On veganism, the dog, and abundance

On veganism, the dog, and abundance

I pass a McDonald’s on the way home from the gym every day. Its golden arches glow like a beacon, promising the comforting familiarity of a greasy, salty quarter pounder with cheese. That damned little disc of a pickle. Those french fries. And oh my god, the dollar sundaes.

I don’t remember the last time I ate McDonald’s, but it was certainly longer than two years ago, when I first went vegan. It was likely many months, maybe even years, before that. It’s not something I even want, really, unless I start thinking about how I can’t have it.

“Can’t.” Probably the least useful word I use far too often.

Like so many things, veganism is completely arbitrary. The boundaries I set for myself exist nowhere but my own mind, and I could absolutely go order a Big Mac or decimate a Chinese buffet if I wanted. Still, I sometimes find my mind wandering to the constraints, obsessing on all the things I “can’t” have, as if they’re kept behind some magic forcefield, rather than readily available items I simply choose not to consume.

At those times, veganism feels like a cage, and it’s when I’m most likely to indulge in some other deeply unhealthy snack as a way of comforting myself for my loss or limitations. (If you think vegan foods are all healthy, allow me to introduce you to my friends Oreos Dunked in Peanut Butter, Entire Bag of Mixed Nuts in One Sitting, and Doritos in the Purple Bag.)

By focusing on constraints—on “can’t”—I put myself in a scarcity mindset. My brain, an evolutionarily perfect survival machine, gets into Gorge Mode, and I act out with desperate behaviors.

It’s not just with food, either. I see this in virtually every area of life. Recently, it’s with my new dog, whose presence has imposed wildly inconvenient limitations on me, and I sit around thinking about all I’ve given up, all the solo camping and long-distance driving and easy traveling I can no longer do because I’m anchored to this anxious little mutt. I work myself into a frenzy of resentment and self-pity, as if this dog just materialized in my life and was not a choice I made gradually, over many months of consideration and research.

Even for circumstances I haven’t chosen, like when people broke into my car and stole my jewelry, obsessing over the loss, the negative, is a great way to foster even more negativity. If I think about that white gold necklace my godfather gave me and how I’ll never again see its delicate strand sparkling against my skin, I become angry. It’s a useless anger that has nowhere to go, so it radiates from me toward everything in my path. I’m angry at the coffee machine, my clothing, the work I have to do that day. This anger over something I can’t control, long in my past, is tainting every interaction with my present. It’s making me a worse person.

Conversely, when I focus on the positive, when I force myself to switch attention from that which I lack to that which I possess, I’m able to arrest that scarcity mindset and reframe to an attitude of abundance.

In most cases, the shift is from feeling powerless and constrained to reminding myself I’m in control of my choices. For veganism and the dog, it’s about remembering why I do what I do. I want to feel healthy and like I’m acting in accordance with my values (or as close as I can get given our current food system), or I want a healthy outlet for my caretaking impulse (as it turns out, romantic relationships are not the ideal place to parent [I have discovered after a decade of therapy]).

Whenever I find myself fixating on a limitation, I conjure up that Grand Why, think about all that I’ve gained from this choice, and cycle through options I still do have. Usually it looks something like:

  • Step 1—Admit I can have a Big Mac if I want one.
  • Step 2Do I really want a Big Mac? How will it make me feel? How do I want to feel? What could I eat instead? Do I really want a whole bag of chips and guacamole? How will that make me feel? What would make me feel best?
  • Step 3I’m excited to eat a nice, healthy salad, full of foods I love, because it aligns with my values and goal of nourishing my body to feel its best.

I understand how cheesy that sounds. It’s genuine, though. I really do think absurd, dorky thoughts like that about health food. Sometimes I even go through that process multiple times a day, and more often than I wish, I fail somewhere in the middle of Step 2. That’s when I end up in a binge.

Similarly, in cases where I have less choice or control, in which I’m dealing with involuntary loss, I run a list of all that’s still available (I have my favorite octopus ring and bullet necklace!), celebrate the strength that comes from doing without (in cases more serious than missing jewelry), and look forward to the new fillers of that now-blank space. As much as possible, I try to see opportunity rather than loss.

More popular parlance would probably call this gratitude. I prefer thinking of it as abundance because it specifically combats scarcity mentality, which is the mother of so many evils. While a part of the process is appreciation, the bigger focus is on shifting attention away from loss and toward gains.

I’m by no means perfect—or even proficient—at this. I still get caught in cycles of anger or resentment or self-pity because I have far more training in those lines of thinking than I do in the alternatives. Negativity is a stronger reflex. Reframing requires a ton of mental bandwidth, and I have to keep constant check on my own thoughts and physiological states to do it well. Sometimes I have no idea I’m in a spiral until I realize I’ve been brow-furrowing and tab-switching for hours, or the dog barks and I yell just a little too loud. (Or I find myself elbows-deep in a bag of popcorn.)

That said, when I do catch myself and reframe, it’s like unzipping a heavy, matted monster suit and letting it fall to the floor. I feel light and fresh. I see the dog not as a burden but as a source of joy, adding enormous value to my life. I see the constraints in which I operate as welcome guardrails that help me feel the way I want to feel. I see blank spaces as opportunities to find something new. I’m able to act with intentionality instead of desperation.

My goal is to keep applying this to more and more areas of my life until it becomes second-nature. I’d love to approach the world with an abundance mindframe in every possible circumstance, keeping useless feelings of anger or competition or self-pity at bay. I don’t see any value in such thoughts or any reason to allow them to fester. They’re borne of a false sense of scarcity, of feeling limited, when there’s always something available.*

As always, I just have to keep working.

*Note: I understand some scarcity is extremely real, and the flip side of acknowledging my own false sense of lacking is compassion for desperate behaviors borne of genuine scarcity. For example, stealing to feed a family. Abundance reframing can certainly help one cope with real adversity, but it should not be an expectation of people dealing with serious issues. This post and advice, if it can be called that, is intended for minor strife and the daily limitations we perceive for ourselves. Its scope is limited.

Performing happiness

Performing happiness

My favorite days on the trip so far have been those spent in other people’s homes. A few friends have been kind enough to let me crash on their sofas, and dropping into the warmth of a place where people actually live—with its personality and memories and myriad little markers of daily life—has been such a welcome respite from the sterility of places where people stay.

Each time, I’ve left completely refreshed and on high, even when I’d thought the only thing I could stomach that day was isolation in the form of snack-scarfing and an epic Netflix binge. (God that sounds good right now.)


Earlier this week, I hit a low. Through a series of events that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with circumstances in someone else’s life, a person I love cut me out. It was done swiftly, unceremoniously, and without warning. This person had been among the most important people to me this past year—someone whose presence had direct and profound influence on my growth—and I’m left with a hole where friendship and unshakable faith had lived. My week was a thundering cloud of betrayal, grief, and heartache. I wanted to hide from the world and nurse my wounds in private, not roll around playing Happy Tourist for Facebook.

Still, the road needed to be driven. Work needed to be done. And people needed to be visited. I had no choice but to rally.

When you drop into someone’s home, you can’t bring a stormcloud with you. You can’t show up and mope and cry and complain about how DEVASTATINGLY AND UTTERLY UNFAIR it is that someone turned their back on you. I mean, you can certainly tell your story—and believe me, anyone who would listen this week heard mine—but you can’t wallow. You have to be alert to the moods and rhythms around you and try to contribute something positive, or at least be an innocuous addition, to the environment you’ve been welcomed into.

In the throes of my pain, the energy required to be even neutral seemed impossible. I remember sitting in my car in Portland before meeting a friend for dinner, which would be followed by a night on her sofa. Fatigue pulled my face into a sour droop, and I felt hollow. As I sipped the coffee required to work up an ounce of enthusiasm, all I wanted to do was curl into a ball and cry. I couldn’t imagine actually socializing like a human. I was a PAIN GOBLIN.

But then a funny thing happened. I did it anyway.

I went to dinner and behaved in a decent, verifiably human way. (I think? Maybe she has a different read on it, and I was unwittingly goblining it up.) We had nice conversation and went to her home, where her wife and children were so bright and beaming and lovely, my heart burst into a million pieces.

At some point, the effort to perform happiness turned into actual good feelings. I left elated, ready to face the world again.

A similar thing happened in Seattle. I was one again reeling from The Drama™ (look, I, too, thought I was too old for the phrase “blocked me on Snapchat” to feature into my life in any kind of way, much less elicit real tears, but here I am, MILLENNIAL AF) and didn’t necessarily want to take a ferry out to a remote area to stay with someone I barely knew. But I went. And I put on my happiest, most charming face, because the less you know someone, the more value you have to offer to earn your place on their sofa. Plus, I was determined to have a good time dammit.

You know what? We had THE BEST TIME. We enjoyed a lovely dinner overlooking the harbor, reveled in being the only two single women in a bar full of hilariously thirsty men (my favorite was the dude who approached and said, “My name is Lee, what’re yours?” then shook our hands and said, “Okay, I’m drunk, that’s all I’ve got,” before scurrying off to steal someone’s drink from the table next to ours), and visited a farmer’s market in the morning. The entire stay was a delight, and I once again left on high.

I’ve seen the concept “fake it till you make it” applied to happiness, notably from Gretchen Rubin, and I think there’s truth in it. Part of what I liked about corporate life is that it forced me to present as someone calm and put together, and in a way, I started to become calm and put together. I don’t know if it works the same for everyone, but I seem particularly susceptible to performing my way into an emotional reality.

On the road, when you’re alone for long stretches of time, it’s easy to let yourself become consumed in the emotions swirling around your own head. You don’t have anyone to fake it for.

As I plan my journey (and life), I’ll have to make a point of adding Performance Touchpoints along my path—time spent in environments that force me to behave like the person I want to be. To wit, I’m on my way to Vancouver for Design & Content Conference, where there will be friends and warmth and at least three full days of performing my Networking Best. I imagine I’ll leave there an emotional camel with a hump full of happiness that will carry me all the way to Minnesota and the comfort of my family.

As for The Drama™, I’ve mostly managed to put it out of my head. I’m coaching myself to remember that betrayal doesn’t erase all the good that came from a relationship. I’m still allowed to hold onto that and to the moments we shared. Whether or not we ever speak again, those belong to me, to us, and that’s all I can comfort myself with right now.