Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Authenticity and Borders

Back and forth across the Canadian border yesterday to take the kids to the Granby Zoo, which we've decided beats the National Zoo hands down. Big discussion before we left about how much trouble we'd have getting back and forth since I'd forgotten the kids' birth certificates. Only in the last few years have you needed to present documentation for children accompanied by one or both parents.

Having grown up near the border, crossing it has always seemed like such a casual thing. A driver's license was all that was required. As a kid, taking the train with my junior high class to Montreal, I don't think we needed any ID at all--just a note from the school and a class list to show authorities stating that we were all American citizens. Lydia Kaye, who was a British citizen, forgot her passport on that trip. The teachers decided that she should just sit quietly and nod and say she was an American citizen when the customs inspector asked. Since she didn't have an accent, she passed.

Then there was the time my cousin and some of her classmates from Midd decided to go to Montreal overnight to hit the bars legally (the drinking age went up to 21 my senior year). They were afraid to admit to the U.S. customs agent that they had gone to the city for that reason, so he could tell they were lying about something when they tried to cross. He pulled them over and was about to start taking apart their car when my cousin thought of a more convincing lie, which was that she'd bought a pair of shoes in Montreal and had been afraid to admit it because she thought she'd have to pay duty. They were spared.

By 2008, passports will be required for entry into Canada, which seems so draconian to me. Canada, even French Canada, feels so comfortable--Canadians hate it when they think Americans think of it as an extension of their own country. I love French Canada--the sameness of it juxtaposed with the obvious differences: signs in French (in Toronto, which is in Ontario, for some reason signs are required to be bilingual, but not in rural Quebec), different traffic lights (on the horizontal, rather than vertical, and an odd flashing green that precedes full green, which we were perplexed by yesterday), English in a heavy French accent. I love it when you fly into Montreal on Air Canada--as soon as you enter Canadian airspace, the pilot has to state everything he says in both French and English.

But the houses are much the same as they are on the Vermont, NH, and upstate NY side of the border--frame farmhouses, red barns with similar structures. A lot of the buildings have metal roofs though--more snow. Burger King in Cowansville does not have milkshakes--are they unpopular among the Quebecois?

I love the border for reasons that make absolutely no rational sense. It seems oddly exciting approaching it--this artificial portal to a world much like our own, only in which most people speak both French and English, but English only grudgingly. These gates and obstructions in the road, the artifical illumination of the whole area at night, this giant blockade in the middle of nowhere (really, across the VT/Canada border it is in the middle of nowhere)--the odd seriousness of the border guards with whom it is an exceptionally bad idea to joke or make small talk. It's kind of like visiting relatives as a child whom you don't really know who have really bad senses of humor. You speak only when spoken to and they ask you all sorts of odd random questions. And they'll ask you the same question several times.

And the odd realization that they don't have to let you in. And that your own country doesn't necessarily have to let you come back. Declare your citizenship! It sounds so ceremonial.

I guess I just like the idea of the border--not a fortress border that keeps everyone each on their proper side, but the porous and permeable border through which people pass, largely unchanged, but may enter different states of being at will, different modes of existence. Isn't writing a lot like that? Crossing a border of the conscious or subconscious mind, at will mostly, but with some element of the involuntary? Crossing over to assume one identity, live in one reality, if only briefly, and then cross back through to normal life, the border guards of your ordinary existence looking at you with some suspicion as though you could be carrying back something contraband or subversive into your quotidian relationships?

Or maybe that's what writing is like for me, mom with a young family living in a fussy, upper-income enclave in which concerns about status (which always involve trying to be the same as everyone else--odd how even among those who consider themselves counter-cultural or avant-garde [NOT Bethesda] are also consumed with creating similarities amongst themselves?)--in which concerns about status extend even to the activities of your children. Maybe that's what writing is like for me, a chance to cross a border into a subversive, different landscape into which my friends won't really follow, a chance to explore alone and return when necessary.

Is it completely necessary to live a 'writer's life'? What is a writer's life? Is devotion to your art solely a matter of living a bohemian or countercultural life, or is it a matter of building a border state you can enter at will? Is one type of artist more genuine or authentic than the other?

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