Spiritual Hospitality

Recently, a friend wrote an online piece about her personal decision to stop watching a popular television show. The response to her essay was swift and defensive: while a few folks actually engaged with her piece, most of them were so offended that they wrote derogatory responses in the comment section, telling her to "lighten up" and "suck it up, princess."

When a few of our friends talked with her about it afterwards, the discussion turned to listening. I made the remark that many of those commenters weren't actually hearing what she said but were reacting defensively, as if my friend had poked them and they were swatting her hand away.

Our wise theologian friend Kelley noted that part of mindfulness is learning the practice of waiting a few moments before we react to what someone has said. True listening means opening ourselves to others instead of biting back, hearing their stories instead of nurturing our own hurts and aches.

As I sat down to read Henri Nouwen's daily devotional book Bread for the Journey, I was delighted that his message flowed right into the midst of our conversation. I love it when that happens. Nouwen says that listening is so important that is it a Spiritual Hospitality.

"To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept."

I had to reread this passage to let it seep in. When we truly listen to others, we aren't eager to justify ourselves, our existence or our opinions. Instead, we are "free," yes, liberated to welcome what others have to say or express.

I don't know about you but that seems nearly impossible to do. Many times, when I react defensively to a comment or critique someone has made to me, it's because I have already felt the truth of it in my own heart. Hearing another express concerns, thoughts, and feelings, especially when they seem to contradict what I feel and believe is so difficult.

I didn't get the whole picture until I read the next day's passage in Nouwen's book. It turns out that this "interior stability" which we draw from is not our own inner strength. Instead, Nouwen says, it is not ourselves but the Spirit which "creates in us a sacred space where the other can be received and listened to."

When I read Nouwen's words, I don't solely think of this as a message for those negative commenters to hear. The truth is, this is a message for me, a daily, even hourly, reminder that all the people in my life need to be listened to.

Not long after my friend's piece went online, I decided to write a comment of my own. I wanted to defend her, to scream at those rude commenters and bite back. I wonder now if I shouldn't have said anything at all. Because the truth is, those commenters have stories too that need to be heard. I wonder that many of them are writing from a place of loneliness, searching for a connection, even if it is online. Many of them are reacting out of their own pain and grief. Is my small comment, meant to defend my friend, only another way to dismiss others as unheard?

As with many lessons, the learning starts in the smallest, most intimate ways. Many days, amidst the bustle of morning school routines, my children leave for the day, rushed and unheard.

As my son crawls into my lap while I type, I feel the urge to stop, to hold and rock him. I am starting at home, showing this kind of hearing hospitality to my children.

 

The Worst Church Advertisement

A post for Good Letters blog


I don’t mean to brag, but I attend your ideal church.

If you’re a millennial or a 30-something interested in social justice and dissatisfied with your tradition, your suburban congregation, or your mega-church, and feeling a bit None-ish, then I have the church for you.

What’s on your list of descriptors for the perfect congregation, you social justice-y-leaning, about-to-give-up-on-church looker?

Local community oriented?

Guess, what? I walk to church. And we are hyper-community oriented; we are an intentional community. I think you might like that we’re a little bit radical. We actually live on the same property together!

Authentic?

We provide a space where people allow themselves and others to be vulnerable. There are no fakers here. Just real folks sharing their lives and showing you who they really are.

We are an intergenerational group from ages one to eighty.

Socially concerned?

Yep, most Sundays, we pray for peace in the world, for refugees, for both sides in war-torn regions. We even pray for our enemies!

Kid-friendly?

My seven-year-old daughter reads scripture during worship. My one-year-old toddles through the middle of the circled gathering. It’s not unusual for one of the younger kids to shout out commentary of the scripture or a song. We aren’t fussy and we expect that children will clap their hands and make noise. Sometimes—gulp—we even choreograph a dance for them.

A different kind of leadership and worship style?

We are a lay-led congregation. There are no microphones or stages. Our circular gathering makes it less important who is leading; we don’t mind if you’re a man or a woman, if you’re single or married, young or old, just as long as you are willing to serve. Until recently we used an overhead projector from the nineties for song lyrics. The sheen of worship doesn’t overpower the realness of people. And even with all of this, we still follow the lectionary. We’re kind of a low church with a dash of high church.

Doesn’t it sound great? You’re more than welcome to come for a visit. But just a word of caution: Once you get here, you might want to leave.

Keep reading over at Good Letters

Music for the Mystics

Here are five albums that have become the soundtrack of my reading and wrestling with the Christian mystics.

1. Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel  Song: Every Single Night

I’ve loved Fiona Apple for years. She seems to teeter on the edge of both sanity and genius, something I can relate to (except for the genius part). Though I’m pretty certain she’s not a Christian and I don’t know if she even believes in God, she's an appropriate addition to mystic listening when you realize that the mystics themselves often lived at the edges of society, the church, their own intelligence and, yes, sanity. I can almost hear a secular Margery Kempe singing:

Every single night/ I endure the flight/Of little white-flamed/Butterflies in my brain/These ideas of mine/Percolate the mind/Trickle down the spine/Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze/That's when the pain comes in/Like a second skeleton/Trying to fit beneath the skin/I can't fit the feelings in/Every single night's alight with my brain

I can't fit the feelings in sometimes too, Fiona.

2. The Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles, Angels and Saints at Ephesus

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I first discovered these Sisters when looking for some music for Advent. Their album Advent at Ephesus captured me from the first line. What better music to listen to when reading and writing about the ancient mystics and saints than these Sisters, whose tight acapella harmonies have the ability to transport me to a convent in the 14th century. They say on their website that because their call is to “emulate Our Lady in her final, hidden years,” they “cannot preach the Gospel to the nations nor bring the Lord to our tabernacles.” I disagree. They are preaching the beauty of the Gospel in every note.

3. Sufjan Stevens, Carrie and Lowell, Song: John my Beloved

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There is a reason this album has been on so many lists of “favorites” in the past year. Sufjan is himself on the edge. A professed Christian who writes about subjects that many Christians would shy away from, Sufjan often plunges hard into the distressing depths of confession. In this song, he echoes many of the mystics for whom the cry is “Lord have mercy on me a sinner.”

I am a man with a heart that offends with its lonely and greedy demands/                                         There's only a shadow of me; in a manner of speaking I'm dead

4. John Micheal Talbot’s The Lord’s supper, Song: We shall be forgiven:

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“Lord, have mercy.”

Talbot, a Catholic musician, started an intentional monastic community in the 1970s and writes about my beloved St. Francis. This record is a glorious celebration of the Eucharist, in its beautiful Catholic hippie way. I am not the best judge of whether or not this 1979 album has stood the test of time; Its opening cello in “Prelude,” with a deep lament that echoes in the ribs, is the soundtrack of my childhood. When I listen to this record, I can almost feel the shag carpet beneath my back as I stretched out near my father’s desk, the soft scratching of the record accompanying my contemplation of the deep, angsty feelings it elicited in my elementary aged self. 

5. My brightest diamond, All Things Will Unwind, Song: We added it up:

I hear a quieter voice/and it says Love binds the world/Love binds the world/forever and ever and ever, Love binds the world.

In singer Shara Worden’s lyrics, I can hear echoes of Julian of Norwich, speaking in that quieter voice, a truth that was revealed to her in Revelations of divine love: “And at the same time that I saw this bodily sight, our Lord showed me a spiritual vision of his familiar love...He is our clothing, wrapping and enveloping us for love, embracing us and guiding us in all things, hanging about us in tender love, so that he can never leave us.”

Love binds the world indeed.



Listening to Simone

A post for Good Letters


The woman stands in the entryway of our common building just before Sunday worship begins. It’s not a sightly place, but it has every necessity for common intentional community life: a kitchen, a large meeting space, tables and chairs for worship and meals, a bathroom and a prayer room.

At first, the woman seems to fit right in with our unfussy crew: round spectacles, hair in a frizzy bob, a shapeless dress, oversized shoes. I immediately feel an affinity with her.

But I am also wary of her. Something tells me that she has intentionally obliterated anything outwardly lovely in her appearance. This both draws me in and annoys me.

Because I think I know her type. They come through intentional community sometimes: idealistic, stringent in their belief system, radically unusual in their dress. Community hoppers who bounce from church to church, intentional community to community, never satisfied with what they find and always criticizing. Not one of those again, I sigh.

Read the rest at Good Letters--an Image Journal blog

Powerless

A post for Circling the Story

Mid-way between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, an ice storm knocks out our power.

With an unseasonably warm season, this blast of icy weather has reminded me that we live in the Midwest and it is indeed winter. Our apartment, in a building we share with two other families on a farm, sits only yards from our pigs, chickens, cows, and a large community garden. The well that supplies our drinking and flushing water and the water for all the animals depends on electricity to run.

As I get cozy with my three children on the couch, we have no idea that we are only at the beginning of two and a half days without water, heat, a stove, or, gasp, the internet.

My two older children and I make a fun afternoon of it, reading and swapping books. When evening comes and the power is still out, my husband grabs his camping stove from the basement. We have a dinner of reheated turkey soup by candlelight and headlamp.

As we enjoy the momentary romance of a simpler evening, our parent-child conversations are predictable.

Did you know that when my grandparents grew up on a farm, they didn’t have any electricity?

They didn’t even have indoor toilets. Or washing machines. Or movies! They had to make their own music.

Won’t we be thankful when the power comes on tomorrow?

But the next morning, the lights are still off. The house is 50 degrees. The unflushed toilet has begun to stink.

Read the rest over at Circling the Story...

God of the Mundane

A post for Mudroom blog:

The contemplatives often write that God is revealed in the mundane, that in my laundry, my dishes, my baby’s diapers, and in the liturgical, repetitive tasks of my day there are opportunities to find the God who incarnated small and humble. But there are mornings when just getting out of bed to perform those daily duties seems too much to bear.

Instead of seeking God in the minutiae of my life, I would much prefer to have a more powerful sense of God. When my hands are elbow-deep in the dregs of rinse water, I would rather have a vision of God in the way of Teresa of Avila, who saw the soul as a castle.

Can’t my soul be a fairy castle, please?     

Read the rest of God of the mundane at The Mudroom

Favorite Acts of Beauty: Volume 2

I'm linking up today with Leigh Kramer's "What I'm Into." Visit her page and read some of the other link ups. Heck, do your own if you're so inclined.

What I'm Into

Books

For some reason, I had trouble finishing a single book in November. Well, there actually is a reason: I've been reading bits of so many books that I haven't finished any of them. I nearly finished one but it was on December 1st. I'm going to count it anyway.

The one book I finished:

Between the world and me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

As Toni Morrison says, "this is required reading." Winner of the 2015 National Book Award, this is a letter to Coates' teenage son. But really, it's a heartbreaking, gut-wrenching, eye-opening (can I say any more cliche book review words?) look at Coates life growing up in Baltimore, and what his experience, parentage, history, and education have shown him about "a systemized, ubiquitous threat to 'black bodies' in the form of slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration." (Jon Foro) Those who have wondered why so many are so heartbroken about the many recent killings of African Americans by the police should read this. I don't have anything clever to say about it because I think I just need to listen instead.

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Other books

I'm usually a fiction kind of a girl. But I've been on a Saint kick lately. Can you be on a Saint kick? I think so. It's a bit like a food craze except it's a lot healthier for you.

What led me to the saints? Well, really, it was the coloring pages my daughter brought home from school and possibly a garden statue.

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I'll explain.

My 1st grader goes to a Catholic School. We are not Catholic. We didn't grow up Catholic. But I love the Catholics. And I'm growing to love their saints. When my daughter brought home a coloring page for the celebration of Therese de Lisieux, the "little saint," I was hooked. What a lovely celebration of the minutea, of the small life, of the little flowers that are at the back of garden. After that, I found an old wooden statue of St Francis in my grandmother's garden (we were cleaning out her home) and I adopted him, both as a garden ornament and as my patron saint.

In that vein, I wrote a piece at Good Letters, an Image Journal blog about trying to be a mystic and a mom. Spoiler alert: it's not going well.

But still, I press on. Here are the saints and mystics I am reading about. I'm not promising to finish all of them: sometimes they can be a bit tedious. After all, they didn't have anything else to do right?*

Francis of Assisi: the Essential Writings by Jon M. Sweeney

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Waiting for God by Simone Weil

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The Interior Castle by St Theresa of Avila

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*Just kidding. I know the saints did a lot of stuff like nursing lepers, pilgrimages, preaching naked (St. Francis at least). And depriving yourself of food takes away a lot of your energy too.

TV

We don't watch much around here. Not from any moral stance but really, the only free moments for TV are at bedtime. And then, we just fall asleep. Having said that, my husband and I can usually sneak in one or two episodes of our recent favorite British import:

Doc Martin

I've read the terms "socially awkward," "socially inept," and "rude" to describe the brilliant surgeon who's sudden fear of blood leads him to a small coastal town where he becomes the GP (General Practitioner) and encounters all manner of quirky but well-meaning locals. But really, my favorite term is "dyspeptic." Not sure what it means but the word sounds like a belch. Doc Martin would be disgusted.

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Music

Sara Groves' album "Floodplain": can't say enough about this album which covers depression, anxiety, children growing up, marriage, doubts, second guessing, and more.

The Liturgists' "Oh Light": The Liturgists are a collection of many artists but this particular song is sung by the members of the band Gungor. A welcome addition to the small selection of albums just for Advent.

Judy Collins' (feat Willie Nelson) "When I go": seriously, listen to it. It's beautiful.

Year End Favorites

Year-end lists are fashionable among my writerly friends. So, I thought in my free moments, I would add my own small voice to the fray. Here are my top five in two categories:

Music

1. Advent song: Amanda Palmer's version of The Angel Gabriel

I'm not a fan of Amanda Palmer. Don't get me wrong; it's not that I actively dislike her, I just don't know much of her music. From what I have listened to though, she's less of a singer and more of an artist. Her voice is shaky and deep, which works for a certain style but not usually for choral hymns. However, her version of The Angel Gabriel is haunting and hypnotic and reminiscent of the chanting of medieval monks.

I do find Palmer interesting. Her TEDtalk was inspiring and her art is weird and, like this hymn, fascinating. Plus, her husband, Neil Gaiman has written some of my favorite books. The pair of them are equally weird and wonderful.

2. Worship music: All the Poor and Powerless by All Sons and Daughters

I used to loathe most worship music played on the radio. And truthfully, I still find most of it too saccharin and unchallenging to be worth my time. But I discovered All Sons and Daughters while working on leading a worship service with a friend.

3. Alternative: Shovels and Rope: The Devil's All Around

I heard this unusual married duo on an NPR interview. It's just the two of them, pounding on drums and a guitar about as hard as they pound out their voices.

4. Throwback Country: Randy Travis' Deeper than the Holler

My husband and I were listening to a Pandora station recently and discovered our mutual love of 90s country music: Trisha Yearwood, Randy Travis, Martina McBride, and Deana Carter. These folks sang the soundtrack of our high school days. And how can you resist listening to this classic love song, sung loud with your husband about how our love is "longer than the song of the whippoorwill?"

5. Folk rock: The Staves' Dead & Born & Grown

I love this entire album from a trio of English sisters. Their harmonies bring me back to singing hymns with my own two sisters.

Books (in no particular order)

1. Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

3. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

4. Rae Carson's Fire and Thorns Trilogy (see Karissa Know Sorrell's reflection on this YA fantasy with a strong heroine)

5. Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys Quartet (though only three are out so far)

6. Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache mysteries beginning with Still Life

7. Sara Zarr's Story of a Girl

9. Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark

10. Tamora Pierce's Lioness Rampant

and one to grow on...

11. Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell

The banging gong: a contribution to Second Simplicity

Recently, I got to participate in my friend Amy Peterson's blog series called Second Simplicity. For Amy's description of the series, head over here. I decided to write about one of many theology/life-altering times in my life: this one was particularly scary at the time. As Amy described it, "How do you welcome the stranger when the stranger is a pathological liar?" This was the beginning of a realization for me: I don't know how to love the way I should.

The banging gong 

James* came bounding through the heavy wooden door of the common building right before church one Sunday morning in the middle of the growing season. With his stained teeth, bleached hair, and funky floral shirt, he appeared to be an ex-hippie, a recovering addict, or both. He had the personality of an enthusiast, one who loves people, loves storytelling, and seems to love it when people love him back. In our small Mennonite intentional community, where we are nourished by hospitality to the stranger, one extra was noticeable and welcome.

That first Sunday, James felt free to chime in during teaching, offering up examples from his own life of working with the homeless and growing up in an Amish community. His stories were fascinating and foreign: divorced parents who left the Amish, several siblings who had ended up in strange messianic cults, a son from a previous relationship, a radio show where he interviewed the likes of Jennifer Knapp.

James spent his days helping on the farm with my husband.  We welcomed him into our home for meals. My husband lent James his old computer to use in the apartment he was staying in up the hill.  He read to our children and talked about his own young son from a divorce.  He talked about his upbringing in an Amish community and answered our questions about the quirks of such a life.

A few things were odd. James said he was keeping a blog about his time here and when I found it online, he had posted pictures of actual Amish folks, claiming he was ministering to the folks at our community (the folks in our community do not dress like the Amish or Old Order Mennonites). When my husband confronted him about the lie, James was quick to say that he and his editor had miscommunicated and it would be fixed. I didn’t believe him but we’d become so accustomed to odd ducks in this intentional community that we forgave a few white lies...

Read the rest at Amy's blog.

YA Blog series: On Rites of Passage by C.F. LAPINEL

I have known C.F. Lapinel for many years. We made it through grad school together, huddled in pubs and coffee shops during winter, hunkering down to write from our imaginations about odd children who lived in worlds of make-believe and fantasy. I've always appreciated not only his "childlike mind," his boundless imagination, and his ability to craft a complex and beautiful sentence, but also his kindness and compassion. One day, I hope to see his YA novel of three sisters sitting on a bookstore shelf. 

You can read more of his writing at bluestonescribe.com and follow him on twitter at @BluestoneScribe

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“All grown-ups were once children... but only few of them remember it.”

― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

A distant acquaintance reminded me recently: “Some minds work overtime to make sense of their world...” He was telling me, I think, that I have something of a childlike mind, something I've always been glad to see not only in myself but in others. It’s true that some minds do work overtime. And this is just what young-adult fiction helps us do: make sense of our world. Iʼd even argue that the more skeptical the mind, the more relevant young-adult literature becomes, for we need just such tools to learn to navigate the often bewildering world in which we live.

In ancient times, people practiced rites-of-passage more commonly than we do now; at least in the formal, recognizable sense. When the village elders split these young-adults-to-be into groups and readied them, this activity engaged the whole community. Parents participated as well as non-parents, particularly if the non-parents were extended family; and most everybody in a tribal community would have been extended family.

These rites had relevance to everyone, young and old alike.

For the adults, Iʼd hazard a guess that something psychologically complex occurred. To periodically prepare (and observe) a new generation facing the same rite they too experienced in youth would be an opportunity to revisit old emotions and compare them with present thoughts and emotions. Memories of the focused fear and excitement upon entering the mysterious rite would have become diffused with age, distilled into a more settled, perhaps jaded, understanding of what life in the village truly required, in relationship with the raw, majestic power of the natural world. I would assume that the inevitable evaluation, or re-evaluation, of the village mythology would result in reaffirming or else challenging faith in the community.*

There is no great leap of logic required to see young-adult literature as the modern descendant of these ancient rites. The painful and humiliating experience of those rites endured by our once youthful ancestors is now communicated to youth in literature, tasking them to imagine themselves as archetypal protagonists. When we were young, what were our brains doing as we consumed books like The Hobbit,The Wind in the Willows,Grimm's Fairy Tales, and The Outsiders? What do our brains do now as we revisit them?

Aren't we just as much Huckleberry Finn, each of us, as a Harry Potter, or a Nancy Drew as we ever were? And weren't these characters once known as Anansi, Odysseus, or Ishtar?

Every time we reread these stories we learn something altogether new. These stories recount our ancestral fear and ignorance; remind us of our thirst for discovery, identity, and power; and describe the responsibility we must take for what Voltaire called "our little garden".

If however we don't know the old stories or even the newest ones, like Percy Jackson & the Olympians, we have a responsibility to learn them. By actively participating in and encouraging young-adult literature, we are behaving like responsible gatekeepers for our community, encountering ourselves and others in relationships. We are choosing to reaffirm faith in the community or challenge it, based on whether we wish our children to share the experience we had or not.

In so doing, we are testing the cycle of identity, the cycle of the self, of who we have become, both as individuals and as a wider community. Do we break the cycle, as it exists, or do we recommit and affirm the values of the community? Are we truly behaving in a responsible way? Are we facing our fears, surmounting our obstacles, embracing life? Or has something gone wrong?

Hal Borland, a well-known American columnist also wrote the young-adult novel When the Legends Die about a native-American hero named Tom who rediscovers his roots. I love Hal Borland. His writing is spare and ethereal. He was perhaps best known for his nature column in the The New York Times, which he maintained until his death in 1978. The dominant theme of When the Legends Die is self-discovery in the midst of social decay. Tom Blackbull is a young Ute tribesman in early 20th century America. Told with with grim grace, Borland's tale follows Tom from early childhood in the wilderness, where he loses his parents George and Bessie, into adulthood as he struggles to come to terms with modern life, a life that does not offer him a welcoming place. Tom’s conflicted attitude toward his ethnic heritage reflects in both his self-esteem and the choices he'll make throughout. Should he accept the fractured, defeated identity that awaits him on the reservation? Or should he embrace the life his mother taught him in the wilderness?

Once more he slept, and dreamed, and he was alone, walking over the earth in the night. He came to a mountain and he said, “I have forgotten who I am.” There was no answer. He said, “I was the boy who went with Blue Elk and did what he said I must do.” Again there was no answer. “I went with Red Dillon and did what he said I must do.” Still there was no answer. “I killed as they taught me to kill!” he cried.And at last the mountain's voice asked, “Why?” -Hal Borland, When the Legends Die

There is an elegiac tone to the work. This stems from the omnipresent feeling that the cultural identity that Tom must choose is ultimately futile. His is a culture in decline, rapidly decaying and taking it's few remaining people with it. Whoever he becomes cannot be passed. Who he is will end with him. In Tom’s world, when legends die so too finally dies all of his ancestors, their souls lost to oblivion. And through Tom's inimitable struggle, some alienated young-adults and a few of us old scrappers may also feel that oblivion rising over us. How did we handle the crisis? Will we be more or less successful next time? In a classic book like this one, you might 'find' yourself.

*For more on these rites and descriptions of different types practiced around the world in various ages, including our own, please read Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces or Sir James Frazier's classic The Golden Bough. These are two excellent and illuminating works in this regard.

YA blog series: Amy Peterson's take on Eleanor & Park

I'm honored to share Amy Peterson's contribution to this series about a YA book that she isn't embarrassed to read. I'm honored because, among other things, Amy is incredibly well-read, a killer writer, a great editor, and a gracious friend. Her writing is distinguished by clarity of thought, beautiful metaphors, and sharp wit.  Amy Peterson teaches ESL and works with the Honors Guild at Taylor University. Follow her on twitter and read more at her blog.

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My favorite scene in Eleanor & Park takes place in the title characters’ English class.  Eleanor is explaining to her teacher why she doesn’t care that Romeo and Juliet die.

“I just don’t think it’s a tragedy.”

“It’s the tragedy,” Mr. Stessman said.

She rolled her eyes.  She was wearing two or three necklaces, old fake pearls, like Park’s grandmother wore to church, and she twisted them while she talked. “But he’s so obviously making fun of them,” she said.

“Who is?”

“Shakespeare.”

“Do tell…”

She rolled her eyes again.  She knew Mr. Stessman’s game by now.  “Romeo and Juliet are just two rich kids who’ve always gotten every little thing they want. And now, they think they want each other.”

“They’re in love,” Mr. Stessman said, clutching his heart.

“They don’t even know each other,” she said.

“It was love at first sight.”

“It was ‘Oh my God, he’s so cute’ at first sight.  If Shakespeare wanted you to believe they were in love, he wouldn’t tell you in almost the very first scene that Romeo was hung up on Rosaline… It’s Shakespeare making fun of love,” she said.

“Then why has it survived?”

“I don’t know, because Shakespeare is a really good writer?”

“No!” Mr. Stessman said. “Someone else, someone with a heart. Mr. Sheridan, what beats in your chest? Tell us, why has Romeo and Juliet survived four hundred years?”

Park hated talking in class.  Eleanor frowned at him, then looked away.  He felt himself blush.

“Because…” he said quietly, looking at his desk, “because people want to remember what it’s like to be young? And in love?”

 

This scene delighted me because I felt the author, Rainbow Rowell, winking at me in it.  See, she said, I know I’m writing a book about teenagers in love.  I know there is something eye-rolling about teenagers in love. But there is also something essential about what it means to be human in it. This is the kind of story that helps us understand what it means to be human.

I was reading the book over the summer, pleasure reading in a well-balanced diet of summer pleasure reading which included Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer; Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo; The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon; More Than Conquerors by Megan Hustad; and Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen. In other words, along with YA, I was reading literary novels, middle grade fiction, literary nonfiction, and memoir.

Around the same time, Slate published Ruth Graham’s article “Against YA” (yeah, I’m not going to link to this nonsense).  I rolled my eyes as I read it - and, according to the article, if something makes you roll your eyes and say “Oh brother,” it’s a sign that it’s not worth reading.  So I rolled my eyes and thought, “Ok, so the movie version of TFiOS is coming out, and Graham was trying to think of an article to pitch about that, and she thought, “I know what would get a lot of page-views: criticizing YA!” I rolled my eyes, but apparently it lit a fire.

The article’s argument is kind of all over the place, first claiming that “adults should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children,” then following that with caveats and disclaimers and whining. It’s not really worth going into, except for this - Graham mentions Romeo and Juliet, too.  It’s ok for teenagers to be the subjects of our stories, she says, like they are in R&J -- the problem with YA is two fold: 1) “it presents the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way” and 2) “these books indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple.  YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction. These endings are for readers who prefer things to be wrapped up neatly, our heroes married or dead or happily grasping hands, looking to the future.”

Taking these two criteria into consideration, it’s Eleanor & Park that emerges as the more serious work of literature, not Romeo & Juliet.  E&P has just as self-aware of a perspective on what it means to be a teenager in love as R&J does, but  -- spoiler -- a more complex ending!  It’s R&J that has a neatly wrapped-up conclusion, the heroes dead.  E&P’s ending is ambiguous - the very thing Ruth Graham praises about adult literature!

Ruth Graham concludes “Against YA” talking about all that she learned “about love, relationships, sex, trauma, happiness, and all the rest—you know, life”  from the literary fiction she’s read.  But of all the books I read this summer, Eleanor and Park is probably the one that has made me think most about my life: about classism, racism, the way that art builds bridges between disparate people, how strong teenagers have to be to survive sometimes, the way a community should care for children when parents can’t or won’t, and the kinds of relationships that bring healing even when they don’t last forever.

Six months later, I’m still thinking about this book, remembering its smart writing (when Eleanor describes a tall, popular bully as a probably a “descendant of the Nephilim,” I snorted my coffee and texted my T.A. about it) and evocative descriptions. I’m still talking with my adult friends about it, talking about how, reading it, I realized that the girl I idolized for her free-spirited style in highschool was probably, like Eleanor, actually just poor -- “That was me in highschool, too,” my friend says, “wearing eccentric vintage clothes because I got them free, not because I was a free spirit.”

Being embarrassed of reading Twilight is one thing.  But if you’re don’t pick up Eleanor and Park because you’re too embarrassed to be reading YA, then you’re missing a story as classic and moving as - and perhaps even more complex, gritty and realistic than - Romeo and Juliet. You’re missing out.