“That was a meal to be proud of,” my dad told me recently. I’d just made a vegan Thanksgiving dinner for my non-vegan family: stuffing, “cheesy” pasta, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and sweet potatoes topped with gelatin-free marshmallows. My mom and sister even contributed roasted Brussels sprouts, a vegan roast, and dinner rolls with Miyoko’s vegan butter.
My small hometown in Missouri doesn’t boast a single vegetarian or vegan restaurant, and the nearest Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s stores are hours away. When I went vegan, I was afraid I’d have to give up my favorite comfort foods—and I was almost certain I’d feel like an even bigger weirdo at family gatherings. While dabbling in vegetarianism as a teenager, I’d avoid scrutiny by claiming my diet change wasn’t “for ethical reasons,” but I knew I wouldn’t be able to give the same answer about going vegan. Yet, as an agnostic cannabis-using bisexual, a sexual assault and intimate-partner violence survivor, and a registered Democrat, I’ve realized that my vegan diet is actually the simplest thing about going home for the holidays.
Like most people living in southern Missouri, everyone in my family eats meat, goes to church, and votes Republican. Someday, my nieces will probably take the same hunter-safety course that I took when I was 12. My dad seems convinced that weed is inherently dangerous, even though Missourians just voted to legalize medical cannabis. My mom brings up the afterlife regularly. And I’m so afraid to know my family’s honest opinion of Brett Kavanaugh that I might never ask. But I do know how to grocery shop vegan in the middle of nowhere, and I’ve perfected nearly a dozen vegan fast-food orders from chains like Taco Bell and Burger King. Hell, ordering vegan sliders from White Castle is one of my favorite things about visiting my home state.
My body never wants to leave California when Missouri is my destination. On travel days, I anxiously putter around my apartment, needlessly triple-checking that my cats have what they need, the stove is turned off, and all the doors are locked. I unzip and zip my bags half a dozen times to make sure I have what I need. I’m never late for flights, but I almost always request my Lyft 20 minutes later than planned. And when I finally clear security and find my gate, staying calm sometimes means jotting down my fears in a notebook while waiting to board. Since I’m usually too anxious to sleep on the plane, I distract myself with Netflix and Spotify until we land.
I was new to California at the time, but even after securing a full-time job, finding an apartment to rent, and steadily freelancing on the side, I haven’t been able to shake the fear of someday finding myself “stuck” in southern Missouri again. As someone who is struggling to save money and pay off debt simultaneously, I sometimes worry that I’m just one job loss, serious health scare, or natural disaster away from crashing with family in my home state, where poverty is widespread, convicted domestic abusers are legally allowed to buy guns, and state senators have voted down LGBTQ+ discrimination protections for at least two decades.
The activist in me often fights guilt for choosing sunshine, freedom, and comprehensive healthcare over “being the change” in my hometown, my home state, and rural America in general.
Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in Missouri, and a 2017 study published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that rural Americans were more likely to die from suicide than Americans living in urban areas. We’re reportedly more likely to die young as well, and to die from the illnesses often linked to diets high in meat, dairy, and eggs, like heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Weak pollution standards for Missouri’s many factory farms undoubtedly contribute to the state’s third leading cause of death: chronic lower respiratory disease. And while the opioid epidemic continues to disproportionately devastate America’s heartland, the violent crime rate in rural areas has outpaced the national average for the first time in a decade.
Missouri isn’t the safest home for women and people of color, either. Thanks to a new Missouri law, there’s only one abortion clinic left in the entire state. Missouri women seeking abortions will now have to drive to St. Louis or a neighboring state, which is no small feat when you’re trying to live on Missouri’s minimum wage: $7.85 per hour. And the passage of Senate bill 43—which makes it more difficult for employees to prove their protected class, like race or gender—even prompted the NAACP to issue its first-ever statewide travel advisory.
I told my parents that Californians voted to pass Prop 12 in the midterms, and I knew they’d celebrate with me; most people don’t want to see farmed animals in cages, and my dad used to run a small pig farm. But things change when the conversation turns to civil rights and social injustice.
Experience has taught me that I can’t maintain healthy relationships with my relatives if we discuss the Trump administration, my writing, or my sexuality—so we don’t. When I tried to come out to my dad a few years ago, he responded, “Oh no, not my baby.” When I tried to write a fair and balanced article about talking to family members who don’t share your political beliefs, I succeeded in upsetting my mom and sister, who both voted for Trump. When one of my family members says something racist over coffee or dinner, I usually respond with “that’s racist” before I even know what I’m doing.
Everyone does seem to agree that getting out of Missouri has been good for me. Last winter, my dad told me he could see that living in California had made me “more of a whole person.” One of my cousins recently said, “California suits you.” And while my nieces may not understand why I don’t live closer to them, they do understand why I like living close to the beach.
I don’t enjoy saying goodbye to my family (especially the little ones), but my body is always glad to return to California—where Confederate flags are a rarity and both medical cannabis and domestic partnerships between same-sex couples have been legal for nearly 20 years. On my return to my new home, there is no triple-checking, excessive pacing, or procrastination. If I jot anything down in my notebook while I’m waiting to board the plane, it’s usually a simple list of the things to do when I get back to my apartment (hug cats, vacuum, take a candlelit shower, etc.). And once the plane takes off and I’m finally on my way back to the west coast, I’m too excited to sleep.