Friday, October 24, 2008

Naming and Necessity (with apologies to Kripke)

I have a name: "Rachel".

I've pondered it for years, really, and never found another. It's odd how I came to know it. I remember being a junior in high school, and visiting a bunch of relatives in Los Angeles. An American melting-pot family, ours; Irish and Czech and Italian and various bits of Central Europe, and everyone goes and marries around the globe. The cousins we were visiting that night had four of the most beautiful children imaginable. Their youngest daughter, at the time, was five, perhaps six: a sprightly little almost-Levantine waif, all dark curls and flailing limbs as she ran and bounced about. Her name was Rachel. And it suited her.

I don't know why I thought that. I didn't understand a lot of things. I have no sisters; of my close friends with sisters, their ages were mostly very close to mine. So I was unprepared for the well in my heart that she uncapped, with her energetic gymnastics (around the dinner table, to her mother's consternation), her mercurial shyness, and her bright, thoughtful eyes. This was a little girl in the heyday of early girlhood. I saw myself in her. I don't know if who and what I saw were really there, or if something deep inside was projecting, desperately, earnestly, upon my unsuspecting young cousin, but the effect was and is the same. Here was childhood, a childhood I didn't recognize, yet knew, instinctively.

Bear in mind that I had no real concept of my own transness at the time. I had begun to look in those directions to explain my inauthentic personalities, my sense of hollowness, but the clear connections had yet to be made. So I had no framework in which to place this recognition, with which to explain it. So it was an amorphous sort of understanding—I knew that I recognized and understood something, but I couldn't articulate it. Not at all.

Such gnosis seems to live in me as experiential memory: a sheaf of visual percepts, uninterpreted, but instead edited to discard everything unimportant to the meaning contained, all then bound together with the faint memory of feelings, intangible impressions, acting as glue and binding to carry the memory down through the years, until I can pare it apart and begin to read it anew. I see her curious, shy face, mahogany curls setting off dark, watching eyes. I feel startled. I hear the name "Rachel". Did I know I was being named? Could she know, then, impossibly, that I somehow shared her name, and wonder "who is this strange person, this boy, this stranger, to take my name?"

I met her again, briefly, when my daughter was tiny, at a family wedding. She had grown into a stunning teen, and I suppose I should have noted myriad other details … but all I can recall is that her face, while it more strongly echoed her father's and mother's adult faces, having lost the baby fat I remembered, was the same: the shy curiosity, the reticence, the alert life behind her eyes. And the name still fit; it fit admirably.

And no other name fits me. I don't really know why not. I think I named myself so many years ago, when I first encountered the sort of child I might have been (and who, unsurprisingly, my daughter is swiftly growing to be), and perhaps it's simply that, once forged, the name will not be broken.

Certainly, my old name—avoided, set aside, but not denied—will never cease to be me. That might have happened, once. That individual might have half-died, given-up his presence so that I might "truly live", had I transitioned in my teens or early twenties, before I learned to love again, before I found my crafts, before I began to build a home. But there's something ineffable and powerful about giving life and welcoming life. HeIfathered my children. I may understand myself, now, to be their mother, but I have always been their father. I can no more erase that existence and presencemy existencethan I can cease to be their parent, cease to love and cherish them.

I have managed to present as a strong, feminine man for the entirety of my (pre-transition) adult life. I have accomplished things, as such, of which I am deeply proud: things with which I define myself, which have persisted in my identity as I have shed the male, para-masculine shells and windows and screens and grown me around my heart in their place. Accomplishments that continue to matter, even as my speech lightens, even as my curves soften and increase, even as I strive to recenter all the friendships I've knocked askew along the way. I cannot disavow that earnest, confused person, because his heart is my heart, stripped of the rest of me so as to fit in that awkward man-like form. His name is my name. Even when I do not want it.

Names, it seem, are more permanent than clothes, and not so easily outgrown. And perhaps when I saw that little girl whisk around the dining room table and peek-out from behind her brother's chair, I saw, suddenly, a ghost of the child I had half-been for so many years: unaccepted, fearful, confused, confusing, and eventually exiled. Perhaps I glimpsed this little girl and learned that her name was "Rachel". And so that is her name. My name.

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