Change as ethos

The desert feels close today. The gray sky makes me think of cozy but infrequent days when the clouds shrouded the Franklin Mountains like a light jacket, unsure about the change in season but ready for spring. The experience of driving in El Paso feels near, of enjoying that first new place. I grew immensely as a person there – I believe it was the basis of my whole adulthood, perhaps forever steeped in strange newness, acquiring the scent of the surrounding air, learning the language of my heart – a language I may not have been born with but one I’ve had space for.

And my time in El Paso makes me think of change. To the naked and unexperienced eye, the desert looks two-dimensional and constant. But at a closer glance, it is always changing. When I lived there, I learned the language of change, of responding to the knock of an opening door with curiosity and bright eyes shining with wonder.

The world is resistant to change, or rather, the humans have shackled the earth with an axis that no longer turns of its own accord. But change is the ethos of the planet; without it we would cease to exist. All the earth can be our home if we would just embrace it and stop seeing it through ravenous eyes, only wanting what it can give us rather than letting it show us how we are wrong.

And wrong we are about so many tings. We think we can know the mind of God. How arrogant. He still speaks to us and guides us, but I don’t believe we could ever fully predict what is in store for us any more than we can predict the sun will rise sometime in the immediate future.

Philosophy and space kittens (spoilers below for A Desolation Called Peace)

In January, I read A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine. I actually really enjoyed it. (In fact, my new fave fantasy/sci-fi subgenre might be space operas…) So far, the sequel in the duology, A Desolation Called Peace, has delivered. March has been a significantly slower month as far as reading goes. Something’s happening in my body – i”m coming out of hibernation, out of winter. I also have had more than a few nights where I just had to go to bed early because of fatigue or a headache, or both. Nevertheless, I persist with my reading goals and habits.

A Desolation Called Peace starts out with Ambassador Mahit Dzmare on Lsel Station. She has two imagos of Yskandr – one she was given before being assigned to the empire Teixcalaan in the first place, and one that she and her Teixcalannli companions retrieved from the body is Yskadr himself which she had implanted in her brainstem by way of shady back-alley neurosurgery. Now the Councillor wants her to download the imagos… and Mahit could be in serious trouble.


I want to extrapolate some quotes that I find particularly interesting and applicable to… well… life.

“Don’t trust anyone who makes you feel good without knowing why they want you to feel that way.” (page 41)

That is a good reminder in case you’re wondering if someone is trying to emotionally manipulate you. After working in schools for the better portion of my teaching career, I can tell you that kids see right through that shit. But unfortunately, many adults have ulterior motives for making other people feel good or wanted or accepted.

“The body didn’t care about the size of the promise, only the size of the cut.” (page 77)

I kind of interpret this to mean that we don’t quite realize the promises or oaths we swear until we’re burned by them. Sometimes you have to be “cut” or burned to learn to not make promises you can’t keep.

“What better way to draw a monstrous thing to its death than to use its functions against itself?” (page 83)

Yes, we can use our enemies’ strengths and weaknesses against them. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

“Trust is not an endlessly renewable resource.” (page 167)

For sure. I think trust can be long-suffering, but it can be used up and unable to revive.

“Cost-benefit analysis was antithetical to sleeping.” (page 174)

Ahh yes. Make a pros and cons list they said. It will tell you what you need to do, they said. Until you get zero sleep because you’re perseverating and probably worrying.

“Imagination created biases.” (page 174)

YES. Imagination can be great, but it can lead to pie-in-the-sky expectations. And then when real life hits, all the expectations come crumbling down.


Besides these quotes, the book is just good. The plot is moving forward, there’s great character development, and, as the title claimed, there are space kittens. I’m not much of a cat person, but this excites me. I’ll be back with more about A Desolation Called Peace after I’ve finished it, hopefully soon!

Finding and holding onto the optimistic

Today’s post is a re-“print” of a reflection I wrote over five years ago after teaching a specific summer course to international military members. For some reason, the spring months are usually where I reflect on my teaching career and especially this year, remember the good, the positive, the optimistic. This is different than “toxic positivity” running rampant right now, especially in education circles. I in no way want to dismiss the difficult and seemingly impossible – just bring forth a memory from the back of my mind to steel myself for the remainder of the school year. Enjoy!


Originally written and published in July 2015.

“You’re our teacher?” a chorus of voices asks as I walk in five minutes late and breathless from losing my way on the first day of the writing pre-course at the Sergeants Major Academy on Fort Bliss. I’m young, and I’m intimidated. I’m not even 30 and I know that these men (and one woman) have served for 15 to 20 years or more in order to achieve the highest enlisted rank in their military. What is more is that out of the 23 students I’ve been entrusted with for the summer session, there are 21 countries represented, and they have been hand-picked by their military or government to represent their countries by attending the Sergeant Major Course.

As we give introductions to the class, myself included, I think about how I’m glad my husband is a soldier so I’m not completely blindsided by the military culture here. I also wonder, How am I going to pull this off? Twenty-three students from 21 countries. Twenty-three accents, 23 levels of English, 23 levels of writing, 23 experiences with education, 23 people who are most likely older than me.

I’ve anticipated this day for the past three months, and I’ve met with the other instructors, past and present, to get the lowdown on this course. What is it like? How do you fill the time? I have lesson plans at the ready, PowerPoints and group discussions as my artillery. I’m no stranger to the classroom: I began my career in a small room at the back of a music store when I was 14, teaching piano lessons to people of all ages and ability levels. I graduated from college and taught high school Spanish for two years, when I was barely older than my students. I studied linguistics and TESOL in graduate school, and after graduation I landed my first full-time faculty position at the university.

The previous year had been a challenge as I tried to navigate the choppy waters anyone encounters in a new academic position. New people, new administration, new students every semester. New languages, new countries, new accents. I had transitioned from teaching Spanish to English-speakers in rural Illinois to teaching intermediate English to Mexican nationals on the US-Mexico border to teaching advanced composition to students from many countries on several continents. I hesitated to take this summer position because of the busy year, but knew I would get cabin fever over the summer. I decided to go for it.

We start out on a first-name basis; I tend to think this is one of the best icebreakers, a way to remove walls and get past our titles christened by our institutions. I repeat their names until I get them right – it’s something my students in the past have always wanted me to do. We spent four hours the first day doing typical first-day things: introducing the course, learning names, collecting a writing sample, filling out a questionnaire. I go home exhausted but less nervous for the next day. Tomorrow I see the same sea of camouflage fabric, and day after day I am better able to match the pattern with the country, and the countries with the flags. I anticipate learning more about their experiences in writing and English.

“We are used to being told what to do,” one soldier says in response to a seemingly unorthodox writing task I’ve asked them to complete: freewriting. They comment on their grammar and spelling and handwriting, that it’s not “accurate” or “good” or “neat”. I tell them that for freewriting, I don’t care about their grammar, spelling, or handwriting, but that their ideas are what are valued. I think a little impatiently, Can we just get something – anything – down on paper first? Can we get away from whatever they’ve been taught “good” writing is? I say it countless times over the six-week period: “Let’s just write.” While it isn’t said out loud, I think we all know that this isn’t just a research writing class.

“Too many chiefs, not enough Indians,” remarks one soldier with a laugh as his classmate serves as the group’s scribe. These soldiers’ experiences as leaders have allowed them to transfer their knowledge of leadership to the classroom. They are not shy to participate in class or to give their opinions. They debate and disagree with one another diplomatically. They complete any task with focus and participate fully and graciously in class activities. Group discussions and activities, grammar games, whole-class presentations by the students: these are components of any language class I’ve developed or taught. At some level, English learners share similar characteristics and experiences in language acquisition. They can benefit from many of the same activities and approaches.

“When I flew into El Paso, I thought, ‘Am I back in Iraq?’” An example of our informal conversation is followed with raucous laughter from comrades who can relate to the American sponsors’ deployments to the Middle East. Although these soldiers hail from 21 different countries, the common threads of military service and separation from family unite them. One of the purposes of the pre-course is not just to teach the soldiers standards of American academic writing, but also to encourage long-lasting multinational friendships as they move into the Sergeant Major Course, in which international students will comprise only 9% of the total class. Some of the students have their American sergeant major sponsors present in my pre-course, all of whom offer clarification of directions given in class, advice for where to eat, rides to the Academy, and opportunities to interact with another native English speaker.

“You’re literally affecting nations,” my husband tells me as I recount the events of the day over dinner. We’re in the third week, almost halfway through, and our classes have become tight-knit groups despite knowing each other for a short amount of time. At this point, the class exemplifies the dynamics of a familiar, comfortable, and symbiotic environment: I’m the teacher, they’re the students, and we all learn from each other every day. If I try to wrap my mind around the implications of my husband’s observation, I become speechless.

“Wow, it’s time for another break already?” On the top of each of the four hours we have a ten-minute break, and as the last three weeks go by, there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to accomplish all that my static lesson plans dictate. I’m used to this feeling and change lesson plans accordingly. Their topics for the final writing assignment, an argumentative paper, cover issues such as United Nations policies, preservation of the Amazon rainforest, and training the next generation in the military.  As I read their final papers, I watch these countries pass through my fingers and realize how important professional written and oral communication are in the global context.

In the course of four hours a day, six days a week, I never assigned grades to any paper.  I think the mere twenty-some of us can agree that this exceptional environment that education textbooks only wish they see in action taught us more than any number grade or comment in red ink could. We brought the world into four walls, and now we will take what we learned back out into the world.

I’m cut out for this

I realize that I don’t write much about my “other” life: the hours of my life I spend as a public school teacher. I do my best to have healthy boundaries between work and play, and in the past year this need has become more pronounced. I use my commute and other teachers who are also family members or close friends to process quotidian joys and frustrations before walking in the door and stripping off the school ID and title of “Ms. W.”

This year is the year I’ve been teaching for twenty years, thirteen as a certified teacher. Did I think I’d still be here all this time later? I’m not sure. I have known that since I was young, I had the “thing” that you need to be a teacher. Maybe an attitude, maybe the “teacher look,” maybe a natural talent, maybe a bit of arrogance – and just maybe a mix of all of the above. Teaching is a career of compassion and understanding, but also it necessitates an attitude of confidence and competence, which for me can sometimes border on self-importance.

The pandemic has challenged me in ways I never anticipated. Throughout this season, though (and it is a season: nothing can last forever, not even a pandemic), I have been grateful that I have years of my career behind me; there are so many reasons to be grateful for those times spent overextended, upset, stressed, and inexperienced. I have a lot of tools in my arsenal these days, and memories of “normal school” have pulled me through. I feel for new teachers who have experienced the glut of frustrations, both technological and relational, that have plagued our profession throughout a global health crisis.

Over the past academic year, I’ve found a new stride after years of working different jobs in different fields and with different ages of students. You could say I’ve rediscovered my happy place: high school. I’m sure there are many personal reasons from my past that have impacted my decision to work here, walking the halls among angsty and hormonal teenagers. Junior high, or middle school as most places now call it, was a tough time for me. But in high school, I found my place… mostly. I found my “people,” and I used academic achievement as an escape. I confided in and trusted my teachers and counselors.

The tasks I’ve had on my plate for the past several months have sat well with me: conversing with students, making small talk with new-to-me students, planning lessons for classes, interfacing with staff from teachers to administrators to counselors, advocating for students’ specific linguistic needs and ensuring their education is equitable. Of course, I can’t always check these to-do’s off my list every day, and they’re not always done to perfection. I’m sure as well that I’ve committed my own fair share of social faux pas as I’ve met no fewer than 100 new staff this year.

But all it takes is one really good day and weeks sprinkled with dozens of positive student-to-teacher interactions to remind me that I’m in this for the long haul. And to be honest, I didn’t expect the pandemic to reveal this truth to me: I’m cut out for this.

What I read in February – a hodge-podge

New Adult Fantasy Romance

The fourth book in the A Court of Thorns and Roses series was released in February, and to be honest, the books I read towards the beginning of the month were placeholders as I waited for my hardcover copy of A Court of Silver Flames. I also finished my re-read of the series – I finished a good portion of A Court of Wings and Ruin as well as the accompanying novella A Court of Frost and Starlight in one day. February was a strange month work-wise – lots of weather delays and a couple three-day weekends. Hence I feel I had more time to hunker down and read.

Emily and I will be talking about A Court of Silver Flames on our podcast later this week. I’ll give you a preview: it wasn’t my favorite! But there was amazing character development, relationship drama, and steam. Lots of steam, my friends.

Immigrants in America – Literary Fiction

This is a genre I haven’t read in a long time but have recently come back to it. The books I’ve been picking up have come highly recommended and they are relatively short: 250 pages or so. I’ve found that in order to handle these short books that pack a punch, I have to be in the right sort of headspace. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous was heartwrenching but I couldn’t stop reading. It was beautifully written as it’s written by a poet, and the audiobook is narrated by him as well. I actually found myself drawn to the audiobook more than the paper copy – many names are Vietnamese and the way his grandmother talks is better expressed via voice.

I also read an early release via Book of the Month – Infinite Country. This was also a short but emotional ride about a Colombian-American family separated by miles and citizenship status. While it was fiction, it doesn’t seem far off from events that actually occur.

Dabbling in Sci-fi

Sci-fi is a genre that’s even newer to me than fantasy. From afar, something about it seems hard, cold, science-y…? But one of the best things about being a member of a book club is testing the waters of new genres and ideas. I’m coming up on a year of being in this club that reads award-winning sci-fi and fantasy, and I’ve come away with new favorites and surprises of books I’ve actually enjoyed. In February we read The Prey of Gods, and wow, was this a wild ride. I couldn’t put it down. The author allows us to follow the lives of many characters who actually all end up connected to one another somehow. If you’ve ever seen the show Manifest, the pace and unpredictability of the book remind me of that show.

Finally, a little bibliotherapy…

I read By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coehlo at the suggestion of my therapist. The plot in this book wasn’t my favorite, to be honest, but I love Coehlo’s writing style (or at least how it’s translated into English from Portuguese) and this book lets us live for a little bit in Spain and France. It’s completely relationship-driven, and those stories generally have me right from the beginning. There were many good quotes and ideas I pulled from this book and I’m excited to read more of his works.

Helping our inner child find the way

When you are a child, the eighteen years you spend as a child feels like eternity. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, I can’t wait until I’m out on my own. Until I can do whatever I want. When you’re an adult, the years you spent as a child grow smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror, and all those worries and desires seem insignificant compared to the worries and desires of adulthood. However, something I’ve observed and learned in my own experience is that the years we spend as children drive the trajectory for our adulthood, maybe forever.

Recently I cried myself to sleep. I don’t say this for pity or sympathy or to be dramatic. It’s just a fact. I cry a lot – when I’m sad, when I’m happy. Basically anytime I’m moved emotionally, I cry. Sometimes the most appropriate and safe time for me to show that much emotion is in the dark, amidst the white noise of the fan, wrapped in blankets and comfort. While I’d cried myself to sleep many times in my time on Earth, this most recent time felt new. Instead of spiraling down, down, down to the pit of hopelessness, I began telling myself a narrative, a story if you will. I began parenting myself.

We all internalize the narratives and stories that our parents tell us, either verbally or nonverbally. They weave narratives with their actions, words, stories about their pasts, how they react to our transgressions and moments of impatience. We go out into the world with these stories that seem to be complete. As time goes on and we experience life for ourselves, we begin to find the incongruencies and missing parts of those stories. This can happen whether we grew up in the most loving, supportive household, or if we fled from an abusive home when we were young, if only mentally. It’s not a matter of the type of home that bore us as children; it’s the activation of our unique DNA, which can experience and receive a story from our own lives.

I looked at The Other…fragile, exhausted, disillusioned. Controlling and enslaving what should really be free…trying to judge her future loves by the rues of her past sufferings.”

By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, Paulo Coehlo

I found myself soothing myself in my own head. I soothed the four-year-old Elizabeth who couldn’t quite grasp abstract concepts and reasons for “why,” and I soothed the fourteen-year-old Elizabeth who, with her smart mouth, drummed up a retort to pretty much any comment or directive. By soothing all the versions of myself, my almost-35-year-old self could then take a deep breath formed around a resolution and drift off into a restful sleep.

I’ve been in touch with the young Elizabeth more in the past couple of years than I ever have been. Maybe it’s the distance that makes young Elizabeth clearer; maybe it’s the reflection and retrospection I employ to look at my life in the past. As I soothe those other long-gone versions of myself, I feel a healing taking place. A rebirth, a mending.

Just as I need to reassure my inner child, I also need to steel my present self. Recently during a yoga practice, I was astonished by a meditation given at the beginning of a practice. Esther Ekhart, the yoga teacher, brought attention to her legs and arms and body and made the point that when we remember how strong our bodies are, we can remember that we are adults and we are able to take care of ourselves. When we aren’t in the present, we’re stuck in the past and in the future. For us, our inner child sometimes lives in the past and reminds us of past hurts and follies.

Paulo Coehlo, renowned and beloved author, says in By The River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept, “Remember that human wisdom is madness in the eyes of God. But if we listen to the child who lives in our soul, our eyes will grow bright. If we do not lose contact with that child, we will not lose contact with life.”

Therefore, we cannot ignore the inner child and we cannot let them play us like a violin, either. There has to be a balance. Just as a parent shows their children a balance of love and discipline, we must do the same for ourselves. It’s a way we can become whole.