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Oh no! (Sid goes to the library)
The joy of community spaces
This weekend Stacy and I took Sid to a library near our house. He is newly obsessed with books, and loves when we read to him. He delights in the pages he remembers best, pointing at images, turning to us for acknowledgement. Sometimes, he sits alone, turning pages of books, babbling rhythmically, telling himself a story only he can understand. If I say, "Go get a book, Sid, I'll read to you," he will crawl across the entire house, dragging a book back along the floor with a sense of determination that breaks my heart. “Turn,” I say, and he turns the page. When he's bored, he slams it shut, “Done!” and reaches for the next book atop the stack.
At the library Sid pulled books from the shelf with indifference. The act of disruption, is itself a new game. Then he crawled to the small table and chairs made for children his size, repeatedly screaming his new favourite phrase, “Oh no!”. We left with 8 books and a receipt listing each title, that I began to immediately worry about losing. Today I was relieved to find the library now keeps an online record of your checked out books with pictures just in case you forgot what they look like. (But how could we because we have already read each new book 100 times.)
PS. Below I have included the keynote address we gave at the opening of the astonishingly beautiful Central Library in Calgary in 2018. It was a reminder of what I’ve lost, but also of what I’ve gained in my life since writing it.
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Lit Gala Keynote, Calgary Alberta November 2, 2018
Tegan: Good evening, I’m Tegan, and this is Sara. We’re so incredibly honored to be here with you tonight. As you know from that wonderful introduction, we grew up here in Calgary. We were born in 1980 and raised in the North-East. Though we moved away after high school, we’ve watched over the past twenty years as Calgary has grown into a cultural and creative heavyweight. Projects like the New Central Library reveal the mighty beating of this city’s heart, signaling to everyone who lives here the importance of these kinds of institutions. What libraries offer are a vast universe of information that should be available to anyone and everyone. But it’s not only the information contained in books. It is the cultural and arts programming inside, that is key to building an active community of wise, inspired citizens. These buildings welcome, support, and reflect an entire city, vibrant with diversity.
Sara: A great deal of our childhood was spent at the Village Square Leisure Center in Pineridge. For those of you unfamiliar, it has a wave pool, waterslides, a climbing wall, a gym, and an ice rink. It's also where we took our first piano lessons. But growing up our favorite place in the whole building was the library. We spent hours wandering the aisles and sitting on the floor with stacks of books in front of us. Sometimes our mom would even leave us there to read while she ran down the street to the Co-op, which is probably illegal now. Just a side note, I ran that anecdote by our mom, and she said that it was entirely not true. But that was the magic of the library, it was a safe place, and once you were through the turnstile, you could reasonably assume your kids were out of harm's way. Watched over by the librarians, there was an unspoken promise to provide a world where it was safe to disappear with your nose in a book. As kids growing up with a single parent mom who had a stack of bills and student loans, it was also a free place. When we were checking out, we never worried that we might have to put a book back. It didn’t matter how much money our parent’s earned, or what remained of their salary at the end of the month. We were allowed to go to the library and always left with something important in our hands.
Tegan: For the first eleven years of our lives, our mom allowed each of us to check out the number of books corresponding to our age when we would visit the library. So, when we were seven, we were allowed to each take out seven books. That is until the summer of 1991 when we received a late fine for over a hundred dollars. Our mom was furious, not just at us, but at herself, and that night when we got home, she cut up all three of our library cards. This was indeed a punishment, and key to teaching us the value of what we were borrowing. As we got older and got new library cards, we had total freedom to read whatever interested us. If it was on the bookshelf at home, our grandparent's place, or the library, it was ours to read. Long before Netflix and Spotify existed, it was the librarians at our school and at Village Square who were recommending what we should read next. After dinners at our grandparent's house, it was our grandmother who piled our arms full of books she herself had just finished. She gave me my first Margarette Atwood book, my first Alice Munro. As young adults we devoured Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and everything Stephen King had written. Then it was S.E. Hinton novels and J.D. Salinger. We read Go Ask Alice so many times the cover ripped off the spine. I’m pretty sure we had to pay the library for that one. At times we were experimenting with material that was perhaps a little mature for our age. But one of the principal inspirations for reading, was that both of us knew that we were different. We sought out stories and characters about outsiders. And as a result, found ourselves in the outlines of people who didn’t quite fit in.
As queer teenagers in the 1990s reading about these outlier characters allowed us to collect information that helped us figure out what our future could look like. Those brief glimpses gave us hope. Especially during an era where the gay stories being told on television and in the movies often focused on the death, violence, and intolerance that have plagued our community throughout history. In 1998 we were in grade twelve. And our mother suggested we both read Anne Marie McDonald’s book, Fall on Your Knees. Near the end, it's revealed that one of the main female characters had briefly carried out a secret romance with another woman in New York City. We’ve both admitted to each other, as adults, that we read those pages at least a hundred times. To recognize something of our own complicated identity in the story of those two women was both terrifying and life changing.
Sara: Tegan and I are writing a book, and for most of the year, I have been working at the many different libraries in Los Angeles. Every building is entirely different, and depending on what neighborhood I’m in, the environment inside radically diverse. In some locations, it’s clear to me that the library is providing crucial, but perhaps unintended services for the neediest in our communities. Those who require a safe place out of the heat, a chair, and desk where they can sit undisturbed by business owners or the police. Even just a bathroom. This, of course, wasn’t something I knew about libraries, or librarians as a young person. But, to me, is another notable example of how these buildings and the people who work therein, encourage us to see all of society and not just those who can afford to buy what is being sold.
At my favorite library in LA most mornings, the space is filled with parents and kids, and I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the thought that like me, those days at the library with their parent will make up some of their fondest childhood memories. The teenagers that flood the space in the late afternoon drive me crazy. They talk and laugh, break all the rules about eating and drinking and move the furniture around when the librarians aren’t paying attention. There is so much written about how young people aren’t socializing the way that they used to. And that may be true, but, after a year of observation, I can tell you that most of these teenagers are doing what I used to do in the library. And, they don’t know it yet, but those afternoons they spend with their friends and classmates fooling around will be forever linked with their growth into adulthood.
Sometimes I sit in the armchairs near the magazine racks, an area that attracts the senior citizens. They too are a group of people who for much of my adulthood, I’ve lost touch with. It makes me sentimental to hear them sit around discussing the news the way our grandparents used to in their kitchen when we were growing up. Watching four generations of people inhabit the library day in and day out suggests to me that when we provide communal spaces for people to gather, they still do.
Tegan: And providing space for people to come together is what we do for a living. The one thing that we as artists can still offer that the internet cannot is the human experience of gathering. Our shows are not just about selling a ticket, a beer, or our merchandise. For us, it's about the opportunity to share the very simple idea that we’re not as different from each other as we think. Pain, heartbreak, insecurity, shame, crushes, love, happiness, passion. Our individual experiences and stories are unique but, the feelings contained therein are universal. Together in a room full of strangers what breaks our hearts, what scares us, what inspires us, and what heals us becomes visible. It connects us to each other. Surviving in the music industry has meant returning again and again to the core belief that we all need a place to go that makes us feel both vulnerable and safe. What we’ve learned during these 18 years of playing music professionally is that our live show gives our fans a reason to support the rest of what we do. And like concerts, libraries have always been about more than just books. If we build and nurture these kinds of spaces, it will give all of us a reason to continue supporting what happens inside of them, together.
Sara: Linking the arts, public education and libraries aren’t difficult for us. We attribute much of our success as adults to the early music education we received both in school and out. Much like with reading, when we were given the opportunity to learn in an environment where we were encouraged to be curious and creative, we excelled. We didn’t have an aptitude for standardized testing, we had poor study habits, and lost focus in classrooms when a teacher’s attention was concentrated elsewhere. But we were saved in the rooms where our potential was realized. Like librarians, the teachers who taught drama, music, and art were often outliers too. And I can’t help but take it personally that the most important adults who had the most significant impact on me are sometimes seen as dispensable in our current education system. That the skills and empathy they developed in so many of us, is not worthy of the same protections is a profound disappointment.
Tegan: Of course, this isn’t always the case. Last week we took a tour of our old high school, Crescent Heights. What we found remarkable about that day was how little had changed about the inside of the school. Even after twenty years, everything was mostly as we remembered it. The student center, the dreaded math hallway and the drama theater with its beaten-up couches. Even our old radio broadcasting classroom, where we recorded our first albums with our first band Plunk, which was just Sara and I by the way, it was still decorated with the same old movie posters and thirty-year-old video/audio equipment. What we saw that was new were the dedicated spaces throughout the school for the diverse student population to gather openly and socialize. We were overjoyed to visit their Gay-Straight Alliance, amazed to find its door decorated with rainbows. It's hard to understand how anyone could be uncomfortable with a dozen teenagers finding community, meeting others like them, and sitting around singing songs and playing the ukulele. But adults and politicians continue to target these kinds of spaces, and it’s a good reminder that we must never take for granted that steps forward can quickly be followed by steps back.
Sara: By protecting, supporting, and elevating the most vulnerable among us we make our entire community, city, and country stronger. The support that is available to artists through government funding is remarkable, especially when compared to our neighbors south of the border. We certainly owe much of our early beginnings in music to the generous grants available. But however much the government prioritizes the arts, we must ensure that our education system and community spaces reflect those same values. If we rely, solely on private lessons and outside funds to help support the arts, we are willingly contributing to a system that privileges a small few over the vast many. This isn’t just about musicians and actors, writers, or dancers. And it’s not about fame or money. This is about the way that we record our collective history. The authors of our time here on earth. We shouldn’t narrow the road that will allow the next generation to see itself in history; we should be widening it. That is the point of a library, of a school and a concert.