There has been a lot of discussion around eating and ethical eating recently. Eating – what to eat, why to eat, who to eat and who to eat from is something that seems to be a huge issue for all of us at the moment. And the fact is that, for the past nine months as a mother, I have been eaten from for the first time in my life. I simply don’t have the words for how beautiful, bizarre and magical this has been. So I thought I’d share some of the story.
I’d like to begin with breasts. More specifically, with those keen dark spaces at the end of our breasts that humankind has dubbed “nipples”. The word, by the way, is probably a dimutive of Old English and Germanic “nebb”, from the same root as nose, or beak. Points on the body where the skin does not run smooth. Points where the zenith of the nerves exist. If our bodies were sentences, would nipples be the full circles that pause the words to life? David Abram thinks that shamanism is the capacity to meet others – other beings, other species, other worlds. He thinks that animals have it as well, so you may have one individual in a group who moves outwards and communicates beyond the boundary of the tribe. If our bodies were a collective of animals, a herd, or a swarm, rather than a body of cells, I wonder if nipples – and, indeed, other erogenous zones – would be the shamanic beings who mediate with the world.
I have always had issues with my nipples. Not because I don’t like them. As far as nipples go, they seem to be fairly run of the mill (which is: the grain that pours from the mill without having been culled for quality, which is: everything). The issue is that I don’t feel like I know them, or rather, I don’t know how to know them. When I pay them attention, I feel confused. Not able to fully be there. You know when you switch on a radio channel, and the majority of what you hear is static? Like that.
When I knew I was pregnant, and that I very much wanted to breastfeed, I booked myself a session with a wonderful and powerful bodyworker friend of mine, to talk about what was going on. We had a beautiful session full of gods and power. Partly as a result, and partly due to his own healthy appetite, when Arun arrived I was able to breastfeed without any problems. Nursing felt like a miracle. What more beautiful power can there be than the ability to soothe a fractious, hungry, needing being with the song that comes from your own cells?
So – everything was going fine. Arun fed alot – sometimes 12 hours at a time, and I was tired, but managing, like a full moon falling through the dark sky vortex, but there still and shining. But, I also felt on some level that the reason I could do this was because there was a part of me that was disconnected from what was going on. I knew there was a baby sucking on my breast. But I didn’t feel it. Not really, really feel it. Not tap into that flow. Most women can tell when their milk flow starts and stops, but I couldn’t – I just knew that he was on the breast and he seemed happy. The static had gone, but there was still a part of my mind that wasn’t willing to be there.
A lot of us mothers say that when we first breastfeed, we feel weird, dehumanized, a bit like cows. I think we exist in a broken matrix if making milk – the song between world and water – makes us feel less than we are. Why don’t we take our child to our breast, and feel, in that moment, that we share heartbeats with the wide-eyed seal, the elephant curling her trunk around her calf, the lionness lying on the sun-beaten floor with her cubs about her, the glair-white calf as she stumbles for the teat? We think of cows in stalls with machines attached. Is it any wonder then, that, so many of us can’t make our way into breastfeeding? We don’t know what it is.
At the same time as I was adventuring into motherhood my sister Laura was working on her PhD on art and climate change. She began to read about the impact of food industry on the environment. She met Alex Lockwood, a writer and vegan activist, and brought his ideas into our lives. She started to cut out meat and dairy as much as she could, and one morning I said I would do it with her. She was reading, reading, learning and I – was feeding. I was doing the thing about which the vegan controversy was, at heart, all about.
Both of us struggled. As a breastfeeding mum I didn’t want to make radical changes to my diet which would effect both me and my child, so I cut things out gradually – which made it both easier and harder, as I didn’t have the warrior justification of drastic transformation. And what we found is that dairy isn’t just something that most of us eat. It’s intrinsic to our social language, the semantics by which we exist together. Cream, butter, cheese, ice-cream – these are foodstuffs that we use to signify joy. They are brought out in moments when we are well together. To go to someone’s house and refuse their offerings because of climate change and welfare concerns feels like shutting oneself away from a moment of xenia in which food creates an abundant home. As George Monbiot puts it, you become a spectre at the feast.
But because so many other people have been staying in the space recently – writing, creating, exploring it, I feel less lonely – and more responsible – to speak from this space. And what is there now is this.
When my baby drinks milk from me, he becomes utterly relaxed to being in the world. He regains, in part, the womb state in which everything flowed freely between him and the other. Milk is not just what we give to babies to keep them alive. It is the liquid bridge between being of the world and in the world, the free navigation of which is essential to being at peace.
The ability to imbibe the world like this is a power for which we have forgotten the words. The ability to respond – as a feeding mother does – is the same power. It is the physical experience of the revelation that all will be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. Not because we are deathless, but because we are the world.
In both feeding and being fed on, we partake of this trust. Maybe milk itself is the trust, the prayer, the liquid space in which we promise each other not that we will always be there – but that right now, we are. The world is not a thing without hurt or lack, but that moment is, and the moment is never-ending. If someone was to take away my child, kill him and take my milk from me, I would not be able to live up to this trust. If someone was to do this to me over and over again, then I would not be able to continue being in myself.
To take this milk when it is not meant for us is something that we can only do because we are participating in a great and fatal misunderstanding about the nature of power. We think that if the other doesn’t fight back then we can more or less get away with it. We are the powerful, and the decision is ours.
The power of the feeding mother and infant is not the power to be active but the power to be open. Existing, as we do, in a system the consumption of which is predicated on the systematic abuse of this power means not that it comes, like a vengeful monster, to get us – it means that it will leave us. It leaves us through the heart of the animal who has lost her young so often that she can no longer be with herself. It leaves us through their bodies, and our bodies, and out through the fumble-grieving earth.
In Joss Whedon’s genius piece of work Firefly, there is a moment when the renegade crew of the spaceship Serenity are transporting cattle. As soon as the journey is over and they are back on land, the astute and damged River goes up to them and begins to communicate. When asked why she is interested in them now and not when they were in the ship, she says:
“They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see sky, and they remember what they are.”
I don’t think that we can be human until we remember the nature of this power and our right relationship to it.
So these are my thoughts of today, and my answer to people who look at me askance when I talk about being motivated, by breastfeeding, into changing my diet. Veganism is about what we eat, breastfeeding is about who we love, and they don’t belong on the same page. But I didn’t want to be enacting the love of anyone while simultaneously lying about that act on Earth.
And no, I don’t think that veganism is a fix for our problems. I don’t think that cutting out dairy makes me in any way superior to people who make different dietary decisions for different reasons. I think that as far as food goes, until we address the more pervasive problem of our unwieldy appetites, lost in time and untouched by necessity, like children in a dark space and missing, the real depth of the change cannot occur. But I also don’t think that we can become living animals again unless we listen to the slow unfolding of the unspeakably powerful world.
Featured image: Juan Romero, “Untitled”