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.”

☕️ 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. ▫️

Reclaiming the Kitchen Table

I just did a search on Pinterest for kitchen tables. No shortage of images here – everything from rustic worn farmhouse tables (totally ‘in’ right now) to elegantly decorated masterpieces (seasonally appropriate, of course) to instructions on how to paint, build, refurbish, or repurpose them as flowerbeds or doormats – well, maybe not those last two, but you know Pinterest – it’s not impossible.

NOT ONE of these images included any people at the tables.  I found that profoundly interesting.

I have recently had two very un-Pinterest-Perfect experiences with kitchen tables.

The first involved a well-used oval oak pedestal table with a veneer top badly in need of refinishing but easily disguised with placemats. There were people at this table – five adults besides myself, empty-nesters realizing that the Freedom 55  thing was never more than an ad gimmick. There was food, too – a potluck-style prime rib dinner. And candles.

The second involved a large rectangular table, quite new, with white cushioned chairs. It was a table worthy of Pinterest for sure, except for the fact that it also had people around it, munching on mozzarella poppers (with or without jalapeño) and pretzel chips- five adults besides myself, ex-teens realizing that the adulting ‘thing’ is actually harder than it looked. No candles.

Other than the food, which is quite common at most tables, there were other things being served at both of these tables: memories and ‘catch-ups,’ laughter and possible puns, comfortable conversations flowing from shared pasts now reclaimed to fortify the present. Interspersed with and undergirding all of the light-hearted camaraderie were the real reasons why these kitchen-table scenarios were beyond Pinterest-worthy of recognition.

At each table, every single person regardless of age, occupation, gender or hair-colour, brought something more: heaping containers of grief and confusion next to the pretzels, various bowls laden with hurt and discouragement surrounding the jar of sour cream for the baked potatoes. This is where the real feasts took place – not to gorge on the bitterness of these dishes, but to come together and season them liberally with honesty and genuine listening and caring and loving and fresh insights and perspectives, so that when we finally step away from the table a sweetness lingers long and deep. That the conversations spill over with tears or overflow into the living rooms only enhances the feast.

May they continue to spill and overflow into our lives – those spaces we literally and figuratively inhabit each day.

May we reclaim our kitchen tables for this kind of open, honest, searching, burden-sharing, praying-caring feasting that nourishes lives that are too often starving for purpose and clarity and hope.

May we sit around our tables and truly see and hear one another above the noise of daily living, the lies of depression and loneliness, the aching of loss and discouragement.

May we unapologetically fill our tables with the messiness of life because we care more about each other than some ideal of perfection; we are doing life together and Pinterest Fail episodes come with the territory.  We’re okay with that.

May our tables become places where grace is lived, extended, and embraced, not just said before a meal.

Let’s reclaim our kitchen tables for conversations that truly matter.