“None are so old as those who have outlived enthusiasm.” Henry David Thoreau
“Would you be okay with speaking at any of our branches?”
“Yes, of course. Happy to go anywhere,” I replied to the email from the Vancouver Public Library. They were inviting me to speak about my novel. I was thrilled.
Those words came back as second thoughts as I tried to find a parking spot on the edge of the downtown east side in Vancouver−known as one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Canada.
Throngs of people lined the streets leading to the Carnegie Branch of the Vancouver Public Library. Some were seniors, others were addicts, still others looked like they were living rough−eyes hollow and distant, faces scrapped and scratched, lips cracked and dangling cigarette butts. The smell of marijuana, alcohol and rot was the kind that fixed itself to your clothes, your skin. It’s almost impossible to see Vancouver’s famed beauty in these streets. And yet this is Vancouver too.
I had worked and volunteered on streets like this in a past life. But I felt uncomfortable here. That previous experience had been such a long time ago. And I was so young then. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Still as I walked into Carnegie, a heritage building that serves as library, community centre, hang out and more, I was buoyed by the buzz of so many and the enthusiasm of head librarian, Natalie Porter who greeted me as soon as I walked in. Any second thoughts or worries on my part seemed to disappear in her smile.
With obvious pride, Natalie told me her branch was the busiest in the city, open 10 to 10, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We toured the building, climbed the stone stairway to the top floor stopping several times to speak to various patrons. They hugged Natalie or stroked her arm. They respected and loved her as she obviously respected and loved them. These exchanges reminded me of another time, a lifetime ago. I saw my younger self in Natalie and recalled my former clients in the polite, playful, and thankful Carnegie patrons.
After the tour we set up a round table flanked with two rows of chairs for my reading. Coffee and tea was hot and plentiful. And then we waited.
A few people walked in, and then walked out again. Each time Natalie and I greeted them. Others came in and helped themselves to coffee or tea and sat down. The building’s din and comings and goings remained ever present. Still, I found my voice in the eager, open smiles of the fifteen or so who chose to stay to hear my reading.
I started by talking a bit about my motivations for writing. After I introduced the passage I was going to read, I read for some twenty minutes. The surrounding clamour disappeared. My words were being heard.
When I finished, my audience made comments and asked insightful questions, spoke about issues that bothered them too. What about our First Nations? Shouldn’t we take care of them too? The Syrian war is the fault of the West. Why do we have to deal with it? Shouldn’t we be afraid of these refugees? They aren’t like us. And on it went, sometimes rambling, but always engaged. This reading and discussion was no different than any other I’d given in any other part of town.
Then a man in the back row asked if I would read another passage. “I like to listen to you read,” he said. And I was again reminded of work I did in Edmonton in a similar neighbourhood. I used to read stories to a group of addicts I visited every Wednesday night and Saturday morning. These readings were usually after I led a group counselling session. I wasn’t reading my own work then, but works by other authors as a way to inspire, calm, provide food for thought.
At the end of one of those group sessions, I read The Precious Present by Spenser Johnson. They asked me to read it to them again. They weren’t addicts anymore; they were folks enjoying a story. And don’t we all love stories.
Story was what bound us at the Carnegie branch last week too. I don’t know why I was initially worried. Lovers of stories have always been my people no matter their walk of life.
“Now you can say you read at Carnegie Hall,” Natalie teased. No, I read at the Carnegie Branch of the Vancouver Public Library. And that was so much better.
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