25th Trillium Award

Much Ado About Housing: How a Writer with Wanderlust Made Stratford Home

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Alison Wearing. Photo credit: Geoff Robins at the Globe and Mail

By Alison Wearing

So how did you end up living in Stratford?

It?s a question I get asked a lot. Not because people think it an odd choice, but because — actually I?m not sure why people ask so much, but they do. So I?ve taken to wondering about the answer. How did we end up living in Stratford? And as a writer and performer, what?s it been like?

For the better part of the last decade, I lived with my partner and son in a magical town in central Mexico, a place where the everyday and the fantastical have a uniquely Mexican way of converging. Quetzalcoatl, a human-turned-deity, was born just down the road, for example, and the volcanic mountains that encircle the town are the home of another important god, Tepozteco, famous for being invoked by the local people to help in their fight to fend off a multinational mega-development project. Beyond the deities, the town is known as the setting of many unusual and interesting events, including some extra-terrestrial ones. When I would land at the Mexico City airport and the customs officials saw my address, they would often ask, "seen any UFOs yet?" before winking and stamping my passport.

We had ended up there because shortly after the birth of my son, I was going bonkers near Peterborough, Ontario, desperate to deny the fact that motherhood had in any way curbed my hitherto fancy-free life. As I watched freezing rain pelt down for the third day in a row and I paced the apartment bouncing my baby, I decided that I needed to do something drastic: something inspiring, interesting and outside. An ad in a literary magazine caught my eye: House for rent in legendary Mexican village. Gardens with centuries-old trees and spectacular mountains views. Reasonable rent. I called and booked the place for a month. When my partner got home from work, I told him that I was taking the baby (seven months old) to Mexico, a place I had never been, but was fairly sure was wonderful. He thought it a terrific idea and joined us for a week. We fell in love with the place, took two years to rig life in such a way that we could swing it, and then moved there when our son was three.

Every summer, we would return to Ontario where my partner worked as an ecologist. Sometimes we lived without electricity or running water, my son and I spending an eye-crossing number of hours making pinecone towers or playing with his wooden train set, while my partner slogged through the forest counting ferns and dodging bears. Or whatever it was exactly that he did; I was too train-and-pinecone-weary at the end of the day to ever ask.

We kept up this way of life, or versions of this at any rate, for about eight years, by which time our son?s demands for something he called ?a normal life? (often adding, ?I mean, with a house...?) drowned out our romantic songs of magical Mexican living combined with annual woodland retreats. So we agreed to settle. Somewhere in Ontario, because that was where work and family were and because it was time to come home, although that notion — home — had become, by then, an utterly vague and location-less one.

We began by looking in some of the places where we had spent summers and while we found some promising prospects, nothing worked out. No matter how many offers we made, house inspections we had, it was as though all the houses we liked somehow lined themselves with grease and slipped out of our fingers. After a few months of this, we were flummoxed, and the urgency of time was pressing down. If we wanted our son to start Grade 7 somewhere in September, we would have to buy a house within two weeks.

At that time, I was in the habit of creating one-woman shows and performing them in summer theatre festivals. Which is why, right in the middle of our real estate crisis, I had to head off to a fabulous little artsy town called Wakefield, 25 minutes north of Ottawa and one of the funkiest places I know.

And it was there, after the show, in a pub full of actors, artists, dancers, singers and all-around-bursting-with-creativity folks, that I looked up and thought, wait a minute. We could live in a place like this: a place where creative ideas are exchanged, collaborations are possible, other people?s projects are nourishing, uplifting, inspiring.

?Well, if you want to live in a small, artistic community like Wakefield, but you need to live in Ontario for work, what about Stratford?? said someone I hardly knew.

Stratford? I thought. Aren?t they all stuffy Shakespearean types? But on the long drive back from Wakefield, Quebec, the word Stratford kept dancing around in my head like the name of someone you?ve just fallen in love with. By the end of the eight-hour drive "home," I was smitten with the idea.

The following weekend, my partner and I drove to Stratford, attended three open houses and bought the third one. Bang. Just like that. Well, we sort of had to, because we?d agreed to buy a house by the end of the weekend. And it was already Saturday.

So that?s how it happened. And we haven?t looked back. Mainly because the thing about Stratford is that it is not just a town, but a community. A place where people do things like shovel each other?s driveways, mow each other?s lawns, share summer barbecues or spend the evening drinking wine around the piano and singing through the crazily beautiful harmonies of Andrews sisters songs.

(Yes, we really do that.)

Fortunately for us, the house we bought is in a dynamite neighbourhood right around the corner from the festival theatre and our neighbours — actors, musicians, stage hands, set designers, directors, teachers, writers — are the most spectacular I?ve ever had anywhere. But the town is also brilliant: small but worldly, navigable on foot and bicycle, quaint and beautiful, with just enough in the way of cafes, local food markets, great shops and restaurants that I almost feel — almost — that I am living in Europe. I can drive across town and back in the middle of rush hour in, oh, about eight minutes, and every once in a while I burst out laughing at the poetic absurdity of the sign that welcomes you to town: Stratford: Home of the Shakespeare Festival and the Ontario Pork Congress.

Which reminds me, my son (who has lived and loved theatre since he was a wee tyke and has dreamed of being part of the Stratford Festival since he saw his first show there at age four) was just cast in this season?s production of Waiting for Godot. And the three of us trundle down the road and see breathtakingly brilliant plays the same way we used to go to the movies. So I believe it?s safe to say that moving to Stratford has been, for all of us, ?such stuff as dreams are made on.?

Alison Wearing is a writer/performer. She has lived in France, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Israel, Mexico and Canada. Her first book was the bestselling, internationally-acclaimed travel memoir Honeymoon in Purdah: an Iranian Journey (Random House Canada), and her second book, Confessions of a Fairy?s Daughter: Growing Up with a Gay Dad, will be published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada in May 2013. It is also a multimedia one-woman show. Visit Alison at her website, alisonwearing.com and follow her on Twitter, @alisonwearing.

For more information about Confessions of a Fairy's Daughter please visit the Knopf Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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