Last weekend I gave a reading and conducted a workshop at the Rascals, Rogues and Outlaws Writers’ Conference presented by the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild and the University of Saskatchewan at the U of S in Saskatoon. My fellow readers were novelists Catherine Bush from Toronto and Rosemary Nixon from Calgary (currently living in Saskatoon) and poet Alex Porco who now hangs his hat in North Carolina. I believe we all acquitted ourselves admirably and those in attendance seemed to come away with something to think about. Maybe even some of them were inspired by what they saw on stage to go home and take another shot at writing the Great Canadian Novel.
Beyond the conference itself, the weekend hit at me at a deeper level, at more or less a patriotic or nationalistic level, as for me in going back to Saskatchewan, I was going back home. Of course I’m from Regina, the Capitol, the Athens of Saskatchewan, and as such am normally bound by the traditions of the province to sneer at Saskatoon, but in this instance I was only too happy to dispense with that rather empty ritual. (Just this once, mind you.)
I am of the finest Saskatchewan pedigree. My father’s people came over from England in the very early days of the 20th Century. Grandpa, whom I never met, set up a forge in the bucolically-named town of Maryfield in the south-eastern part of the province. My mother’s people had homesteaded around the same time in the Alsask region. My grandma and grandpa eventually bought a farm in the Broadview area and that’s where my mother was raised.
My mom’s dad, William Hunter, was said to have been a mover and a shaker in the formation of the CCF Party, precursor to the NDP. I once heard a rumour that the Regina Manifesto was actually typed on his typewriter, but I have no way of proving that. You can see I came by my politics honestly.
By the time my sister and brothers and I came along, our mom and dad were living in the old north end of Regina, in the shadow of Taylor Field. Well, two blocks away. When they moved in, it was a prosperous working class (with pretensions to middle class) neighbourhood. By the time they moved out, down to the south end, it was called by Maclean’s Magazine the worst neighbourhood in Canada. Well, things change.
When I was in university, at the University of Regina, I was a pretentious, mustachioed, tweed-clad, pipe-smoking twit with no greater dream than to get the hell out of Regina and move to Toronto. And I did that. I went to York University and got myself an MFA in playwriting and dramaturgy at York University.
It grieves me, as a westerner at heart, to say that I had a great time in Toronto and that I believe it’s one of the best cities anywhere, in any country. But it really is a wonderful place, at least it was back in the ‘80’s. And yet, I looked around me one day, actually I looked above me, and I couldn’t see the sky, and I realized I hadn’t seen it for some time. So I moved back home in the late 1980’s. Really, on account of the sky.
I tried to make a go of it, but those were disasterous times for Saskatchewan economically. I tried to make it but I just couldn’t. So when I had an offer to have a play of mine produced in Calgary, I did like hundreds of thousands (yes, literally) of my fellow Saskatchewanians have done over the decades and took the Trans Canada west to Calgary. And here I have been now for 20 years.
Where does the time go?
Coming to Calgary led to two of the best writing gigs in the country, at the time. First, as playwright in residence at Alberta Theatre Projects and then as a feature columnist for the Calgary Herald. (Sadly, neither really exists anymore, in quite the same way. This blog is in many ways a continuation of that column. I haven’t figured out how to get them to pay me for it, though.)
When I began at the Herald, my publisher told me there are over 300,000 people in Calgary originally from Saskatchewan. It’s often referred to as Saskatchewan’s biggest city. “So govern yourself accordingly,” he said. And I did. I wrote primarily to a Saskatchewan audience. Well, pan-prairie on any account. But don’t get me wrong. I never would have had the type of career I’ve had if I hadn’t come to Calgary when I did. I was in the right place at the right time.
I have many good friends in Calgary and I love the city. It drives me nuts sometimes, but any city will do that. It’s a great city, a great place to live. After all, 300,000 of us Saskatchewan immigrants can’t be wrong.
Still, in going back to the homeland, something tugs at the heartstrings, some kind of inherent sense of kinship, of belonging, that exists quite beneath the realm of thought or awareness. I suppose no matter where you grew up, you feel it when you get back to your original home.
It’s healthy, I think, to celebrate that feeling. I always say, if you want to know where your home is, look at your health card. That will tell you all you need to know. But when I look to my heart, I know that my true home will always lie a few hundred miles east of here.
There’s a poem that I made from a monologue from a play of mine that I meant to read on the weekend, but that I never got around to. Don’t worry, I’m not about to keel over and die, at least I hope not, but the poem sums up the elegiac feeling I’m referring to. So here it is again. (Looking over at my poetry page, I am reminded I read this as part of my eulogy for my mother at her funeral a few years back.)
It’s an issue of space.
You start out on the farm,
That great, vast prairie
To run and tumble in
The endless horizon
And the great dome of the sky
But your mother calls you back
Back into the house
And it’s a big fine house
With many rooms
Sheltering a family, a home.
And then you muddle around and
The space around you expands and
Contracts to the seasons of your life
Yet at a certain point
You feel the walls begin
To close in around you
From a house
To an apartment
To a room in a home
You are left
In just the smallest of spaces
A wooden box
And the prairie opens up
And you are lowered down into it
The circle complete.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s my old buddy Jack Semple, one of Saskatchewan and Canada’s finest musicians. This is from the Ironwood here in Calgary, but he still lives back home. We went to Scott Collegiate together, back in the day.