continent of this disruptive pest by myself, but as long as I have sufficient health, and as long as I care, I can pull that one.  And now it will never seed.

I tutor inner city elementary students, mostly immigrant refugees, a few hours a week.  Will I solve our country’s education crisis?  That’s not my job.  One week my task was to show 40 kids, not all of whom speak English, how to use a protractor.  Done.

In analyzing what is my job, two aspects to consider are, 1. are my efforts efficient and useful?, and 2. what do I do with failures?

As for the first, I try what seems sensible, listen to constructive feedback (seeking out contradictory opinions), watch carefully for results, and adjust.  I will choose this path over paralytic indecision.  As for the second question, first be sure you have defined failure correctly.  If I am vegan, someone asks me why, and they don’t immediately go vegan, have I failed?  Not if my goal was to express my veganism – automatic success.  If I approach a non-profit and they talk with me about social justice for animals but ultimately decide not to make any changes, did I fail?  Not if my goal was to offer a wider view of social justice for their consideration.  If I find I could have done better, I can learn and either try another direct approach or “go around.”

Each plant pulled, each person spoken to, each person who sees me rejoice in my vegan life.  Was I solving animal and consumer exploitation at that tabling event?  No.  That is not my job.  Was I making a difference?  You betcha.

Will you join me?  Please consider volunteering for any organization which is striving to make the world a better place, one action at a time.

Posted in Environment, Garden, GMOs, Musings, Social Justice | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

I cried in the supermarket today…

Posted by tinako on June 1, 2015

The woman in line in front of me was buying a baby chick.

He was dead of course.

And his little mutilated body was displayed in a clear plastic casket.

I could have turned away.

But I felt that to do so would have been one more insult to the short life of this creature.

I had a chance to be the only one to meet him who had ever had a kind thought for him.

And so I stayed with him as he rode the conveyor belt.

And I thought about what his life must have been like.

Only six weeks old, he still had the peeps of a chick when he was sent to slaughter along with everyone he had ever known.

I’m so sorry, I said to him, and I cried.

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society. – Jiddu Krishnamurti

Chickens are handled violently in transport.  It's common for their legs to become trapped and be ripped off.

Chickens are handled violently in transport. It’s common for their legs to become trapped and be ripped off when they’re pulled out.  (c) United Poultry Concerns

I’m grateful to the person whose car I was behind on the way home.  Her hatchback plastered with defiant vegan stickers, I bet “CHICKIDEE” would have understood.

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On Smushing Bugs

Posted by tinako on March 6, 2015

16MENAGERIE-blog480I think this book excerpt from The N.Y. Times, “On Smushing Bugs,” is just beautiful.

I love his wording – a “karmic broken-window theory,” “the oubliette of the vacuum bag,” and his natural compassion tested by “the tiny black turd in my mug.”

I love the picture; this man is about to kill, but he is looking, peeking even though it is painful, and he sees.  He sees an anthropomorphic cartoon ant, but… more metaphorically, he sees himself in the ant, as the Buddha said:

All beings tremble before violence.
All love life.
All fear death.
See yourself in others.
Then whom can you hurt?  What harm can you do?

But mostly I love his humility, his questioning, his looking deeply into himself, looking for the truth no matter where it takes him, even to a cliff or dead end of choices he doesn’t want to make.

This isn’t a how-to essay, and claims only to ask questions, not answer them, so he doesn’t mention that prevention adds a choice between re-washing all your dishes every day or pulling on your executioner’s hood.

I must admit to mixed results with prevention.  But maybe we don’t need all the answers right away.  Maybe looking, within and without, is the path to figuring out how we want to be in the world.


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I was an Omnitarian

Posted by tinako on January 29, 2015

Gary Francione with his rescued pound puppies

Gary Francione with his rescued pound puppies

I’ve been listening to old podcasts by Gary Francione while I clean, and while I don’t agree with everything I’ve read of his, I’ve found an awful lot of sense in these audio commentaries.  One of the points he makes is to stop telling people that vegetarianism is morally better than omnivorism.

This has sunk in, and a concrete effect is that when people ask how long I’ve been vegan, I have made a personal choice to stop mentioning when I went vegetarian, which was 15 years earlier.  I’ve also removed it from any social website bios.  I had been taking credit for that 15 years, but the dairy cows and egg-laying hens are unimpressed, and I no longer want to trumpet it.

I’m vegan.  I’ve been vegan since Easter 2008, full stop.  Before that I was an omnivore.

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Hunter Accidentally Shot in the Face

Posted by tinako on November 24, 2014

A local hunter was accidentally shot in the face on opening day here; I guess he’s going to be OK.  Some in our AR community struggled with their feelings following this news; how does it make you feel?  After about a week of online comments, I offered the following:

With understanding that it is normal and natural to have many different reactions to this news story, but that we can choose which paths to follow, I wonder if anyone would be interested in my understanding of karma, which others here have been mentioning?  If not, click delete.  Nothing here is new, just hopefully clarity on a concept that is often muddled with several meanings, and how karma can work for us.

By my understanding: Karma was originally Hindu, and that is the idea most modern people have of karma: divine justice, something (“the universe”) or someone who keeps track and evens the score.  The Buddha, who lived in Hindu India, found this unhelpful because it didn’t allow room for change.  He understood that even good people may have to suffer for their past harmful actions, but that they would be better off because of the good they were doing now (example: Angulimala) – pertinent to any of us who ever screwed up!  Anyway, Buddhist karma can be seen in two lights: One is the ripple effect, that the kind acts or speech or even “vibe/energy” we put out, affects others and has a chance of coming back to us – we are making the world a better place, and that’s the place we live, so it’s better for us.  Even if the effect is small, we are not making things worse.  I think this is pretty evidently true.  The second way Buddhist karma can be understood is that no matter what effect our acts have “out there,” they have done something to us on the way out.  For example, loving someone who hates us is better than hating them, because we will be happier filled with love than with hate.  I have found this “instant karma” to be true as well, and the effect will probably be huge, life-changing.  So you see, Buddhist karma is more like a law of nature than a faith in justice.

Celebrating accidental violence may fill us with a much-needed sense of satisfaction that the scorekeeper is on duty, but how does it impact us under the Buddhist understanding?  What do we set into the world when we express gladness at others’ misfortunes (what kind of world are we creating), and what does this Schadenfreude (harm-joy) do to us on the way out?

None of this is to say that a person struggling with feelings of joy is a bad person, just that an understanding of the harm it does to ourselves and others may be useful in letting it go.  And we can choose to be glad that the man is not hunting right now, without being glad that it’s because he was hurt.


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Save us from Guardians of the Galaxy

Posted by tinako on September 15, 2014

GOTG-posterI went with my family to see Guardians of the Galaxy Saturday, and spent most of the movie in open-mouthed horror.  I would have been warned if I had even glanced at the movie poster before entering, but due to my inattention I had no idea what it was about.  So I suppose I deserved what I got.

While I watched, I was reminded of something I once read, “When your young children watch television, it’s like inviting strangers into your home to teach them values.”  You should take your kids to see Guardians of the Galaxy if you would like strangers to teach your children that:

  1. Abusing and killing small animals is funny and cool
  2. Gambling-induced animal fights are very entertaining
  3. There’s no problem that can’t be solved with a gun.  If you can’t solve a problem, your gun isn’t big enough.
  4. Prison guards are the bad guys
  5. If the dialogue isn’t working out, just pile on the bodies.  On-screen killings are a great diversion.
  6. It’s really funny when someone somewhat gentle unexpectedly kills 20 people in an extremely violent way.
  7. Violence is even better with a cool retro soundtrack.
  8. We just need to get rid of the “bad guys” and everything will be fine.

Here are the footnotes:

  1. The hero starts the movie off by kicking small animals out of his way, at full force.  I wondered if this would be the horrible “before” person the hero changes from, but while the heroes do grow in that they care for some people, they do not grow less violent.
  2. There is a dog-fighting equivalent with aliens animals.  This is at the point in the movie when the heroes begin to be a little nicer to each other, so I was hoping one of them would show, by even a look, that this was not OK.  But no.  They eagerly participate.
  3. If you go see this movie, try to spot the scene without a gun.  It is non-stop.  At one point, one hero blows away his friend’s sister with a bazooka (literally) when she calls his friend a mean name.
  4. Our heroes are in prison after they break the law on a peaceful planet.  We are supposed to cheer when they kill dozens of guards on their way out.
  5. I couldn’t believe how gratuitous the violence was.  They wouldn’t merely injure someone if they could kill him, and they wouldn’t merely kill one person if they could kill 20.  I asked my daughter how many people she saw killed in the movie.  She guessed a thousand.  I think that would be low if you count the one-man spaceships which are destroyed, but shots where you actually see a person killed, probably several hundred.  Alas, their deaths were in vain – they failed to distract from the clunky comic-book dialogue.
  6. A hero who seems quieter and kinder suddenly impales 10 soldiers and then for a good 10 seconds smashes the implement and their bodies into another dozen or so soldiers, smashing everyone to bits.  He then looks back at his friends and smiles at their surprise.
  7. The soundtrack was all old hits.  This was meant to help us relate to this guy as he blew people away.
  8. The bad guys were completely one-dimensional.  Why is it OK for good guys to kill them?  Because they’re bad.  Why are they bad?  Because they’re the bad guys.  It’s the Myth of Redemptive Violence.  I know, it’s a comic book.  But when you put it into a live-action movie, it becomes values.  I prefer this one: Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could line up all the bad people on one side, and be rid of them?  But the line between good and evil runs through the heart of every man, and who would cut out a piece of his own heart?

It makes me very sad that these are the stories our culture tells itself, these are the values our culture admires.

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Kids, TV, and Junk Values

Posted by tinako on June 19, 2014

I just read an article in Psychology Today, “Kids Under the Influence,” which reminds me why my decision to virtually eliminate TV watching by my kids almost from the start is my third all-time favorite parenting decision.  Number one: waiting till we could afford for me to stay home, which made possible favorite decision number two: breastfeeding, which led to attachment parenting.  None of these three choices mean I judge those who choose differently – I’m just so glad I did them.

I followed the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations to permit no TV until my son was age two.  At that time, I started letting him watch a bit of Winnie the Pooh, but I didn’t like what happened.  I thought we would watch together and talk about the show, but he would zone out completely, eyes glued to the screen, face blank, hearing nothing else.  It was creepy how much it held him, and I stopped.

I didn’t mind at all not having television to give me a break.  I wanted to treasure this time with him, and then my daughter.  I kept remembering the hours and hours a day I would waste after school watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island, The Love Boat, even Love, American Style, whatever scheduled garbage paraded in front of my eyes.  I groan now and wish my parents had blasted the TV with a shotgun rather than allow my precious youth to dribble away in the darkness of the family room.  Instead, the kids, now middle-school age, had time with me, time to become best friends, time with other friends, and time to be creative alone.  Time, we had so much beautiful time, because we didn’t watch TV.

Because we watched no TV at all, the kids didn’t even really think about it.  It never occurred to them to ask for it.  One time I even asked them if they wished we watched more and they said no.  I mentioned to my son once that a friend had said, “No TV?  What do you do all day?”  He laughed and went back to building busily with his Lego.  For the last several years, as a treat, we have watched 1/2 hour pre-recorded age-appropriate programming one night a week, and a movie a second night, and that’s been fun, and they don’t seem to want it any more often.

Lately, as my children are becoming independent enough to make their own purchasing decisions, I have become aware of another benefit.  They have had limited exposure to junk values.  The most obvious is junk food ads.  They are aware of candy and pop, and they like it, but it doesn’t seem to have much hold on them.  They’ve heard of McDonald’s, of course, but I don’t think they’ve ever been in one – they don’t see what the big deal is.

There’s a broader picture here, though, in junk values.  I read a few years back that letting your kids watch TV was to invite strangers into your home to teach your kids values.  Often the values are to encourage kids to watch a show more by pressing their buttons (such as violence), so there will be as many eyes as possible watching the commercial, so there will be as many kids as possible nagging their parents for unhealthy food.  Even on non-commercial television, the values might not match up with my vegan non-violence: Sesame Street might visit a “farm,” by which I mean a pretend fantasy version of a farm, as opposed to where food really comes from.  Of course I don’t want Sesame Street to visit a slaughterhouse, but why actively lie?  Or the show might visit a zoo and  show how much fun the animals are having.  Circus, anyone?  There are shows I don’t like because the characters manipulate or exclude others without consequence.  There’s a critical few years where it’s easy for a parent to walk away from a program and not have any idea what’s going on, whereas if they’re reading to these pre-readers, they can have a teachable moment.  Even today, I can pick up a book my son was reading, flip through it, and start a conversation about aspects that bother me.  “Hmm.  Why do you suppose this character killed that one?”  Try doing that with a television program a child has watched in his bedroom.

Early on in this decision, someone mildly criticized it by pointing out that if my kids don’t watch TV, they’ll have nothing to talk about with their peers.  I have found that to a very small degree this may be true, and it’s possible it has made my son’s shyness slightly more difficult, though my daughter isn’t shy.  But I don’t think it’s worth opening my children to programming and values I think are harmful so they’ll have something to say to people who want to talk of nothing else.

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Posted by tinako on February 11, 2014

A friend shared this short video with me.  It’s Cesar Chavez accepting an award from In Defense of Animals.

I liked Chavez’ quote, “The basis for peace is respect for all creatures.”

Unfortunately, a lot of people who exploit animals feel that they are respecting them just because they are careful and serious while they do it.

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Dairy Dilemma

Posted by tinako on January 19, 2013

As part of a local environmental organization’s initiative to increase packaging recycling in school lunchrooms, I’ve been taking a turn going in to our school district primary school once a month and helping the kids recycle their lunch materials.  These are first and second graders, so they are sweet and fun but need a good deal of assistance.  In case you’re wondering about the details, there are about 200 kids eating at once, and every table gets a bin to toss their recyclables in, and in one cafeteria a student from that table brings their bin up to the sink and recycles everything with my help.  In the other cafeteria, I go and collect the bins after lunch and process them myself.  We recycle rinsed milk cartons, plastic cups and lids which fruits and veggies come in, plastic “silverware,” milk/juice boxes and pouches, water bottles, and chip bags.  Unfortunately they still use Styrofoam trays which we can’t recycle.  It is painful to watch the trash fill up with those, used for 15 minutes and lasting 400 years.  Of course it would be great if the district used reusable items, but they got rid of their dishwashing (and cooking) abilities when they shrank the kitchens to make room for more students 10-15 years ago or so.  So we are doing the best we can.  About half the kids bring their lunches and don’t generate much trash.

I didn’t anticipate when I signed up for this just how much milk I’d be handling.  Each needs to be opened up and given a quick rinse, but frequently the milk needs to be dumped first.  I pour a lot of milk down the drain in my two hours.  In addition to coming home smelling like it, it makes me very sad to think what the cow went through to provide what I’m dumping.  She desperately wanted to give it to her calf, who wanted desperately to have it, but the USDA school lunch program forces it on children who don’t need it, want it, or drink it.

Well, most drink some of it.  From memory, I estimate that about 40% of the kids get milk, 90% of the milk chosen is chocolate (even when the kids don’t open it), 30% of the cartons are completely consumed, another 40% are partly consumed, 25% opened but pretty full, and 5% are unopened.

This last time I went in, the leader told us we had the option of saving the unopened milks either for our families or the food pantry.  And so here is my dilemma.  Do I save milk, which I don’t think is particularly healthy, especially the 90% that is chocolate (22 grams of sugar, almost two tablespoons, in one cup of milk), to provide to hungry families, or open this junk the cows suffered for and pour it down the drain?  Is this sugar-milk less wasted if it is processed through a human gut than directly down the drain?  Am I a vegan promoting milk by providing it to the poor?  Is it arrogant of me to presume to choose for them, or is it caring to not dump USDA surplus sugar-milk on them?  What if it was candy instead?  Is it my right as a volunteer to decide according to my own deepest value, compassion?  If I don’t pass on this milk, will someone purchase or donate replacement milk, at the cost of further animal suffering, or will an alternative be more or less healthy, compassionate, and wasteful to the environment?

Having to make a quick decision, I thought that if I was this conflicted, either choice was probably acceptable – the choices that would best serve one and all had already been bypassed by others, and it was not my fault that I was not left with good options. I decided to collect the milk in my cooler and let people who visit the pantry decide.  I delivered about a gallon and a half.  I tried to remember the lesson of Torn and deliver it cheerfully.

What do you think I should do next month?

Footnote: Food Pantries Request Healthy Food Donations has milk in the yes column and sugary beverages in the no column.


Posted in Animals, AR, Buddhism, Schools, Social Justice | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »