WHEN YOU MEET THE BUDDHA ON THE ROAD TO THE RESTAURANT

A central suggestion arising at the end of my first novel, which then shapes my new one, What’s Left, is that her father will be crucial in guiding the family in its embrace of Buddhist practice. Even if I cast that as spirituality rather than religion, it’s a big challenge.

In the course of multiple revisions, this was greatly toned down and redirected.

While Cassia’s concerned with more fully defining who her father was, the novel’s primary focus is on her. Here’s some background that’s much fainter in the final version:

Where had he come from, what prompted his interests, what were his pet peeves, what made him truly angry or truly delighted?

To make this little more concrete:

Some people contend my Baba was a lama. Not the camel-like pack animal from the Andes but a Tibetan Buddhist born in a humble city along the Mississippi, of all places. After college in Indiana and a broken heart, he looped into Dharma by way of, well, a hippie farm where Thea Nita also lived. And then he found refuge in something like a monastery. And then he magically returned here. You thought a monk couldn’t get married? Technically, no, though we’re dealing with an American twist in the mechanics of reincarnation. Or so they’ve told me.

In the end, much less of the responsibility falls on him. Rather, he helps establish an institute having a resident teacher, Rinpoche, who becomes his colleague.

~*~

For Cassia’s father, religion is a way of engaging life more fully. He might even say it is liberation from the tangles of daily life.

Let’s open our range of focus a bit wider.

Where do you go or what do you do to be free? Can you describe the feeling?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

PLAYING WITH FIRST NAMES

Carmichael’s, the restaurant her family owns in my new novel, has me looking more closely at others.

Long before I ever anticipated what’s evolved into my newest novel, What’s Left, I ended my first published novel with a young woman named Diana, in part because I liked the two puns it allowed. Her husband-to-be, a student of Tibetan Buddhism, had returned to Indiana – and now he could boast of a love that allowed him to be in Diana as well as in Dhyana, or deep meditation.

Not that you have to understand Sanskrit to read it. Shouldn’t the mere hint of something exotic should suffice?

Continue reading “PLAYING WITH FIRST NAMES”

AND HAVE A GOOD DAY?

In the early days of Friends, they’d often greet each other with the question, “How does Truth prosper among you?” Not “How are you doing?” or even “Good morning.”

Strikes modern ears as puzzling, even problematic, beginning with that verb prosper, which we tend to consider along financial terms rather than thrive or even proliferate. Equally unfamiliar is the idea of Truth being active – alive – rather than static and unchanging.

To further thicken the plot, consider their linkage of Truth and Christ, so the question also asks, “How is Christ alive among you?”

How would you answer that!

~*~

For more along these lines, take a look at Religion Turned Upside Down.

 

RAISING THE STAKES

The kids raise a valid point when they notice how much we teach them about Quakers back then – but what about now?

Yes, what about NOW!

We need to get our act more together and acknowledge many of the remarkable ways we continue to witness today, usually in individual callings that deserve more support from the rest of us. So maybe the kids’ question can help us better focus on our greater purpose.

I’d like us to proclaim more of the courageous work of Friends internationally, too – I can think of examples in Cuba and Kenya in our own time.

Not all of the action involves peace and forgiveness issues, either.

Consider, too, two points from a visit to an Evangelical Friends Church on the other end of the Quaker spectrum from my own Meeting:

“Is Jesus Christ going to be exalted and praised?”

Her shocked look haunts me, considering the big Quaker gathering where I’m headed. I think, Yes, but in ways you wouldn’t recognize.

Also, humbly, as another realizes from one difficult exchange with a customer at her business previously that week: “I may be the only Jesus they’ll see.”

Now we’re talking business.

~*~

For similar thoughts, check out Religion Turned Upside Down.

RECOVERING WHAT HAD BEEN LEFT UNSAID

Decades ago, faced with a question of just what Friends believe, I embarked on an exploration that might provide a more inclusive answer than “Some believe this …” or “Most do that …”

To the surprise of many, the Religious Society of Friends does have a rich underlying theology, one so radical our First Publishers of Truth (one of the original names for the Quaker movement) couldn’t voice it in its fullness in the earliest years before settling into a system of practice rather than fully pursuing its intellectual implications.

Call it an alternative Christianity if you will, but even Friends need to understand its dimensions.

~*~

For more, check out my essays, Religion Turned Upside Down.

WITH GRATITUDE FOR THE INSPIRATION

You know the disclaimer, “Any resemblance of the characters to real people living or dead …” Something along the lines of purely unintentional.

But let’s be frank. The fiction is that you can create a character without having someone real in front of you, somewhere in your past or present. No, you need flesh and blood somewhere. Anything else would be a caricature.

It’s a special problem when you’re composing in a semi-autobiographical vein. You’re trying to be true to the dictum, Write about what you know. The details, especially.

(Oh? What, then, makes it fiction? Other than changing a few dates?)

Admittedly, the personalities work best when you take your inspiration and abstract it, so that a real individual would no longer recognize himself or herself – or those who were no way involved will imagine they, themselves, were.

And, by way of further confession, I’ll note that my most recent outings have led me to new characters lacking immediate introductions for me – but I’ll know them when I meet them if I haven’t already come across them here and there in pieces.

But back to the argument at hand.

I have one character, Nita, who runs through four of my five Hippie Trails novels and is a major character in the new one I’m writing, set years later. She was inspired by impressions I had of a friend’s girlfriend – or more accurately, mostly his impressions conveyed to me at the time – as I sat down to draft a half-dozen years or so later. She becomes a catalyst for much that happens around her.

In reality, we all drifted away.

And then, a few years ago, I met her again.

Nothing like I’d remembered. Or the idealized character in my fiction, now infused with another two or three people I’ve met. The lines blur.

I can say this person never did X, Y, or Z, unlike the character. Or that these two worked together on a controversial project or became known for certain accomplishments. In fact, she doesn’t resemble the other one at all, not anymore, if she ever did.

Still, it’s an eerie feeling. Something other than deja vu. Something still spurring gratitude for the inspiration.

For more on the series, click here.

~*~

THE INVISIBLE FACTOR

In the buildup of national elections, once again a major influence remains the elephant in the room. I’m referring to the legacy – make that plural, legacies – of the hippie outburst, especially in contrast to those on the Vietnam war side of the divide.

The wounds and tensions haven’t gone away. Just look at the continuing proliferation of POW-MIA black flags across the landscape, on one side.

For the other, the lines are much more hazy yet festering. As I’ve been arguing, hippies came – and still come – in all varieties and degrees, and likely nobody ever fit what’s become the media stereotype. With the end of the military draft, the movement lost a crucial motivating force and focusing definition.

Complicating the situation was the distancing many youths on the antiwar side felt when it came to politics. With its support of the military at the time, liberal politics were tainted with outdated Cold War ideologies like those of the conservative side. For hippies, radical was the label of honor. And the Democratic Party base of the left was splintered as its youthful potential allies had nowhere to turn or direct their forces in the political arena.

The horror meant going from a hawkish LBJ administration to one of Richard Nixon.

Fast-forward now to the present American landscape. Gone are the grandparents and parents of many of the now senior baby boomers – the core of the hippie movement versus the older generations. Yet political candidates still tiptoe around many of the reality issues, beginning with marijuana and other illicit substances, as if they’re too hot to touch. Let’s get real. Want to talk about litmus tests?

As we look at candidates, ask where each stands on a scale of continuing issues from the hippie stream. I find it enlightening.

  • Peace and social justice activism.
  • Sexual equality … including abortion rights.
  • Racial equality.
  • Environmental and ecological issues, including the outdoors.
  • Educational alternatives and opportunities.
  • Sustainable economics and fair trade.
  • Spirituality and radical religion.
  • Fitness along the lines of yoga, bicycling, kayaking, hiking.
  • Organic and natural foods.
  • Marijuana reform.
  • Arts and crafts.
  • Community as common wealth, including health care.
  • Labor as a matter of respect and a livable income.

Well, we have Bernie running straight true to the cause. Hillary, more cautiously so. But on the right? Let me suggest being wary of anyone in the pro-war camp who hasn’t served. Period. As for other life experiences?

~*~

All of this returns me to my Hippie Trails series of novels. I’d love for you to come along. Just click here.

 

 

REVISITING THE EARLY CHURCH, IN PART

While walking to Quaker Meeting one Sunday morning, I heard a familiar hymn from my childhood wafting from the open doors at St. Mary’s. About a block later, still humming along, I realized it was the Protestant hymn, “Faith of Our Fathers.”

Well, I thought it was a Protestant hymn, especially now that this music is as likely to be heard in American Catholic services as in the mainstream Protestant ones, which have been drifting toward the newer pop-influenced praise songs. (A musically literate friend, by the way, dubs the rocking chants the Rupture songs.)

Imagine my surprise in learning the hymn in question was written to commemorate the English Catholics martyred in the schism that created the Church of England!

Either way, the questions remain, Whose father? And which faith?

And, as a digression seen in genealogy, we can add that it’s often the mother’s faith that’s followed.

Still, any way you want to look at this, I think it reflects a widespread sense of an earlier “golden age” of faith. Early Quakers, for instance, insisted that they weren’t intent on reforming Christianity, but rather restoring it to a richness from “before the great darkness of apostasy that set upon the church,” something I’d deduced meant from before the first Nicene Council.

And, for balance, many later Quakers looked and still look to the upheavals of that first generation or two of the Society of Friends as a golden era of faithful devotion, something a closer reading of history will challenge.

Now that image of the early church has in turn been challenged in my reading of Richard E. Rubenstein’s When Jesus Became God, which focuses on the tribulations leading up to the Nicene Council and then flowing out of it.

The fact that both major sides in this confrontation were so violent, often as roving mobs, continues to rattle me, along with their allegiance to priests and bishops and the secular power those clergy already carried, even when Christianity itself was at odds with the Roman empire.

More subtle is the emerging schism between the Greek-speaking Christians of the eastern Mediterranean, with their complexity of thought and love of philosophical speculation, in contrast to the more action-oriented Latin-speaking Christians to the west, who lost much of the subtlety of the debate. Already, the tensions between the metropolitan bishops, or theoretically equal “popes,” of the eastern Mediterranean sea and Rome were mounting. If Rubenstein is right, the schism between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholics was taking shape even before the Nicene Council, no matter how later history records the tragic events.

All of this leaves me asking just when the church moved from synagogues and home-based circles into a priestly class abetted by passionate mobs in the streets.

As Rubenstein repeats, there came a point when Jews were no longer part of the discussion but were rather persecuted.

Now, let us consider. Could that be when “the dark night of apostasy” arose?

MAINTAINING A GROUP IDENTITY IN A WIDER COMMUNITY

Seeing radical religion continued through an elder-and-student succession over the generations also sets it apart from the wider society. In practice, it also invokes a circle of learning, all working together.

Sometimes, as in monasteries, the circle receives support from the wider society. At other times, it is based in circles of families whose identity somehow stands apart from the wider society. Upholding those values requires passing the teachings and practices down through the families.

This has been the history of the Jewish people, for starters, the preservation of a unique vision of justice and philanthropy, a critical stance from the mainstream, the independent role of prophecy in which political and social rulers are placed under a more absolute authority, monotheism rather than polytheism.

We see it, too, to some extent in minority and ethnic communities as they attempt to maintain their unique identities and cultures.

The Amish, of course, stand out in America as they pursue this.

One of the complications is that it can lead to a relatively small gene pool when it comes to finding a spouse.

In the Church of the Brethren, the annual sessions, which alternated between the East Coast and the Midwest, were often followed by marriage announcements. In other words, it was the place to go if you were looking. The shared values heightened the chances for a successful union, we can suppose.

For Quakers, the boarding schools allowed for some wider mixing than one would find in the home village. Still, the lines could tangle in time, even with a strict ban on first-cousin marriages. I remember a conversation with one young couple who told me they were also third cousins or some such. Don’t think it was aunt and uncle, but it seemed that complicated at the time.

Maybe that’s why I wasn’t shocked by the complex, tangled family lines presented in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex or even the incest. (As others have noted, the reason the incest taboo is so universal is simply that the practice has likewise been so universal.)

In the novel, persecution leads to brutal oppression and massacre. The generations are torn apart. And then, somehow, they continue. What shocks most is the violence and hatred and related moral failures of the more “civilized” ships that fail to come to the rescue of innocent victims. But that returns us to thoughts of the wider society, doesn’t it.