Monday, October 5, 2015

"Teacher, how many words do I need for tomorrow's essay?"

I used to be an English teacher. I asked students to work with words, or, in other words, to write their thoughts down on paper. Invariably a student would raise a hand, “Mrs. Wiebe, how long does this paper have to be?”  In other words, how many words do I need to complete the essay?

He was asking me when he could quit, when he had churned out enough words to make me happy. Word-making did not make him happy.

I looked at the student, knowing the others were listening. He was just the spokesman for them. He was asking: “When can I quit making words? When is the assignment done?” 

If I said as many words as necessary to do the assignment you have set yourself, I heard groans.  If I said, two or three typewritten pages, double-spaced, about 500 words, I heard sighs of relief.

I waited for the papers to come in.  I sorted first:  Typewritten papers landed at the top of the pile, but some came with three-inch margins, triple-spaced.   Handwritten papers were next.  I put the decorated papers with cutesy drawings in fancy folders at the bottom. Some papers were stained with popcorn oil or coffee. Maybe tears.

A few papers always showed evidence of counting – little pencil marks along the margin – “100,” “200,” until, finally, near the end “495.”  This was before computers did the counting.  Sometimes I wrote a little “hurrah” to praise the writer. He had made it.

Students counted words to get an assignment done, pulling the words out one by one. They did not write to say something.

I asked myself if I should judge the student when I myself probably was involved in the same game, especially towards the end of the school year. Then I counted class periods, papers to grade, tests to make out, books to re-file, references to write, committee meetings to attend.  And groaned.

Word-counting set in for me when I had  no more enthusiasm for another breakfast meeting, when my skin turned cold at the thought of English 102 students handing in term papers when some didn’t even know where the card catalog was in the library. Or when I refused to check my mailbox, hoping all memos, notices would self-destruct or turn moldy if I left them. Or when I planned to jump out of my office window if another starry-eyed 18-year-old reformer came into my office with a new idea to keep all blue-eyed freshmen from drinking anything stronger than sun tea. . . .

But that was then and this is now. I find people my age and older are also counting words in a different way.  “How many more days do I need to live to complete my life journey?” We’re waiting for someone to say “500 words” and give us a definite date.

The blind poet Milton asked, “Does God expect day labor, light denied?”   Older folks ask: “Does God still expect something of us  when we are no longer as mobile as we once were, our minds don’t  think as clearly. Especially when we sense society prefers  we withdraw to the corners of life when we can’t keep up, can’t attend meetings and keep doing?” Old people are a lot of work sometimes. 

I thought about this recently when about a dozen of us elders and some “youngsters” ate lunch together.  Roland, celebrating his 90th birthday, came in a motorized scooter.  Present also were those with a walker, canes, and stuttering steps as well as the strong and able. A number had hearing problems and other health issues. We celebrated together. Roland said the memorable thing about this birthday was the number of people who had remembered him. He had not been forgotten.

Then we went home, some to wonder how many days it would take to complete God’s assignment for their life journey at a time when the strong message rushes at us  to keep buying, keep filling closets and shelves, keep going, keep doing, keep rushing around.    

Milton ends his classic poem with the line: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  He saw people rushing about but he could only wait.  

This deliberate act of waiting for God can destroy unless we older people  find the connection between serving God by waiting  in a world aggresively pushing people to keep doing. 

We forget life keeps on happening while waiting for it to happen.  A humble cobbler, Jean Lenoir by name, living in Paris, wrote in his diary for July 14, 1789: “Nothing of importance happened today.”  But an earth-shaking event took place.  A mob stormed the Bastille, beginning the French Revolution. 

Sometimes waiting, not knowing the future, is hard, painful. But if I refuse the opportunity to wait  I miss the opportunity to live. “Don’t waste the pain,” a Catholic religious told my daughter during an illness. Let the pain bring from you what needs to come out.  Milton was saying, “Don’t waste the waiting.” Let it make you aware that God is with you in this moment. 

Waiting is also serving.   I want to remember that.

I like the way Leonard Cohen says Milton’s words in contemporary language: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” 


  1. I love to read everything you have to say. What a treasure that you keep writing! :)

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  3. Hi Katie,
    I work with a publishing company, and we've just come across one of your books, How to Write Your Personal or Family History. I see you're quite the prolific writer and have enjoyed reading bits of your work online. If you're interested in doing an updated and revised edition of the family history book, we'd love to hear from you! Feel free to respond to this comment or via email: chamoisholschuh [at] gmail [dot] com. Hope to hear from you!

    Thanks, Chamois

  4. I find myself grappling with these words in an unexpected way. They challenge me as an older, middle-aged person to not waste what seems to be an interlude of life. Thanks for calling out these thoughts from your heart.

  5. I find myself grappling with these words in an unexpected way. They challenge me as an older, middle-aged person to not waste what seems to be an interlude of life. Thanks for calling out these thoughts from your heart.