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.

Dare to Name Thyself Witch

Today is a day, on Halloween, when it is safe to publicly name myself: “Witch.”

Sort of …

In this country, America, which supposedly has religious freedom as one of its foundational tenets—a nation that has existed for over 200 years paying lip service to this holiest of freedoms—how free are we, really, to name ourselves in our faiths?

Many people in America and around the globe still don’t understand the religion of Wicca, or the somewhat related and ancient Druid faith, or other earth-based spiritual practices. Yet there are witches and druids all over the world. Witch is “Bruja” in Spanish. And other languages also have their name for those humans who worship the seasons, the elements of the natural world (earth, air, fire, water), animal spirits, and the cycles of light. Wiccans believe that universal divine energy also has strong female elements. “God” is not just a “He,” but a “She.” Or a he/she/they/it. The “She” aspect of “God” has been lost for far too long. Lost? No, intentionally, historically stamped out. Murdered.

Many folks have been suckered in by the ongoing narrative of the green-faced hag with the long nose, the warty chin, and the pointy hat, the evil “crone” who does terrible things to children in the woods. The story goes that witches can spoil the milk or turn men into toads. [If only. Just kidding. Sort of.]

In reality, many men are Wiccan as well.

No we don’t cast evil spells on others. No, we don’t worship the devil. We don’t even believe in the devil, for goodness sake!

The basic creed of Wiccans is “Harm none.” This is an extremely difficult creed in practice that takes incredible compassion, creative problem solving, and much thought. We celebrate the turnings of the year: light to dark, dark to light. Death to rebirth. Planting to harvest. Fertility. Wisdom. Beauty. Kindness. Love.

Normally in daily life I never call myself “Witch” or talk about my Wiccan beliefs, which, truthfully, are supplemented by a blend of ideas from Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American spirituality, and even some aspects of Christianity. I don’t name myself because I am all too aware that in the not-so-distant past, witches were burned at the stake.

Except on Halloween, I don’t name myself “Witch” because it appears frighteningly obvious that it is not safe to do so in the current climate in the United States and many countries throughout the world where, due to ideologies of what is “right” or “profitable,” anyone who is “other” may be attacked, ridiculed, subjected to death threats, locked up, driven out, murdered, or bombed.

I don’t name myself “Witch” because I witness, daily, how various religions are persecuted right here on our supposedly “safe” American soil—eleven people of the Jewish faith were just shot in a temple last week. Horrifying. People of the Muslim faith are “named,” unfairly and inaccurately, things like “terrorist.” They are subjected to scrutiny while traveling or just eating in a restaurant, and many have to endure the infamous and unconstitutional travel “ban.” Christians also endure unkind pigeonholing despite the fact that there are a myriad of orientations within the Christian faith, and wide ranging morals and ethics that follow.

In our country of “religious freedom,” Native Americans, many of whom follow earth-based practices, must constantly fight for even basic spiritual rights connected with their land … still, two centuries after America was “founded,” or let’s call it colonialism, a conquest … um, let’s name it: genocide. Most Native American spiritualities share my Wiccan faith’s utter respect for nature, living in understanding that we are an integral part of it. We should not be dominators of earth, beasts, plants, trees, rocks, water, and air, or each other, but rather live, as best we can, in symbiosis.

Native Americans, alongside Wiccans and other earth-based worshippers, seem to be increasingly on the front lines fighting for the environment, yet no one seems to be listening to their extremely wise and most likely life-saving words. Instead, decision after business decision is made which tramples upon their sacred places, their soil. These are places of great beauty. These places are their church. Would it stand if an oil & gas company came and said we’re going to tunnel under a beautiful old church building with a pipeline? I doubt it.

I hold my earth-based faith up in the light of this centuries-old treatment of America’s indigenous people and it gives little hope that my beliefs will be understood either. So much for respect for a people’s faith.

Persecuting and hurting people, shunning them, taking away their rights, or kicking them out simply for their faith has gone on since humans began walking the earth. But many would agree that stereotyping, badmouthing, or attacking worshippers of different religions is simply imbecilic. Yet it goes on. And on. When are we going to stop?

When are we going to take enough time to listen to, read about, and learn about each others’ religions to the degree that we no longer fear them? When will we see that ultimately all the texts and stories and idols emerge from a shared human desire to understand why we are here and what we are supposed to be doing on this planet in these short lives we live in these impermanent bodies? When will we get it that through faith we are just trying to figure out how best to love one another and the creatures and plants and hallowed ground of this earth?

It seems increasingly obvious to me that the Goddess aspect of Wicca simply must come back into our psyches to assist in healing zealous right/wrong, us/them, my faith is better than your faith dualistic thinking. The feminine in spirituality is a necessary element to help calm our increasingly crazy ball of earth spinning out of control.

Blessed be. Happy Samhain. Happy Halloween.

 

 

 

 

Nickname: the Dubious Gift that Lasts

“Hey Cushytail!” A little girl with thick brown hair and freckles hollers this across the playground.

“Mongreloid!!” I yell back, tugging at the waist of my bellbottoms, pulling them up so I won’t trip as I run.

Enemies about to start a fight? A case of bullying? Nope. We are best friends in elementary school. Cushytail is her nickname for me—my given last name was Cushman. Mongreloid is my nickname for her—her last name was Morrill. We run towards each other, laughing hysterically, then skip off to the teeter-totters together.

Until recently, I always thought of this ritual, these nicknames, as the innocent, silly wordplay of little girls, a goofy morphing of our names to signify that we were best, best buddies.

When I grew up to become a teacher, of course I always discouraged bullying and the calling of names. But I never spent a lot of time deeply thinking about how kids name each other or about these particular nicknames of my own childhood, until I chose to rename myself. At 55 years old, in the midst of a midlife rite of passage where I was growing and changing on many levels, I chose a new name for myself: first, middle, and last.

The choosing of my own name now has me paying attention to the subtleties of naming. It’s got me thinking about the power of names to shape us, as well as the power we have to shape others through the connotations of seemingly innocent signifiers.

I don’t remember when my friend and I started those two nicknames. The calling out of them never felt hurtful; we always found them incredibly funny. In fact, even as adults, she and I can sometimes break them out for a good chuckle, harking back to our childhood camaraderie.

But in looking at these two signs, really, Cushytail connotes either a big fat butt, which I have never actually had, or some sort of hairy animal appendage. Not all that flattering! Did this work on me unconsciously I wonder?

And Mongreloid! Where the heck did I get that? A mongrel is a mixed breed dog, a mutt … usually a vision of bones and mange, licking an empty tin can. It’s an outdated, inappropriate term for a mixed breed person, but I doubt that is what I meant as we didn’t have many of those in the sixties in my tiny white bread New England town. And then there is the not-so-subtle hint of “mongoloid” in there—a dated reference to a person with Down’s Syndrome, or (and I doubt I knew this at the time) a division of Asian or Arctic indigenous peoples. The connotations were not very kind. The word was insensitive to persons with disabilities and to people of another race. I’d created an equally terrible nickname for my best friend.

I’m not sure the adults in our lives ever heard the two of us say these names to each other. If they had, I am not sure they would have thought much of it, and maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. Maybe not. But it’s certainly food for thought.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I argue that this old adage is a colossal lie. This line is handed out to kids as a way to “protect” from nicknames. But repeating this line in the face of a taunt or even a well-meant endearment likely does nothing to deflate what actually goes on internally—emotionally, unconsciously.

When we are named, when we hear ourselves called a word or phrase, our brain automatically takes in the words and processes meaning—denotations and connotations—and then associates meaning with the self. If we are resilient, we might be able shrug this off. With higher self-esteem, we may be able to minimize the damage of a negative suggestion in a nickname. But if a child has low self-esteem, is repeatedly bullied with a nickname, or if a person with authority, such as a parent, older sibling, coach, or teacher, dishes out a nickname, that name’s underlying meaning can settle into the psyche and work on that person for years.

Children and adults alike are frequently renamed via nicknames for any number of reasons: shortening a name that is too hard to say, a term of endearment, to capture a physical or personality trait, to tease, to highlight a talent or skill, to remind of a foolish mistake made … the list goes on, and not all the reasons are bad. We like to think that the spirit in which a nickname comes about can mean that it is not damaging: it’s just in fun. Or, it means I love you. But do we really think about the words themselves? About the power of words to signify a range of associations? I would say, based on my experience with my friend, that many of us don’t. Maybe we should.

 

 

 

 

Float Your Own Ideological Boat

Recently I visited a friend in Seattle that I know from college (we had attended an intellectual college, a bastion of the liberal artform of critical thought, churning out the educated and progressive people, square-capping the facilitators of a changing future), and he was espousing the intolerability of being asked to use “they/them” as a personal pronoun.

You know me – I’m an open minded guy! I completely accept transgender people, and I’ll use “he or she,” according to the person’s preference. Sure, maybe someone was born in a man’s body but then feels like a woman. Okay, I accept that, and I understand that the person wants to be called her and she. But then there’s these people that are – what, neither a man nor a woman? And they want to be called ‘they.’ Come on. A ‘they?’ I can’t get on board with that. I just can’t relate to saying ‘they’ when I’m talking about 1 person.

Yes, “they” is most commonly used to convey plurality, while a gender nonconforming person is singular, so that takes getting used to. But deal with it, dude! I was startled by his opinion but couldn’t formulate the words, in my shrunken, muted lady-voice at the time, to tell him he was being a dick. Or, had I stumbled into one of those rare public moments when I am able to muster both confidence and diplomacy, to just let him know how precisely his logic illustrates the trap of the exclusionary mind, this inclination to deny the existence of something outside your experience. How basic! And how human (or animal perhaps. At least the more animal side of being human…) that we would validate our own existence with micro-declarations of “I AM!” so sleekly disguised as “YOU ARE NOT!” After all, we are all subjects of the human condition. And we all goddamned long to know what we are.

Diversity inclusion, though, happens to be precisely centered around foreign content; content that is foreign to the includer. We must invite each other to center our every interaction around the humility of inviting everything in, familiar or foreign, without elevating the former above the latter. Imagine that the idea of your life exists in a boat that floats on the vast ocean of all possibilities. You ought to be busy steering your boat because defining who you are is a lot to handle. Existence is admittedly fucking weird, and one can imagine the discomfort that might drive us to jump into someone else’s ideological boat to get away from the discomfort of our own. i.e. espousing disapproval of someone’s chosen gender pronoun, OR seeking control over what someone wants to do with her womb, OR even, and especially, confining your own close relations to the ways they have floated their boats until now. I changed my name to Jaquelyn 11 years ago, and still certain people will openly – and seemingly sweetly – declare “You’ll always be Stephie to me.” It’s creepy. And it’s harmful to people, as documented increasingly in the mainstream media, like this recent article from Cosmopolitan magazine:  “Why Allowing Trans People to Use Their Chosen Names is So Important: New Research Proves it has Massive Positive Impact on Mental Health.

Before I finally and thoroughly pound this lifeboat analogy like an overworn stake into the ground, let’s really clarify what it is. I’m not saying that everyone should be able to do anything they want, or even to think anything they want. You may challenge me, for example, that if your neighbor steals your apples, you may “jump into his boat” and claim them back. But that boat involves physical actions, the right to possession and so forth, so it is not an apt use of the analogy. The analogy refers to the ocean of possibilities, and the boat is our own thoughts, and particularly our thoughts about ourselves. We stand to preserve a tremendous amount of energy by remaining in our own existential boat. More importantly, by doing so, we suddenly avoid causing all manner of harm to other people. Each time we refuse to see someone as they claim to be, or refuse to call them as they claim to be titled, it is like throwing a little explosive right into their boat. It compromises their state of mind, even as they are likely managing the fragile state of ideological development and sacred rebirth. Next time someone who is gender nonconforming, or for other reasons has requested to be called something new, observe how relaxing it is, how warm and connective (if slightly awkward!) to stay in your boat by trying your best to do as they ask. 

Narratives in the Autumn of Human Consciousness

Driving through the orange-bursted hillsides, I am juiced by the spirit of change, changes in patterns of thinking. The antithesis to change – to transformation, differences, diversity – is sameness. I am reminded of white bread in the fifties, the apron-on-housewife/man-with-grill-hat-spatula image of early industrial homogeny. Of the lynchings and reservations, the chemicals and warfare under the surface, and how the fifties narrative built a myth of sameness with the shiny punctuation of “commercial breaks” in every household and the innocuously insipid advertisement in Homemaker magazine. This myth of sameness is the antitheses of change and acceptance. The myth is decomposing in America now like fall in Vermont: a rapid, gorgeous, irrepressible triumph of change. Our collective consciousness is taking time to relate to the universal experience of oppression that dwells in the subsurface of the billions. That’s a big change! And why?

It’s happening because of people telling their stories. And others listening. And the catalyzing of more telling, in turn. Stories are irrefutable proof of difference. Every individual story exposes the falsity of the myth of sameness, and indicts resistance to difference and change. (Interestingly, and hope-fully, a story gently soothes that resistance. That’s why storytelling is extra rad: it fights the war while healing the enemy.) And then suddenly, so easily, as a red leaf floats to the ground, I am struck by a the explanation of why certain people in my own life were once resistant to a change in me.

It started in my early twenties when I opened a business I wanted to call The Vermont Granola Company. A perfect name, but while no such company existed in Vermont, I learned from the Secretary of State that the name was already taken. I brainstormed a new name with my friend Rosha at her tiny Burlington apartment. It stood at the crotch of the “T” on a side street on the North End and one October night in 2003, she prepared grain bowls for our dinner. She suggested that a business, (especially a small food company in Vermont,) possesses a strong, magnetic identity when it includes a person’s name. We sought a good-sounding Steph’s Something or Something Steph’s. I told her about the qualities worth mentioning: our distinguished taste resulting from pure maple syrup. The vast quantity of nuts: whole, fresh nuts, not like the chafe you find in other so-called nutty granolas. She then hit on it immediately: Nutty Steph’s. And that was it.

There followed, for me, a fairly rapid and unanticipated transformation of the title for my own personal identity from Steph to Nutty Steph, particularly among my local community and anyone new that I met after 2003, who, in this career-obsessed American social script, would, within minutes of learning my name, Steph – inevitably learn of my profession, Nutty Steph’s.  But that was fine. Super cute and memorable. Great for business. And what better for building character than to be able to take yourself less than seriously? I was now “Nutty Steph.”

Nonetheless, four years later, in part because of the superimposed adjective that longed to become me, and for other reasons as well, even yet-to-become reasons still , and because it marked my coming of age, I chose a new first name. It was almost beyond my choice, like when you fall in love at first sight. Someday I’ll tell you the story, but the story today, on this October day when I am pondering change, is how terribly awkward it was after I did choose a new name, an awkwardness I had absolutely not anticipated. I failed to write a letter to all who loved me about how I felt and the simplicity and beauty of my request to be called Jaquelyn. This absence of my story left them fearful of me.

The moment of change for me went beyond a new name and involved a transformational phase of my being, a multi-dimensional phenomenon, something complex, something a computer would fail to understand but that a human being would feel their way into, through narrative, through story, by absorbing the complex spiritual journey of my individual tale, had I told it. I am as a result more interested in change management and diplomacy in the face of fear and disorientation. These skills intrigue me since I so clearly missed an opportunity to use them, and experienced, in turn, great discomfort of my own, in addition to that of those who loved me.

An emotional shift occurs in a listener when they hear the story of someone different from themselves, and this moves them to an expanded capacity for thought. We cushion the awkwardness of difference when we bow to vulnerability and narrate  our unique experience. In order to expose those around us to difference, we must tell our stories. Change is a superpower available to everyone, always pending, a virtual October, waves of profound understanding waiting to crash upon us. Swim, swim in it! All you need is a tale.

New Name

by Amabel Kylee Síorghlas

This pulling apart at the elemental level. Terrifyingly beautiful. I can be, now, a nebula, an interstellar cloud of dust, a veil swirling in random patterns against the backdrop of deep space. I can be a supernova, or as invisible as dark matter. It’s my choice. My middle name may be Kylee, or is it Aurora? Someday I will become particles of solar flares. Parts of me will float past Earth in vivid pinks and fluorescent greens. Síorghlasevergreen. Below, some children have flopped on a plaid blanket in a hayfield in summertime under the huge black cape of night sky. As I dance over them, they laugh because they are happy to be up way past bedtime.

Welcome!

Hello! Welcome to our blog about name changes—the difficult yet transformational decision of choosing a new name, should one have compelling reasons to do so. We will also consider the power of names and naming—personally, socially, politically, and historically. We will explore names as signifiers and the affect they have on identity.