Lament for the Robert’s Arm Public Library

As I’ve mentioned before, I had the good (and bad) luck to grow up in small-town Newfoundland. I don’t know anyone whose childhood was more rural than mine. We had no hospital – one doctor served five different communities and wasn’t always in town. We had no police station. When a cop (always some poor sucker serving time in an isolation posting) would appear anywhere near Robert’s Arm, people would call and warn each other: “cops are down today, don’t do anything stupid”.  The nearest book store was an hour down the highway. We only went there when my mechanic-moonlighter father needed to pick up a car part he’d ordered or when one of us needed to visit the dentist or optometrist. I was a voracious reader. I went through at least two books per week. Even if there was a book store in town, my allowance wouldn’t have covered my reading habit. Enter the public library.

Our library wasn’t big or architecturally arresting, but there was a nice variety of books. Everything from sleazy romances to historical fictions to classics to encyclopedias. I did homework there. I met project groups there. (It was during one of those group sessions that I first had my bra strap snapped by a boy – but that’s not necessarily a tender and glowing recollection.) I went there every couple of weeks to pick through the offerings. I pounced on new books like a starving lion on a lame gazelle. Sometimes, the librarian would save a book for me if she thought I’d like it. I always went to the section for people a few years older than me, and that was ok by the librarian. There was a limit of six borrowed books per visit, but the librarian was always lenient if I just couldn’t leave one of my precious finds behind. Every summer, my family went on a big-ass road trip – my father was a teacher, so we could disappear for up to two months in our motorhome. One of the last things I’d do before leaving town was visit the library for a stack of books to carry me across the continent. The librarian would gently remind me of the six-book limit, and then allow me to borrow a dozen books or more. I loved that place.

I don’t know what it’s like there now, but when I was a child Robert’s Arm wasn’t exactly encouraging when it came to education. In some ways, it was downright discouraging. I got teased for my obsessive reading. I got teased for using big words. (I didn’t know how to pronounce those words, having learned them from books. So I pronounced the P in “psychology”, and pronounced “akin” with emphasis on the A, and pronounced “midget” as two separate syllables. But the seed was planted, however haphazardly.) I got teased for writing poetry. I got teased for achieving good grades, and for being interested in science. I was the kind of kid who chafed at the word limits set by my beleaguered English teachers, and got docked marks a time or two for being unable to resist adding that last paragraph or two. This is one reason I love the concept of blogging. I can write thousands of words and nobody can do a thing about it. I found out, years later, that I suffered mightily from big-fish-in-a-small-pond syndrome, and I’m not as bright as I thought I was – but even my level of academia was an object of envy to be snickered over and snuffed out.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that the Robert’s Arm Public Library, beloved childhood landmark of mine, was a refuge for me when I was young, and had a hefty hand in shaping who I am today. Which is why I’m heartbroken to hear that it’s closing – along with about half of the public libraries on the Rock. I have not been as much of a library user in recent years. And I know that the ubiquitous internet makes knowledge more available to people, and that we’ve got e-books now. But, even in the age of the digital superhighway, I relied on libraries when my children were little. I brought Fiona and Bridget to our local library once per week to choose books to supplement their own voracious reading appetites, and we attended readings, information sessions and a weekly playgroup the local library. They still love the library today, and so does Ryan.

Incidentally, the city of Ottawa has just made a decision about how it’s going to use a stretch of land called LeBreton Flats. Ideas included green space, an urban beach, a Canadensis walk (not sure what that is, but it sounds interesting), a public library, a YMCA, a beer museum and an aquarium – and a quirky-but-possibly-charming offering, an automobile museum. But we’re getting a giant arena, some condos and a whole lot of shopping opportunities – because that’s the bid that city hall likes best. Because we don’t have enough arenas, condos or stores in Ottawa, right? Because we need a new venue where people can make money hand-over-fist on overpriced beer, reheated junk food and NHL merch while fans pay exorbitant prices to see millionaires chase a chunk of black rubber up and down the ice. Bread and circuses have won again. But what shall we feed our minds and hearts?

The gift of changed plans ….

I have been living on the mainland for nearly fifteen years now – long enough to have been domesticated, or (at least) naturalized. It was my fortune – and misfortune, depending on how you look at it – to have grown up in rural Newfoundland. My friends and I ran wild along the beach and over the hills and through the forest, and we spoke a strange variant of English. We were raised by everybody in town and, consequently, we were watched by dozens of pairs of eyes – yet our parents would have been hard-pressed to say where we were at any given time. Our education was somewhat substandard, due to the perpetual lack of funding and interest by young teachers in travelling to the arse-end of nowhere to work. However, I caught up with everybody else, and every time I tell people where I am from, I get a hearty slap on the back, and am regaled by stories of all the wonderful Newfies they’ve met. And, yes, I’ve been asked a time or two if I know so-and-so from wherever. I never do, but that never deters them.

When you move from the coast of a huge country like Canada to the interior, you encounter many differences. One that stands out to me today is the abundance of snow days in Newfoundland as opposed to the paucity of them here. Oh, sure, we have dirty weather here in Ottawa – an awful lot of it, in fact – but, in all my time here, I can count on one hand the number of times its been declared a snow day for anyone. People battle through sleet, hail, snow and fishtails to get to work, whatever work is. You’d think we were a city of continuously engaged brain surgeons, so great is our dedication to getting to work even if we have to dig our way there. We’re actually civil servants, which means that we probably could take a break in the name of not ending up in a ditch – but we don’t. Back home, though, snow days are scattered generously throughout the calendar. Yesterday was one such day. Yes, yesterday, April 20 – and that’s not all that crazy on the Rock. I have a distant memory of snow falling on my birthday. My birthday is in June.

So, at a time when people in Ottawa were dusting off their golf clubs, reseeding their lawns and hitting pub patios for lunch, many of the people I grew up with were shovelling snow. A wise and witty friend of mine, Marsha, posted this on Facebook:
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I sympathised. My-friend-the-optimist responded that it was already starting to melt – “and we had a relaxing day home yesterday, so it isn’t all bad”. It made me think back to the handful of snow days we’ve had over my time here in Ottawa. On one of them, I learned how to open a pomegranate without making the kitchen look like a murder scene, and we all made a snowman on the lawn. We made him facing our house instead of the street, so we could see him smiling at us through the living room window. On another of them, after we got stuck multiple times on the way home, after Ryan had helped neighbours out and the girls were red-faced and wet from the exertions of the day, I made hot chocolate for everyone. We did something we hardly ever do: all of us sat on the couch together with no fixed time for swinging back into action. Fiona smiled at me, and then said “look, everyone, Mommy’s actually relaxing“. Yes, I was – and it felt good. This is a very rare occurrence for me. Usually, I’m the opposite of relaxed – a whirlwind of tightly wound plans, activities and blunders. The thought of these plans going awry fills me with dread, and frantic thoughts of replacement plans, and all the awful things that will happen if I don’t get to do those things I think I have to do. In reality, though, what a gift: changed plans.

Last spring, Ryan and I went to Vegas with friends of ours for a long weekend of glittery fun – and we had exactly that. Our flight home, though, was a fiasco. It was delayed, so we were moved to a different flight so we wouldn’t miss our connection. The plane we were switched to filled up with smoke before it even left the ground, and we deplaned. We stood in line for over an hour trying to find a place on another flight. We got that, but it would be nearly twelve hours later. We would miss work the next day, our kids would miss school and spend an extra day with their grandparents, I was supposed to have dinner with my cousin and I couldn’t because I would be in the air somewhere between Chicago and Ottawa at that time. The airline shuttled us to an off-the-strip hotel called South Point. It was lovely. The room was clean and comfortable, and the hotel had five different restaurants, a pool, a theatre, a spa, a gift shop. We were given a book of coupons for free drinks and discounts on meals, and all the servers were very friendly. The receptionist looked us up and down when we said we were checking in for only a few hours, and carefully stated that we could have the room for all night. We thanked her, and reiterated our request for an airport shuttle in a few hours’ time. I can only imagine what she imagined. We had a wonderful afternoon there. We’ve talked about going back sometime. We were forced to delay jumping back on the treadmill after our vacation, and we soaked it in – and it was beautiful. Changed plans.

Changed plans used to be an occasion for tight knots in my neck and shoulders, worry over what wasn’t happening, wondering how I was going to make up for whatever had been scuttled, frustration over my lack of control. These days, though, I’ve been making more of an effort to embrace the gift of changed plans. Some of my best memories are times when things didn’t go the way I thought I wanted them to. Unexpected guests, five for dinner instead of four, last-minute invitations, wrong turns, heartfelt confessions, people needing me and me needing them, days off – and days on – it’s all life. I’m blessed in ways I could never have predicted because of missed connections, changed plans and serendipity. I’m learning to lean into – and be thankful for – the curves, and I hope they keep coming.

Apparently, Marsha has learned to embrace changed plans, too. Check out what she did with her out-of-the-blue day off:

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Some shockin’ good, me ducky! Fist bump from afar ….

A BC woman has proven that near-death experiences do not always change people for the better.

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Picture this …. You went to the hospital because you couldn’t breathe. A nurse at the hospital has dedicated his entire education, concentration, and effort to help you breathe again. What is your first thought when the oxygen that allows you to have thoughts rushes into your brain? I’m here! I’M STILL HERE! Thank you, God! Thank you, universe! Thank you, nurse! I’ve been given a second chance. Or something like that. Unless you’re Marie Molloy. If you’re Marie Molloy, you focus on the nurse’s tattoo, shudder with distaste, and resolve to complain about it as soon as your face is free of the breathing mask that is interfering with your ability to give voice to your discontent.

Yes, this actually happened. Molloy suffers from rheumatoid arthritis in her larynx and an abnormally small airway. Her condition was worsened by the effects of an unrelated operation. Struggling for breath, she ended up in the emergency department of the Vernon Jubilee Hospital. A nurse attached a breathing mask to her, and administered a sedative. This was when Molloy spotted the skull tattoo she says gave her nightmares for two weeks.

Molloy claims that seeing a skull tattoo when she was facing possible death was “offensive”. It inspired nasty dreams about “outlaw bikers”. Molloy follows up with some very impressive logic: “If I saw a gang of bikers that had full-on tattoos and were mean-looking and were noisy and had club symbols on their jackets, I’d be afraid of them.” Skull tattoo – skull – club symbol – biker – gangster – biker gang – what if I saw all that? Well, if they were mean-looking and noisy, I’d be afraid of them. Well, that makes perfect sense. That’s why she’s so upset. Kind of like when I see a squirrel. Squirrels gather nuts, which fall from trees, which have been used for hangings. If I saw someone being hanged, well, that would scare me. Argh! Is that a squirrel on that jar of peanut butter? What kind of careless asshole would just leave this jar on the kitchen counter, where anyone can see it?

This kind of thinking can be applied to many hospital employees. Perhaps people with scars should not work in hospitals, or pale people, or large, muscular people, or anyone who bears a resemblance to any villain featured in any children’s movie.

Molloy says she appreciates tattoos as an art form – but, we are to assume, only the ones she likes. If, for example, the nurse’s tattoo featured a kitten or a flower or Molloy’s own face, things would have been fine. But that’s not how the world works. She doesn’t get to tell other people what they can or can’t wear, including ink, based on what lights up the happy spots in her brain. Furthermore, a hospital is not a Pinterest page, it’s a place where professional life-savers and care-givers save lives and give care. The employees are there to perform these very important functions in a fast-paced, often stressful environment. They are not part of the ambiance or decor, and they’re not trying to craft a precious memory for anyone.

In my experience, skulls can be unintentionally encountered in many places. Doctor’s offices. X-ray images. Book stores. Toy stores. Art galleries. Cartoons. Movies. Anatomy textbooks. Cleaning supply labels. Motorcycles, and the people who ride them – those horrible bikers with their “full-on” tattoos and noisy, noisy noisiness, are all over the place. What on earth is Molloy going to do for the rest of her life? The nightmares may never stop!

Or she could gather some perspective and move on – possibly even thank the nurse who helped her breathe again. She’s been given a new lease on life, and apparently she’s decided to use it to be an ungrateful whiner. The hospital administration, laudably, has refused to change – or even examine -its rules regarding body art. They’ve got more important things to do, and – unlike Molloy – they know it.