Over recent years, I’ve been especially fascinated by the hippie outbreak and its legacy. We had a taste of what society could be and let it slip away, or so the story goes. In reality, nobody ever fit the hippie stereotype, and while the impression is that the movement died out, so many of its concerns continue – from environmental awareness and sustainable economics to racial and sexual equality to social justice activism to Asian and Native spiritual traditions to back-to-the-earth and natural living and so on. It’s a long list, actually.
Somehow, a few years ago, I had one of those voila! moments when I analyzed the structure of a celebrated recent novel and sensed it could serve as the vehicle for exploring the issues already bouncing around in my head. Four sections of four chapters each. How elegant! How balanced!
So that’s where we are with my newest novel, What’s Left.
I was already mulling the possibility of beginning with the ending of my first published novel and advancing the events 50 years. Taking the four-section template, my original plan was for each of the 16 chapters to focus on a different family member or set of family members (not that any of them would stand alone but rather be set in relief to the others). Maybe some authors can stick to their outline, but I’m not one of them – I’d rather see where the story wants to go and follow that, if I can. And once again, that’s what has happened.
What’s evolved goes far beyond the realm of hippies, and many of the characters are new to the scene. In fact, most of the chapters are events during Cassia’s lifetime, from the mid-’80s to the present. And many of its roots stretch back further than the ’60s, for that matter.
I cooked this part way down before the final version:
And then his long flight brought him here – back here, actually, to a haven he’d passed through earlier. Even without Manoula, he would have been transformed by the encounter. Without a doubt, in our household he was introduced to the most delightful dishes he’d ever tasted – and he was probably even vegetarian at that point, or well on his way in that direction. And then there was the hospitality itself, free of any air of suspicious eyes behind parted curtains he’d so often felt lurking elsewhere.
These weren’t flaky hippies, either. We were of the solidly grounded – hardworking, responsible, caring – variety. You’re surprised? Look, these were all things he, too, had embraced. He’d seen enough of the other. The freeloaders. The parasites. The wheeler-dealer charlatans.
In his eyes this was, in short, a Shangri La – an oasis – a model of radical potential and generosity.
All that’s in the background for his daughter, Cassia. She has an entirely different perspective.
I’ll have to admit being entranced by something within that encounter, the open welcom1e of true hospitality and an alternative way of living. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve found some of that sustained within Quaker circles and similar connections, but we’re still far short of the promise.
Let’s not lose sight of the dream. What would you want to change about modern society? Where would you want to begin?