Last night I finished The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang. This is the best fantasy book I’ve read in ages!
A first glance at the cover and synopsis might lead a reader to believe that they are in for a sort of magic-school YA novel about a young girl rising through the ranks. While this story does touch on that sort of feel in the initial chapters, that is not the ride you are in for. This is a brutal war story.
This book is not a romance story. This is not a YA fantasy school story (sorry. I love those too.) Yes, there’s a school, and we learn some things at the school, but please don’t let that description deceive you as we leave that setting quite quickly.
This is, as I’ve always conceived it, a war story. It draws heavily on the Second Sino-Japanese war which–if you know anything about Asia–was one of the darkest and bloodiest moments in Chinese history. It grapples with the Rape of Nanjing. It deals heavily with opium and drug use. (Opium was a source of Chinese weakness. This book asks what would have happened if opium were instead a source of shamanic power.) This book is primarily about military strategy, collapsing empires, mad gods, and the human ability to make awful, ruthless decisions. It’s about how dictators are made.
To be entirely frank, if you’re turned off by violence, I might pick up a different book.
The Poppy War is captivating from start to finish. It went places I did not expect it to go. I was expecting this book to sort of set the scene for the war, perhaps leading into book two (the author says this series will be a trilogy). However, as is the way of war, it was upon me (and Rin) quicker than I expected.
While this story goes into war strategy, worldbuilding and politics, it is balanced with characters that are likeable, interesting, flawed, powerful, and confronted with terrible decisions. It is also refreshingly well-paced, sweeping you off your feet just when you thought you were starting to get comfortable.
In a lot of series the protagonist has an unshakable black-and-white sense of right and wrong, good and evil, whereas I love that in this series (as in real life) characters are faced with ethical questions that have no easy answers.
This book is now one of my top favorite fantasy stories. I won’t give anything away, but will just say this- after the ending of book 1, I am definitely eager to get my hands on book 2. I’ll be with Rin until the end, no matter where she goes or what choices she makes.
This is the most personal blog post I’ve ever written. I’ve recently seen some comments from strangers and well-meaning friends who criticize and doubt the necessity of some medications, especially mood-altering prescriptions. I understand where they are coming from- big pharma is scary, and it seems like some doctors’ answer to everything is to indiscriminately feed us more and more pills. Yet, as someone who comes from a family with many mental health struggles, and who has battled some of my own, I want to share my own story.
I’ve had anxiety since I was a teenager, but it got steadily worse in my early 20s. Despite living a privileged life surrounded with wonderful and supportive friends and family (including pets!), I had these “monsters” holding me down.
This is a poem I wrote during that time:
Traveling became more anxious than fun. I still didn’t have my licence because I didn’t have the confidence for driving. I was socially awkward and quiet, feeling overwhelmed with the world before I even got out of bed in the morning. I worried endlessly and catastrophized everything, anticipating the worst possible scenarios for just about any situation.
In my practicums while completing my Bachelor of Education, my anxiety reached new and debilitating heights. The pressures of being a teacher- the professional expectations, the perpetual donning of the “Teacher Hat”, and the reality of being at the front of the classroom, began weighing on me heavily.
I spoke with a counselor in university, as well as my doctor, and decided I wanted to first try to deal with it on my own- I learned a lot of stress-relief methods and breathing exercises, and they were helpful at the time to some degree. Dustin, my then-boyfriend-now-husband, was also a voice of reason who helped to talk me down whenever I went into full-blown panic mode.
However, my anxiety became extreme 2014-2015 during a particularly tumultuous time in my life, which included a 9 week teaching practicum that I now refer to as my “hell practicum”. I had struggled with previous practicums teaching grades k-3, so I decided to focus on my strength (language arts) and try teaching LA 7-9 in a middle school setting, hoping that it would be easier on me for the final stretch. This decision was a terrible mistake.
For the most part, it wasn’t the students that got to me- it was my mentor teacher. She was a no-nonsense authoritarian type who sensed my weakness and couldn’t understand where I was coming from. She didn’t know that I was at my lowest point mentally, and because of her open criticisms of other students and teachers, I didn’t feel like I could open up to her about it. By this point in my life I had already internally decided that I wanted to leave teaching and pursue Librarianship, but I still had to make it through the final practicum to get my bachelor degree.
My mentor teacher seemed to take a boot-camp approach to shaping me up to her liking, and I was simply unable to handle it at the time. Her tough-love method pushed me farther into my shell. She gave me armfuls of marking to do and little guidance for teaching her classes or using her rubrics. My inefficiency in her classroom was amplified by the fact that, since she taught only one subject, she had a rotating roster of students visiting throughout the day, and I had over 150 names and faces to memorize if I wanted to be able to communicate effectively with her kids. The students also sensed my submissiveness, treating me like a substitute teacher whom they thought they could fool, swapping desk assignments, protesting “our teacher lets us do this!” and so on. It was a recipe for disaster.
I was having silent panic attacks where I led the class on uninspiring lessons that I could barely remember teaching afterward. My appetite disappeared- I had trouble swallowing food and would often begin to choke. I was administered a barium swallow test, but the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong and attributed it to stress. I lost over 35 pounds (NOT in a healthy way- to this day I have a rare Eustachian tube disorder that I developed from losing so much weight so fast), and I had so much tension in my body that by week 3 I had to wear a back brace to the classroom to make it through the day. I tried to put on my best “fake it till you make it” facade, but I was not fooling the middle schoolers, or my mentor teacher, one bit.
My mentor began getting more agitated with my insecurities and vulnerability in her classroom. Things were not working out. She began gathering evidence of my shortcomings by secretly filming me as I taught, and spying on me through the classroom window when I thought she was leaving the room for a bit. Afterward she would confront me and say things like “I was watching through the window. What did you do wrong?” and I usually knew exactly where my shortcomings were: “when I was talking to X I had my back to the rest of the class, so they started acting out” or “Y wasn’t paying attention and when he didn’t listen to me I didn’t discipline him.” Exasperated, she would say “So if you know that you are doing it wrong, then why do you do it!?” My mental health was so frail that I couldn’t stand up for myself with these middle-schoolers, or their teacher.
I remember one evening when I fought back tears the entire bus-ride home, and when I got to my apartment I collapsed on the floor, bawling, my poor dog curling herself around me in concerned confusion.
Dustin was working night shift during this time and was gone before I got home, so I barely saw him back then. I would cry as I worked on lesson plans and marking into the wee hours of the night, and drink copious amounts of wine to help me calm down and finally fall into a fitful sleep. I’d be gripped with terror when my alarm woke me, dreading going to the school to teach. My bus ride was slow torture as it carried me closer and closer to the school. I was on the brink of a total breakdown.
Finally, my mentor teacher couldn’t tolerate me anymore, and filed a Notification of Concern to the University. Crushed and ashamed, I remembered the pre-practicum pep talk we had gotten from our academic advisors months ago, where they briefly discussed Notifications of Concern with the caveat “but don’t worry, nobody ever gets those!” I guess I was the exception.
Even though I thought I didn’t have it in me, I put on an even stronger fake-it-till-you make it face, trying even harder to buckle down and push through the final two weeks of my hellish practicum. It didn’t work.
My teacher backed out and said she didn’t want to complete the practicum, as was her right to do. I called Dustin, sobbing, and said “it’s over.”
I don’t blame my mentor, or wish her any ill will. She was just doing what she thought to be best for her students at the time. She has a teaching style that is the exact opposite of my own, and we didn’t mesh well together. Combined with my mental health issues, it just wasn’t working. And that’s ok. I wish her all the best, and I’m sorry that I put her through that stressful time, too.
Even though I was done, and I was exhausted and telling everyone DAMN THE WHOLE DEGREE, I’M FINISHED, my academic advisors wouldn’t let me quit. They defended me to the university, fighting for me, presenting my case as a hard working student who had a practicum assignment that just didn’t work out. Since my previous practicum mentors had given me good reports, and academically I was ready to graduate with distinction, I was allowed a replacement practicum. I owe my advisors so much.
Somehow, with the support of many people, I found myself in a new placement with a wonderful and supportive grade 1 mentor teacher. She was so kind, so understanding, and so helpful. She really saw that I had experienced something personally traumatic, and wanted me to succeed. She did things like recommending certain items at the library that might be helpful, and loaning me a class mic so that I wasn’t straining my voice so hard when trying to get the attention of the kids each day. This teacher was a lifesaver for me.
It was still hard for me because I had zero confidence after the hell practicum, but I had moments where I really enjoyed teaching those kids with my new mentor.
Although I didn’t think I could possibly get through a 7 week replacement practicum in such a devastated state, I did finish and graduated with my B.Ed. I remember coming in one day during the last couple weeks of my replacement practicum. I had told my mentor teacher that I had to leave a little bit early that day for graduation ceremonies. I started crying when I walked into the classroom. She had decorated the room for me. She told the kids I was graduating and they brought me flowers and little gifts. They said “Miss, show us your hat!”
And so, finally I had graduated. I felt great relief, but my heightened anxiety remained. I opened up to my doctor about the anxiety I had experienced, and she prescribed antidepressants. I was surprised and confused, because I didn’t think I was depressed. She explained that anxiety and depression were on a sort of spectrum, and that some of the symptoms I had been describing were indicative of depression.
I felt a bit wary of pills, but she thought that the right medication might really help with both my anxiety and depression related symptoms. So, I decided to give it a go.
It took some time adjusting and trying new dosage amounts, but once I figured out what worked for me, it was a truly life-changing shift. I didn’t realize that I was being held down so much until I was lifted up. I hadn’t realized that I could exist in this state: energized and happy throughout the day on a regular basis. Waking up optimistic instead of melancholic. I started feeling the way I used to feel before I knew crushing anxiety.
I can recall a flashbulb memory from when I was a teen. I can’t remember the context, but I wasn’t being myself, and my father asked me “what happened to my happy-go-lucky Shauna?”.
I don’t know what happened to her or where she went for so long, but I finally found her again.
I wish I had tried medication long before my practicums. I truly believe that I would have had entirely different practicum experiences. I never would have believed it, but in the 3 years since I graduated, I’ve accomplished so much and journeyed willingly outside of my comfort zone. I’ve traveled by myself to Toronto and enjoyed every minute of it. My hubby and I went to Japan and I wasn’t anxiously anticipating problems to happen, I was just freely enjoying myself. I’ve taken on new projects at work and am even speaking at conferences now! I never thought I would be excited to present to a room of strangers, but here I am. I’m starting my MLIS program in the fall and I am going to be a librarian.
Although I didn’t end up going back into the classroom, my experiences finishing the B.Ed gave me tons of skills that I will carry with me into the future. And, my respect for teachers is higher than it’s ever been, because I KNOW how much you do, how much of yourself you put into your work, and how draining and exhausting it can be sometimes. To anyone reading this who dedicates themselves to an intensely emotionally and physically draining job like teaching, if you are struggling you aren’t alone. You do so much. Take care of yourself.
Lastly, I just want to say this: medication is not for everyone. Anyone who has questions about medication should talk to their doctor. Every medication and dosage affects every person a little bit differently. I was lucky that I found something that worked for me. For some people, the medication I am on makes things worse. Some people get by without medication. Yet, I will never feel ashamed to say that I take medication for my mental health, because I am living a much fuller life with this stuff.
Today I had the opportunity to partake in a simulated role-play workshop intended to raise awareness of the barriers and challenges of being homeless and/or living underneath the poverty line. The workshop, called the Community Action Poverty Simulation (CAPS) comes from the Missouri Community Action Network, and was offered by my local Poverty Reduction Network. As someone who works at a public library in Canada and spends a lot of time interacting with low-income and homeless patrons, I am glad that I had the chance to experience the workshop.
Each participant was randomly sorted into a group and directed to a cluster of chairs that would be their “home”, complete with a detailed synopsis of each family member and the overall situation of the household, including incomes, debts, medical considerations, assets, and expenses. Those without a home were directed to the homeless shelter space. I took on the role of Albert Aber, a father of 3 who was just laid off from his job.
Each person or group had a limited amount of time (broken into 4 weeks of 12 minutes each) to visit simulated local services run by volunteer actors. We dashed from place to place with our fake money and paperwork, facing a variety of setbacks, surprises, frustrations, and injustices along the way.
Of course, no simulation, no matter how immersive or detailed, can offer a true experience of poverty. The closest I have been to poverty was when my family lived in Saint John New Brunswick and experienced the 2 year Irving strike in the 90’s. I remember coming home from school one day and finding weird film equipment in the living room. My Dad was interviewed about the brutal slog of walking the union picket line day in and day out. The film crew followed us to the grocery store to document how we had changed our shopping habits to try to make ends meet and bring enough food home. Mom says we also borrowed food from my aunt during that time.
I was very young back then, so I don’t recall those years as vividly as my parents, but I do remember their frustration. Still, for as long as I’ve lived I’ve had enough food, water and shelter to live a comfortable life, even during the times that my family encountered struggles like the strike. I am thankful for the full and peaceful life I live, and aware that I am lucky to have many privileges and supports that beneficially contribute to my life.
While a simulation could not give anyone a full perspective of what it is like to live in poverty, this is a very worthwhile workshop, because it gets participants thinking about all of the compounding barriers that can make it so hard to get out from under the poverty line. CAPS sensitizes participants to the realities of poverty and homelessness. After the role-play was done, we sat in a large circle and shared our insights and experiences.
Here are a few take-aways from the workshop:
When something gives, something else takes. While I was able to secure a job in the simulation and start bringing in some income again, by the time I finished work many of the community services had already closed, so I was unable to access them.
It became harder and harder to support my family when my wife and I were at work for so much of the simulation, and family matters kept slipping through the cracks. Our pregnant high-school aged daughter was being targeted by a corrupt policewoman, and our two young sons were taken by social services as a result of her being taken into custody.
Every family or person in the simulation had a different background with unique considerations and struggles- those living with mental or physical disabilities, trauma, or addiction faced additional isolation and barriers.
Situations became even more dire when participants missed payments, turned to pawn shops, or were coerced into taking or selling drugs.
Making ends meetsometimes came at the cost of dignity. Despite my character’s more advanced work experience, out of necessity I ended up taking an entry-level cashier job as soon as it was offered.
Most of the people participating in the workshop worked in public and social services and outreach, but I think this kind of simulation would be especially enlightening and enriching for those who do not as regularly encounter people who are homeless and living in poverty. Many prejudices and stereotypes persist regarding these populations, and so it is important that people have the opportunity to be sensitized to the truths that exist behind the unfortunate stigma.
My hubby and I went to Japan last year. It was the most amazing three weeks of my life, and I look back on it so fondly every single day. We spent a lot of money on the trip- a lot. It was our honeymoon, so we went all out.
For the first time ever, after our trip to Japan, I had lingering credit card debt that I wasn’t able to pay off right away. Previously I would never carry a balance on my cards, always paying them off before interest could accrue, but in Japan it was easy to justify charging tons of purchases to my cards, or even using them to withdraw Japanese yen, since “heck, it’s not every day we’re in Ikebukuro!”
To be honest, I don’t regret relying on my cards on that trip and bringing some debt home with me. It was an unforgettable trip, filled with delicious food, shinkansen (bullet trains), museums, ryokan (traditional inns), theme cafes, onsen (hot springs), arcades, and shopping. I treasure every little souvenir and photo book from that trip.
What I did realize, though, was that, because of my regular spending habits, what should have been a relatively easy few thousand dollars to pay off became a hefty burden. Despite my efforts to get the balance down each month, paying huge chunks off with every paycheck, by the end of the month the balance had risen significantly again, mainly because of my regular habits of shopping online.
I can try to defend my online shopping in a lot of ways- we had recently moved, and so we had new rooms that were bare without furniture and other items. Our new place has garden beds, and I felt obligated to get some gardening supplies and try to maintain what the previous owners left behind. My artistic hobbies inspired me to try new mediums, so of course I needed those expensive markers and calligraphy nibs.
The truth is though, most of the time my shopping wasn’t driven by a need- I was browsing the deals on Amazon, chasing the high of new and shiny things. I’m a very privileged person, I am thankful to be able to say that I have all the material wealth I need. So why did I feel compelled to always buy more, more, more?
Disappointed in my apparent mess of a budget, I did what I always do- I turned to the library for answers. A few months ago I found this book called Worry Free Money by Shannon Lee Simmons.
A lot of times in the past when I tried to read financial books, I lost interest partway through because a lot of the information didn’t apply to me, or wasn’t practical or realistic. Worry Free Money is the first financial book that I read from cover to cover. As soon as I was finished, I created my own financial plan following the simple guidelines in the book.
I can’t believe I had ever tried to make budgets in the past that allocated specific percentages for clothes, entertainment, food, and so on. Who spends like that?! What we spend our money on differs from month to month according to a lot of different factors, so it makes so much more sense to plan the way Simmons explains:
monthly income – fixed expenses – meaningful savings (RRSP, etc) – short-term savings = available spending money. Simple as that.
Yes, it’s so simple, but it was a game-changer for me in that it made budgeting approachable, set out an understandable plan I could actually stick to, and encouraged me to determine a set amount I wanted to save each month. I set up an RRSP and began actively contributing to my TFSA again (it had been gathering cobwebs for a while, largely ignored).
However, the problem remained that I had a compulsion to order things I didn’t need, mainly from Amazon. I wasn’t hitting my saving goals, and my credit card balance continued to fluctuate- despite having paid down the initial spending from Japan long ago, it was quickly replaced with a balance from my compulsive late night shopping binges.
Back to the library!
I picked up The Year of Less, and was inspired by Cait’s decision to set a shopping ban for herself. Cait made a successful effort to stop seeking more material things and instead dedicate her money largely toward memorable and meaningful experiences like travel.
Ever since our trip to Japan, I’ve been dreaming of going back for another visit, but thinking it would be a long time before we could ever make an expensive vacation like that again. Cait’s book make me realize that travelling has been far more enriching for my life than the illusion of happiness provided by clicking “complete purchase” on a cart full of stuff.
Thanks to these women, I now have a renewed focus on spending less and saving more. My willpower is bolstered by beautiful memories of Hyōgo, Kyoto, Gunma, Tokyo, Osaka, and imaginings of other places in Japan, and the world, that we have yet to visit.
This charming story was even better than I imagined! When I saw the cover I knew I would love this book. I got what I was hoping for. The art is gorgeous, the characters are diverse, and the tea dragons are ADORABLE.
Like Princess Princess Ever After, The Tea Dragon Society is short, sweet, and full of moments that make you feel all warm and fuzzy.
It only took me half an hour to read, and yet I felt like the characters were very well represented.
Yup, I adore this book and I am going to recommend it to everyone, of every age, at the library where I work.
Can I just say that I really want a Rooibos dragon of my own?
On Friday my manager and I attended a pre-conference where we learned about being savvy when talking to the media. I volunteered to be a mock interviewee (i’m trying to take opportunities to work on my public speaking, because it’s still a bit out of my comfort zone…).
We attended the First Timer’s Reception in the evening where they had tons of free books (unedited proofs and advanced readers copies) for us to take!
Yesterday I presented my session, There’s a Graphic Novel for Everyone (Yes, Even You!). Although my nerves did suddenly appear and I felt my face reddening, I did enjoy sharing all I’d learned about graphic novels the past few months. I saw some familiar faces in the crowd, even a few smiling strangers, and a bunch of people have come to me afterward to give positive feedback and ask me about accessing my resources lists and presentation materials, which fills me with joy!
^Playing the ukelele during group-work to avoid awkward silence!
I had about 45 people register, which is wonderful! Like I’ve said before, even if one person finds some information in my presentation useful or interesting, then I am a happy woman. I hope lots of people were inspired to take a closer look at how awesome graphic novels are! When my session was over, I was suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion, but the good kind.
Some other highlights of the conference:
Keynote speaker Scott Bonner, Director of Ferguson Municipal Public Library, on his experiences serving the community during turmoil in Ferguson, Missouri.
Adventures in Animation, where many practical ideas were shared about lively, community-focused programming
^these feminist posters are so awesome!
Stand Up! Access to Justice, where I learned about recent and upcoming resources being created by the Centre for Public Legal Education in Alberta (CPLEA)
an author talk by Trevor Herriot, where he shared his passions about birds, grassland environments, Indigenous traditions and meeting places, and conservation
Keynote speaker Sheila Watt-Cloutier sharing her deep knowledge on the current condition of the Arctic and Inuit adaptation to a warming climate
Learning, Art and the Third Age, where we looked at the importance of art programming and created a quick, cool, group art project
^colourful community art that took only minutes to create
Up With Voices: Zines, where we learned about zine collections and creation, zine workshop programming, and an exciting Indigenous zine project currently in the works
These are just a few highlights, but overall this conference has been amazing and I wish I could have attended every session!
Jasper Municipal Library
Of course we had to visit Jasper Municipal Library at some point! Thursday morning we got directions from a lovely woman at the Jasper info center. The library is a mix of modern and cosy. I am in love with the cute manga-style posters welcoming you in. A library staff told me they were created by a local teen for a program!
We also stumbled upon this adorable Little Free Library in town.
Regarding Impulse Purchases
We had some time to explore the Jasper shopping scene a little bit.
I promised myself I wouldn’t spend any money on cheesy souvenirs, but we were exploring on Thursday morning and I fell in love with these finger puppets. A grown woman can spend her money how she likes, right?
At the Fairmont Fitzhugh’s To Go, I tried my first ever Brookie (Brownie/Cookie) and Cruffin (Croissant/Muffin).
The Brookie was the winner.
On Nearly Burning Down Our Hotel Room
On thursday morning, we knew we would have to talk to the hotel staff because our room was ridiculously hot. We had kept the air conditioning on all night but with no success. We talked with the hotel desk staff who said that the air conditioning wasn’t set up properly from the winter and that we shouldn’t use it. We advised them that it was emitting cold air so they basically said “oh, OK then, guess it’s alright”.
When we returned that evening the room was like the deepest steaming crevice of hell. Something was obviously messed up. We called the desk. A guy came up and urgently advised us that there was no exhaust hose connected to the air conditioning, so although it was providing cool air from the front, all of the hot air was escaping out the back directly into the curtains behind. “This is bad” he said. “This could have caused some damage.” My manager and I imagined having to call our library admin staff to advise them we’d burned down our hotel (this became a running joke for the rest of the shenanigans we got into on the trip).
Ah well, what happens in Jasper stays in Jasper.
It seems like Elijah Wood didn’t take up my offer in a previous post to crash the conference, unfortunately. IT’S COOL I’M STILL FANGIRLING FOR YOU ELIJAH 😀