The Final Frontier

I’m at the top of the tower at St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, Saskatchewan, at a retreat sponsored by the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild. As the sun gradually sets, I look down over a landscape I’ve become familiar with — but have never ceased to wonder at — over the last two weeks. The prairie is not really flat (at least, not here) but there are no dramatic rises or dips in the landscape; it’s just rolling hills, partitioned into fields, and the occasional row of trees. The wheat is still green, the canola, a brillant shade of yellow. With canolas fields in the distance, the horizon itself seems to emanate light.

And then there’s the sky. The license plates here read, “Land of the Living Skies.” The sky here dwarfs the land, providing an ever-shifting cloudscape to watch and think … or not think at all.

The roads here fall into a comforting grid pattern. You can parcel off a perfect square covering whatever distance you want to walk. This means you can see light and shadow and cloud from all different angles, and never have to double back. I would feel embarassed, admitting to this enchantment with regularity, except that that all the other writers sharing the retreat seem to delight in beginning and ending their days with these symmetrical walks.

People have told me that you can’t imagine the effect of the prairies until you’ve actually spent time in them. I know, now, that it’s true. The way the space arranges itself here has a certain effect on mind and body that a photograph or film just can’t reproduce. It’s a minimalist landscape, not overstimulating but endlessly variable. The imagination can range far and wide in this landscape. It also allows for slowness, melancholia, and demands a kind of brutal honesty. Here, I find myself writing in spare prose, not flinching from painful topics.

Even in mid-summer there is no hiding from the harshness of this place. A couple of times during my stay there have been merciless lightning strikes, pounding rain. We watch from the haven of the Abbey, but it’s only too easy to imagine what it would feel like to stand out in a field, exposed to all that weather and far from any shelter. If you had shelter to go home to at all.

Watching the storms advance brings to mind stories from my mother’s friend Shirley. She grew up in rural Saskatchewan in the 1930s. She told us how you’d see the locusts on the horizon and soon you’d hear them, and there’d be nothing you could do but watch as they stripped your fields, then moved on to devastate another farm. When a dust storm was approaching, you learned to estimate how much time you’d need to close all your windows and run inside before the brown cloud would arrive, coating everything: “You’d taste it, you’d smell it, you’d comb it out of your hair.” There would be barely enough time to recover before the next one hit. And there’s be nothing you could do.

My grandmother was born in Saskatchewan, and last week, I did three readings from Outside the Box: one in Prince Albert, her birthplace, one in Melfort, close to where the family had a homestead, and the last in the marvellous McNally Robinson bookstore, in the book-loving city of Saskatoon.

Rolf was the driver, and a couple of times formed an embarassingly large percentage of the audience; still, it was thrilling to bring some of my research to life. The venue in Melfort was the Historical Museum and Archives, a kind of pioneer village where we saw the type of house Mona’s family might have constructed on its land. Proportions were tiny, amenities, basic. We imagined the extremes of temperature they must have felt in that house, how packed together the family must have been. How Mona’s mother, a city girl who had never farmed in her life, would have missed her comforts. We saw the farm implements they might have used, and the medical implements too. Mona was born in Prince Albert, a relatively large town, and I can see why they stayed there until she was several months old. We all know how dangerous childbirth used to be, but it came home to me now in a very personal way. In local graveyards, there are rows of stones from the early 1900s saying nothing but “baby” and the family name.

I also thought how hard it must have been to say goodbye to their loved-ones back in their native Elgin County, Ontario. Without photographic images to prepare them, without the sense that home was a three-hour flight or a Skype click away, coming here was an immense commitment. This was a place that tested you. The McTavishes were probably the second ones to take a crack at their homestead. The beginnings of a house might have been built here; maybe a fence or two. It gave the family a head start, yet they lived with the evidence that others had been defeated by the challenge of this land.

The post office and shops, the school and church would have been a welcome relief from the isolation of the farm.What it must have felt like to get a letter, in those days! Mona was too young to have been much of a book-lover, but she grew up in a place where communication was vital, and hard-won. A life-or-death drive to communicate marked her whole life. There was a mock land office set up, too. Mona and her family arrived during an enormous settler boom. Everyone around would have been new and transient, some moving toward something, some away.

Mona wasn’t much of a one for stuff; it was words that mattered to her. I read several of her poems, including “This Was My Brother.” I was choked with emotion, knowing that Mona’s words had come back to her birthplace.

The family returned to Ontario when my grandmother was six, and she had next to no memories of Saskatchewan. Yet I think it had a deep effect on her. In those days, there wrere no tidy fields of wheat and canola, no rows of trees to form a windbreak; instead they would have seen scrub and mud and wild grass. As a small child she got to explore her environment, to play with animals, watch things grow, get dirty.

And then, everything changed. She had not only the usual experience of school children being suddenly expected to conform to schedule, to sit straight and silent all day. There was the added constriction moving to the city. There were layers of clothing to be kept clean, brick buildings interrupting her view. And manners. She always painted herself as more plain-spoken than the stuffy people surrounding her. She prided herself on her simple, accessible poetry. A theme of her work – and the stories she told — was the desire to run away and find some frontier, a place where she’d be free. She never really found it again.

All this makes me think of home, how the first place you know marks you for life. On our second day in Melfort, we came downstairs to find the ubiquitous CNN playing in the breakfast room. There was news of a shooting, children hit by “stray bullets.” I knew where the story originated without looking at the screen. Toronto. My city.

I had the kind of pang I used to feel if my mother had a health crisis while I was away, an unreasoning urge to get to her. I ranged around, restless and preoccupied until I set foot in her hospital room. Toronto has been unwell, this summer, with relentless heatwaves, and violence in places where innocent people gather to go about their business. And I’ve been in a different place, a place with its own, very different struggles. As a visitor, I’m insulated from them.

Unlike my grandmother, I’ve lived in the city of my birth most of my life. There have been forays into other places, but for the most part, Toronto has been my horizon. I love it, but I have not always felt this way. For years, I believed that real life was elsewhere. The city where I was born seemed to lack mystery, lack the silence and darkness it takes to incubate ideas. A hive of business and prosperity, Toronto is all about doing. For me, writing means reaching a wall where there’s nothing to be done any more. The only thing on the other side is words.

I made a conscious decision to change that attitude, back in the 1990s. I abandoned my pipe dreams of escape and just let myself feel lucky to live there. In Toronto, people buy books when we have no money, organize events when we have no time. We have a community that shows up for plays and concerts and readings through epidemics and all kinds of weather. You can eat any kind of food, take any kind of lesson, listen to any kind of music. You have as much freedom here as you’d have anywhere in the world to configure your family or love life in a way that suits you. And the city keeps growing and changing. I’m fiercely proud of it.

Yet life can be hard, in Toronto. Housing is expensive, and among artists, there is overwhelming competition for every dollar. There’s the corresponding strain on our time, and our health and relationships as a consequence.This year, exhausted from juggling jobs and family lives and creative aspirations, Torontonians engaged in a fervent letter writing campaign to save our libraries and other amenities that are “not nailed down” from the push to privatization.

It’s really different, here, and this data about spending on the arts gives and idea of why. Here, even in small towns, I’ve seen cultural centres, galleries, museums and this retreat, all well-funded and accessible. Not a frill.

I know moving elsewhere would only bring another set of challenges, another set of letters to write; yet it’s important once in a while to get a total shift in perspective, to question even the terms of the struggle. As I composed my letter about the Literary Press Group and the Toronto Public Libraries, did I once wonder: why do I even have to raise these points? There wasn’t time.

WHAT IF we didn’t have to justify our existence as artists? It’s a powerful question.

My grandmother’s parents pushed the boundaries of European settlement in Canada’s West; as a child, I watched a man land on the moon. In middle age, I have the feeling there is no place to run — from or to — any more. “What If” may just the the final frontier.

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