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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