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?

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2015 in review …. Happy new year!

Another year of blogging has gone by …. WordPress put together a report for me, and I’m sharing it with you. Your time, attention and comments are such a great encouragement to me – you keep me writing. All the best to you and your loved ones in 2016, and I’ll be back with more blabbering when the holidays are over! (That’s either a promise or a threat, depending on what you think of said blabbering. But you keep coming back ….)

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 47 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

A dozen reasons to read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” ….

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Every year, during the glittery days approaching December 25, I devote several evenings to lying on the couch next to the Christmas tree and reading Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. I have done this since I was a teenager. Back then, when I had very few responsibilities and endless energy, I would read it all in one night – Christmas Eve night, in fact, staying up sometimes til four a.m. to finish it. Can’t really do that now that I’m one of the makers of Christmas for two little girls – but I still take the time to stroll through that lovely old book. It’s part of my Christmas celebration. I’ve always disliked commercials that urge people to “buy a gift for yourself this Christmas” – alot of us spend all year doing that – but I did buy myself a gift two Christmases ago. I bought a beautiful red hard-cover edition, complete with prints of the original illustrations, and gilt-edged pages. I passed my trusty paperback (complete with my childhood phone number on the inside – 709-652-3077) on to my daughters, and Fiona’s reading it now.

There are probably some people wondering why I read the same book year after year. I don’t really care, since I am more or less past the point where I worry about what people think of me. For those who are interested, though, it’s everything. It’s the way Dickens paints his characters. His description of Scrooge is prose perfected: Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. It’s the vivid way he describes Victorian London so that you feel like you’re really there. It’s the way he slips into the story to scatter his pearls of wisdom over each scene – “I am standing in the spirit at your elbow”, he tells his readers.

I’m sure most people are familiar with the story by now, so I won’t dive too deeply into the plot. I will, however, share my favourite scenes and quotes from the book. Maybe you’ll love it, too, by the time you’ve read my sampling ….

1) The story opens with Scrooge in his office on Christmas Eve, and we are not many pages in before we learn exactly what Scrooge thinks of the holiday: “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older and not an hour richer, a time for balancing your books and having every item in ’em through a round dozen of months presented dead against you? …. Much good may it do you! Much good it has ever done you!”

2) At which point we are treated to his nephew’s ardent answer: “There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profitted, I dare say,” returned the nephew, “Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time, a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time. The only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!” This is exactly how I feel about Christmas, and I love to see it in black-and-white.

3) Dickens firms up Scrooge’s stinginess with the scene in which he is asked by two gentlemen if he would contribute to their charitable endeavour to buy the poor “some meat, and drink, and means of warmth” because, as they explain, “it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt and Abundance rejoices”. Scrooge asks for reassurance that there are still prisons and workhouses for the poor, and points out that his taxes support these places – and that’s as much as he is prepared to do. When one of the gentlemen points out that some poor people can’t go there, and many would rather die, Scrooge observes that they ought to do so, and “decrease the surplus population”.

4) Scrooge is later visited by the ghost of his old business partner, Jacob Marley, who is chained. He explains that this is the chain he “forged in life”, and warns Scrooge that his own chain was just as long when Marley died, “seven Christmases ago”, and that he has “laboured on it since – it is a ponderous chain”. Marley tries to explain what is wrong with Scrooge’s life, and Scrooge has a pithy answer for everything, until the ghost loses his patience and howls “Oh! Captive, bound and double-ironed …. not to know that ages of incessant labour, by immortal creatures, for this earth, must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space or regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!”

5) When Scrooge attempts to comfort Marley by praising his business sense, Marley answers sharply: “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” Indeed.

6) “There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill will, hatred, envy, bigotry and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us, and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.” This is from my favourite chapter of the book – the one featuring Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present. If you’ve lost patience with the commercialization and fuss of Christmas, you’re certainly not alone. But don’t use that as a reason to denigrate this holy and beautiful time of the year …. Greedy people are responsible for the vulgarization of the season. Your Christmas is what you make it.

7) I love it when the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooge’s callous words back at him in this powerful series of paragraphs.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

“Man,” said the Ghost, “if man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child. Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

8) …. it is good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty Founder was a child himself. So true! Sparkling Christmas cards, sugar-coated everything, gingerbread houses, snow swirling around haloed street lamps in the dark, shimmering icicles lengthening daily, kindly smiles from strangers, the hopeful act of giving …. and, of course, the miracle of the nativity. If you let the cynicism fall away, if you give air and light to the wonderment of your inner child, Christmas is pure magic, and it will melt your tired, discouraged heart.

9) Much they saw, and far they went, and many homes they visited, but always with a happy end. The Spirit stood beside sick beds, and they were cheerful; on foreign lands, and they were close at home; by struggling men, and they were patient in their greater hope; by poverty, and it was rich. In almshouse, hospital, and jail, in misery’s every refuge, where vain man in his little brief authority had not made fast the door and barred the Spirit out, he left his blessing, and taught Scrooge his precepts. This is the true meaning of Christmas – the salvation of humanity.

10) Just before the Ghost of Christmas Present leaves Scrooge, he imparts his harshest lesson. It is heartbreaking and haunting.

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

11) Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved, revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand was open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man’s. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal! What lives forever is not what we are or what we have, it is what we do and what we give.

12) Then there’s the end …. I can’t think of a single other book with such a triumphant, satisfying, solid ending – and I’ve spent about thirty years reading voraciously. It never fails to spread a smile across my face and fill my eyes with happy tears.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!