About the practice of intense meditation

Answers to some of the questions about Cassia’s father’s reasons for intensely pursuing Tibetan Buddhism, first encountered in my Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, can be found in Yoga Bootcamp, my story about eight young American yogis living on a former farm in the mountains. While each student is at a different stage of discovery, their widely divergent motivations still lead to common struggles and victories. Nothing is easy, but the lessons are priceless.

Do you practice meditation? How about yoga exercises, chanting, or Zen? Any other spiritual exercises you care to discuss?

~*~

The paperback cover …

More about ‘What’s Left’

No book was more of a struggle for me – or ultimately more transformative. Not that any of them came easily or quickly.

Each of them would have been much simpler if I had only hewed to a specific genre and with a particular reader in mind, but my goal was to explore a theme and see where it led rather than fill in a blueprint and hope that others would be fascinated by the discoveries. That put me in the “pantsers” end of writers, meaning seat-of-the-pants, rather than the “outliner” side, which can be paint-by-numbers rather than “painterly,” layer upon layer added or scraped away for intrigue, depth, and motion.

My earlier novels were grounded in people, places, and events I had experienced directly, which I then abstracted, of course, for a more inclusive understanding. When needed, I could turn to my journals for details and to my correspondence for dialogue or even make a few phone calls.

The paperback cover …

What’s Left, though, took me far beyond that. Yes, I was starting from the finale of my first published novel and trying to advance the scene by as much as a half-century, but I had no experience in a family-owned business. (I had skirted marrying into one, but I didn’t know how it would feel growing up in that situation – this was totally unlike my grandpa’s plumbing outfit, anyway.) Nor had I really worked in a restaurant. As for being part of a tight-knit extended family? Much less Greek-American? The adage, “Write about what you know,” now became, “Write about what you want to know.” More pointedly, that led me more and more into my daughters’ generation and its struggle for survival. As if anyone has answers to the big questions.

I set out thinking the story would take up the ongoing issues of the counterculture movement one by one – peace and non-violence, sexual and racial equality, the environment and ecology, natural foods and fitness, alternative education, spirituality, boho lifestyles, and so on. I had plenty of extended outtakes from the earlier books plus a set of essays that could be woven into the narrative.

But my upbeat, idealistic outlook started ringing hollow. Yes, the issues remain, even thrive, in spite of the entrenched opposition, and they need to be taken up by a younger generation. What hit me was the debris of broken dreams and promises, much of it caused by our own petite shortcomings. Yes, some of them mine as well. Broken families, too – just what is a family, anyway, especially when you examine the evidence closely, as the novel does? Where was the tight community we envisioned, much less that sense of tribe? As I looked around, I saw those who most continued in the hippie image were either bikers or what my kids would call losers. I have to say substance use or abuse has taken a heavy toll.

… and the back cover.

It’s too much to pack into a single novel, though one can touch on them. My focus slowly shifted on trying to pick up from the wreckage. That is, the place where Cassia found herself.

I was still mulling my approach when I chanced upon Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Garden” and was taken by its unique structure of 16 mosaic panels that could be moved about, if one wants, within its developing chronology. Lethem also had me realizing how much I needed to develop Cassia’s family’s past, with its own bohemian streams in coming to America. How many threads could I manage within this?

Voila! I had an organizing point. As poet Gary Snyder says, quoting an ancient Chinese folksong, to make a new ax handle, you use an old one as your pattern.

While I inherited the Greek-American element from an impulsive touch at the end of my first published novel, where this one picks up a generation later, I was only now piecing together how pervasive its presence in my own life without any earlier special awareness. As I’m seeing now, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” very little about Greek-American culture seems to exist in literature. (He nails the largely overlooked Midwest, too, by the way.) And then I started to engage it here where I live, beginning with Greek dancing and then Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so different from my own Quaker and Mennonite grounding – it’s like the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as Snyder once quipped, two ends of a long arc.

The novel itself demanded at least a dozen major revisions, pushing it ever more toward the present, especially once Cassia found her own (snarky) voice and her brothers and cousins became vital characters. My personal genealogical research techniques also came into play as I examined her ancestry, both on her mother’s side and later, to my surprise, Cassia’s father’s.

What I really wasn’t expecting was the way she prompted me to return to my earlier fiction and severely revise it as well. In most cases, adding new characters and new scenes, cutting heavily, and renaming results. The three books about her father’s past gained a unified structure and timeline as well. So, in more ways than one, through Cassia, my novels embody what’s left.

Ten things about Baptists

In my novel The Secret Side of Jaya, she learns a lot about Baptists while living in the Ozarks.

For starters, within their shared identity, they come in all varieties of theological nuance and group practice – and the lines within them can be drawn sharply. And they don’t handle snakes as part of their worship.

Here are a few facts:

  1. Baptism is reserved for believing “born again” adults and is usually by water immersion only. Jesus is accepted as Lord and Savior.
  2. Church authority, with few exceptions, is placed in the local congregation, which can voluntarily affiliate with other like-minded fellowships. Beliefs can vary by congregation, historically along Calvinist versus Arminian lines. Far more than I want to get into here, other than say I’m in the Arminian camp.
  3. The major affiliations in the U.S. are the Southern Baptist Convention, American Baptist Association, National Baptist Convention, National Baptist Convention of America, American Baptist Churches USA, and Baptist Bible Fellowship International. Far from the only ones.
  4. There are also Independent Baptist churches that refuse to affiliate with others.
  5. Faith is a matter between God and the individual. Thus, absolute liberty of conscience is essential.
  6. The Bible is asserted as the only norm of faith and practice. So start flipping pages.
  7. Baptist membership is roughly 100 million worldwide – half of them in the USA, where they constitute a third of American Protestants, especially in the South.
  8. They make up more than 40 percent of the population in Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee.
  9. Forty-five percent of African-Americans identify themselves as Baptists.
  10. The Lord’s Supper, or communion, is considered symbolic and not necessary for salvation. There is no set calendar for its observance.

~*~

Does this make their identity any clearer? We haven’t even touched on some of the key theological language.

 

Maybe Barney’s just been simmering

He’s been the loyal, stay-at-home son and brother for all those years, cooking in the family restaurant. I could see Cassia’s uncle Barney in my novel What’s Left plagued by a dark intensity I imagine building up over the years.

Tell us about somebody you’ve seen erupt and run off in strange directions. How did things end?

~*~

Grilled eggplant and peppers. Maybe not a regular feature at Carmichael’s in my novel, but definitely in the family’s home gatherings.