Wednesday, September 19, 2012

To Choose a Name

Picking out my son's name was a bit of a process.  Before Cliff and I knew our baby's gender, we went through the difficult naming discussion that I think every expectant couple goes through.  To Cliff's dismay, there were A LOT of boy names off the table merely because I'd dated A LOT of boys in my short years.  I was adamantly AGAINST names that connected me in any ways to former relationships, even if those relationships had been largely positive.  Also out of the running were all names that made me think of guys I disliked or had a slew of negative memories of.   Cliff was more than a little exasperated when he would run through a slew of names and all my answers would be a variation on this tune: "No, I dated/knew a guy with that name..."

I wouldn't then and I won't apologize now for my naming criteria - I wanted our son to have a name that was free from painful past associations and from tricky family egos.  It needed to be strong, to be out of the norm and yet normal enough to avoid easy teasing.  Gareth is one of the names of the Knights of the Round Table, and that's what I reference to most people, but Gareth is really taken from the Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan.  In those books, Gareth Byrne is a strong, moral, kind, compassionate and righteous general who fights on the side of Light/Good.  Alexandre (yes, the French spelling) is the first name of Cliff's favorite author, Alexandre Dumas.  Our son's name is strong and distinct and I love it; I have no regrets about our choices for him.  It is deeply satisfying to choose a name and have that name be right.

On Monday I led a short devotional for the monthly meeting of a children's ministry group that I attend, and I chose to talk about the power and danger of naming things.  The lectionary gospel reading on Sunday was Mark 8:27-38, where Jesus asks his disciples "Who do people say that I am? Who do YOU say that I am?", which of course is at its root a story of Identity and Naming - is Jesus ONLY a prophet or MORE?  I mulled that over and remembered the passage in Genesis where God creates all the creatures of the earth and brings them to Adam to have them named - naming is a deep and ancient part of who we are.  And that led me to the words of Friedrich Buechner in his autobiography, The Sacred Journey:

"Mrs. Taylor [his nanny] was the one who vastly increased my dominion over the earth and its creatures by teaching me the art of naming them.  It was not till years later that I learned what a fatal art that is because if, on the one hand, to name a thing is to be able to address it, to appropriate it, to have a way of understanding it, it is, on the other hand, to erect a barrier between yourself and it which only on the rarest and most inspired occasions are you ever able to surmount again.  Now that, thanks to Mrs. Taylor, I can name a tree as a tree, what I see when I look at it is less what it actually is than simply the name I name it by.  When I was a child, what I saw when I looked at a tree was something as naked in its mystery as I was naked in mine."

Names are good - they help us to understand who we are, the world we live in; names give context and reveal aspects of identity that we need to function.  But, as Buechner points out, names can also be a cage that limits true understanding.  A tree is more than a tree, but I rarely think of that because I have no need to - the name gives me the illusion of understanding.

I'm struggling with names right now, trying to find words that explain, reveal and identify who I am in context of the ongoing difficulty of life-after-all-the-evil.  And the word I am finding most limiting and forbidding and frustrating and anxious is this: Wife.  I'm still married to Cliff, so by all traditional definitions, I am his Wife.  But traditions be damned, I am not WIFE in the way that most women are WIFE.

I don't live with my husband - but I am not the first to experience this complication.  Many women are WIFE while separate from their husbands: a woman married to a deployed soldier is still WIFE; a woman married to a traveling businessman/woman is still WIFE.  But those separations are willing, have honor in them, have willing sacrifice in them.  This kind of separation is flavored with the grief that widows suffer, while at the same time being different from a loss that total.  So I am not WIFE like they are Wife.  

I am celibate - but I am not the first to experience this complication.  Some women are WIFE while maintaing celibate lifestyles: because of extended separation brought on by work, because of medical complications which prohibit sexual enjoyment, because of religious conviction that forbids sexual contact.  But those celibacies are not the same as mine, which is a consequence of the punishment that my husband was given by the state of Texas.  So I am not WIFE like they are Wife.

I wear a wedding ring and so when a stranger passes by and sees that identifying jewelry, I am immediately categorized as WIFE and that word is judged sufficient to describe me.  But my ongoing inner turmoil is my fury that that word is NO LONGER sufficient to describe me.  Yes, I am a WIFE, but I am not a WIFE in a way that I ever expected to be, that I ever WANTED to be.  I no longer have the benefit of close, physical proximity.  I no longer have the option to express sexual desire.  I no longer can depend on the financial support of a partner.  I raise our child alone, shouldering all of the responsibilities for our lives by myself.  Even though I am a WIFE and that name implies an existence totally otherwise of what I truly live.

Now I understand the depth of a word and its shallowness at the same time, how one word can be completely right and entirely wrong at the same time.  Now when I see a wedding ring on the hand of a stranger, I can no longer categorize them with simple words and make assumptions about identity and reality.  I am more careful about naming now, even more deliberate and hesitant than when I struggled to name my son.  Words matter so much (guilty, innocent, punishment, justice, freedom, love, grace, abandon, release, wife, husband, father, mother, family, marriage, affair....), and yet they only lightly touch the surface of what truly IS, of what EXISTS, of what is REAL.

And of course, it is ironic, that I describe this with words at all.

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