As I mentioned yesterday I’m away for the week at a writing workshop on Whidbey Island. We had several assignments to complete before arriving on Monday and one of them was a one-page self portrait. I admit that I had to toggle with the margins and font size in a rather significant way to squeeze this on to one page but I managed to make it work.
A Self Portrait, 2017
“Nancy? Oh, that’s my grandma’s name!”
“I’ve got an aunt named Nancy.”
“Nancy…, hey, that’s the librarian’s name!”
Yep. That’s about it. We haven’t got much, culturally-speaking, for my name. An occasional Nancy Kerrigan might surface or maybe the rare Nancy Reagan but beyond the elderly and the ice princess, the deceased First Lady and the ancient librarian is usually all that comes to mind when I introduce myself.
I heard a podcast recently about someone who changed his name. Or rather, was given a new name. A spiritual name more fitting with his soul and spirit and creative yearnings. The one who names is often the one who holds the power but in this case there was a call and a response. The man was named and the man responded: “Yes. Yes, that is my name.”
This naming; this calling out of one’s essence and the corresponding response, “yes, that’s me,” seemed a profoundly holy experience and begged the question of all who listened in through their earbuds while jogging or driving or doing the dishes. It begged the question: What about you? What is your real name?
Is Nancy my real name? Or might there be something else, something more fitting? The man on the podcast longed to fling off his former name and all the weight it brought to bear and thus take on the mantle of something new, something different, something more fitting with whom he knew himself to be. I wonder, is this what I want?
I am similar to my namesake – my own grandmother, the first Nancy in my family. Both of us writers and readers. Both of us questioners and DIY-ers, small-scale rebels, mothers and makers of dinner. I am proud to bear her name in the world. But as with all who come after, I also bear the marks of the changing of the times. Less concerned with what is proper, less willing to raise my children without the help of my partner, I push against my inclination, born of watching my female forebearers, to shrink into the background and suppress my own desires. Nancy is my name but, using it, I call up all that my grandmother was and wasn’t, all the ways that I am like her and unlike her.
But Nancy is not my only name. And if God is present to us most perceptibly in the people around us, then these other names, the call and the response of the namer and the named, is indeed a holy process.
To my mother I am “Dance.” Nance Dance. This name speaks of something within me that only my mom remembers. I used to dance. If there was music, I was dancing. Anywhere and everywhere we went, I was dancing and doing things my own way. Or so I’m told. I don’t actually remember. Nowadays I might do things my own way and even occasionally dance in the privacy of my own kitchen, the impromptu dance party with my husband and kids, but no longer do I dance anywhere and everywhere with the unfettered vulnerability of youth. This part of me is something that only my mom knows and it is only she who calls me “Dance.”
To my sister, I am still “Bananners;” to my brother, “Frances” – both childhood nicknames that, in their own private way, pull up all the particularities of growing up together with kind, conservative Christian parents where a demon might be cast out on the weekend after attending a pro-life rally and Sunday morning services.
To my boys, I am “Mama.” I am the ever-watchful mother hen, the fierce lion protector, the soothing voice in the night, the maker of jelly sandwiches, the builder of forts and the eager listening ear.
And, finally, to my husband, I am “Gus.” Or “Slug.” Or “Pal.” Or “Love.” The origins of these names can no longer, or only scarcely, be traced but each bears witness to the seventeen years of living and laughing and fighting and talking, falling apart and coming together, that only lovers know. He sees me, as do my boys and my other beloveds. They speak my name — Nancy, Gus, Pal, Love, Mama, Dance — and I respond, “Yes, yes, that’s me.”