In my culture names are important. Each name has a specific meaning that relates to the circumstances of your birth. If you were born after a matriarch of the family died and you’re a girl, then your name will hold the idea of mother returning. If you are born after a period of great sorrow, then your name reflects the joy that you have brought. If you are born a twin, or after twins, if you are the eldest, each of these circumstances dictate and shape your name. The naming ceremony is a beautiful thing. Family members from the nucleus out send names to the parents, names that have come to them, to bless the child, or maintain the memory of a former relative, and after a period of ten days the parents pick the names that resonate the most for their young infant.
For me, my names have always been important. They are a source of empowerment, they keep me grounded not only in my culture, but my heritage, my history, my family. They remind me of who I am. Isaac Newton in reference to academia said ‘we stand on the backs of giants.’ I believe my names are the ancestral giants upon whom i stand with pride.
I remember, when i was still young enough to get bathed, every night without fail my mother would lift each of us up to the mirror, still wet, our little feet resting on the toilet lid as we gazed back at our steamy reflections. And she would ask, night on night the same question.
Who are you.
Our response, by rote was:
and then we’d reel off our names smiling as we perfected the intonations and repeated the meanings. My names edified me. But you don’t only get names at birth. Throughout life we acquire titles like we do accolades. We are labelled, the sporty one, the disruptive one, the intelligent one, the beautiful or the ugly, the friend, the mistress, the bully, the victim, the singer, the actor, the guitarist and saxophonist. The baker, the eater, the one who gets the tap-water. Some names we don’t even know how we got them, why or from whom. But like our birth names, they start to reshape, remould and define us, until one day, your walking along an icy road, feet slipping in and out of the frozen undulations and wonder why you were afraid to say that, to speak to that person, to agree with that statement. It’s because that’s not you, comes the reply. Your not the extrovert, you’re the introvert. You’re not the shy one you’re the fighter. Your not the girlfriend, you’re the friend.
You pause. Another person slips and slides past you before your broken-shoe shuffle resumes.
You? Who is this you? Who is this image that seems to look back at you from the steamed up mirror of your experiences? From the height of the pedestal you’ve been placed on, or from the depths of the shadows you’ve been resigned to. From the concert hall strictures that come to define your talents, or the muted classes that define you as being silent.
I realised today as I shuffled over poorly gritted tracks that I didn’t really know who I was. I knew who people wanted me to be. Sometimes I liked that idea. But i wondered if that was who i was made to be. I felt stunted in my growth, confined. I wasn’t even sure how to speak my mind anymore since it got overwhelmed by other people’s voices. So I took a step back.
I’d like to go back to that lovingly bathed child who looked in the mirror, intoned her names, and at that point, had a fresh, unique and singular identity. I’d like to find out what happened to her, and see if she might like to speak to me again, tell me somethings about who I was, and who i could still be.
Whenever you show up, just call me. I’ll be waiting, patiently waiting, as I try and erase these other names that no longer define ‘me.’