Why tribe? As a poet once asked … 

In my novel What’s Left, she has every reason to proclaim:

Nobody breathes a word about hippie. We’re simply ever so hip.

She and her brothers and cousins had their own style and direction, apart from whatever their parents had done. And the quip didn’t survive into the final version of the text.

Still, though, if you look to the time of the pivotal Woodstock music festival , you might ask if we were trying to be neo-mountain men or newly converted Amerindians or spaced-out yogis or cool Victorians (without the inhibitions) or liberated urbanites or … ? Well, a huge stream of historic inspiration fed into the movement, and we were willing to play with just about any wild expressive fashion.

What’s easily overlooked is how huge the role of the Gypsy – or, more correctly, Roma – was.

The very term Boho or Bohemian – as in Puccini’s opera, La Boheme, dealing with starving underground artists in Paris – has far more to do with the Roma than with any geographic region of eastern Europe. Even Brahms’ famous Hungarian Rhapsodies are code words for Gypsy violin music. As for Spanish flamenco? Ditto. Play your guitar, if you will, or dance wildly.

So underground artists are …? You got it.

And here, drafting and revising my novel I found myself forced to ask:

Why are they so widely romanticized?

And why are they so widely reviled?

As Cassia investigates her father’s reasons for moving into the extended family where she’s grown up, she digs far beyond his counterculture inclinations.

Well, for a hint, here’s something else I cut from the final version:

The scandals, according to Nita? I’m not going there. Not that any of it was bad, on the contrary. There’s just too much to delve into now. And then, despite herself, she does.

~*~

Like Cassia’s father, I did live in a rundown farm where we all split the rent. And like him, I later lived in a monastic setting, where ours was based on yoga and its Hindu writings rather than Buddhism.

Not all hippies veered off in those directions.

Have you ever wanted to live in a Gypsy wagon? How about a tree house?

Tackling the family photos together

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, her aunt Nita becomes an active instigator of the project that leads the adolescent girl to closely examine her father’s photographs. Another change is that Cassia’s best friend and cousin, Sandra, joins in with second opinions.

Here are some passages that were no longer needed like this in that final edition:

What happens in that process flips our usual pattern of interacting.  Strengthens our bond. Forget Theos Barney and Theos Tito – they’re usually too busy to answer my inquiries, but after listening closely to Thea Nita, I have a sense they just don’t know as much detail as she does. Not just the Baba years, either. She’s filled me in on Ari and Perry and Athina and Dida and Ilias and Maria and Stavros and Bella. She knew them all, and was old enough to see much. Even so, she’s anxious to uncover as much about them as much as I do, which adds to our working together as a team.

~*~

She was particularly close to Dimitri, too. When they were apart, from college on, they corresponded in long weekly letters that often included newspaper clippings, and she’s promised to let me examine that collection when I’m ready. There’s so much on my plate already.

~*~

Bit by bit, the puzzles fit together enough to hint at the bigger picture, even around huge gaps that remain.

~*~

Always the news hound, Thea Nita confides to me the difficulty she’s had in digging up the few details she passes on, and, as she emphasizes, some of the conclusions remain conjectural. Add to that a few documents passed down in the family and some letters we still need to translate. A timeline takes shape.

~*~

So much of what I’m telling you comes down through Papou Ilias, Thea Nita tells me, explaining how many times they’d sit down together and his observations would flow on and on in response to her questions. As she says, he obviously admired Ari and Perry – and as a philosopher, he had to be true to the line of questioning, no matter how discomforting the conclusions may seem.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

In assembling these family pictures, then, Cassia comes to appreciate how important the word pictures are in giving life to the visual images. Both are essential for what she’s pursuing.

~*~

As a child, I never really understood the definitions of aunts, uncles, cousins, much less how we fit together. But we weren’t close, either, and had very little in common. Do you think Cassia’s loss make her more attentive to her family connections? Does she just know too much for her age?

Does a family that meditates together glow together?

The first decade of her father’s presence in the family was one of great growth and deepening personal awareness for every member – especially before all of the children, including Cassia, come along.

For one thing, her parents’ generation is still working on its Buddhist studies together. As I noted in an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left:

You know, Baba will say one night after our family meditation, most of these enterprises wouldn’t stand a chance if it weren’t for one thing.

What’s that?

Rinpoche, the Tibetan master.

Then the room will fall into a profound reverie.

Well, it was all no doubt pretty exotic to all of them.

And then the vision got even heavier:

It’s the concept of living as a people of the Holy One, however we phrase it. A peaceable people. A peaceable kingdom. The great wisdom or enlightenment.

There was even a question of how much diversity they could manage:

Religions? Say the way a piano is a world apart from a trombone or a double bass or a clarinet, even if they rely on the same kind of musical notation? And that was before your Manoula weighed in on some wildly divergent ethnic musics based on entirely conflicting theoretical foundations.

Well, that got too esoteric, even for me! Play it as you will.

Still, not everybody in the family was so high on the Buddhist excitement:

The Temple Room relocates to the first-floor parlor next to Yiayia Athina before moving altogether to a more public location, one having chambers for our anticipated Rinpoche’s full-time residency. Yiayia Athina makes no secret of being glad to see them go. The chanting was getting on her nerves.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Cassia’s family obviously takes all this seriously.

What spiritual practice or source of inspiration is meaningful to you?

Looking for a natural high

Just what so intensely motivated her father-to-be to quit everything so he could retreat into monastic Buddhist practice for three years? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer fully. (My parallel experience of living on a yoga farm is the basis of my newest novel, Yoga Bootcamp.)

Still, I’m required to try. In a passage from an earlier draft of my novel What’s Left, the explanation went this way:

Thea Nita suggested another take. Your Baba yearned for the highs, she says.

What about drugs?

You don’t think that was a problem, she counters. Don’t you think I wasn’t worried, at least until Rinpoche came into the picture?

Well, I’d wondered about that with my uncles, too – that whole hippie thing?

Oh, that? Nita chuckles and admits it posed a danger, especially before she returned to town. Barney, especially, enjoyed being stoned when he could. As she says, that could present problems in a commercial kitchen.

And then? They learned they could get a natural high through meditation – if they steered clear of drugs, as they did when Baba, by then a militant practicing Buddhist, entered the scene. Besides, there was no escaping the reality we all had work to do – and it better be done right.

~*~

As Rinpoche told Cassia about her father:

He needed the lightness and even playfulness he encountered in the Tibetan Buddhism – the high, in fact – that he hadn’t found in his Christian past. To be fair, I am finding indications he was discovering that in the Judeo-Christian side, too, during his final years. What a loss, then.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

And then there was her mother’s presence, as Rinpoche explained:

Your Baba found his missing half in Manoula and through her, his place in this world. But he always sensed there was more to life. The rabbi here tells me that when Moses came down from the mountain, he carried two tablets. The first one was about man’s relationship to God, and the second one was about relating to each other. So your Baba was working on something like that. He sometimes referred to it as finding the right balance.

And that mountain?

It was about all that would hold him down. For now. Maybe they were well matched.

~*~

Here we are talking about religion, and I see the question turning to something unexpectedly related:

What makes you smile?

Small-time patronage

Another manifesto I cut from my novel What’s Left, is a vision of a wide community of artists who have employable day-jobs:

One night, as Nita will exclaim, Hey! We’re the biggest patrons of the arts around here! She’ll be right. We’ll have poets as bakers. Painters as mechanics. Sculptors as gardeners. On weekend evenings, there will be folk music and jazz in the restaurant, as well as Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals. Baba will change the art exhibits monthly. In time, we’ll even have to create mail-order catalogs for some of these expanding industries. And that’s the conservative forecast.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

~*~

Well, we can dream, can’t we? Somewhere in Nita’s discourse I hear a plea for a less ugly, less brutal society – one overflowing with harmony and compassion instead. Rather than the mass-media push for blockbusters – movies, hit songs, or bestseller books – she emphasizes face-to-face, small-scale exchanges.

Do you resonate with anything in Nita’s vision? How do we support each other? How do you support your friends? And how do they support you?

A different take on taking the subway

As you know, I’m fond of subways. So when one of my favorite lifeguards was telling me of her first semester away in the big city, I had to ask.

“Oh, no! I hate them!”

What?

“Everybody’s stinky and pressed together,”

It’s not always like that. She must have been riding at rush hour.

But she continued, “And then one threw up on my shoes.”

Hmmm.

I’m trying to remember if she said she then had to do the same.

I do know she hasn’t read my subways novel, though she did have some input into What’s Left.

Hmmm.

Looking for ways to include everyone

Sometimes, when you look into the eyes of desperation, you wonder what the downtrodden might be able to do to help themselves – and others.

In my novel What’s Left, her family has the resources to make some things happen, but they’re small fry in the face of the bigger issues. Here’s a passage I trimmed from the final version of the story:

Baba, of course, retreats earlier by heading to the monastery, just as all the big moves start unfolding. He returns to a different world, apart from the family core – and its true love.

Not that everybody’s talented. Barney and even Dimitri come up with odd jobs for the vagabonds who materialize around the loading docks of restaurants … the aimless hippie, too … and rather than a handout, Can you lend a hand? You know, scrubbing or raking or sweeping or helping move supplies from a delivery van – anything that then might lead to a free meal or spending the night in Barney’s old car. If we don’t have something at the restaurant, maybe there’s something else to do around Mount Olympus.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

I really do wish I had answers. Maybe we need to start small. Any suggestions for Barney and Dimitri in the novel, like helping unpack a truck or sweeping the walk?

What do you do to help others? Not family, but the wider community?