dispatch from Sardinia

This land resembles no other place. Sardinia is something else. Enchanting spaces and distances to travel—nothing finished, nothing definitive. It is like freedom itself.

–DH Lawrence, 1921

So far today I haven’t left the premises. Hostel Alghero is a series of small bungalows with a central espresso/wine/Fanta bar and a tiled patio. I sit in the same white plastic chairs that adorn patios in Vancouver. I wonder which countries, if any, don’t have these chairs. Inside, the only noise is the TV that plays pre-MTV-era music videos: Queen and Stevie Wonder and David Bowie. There’s a dusty pool table pushed against the wall, some dorm-style tables, a chess board with no apparent pieces. Siesta is running long today.

I planned to get to the beach but a lingering mirto headache has slowed my progress. Mirto is a digestivo—an after dinner liqueur—made from myrtle berries. It tastes bracingly medicinal, like high-end cough syrup—with the same consistency. The Sards serve it straight from the freezer. It’s weird at first, but it grows on you quickly, especially when a glass appears without you asking or really even noticing how it arrived. It seems the line between the recommended amount of mirto and an excessive amount mirto is a fine one.

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I sit on the patio and watch people come and go. And I write. It’s hot still at a quarter to six, but the breeze is stiff and cool. I’m sharing the hostel with my friend Kirsten’s geology field school and as the students filter in from the airport, their loud American voices seem to hang in the air. Some have already been down to the beach or to see the cow that’s slowly rotating on a spit in downtown Fertilia—an area that’s exactly two blocks long and one street wide. They put  up the cow last night as we walked home from dinner. A veal roast, they said, but this beast appears fully grown. We watched them build up the fire from a heaping mound of logs in the street. The musculature wrapping around the bones was deep red and white, as vivid as any classroom anatomy poster. But this cow is spread eagle and pierced sternum to pelvis with a ten-foot steel pole. One end of the spit has been slung to a crank with a bicycle chain.

The camp faculty have talked me into giving a lecture on academic writing and in exchange have plied me with salami and Vermentino. I am certain I’m getting the better end of the deal. It’s such a pleasure to chat about teaching over smoked ricotta and late night mirto. It feels, in fact, like I’ve fallen into someone else’s rhythm, a space that doesn’t, or shouldn’t, exist. Still, it suits me to settle in somewhere.

Everyone asks about my book, which provides good practice pitching it. The faculty tell students not to bother me, then they sit themselves down at my table with a bag of cookies and a jar of Nutella. But I like their company and work is progressing, despite having to reorient myself after only a week away from writing. It’s hard to believe it was only a week. Vancouver life feels far away. I look in the mirror and it takes a moment to see myself there. My face is freckled and my hair is fuzzy and light around the temples. Impossibly, the dimensions of my face seem different. Continue reading

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Dear Vancouver: what if love is not enough?

A couple weeks ago I was leaning over my car engine when a man walked over. “What’s happening here?” he said, eyeing my attempt to loosen a rusty bolt with the pliers on my camp kitchen Leatherman. He looked concerned, ready to be helpful. Something about the way he carried a cold can of Canadian on a Sunday afternoon, and the way his t-shirt was stuffed into his belt like a rag, his beer belly on full display, reminded me of home, of the south, of the kind of well-meaning but slightly patronizing older man who tends to appear the moment you (if you are a young woman) open the hood of your car.

“Battery’s dead,” I said. “You don’t have a wrench I could borrow, do you?”

“Hang on.” He returned with a shiny metal toolbox.

“I just need to get the battery out,” I told him. I tried to explain the power drain in my car’s electric system that has left me with dead batteries for years now, and how I knew exactly what to do, I just needed the proper tools. “The first thing is,” he interrupted, “fire your mechanic.” He opened the box and dug around for the right sized socket. “I think we can jump this thing.”

I gave up, admitting that this guy obviously knew more about car batteries, and watched as he first removed the bolt and then meticulously sanded every last battery contact. My friend and I chatted with his daughter about the bugs she’d collected in the yard. Then Paul—I finally asked his name—got the engine started with no problem.

As far as neighborly interactions go, this one was pretty standard. But it struck me as kind of exceptional for Vancouver. And it left me wondering about the relationship between friendliness and traditional/patriarchal community values. (In other words: are more liberal, more inclusive communities inherently less friendly?)

After a trip home last month, I came back to Vancouver, looked around, and for the first time in years thought, “What am I doing here?” Of course this is an easy question to answer—the things that recommend Vancouver, the reasons anyone might want to live here, are obvious:

note: beach, snow-capped mountains, giant trees that eagles live in

note: beach, snow-capped mountains, giant trees that eagles live in

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On CWILA, writing, and raging feminism

Last week I told my friend Erin that, when I grow up, I want to be a raging feminist. Of course I’m already grown up, but I’m starting my part of the CWILA count today and I am increasingly convinced this is important work–that I can’t teach or write without being aware of the larger literary world. This instinct is reinforced when my male students protest that they can’t identify with a female protagonist and I worry that I don’t have the credibility (I’m another woman writer after all) to effectively critique their myopic views. I don’t want to be angry in my feminist rage–that’s the easy part–I want to plow through the assumptions that underlie such comments.

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The Globe and Mail in 2011

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my CWILA assignment

When I was a kid in rural Virginia, it was easy to accept that feminism had swept through a decade before and accomplished its goals. As the daughter of both coach and cheerleader, I played rec-league flag football on Tuesday and stood by the varsity girls with my kid-size pompoms on Friday nights. At eleven, I was deemed old enough to drive the tractor so I could help with yard work, but I was not yet allowed to pierce my ears. My sister and I modeled our ambitions after both parents, playing school (like Dad) and office (like Mom–who earned more and worked longer hours). I could see that most administrative assistants were women and most doctors were men, but I believed this would change by the time I reached adulthood. The plan was working.

But now, twenty years later, I am less sure.

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