Naming (or why I am not a Supplanter)

“Deep within herself, the elephant said this name, her name, over and over again. She was working to remind herself of who she was. She was working to remember that, somewhere, in another place entirely, she was known and loved.” – Kate DiCamillo in The Magician’s Elephant

This happens to be the book that got me really thinking about naming.  It seemed as though the weight of a name was overwhelming to some of the characters in DiCamillo’s book.  Some felt oppressed, some felt released, others felt uplifted, others felt ambivalence.  No one really escaped being touched by a name of some sort.  Trails of other stories are woven through the small novel (Novella?  Can that tag be used for a “kids book”?).  Tomas, a singer beggar in the streets has a blind dog NAMED Iddo.  Another man, Hans, the servant of the partial antagonist, remembers a dog he once owned who could jump rivers… he can’t remember it’s NAME.  At the end I felt a sort of urgency to remember or maybe, realize, why this naming was so important.

“So when I lose my way, find me.  And when I lose love’s chains, bind me.  At the end of all my faith to the end of all my days, when I forget my name, remind me.” – Andrew Peterson from “Dancing in the Minefields”

“When I forget my name, remind me,” sings one of my personal favorites.  Once again, that importance of our names, from beginning to end.  I see a small picture of the future in Andrew Peterson’s lyric.  Hopefully not for myself, but for so many.  When the “end of all my days” comes and a name is forgotten, a part of our very selves is lost.  A poetic and gorgeous endorsement of marriage (All thanks to MY Name-reminder).  I am Jake.  Jacob, really.  Jacob Andrew if I’m in a small or large amount of trouble.  I remember going through a period in middle school when I would have forked over a few bucks to change my name.  Turns out it costs a bit more than that, thankfully.  However, I have grown into my name and will only continue to do so.

Sure my name, under Hebrew interpretation, means “Supplanter” (defined as “one who wrongfully or illegally seizes and holds the place of another”) based from the Biblical story of Jacob and Esau, but I have pushed beyond that one act which in no way defined who Jacob was or was to be.  Jacob was he who wrestled with God and was blessed.  Soon after his name was changed to Israel and there’s no denying the legacy left behind.

“Naming is Edenic.” – Ann Voskamp

And the realization set in.  If man/woman/humankind is seeking some sort of Eden (define it how you like….) then we are seeking the beginning of things.  A time when pain was not yet woven into our beings.  A time when time was relative and a late night may or may not affect the following day.  A time when laughter was our song.  A time when, according to the beautiful poetry of Genesis, the animals came to Adam to be named.  Voskamp says that the first emptiness is filled through naming.  God, not uttering, I can’t see the creator mumbling creation into being.  Instead I see him chuckling out “DAY!” and “NIGHT!”

Am I saying that without my name I am empty?  In no way, but that the loss of a name comes the loss of something more than letters.  I wonder how someone afflicted with Alzheimer’s would describe this loss?

I asked some of my friends what they thought about naming and its importance.  One friend ended her email with the fantastic distinction that names mean nothing…. and everything.  How true.  Letters, like all created things, bring meaning, but are only marks on a page.  But names have sunk deep.  Those squiggles that our parents wrote on the hospital slip moved with startling speed into our hearts and souls.  Though my name means supplanter, I do not view my self as a usurper, but as someone striving to wrestle answers from a loving God.  And I have had no few chances to do so.

My wife took a slightly different approach.  Naming is a creative act… one of creating meaning.  Think about the game Taboo.  Or even charades perhaps.  We are working in others to create a name.  We stretch our arms out, tap our ears, shout out anything but rhyming words, act like we’re putting a strip of adhesive and gauze over our wound….”Bandaid!”  All of this to create.  To name.  In our minds, a phone is not really a phone unless we call it such (unless it’s an I-phone).  We can describe what we would like someone to bring to us, “please pass the spherical green vegetables.”  But that other someone inevitably corrects our vagueness, “Peas?  Sure.”

From "The Godfather" - Don Corleone

Don Corleone

This last bit is what made me think the hardest about names in my book.  We can call to mind so much when we hear names like Bilbo or Don Corleone or Voldemort.  These names are no longer just names.  They are evil or strong or good or faithful or slimy.  Do I really think my book will rival some of the greats?  My superhero brain says you betcha.  Reality says, “probably not.”  But to me, after the writing, these characters will be mine.  I will have defined them, created them, named them.

In the end, naming is everything and nothing.  Letters stuck together to “create” meaning, definition, place, sometimes even purpose.  It is Edenic.  A task we have sought to undertake since the beginning.  The great example God did just that as he stretched out his hands and said “Let there be light.”  (Not “Let there be a bright ball of gas burning billions of miles away….”)

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Page One

Just the start…. a third revision resulted in this. I hope you enjoy.

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There are three things that happen when you get punched in the back of your head.

One: you literally see stars.  And no, I’m not talking about the halo of stars spinning around the cartoon character that just got an anvil dropped on his head.  I’m talking about stars behind your eyes.  Fireworks exploding like the sky on Independence Day.

Two: you grab the back of your head as you fall forward, flailing with the other arm to grab on to something to steady you

Three: when you find that your feet have caught up with your body, most of the time… most of the time that hand that was looking for something to stop the fall begins to swing around almost without your knowing it.  And absolutely before you know it, that hand is one inch from the face of the guy who punched you.

Strange things happen, often without anyone noticing.  At least I never noticed.

I didn’t know that the same day that Cory Beecher hit me I’d admit to the existence of  creatures I’d only read about in books, taken a ride in a zeppelin, disappeared and reappeared three thousand miles away, and kicked a puffin.  Yeah, I know, the cute little bird.  Everyone else was doing it and I didn’t want to be stabbed.

***

I was the youngest postman in the history of the post office.  Which was a nice little thing I could brag about around the dinner table.  Sort of made me feel better than everyone there.  But I didn’t have many friends.  An unfortunate downside to having a job at the ripe old age of 16, fine, nearly 16.  15.  The Post Office was going down the tube and they needed to “inject a little pep in the step” of their workers,” they said.  They needed to “show the world that the youth believed in the post office,” they said. So there I was a little shorter and quite a bit less grumpy than the rest of the postal workers walking a route day after day.

I didn’t really care about whether or not the post office was doing good or bad, but I’d often hear my Grandpa mumbling something about child labor laws and dirty politicians and lies.  All I knew is that twice a month I’d get a check in the mail with more than enough numbers on it for me to put some in savings.  When you’re only fifteen you still get to follow the rules of the house you live in.  I had to put away 20% of whatever I earned so I could go to college someday.  The rest was mine to use, with some discretion.  Mostly I just walked down the street to the best bookstore in the world, Tanned Hides, and wandered up and down the musty stacks.  Gerald, the owner, knew me by name and would set aside a small stack of books that he’d bought during the week that I might be interested in.  Robinson Crusoe, Ender’s Game, an atlas that showed the world before the fall of the USSR.