By Cynthia Levinson. Peachtree Publishers, 2015. 216 pages. $22.95/hardcover. Recommended for ages 10 and up.
Messages in Quaker meetings are often Earth-bound and forgettable. But I remember Jim’s challenge from years ago. He described how élite military personnel train to parachute onto tiny roof spaces. Why, he asked, don’t Quakers train for peace with equivalent discipline, dedication, and precision? Cynthia Levinson’s fine book illustrates such training in the service of peaceful interaction within and between communities.
Two youth social circus teams—the St. Louis Arches, Missouri, and the Galilee Circus, Israel—were brought together through the vision and determination of their leaders Jessica Hentoff and Marc Rosenstein. The aim was “to replace fear with respect and opposition with trust, changing the world one acrobat, contortionist, and flyer at a time.” Nine young people are followed through nine years as they engage with not only circus skills but also many issues of race and religion, assumptions and emotions, failure and success.
Some problems were overcome with straightforward good sense. Hla Asadi chose to wear close-fitting, long-sleeved tops and tights under practice and performance costumes and a hijab. Other obstacles were less easily overcome, but the guiding message was about not giving up. Iking Bateman learnt self-discipline as he prepared to audition for a high-status circus school. This included contributing to menial chores and maintenance to demonstrate respect for the show. Iking said, “When people tell me the right thing, I be listening,” and was led “to change the way I look at life,” which is a good description of a message, whether to acrobats or Friends. Alex experienced her time in Israel as overtly spiritual, and felt blessed when she visited both Christian and Jewish sites.
The text is clear, the layout spacious, and there are many insertions of such information as a guide to Arabic and Hebrew pronunciation and a list of required skills for Arches acrobats. The book is generously illustrated with vivid color photographs of the young people and their home settings. Some pictures carry a “don’t try this at home” warning.
I recommend this book to individuals and meetings. I learned a great deal, enjoyed reading every word, and quickly came to care about the young people, feeling particular connections with some. It is fitting to end with Marc Rosenstein who said, “Circus will not bring peace to the Middle East, [it is] a drop in the bucket. But we hope the drops accumulate.” Friends may not be fit for spiritual roof-parachuting, but we can attend to Iking’s wisdom, Hla’s sensible fidelity to her beliefs, and Alex’s openness to experience a new light.
But let us avoid contortion.