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.

The turf wars

TERFs, trans women, imperfect bodies and girl-power messaging

I have a daughter with special needs, who sees all the advertising and messages about women’s bodies in the media that I can’t entirely filter for her and takes it in without even the usual mild resistance most kids have.

It’s all literal to her. She believes every word: There is only one way to be pretty. You must have this accessory to be OK. You must have this shade of hair to be popular. Ditsy, smart friends are OK to have, but beauty standards and charisma are most crucial for the person at the center of the story. You are loved if you get a pile of presents that fills your entire living room on your birthday. Anything less is not love.

We’ve had many conversations on these topics to no effect. She has difficulty with auditory processing and memory. Conversations don’t mean much. Videos and ads designed by psychologists to get at the deepest parts of the brain have much more power. The media world is more real to her than reality.

Now she has budding breasts and she hates them. I found her using scissors to cut off her first bits of body hair. I take her on my lap and try to gently explain. I read her stories about girl power and great women of history. I try to be a counter-weight but I’m just one drop against a tsunami of images and messages at school and on every device that she gets her hands on when I’m not looking.

Meme about women's spiritual power of birth.jpg

My words are unscripted and analog. The videos are photoshopped and tailored by experts to addict. I’m losing ground every day.

The other day I posted a meme about the spiritual power of women, about creativity and the miracle of women’s fertility bringing new souls into the world. It featured a woman of color, breathtakingly beautiful in my view but not in line with Youtube standards. My daughter struggles with skin color a lot, being a trans-racially adopted child. I listen to her. I try to give her hope. This meme is a bit beyond her still, but it is a tiny shard of the mosaic of positive womanhood I am trying to build.

This is my world. I shared the image because this is what I want to support in the world.

What happened next is what has been happening a lot in my spiritual community in the past two years with girl-positive or woman-positive messages and images. I was rebuked by someone I respect in the Pagan community.

The image celebrated fertility and birth as a spiritual contribution of women. It did not include a caveat about how not all women have children. It did not backtrack to explain that trans-women don’t even have uteruses. Shame. Shame. Shame.

I was shocked at how deep the anger goes in me. I never could understand the TERF (Trans-exclusive Radical Feminists) concept before that moment. Why would anyone try to tell trans-women they weren’t “real women?” Why would anyone insist on a strict biological, limited concept of womanhood?

Ah, but to never be allowed to speak positively of women’s bodies? To relegate fertility and birth to a gross bodily function like farting, something a bit shameful that we should get over as quickly as possible and not talk about in public? Is this the price for including trans-women? Are you either TERF or anti-body.?

Until now, TERFs were mythical creatures I have never actually encountered in the wild, outside a few books from the 1970 and 1980s. I still haven’t met a real live TERF—a person who is a feminist AND is trans-phonic and/or homophobic. But the issue and the ostensible choice was being shoved in my face:

Choose! Your sense of ethical integrity and your trans friends or your relationship to your female body! Now! Choose! Shame on you for even hesitating!

I have a uterus. Little good it has done me. I have had extremely painful menstrual cramps since I was a young teen with no medical explanation and repeated anemia due to heavy bleeding. In addition, I had unexplained infertility. I spent six years fighting with my body with every technological weapon available in high-tech European universal health care, and no one could ever tell me why I couldn’t carry a child to term.

Do the TERFs think I’m a real woman?

I don’t really care if they do or not. TERF philosophy may have been briefly trendy in about 1993 but any remaining TERFs have clearly been pushed so far back into the underbrush that we’ll find them around the time we find the unicorns. They don’t appear to be a current threat to me or to my trans friends. Patriarchal images and messages degrading our bodies and souls most definitely are still a threat.

Additionally, when a friend puts out a post about the beauty of color or anything else visually amazing or spiritual, do I come along and slap them with a rebuke about the fact that there are blind people in the world, so somehow they should not mention such things? 

No, I don’t. I don’t even think it. And it isn’t that disability doesn’t carry as much social stigma as being trans.

I get flack every single day for being a blind person and almost no support or even tolerance in the Pagan community. I am excluded, talked down to, accused of faking or making it up, ignored, dismissed and socially marginalized. I don’t think I have ever seen a abled Pagan come to the defense of disabled Pagans and insist we must be included when we have been excluded all too often. Every little bit of adaptation or mere tolerance of presence that disabled Pagans have received was won through our own hard work and quiet—and even so resented—hand-raising.

On the other hand, trans awareness has grown exponentially in the Pagan community in the past several years, and that is a good thing. It will help all of us. I have been part of it, writing in defense of trans rights in the wider world and in Pagan communities.  The vast majority of people with disabilities are with you on this one. We know bodies don’t always do with they were supposed to.

I also have two close trans friends. But the fact is that I didn’t know one of them was trans for five years, because it isn’t actually something he has to deal with socially every single day if he doesn’t choose to, which he usually doesn’t. His transition was 20 years ago.

It affects him, certainly. Part of the reason the issue came up between us was that my husband and I as well as he and his wife were going through IVF at the same time, and everyone who goes through IVF asks other IVFers “What are you in for?” like prison inmates.


“Aw, man. That’s a raw deal. Me, it’s being trans.”

“ Well, shucks.. I wish I at least had a reason. I didn’t even get a jury trial.”

That’s not a direct transcription of the conversation, but you get the point.

Nature plays chaotic and diverse with bodies. You don’t always get what you bargained for at birth. That does not make you “less than” anyone else. It does not mean you should not celebrate your body or that others shouldn’t celebrate theirs.

There are many ways to be a woman. Just because many women give birth and it is a big part of being among women does not mean that those who don’t have children, for whatever reason, are less women. I couldn’t biologically have children no matter how hard I tried, even though I do have a uterus. That meme about women’s spiritual power of birth doesn’t offend me. Since I needed to have children and I was clearly meant to be a mother, I adopted them.

It does not make me feel any less of a woman because I didn’t give birth. It does not make me less in awe of birth and the creative power of women.

I did participate in birth. I was born. I was born from a uterus. We all share that.

And there is nothing wrong with it. It doesn’t make trans people “wrong” or veneration of women’s fertility “wrong.“ When talk of women and birth stings trans women or infertile women, are those who discuss it to blame? Are those who describe a beautiful piece of music as a spiritual treasure of all humanity to blame if a deaf person can’t relate?

I say no. Don’t rub it in when your body has some great power that another body may not have. There is no superiority and inferiority here. There is only primal awe. We are. Look at the amazing diversity of life! Isn’t it dazzling and infinitely discoverable?

The pain comes more from internalized, socially abusive doubt creeping in from a culture that has been divorced from nature and from our bodies. If you are a trans woman, there is a reason you are a woman. It may not be to give birth. But it is still woman-ness.  

There is something definable about being a woman. That’s why trans people care whether they are perceived as their true gender. If there was nothing that defined a woman, there would be no trans people. Fertility and birth are part of who we are, even if only a fractional part. It is not our whole but it is there. It is in our consciousness and in our ancestry. We don’t have to each fulfill every part of it personally to be a valid part of the whole.

So please stop the berating of people who say positive things about women.  We still live in a society where the biggest and loudest messages about women are very negative. And then along comes this undercurrent saying we can’t even say something positive about women because we aren’t all the same.

We are all different. The fact that I can’t see does not make me resent people who can.

As a person with a physical difference, I want to sit at the table, not dictate what is said at the table.  Yes, living in a sighted world is always going to be difficult for blind people. But I don’t insist that the whole world be adapted for blind people. That wouldn’t work out very well for my deaf friends.

Trans people are here. We accept them and love them. We can’t help that nature has made a world in which they are not the average, and in which giving birth is a gendered thing. 

My spirituality is tied to nature. Rather than ask that we ignore the gendered basis of human fertility, I would ask, as many Native Americans traditionally have, what spiritual lessons we can learn from the fact that gender is not a simple binary. Trans people should not feel excluded from Pagan fertility talk. They should be considered an integral part, those who carry and embody a deep mystery.