Do You Have Anything to Declare? by Angela Palm

Us passport on deskI suppose I could have said that I was between jobs, or that I was changing careers. That I’d been distracted by the curious landscape of southern Quebec—oddly shaped roadside businesses barely hanging on, situated between sad-looking homes whose architecture couldn’t be associated with any decade’s style that I knew. That something was about to happen, though I couldn’t say what.

I could have said that I was temporarily unemployed. I could have said that a melon color had been wrenched loose in my life by Maggie Nelson’s fascination with blue. That I had to have it, the way Nelson had to have blue pieces of glass, which somehow made sense in her life where she could not. Melon-colored Eames chairs, melon-tinted lipstick, a ream of melon and cream damask fabric, salmon nigiri. That melon did not often occur in nature, at least not in the lush green of Vermont’s Champlain Valley where I live, was a fact I lamented, and I found myself quickly disappointed. Barely charmed by tiger lilies. Appalled at the cantaloupe’s watered-down orangey color. I could have said that in Montreal, a man stood next to me at the corner of Rue Saint Laurent and Saint Paul, smoking, his cigarette clinging at an angle such as I had never seen before to lips such as I had never seen before. And that it changed me, and that his mouth was the embodiment of melon. They were the same. That it was my job to explain how this could be so.

I rode in the passenger seat of our rented car as we approached customs. As our turn for re-admittance into the US approached, my husband muttered, “You can’t wear sunglasses through customs. What are you thinking?” He is a pro at travel, can pack a suitcase expertly in the dark, breezes through airport security without a snag. He has systems of efficiency, not unlike Macon Leary. And he has no patience for those less practiced, who can’t keep up, can’t fold a pair of pants into a pocket-sized, wrinkle-free contraption, can’t pass through customs unmolested.

I, on the other hand, was never quite apace with nuances such as these. I generally couldn’t find my passport, never made it through security without being pulled aside for extra screening processes. As we were green-lighted to approach the customs station, I quickly removed the sunglasses, jamming them into my lap. Too late. The customs officer, layered in bullet-proof and polyester garments, leaned in, squared her jaw, and set about questioning us. What were we doing in Canada? What did we do for work?

My husband is an airline pilot, so his response was simple and straightforward.

“And you? What do you do for work?” the customs officer asked, looking at me.

I squinted, barely able to make her out as anything more than an outline of black against the summer sun.

I could have said that lately, perfection in miniature broke my heart. That ants carrying grains of sand in a long line toward their very own mound of earth like ancient Egyptians dragging rectangular slabs of rock to the pyramids had set me to crying. That I wondered if worker ants were enslaved by other ants in a language no one could hear, and that sometimes when I spent too much time alone I dreamed of a Polly Pocket Earth and humans who were less than another louder, bigger, and more knowledgeable something. So I waved, just in case, and smiled.

I could have said that once, I’d sat on a man’s couch, a terribly dirty couch in a nameless trailer park, and helped him spell his own name as he registered to vote for the first time. I was rattled, realizing just then that people existed down the road from where I’d grown up who could not read. That when he insisted he write his own name with my help, rather than signing X, his five-year-old daughter, who was still in a diaper and could barely talk, came to sit on my lap, and I thought for the first time that I might one day like to be a mother. And that, later, it worried me that it was not my own mother’s love that prompted this thought. And worse, that I recognized, for the first time and far too late, my penchant for falling in love with strangers would be a problem. Had been a problem. That somehow I felt safer and happier and more alive with them than with people familiar to me. And what was that about?

I could have said that once I’d watched a half-gallon of milk go bad as proof that time is change, that one thing can become another. As proof that cheese is a sublime marriage of art and nature. And wasn’t that something important? Something true?

But I didn’t say any of this. I leveled my smile, hardened my eyes. I matched my face to hers, something I’d learned that humans do to indicate trust. The long answer, the storied answer compressed and collapsed in a blink, and I uttered rather unconfidently, “I’m a writer.” It came out sounding like a question rather than a statement. I’m a writer. The reply echoed in my mind. Was that what I did for a living? Well. It was a living in that I was living it. Not that I was paid, per se, not yet, but that I supposed that it was time I called myself a writer. Publicly.

The officer looked almost amused. Almost. She definitely did not believe me. Worse, I did not believe myself.

No grandmas, no vaginas, no mirrors, no accounts of post-grad summers spent traipsing through Europe, no writing about writers. There’s a long list of what not to do as a writer. Among the not-to-dos, or the cautiously-to-dos, is the timing of proclaiming that necessary statement: “I am a writer.” The announcement of the self- or other-applied title, in some cases, is a precarious endeavor. In 2012, I wrote a light-hearted story in list form called “How to Be a Writer” that was a kind of response to the turmoil I was going through in light of my decision to become a writer in earnest, salaried or no (no). I was struggling to own it, what with most of my friends having ignored the release of my little publications, small as they were, and my efforts at starting the first draft of a novel. “How to Be a Writer” worked a barebones story around the social consequences of declaring oneself a writer, and while it was funny, it resonated with some folks in a more serious way than I’d intended. Turns out, there really is a lot of gray in the defining terms of the “writer” label. Profession, hobby, love affair, compulsion, calling. Whatever “it” is was in question for a lot of people. Is it acceptable to say you are a writer if you maintain a blog that no one sponsors with money and only a few people in Japan read? Is it acceptable to say you are a writer with just one measly online publishing credit to your name? Must you have a book in print? Must that book have earned you a paycheck in the five- to six-figure range? Must you have a post graduate degree? Is the line somewhere among these? Should there be a line? A requisite level of accomplishment?

I didn’t have an answer for the questions about coming out as a writer. I only knew that I’d seen the world as a writer for a long time, and that that was the only explanation for me—to make it work on paper and start letting my outer life reflect the inner, writer life I was now leading. This melon-syndrome, my wild crush on the mundane and the emptied out, the thrill of vaguely intimate encounters with strangers. I had to admit these into my persona, give them a name. Give them room to breathe. Nurture them. Write it all out in a way that meant something, held weight in the world. In a way that became more than a collection of images, more than a cross-section of place and time and people.

All the answers I could have given the customs officer meant the same thing. And I hadn’t realized it until now. Writing had become more than a hobby, more than a desire. Writing, as a creative practice and an earnest attempt at art, had become greater than the fear of failing at it.

When she pressed for details, for evidence that would amount to my reply and publications that she could Google on her government-issued laptop to confirm my claim, I listed for her the few publications I’d acquired over the past six months, feeling puny and ridiculous at the joy I had felt over them. They seemed insignificant under her scrutiny. And rightly so.

She typed away on the computer, maybe for show. Maybe not. Then she asked, “What do you write?” She seemed confident, sure of tripping me up with this question. “Look at me when you say it.”

I was glad she said that. To look at her, I mean. Disallowing anything but facts. Demanding an unflinching reply. She didn’t mean for it to help me. I know that. She only meant to determine whether I was lying. Whether I was a threat. But it was what I needed to be asked.

“Oh, short stories, some essays. I’m writing a novel.” Spat out in a single sentence, nearly two years of toil sounded in a minor key. Hundreds of pages shriveled in the hazy summer air between us. “I’m just starting out, really.”

The customs officer looked at me, then at my passport, then back at me.

I’d cut all my hair off and looked nothing like my picture. I smile when I’m nervous.

“Don’t smile,” she said.

I snapped my mouth shut. We were not here done yet.

When I turned thirty, reinvention of self became a subconscious priority, and then an outward, blatant one. I’d been editing for several years, and suddenly, I only wanted to write. A move across the country from Indiana to Vermont proved to be the perfect opportunity to address my inexplicable need to change everything. From my first day in Vermont, I decided to own that wholly, shifting completely into a life and practice of writing. I presented myself as an editor-turned-writer to new acquaintances. I joined a writing group via meetup.com. I wrote whenever possible, often floundering on the page and only hitting that sweet vein of verbal soaring from time to time. I began submitting work. I found some success right away with online magazines and was elated.

“Where is your work published?” the officer asked, still looking at her computer. I still hadn’t convinced her. Had she been expecting my name to pop up in a search? I knew it wouldn’t. I started thinking about this woman as she worked, about who she was beneath the pepper spray and the nightstick. Beneath the black polyester. She was very short, but not slight. She wore a hard look in her face, but smile lines caught in the sunlight around her mouth and eyes. I named her Amanda.

“On the Internet, mostly. Some journals.” I shrugged, feeling smaller each time I spoke.

Where on the Internet?” she wanted to know. At this point, I was pretty sure she just wanted to humiliate me, the silly girl trying to wear sunglasses through customs who thought she was a writer.

I rattled off the short list, my voice flat now, unemotional. I hoped she intoned my meaning: let’s stop the charade, Amanda. Amanda, who is a real person beneath the polyester who smiles and wears capri pants and flip flops and likes baseball and sometimes probably snorts when she laughs.

“Mm hm. Mm hm,” she said, and then finally cleared us for entrance to the US with a stamp and a nod.

When we crossed back into the US, I was still thinking of what I could have said at the customs gate, vaguely unsettled by the ordeal.

My husband put my sunglasses on and pretended to toss his hair. “Uh, I’m a writer? Um…” He laughed at himself and gave my sunglasses back, rubbing my knee. “Aw, come on. I’m just kidding. But you’ll have to get better at saying that.”

We drove another ten miles without talking, the green intensifying the deeper we drove into the Vermont countryside. “What do you do for work?” he asked.

I looked at him. “Very funny.”

“No, really. You should practice.”

He convinced me to say it out loud as we rode down I-89 back to Burlington. “I’m a writer,” I said, only half serious.

“Nope, not good enough,” he said.

“I feel like I’m in therapy.”

“Just do it,” he said. “When you fly a plane, half the challenge is confidence in your ability. If you don’t know you can do it, you can’t do it. If I was checking a pilot and asked him what altitude he should be at to turn off the seatbelt sign and he said, ‘Um, 30,000 feet?’ what would that look like?”

He had a point. I said it again and again, “I’m a writer,” until we felt it was believable, and we laughed about it. When we got home, it was night. Carrying my overnight bag up the stairs to our condo, I worried about my new writer self, still just a dribbling baby gazing out the window in wonder.

In the morning I wrote home—an email to my closest friends—to update them on life in the Northeast and told them I was writing and starting to publish some work. That I was writing a novel. That I felt I’d found my place in the world for perhaps the first time in my entire life. Of the six friends I contacted, two replied. I was devastated because this was a huge life change for me. Didn’t they know this was a proclamation? Writing was hard, emotional. It was work, body and soul. It was fragile and I was only a writer-baby. Often, it undid me in ways both freeing and crippling. I heard later from one woman that another friend had mocked my claims of becoming a writer. Jealousy, she alleged. But it still hurt.

I remembered something I’d heard Julia Alvarez say at a reading. “When you’ve seen a thing,” she said, “what, then, is the obligation?” That has stayed with me, helped me make sense of my writer eyes. It has helped me stop waiting for the approval of friends or a pat on the back for all my trying. It has propelled me beyond the visioning—this lifelong collecting of images and moments—and to move more eloquently into that higher-ordered act, the writing itself. Can I better understand how to write about a man’s bottom lip, a Polly Pocket world, rotten milk because of the way I look, because I am compelled to see? I can, because the man is alive, because the Earth is tiny and we are tinier, because milk becomes cheese. And time is change. And one thing can become another. And cheese is part-art and part-nature. And I have seen that and more. And writing is seeing. And there is an obligation. Of that, I am certain.

 

Angela Palm owns Ink + Lead Literary Services. She is the editor of the anthology Please Do Not Remove (Wind Ridge Books 2014) and is a contributor at Book Trib. Her writing has also appeared in Paper DartsaptMidwestern GothicARDOR Literary MagazineLittle FictionSundog LitPrick of the Spindle, Tampa Review, and elsewhere. Her essay, “The Devolution of Cake,” published in Big Truths, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Angela is represented by Lana Popovic of Chalberg & Sussman and is working on her third book.

IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Damian Bariexca

 

  2 comments for “Do You Have Anything to Declare? by Angela Palm

  1. Angela, this resonated with me in so many ways that if I listed them here they would rival your essay in length. I struggle with my own self perceptions about when it is ‘acceptable’ to identify myself as a writer. I silently question these 17 and 18 year olds who so confidently display business cards with ‘writer’ on them while secretly envying their chutzpah, their confidence, the surety that seems to be built into their generation. Recently on a trip which required me to fill out my occupation in the little, blank space for the first time since having children I filled it in rather than leaving it a looming wound. I wrote ‘writer’. Luckily no one questioned my declaration. For what it’s worth, as I was reading this I wished a pox on the customs official who demanded to know where you had published. I have several words for her. None of them ‘writer’; none of them nice.

    • Dina, thank you for reading and for your supportive comment. It was certainly a self-revealing experience that helped me clarify my path. Let’s all grab our chutzpah and hang onto it, shall we? It’s not just for kids! Best wishes to you on your own writing journey.

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