Thursday, September 11, 2008

what's in a name?

I believe that names have power. When you speak my name, wherever you are, you are somehow invoking me, calling me forth, asking me to be present. As a pagan, my practice sometimes involves invoking, calling forth those who might help me, give me comfort. Goddesses, gods, ancestors, people I love who are living or who have passed.

I've been e-mailing back and forth with a cousin lately. She is one of the few family members that I am out with. This is still so new to me that I cannot find the words sometimes, and I find that coming out is like circling gradually over a destination, getting closer and closer to the centre point with each pass, making progress in slow, measured movements across a landscape. I am a winged creature who needs the safety of a landing point, I am wary of pitfalls and prey as I draw closer. It's not that the people who know now are less important than the ones who do not, but I make the decision to disclose based on how well I think they will receive the information. Unless, of course it happens by accident, which has already happened once with no negative consequences.

My cousin and I were discussing family, specifically memories we share of my paternal grandmother. She is younger than I, and our grandmother passed when I was eleven, after an extended stay in the hospital. She has Alzheimer's disease when no one really called it Alzheimer's, when memory lapses were chalked up to senility, age, trauma. She spent the last years of her life in a psychiatric hospital. There were fewer treatment options in the '70's. She could not look after herself at home, and my grandfather could not care for her. So she went to LPH. I only remember visiting once or twice, after that I waited in the car while the rest of the family went inside. I couldn't do it, couldn't watch the grandmother I loved so much in the state she was in. She didn't recognize me, called her children by her siblings', and later her parents' names. She lost the little English she had. She wandered around with a dazed, lost expression. I didn't understand what was going on, and I don't recall if it was ever explained to me.

I feel like I lost her. I still feel that loss now. When I was a kid, she was sometimes the only one who understood me. And she let me away with everything, which is cool when you're six. One of the most important things she did, when I was a baby, is give me a nickname. Or a different name, depending on how you look at it. She took the already European sounding Anna, and began to call me Annemeike, which I think is a Flemish/Dutch diminutive of Anna Maria. Annameike was shorted to Meike (mee-ka), which became Miki or Mickey (depending on who was spelling the name) as I grew from baby, to toddler, to five year old.

Everyone called me Meike (I spell it that way because that's how it looks best in my aesthetic world). Nobody called me Anna. My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, the neighbours all called me Meike. The name was so ingrained into my being that I thought it was the only name I had.

Until I went to kindergarten.

My mom introduced me to the teacher. "This is Anna," she said and I looked around to see who she was talking about. There was no Anna, as far as I was concerned. I couldn't spell that name, but I could scrawl Miki in large capital letters all over my drawing, I was Miki to the swimming teachers, that was the name embossed on my wooden red wagon. Then, and only then, my mom took me aside and told me that Miki was just a nickname, and that my real name was Anna.

For the next three weeks I sat there and stared into space when my teacher called my name, because I didn't recognize it as my own. I was still Miki everywhere else, for a while, but gradually everyone began to call me by my given name. The name that didn't ever feel like mine.

My cousins shared my confusion. They didn't know who this Anna person was either. In a recent e-mail my cousin expressed her shock at learning that Mieke was not my real name.

But it was. It was as real as I am. She is real, she's right here inside my own skin. And sometimes she'd rather be called Meike.

Good things happened to Meike. Not so good things happened to Anna.

Meike played in the sun, under the trees. She was allowed to walk to the park by herself at a very early age and basked in the freedom of swings and riverbank. She was unfettered by gender, she was the androgyny of her age. She ran and rode her bike, and didn't care how she looked, whether she was big or small, if her face was dirty or clean. She brought home toads and frogs, and wrapped baby snakes in her mom's wet laundry. She shouted and laughed. She knew no fear, had no reason to mistrust, and was alive to every morning, lived every moment with wonder and awe, and joy. She was barefoot and strong, she was fearless and connected to the earth.

Anna learned that not all adults could be trusted. Anna learned to hide who she was because people really didn't like to see "young ladies" acting like hooligans and running around. Anna learned that not everyone was accepting of differences, that something as insignificant as birthplace could cause you to be ostracized. If you weren't born in St Marys, in the 1970's when it was largely closed and had not grown in a number of years, you did not belong. End of story. Anna learned that there were certain constraints to being female, that expectations were largely proscribed in a rural area.Anna was the confused adolescent, the bullied kid, the one who made the choice to hide in order to stay safe. None of those things happened to Meike - she had the benefit of untarnished youth.

I used to worry about how I was perceived, if I would be accepted. Those aspects worry me less, although the whole acceptance/rejection thing is still an issue. I'm working on being less socially isolated, which is a daunting task because I isolated myself for years. I don't worry about whether people know I'm gay or not, except for family, and that's because they deserve to hear it from me first.

It almost feels like my identity was not exactly stolen, but hidden away for a while. You are not who you think you are. You are really someone else.I don't blame my parents. As my cousin L has pointed out, they did the best they could with what they had. They were shaped by their upbringing, by the expectations of their families, their communities, their churches.

My name is Anna. My name is Meike. Since coming out to myself, I have started reclaiming the child I was, taking those aspects that I hid and bringing them back to myself, into the open. I am barefoot and primal. I am not just on the earth, I am part of her. I trust my intuition. I sing all the time, when I walk down the street, in the morning as I get dressed, whenever I feel like it, just as I used to. I tell you what I think, but I try to be nice. I'll tell you who I am if you ask me, even if it's something you may not like about me. I laugh a lot. I play with toads and dig in the dirt. I write and write and I don't worry about how it sounds or what to do with it, I write because that's what I love to do.

This is who I am.


m.m.sugar said...

The chinese say that to name a thing rightly is the beginning of wisdom!

Margo Moon said...

What a gift your grandmother left for you.

I feel like saying, "Welcome to lesbianism!" but that kinda sounds like I own it. Heh.

Welcome, anyway.

Maria said...

What an interesting story. And I guess I find it sort of odd that your mother didn't clue your teacher into your nickname since it was all you really knew...

nina said...

i have another name, once upon 40 years or so, i was someone else, then i remembered nina, who i wanted to be so badly or who i was that only i knew about, i didn't have a grandmother to name me, i named myself once for a year or so at about 4 before i disappeared into the name most people in my daily life call me, but i understand more than i can express.


Camlin said...

She never thought about it. I think she assumed I knew my real name, even though nobody ever called my by that name - because she knew it. That's my mom.

an ambrosia life said...

I always wanted a nickname....I didn't recieve one until my forties...I wonder where the word nickname origintes?.....beautiful write.

Camlin said...

from the online etymology dictionary:
1440, misdivision of ekename (1303), an eke name, lit. "an additional name," from O.E. eaca "an increase," related to eacian "to increase" (see eke).

I love etymology. I'm a word geek.

Avril Fleur said...

I remember visiting Grandma at the psychiatric hospital as well and during one memorable visit a man in a wheel chair grabbed my arm as I walked by. My Dad had to grab me away from him. That was pretty scary for a 5 or 6 year old.

To this day calling you Anna still doesn't sound "right". We are so strongly molded by our earliest years. I think more than we even realize. Even though Grandma left us early, she had a significant impact on who we are today.