I loaded up my minivan with my family and boxes of books, the detritus of road trips defying my boxes and tote bags as water bottles, chargers, candy wrappers, and things-we-desperately-need cluttered the floorboards. I was returning to my hometown for a Pies and Poetry event at Mayders and Tayders fruitstand. I get anxious as I cross into Mississippi, like it’s quicksand that I’ll get sucked into and never escape from casseroles, supersaturated sweet teas, and church invitations. That’s not to say that the South doesn’t have its charms. I can’t help but love the magnolias that line the highways at the state line. And I don’t think I can get the red clay out of my soul. The pine trees feel like home to me, even when I desire biodiversity and know there’s not much but pines. The Southern accent slips back into my mouth, whether I mean for it to or not, and my Minnesotan husband catches only about half of my words and less than that from the natives.
And, yes, they did remark, “He ain’t from ’round here, is he?” My pageant smile fell into place. And I forced air that sounded like a laugh out of my lungs. “No,” I joked, “I had to find him on the other end of the Mississippi River.”
I ate key lime pie with my kids, and they sampled the cheesecake, too. Aiden, my eldest, watched me like he’s never really seen me before. I usually exist in the silence and the gray tones of rain clouds. And he was watching me in the colorful walls with people who came out to support a local author and chat with an outlier. I took my anxiety meds before people walked in; PTSD has me watching every move from every person, and it’s a lot to process. I still felt my energy deplete like a cheap battery in a couple of hours. I was happy to catch up with friends and family, but it’s difficult for an introvert with PTSD–a bit like deciding to do a marathon after having knee replacement surgery.
I know the effort is worth it when I hear people with PTSD telling me they feel like someone else understands when they read my words. And I thoroughly enjoyed listening to rich laughter as the tiny town’s only black female minister laughed at my oh-so-real poetry before she bought copies. I, too, felt seen. Female ministers and female atheists are not that different in a small Southern town. We share an otherness and curiosity, a reckless abandon about public perception.
When I walk into book signings, I have a moment before anyone arrives that feels like standing on the ledge of a pit, right before I rappel into an abyss. What if no one shows up? What if they show up and hate my work? What if they show up and heckle me? I breathe and remember an anecdote that Neil Gaiman shared on imposter syndrome. He said:
“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.
On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”
And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”
And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”
And I remember I am in good company with the Neils. And I do my job–talking about books, writing, and the things that inspire me.