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?

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? 

Cassia as small-town royalty

From one perspective in my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family begins to resemble royalty in a small-town setting. It’s not that they’re living a life of ease – far from it, everyone works hard, including long hours at the family restaurant. But they do inhabit an old Victorian house that resembles a small castle, and they are known throughout the community and are financially secure. For the record, even pampered royalty must perform daily duty and live up to standards.

I’ve sometimes joked that if were emperor, I’d eliminate some pet peeve of the moment, like maybe banning onions or requiring everyone to do something like go to the opera rather than another soccer match. Luckily, you’re spared the consequences.

What would it be like to be born a princess? Or even a prince? (Well, while we’re at it, is there even a country – real or imaginary – you’d prefer to rule over?)

Making a home for alternative arts

Passages in early drafts of my novel What’s Left ran the risk of becoming manifestos for certain strands of the fine arts. Here’s one Cassia ponders as she considers her father’s work:

In the period he spent between college and moving here, he falls into a rhythm of settling down into his own humble life and looking sharply at what’s right in front of him, no matter how chaotic and confusing his quest for amorous companionship is going. He’s still ambitious, mind you, with lofty goals. But he’s also deeply wounded and trying to recover, however furtive the pathway appears, but I’d say that he’s been opened and becoming more sensitive to discovery. In that way, everything is new, seen for the first time. High on his priorities is a knowledge that a true artist has to discover a voice – and that means focusing on some smaller scale, no matter how bad that pun is for a photographer. Well, Manoula would share that need to focus – as a violinist, she stays classical rather than veering off into jazz or folk, and even there she has the pieces she works on repeatedly. As for a signature, some say it’s a Gypsy fire.

So just what is his signature?

In that period right after college, he’s baffled. Everything’s changing. He just has to keep doing whatever he’s doing and hope a message comes clear.

In fairness, few newspaper photographers push that hard. They just want to get good shots in crisp focus and deposit their skimpy paychecks. For Baba, though, something else is percolating. It’s not just another baseball game he’s shooting – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime contest.

Look close and you can see a signature touch in his work all along – something crystalline, abetted by impeccable work in the darkroom, as he investigates whatever’s in front of him. Maybe it’s basic chemistry taken in a fresh direction.

Every true artist – and I have no doubt Baba is one – is drawn to individuals to admire and perhaps emulate. For American photographers, Ansel Adams would be a given. Edward Steichen, well, you can fill in the rest. Looking through his papers, though, I’m surprised to find Francesca Woodman and Sarah Moon among those who capture his imagination. If anything, I’d say their work is the antithesis of his. Theirs are filled with fantasy, even ghosts, decay – so much appears out of focus or fragmentary, even merely suggestive. They evoke history, while he celebrates a present moment.


Cassia’s a smart kid, but you can bet she never would have spoken like that. Strike one! Even in her 20s, she wouldn’t have. Strike two! It really is too much of a curveball for the story. Strike three, and it’s out!

The tone, especially, is way off.

Elsewhere, though, she does observe that her father had his own signature style.

Tell me of a visual artist you greatly enjoy. What do you find most inspiring? If you’re a visual artist yourself, what are your own goals? What do you want to stand out in your work? What are your favorite subjects?

Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, the place starts rocking

The old church is rechristened, as it were, when their live rock nights take over. In What’s Left, my novel many of the musicians are already connected to the family restaurant, one way or another.

As I explain in a passage that was more than anyone needed in the final version:

Much to their credit, Dimitri and Graham and Barney and Pia have a knack for attracting talent – and for listening to all their ideas. It isn’t all just food-oriented, either.

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


Thanks to her aunt Yin, a teenaged Cassia winds up booking up-and-coming acts – ones that can play well in their old church. It’s a matter of people skills and organizational skills, especially, along with taking good advice from her musically alert cousins.

Imagine stepping in for her. What kind of music or other entertainment would you most like on the schedule? Is there a local band or singer or comedian (nobody widely known yet) you’d like to pitch to Cassia if you could? (Feel free to add a link to their website or YouTube action, if you wish.) Go ahead, shamelessly plug them, be the loyal fan club – let the world know! Go wild, oh yay! Me? How about a weekly contradance?