An aunt unlike the others

In my original draft and early revisions of What’s Left, I tried to keep her aunt Nita relatively equal among Cassia’s aunts and uncles. This was difficult, since Nita had been an important influence on Cassia’s father, from college all the way up to his disappearance in an avalanche, was Cassia was 11.

There was no avoiding the fact that as Cassia wanted to know more about her father, she’d have to turn to her aunt Nita for answers.

In the ninth revision, though, I decided it was time for Nita to out-and-out become Cassia’s guardian angel, a role she’d fulfilled repeatedly for Cassia’s father. I think it was a brilliant flash, allowing much of the action in the new novel to take place during Cassia’s preteen and teenage years.

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Respectfully looking to the Amish

One of the themes running through my new novel, What’s Left, is an acknowledgement of what I’ve sometimes called “guerrilla economics.”

In one passage in an earlier draft of the story, I argued:

On the other hand, he just might learn along the way that the Amish keep to their ways not because they’re entirely sold on horsepower and kerosene lamps but because of the hedge their style puts around them, enabling them to keep their families and communities intact against the onslaught that’s devouring everything else.

Well, the Amish do provide the Swiss cheese essential to the family’s signature Streetcar sandwich, but there’s more. They’re a model of community, something Cassia’s family is also trying to do beside the college campus.

~*~

You can’t have it all – it’s an essential lesson when it comes to money issues if you want any freedom. Besides, where would you store it all? Who would even dust or polish it?

Again, this subject runs beyond the scope of my new novel, but there is a question of just how much is enough. For Cassia and her parents, they’re comfortable living modestly while successfully working in their world. And, no, they don’t live out by the country club or buy a new car every year, even when Cassia might see that as the way “normal” people might live.

What sacrifice would you be willing to make to pursue your dreams? (Give up your cell phone? Your laptop?) And what would you find’s essential to keep?

~*~

Greek Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary of Mount Athos (and details) created by Father Vasileios Pavlatos in Kefalonia, Greece using the technique of Pyrography. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this.

Another San Francisco connection

Cassia’s aunt Yin reinforces a San Francisco connection established with Cassia’s uncle Dimitri and his companion, Graham. In time, it’s one Cassia herself comes to experience, so far from her native Indiana, as I relate as early as the third chapter of my new novel, What’s Left.

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A single visit to the Golden Gate city put it high on my scale. I’d return in a flash, given the opportunity. These days, living a hour from Boston, I’m near another great center with many valued connections to the world. And, yes, I still miss Baltimore.

What’s your favorite city? What would you urge people to do when they get there?

~*~

Octopus sun-drying at the Mama Thira restaurant in Firostefani, Santorini. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.

In her family, her great-grandparents would have known scenes like this.

‘Vegan Before 6’ for Great Lent

As Quakers, we’re not confined to a liturgical calendar or its requirements. Even so, through much of our history, members of the Society of Friends lived within the limitations of strict discipline, which included plain dress like the Amish and plain speech of the “thee” and “thou” sort.

These have greatly loosened up over the past century, which is not to say we don’t live out a distinct set of values – we’re just more flexible or forgiving. Non-violence and pacifism, equality, simplicity, social justice, and truthfulness remain forefront in our daily lives. Few Friends I know smoke, and in our circles, I suspect the majority now drive Priuses as a consequence of faith. Many, but by no means all, participate in vigils or social witness demonstrations.

But being Quaker doesn’t preclude us from what Douglas Steere coined “mutual irradiation,” acknowledging that we can learn from others’ religious practices and experiences and encourage them in their own. It’s not the same as a lowest-common-denominator ecumenism, but rather a willingness to be inspired and enlightened by our differences. It’s something I’ve been enjoying among the Greek-Orthodox where I live, and found with Mennonites and Brethren earlier. It’s also a principal reason I participate in the Dover Area Religious Leaders’ Association and our joint services.

Of course, remarrying has changed some of my perspectives. With children, especially, there was no way of downplaying Christmas, not in contemporary American society. (Historically, Friends were among those who considered it a pagan import.) I’ve previously posted about the revolutionary ways observing Advent has helped me cope with the commercial assault of that holiday.

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Eliminating a liturgical calendar also meant we also didn’t observe Easter. (Every day was to be holy.) And without Christmas or Easter, there would be no Advent or Lent.

Leap ahead.

There’s no way to totally ignore these, not when no longer live in close communities of our own and are often the only Quaker in our workplace. On top of that, many of us come from other faith traditions and carry within us many of those teachings and traditions, one way or another.

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All of this leads up to to a desire in our household to use Advent and Lent as times of renewal and rededication. We try to do a special reading together, at the least, and usually give up alcohol.

For the record, by the late 19th century, most Quakers had banned alcohol altogether – it’s not uncommon to meet Friends who have never had a drink in their life. On the other hand, when I admitted to enjoying a glass of beer or wine, one old Friend replied, “Jnana, in thy occupation, we’d be surprised if thee didn’t.” Remember, I was a newspaper editor.

So, here we are in what the Eastern Orthodox call Great Lent, and I’m surviving without my daily martini or a glass of wine with dinner. Abstaining reminds me of just how habitual these things become. Besides, I believe saying “no” for a season can be strengthen one’s willpower for other decisions, too.

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One year, my wife and I went largely vegan for Advent. She had reviewed all of the Eastern Orthodox dietary rules for that observance and concluded they were essentially vegan with the additional elimination of olive oil and alcohol. Oh, and when she concluded that since olive oil would have been the only oil in the eastern Mediterrean, she extended the ban to all cooking oils.

It was a tough period, as I posted at the time. She did come up with some marvelous dishes all the same, but rather than being freed from considerations of food, she was spending more time trying to find ways to manage.

This year, for the period of Great Lent, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Remember, we’re not confined to the ancient regulations, we’re doing this voluntarily. (And, as I’ve learned, the Orthodox rules are only suggested, not required, of the faithful.) What we’re doing is inspired by food guru Mark Bittman’s book Eat Vegan Before 6:00. In short, we have more options when it comes to the evening meal – especially, as we’re applying this, on the weekends.

Since I’m already trying to observe a Healthy Heart diet, I’m not seeing a lot of change. The biggest challenge has involved my morning coffee, which is already down to a single cup a day, thanks to another medical restriction.

No, alas, there are no wonder substitutes for dairy.

Homemade almond milk comes closest – we find much of the commercial variety to be vile. But almonds are comparatively expensive, and soaking the nuts and grinding and straining take time.

Oat milk, made from oatmeal, starts cooking in hot liquid, leaving an unpleasant layer of sludge in the bottom of the mug.

Coconut milk tastes like coconut, which I find disconcerting.

Black coffee seems harsh on an empty stomach – a sliver of lemon helps a little, somehow.

~*~

So I’m counting the days till Easter – the Orthodox version, which comes at the end of Passover, a full week later than the Western celebration.

When Cassandra pipes up

My final revisions of my new novel, What’s Left, heightened the role of her best friend forever and first-cousin, Sandra – short for Cassandra. She’s now active from age 11 on (rather than being central to the final chapter alone) and provides some punchy counterpoint to Cassia’s discoveries and questions during their adolescence.

Some vital exchanges occur when Cassia is railing to be in a “normal” family, unlike theirs, and Sandra points out her own struggles fitting in – her mother’s Japanese-American from San Francisco, after all, rather than from Indiana where she and Cassia live.

Sandra also has a heated perspective on their three great-aunts that Cassia doesn’t quite understand. As for their Barbie dolls? You’ll just have to see.

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Building on their values

In my new novel, What’s Left, she’s grown up taking much of her family and its restaurant enterprise for granted. After all, every kid in her extended close-knit family has had to work shifts there. After the death of her father – her Baba – when she’s 11, she uncovers what had attracted him to the home she’s known.

Early on, his input into the expansion of the restaurant must have felt invigorating. Beyond its pure financial calculations came some intense consideration of spiritual values, growing culinary awareness, and out-and-out-sensory delight. Could you put these together as an artistic experience? That kind of thinking.

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While looking for a positive male authority figure

Among her mother’s male ancestors in my new novel, What’s Left, my personal favorite is clearly Ilias the Cypriot, even if I might hope to be less obvious in my telling. Ari, Perry, and Stavros all have their better qualities, but I doubt I’d get along with any of them for long. There are reasons, though, that Ilias is also known as the Philosopher, even when he’s become a successful construction contractor in Chicago before he and his wife relocate in what they erroneously assume will be semi-retirement.

He’s gentle, curious, generous, and instills in grandson Dimitri and granddaughter Nita, at least, qualities they ride to success in their own fields.

If only he’d been present to comfort Cassia in her grief after her father vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe – we would have had a different novel. Is there a point where the elderly are simply too weak to lend comfort or guidance, even when they’re still breathing? In the novel, unlike some of the more dramatic deaths, Ilias and Maria simply fade into a past. I imagine them going off arm in arm, smiling, but leave that to the reader’s discretion.

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Think of the circles around you. Who do you look to as your favorite male authority figure?

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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. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)