What’s in a Name?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my name.

My legal name is “Paul”. It’s the name I’ve worn most of my life.

When I was too young to remember, I was Timmy. That was based on my middle name, which is Timothy. My older brother went by Mark, his middle name, and I went by Timmy.

At some point, he switched back to his first name, John, and I switched back to my first name, Paul. I was too young at the time to remember why.

When I was in school, I wanted to be a writer, and I thought writers had to have pen names, so I gave myself a pen name. Two, in fact.

The first one was Zebediah Ryan Petykai. I’d largely forgotten that one until recently, when I was going through some old writing of mine. It didn’t last long, thankfully.

The second one was P. Luc Valloglise, which lasted long enough for me to publish a book with it. The book was printed in purple ink. The spines were of such low quality that most of them fell apart after a single reading. But I had been published by someone who didn’t know me, so that was an accomplishment.

Then I stopped writing much, and that name disappeared. It survived for a while longer in my poetry, which I signed as poluve. But eventually, that faded too.

For a few years, I had a religious name. Everyone I knew socially knew me by that name. I left that religious circle, and I left the name behind. I could share it, but I don’t really want to. It’s not a deadname or anything, it just belongs to a chapter of my life that’s already been written.

And so, I settled back into Paul, which is where I’ve been for nearly two decades now.

Lately, though, I’ve been restless.

“Paul” is a brick of a name. It lingers deep in my throat, and it settles lifelessly on my ear. It speaks to me of disappointment and disillusion.

It is not uncommon (but also by no means necessary) for people to take new names as part of their transition to public acknowledgement of their gender identity. I didn’t want to take a new name just because I was expected to, and so I let that slide by.

But the brick kept coming down upon me.

I’m not sure I’ve ever liked “Paul”. It is a loaded handgun of a name. When I hear it, I hear adults around me reminding me that the world doesn’t function the way I, in my naivete and innocence, wish it did.

I can’t have my way. I have to follow the rules. I must live inside the box that’s been constructed for me.

That’s what I hear.

But… it’s my name. Changing it would be effort. And what if I changed it to something I decide I don’t like?

Myreligious name was Brighn. It rhymes with sheen and clean. It was never my legal name, it was just something everyone who knew me socially called me.

I didn’t want to share it before because I was trying to protect myself from that memory. I wanted to argue that I can’t just take a social name and have that and my legal name and have them sit side by side.

Because I did that, for about a decade. And the world did not collapse.

I also didn’t want to share it because some names are important, and ought not to be held up to ridicule.

I was thinking about names again tonight. Standing in the shower, thinking… as Jane’s Addiction sang. And the water, indeed, was so f___in’ hot.

I was thinking about how, as much as we might say that names are just names, corporations spend a lot of money to make sure their products have just the right name. Names do say things: Not too weird, not too common, easy to remember but not too bland.

There is little risk in using the names our parents have given us. We do not claim any personal ownership in those names. But when we choose our own names, we have more personal investment in them.

Our parents name our bodies. We name our souls.

But then “Paul” kept tripping me up. A brick sitting in my way, getting larger and larger.

Bruce Cockburn asked: “If I loose my grip, will I take flight?”

“Paul” is my anchor. I want to fly.

Finding a new name wasn’t easy. I had to try on a bunch, like new shoes when my feet were used to an ill-fitting pair. I knew it couldn’t be heavy; it had to soar. I knew it had an “ee” sound in the middle, because that’s what flies.

I had joked to my transgender support group about calling myself “Sunshine”, a stereotypically vague nonbinary person’s chosen name. That made me think of “Summer”. That week, I heard a Ukrainian song called “Lito”, which means “Summer” and which fit the bill.

For two weeks, I was Lito.

And each time I heard it, my brain corrected it to Clio.

Clio is one of the nine Muses. In the later days of Rome, she was considered the Muse of History, when they decided each Muse had to have a certain role. She has other connections which were meaningful to me, once.

So I’ve settled on Clio. Clio the Kitten when I’m feeling playful.

There’s still a voice telling me I’m Paul. PAUL. Paul, do your work. Paul, stop daydreaming. Paul, keep focused and don’t live in that fantasy world.

Only time will tell if Clio will stick around for a while. There’s a large part of my mind that’s resisting the change because of the comfort of Paul. The codependent, passive-aggressive comfort of Paul.

Keep calling me Paul, if that works for you. But, for now, I’m in a new chapter of my life. And the title of that chapter is Clio.

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