In my novel Nearly Canaan, Joshua and Jaya settle into a place unlike anything they would have imagined. It’s desert, for one thing, where nearly everything has to be irrigated, for another. Quite simply, it’s a lot like Yakima, in the middle of Washington state and an agricultural mecca.
Besides the well-known crops of apples, hops, and grapes, let’s consider:
My newest book, Nearly Canaan, is a thorough reworking of three earlier novels that now flow together as one.
Here are ten reasons the new version is new and improved.
The book now focuses on the question of what impact one person can make for lasting good in our world, especially in and through our closest relationships.
Jaya’s professional identity in her pioneering approach to nonprofits administration is quickly and more clearly established. Her career and its demands become a source of major conflict in the course of the story.
Her character now grows out of her role in Yoga Bootcamp, which provides further understanding of her motivations and inner direction.
The actions now show that the best intentions may have unanticipated negative consequences.
Jaya’s desire to find an appropriate way of personally expressing her spiritual experiences finally creates a unique artform.
Events are no longer left hanging at the end of what was the first novel. Life moves on in the aftermath of disaster.
The overall work is now structured within three large, overarching sections, each presented by a different teller. The first one, focusing on Jaya, is comprised of three telescoping parts that propel the action to the distinctive landscape where the second and third sections also take place. The second section is told by one of Jaya’s yoga students while the third is told by a young wife who’s been a close neighbor. Each of them reveals details unknown to most of the other characters in their social circle.
The story now has a short fourth section as a coda. I’m especially fond of it.
Once again, changing some of the names of characters makes a huge difference, especially when that leads to fond nicknames. Just see what happens to Jaya’s beau, especially.
I have far more sympathy for Jaya’s husband’s situation, even if it’s what he pressed so hard to find himself in.
I’ve lived here for 20 years now, and worshiped here for another dozen.
Dover is the seventh oldest permanent settlement in the U.S. – and the oldest in New Hampshire. We’re preparing for its 400th anniversary in 2023. Did I mention I love history? We’re surrounded by it.
We’re also close to the ocean in one direction and mountains in the other.
Here are ten more things I appreciate.
Right size. With 30,000 population, it has a small-town feel. We can stroll to a viable downtown from our house, have a drink or dinner if we wish, or just up the block to the bank or around the corner to the drugstore. That sort of thing. Even walk to Meeting on Sunday.
Speaking of walking. The Community Trail, tucked in behind backyards and sometimes along the river, is a gem.
Quaker Meeting. We’re the fifth oldest church in the state, and the first that wasn’t part of the government-backed Congregational denomination. First Parish, meanwhile, was the first congregation in the entire colony. It has an incredible organ.
Greek-Orthodox. Its members have been an important part of the community for more than a century now, as I’ve been learning. The annual festival every Labor Day weekend is a blast.
Ecumenical engagement. The twice-a-week soup kitchen the local churches provide is only part of the action. Immigrant sanctuary movement support has been extraordinary.
The indoor swimming pool. For a senior like me, it’s a bargain. The locker room is tucked in under the children’s museum, which Dover lured away from Portsmouth, itself a reason to be proud to live in town. Oh, yes, let’s include the 50-meter outdoor pool at this point.
Our hospital. It’s now a subsidiary of esteemed Mass. General, rather than being taken over by a for-profit corporation. Again, as a senior, top-flight medical access is a prime consideration. It’s within walking distance, too.
The waterfall in the heart of downtown. It’s a pleasure to watch, along with the tide level below. There was nothing like this in the part of Ohio where I grew up.
Proximity to the state university. Many of its students rent apartments here, and the school runs a regular public bus service through the region. Concerts, lectures, sports events, and the library are a plus. You should know hockey is hot here.
Access to Boston. A comfy bus service to Logan airport and South Station runs hourly, and Amtrak’s Downeaster links to North Station with five trains each way daily. Apart from a small spur to the shipyard through Portsmouth, all of the railroad traffic to and from Maine passes within a block of our house. You can take the Downeaster in the other direction to Old Orchard Beach or Portland or even Freeport, home of L.L. Bean, if you wish. Riding the train’s fun.
What do you treasure about the place where you live?
To put the U.S. coronavirus crisis in perspective, consider that its toll has surpassed the 58,220 deaths of American servicemen in the Vietnam war. And to think, it would have been much worse if we hadn’t hunkered down, even as the virus continues to multiply.
Yes, I know it’s premature to expect our social lives to be returning to “normal” anytime soon, but let’s keep the hope alive.
Here are ten things I’ll say we’re missing.
Worship. Gathering together, not just solo meditation. Followed by hugs and handshakes. Even weddings and funerals are on hold. Don’t overlook regional board meetings, annual sessions, community suppers, or big festivals, either.
Live public events. Let’s start with concerts, theater, dancing and dance, sports of all sorts, both as players and fans. Add festivals, graduations, political rallies, public lectures, governmental meetings. The things that bring us together as a community.
Swimming and the gym. For me, this includes the daily banter with fellow swimmers I’ve come to know and the lifeguards, too. It’s like workout partners and trainers at the gym, so I’ve heard. Long walks just aren’t the same.
Eating out and meeting for a drink. Let’s throw in catching up with a friend over a cup of cappuccino or stopping off somewhere while off on that stroll. A phone call is a poor substitute.
Shopping. Yes, we can still go to the grocery (kind of), but many other places are closed. As for yard sales, where we find some of our best stuff without them? I’ll put banking in person here, as in being able to walk into the lobby.
Beaches, parks, playgrounds. I couldn’t even harvest seaweed for garden mulch this year. Seriously.
Health care and grooming. How much can we put on hold? OK, I don’t need a barber these days, but my cardiologist would like some blood work at the lab and our rabbits need their nails trimmed, which has been happening at the high school’s animal sciences center, or was.
Travel and transport. As I posted about not going to Boston recently or noting friends stuck without cars (and we can’t really offer them rides, either). Add to that airlines, not that I was planning on flying. But we really would like to get away from the house for a weekend breather.
Libraries and museums. Special sanctuaries.
Community care. Things like the soup kitchen and fundraisers. And places with public restrooms when I’m out on those long walks.
Schools I’ll set aside as a whole special category.
One bright spot in for me in this Covid-19 self-isolation has been the Metropolitan Opera’s nightly streaming of a Live in HD performance from its archive. As I mentioned in a March 23 posting, these are free and available until 3:30 the next afternoon. Better yet, the series is continuing. I’ve now seen more operas this way than I’ve seen live and in concert combined.
As I mentioned in “Spending nights at the opera on my laptop,” watching these performances is quite different from listening to them on the radio, and some of the things that stand out for me are the extraordinary level of the acting, by not just the principal singers but everyone on stage, leading to the important presence of the chorus in its role as actors and not just voices, and the brilliance of the opera’s dancers, who I’ll argue are highly underappreciated – they even move much of the set around during some productions. Yes, and those sets and costumes are amazing, even with all of the excessive luxury, expense, and unbelievable perfection that the video cameras catch even when those in the audience are oblivious at their distance. This is as close to the ideal, overall, as anyone could ever expect in live theater.
The backstage videos and interviews have also deepened my appreciation. Many kudos.
That said, let me note ten more distinctive things that are jumping out for me as I watch:
The oath. Or, in far fewer instances, a vow. I hadn’t notice this before, but in at least 90 percent of opera, the entire drama revolves around a sworn declaration – often forced upon someone, as in a deathbed scene, but sometimes from youthful outbursts. Watch for this, as I am now. And then, swear not, as Jesus counseled. It always leads to trouble.
The physicality of the singers. Gone are the days of lining up the big voices and the chorus behind them. Nowadays, they’re running and jumping and dancing while singing the most incredibly difficult music, even when they get a break to drop back on their backs. Look, to sing like this you need a LOT of breath (try to follow them as they sing and see where they pause to inhale) and then think about all of the other demands on their air. Got me? It’s amazing.
The swordfights. Remember, this is live, with no room for a retake. And it’s convincing.
Dancing or miming the overture or prelude. The opening music has often seemed like a spacer to establish the mood while latecomers arrive. Something like a mini-symphony, to spotlight the instrumentalists, before we get to the real stuff. Some of the newer productions, however, are raising the curtain by the time the conductor enters the orchestra pit and feature dancing or acting during the introductory music. It’s like showing a movie scene before rolling the credits, and even more impressive. Why haven’t we always done it this way?
Updating the action. Trying to reset the historical setting of the story is always tricky, but when it works, it’s brilliant. Note the Met’s “Rigoletto,” move to gambling Las Vegas, which we’ve not yet viewed. But everything I’ve seen so far along these lines has been brilliant. “Macbeth” as a ‘ 50s rebellion definitely fits, once we take it out of Scotland. As does Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutti” in Coney Island, though I wish they had swapped the couples at the finale – this production had room for that feminist power reintrepretion.
Appreciating the subtitles. I love that these are contemporary translations, unlike the tortured Victorian-era lines I tried to follow way back when. As an exacting editor, I appreciate their high quality (only one or two places I’d object as a grammarian), My sole qualm has been in religious references when these drop into “Biblical” language, the “thee” instead of “you” line of speech, even in Drudic and Hindu instances.
On-stage touches. Everytime I see flames in a scene, I wonder how they got that bit past the fire marshal. Not just cigarettes or cigars (hope they don’t inhale, it’s bad for the voice) to candles and torches and fireplaces and conflagrations that level a village. The use of puppetry is incredibly effective, as we’ve seen especially in “Butterfly.” And then there are the wigs, even for the chorus. (More than 2,000 a season, as we learned in a backstage interview.)
The animals. Yes, dogs, horses, donkeys, and more … on stage!
The collegiality of the cast. The days of the infamous prima donna is largely gone. Singers today are generally professional and respect the work of others, even when they tackle the same roles. It’s apparent in the interviews.
Conducting. It’s not the same as leading a symphony, and I find these maestro’s motions much harder to follow. For one thing, they’re way ahead of the beat. Even so, the Met band is glorious, a far improvement over the rough-edged ensemble before James Levine’s tenure. The audience doesn’t start applauding as soon as a big singer ends an aria, either, but waits for the final orchestral note fades.
Is there anything that’s making this period of shelter-in-place somehow special?
Coming to join the Society of Friends, or Quakers, puts me in a unique religious circle.
Here are ten examples.
Nobody bosses me around. Well, not if the mutual discipleship we know as eldering is conducted in a loving and good order. In the old days, though, it was often quite restricting.
Deep roots. We have a rich history, originating in the mid-1600s social and political upheavals in Britain, and a distinctive lifestyle to draw on for inspiration. Yes, lifestyle. While most Friends have dropped the distinctive Plain clothing and speech, we do hew to simplicity, honesty, integrity, equality, and non-violence in our daily lives. There are good reasons many modern Quakers drive a Prius.
Mystical renewal. The core of Quaker worship is open worship, which is part of even pastoral Friends’ services, admittedly in a shortened form. In the traditional “silent” worship, it can be an hour of profound group meditation and rejuvenated awareness of the Holy Spirit.
The timeless aesthetic. I hate to admit there were times in Quaker history where the restrictions would have been unbearable for me. But I am drawn to the witness that arose in it as demonstrated in the architecture of our old meetinghouses or the accounts of tender family life or the amazing prose of the ministry.
Room to keep growing. Quaker faith is multifaceted. Spiritually, one can move about from Bible study to prayer to silent reflection to “mutual irradiation” with other faith traditions and back. Socially, there are many ways to serve within the congregation – in fact, volunteer service is crucial to the existence of the Meeting and the wider world of Friends. On top of that, our faith draws us to public witness, especially in matters of peace, equality, environmental action, and the like.
We have only three degrees of separation – not seven. You’d be surprised how quickly you can find answers through Meeting connections.
It’s my core community. Here are my kindred spirits, the people I respect and treasure.
I have friends nearly everywhere. When I go to a new place, I quickly connect through Quaker Meeting – even if I’m just visiting. In fact, Friends in Cuba and Kenya open my eyes to Third World awareness.
My family history and lost identity. When I joined Friends, I had no idea my father’s side had been Quaker from the outbreak of the movement right up to the 20th century. Reclaiming that identity gives me an internal perspective.
Social justice issues. There’s no way I can address all of the world’s ills, but it is comforting to know that Friends are tackling key issues and deserve my support.
I’m relieved to find these two novels have big differences.
Here are ten.
Children and family. Cassia starts telling her tale from age 11, and she’s surrounded by her two brothers and a clutch of close cousins. No kids of note in Jaya’s tale.
Greeks. Central to Cassia’s identity. None pop up in Nearly Canaan.
Gypsies. Are they really a strand in Cassia’s background? Not a factor in Jaya’s.
Ghosts. Cassia’s dealing with her family history, after all. Jaya isn’t.
The cat. A key figure in Nearly Canaan. None by name with Cassia.
Sexuality. More explicit in some scenes of Nearly Canaan.
Infidelity. For Cassia, it’s an issue in her parents’ generation. In Jaya’s circle, it’s a more immediate threat.
Wilderness. The desert is a major influence when Jaya and Joshua move west. Hardly noticeable for Cassia, even when she’s living in Las Vegas. In addition, much of Nearly Canaan veers off into the forests and mountains to their west.
The volcano. A turning point in Nearly Canaan. No geologic activity in What’s Left, apart from the mountain that triggers Cassia’s lifelong obsession.
Photography. Her father’s archives become the key to Cassia’s discoveries. None to examine with Jaya.