V came to me the other day and informed me that she wants to change her last name. She knows I chose my own name and she wanted to know what the procedure was for doing it, and how one picked a name that would harmoniously go with one’s first name, which is, of course, a serious question. She feels the need to distance herself from her father, which I totally understand, but she also didn’t want to take a name from her mother’s family. She is one year away from college, and I get the sense that she wants to move out into the world her own person, with no ties to her difficult past.
As we sat and talked, she threw out possibilities. She loves the Harry Potter books, and suggested a few character’s names that she might enjoy, as well as some TV characters that, I think, embody the traits and strengths that she would like to have. She even said she had considered my name, Walker, which I told her I would be honored to have her take: we both agreed, however, that her mother might have a major problem with that.
The conversation got me thinking about names; why we pick them, what they mean to us, why we do or don’t like them, why we change them, and whether they say anything about us. When you are eighteen, you can legally change your name. Newly-married women take on their husbands’ names. Divorce proceedings give one a chance to legally change one’s name – it is a specific question on the papers, a de facto permission, in fact, to do so.
In some traditions, it is thought that naming something changes and defines its power – or increases that of the namer. In some cultures, people choose a new name for themselves when they reach adulthood that signifies who they feel they have become or who they want to be in life. Even the Pope, when elected, takes on a new name, usually of a saint or other holy figure, that represents who he will be and what traditions he may follow.
Some spiritual traditions encourage the choosing of a special “spirit” name that may, or may not, be kept secret; symbolizing the spiritual traits or connections that person wishes to embody or declare. All of this begs the question; what’s in a name? And can you become a different person just by changing your name? I tend to believe in the power of naming, and that, if you’re lucky, the right one will come to you.
I was born a Jackson, from a long line of Jacksons; I think there’s even a United States Marshall Jackson if you go back far enough. As far as I know, my parents picked my first and middle names because they “went” well with Jackson. I never gave my last name much thought and never had a problem with it; it wasn’t too common or too uncommon, or too difficult to pronounce. It was just my name. I have had some trouble over the years with my first name: although I do like it, it can get annoying to have people sing Christmas and old 60’s songs at me all the time.
When I got married for the first time at twenty-four, I took my husband’s name without giving it much thought. I kind of liked being part of the traditions of married people. I became a Shaw, undoubtedly part of a long line of Shaws. I did notice how much of a chore it was to change my name on all of my important documents, bank accounts, and with Social Security. It is a custom that, if men had to do it, would quickly fizzle out, considering what a monumental hassle it is.
As I approached the ending of that marriage, however, I finally began giving my name some thought. I knew I didn’t want to keep my married name, and was reluctant to go back to my maiden name, which I realized was, after all, actually my father’s name. I felt a little too emotionally aware and advanced for that. And yet, what name to choose? Should it be one from my family, or should I make one up, or just pick one out of the phone book? (Back then we still had phone books.) It was hard to know what to do.
One day, my friend and I were walking along a popular, paved walkway in Seattle, which goes around a small, man-made lake. We were talking about my name change, running through a few of the possibilities and watching the people walking along talking, walking dogs, walking with strollers – and my friend turned to me and in a burst of inspiration said, “Your name should be Walker!” And that was it. I knew she had found my forever-name.
And so I became a Walker. I am the first and last of my particular line. I love being a Walker because I feel it truly represents who and what I am. At the time we chose it, I’d had RA for almost ten years, and my friend knew how important walking – or forward movement of any kind – was to me; as it still is. (Even though it wasn’t the best thing for my knees and feet, I was, just that day, walking the 2.8 miles around the lake because I loved doing it.) Although I married again, I kept my name; in part, because I didn’t want to go through the hassle of changing it, but mostly because I felt it was my true name.
A new name can be a great way to feel like you’re making changes, or starting again, or claiming yourself. However, a new name doesn’t necessarily bring new things or mean you’re automatically a different person. You’re still who you were before. I realized I still had the same life, the same problems, and still had to do the actual walking, as it were. But I do feel like I became a true adult when I named myself; I became my own person, in my own tribe. The decisions about what to do next were up to me.
Will V be disappointed after she changes her name because nothing seems different, or will she go on to become an even more amazing person, precisely because she chose who she wanted to be? I’m going for the latter, but whatever happens, I hope I can help her understand that, while it may give her a fresh start, the rest is up to her. Naming yourself might help you understand who you want to be, and give you something to aim for, but you still have to do the living yourself. I’m all for the change, though. She’s a strong, intelligent person already – a new name won’t change that, really – but it might just help her take in her own power and claim who and what she wants to be. Just like it did for me.