I lived in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia for the first eighteen years of my life. During that time, I did so within the warm social embrace of a good community. I was well served by my teachers in the schools I attended. My parents both had good jobs. I lived in a good house on a safe and friendly street. I had friends who liked and accepted me as I was. Glace Bay is still the place I mention whenever I get asked where I come from. And yet I left…of my own accord…like so many others of my generation. We all answered the siren call of better lives lived elsewhere. The lure of bigger cities with fancier shops and restaurants was strong. Better-paying jobs with rosier futures awaited somewhere far from the rocky shores of home. So, at the age of eighteen years, I packed a steamer trunk with as many childhood memories as would fit, boarded a train bound for Toronto and have lived away from Glace Bay ever since. My time in Glace Bay now comprises barely one third of my life.
As a teen, many of us couldn’t wait to get away. As great as it actually was to live there, we regularly called Glace Bay a “hole”. We were bored with our lives there. There were no great prospects for us back home so we were happy to get out…to cross that Causeway that connects Cape Breton Island to the rest of Canada. The pull of a life lived somewhere else was the fuel for our childhood dreams. Everything would be better if we could only just get out. So, I left. Many others did, too. We built lives for ourselves in Ontario and Alberta or anywhere else that offered us money and steady employment. So, here we stayed and here we lived…in homes on cul-de-sacs with manicured lawns, dreaming of what it would be like to live by the Sea. As it turns out, I go home every chance I get. But, I am hardly recognized by anyone who stayed. I have become a tourist in the town of my birth, with a voice that now sounds like it belongs to someone from away. I still go back to the place I couldn’t wait to leave. Because, after all, it is where I am from. It is part of who I am, regardless of where my house sits. It is home.
I grew up believing that the outward migration of youth from Cape Breton Island to the rest of Canada was something that was unique to us there. But, as time has proven to me, the love-hate relationships that people have with their hometowns is fairly common and quite universal. Our hometowns are a mirror that we hold up to ourselves; sometimes we look pretty spiffy and we like what we see. At other times, that reflection is filled with wrinkles and grey hair and spare tires in places we would prefer were hidden from view. Today’s song, One Great City by The Weakerthans, mines this emotional seam as well as any song ever has. The Weakerthans were a band that grew out of the burgeoning music scene in Winnipeg, Manitoba, back in the 1980s and 90s. One Great City is about Winnipeg, but in reality it could just as easily have been written by someone like me about Glace Bay. There are lots of references to actual points of interest from Winnipeg, such as the Golden Boy statue that sits atop the Legislative building,as well as the band, The Guess Who, who were big news a long time ago, and the Winnipeg Jets hockey team, which had left town to play in that hockey hotbed of Atlanta at the time this song was written in the early 1990s. The chorus to One Great City consists of one line only: that line being, “I hate Winnipeg”, which is something only actual Winnipeggers are allowed to say. John K. Samson, who wrote this song and most of their other great tunes, calls One Great City a love song…an ode, if you will, to the city he grew up in and left and came back to. A place that those who live there all believe is slowly dying, yet there it stands as a place where people live and work and call home.
The Weakerthans no longer exist as a band but, in their day, many of their songs read like poetry. In the links below, I am going to leave you with two songs to enjoy. The first one is the subject of today’s post, One Great City. As mentioned, it is about Winnipeg and the love-hate relationship Winnipeggers have with their city. The second song is my favourite Weakerthans song, Left and Leaving. It is also about Winnipeg, although the name of the city is never mentioned. The song is told from the point of view of someone who couldn’t wait to get away, but like the prodigal son, keeps returning…a little more changed as a person, to a city he recognizes less and less each time he returns. I feel as though John K. Samson and I have shared much in common in our lives as far as how we have come to view the idea of home.
The truth of the matter is that your house is where you live but your home is where your heart resides. Sometimes it is difficult to separate the two. Sometimes the place you call your home only exists in old photographs and faded recollections of familiar places and familiar faces. At other times and in other ways, the idea of home as a destination is smokey and wisp-like when, in fact, its essence is most often found in the arms of those you hold dear. So, here I sit…in a house with a manicured lawn, thinking about the Sea but realizing that I am where I am meant to be. I am with those whom I love and who love me in reply. In other words: I am already home.
The link to the video for the song One Great City by The Weakerthans can be found here.
The link to the video for the song Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Weakerthans/John K. Samson can be found here.
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