Honoring names and their stories

I find the rituals and traditions around names in different cultures fascinating. I have two countries and as a result two very different cultures concerning names.

In the Czech Republic, where I live and where my children were named, there is a deeply ingrained tradition governing first names. Each day of the calendar year is associated with a different first name and thus each person has a “name day.”

In the days before Facebook, it was assumed that most of your friends and acquaintances wouldn’t know your birthday, so people gave you small gifts on your name day instead. Birthdays were primarily a family affair or something for small children.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

It sounds nice. But there is always a catch to seemingly quaint cultural rituals. In order to keep this system functional, there is a very limited number of names one can give to one’s child. You see, over time many of the names on the calendar went out of style (Bonifac, for instance) but a day (May 14, in that case) still belongs to that name because of historical honor and tradition. In actual fact there are scarcely two dozen reasonably possible modern names in the calendar for each gender.

And if you think kids have to endure names like Suzy G. and Suzy H. in classrooms in the English speaking world, you should see the Czech classrooms where six little girls are named Eliška and five little boys are named Honza.

In the United States on the other hand, the current trend is toward the most creative names possible. Often a celebrity will name their child some mixed up combo that sounds catchy and the next few years will see hordes of little Kiaras and Blazes emerging from maternity wards.

When I was a kid it was mostly only hippies who engaged in this creative art of naming children. Each sub-culture had their standbys, often no more diverse than the Czechs. And one could tell a lot about a person’s background by their name, and that most definitely included us flowery-named hippie kids.

But now half the kids in America have names that would have indicated hippie parents a generation ago and some kids have truly bizarre names, such as little Abcde, who had an unfortunate encounter with airline personnel last year.

I’ll admit that I err on the side of freedom and creativity in the Great Name Debate. Sure, I got teased for my name as a kid. (Hint: I was called “air-head” a lot.) But that was definitely the least of my bullying worries, even though my name was distinctly strange for the conservative, small-town milieu of the 1980s. My name was not the biggest problem by a long shot. My clothes, my disability, my family, my homemade lunch, my glasses, my opinions, my big mouth, my grades… in short, everything else was a much bigger problem.

So, I proffer my own criteria for a good baby name—it should have a story.

That simple. It is great if that story is that you are named after Great Aunt Elizabeth who traveled the world and helped people. It’s fine if you are named John, because a whole string of your ancestors were. It’s also fine if you’re named Michael because none of your ancestors were and your parents were rebellious and loved a hard rock singer named Mike-something. But a name should have a story—good, bad or ugly,

Stories are important. And if that story hurts, you should be allowed to choose a new name and a new story.

My given name is Arie Anna Meadowlark. No kidding. Arie was for an old lady in the Foxfire books which my parents liked. Anna was my undercover, fool-the-muggles (i.e. non-hippies, no we didn’t really have muggles back then but might as well have) name. And Meadowlark was my mandatory family nature name, reflecting the mountain meadows around the place where I was born.

I love this. I don’t go around touting Meadowlark as my name in all contexts, and I have spent my entire life either correcting people’s pronunciation of “Arie” or more recently explaining abashedly that I answer to about six different variants with no hard feelings. Complicated names can be a bit irritating, but the fact of having a story makes up for it.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Do I like the story my parents laid on me this way? Well, I’ve never actually read the Foxfire books. I never really used Anna as my name on job applications as envisioned by my parents. And Meadowlark doesn’t fit on the vast majority of bureaucratic forms the world over, leaving me with many complicated discussions in far flung offices with grumpy officials. But yeah, I like that my name has a story and I don’t mind the one I got.

My children’s names have stories. They each mean something. And moreover they each had to be fought for because in the Czech system neither of them fit neatly enough into the calendar. I had to appeal, pay heavy fees and go head to head with the national linguist and name czar of the Czech Republic to get only mildly creative names that sound both vaguely Czech and moderately American, while being meaningful to their Romani heritage.

In case I didn’t have enough name troubles, now that I am setting out on another trans-Atlantic voyage with my children after three years on one continent, I find myself assembling the papers to prove that they are in fact my children, given that we don’t have the same last name.

Why not?

I am very much still married to their father. But back when I was 24 and making the decision about what to put on my marriage certificate, I was two things a lot more than I was a wife. I was a feminist and a journalist.

The feminist in me was outraged by the injustice that women are supposed to change their names and carry around documentation proving they have a right to their birth certificate and educational qualifications for the rest of their lives while men don’t have to. I also thought my family history and pride was every bit as important as his.

I magnanimously offered him my last name, which frankly would have been a more practical option, since Blažková (the ový ending is mandatory for women in Czech) is not an easy last name to be saddled with in the English speaking world, whereas Farnam would have been fine for a man in Czechia or America. But of course, he refused.

In the end, it was my journalism and writing career that made changing my name most difficult. Certainly, plenty of writers use pen names but it is more of a hassle than most people think. I did not want to change my name just as I was earning “a name for myself” as an international stringer. And I didn’t even want to clue colleagues in to the fact that I was married or even a woman on some long-distance jobs. There were (and still are) reasons, especially in a profession like international journalism to keep these details to one’s self.

So, I kept my name, which means that when I go through customs with my kids, we’ll each have different last names from the American perspective, because Czech male and female last names are different, so not even my kids entirely share a last name. My son is a Blažek and my daughter is a Blažková.

And again, I don’t entirely mind. There are some prickly practical issues with all of this naming confusion. But they also give us a story. If a person who did not know us looked at our names, there would be many mysteries but also some things that would give clues about who we truly are—a cross-cultural, bilingual, nature-loving family. And that is how it should be. Our names give clues to our souls.

Plenty of people today change their names, either officially or unofficially to take on a particular image. I find that this happens a lot in Pagan circles and in activism. Pagans take on spiritual or magical names which are all designed to be mystical, powerful and glorious. In the end, they fall into highly predictable patterns and give any experienced person some insight into which tradition the owner of the name might belong to and what their interests are.

The same goes with activist or artist names. They tell a chosen story, something we want to portray about ourselves. Just as my family’s names hint at things crucial to our identities, the names chosen for a particular path offer clues to the soul.

Although I am very active both as a Pagan and as an activist, I have never even really been tempted to choose a magical, spiritual or activist name. I’ve been asked why not on quite a few occasions. Maybe it is that I feel my name already has a story. It already has power through that story.

If people either don’t know or don’t care for the story their given name tells, then that might be a good reason to choose a new one. Like the affirmations of new age psychology (which does work surprisingly well on most people, like it or not) a new name with a new story can really change a person’s life.

I won’t ever make fun of anyone’s name. I don’t care how corny or contrived it may sound. If you chose it, you had reasons. If you didn’t choose it, you certainly shouldn’t be mocked for it.

I know many people will point out some extraordinarily silly examples of modern names to try to tempt me to laughter. My conviction still stands. Those strange names particularly have a story, even if it is just a story about immature and unprepared parents. Stories matter and their people matter. I honor names, their stories and their people.

Not all giants are ancient

There is something in Pagan cyberspace that has been niggling at me for awhile like one of those little parasitic worms that got under my kid’s skin a couple of summers ago after she went dipping in a scummy pond.

That is the fad of dissing hippies.

OK, I’m ready to duck already .But this has got to be said. Gerald Gardener may or may not have started a modern witchcraft tradition and a lot of other big names contributed to the nice wave of Pagan-friendly public sentiment and popular trendiness we now enjoy, but without the counterculture movement, the New Age, and yes, the hippies, we would not be experiencing a western world in which Pagan spirituality and culture are both widespread and generally well-accepted.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

Without the cultural developments of these movements that are so widely ridiculed among Pagans, Wicca would most likely have remained a tiny fringe interest of a few wealthy eccentrics. Traditional witchcraft would have stayed where it was for centuries, losing ground and scrambling to preserve shreds of knowledge. And non-Hindu, non-indigenous Paganism would have remained in the history books.

Don’t get me wrong. I am as irritated by “fluffy bunny” New Age platitudes as any hard polytheist.. Yes, we intersect with the New Age sometimes and it can cause a bit of friction and some eye-rolling on both sides. But let’s face it. Other movements have impacts on the social environment we live in and even on us.

The New Age not only sheltered a lot of early Pagan, Wiccan and witchcraft books and tools in bookstores for several decades. It is only in the past twenty years that a meaningful line could be drawn between modern Paganism and the New Age.

I will grant that New Age spirituality has little directly in common with modern Paganism outside of a few visual trappings. But many people came to Paganism through contact with New Age authors, stores, publications and events.

Beyond the New Age movement, the wider counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s had an even deeper impact on society, opening up the possibility of acceptance and widespread information on small and growing spiritual movements of all kinds, including ours.

That brings me to my own background. My parents and most of the adults I grew up around were on the rural, financially poor fringes of both the counterculture and the New Age. They didn’t have the connections, wealth or geographic positioning to be part of early Wicca and other more recognized Neopagan groups. Instead they were what are today (usually disparagingly) called hippies.

Specifically, my father and mother arrived on a rocky piece of land in Northeastern Oregon shortly before I was born with little more than a broken down old truck to their name. There was a weathered one-room school house on the property, which they shared with another family—until it burned to the ground one November night, while they were out, due to a faulty DYI woodstove.

My folks were left in the snow with my two-year-old brother and my mom pregnant with me. My dad built our first house—often referred to as a “shack” by outsiders—around and over the old truck, which no longer ran. That’s where I grew up, learning to grow food, pay attention to natural cycles and call the quarters on important occasions.

We weren’t Pagan in the ways most widely recognized today, but we were in the ways that actually matter. And we were not alone.

As I traveled around the world as a journalist, I met countless adult children of the hippies—some better adjusted than others. Some adopted their parents’ values and some rejected them outright. But they all share a new kind of cultural assumption of fluidity and diversity—whether they like it or not—that has fostered the modern Pagan and witchcraft movements.

Why do I care if Pagans make fun of hippie names or other symbols? Can’t I just take a joke? Lighten up?

It bothers me. Maybe it is because it is part of my own roots. Maybe I’m not pure enough in my rejection of all things New Age. But there is something here Pagans should pay attention to. These too are our ancestors. They are the ones on whose shoulders we stand. Not all giants are ancient or even very tall. They sometimes just muddled through harsher times so that we can have what we have today.

Think on it the next time you laugh at a hippie name or a fluffy bunny chant.

A circle of ancestors: Truths from deep in the well

Dark comes fast amid the trees, turning the colors of drying blood, red to brown. It's that time of the year, when thoughts turn to the past and to ancestors.

I put up an ancestor altar for Samhain / the Day of All Souls. There is one significant new addition to my beloved dead this year, a sweet voice I can still hear in my memory. But also over the past year, I have learned a few tidbits about how at least one of my ancestors was involved in a KKK group in Oregon. And some of the best photographs I have are from a more recent ancestor who was known to be both sexist and racist, along with having some better qualities. 

Ancestor altar.png

What does honoring the ancestors mean? Does it mean that you can take credit and say thank you if you don't know anything negative about your ancestors? Does it mean you ignore the ancestors you feel ashamed of and celebrate only those who did good things, like my great aunt who saved many lives as a humanitarian worker in the Philippines?

The past few weeks have been particularly hard on my family with a lot of community pressure and internal struggle for balance. There are times when I rethink the old belief that the universe gives us only as much hardship as our spirits can bear. It seems like the universe has been cutting it awfully close these days.

And sometimes I wonder. Maybe my philosophy is wrong. Maybe this is just bad karma from my prejudiced ancestors. 

Should I honor my ancestors?

I think of the well at our old family homestead. Once when I was fifteen, I was lowered into it to help with repairs because my slim body was a better fit for the narrow well than my father's broad-shouldered frame.

My father told me not to look up because sand and dirt could fall into my eyes as he lowered me on a rope 60 feet into the earth. I obediently kept my eyes down. With the headlamp I was wearing I got a good look at the rows upon rows of hand lain rough field stone that was used to reinforce the walls of the well. 

To this day that is one of the most respect-inspiring sights I've ever seen. I knew the rocky, clay soil of our remote Eastern Oregon ridge intimately. I had helped grow food in it since early childhood. I'd built forts and hideouts in its rugged outcrops. I had also dug for camas root in the meadows with precious little success, bruising both hands and tools on the many rough gray rocks in the clay. With my significant vision impairment, I had learned to move carefully among the jagged boulders on the windswept top of the ridge. This was not a land that lent itself to digging. 

And yet someone dug a 60 foot shaft by hand in the age before machinery and lined it with neat rows of perfectly fitted field stones. These were not the ancestors of my blood but they were in every fundamental way the ancestors of my our hearth. 

The winter my mother was pregnant with me, my family shared a tiny cabin with another family. Four adults and three small children in what was once a one-room schoolhouse. In November, they were out one night when the cabin burned to the ground, due to a faulty wood stove. My father moved my pregnant mother and two-year-old brother a quarter mile up the hollow to the moderately flat spot where this well stood. 

At the time there was nothing else there. Just the well, left by nameless settlers amid the snow and mud. My father parked an old, broken-down truck next to the well and spent the winter building a new cabin around it. I was born in the loft of that cabin, built over the roof of the old truck the next April.

This is my history and the significance of that well to me. Without a well, the dry Eastern Oregon ridges are unlivable. I knew people who had to haul water, and even as a small child, I remember having a deep gratitude for that well.

And yet...

My parents may have purchased that land fair and square, but there were--as it turned out--other traces of human habitation on it. My brother found Native American artifacts in an embankment in one of the camas meadows. And there is a circle of ancient mounds on the ridge that is too regular to be natural. 

The settlers who built the well or those who came before them--someone--stole this land, and while the road there still isn't paved, they made it possible for us to live there. 

This is what I think of every Samhain. My awe and respect for the lives endured by the ancestors of our land, hearth and family, as well as great sorrow and pain for the wrongs that can be remembered if one is willing to look. 

While I was down at the bottom of that well at the age of fifteen, I laid some insulation cloth as my father instructed. Then just before giving the proscribed tug on the rope to signal, so that I would be pulled up, I cautiously turned my head and looked up. 

I have rarely felt such raw terror in my life. At first I thought something was wrong with my vision, not out of the question given my eye condition. The top of the well was gone or else it was night and the full moon had risen. But I couldn't possibly have been down there that long, I thought frantically.

Then the truth crashed in on my consciousness. That distant round moon of light WAS the opening of the well. I had not thought about how far down 60 feet is or how closed in and vulnerable a soft human body would be that far under the earth in a shaft so narrow that I had to turn around carefully. Now that I saw the distant opening, the realization was terrifying. 

I felt my throat constrict and I fought a wave of panic that threatened to send me into senseless screaming and thrashing. My father had told me to be still and not make any loud noises. He was afraid I might dislodge stones in the well and be injured. Getting out of that well calmly was probably the first truly brave thing I ever did. 

That well was our lifeline and also an artifact of one of the worst genocides in human history. I was the great granddaughter of immigrants and settlers. I then left that land and went far across the ocean to another country, where I am a first generation immigrant and now a new citizen. I married a man who can trace the names of his ancestors back 600 years on the same little farm in the swampy land of South Bohemia. And our children are adopted from decimated families who were among a handful of Romani (Gypsies) who survived both slavery and the Holocaust in central Europe. 

Samhain is far from simple around here. 

In the end, I cannot make justice or peace for history. I can only set out the photographs, the names and the symbols of those people who came before, those who gave us life, sustenance, hope and a chance to make our own mark. 

The land of my childhood sustained me and gave me a body with health and resilience for which I am often grateful.  As a child I learned to call the quarters in the Native American way and I studied the Teutonic runes. Blood says I have no claim to the former and history has tainted the latter. There is truth in that. 

There is also truth in gratitude, in respect and in remembering. I will not claim stolen heritage. And yet, I cannot shake the feeling of kindness and peace that comes from the earth at the old homestead. I feel sorrow for the people forced to leave that land, but I do not sense that they hate me. I feel a circle of presence at Samhain, all the ancestors of my childhood--of family, of land and of hearth--and all the ancestors of my present, those of my husband, so well documented, and those of my children, unknown except for the painful history that we know rolled over them in one way or another. 

No, I do not feel an idealized warmth from all the ancestors, a circle of support and blessing. I do feel intense currents of sorrow, pain, shame and anger, interspersed with love and hope. But they are all there. They are not absent.

They are all in the circle at this time of year, no matter what baggage they may carry. And I feel called to honor them, not just on this one day but also by living in a way that gives honor for the gifts they each gave me. When the burdens seem too great, I want to always remember this. I humbly accept this life. I acknowledge what came before.

Remembering a matriarch

“Eh, girl, you’ll never find it that way,” the voice in my memory is as clear as if she’s standing right behind me.

In the days after Ostara, my beloved, chain-smoking mother-in-law died… essentially from the flu. I shake my head in sorrow yet again and set my teeth. It’s 2016, but we might as well be living in 1918 for all the good the antibiotics did.

Creative Commons image by xlibber of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by xlibber of Flickr.com

She wasn’t that old, only 72. She washed windows earlier on the day she went into a coma from the sudden onset of opportunistic pneumonia, though she was already sick. She was the picture of a rugged farm matriarch. She always said she’d stop when she was dead, and she was right. 

She ruled her kitchen with an iron fist. She cooked all the meals and this is the first time I’ve ever been allowed to rattle around her kitchen, the first major holiday we’ve spent in her home without her. It’s the eve of Beltane and I’m trying to cook spaghetti for a house full of Czech uncles and cousins. 

I know she used to keep a lot of kitchen utensils in the front hall closet because her kitchen looks perfect and thus it has a sorry lack of storage space. I can’t find the strainer… or the cheese grater anywhere. And there are some in the family who are gleefully waiting for me to fail simply to prove one point or another.

It doesn’t help that I’m legally blind. Marie knew that well enough but she never made much of it. “Eh, girl, you go on and get the wood. I’ll get lunch.”

I poke through shelves full of the parts of her many mysterious kitchen appliances. She never showed me where anything was because she didn’t let anyone else fuss with her kitchen, least of all me. I was good with entertaining hordes of little cousins and hauling wood and collecting medicinal herbs. We both agreed I wasn’t that good in the kitchen. 

 She didn’t live to see me turn forty, but only by a few days. That never stopped her from calling me “girl,” not in any derogatory way. To her it was simply a statement of the difference in our generation. “Eh, girl, you’ve got so much energy. Have fun while you’re young.”

Creative Commons image by mylifeclicks1023 of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by mylifeclicks1023 of Flickr.com

I can hear the men tramping on the veranda. And I don’t have anything to strain the noodles with. “Damn it, Marie, you could at least give me some ouija board sort of sign, couldn’t you?” This is a very patriarchal culture and there will be overt criticism if I don’t have lunch together properly. 

“Eh, girl.” I can hear her hoarse, ironic laugh too now. “It doesn’t work like that. I’m sorry to leave you like this.”

I’m suddenly filled with remorse, as if she were really there and I was cruelly criticizing her for not leaving her kitchen in better order. “I’m sorry, Marie. You did plenty,” I think fiercely. “You did so much for us and you left us well set up. We’ll manage. You did your part.”

The men and children spill into the hallway and the next thirty minutes are chaos. Yes, I get hassled for not having it ready. Then I get criticized for getting crumbs of cheese on the floor from using a makeshift cheese grater. We never did find the real one. 

Later I sit with the other women who have married into the family by the Beltane bonfire, watching the men of the village, including all of our husbands, raising a 50-foot maypole by hand. It’s hazardous. The damn thing could fall on them. It’s a full grown pine log after all. 

But I’m still very glad this village has hung onto the old traditions. Few places have their history so well rooted. My husband’s family farm dates back six hundred years. The long stone farmhouse itself is four-hundred years old, the walls as thick as those of a small castle. Marie used to tell me stories she had learned from the village chronicles about her husband’s family, not so much about her own. She took on many of the ideas of this patriarchal society, where a mother’s history is less important.

But they wanted to put her ashes in the Catholic church yard in the next village, with her husband’s ancestors. My husband refused and stood alone against the other men over it. She had told him she wanted her ashes buried in an urn in a beautiful place between two ponds under a great oak tree at the back of the farm, not in the yard of a church she’d never put any stock in. 

I watch the flames of the Beltane fire lick at the ragged skirts on the figure of a wood and straw “witch” the villagers made. This is also tradition. Beltane is not called Beltane here but “witch burning night.” Some say it is the crone of winter that they burn and that it is not an anti-Pagan tradition. Most of the villagers are no more Catholic than Marie was. But still the sight sends a shiver up my spine, a sharp contrast to the warm Beltane evening full of live music and revelry. 

Creative Commons image by Stewart Black

Creative Commons image by Stewart Black

“Eh, girl, you and your earth-mother theories. Are you going to forget to pick the plantain on the hill before the mowing starts?” 

I was worried because she wouldn’t be here to remind me which herbs were ready when I visited the village. I am good with medicinal herbs if I know they’re there. But initially finding them is hard when you’re almost blind. But it seems like my memories of her will help some.

It is a wonderful Beltane all around. I’m not actually the only woman who cooks and though there is some criticism, I come through pretty well. I eat too many goodies and feel a bit guilty with that instinctive shame this society has taught me.

“Eh, girl, eat!” The most iconic statement from Marie yet. “When the fat are thin, the thin will be cold in the ground.”

She was roughly barrel-shaped herself but more muscle than anything. The same flu that killed her did make me get thinner than I’d been in quite a while. But not being thin hadn’t helped her. The cigarettes played a role. Everyone knows that but few say it.

The things we let society do to us. 

I lie down in one of the many beds late at night and whisper goodnight to the ancestors in the walls made of field stones. 

Then I think of all the cooking to deal with in the morning. “I’ll keep the hearth warm, Marie. I’m not the matriarch you were and don’t want to be, but at least on Beltane, I’ll make sure your people are fed.”

1 Comment

Arie Farnam

Arie Farnam is a war correspondent turned peace organizer, a tree-hugging herbalist, a legally blind bike rider, the off-road mama of two awesome kids, an idealist with a practical streak and author of the Kyrennei Series. She grew up outside La Grande, Oregon and now lives in a small town near Prague in the Czech Republic.