Never mind that bit about bearing gifts

Growing up in the middle of America, I had little awareness of the extent of immigrant Greek influence in the New World, much less in my own hometown. These days, though, I see how pervasive — yet nearly invisible — it’s been, now or then.

My decision to have my first novel close with Cassia’s future father marrying into a Greek-American family was, in part, predicated on a desire to have his immersion in one ancient culture from Asia, Tibetan Buddhism, be countered by another from Western civilization, and thus Greece , blending both classical glories and some New Testament threads, which seemed appropriately symbolic.

It’s up to you to weigh in on how well it works in my novel What’s Left.

In the past decade, though, perhaps prompted by the annual community-wide festival our local Greek Orthodox church presents every Labor Day weekend, I’ve been connecting the dots and discovering how many Greek-Americans I’ve known over the years and how much the recent encounters have been enriching my own outlook.

As I wrote to one friend:

One thing that’s greatly surprised me is how little literature exists that relates the Greek-American experience. You’re too numerous to be so invisible. What’s up? Just look on your impact in Dover alone. Perhaps the best overall portrayal comes in Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (a masterpiece, by the way), although the work is acclaimed mostly for its exploration of hermaphroditic genetics and identity. Along the way, he also does a knock-out job of nailing the Midwest where I grew up, another strand of literature that’s otherwise anemic. I am glad I’d finished the first draft of my new work before encountering his novel — he won the National Book Award and Oprah’s endorsement for good reasons. It could be too intimidating. Well, if he could go on to do such an insightful job with Quaker Meeting, as he does in his third novel, The Marriage Plot, maybe I’m not so out of line in venturing into yours. I hope. Oh, yes, I’m also glad I finished the draft before getting to connect the dots of your own family. You’d be ideal for the movie version.

~*~

Look around at the people you know. Tell us something (good, we hope) about someone of Greek descent.

~*~

I think she looks a lot like the young woman on the cover of the book, apart from Cassia’s Goth garb and makeup. Aphrodite, anyone?

One side of a family as friends

Having a circle of close cousins in my novel What’s Left, freed me from having to create additional friends for Cassia. She had more than enough in her own extended family, close at hand.

I hadn’t thought about that before now, but as an author, it’s a big relief. Cassia’s busy enough as it is, and we have plenty of named characters.

~*~

Well, while thinking of fondness and monikers:

Do you have a nickname? How did it come about? Does it fit? Are you fond of it? Or does it annoy you? Have you ever tagged one on someone else?

~*~

Anyone else fond of Greek yogurt? Especially with honey?

An aside for karma yoga

In one of the early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I tried this perspective — which I removed from the final version of the book, feeling it was too preachy:

If our workroom was where we could act honorably under the eye of God, it was still no substitute for times of celebration and worship! No, we need to take time every day for prayer and the study of scripture. Just remember: work spent in activities that help our neighbors and enable us to come together for periods of common delight is quite different from anything I see in the realm of time cards or the Harvard Business School.

~*~

Whew! Let’s try to bring this back to everyday experience.

Is there somebody you encounter someplace during the day who makes you feel special? A coworker, cafe wait person, bus driver, teacher, friend? Do tell us!

Karma yoga, by the way, is explained in my novel Yoga Bootcamp. Work itself gets complicated, no?

~*~

The old church Cassia’s family buys in my novel might have looked like this … before the wild rock concerts begin.

A family obligation to pitch in

Maybe the family restaurant was oppressive? In my novel What’s Left, there’s no question the kids won’t be working shifts in Carmichael’s as they grow up. Do they ever want to rebel? Or does peer pressure and pride keep them in line?

As one of them said in an earlier draft:

So it was off to serve more Streetcars and slaw.

~*~

Well, they knew what was expected. And they knew how to pitch in and be effective.

What were you expected to do in your family? How did you help? Were you compensated in return? Should you have been?

Now, make all that present tense!

~*~

Finikia. A whole tray!

We could throw in a few exotic festivals to liven things up

One of my favorite lines I cut out of my novel What’s Left, was this quip:

I want some backbone in my religion. You can’t sit without it.

But as I looked at the flow of the story, I just couldn’t find a good place to develop some pushback from Cassia in her teens, where it would have been most appropriate.

Still, if you know anything about the practice of meditation itself — often called sitting — you just might enjoy the double-meaning.

Another way I thought of raising more color regarding their Buddhist identity was through rounds of Tibetan holidays. The names and special touches alone can be charming: New Year’s archery; incense to drive away evil ghosts; Sho Dun “yogurt festival”; the Meeting of the Eight Guardians (stay inside to avoid evil outdoors); Golden Star to wash away greed, passion, jealousy and to abandon ego; the washing festival. Think of the picnics and ritual bathing.

I might have also built something on the Eight Auspicious Symbols, including conch shell, parasol (crown), victory banner, golden fish, or treasure vase. The Endless Knot is the name of a chapter, though.

Beyond that, I kept looking for synonyms for Buddha or Buddhism. One of my favorites, which I didn’t use, is the hanging cliff-side wonders. Some of those monasteries are no place for anyone with a fear of heights!

~*~

Many traditions have special dishes for specific holidays — secular or religious. Sometimes it’s even a family thing, rather than something everyone does.

What’s your favorite “holiday food”?

~*~

Church-sponsored Greek festivals are popular events in many towns across America. And, yes, men do much of the cooking. Opa!

Looking at highly motivated people for inspiration

Do you ever look around and see people who seem to get a lot more done than others? I could tell you about some of the lifeguards at the indoor pool where I swim, the ones who do their school homework when they’re not watching us splashing around. Uh, swimming laps — something they can do four times faster than us geezers.

Well, in my novel What’s Left, the narrator has a similar question, one regarding many members of her family. (You won’t find it in the final version of the book — but it’s true all the same.)

I return to the question, How do they manage? All that they do?

~*~

Her aunt Nita, as we’re told, sticks to a routine and limits her evening activities. Her father could easily split his workweek into 20 hours of photography and 20 of Buddhist focus. Her mother would be putting in more at the press but still devoting considerable free time to practicing and rehearsing music.

Some others just seem to go without sleep or rise before dawn to get an early jump on things.

Tell us about somebody you know who seems to be super-human. Do they have some secret you see?

~*~

A fragile, old film negative sits atop a light box. Cassia had to learn how to handle these gently. Very gently.

Old soldiers never die, as we used to sing

My novel What’s Left began percolating as I considered the dimensions of the hippie movement and realized it had never really died but continued disguised in many streams of action. Yes, I’d published my Hippie Trails series but so much still felt unfinished.

And, as a consequence of Cassia in the new novel, I went back and transformed the others into Freakin’ Free Spirits.

Looking at the world today, what pressing issues do you consider unfinished?

~*~

My novel is available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama

In case you’re not conversant in Tibetan

Having Cassia cast a Buddhist chant as a spell in my novel What’s Left, is a bit of an inside joke. She may be trying to intimidate her middle school classmates, but what she utters, Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa, translates as “Grant me complete satisfaction” or “Grant me complete satisfaction within me.” Not that they have a clue.

Besides, I feel a shade of Harry Potter here, without an ominous wand. These words can simply feel magical.

By the way, Cassia’s chant is one letter off from Su Po Ka Yo Me Wa, “Grow within me” or “Increase the positive within me,” which also fits.

Just in case you’re wondering.

~*~

Think of some word or phrases you repeat often.

Do you have your own “mantra,” a word or phrase to raise your spirits?

(My favorite 9-year-old introduced me to “Yay!” So yours doesn’t have to be the least bit exotic.)

~*~

Cassia’s aunt Pia came from a family that owned places like this. Not far from Lowell, Massachusetts, where she grew up, for that matter.

Family honor means something

In my novel What’s Left the family-owned restaurant is a local institution, one set at the edge of campus even before her grandparents and their siblings took over and made it distinctly their own. Everybody in town seems to know them.

Have you ever been recognized because of something your parents or grandparents did?

~*~

My novel’s available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

The paperback cover …

How well do you know your cousins?

Would you agree that a close-knit extended family like the one in my novel What’s Left, is uncommon in today’s American society? Of my own five surviving first-cousins, only one remains in communication — a brief note every Christmas. None grew up in our city; two lived in the other corner of our state; the other four, at the time, in California.

~*~

In a passage I cut from the final version:

It wasn’t quite like that when Baba shows up, but only because we kids aren’t yet on the scene. First, we need some marriages, like when Barney and Pia get a new generation rolling, followed by Tito and Yin and then my parents.

~*~

And if Cassia’s uncle Dimitri or her aunt Nita had been adding to the gene pool, we’d have an even bigger slate of first-cousins to draw on. When it came to the novel, I had to limit things somewhere.

Have you ever been introduced to family members and found yourself asking yourself: Just who are these strangers? Have you enjoyed some of your kin at one point in your life but not at others? Do you ever feel some have been treated better than the rest?

~*~

Do you ever get lost when older members of your family start mentioning so-and-so? Just how do they all fit together?