I first wrote my new name in Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. Then read, “The legend of the Traveler appears in every civilization, perpetually assuming new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols. Through every age…walks in utter solitude toward penance and redemption.” And, “Should I mark more than shining hours?”
My name has traveled with me, assumed new forms, afflictions, powers, and symbols. April, my given name. Archaic: my Christian name. Née: Huston. Birth certificate and childhood typed with my father’s family. Nearly archaic: my maiden name.When I married, I took my husband’s name. Took it. Such a strange idiom, a theft and a hit, for a move made at match. Even that, match, whisper of the violence tucked inside the union of persons.
Those who knew me heading for graduate school and hoping to publish were surprised at the change, suggested I could use one professionally and another personally. How odd, at a moment a woman is asked to trade a piece of her identity, to offer her solution by splitting. Instead of being a different person, I could be two half-people instead.
The night God showed him the stars, Abram, the esteemed father, became Abraham, the father of many. He got a gift that knocked him down a notch. I wonder if he would have chosen to trade or split. Sarai, his wife, became Sarah. A princess either way, her substance stayed but sounding shifted.
Saul had a wreck with a light on the crunchy road between Jerusalem and Damascus and was not, indeed, given a new name. When his sight was clear, he returned to an old name, his Roman one, Paul. Maybe as a rejection of his fealty to the Law, maybe to allow hobnobbing with the intelligencia long enough to bend their ears for the sake of the gospel.
Naomi tried to change hers and it didn’t stick. No one listened. She saw a season of her life, its spring, as passed and tried to name a new one. She walked into the public square and declared her grief, aired her expectation—call me bitter!— tried to chain the gate against wily, devastating hope.
So what is my name? A penance? A redemption? An anointing? A handle? A season?
Does it matter if it’s given to me or if I give it to myself?
I first wrote my new name, yesterday, in Annie Dillard’s For the Time Being. It’s the name I’ll use after my divorce. I wonder here, as a teacher and a voice for the tribe of the faithful, should I mark only shining hours? This isn’t one of them.
How do I tell the truth about what is happening? I am not returning to my father’s household. As a mother, I have no interest in a maiden name. I am not rewinding. One cannot unknow.
If I took my husband’s name, I should give it back. But this will be embarrassing. My office door, book cover, credit card will announce my intimate failure. My professional encounters will require personal explanation. My mother will stutter to make my introduction.
Surely, like Abraham, I’ve been knocked down a notch. What I don’t know, feeling nothing like a princess, is whether this shift is one of sound or substance. What does one call herself when she’s outgrown one home and broken another? What, then, is the work of naming? If I’ve passed through customs and now have nothing to declare, where is my citizenship?
I would like to meet the world honestly and this, as usual, will require some repentance. I do feel like apologizing. I have undone something that was not made to be undone. I have committed everything from devastation to disappointment. You and my children now have reason to suspect my word.
But the repentance I mean is the one Paul would know. The kind that comes along a crunchy, well-travelled road between wholeness and grief. The kind that comes from a wreck with a blinding truth. The Greek. The kind known to a man who redeemed an old name for a new self. Repentance: to go beyond the mind you have.
The new name I wrote, in my usual black ink, on the usual leaf, is April Vinding. My great-grandmother’s family name, a Scandinavian word for recovery, finding, discovery, and invention.
This is the first name I’ve given myself. I may have done it wrong. It would not be my first significant mistake. But in the end, I’ve heard, I’ll be given a new name yet again—by one whose voice is a double-edged sword. It will be written on a white stone, and known only to me. I suspect it will be Beloved, the call I’m longing most to hear.
Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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