BY MADONNA HAMEL
When the day arrives to drive north to St. Peter’s Abbey it starts to snow. I’d been toying with the idea of attending the writer’s retreat ever since I heard about the Abbey. I imagined a highly productive sojourn the likes of my first few months in Val Marie, ensconced in the Convent Inn. I will never forget that June afternoon five years ago. I was told: It’s easy, just turn right off the Trans Can at Swift Current and head South. If you hit Montana you’ve gone too far”. Headed south on 4, just outside of Swift I gasped at a hedge-row of trees all leaning at a permanent fifty degree angle, silhouetted on the horizon. “Now that’s what you call wind!”
As the drive to Val Marie progressed the wind turned into “now that’s what you call storm!”. By Cadillac voluminous grey and black clouds were billowing like smoke. A tractor made it’s plodding way homeward down an allowance road, the first fork of lightning took its time zagging to the ground. I was ecstatic in this new dramatic world where Nature would rule my psyche, not the minutia and trivia of the urbanized scramble for attention and reputation. I wanted to be swallowed by weather and natural wonders, and my wish was coming true.
By the time I got to the Convent I was eager to get my notebooks and computer out and my thoughts and impressions on paper. Mette showed me to my room, plodding down the narrow back staircase, past the laundry room and the boiler room, through a door latched with a skeleton key, and into a dark hall lit my a glowing Virgin Mary night light. She opened the door to a tiny, spare and spotless room. There was a sink, a deep closet, a small but inviting bed covered in a fluffy white duvet. One small chair sat at the end of the bed. “It’s perfect!”, I squealed, clapping my hands. “One doesn’t usually get that excited by the Cinderella Room,”Mette smiled wryly.” It was the Mother Superior’s room, actually”. “Even more perfect”, I squeaked.
Eventually I had to leave the convent and join the world. But while I was there I wrote every day, sometimes for up to seven hours. I sat at my desk in the quiet, reflective room that was once the chapel. I looked out across the road and through the giant cottonwoods at the village campground. Beside me the confessional sat empty and sheathed in sheer curtains. “To keep me honest?” I joked to Robert and Mette over breakfast my first morning.
Where I live now has plenty of windows and light and prairie views. I am surrounded by my books and kept cozy with my fake fireplace, its fake logs glowing through the dark mornings and evenings. I have a desk by the window and, in winter, plenty of time to write. And yet, my days fill with accumulated chores and distracting books I’d rather read than write. So I decided I needed the company of other writers working diligently in their own rooms. I needed someone to report to every evening and I needed help with my unwieldy structure and plot. Most of all, I needed the sanctified and solemn quiet of a monastery to replenish my spirit.
Up until last week I’d never been to Saskatoon. I was looking forward to the drive and had a place I could crash and then carry on the next day to Muenster. There were warnings of slippery roads, but by the time I got to Swift it was sunny and the landscape opened up before me, white and yellow like the soft pelt of a jack rabbit. The beauty of The Landing not diminished by winter, but iced, like a cake, or a dusted pastry, elegant in its extra touches.
I like how the cities of Saskatchewan are easy to access, there’s no big long suburban sprawl or tangle of off-ramps coming and going. You’re in the country and suddenly, you’ve arrived. I decided before entering the Abbey I’d treat myself to beer and ended up having a long conversation on a slow night with the young server about the rise of microbreweries. She kept bringing me samples of pale ales until I decided I preferred the scotchy flavour of the Nokomis.
The next morning I met Judith for coffee at Citizen Bakery and we talked about life in Val Marie. She spends spring and fall just across the road from me in her tiny log house she won in a Save-Our-elevator draw built by Maurice using elevator lumber. But I rarely get to see her. This summer she interviewed the truck drivers, immigrants from the Punjab, who worked on the highway, getting their perspective on life in rural Canada as new Canadians. After coffee I stopped at The Gabriel Dumont Institute to buy books for the museum and also a shirt for me that read: “Keeping It Riel”. All the while, my characters waited patiently for me to get to my destination so they could begin to dictate to me.
The minute I walked into the Abbey I was inspired by the perfect silence, the walls of paintings and the shelves and shelves of books, mostly interpretations of the first guide for monks, The Rule of Benedict, written as a response to the increasing wealth and greed of church leaders. I lugged my bags and books to my room, my name posted on the door at the end of a long and maze-like path marked with yellow dots to writers’ rooms so that we would not wander lost into the off-limits monks quarters. Once settled in, Fr. Demetrius greeted us and gave us a tour, as he has done for twenty years, in his robes and mischievous smile. Already I’ve made a note to self to change my Jesuit character into a Benedictine.
At the end of Fr. Demetrius’ tour he shows us where he keeps the peanuts for the chickadees who live in the trees out back by the monk’s cemetery. “They’ll eat right out of your hand, “ he promises. “Oh and,” he adds, before leaving us to our writing, “if you should hear a loud bang in the morning, don’t be alarmed. It’s just me with one of my rifles, taking out a skunk or magpie, they’re attacking our chickadees.” He waits for the shocked look I’m sure he gets every time he mentions his guns, then reminds us: “ We’re Benedictines, not Franciscans.”