Delight Is Radical

Síorghlas. I love my last name. I am a woman and I chose my own last name! I don’t care that it is hard to spell. Don’t forget the special í with the accent over it! I don’t mind that everyone hesitates when pronouncing it. Síorghlas = “sheer” “lass,” I instruct. Of course that is to the best of my knowledge with my beginner’s learning of Gaelic. The “h” does funny things to nearby consonants in the middle of words. Like making them silent. I do hope to run into a Gaelic speaker someday just to be sure. And if I have it wrong, the laugh will be on me.

Why Síorghlas? Whatever does it mean? Evergreen. And this is so right, in so many ways. Firstly, one of my best friends while growing up was a tree. A big old maple right outside my bedroom window. It had a wide, low welcoming branch, perfect for a small girl to reach up, swing up her legs, and right herself on the comfortable rough bark-seat. I spent hours there, screened in leaves, quiet, unnoticed. Sometimes I brought a book.

And so I became friendly with so many trees…I study them as I walk, their leaves in summer, their shapes in winter. I listen to their voices. Shhh….wwshhhh…serrr…I like to put my hands on their old trunks and absorb their long years of contemplation, rooted in one spot, watching the zany world rushing onward. I am worried about trees too. So many bulldozers and chainsaws, and invasive insects and molds. I’d rather see trees than a parking lot any day. Chestnut blight wiped out the spreading chestnut. Dutch elm disease ravaged the elms. Now the Emerald ash borer is carving killer tunnels in our beautiful ash trees in Vermont. Carving killer tunnels in my heart.

But there is more. Síorghlas is not a random choice. It’s tied to family lineage. One side of my family has Irish bloodlines. And a rare name. Honan. This grandfather was fun, playful. He told me anything important would always happen on a Tuesday. And that all trouble was caused by a small sprite. He had an amazing collection of old coins, and he gave me several. He was a collector. And a drinker. He died when I was 9. And so, I was poking around one day and discovered that Honan is an Anglicized form of the Gaelic O’hEoghanaín, which means descendent of Eoghanàn, form of personal name Eógan, which means “born of the yew.” Or…Honan could stem from a variant of Honeen, Anglicized version of O’hUainin, a descendant of Uainin, diminutive Uaine, which means “green.” I chose my new last name to mirror the possible meanings embedded in my lineage.

You may be puzzled as to why I changed my last name. Or you might just accept it like no big deal and celebrate it with me. Or you may condemn me for it. I’ve experienced all three reactions.

In these crazy, fucked up times, money and greed and hatred are hell riders on a mad gallop through the flames of Earth’s and humanity’s destruction (the hyperbole is intentional … or maybe it’s not hyperbol.) I have been desperately searching for hope, for answers, for meaning. And so I’ve undergone a spiritual awakening of sorts…higher consciousness opening up to interconnectivity of all things—people, animals, plants, trees, oceans, rocks, wind, soil, stars, planets. All of it is a web. It is infinite – evergreen. Quiet contemplation (like the days in the old maple), interesting conversations with friends, lots of books to read, and meditation, practice of present moment awareness. That kind of awakening. It helps me tolerate the madness and to see glimmers of hope. My name change marks this. It’s a beacon.

The other reason is not so wonderful. The other grandfather, the one whose name I carried for 54 years…sadly, one of my #MeToo moments was him. It was time to doff his name. Why should I carry his name? He of the wandering hands? I was 12, maybe 13. To free myself thus has been so liberating. To free myself with the beautiful, magical Síorghlas.

Well…it’s not been so easy. One relative that I love very much no longer speaks to me. Another relative will not call me by my new name, first or last, but still reaches out, loves, and talks to me. He told me on a recent visit:

“It was when you changed your last name that really did it.” (As in pissed off the relative who isn’t speaking to me.)

I asked, “Well, but what if I, a woman, had fallen in love with a man. And married him? And took his name? Would that have been okay?”

“Of course,” this relative said.

Wow. Indeed I was married twice before. The first time I took my husband’s name. The second time I did not. The first time, no one batted an eye. Everyone kept speaking to me.

“Wait,” I said. “So…you’re telling me that it’s okay for me to take some other random man’s name, but it’s not okay to choose my own name??”

“Right.”

“And why is that?”

“Lineage.”

“Lineage? You mean to memorialize the grandfather who molested me? And that new husband would have nothing to do with our family’s lineage. That’s crazy dominator bullshit. My name that I chose is closer to and honors our family lineage.”

Well, we sort of ended there. At an impasse. This relative is a smart, enlightened, caring person. But his words to me smacked of Western restrictions rooted in patriarchy.

In a conversation a few weeks later he said, “Well, what would your father want?”

My father passed away ten years ago. I would hope he would want me to be happy. But that question, what would your father want, misses the point. As long as I am not doing dastardly things and hurting people, isn’t this about what I want? In this life each of us has to follow their own growth path to become their most authentic self. For it is then that they can bring authentic compassion and deeds and love into the world. Many psychology books say so…

Plus, I know my dad is fine with it. He’s been in my dreams. I’ve seen that he is content and strong and doing his own thing in the spirit realm. He doesn’t care what my last name is. He still comes around. 

What it comes down to is acceptance and choices. I have to accept all that is going on—in the world and in my family. I don’t like some of it. And I very much wish things were different. I choose to accept folks where they are at. I wish some could accept me where I am at. The troubles in the world will unfold as they may, whether I adhere to “lineage,” or act “weird” and change my name. To offset the negativity in the world, and my own despair, I choose what brings me delight. A beacon of hope. A name of kinship with trees. Delight spreads outward. Delight is radical. From inside me, it helps to change the outside, the physical realm, one smile at a time.

33

Tats, Names, Piercings & Change

We use a category of expected choices within our culture to redefine our identity throughout life, and this is common and good and people gather together on the occasion of such a choice. We celebrate and acknowledge the change with rituals of transformation, such as graduations, housewarmings, weddings and retirement parties. This type of change is expected and supported, and therefore makes sacred transitions more powerful and less difficult for the transforming party.

name change               Photo by Benji Cabellojauregui

There are other categories of choices, though, which bring much power into someone’s life, but which are questioned instead of being venerated. They are put under scrutiny disproportionately to categories of expected choices, and deemed questionable. The shun-able choices! Some choices simply do not work to increase the Gross Domestic Product, and we’ve been thus commercially trained to discriminate against them: not having children, living a life of little means, relaxing. Another category of choices that is stigmatized instead of revered are those that constitute the deconstruction of an expected change, such as abortion, divorce, ending college without a degree, and changing careers.

Aesthetic choices are yet another category of personal choice, and these demand almost nothing of others, except to see with fresh eyes someone they have already known in a certain way. These include piercings (weirdly, ONLY piercings other than in girls’ ears), tattoos, the pronouncement that one’s gender is different than was assumed based on their genitals, and the change of a name (other than during the marriage of a woman). These changes do require others to have a certain base consciousness (i.e. that on this day, something is aesthetically different from a previous day). But people have proven capable of that ability through their response to expected changes like the career, address, car, or outfit of another person. When someone moves, you don’t spend 10 years repeatedly hounding them about how difficult it is for you to get used to their new house.

Why are these aesthetic choices shunned, then, especially when they are deeply personal and so truly not the business of any other person? Perhaps it is because, in this particular category, the permanent aesthetic changes made by oneself to oneself have an independence attached to them, a proof of autonomy, a spiritual knowing that belongs only to the changing one. Ah-ha! The word just came to me. For the first time in 11 years since I changed my name, all that scoffing and disregard, I may perchance call IT by a new name. Envy.

I daresay it may be envy. Not that it is SO special! It is indeed truly ordinary—to pierce through or revise our body or how we are called. What a suitable, external process to align with the internal processes of our souls? A human mind is so expansive that it experiences, in the course of a lifetime, the equivalent of Earth’s seismic tremors and tectonic shifts. These transformations are fantastic, and leave us rich, with the mountains and gold of personal evolution. Maybe that is frightening to others, and maybe they feel a little left out. Let’s keep on evolving, and mark it all over our skin or nomenclature if we need to, but as for the naysayers, go easy on ’em. Autonomy is a wild and coveted road.

Dickens on Pip as a Name

For a lover of classic novels, I remained woefully under-Dickensed all my life, having slogged painstakingly through A Tale of Two Cities in 7th grade. The discomfort of its sophisticated density – for a girl my age – prevented the future urge to return to Dickens ever again, until now. (Although, I did relish periodic viewings of A Christmas Carol and it’s comedic counterparts… Bill Murray’s Scrooged, “An Extra Christmas Carol” from the 2018 season of Saturday Night Live, etc.)

Recently, a friend recommended her favorite book to me: Great Expectations. She brought me her tattered copy of it while I peddled goods at my chocolate shop the next day, and I tucked it in my backpack for a trip to Austin, Texas. It made my trip; a fantastic tale to traverse during those moments and hours between departures, arrivals, connections and escapes. I resonated with Great Expectations’ fundamental theme of wealth inequality, which is a philosophical centerpiece of modern existence some 200 years later, unfortunately, as well.

We get to know a blacksmith named Pip who’s about to be mysteriously propped up as a gentlemen, essentially lifted from the impoverished class to the wealthy one. Upon his journey, he is paired up with a friendly chap, “Mr. Pocket,” who reconsiders Pip’s name. In the spirit of our anthology in the works, A Tiny Death: Stories of Identity and Transformation Through Chosen Names, I am giddy to share this Pip passage with you below. Continually, as Amabel and I traverse the sociology and history of chosen names in service to this anthology, I encounter these kinds of passages in both literature and life, about changing and attributing meaning to a name:

“I dare say we shall be often together, and I should like to banish any needless restraint between us. Will you do me the favour to begin at once to call me by my Christian name, Herbert?”

I thanked him, and said I would. I informed him in exchange that my Christian name was Philip.

“I don’t take to Philip,” said he, smiling, “for it sounds like a moral boy out of the spelling-book, who was so lazy that he fell into a pond, or so fat that he couldn’t see out of his eyes, or so avaricious that he locked up his cake till the mice ate it, or so determined to go a bird’s-nesting that he got himself eaten by bears who lived handy in the neighbourhood. I tell you what I should like. We are so harmonious, and you have been a blacksmith—would you mind it?”

“I shouldn’t mind anything that you propose,” I answered, “but I don’t understand you.”

“Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There’s a charming piece of music by Handel, called the Harmonious Blacksmith.”

“I should like it very much.”

“Then, my dear Handel,” said he, turning round as the door opened, “here is the dinner, and I must beg of you to take the top of the table, because the dinner is of your providing.”

 

 

What Should They Call You?

by Elizabeth Matthews

Call me a Lucy Stoner, after the equal rights activist who kept her maiden name in 1855. When I became engaged twelve years ago, I knew two things for sure: I would not wear a veil and I would not change my name. As Claire Cain Miller and Derek Willis reported in a recent New York Times article, we Lucy Stoners are in the minority:  “Roughly 20 percent of women married in recent years have kept their names.” I was prepared for – and have encountered – much opposition for this latter choice. What has caught me off guard is the discomfort I’m faced with when fellow parents cannot figure out what to tell their children to call me.

Call me sentimental. My Armenian paternal grandfather, Lee, changed his last name from Kougasian to Matthews during a brief and ill-fated run at acting before becoming a decorated First Lieutenant during World War II. One may question why I refuse to let go of this name that does not even accurately reflect half of my heritage. But, for me, that story becomes diluted when we substitute one name for another based on my sex.

Call me a stickler. “I’m sorry. It’s confusing,” a close friend recently complained. “Are you Mrs. Severud? Mrs. Matthews? What should my kids call you?”

Though I want to answer with, “Liz. Call me Liz,” I understand that many adults feel that a lack of respect is connected to using first names. I answer, “Ms. Matthews.”

“Okay, Mrs. Mathews?”

“No, Ms. Ms. Matthews,” I enunciate the “zzzz” sound to make my point.

“Okay Miss Matthews.”

Call me a thinker. My eight-year-old daughter has never questioned the fact that I have a different last name. My five-year-old son, on the other hand, often calls me “Liz Matthews,” rather than “mom” – as if calling me out for this decision. Although he is too young to understand how this moniker could potentially be read, there is no questioning that my decision unnerves him on some level. And sometimes I wonder if these opposite reactions reflect personalities or some anachronistic gender norms.

Call me a provoker. I recently asked my daughter, “How do you feel about the fact that I have a different last name?”

She did not look up while she colored at the kitchen counter, “I don’t know. It’s kind of like you’re not part of the family.”

I took a deep breath. These are the words that a lot of women fear. I’m grateful I waited until she was old enough to begin this conversation, and that’s what I did. I began to explain my decision. She didn’t respond. She kept coloring.

Call me a historian. During my senior year of college, I began craving a stronger connection with the community I had lived in for nearly four years. I became a volunteer at the Women’s Rape Crisis Center – focusing mostly on outreach and education. During my training, I learned that violence against women exists on a spectrum. If abuse and assault are on one end, language is on the other. Attitudes towards women are slowly eroded when people use disparaging language that objectifies women or glorifies men who abuse them. “Wife-beater,” for example – a term so ubiquitous, it makes me cringe each time I hear it. I see my decision of not changing my name falling along this same spectrum.  

Call me a teacher. Fifteen years ago, I taught middle and high school in Brooklyn, and at least one-third of my students’ mothers kept their names. When I asked some of these students how they felt about this, many of them were confused. Their responses were mostly unanimous and impressive.

“I guess I’ve never thought about it.”

“My mom is really independent.”

“It doesn’t bother me at all.”

“I like it.”

“My mom is very successful, so why would she change her name?”

For a creative writing assignment, one of these students wrote a poem about walking to the bus with his mom each morning. This was their time together, he explained, to talk, to catch up, without the other siblings around. His mother was a very busy casting agent, and it was clear that he relished this time alone time with her. No mention of names. No mention of feeling distant from his mother – the woman who birthed him – for having a different last name.

Call me a nasty woman. Armed with this knowledge, I became more confident with my decision, but this doesn’t stop me from being somewhat disappointed with my generation. I personally know very few people who have decided to keep their name. Now, as we witness the perforation of the ultimate glass ceiling, I hope that it will become harder to justify why a woman would not keep her name. Lucy Stone did it over one hundred sixty years ago – nearly sixty years before the 19th amendment was passed. At this moment in time, things feel more charged.

Call me Ms., please. And while I have your attention, do you mind if my children call you Ms. rather than Mrs.?

 

What Shall We Name This Year?

Shall we name it the year of

… acrobatic swan dives into bliss?

… slime mold oozing in its miraculous way?

… coriander cakes?

… deep breaths?

… articulating the language of ancient trees?

… love over licentious lyres?

… a bread basket big enough?

… rattling cages and tearing down walls?

… the birds and the bees and the bears?

… dancing, just because?

… the circus packing up and leaving town?

… embracing bravery like an adolescent crush?

… remembering that whales have beautiful songs?

… yellow roses?

… linked hands?

… grounding?

 

old tree

Photo by Amabel Síorghlas

 

Our Lady of Christmas

claus

I don’t know about your mom, but mine takes on essentially a full time job for two weeks from December 10–25, building out elaborate plans, menus, gifts, and accommodations to create the magic of Christmas, and then who gets the credit? Some imaginary man with a big white beard. Who makes Christmas happen? SANTA CLAUS!

Does this story reflect the realities of our culture? (The guy who gets all the credit has a bunch of no-wage laborers and a wife who is nameless.) Unfortunately, in some ways, it does. Fortunately, our culture is shifting, and now is the time for women who were once nameless to be named. In some stories, Kris Kringle was a toymaker who married Jessica. So maybe her name is Jessica. Jessica Claus. Although … other names found for her are Gertrude and Carol. What a joke?! Who is this vaguely defined woman, and why are they hiding the fact that she is silently responsible for all the gifts, the meals, the household, and the appointment with the sleigh mechanic, or the fact that she is systematically caring for the elves enough to prevent them from revolt?

Oh dear. I’ve gotten away from myself. Please everybody, let’s be joyful, ’tis the season of cheer. In England, the wife of Father Christmas is Mother Christmas. That sounds reasonable to me. Let’s call her that, okay? The lady deserves a name. Gertrude Claus, the Mother of Christmas, it is.

X Is How I Sign My Name

Contributed by Dr. S. Cooper

In my early teens, at school, we were signing documents for particular events and official reasons. Not only was my teacher on my case about my ever changing writing patterns and style, but it struck me that signing my name SUSIE was dull. The more I thought about it, the more becoming an adult, all those responsibilities, and the signing of my name became real and grew in importance. Susie was ordinary. There were two more SUSIEs in my class, a SUE and a SUSAN and I could not relate to them. The search was on to find another way, a more exciting method of signing my name, of getting it down on paper and being memorable.

The written letters presented nothing of any visual delight, whereas the spoken SUSIE was hissing, oozy, raising the voice tone up at the end. My name was an oral sensual delight, the written version of it deflating.

In the late 1970s and ’80s in the UK, there was this popular punk band SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES. What a great spelling of my name. Later, when reading radical feminist literature I was also introduced to the reclaiming of the word BANSHEE, which added to the intrigue and history of that name and music band. In particular, the “X” in the SIOUXSIE configuration was a visual and design possibility that excited me and caught my eye.

Not telling my parents of my plan to change the spelling of my name added to the excitement. It was like an act of high treason. At school we were reading about the kings and queens of England, looking at how their signatures brought to life their worldly actions and presence. I wanted to be more present in this world. Queen Elizabeth I’s signature was an outstanding example, so with a flat-headed calligraphy pen I started to write out SIOUXSIE carefully, in a considered as well as illegal act of rebellion: x-rated acted of resistance – my classmates thought it was cool.

To this day, I have comments from official bodies, banks, companies, friends and lovers who state “what an unusual spelling,” or “what a lovely name.” The one I find particularly amusing is “were your parents hippies!” My mother still, 30 years on, struggles with the spelling. The best way to remember is SIOUX as in the SIOUX tribe and then SIE. When a telemarketing campaign calls, I always know because their pronunciation of my name is illegible like “SOOGIE” or “XUXXIEE” – easy to identify and put down the phone on them.

It turns out that the original singer, who is in the process of revamping her career, found out out about me and bought up all the webpage configurations you can think of with the name SIOUXSIE. She even blogged about the famous BELLYDANCER with her name. I did make a name for myself as a dance artist, PhD researcher, and teacher in the UK. The name, quite rightly, is distinctive and it helped with my performing career.

Sometimes I wondered if I should relent and return to SUSIE. Especially during the moments in my life when being not so identifiable was a good plan. Escaping a particularly violent and abusive relationship was one incident when going into the beige of society could helped. However, the bubbles of rebellion grow and I have even contemplated a spelling of XUZU. I met a woman whose online avatar is a SUSIE and she gave me over 25 spellings she used. Another funny occurrence was when a SIOUX Indian moved into our shared house and noted my name with a notice on the board saying, “Oh good there’s another SIOUX living here: It will feel like home.” We did meet, we laughed and he said to me he couldn’t think of a better person to have OUR NATION’S name: I felt honored.

SIOUXSIE is also very official; I changed my name by deed pole in 2016, and now it is the name and the spot I sign on official documents. The irony and hilarity of that defiant act never ceases to amuse me.