Tag Archives: Social norms

Who are you talking to? Contemplations a year and a half after my legal name change.

Kyle. Kyle?? Who were they talking to? I wasn’t sure. At first it was like being in a dream. For Kyle was no longer me. Coming to awareness, I realized that I no longer recognized my given name on cue.

Changing one’s name, as anyone who has done it knows, is a deeply thoughtful process, often spurred by a myriad of complex reasons. For me, I changed my entire name—first, middle, and last. This brazen process took about three years and some experimentation of trial and error, much to the confusion and irritation of certain friends and family members. For it is a big deal to change one’s given name even ONCE, but when it turns into an art project—because I simply had to find the RIGHT name—one can earn the doubts of unenlightened acquaintances as to whether you might be [insert whisper behind the hand here]: crazy. No. I most definitely am not – crazy.  Much. For aren’t we all, a little … crazy after all?

There were many reasons I thumbed my nose at convention and waded into this mysterious process of name changing. I say waded, because I was timid at first. This may be why it took me three tries to find the right name. I didn’t quite dare go for broke. I tried a slight change first, then a bolder one, and finally the name I made legal, that I love: Amabel Kylee Siorghlas.

This process was not without pain. Despite efforts to communicate openly and to be considerate in the process, I lost friends. I lost a family member. They rejected me. The real me. The artistic me. The spiritually grown-up me. And I discovered one must be both fierce and kind to walk the path of one’s compassionate truth.

The first inspiration to change my name came as woman in healing of my feminine self from different circumstances over the course of my life of abuse, both subtle and blatant: in the different cases being sexual, emotional, and physical. Yet, this choice to change my name was not an act of rebellion really. It was, rather, a profound reclaiming of my own authentic power. It was not a rebuke of the perpetrators, but a redefinition of myself. It was about ME.

There was more. What goes along with healing is often profound personal growth. And thus, I strongly felt the impulse to change my name to denote a significant rite of passage.

With personal growth has come a process of awakening—a renewed, fervent interest in spirituality, in science, in philosophy, in spending as much time as possible outside just observing nature. I can’t learn enough, fast enough. It’s a hunger. Interestingly, this shift circles back to the hunger I had as a child for peace, for knowledge, for understanding the deeper existential questions—before life steered me off to who I thought I should be and what I thought I should do. In healing, now I can honor who I feel I am and how I am drawn to spend my free time.

The inspirations that drew me down this “path less taken” still surface and clarify daily, weekly. I can’t capture them all in a blog. Or even in my 24-page story about changing my name. I don’t expect everyone to understand. Not when I am still making sense of the inspiration myself.

One thing I hadn’t expected is to encounter SO many souls who have walked or wish to walk a similar path. At least weekly, I meet people who have changed their names, or want to change their names. So many reasons. So many stories. So little time. But so important—stories shared so that those who might judge and invalidate us might get a glimmer of understanding.

One thing I hadn’t expected is for close friends or family to simply reject and refuse to acknowledge my wishes and my new legal name. They simply call me Kyle still. As if I am frozen in time, like dinosaur bones in a glacier.

Just this morning I had a conversation with my neighbor up the road. I have talked about my name change with her. She has my new name written down. Yet this morning I was Kyle. It took me a minute. Who? Oh, yeah. Her. I cut my neighbor some slack though. She is older and a peripheral acquaintance.

This summer I had visitors. They spent the whole three days calling me Kyle. They wouldn’t even at least try “Kylee” (my new middle name, a combo of my given name and middle name – Kyle & Lee). And they know my whole story, all the reasons. It was sort of infuriating. I communicated with them for the entire visit as if under water. Who were they talking to? Kyle was looking back to the hazy past of the person I used to be: submissive, overly eager to please, taking mean behavior by withdrawing/hiding, or acting overly nice and helpful in trying to smooth it all over. That WAS me. I forgive myself for it all—these were old coping patterns, set up as a child, when I had no other recourse.

But I do have a better way now. And a new name. My name marks empowerment. My name marks awakening. My name marks fierce kindness. My name speaks a NO to abuse of any kind. It speaks a NO to so many abuses carried out, as we speak, to individuals, to animals, to ecosystems, to systems of social injustice.

My name marks a YES to new visioning and to positive empowerment.

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.

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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.?

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Everything According to the Rules

Elena Greco, (or Lenu, as Lila calls her,) of Neapolitan Novels, describes her recently wed best friend – formerly Raffaella Cerullo, nicknamed Lila – while the two of them are artistically disfiguring a giant portrait of Lila, tearing off parts of the image and covering swaths with paint or collaged bits of paper until only her eye remains:
 
While we worked, she began to talk about when she had first begun to realize that she was now Signora Caracci… In the beginning, that “Caracci” had been no more than an exercise in logical analysis. What was it, an indirect object of place? Did it mean that she now lived not with her parents but with Stefano? Did it mean that the new house where she was going to live would have on the door a brass plate that said “Caracci?” Did it mean that if I were to write to her I would no longer address the letter to Raffaella Cerullo but to Raffaella Caracci, and that she herself would define herself, and sign, only as Raffaella Caracci, and that her children would have to make an effort to remember their mother’s surname, and that her grandchildren would be completely ignorant of their grandmother’s surname?
 
Yes. A custom. Everything according to the rules, then.
 
…She had been increasingly oppressed by an unbearable sensation, a force pushing down harder and harder, crushing her. That impression had been getting stronger, had prevailed. Raffaella Cerullo, overpowered, had lost her shape and had dissolved inside the outlines of Stefano, becoming a subsidiary emanation of him: Signora Caracci.