Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac

In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father’s parents are barely mentioned. They live miles away in Iowa, for one thing, and, for another, whatever they do is light years away from his contented life in her mother’s close-knit extended family.

As a purely literary challenge, trying to fit any more characters into a five-generation tale runs the risk of adding confusion for the reader. But then, by my eighth and ninth revisions, I stumbled upon a simple tweak that allowed me to acknowledge his parents more fully — the simple names of Grandpa and Grandma Mac would do. Just how much of a picture do you get from just that much?

For the most part, they’re a sharp contrast to Cassia’s experiences of home. She and her brothers never feel comfortable in their childhood visits to their Iowa grandparents. But somewhere in my later revisions, an episode developed that changes her understanding and then allows a relationship, however tenuous, to develop. Can I admit being rather fond of the insertion? For one thing, it allows me to quickly sketch another kind of American family little known to the general public — one that faced earlier pressures not all that different from Cassia’s Greek-American lineage much later. For another, well, it’s closer to my own roots, even when I look at hers with some envy.

~*~

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.

Continue reading “Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac”

Looking for a word that means ‘wisdom’

I was trying to find a word in Spanish for “wisdom,” one conveying spiritual depth.

Instead, what I came across in the dictionary related to factual intelligence or knowing. All head, no heart.

Nothing even suggesting common sense or good judgment.

What I wanted went deeper, say to the kind of understanding gained through long experience and discipline. Sometimes, the kind of knowing you feel in your hands.

Better yet, what Merriam-Webster calls “the natural ability to understand things that most other people cannot understand.” To which I would add a sense of calm and patience.

If the word or phrase exists in Spanish, I’d love to know it. Perhaps even with a few other things that get lost in translation.

 

What do we make of a trio of evil great-aunts?

OK, I’ll have to admit they’re cardboard characters. I do little to develop her three great-aunts in my novel What’s Left, the ones Cassia and her brothers and cousins simply refer to as the Erinyes. Unlike the classic Greek marble statues, these have no redeeming qualities from the perspective of the story. They’re out-and-out evil forces, having fled the family rather than staying put where they’re needed. But they have enough influence to wreck everything, given a chance. And, yes, I’m still startled by Sandra’s outburst in my final revision. Let me know what you think when you get to that part.

As an author, I rather like the way they might simply dance across the stage as a trio arm-in-arm. And then back. Like a storm cloud, even.

I also like the way they serve as a foil to Cassia’s father and the others who voluntarily join the family the Erinyes had so readily fled at the earliest opportunity. Should I say abandoned?

Could it be they’re cardboard characters with a marble veneer? Do we even need to name them, individually?

I even delight in the weasel home-breaker who appears in their place further along in the plot — the one who aligns herself with their monetary claims. Oh, but that’s such an insult to weasels.

~*~

Here was one consideration I cut from an earlier draft:

What if the Erinyes had married into Baba’s side — something like it, out in Iowa or Salt Lake City?

And then moved on to Orlando or Orange County? No, they were bound for big cities. Which is where your Baba expected to thrive.

~*~

I dunno, but I’d guess they’d wear globs of makeup and tons of jewelry and loud stretch pants and perhaps even vote for Trump.

As an author, I can’t even forgive them for the way they treated Bella when she began working in the family restaurant, much less their threatening actions in the years when Cassia fights to preserve something for her own generation.

They have me thinking of the phrase “bad eggs.” I’ve seen more than a few in my own time … in my own life, actually.

Have you ever seen someone break up a relationship, a home, or a business? Anywhere else? What was the cause? What did they do? What could others do in response? What was your experience?

~*~

In the family, Cassia may have had food like these beet roots, photographed at Mario Restaurant in Monolithos. (Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Back to gut issues

Once Cassia gets a clearer picture of her father’s past, she can ask her aunt Nita more pointed questions.

Here’s some of what she learned before the final revisions of my novel What’s Left:

He just felt Vietnam was wrong. Said he sensed it in his bones. I think he was beginning to identify some of his bloodlines that support pacifist witness, once he started looking into genealogy just a few years before his passing. These are all part of what he called the hidden histories that Americans need to know.

~*~

In another deleted passage, she hears her uncle Dimitri’s take on the newspaper work her father was doing:

The public doesn’t want to admit there’s corruption or deceit in their neighborhood. They’ll take umbrage at anything that would satisfy your pursuit of honest revelation or artistic perfection. No, why should you prostitute yourself?

~*~

In an early consideration of what Cassia’s father might do if he settled in with her mother’s family, we had this:

Nita interjects, Don’t you know I’ve been asking around? Would you believe there really are some opportunities for a first-class freelance photographer? And not just weddings or anniversaries? Even if you’ve never been to a football or basketball game, don’t forget you can shoot them and make decent bucks? How about a crying need in the performing arts, too, for somebody who knows the ropes?

Well, that seemed a bit unrealistic. Besides, his career — thanks to her family — was enabled to flow in a more fulfilling direction.

~*~

Cassia’s father is essentially struggling to find the right places to deal with the public. In his case, his talent with a camera is part of the equation.

Have you ever been pictured in the newspaper? What was the occasion?

~*~

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this comedic figure from the province of Myrina (circa 330 BCE), based on a play by Menander. Unlike the Old Comedy Period, Meander wrote about everyday people, much in the style of a modern sitcom. It’s possible that this statue represents the character Knemon, from Menander’s play “The Grouch” (Dyskolos/Δύσκολος), Location: Louvre Museum, Paris. (Photo by Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Remembering radical politics

As Cassia examines her father’s photographs in my novel What’s Left, she sees his generation from a fresh perspective.

Here’s her impression before I greatly condensed it in the final story:

That evening, back in her apartment, we sit down with more of the photos.

What I sense now is an unfathomable well of aimless, restless energy on the verge of erupting. The tattered crowd’s seated on the ground for a rock concert. It mills about, waiting for something to happen or someone to appear. It walks en masse down a city street or country highway. It’s lovers clinging to each other in desperation and escape. It’s an angry look while puffing on a cigarette — or a pipe or roach. It’s shirtless, braless, sunburned, tangled. 

There’s the happy streak too — defiantly so. And the frenetic dance that could become a tarantella. If only it had been channeled! Directed into sustainable communities, given meaningful work, paid livable wages, engaged fully in public service.

Some powerful forces have run hard against us, Nita says grimly. They set out to destroy it before it overran them.

And?

We were scattered. Not that our causes ever ended. You know, the peace movement. Racial and sexual equality. Educational alternatives. Environment and earth-centered economics. Natural and organic foods, even glutten-free. Fitness, spirituality, music, art … it all continues. You just have to pay attention.

~*~

As the passage relates, many vital social concerns remain.

What would you like to see happen to society in the future?

~*~

In the family, Cassia may have had food like this. Fried eggplant (“small crabs”) from Τα καβουράκια restaurant in Agios, Georgios, Santorini. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

A few other Granite State bloggers

Coming up on my tenth year of blogging, I can say I’ve seen a lot of changes in the online practice and what’s being posted.

One of the joys, no doubt about it, is connecting with other bloggers in our shared interests.

I happen to live in a fairly small state, about a million and a half population, with the majority of them living in the Merrimack Valley in the lower middle third of the geography, or along the towns bordering Massachusetts or in the compact Seacoast region. In other words, most of the residents dwell in a connected swath that leaves the bulk of the state pretty rural.

It’s always fun to read blogs by others who post from nearby and often to weigh in with my own comments or to hear theirs.

By the way, I think every place feels special, or should. Take heart, wherever you are, and celebrate what’s worthy.

Gardening is big here, and the state has always had more than its share of poets. That could provide its own Tendrils listing.

As a sampling, here are ten other blogs from the Granite State. I have a feeling I’m missing some significant others that aren’t tagging the state – say people serializing their novel or focusing on poetry or some other topic. I’d like to hear about these in the comments.

Taa-taa:

  1. Gifts in Open Hands: Maren C. Mirabassi is a fine poet and retired United Church of Christ pastor, two labors she blends with a sensitive social conscience at this site. She writes from the Seacoast region.
  2. New Hampshire Garden Solutions: What started out as a gardening blog has morphed into an exploration of the natural world, focused in the southwestern corner of the state – the Monadnock region, mostly. The posts are typically a walk in the woods and detailed photos identifying the wildlife along the way. It’s like hiking with a truly knowledgeable naturalist.
  3. New England Garden and Thread: A Master Gardener (she’s passed the curriculum) and avid quilter, this grandmother roams far beyond the the planted beds and covered beds for her posts. Welcome to her world.
  4. New Hampshire Gardening: John Kittredge, a former environmental science teacher at Brookline High School, has been chronicling his garden work this year. This is serious.
  5. Protean Wanderer: The White Mountains fill much of the state. Here are reports on many of the great trails and mountain climbs, accompanied by photos. As you’ll discover, there are many fine choices to consider.
  6. Ink Link, Where All Things Manchester Connect: Carol Robideaux, one of my favorite reporters in the years I spent in the newsroom, has lately been covering the state’s Queen City on her own. In an era of struggling journalism, one person can make a difference.
  7. Milford Street: Photography by Christopher O’Keefe, who works from Manchester. Yes, here’s how it looks.
  8. A Life of Granite in New Hampshire: A native of Sri Lanka, Anura Garuge now posts prolifically from his adopted Granite State. I’m guessing he lives somewhere between Rochester and Laconia, meaning not too far from me, yet he captures a much different terroir.
  9. Why Pears: Ellen Garnett, a talented 24-year-old poet in Exeter, tends “this little rabbit hole” addressing “those peripheral items, ideas, emotions and stories that don’t always receive the attention they deserve.” As she says, it’s writing that tickles the mind.
  10. Ragged Good Looks: Technically not a New Hampshire blog, this one comes from across the state line in Kittery, Maine – what we sometimes think of as a Portsmouth suburb. I love the young artist-on-the-make vibe and daily realities. Besides, it’s just downstream from us.

One other I’ll mention is Isabel Povey, where a 17-year-old Pinkerton Academy beauty queen posts with all of the gushing exuberance you might expect, even in a Covid-restricted era. Yeah, her Seeds of Hope is mostly self-promotion, but I find it refreshing.

We bloggers aren’t all retirees or struggling arts and writers! Yay!

And then the state often pops up in posts by visiting bloggers. Have you ever been here?

Sustaining the teaching — and the teacher

Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.

He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.

As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:

I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.

The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:

For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.

But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:

More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.

As for her aunt Pia?

Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.

And then Cassia has more pressing matters:

Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.

Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.

The mountain?

There’s no avoiding it.

~*~

In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.

How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?

~*~

Tibetan Buddhist double-dorje emblem. To me, it looks almost Greek Orthodox.

~*~