Gardens and Graduates

I started my tomato plants indoors weeks ago, initially keeping them in the relative warmth and southern sunshine of a shelf in the window above the freezer in our laundry room. When they outgrew the laundry room, I jerry-rigged a clear-garbage-bag-incubator/greenhouse in the east window of the below-room-temperature upstairs bedroom. The geraniums were similarly situated in the west window by my art table.

Later, once the sunroom by the front door actually felt like a sunroom rather than a walk-in freezer, I put the tomatoes there during daylight hours, and shuffled them inside at night until the danger of freezing was past. Every time I checked, watered, or moved them, I’d run my hand through their leaves to simulate air movement and encourage them to strengthen their stems in resistance. They’d need this strong backbone to withstand the winds that cruise along the south side of the house where they would eventually spend the summer months.

Even with all my care to harden off the plants before finally transplanting them under a homemade wire-hoop-and-plastic “greenhouse,” they weren’t as resilient as I had hoped. The cool nights and early mornings weren’t a problem because of the insulating cover. Daytime exposure to direct sunlight sunburned a few tender topmost leaves, but nothing too concerning. I had even anticipated the prevailing west winds and put a stake on the east side of each of the tallest plants.

But one day a blustery wind whipped at the plastic cover and left the plants brutally exposed. All of the staked plants survived because they had the support needed to keep their still-strengthening stems from bending and breaking. Three of the shorter, un-staked plants were not so fortunate. The wind was too much for their untried youth. They bent and broke at the base of their stems.

I’ve since provided a stake for each of the remaining shorter plants.

Now, a few windy days later, all of the plants have developed thicker, hardy stems. Their roots have found purchase. They are established and growing. A few have even begun to form blossoms.

Ninety-two graduates “walked the stage” at my school last Friday. I fear that there are few of them whose stems are still too thin, too pliable and prone to easy bending and breaking. I wonder if they have the right support in the right places, supports they can lean into, supports that will hold fast. The winds of life can be gentle, but they can also become unrelenting storms. I hope that these young people have deep roots and sturdy supports. I hope their stems thicken, firm and strong and growing. I hope they don’t break. I hope — and pray. ▫️

On Writing & Encouragement

I teach high school English which means I also teach writing which is probably one of the most challenging parts of my job. I won’t dive into all the pedagogical strategies I’ve tried over the years, but I’d like to share one recent experience.

The grade 12 class had just finished first draft writing and I wanted them to engage in some careful revision. I gave them instructions for a peer-feedback process that required them to ask for specific feedback on two aspects of their draft. Each student had to have four “feedback -readers” (plus me, of course), and to be a feedback -reader for four of their classmates. As we were organizing this activity, one of the students randomly asked, “Mrs. Crandall, can I be your reader?”

The question caught me off-guard for a moment, but I did indeed have a piece I had started working on with the hope that I could submit it to an online magazine. I once mustered up enough courage to submit a poem to them and was honoured that they accepted it. That gave me courage to submit another poem for another issue, which was also accepted. But I had yet to find the ‘whatsit’ to submit a pitch for an article. I tried once, labouring over a piece for a month before deciding it simply wasn’t good enough.

So, after a short beat, I told the student, that yes, she could be my reader. To follow my own rules for the assignment, I needed three more readers. Hands shot up across the room. I gave the four students a draft version of the piece I was considering, broke my rules by identifying not two but three areas for feedback, and then set to work earnestly revising and refining what was originally a post here on my blog. The stakes had just been raised…

The deadline to submit the piece to the magazine came before my class deadline for feedback, so by the time the four students had added their comments, I had already written the pitch, attached the revised article that I hoped was sufficient, taken a deep breath, and hit the send button. Their feedback, however, was insightful, honest, earnest. I was impressed. While their comments didn’t really have any impact on what I submitted, their willingness to engage with me made all the difference in actually making the submission.

Writing is hard work. Writing is vulnerable. But writing is also how many of us process life and sometimes we just need a little encouragement to keep putting words on paper or online or in other people’s hands. My students gave me a gift of encouragement, and I try to do the same for them and their words.

And those students, bless their hearts, were more excited and less surprised than I was when the article was accepted by Fathom Mag for publication in their recent issue on “Margin.”

☕️ Facing Hard Things

A Saturday Caesura

A new week began like most weeks do. The previous week with all of its ups downs and all arounds was, for better or worse, done. So here was this new week and you were grateful for the fresh scent of it, for the whiffs of promise wafting by on the first minutes and hours.

And then SLAM BANG BAM, you were flattened by a Very Hard Thing. Maybe you knew it was lurking in the shadows but hoped that ignoring it would make it go away. Maybe you saw it coming, but your last battle with a Hard Thing left you worn out and ill-equipped for this new Thing. Or maybe it wasn’t really a new Thing, just an old one returned to reclaim ground. Or conquer more ground. Maybe you didn’t suspect that this Very Hard Thing would ever exist in your life. And yet there you were, flat on your face, gut-wrenched, drenched in fear and despair. There were other emotions, too, but separating them from the messy mass enough to name them was an exercise for a calm and ordered mind, which of course, yours was not.

Too many people I know have been bowled over by Hard Things recently. While outwardly, hands, feet, whole bodies continued to propel through the Necessary Things, internal chaos churned and choked out hope and joy and purpose. Hard Things are…well, hard, even though their appearance, their weapons, their power are different for each of us.

I can’t tell others how to face their Hard Things, but I do know that Hard Things can be toppled over and stripped of their strength by prayer. I know this can sound like a pat answer dripping with “Christian-eze” and religious platitudes, but my lived experience keeps bringing me back to prayerful surrender to the God who knows All Things, has faced Very Very Hard Things on my behalf, and invites me to trust and rest in him for Every Thing.

It was through prayer that the Hard Thing of my week was replaced by a gentle and generous grace. Inner chaos settled into a quiet fatigue, then restful peace, and finally, gratitude and growth. Do I feel victorious? No, not really. But I do feel loved and seen and known and sustained. Sola Gratia.

☕️ Here

A Saturday Caesura Poem

Two grain bins, weathered and warped,
squat behind a mess of caragana
as if ashamed of their gaping uselessness.
But as I walk past on a Saturday,
or any day,
their silent presence becomes a friendship
in the midst of fields stretched wide. Empty
except here, where the aging bins
are serenaded by a small chorus of redpolls,
their soft symphonies celebrate a camaraderie
expansive enough to embrace even me.

☕️ On Wind and Weariness

A Saturday Caesura

Wind weary we are. When normal prairie winds brush across the land, we put on a hat or tie our hair back and get on with life. But when big weather systems start jousting for territory, winds become aggressive, blasting, relentless. And we become weary. Weary of the moaning and blowing, of the whip and lash of hats and hair and jackets and snow and branches and shingles and siding. And our wind-weariness bleeds into our other weariness of all the Stuff and Crazy and Chaos, and we just want the only wind to be the quiet, steady breathing of our world and our lives at rest.

So when we are weary, what do we do? How do the windblown walk without listing and faltering? How do we, the world-weary, live without being torn from our roots and flapping twisting breaking crashing?

We keep showing up.

We keep doing what matters, even if it feels ragged and frayed. The doing becomes more than itself. When we keep creating and working and learning and praying and loving and caring, our roots find purchase in deeper soil. When we keep showing up for each other, our words of respect and encouragement become sturdy windbreaks behind which beauty and grace can flourish. We can breathe here, together.

So here’s my advice to myself at the end of a wind-weary week: when everything is big and blustery, find the small and calm. Show up there. Enlarge those borders where you can. And if you can’t enlarge, fortify. Small doesn’t have to become big, but it does need to be wind-resistant. ▫️

☕️ Contented Longing

A Saturday Caesura

Another winter storm blew through and returned the snow that a chinook licked up last week. The landscape is smooth and soft and clean again, which feels more February-ish than puddles, half-frozen mud, and patches of gravel. I bought more bird seed the other day because of the new snow, but couldn’t resist buying a few packages of garden seeds because part of me is beginning to yearn for spring. Another part of me just wants to soak in the pristine white fields and cerulean blue skies forever. Don’t leave me just yet, I want to tell them. But then, I can’t wait to start the geraniums soon, and then the tomatoes and peppers, and hello Green, I’m so glad you’re back.

Life exists in this tension between yearning and contentment. Sometimes I forget that I can feel both at the same time and this is okay. I can know both great joy and deep sorrow in the same moment. I can disagree with someone and still love them. I can experience solitude without resenting the loneliness of it. I can enjoy the job that often exhausts me. I can engage fully with a beautiful and broken world and yet cry with all my heart, even so, come Lord Jesus.

🎁 When a gift changes things

A Jots & Doodles Update

As a teacher, I often receive gifts from students: Starbucks cards and chocolates and homemade cookies and tea (they know better than to buy me coffee!). I appreciate these thoughtful expressions of their appreciation. This year I received some book gifts — one was a novel a student enjoyed so much that she gave me her copy with all her favourite passages marked. What a treat! Another student gave me a book full of empty pages designed for me to fill. It is called The Daily Sketch Journal and I have been enjoying it immensely. So far I haven’t missed a day, which can be a challenge when school planning and marking duties lurk throughout each evening. Sketching slows my mind. Writing stimulates it. And that is why I incorporated the two of them together in my zine Jots & Doodles.

The Daily Sketch Journal has changed some things for me. One of them is having time to compile issues of Jots & Doodles. So I have decided to set that aside for this year. I’m hoping that a year of daily sketching will provide ample material for future issues, although I do need to find a more effective way to replicate the images so that they are better quality for printing. I’m working on a solution to that problem.

So, for this year I will be sketching every day and writing weekly here, usually in the form of Saturday Caesura musings but certainly not limited to that format. I’ll try to give a peek into the sketch book from time-to-time, just so you know I’m keeping up with it (and to hold myself accountable!) I am grateful for all who have wandered to this space and expressed appreciation for what you have found here.

Thank you.

☕️ Semester New Year Reflections

A Saturday Caesura

February is like a second new year for some teachers: old semester done, new semester begun. Fresh starts, new students, and resolutions in the form of course outlines and long-range plans. Even as I anticipate Monday’s new classes, there is a lingering sadness with the realization that in spite of the connections I make, when students complete my courses (grade 12 in particular), they will move on. The hours with them — learning, laughing, struggling, growing — will be a small blip (if that) on the radar screen of their years. Memories will fade as life continues its pace. They leave; I stay.

Yes, I know that teaching is, for the most part, a short-term relationship gig, but I still feel a particular emptiness at semester-end and at graduation.

In many ways, life is comprised of these come-and-go relationships. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but sometimes I wonder if we abandon some relationships too easily. When the “things” that bring us together to begin with — school, church, work, family, activities, interests — are removed or fractured or worn out or burned out, what happens to us? Do we pretend we never knew each other? Exchange pleasantries when we meet in the grocery store aisle? Become Facebook friends and peek into each other’s lives from time-to-time? Maintain a manageable distance through friendly but guarded conversations? Or do we seek new connections that move us beyond that initial “thing”? Do we fight through the change, distance, absence, or inconvenience to live as if this relationship still matters?

Yes, I know that relationships take time and energy and most (all?) of us are parsimonious about how we allocate those resources. Yes, I know that some relationships need to end, and some are necessary but can only hold together because of a healthy distance. For most of us though, such situations aren’t the norm. Most of us, I suspect, just slide through our relationships on the path of least resistance. I know I often do.

But I also know that every relationship — fleeting or long-lasting, easy or hard — contributes to the larger story of our lives. And part of that larger story for me is that several young people I know and care about have transitioned from student to friend. I stayed, but they came back. We developed relationships built on something other than school: common interests, mutual encouragement, similar losses and griefs, a shared faith. And really, isn’t this what makes and sustains friendships and relationships at any level or age? It isn’t about convenience; it’s about forging connections through all the changes that inevitably come. It’s about saying that we matter to each other in ways that are worth preserving. It’s about living love.

So at this Semester New Year, I’m rethinking how I approach relationships, and not just those that arise from classroom connections. Maybe there’s a few that I haven’t fought hard enough to hold on to. Maybe there’s a few that I have fought for but need to keep doing so even when it is hard and I’m tempted to not bother anymore. Maybe I’ve written former friendships off without fully recognizing the ways that even these “short-string” friends still impact me (you’d have to have been in one of my classes to fully understand the string reference, but I’m sure you can figure it out). There’s no “maybe” about this though: the friendships I do have are a treasure and a gift, a grace and a joy.