The Power of Names

HALF-EMPTY MASON JAR

By LESLIE SMITH TOWNSEND

“Now there’s a car that costs $200,000,” my husband Loren says as we’re driving down the highway. “It’s Italian—a Maserati.”

I’m dozing in the passenger seat of our yellow Mazda wagon and barely register this information. Can’t he see I’m napping?

The fact that he knows the name and nationality of this car tells me it’s something he values. I don’t know the name of Italian sports cars because I don’t care. We tend to know the names of people, places and things we value.

A few weeks ago, as I was eating a sandwich on the patio of a hotel in Clearwater Beach, Florida, a seagull swooped down and snatched the bun off my plate. “Was it George?” the waiter asked.

“Who’s George?”

“He’s a bird, stands about yay-tall,” the waiter said, holding his hand up four feet from the deck. “Come back for breakfast and you’re sure to meet him.”

The next morning, George stood one-legged next to the rippling aqua water of the swimming pool. Loren and I were the only folks around. Rain was spitting like sharp nails with gusts of wind knocking the drops sideways. The black feathers along George’s head waved skyward, giving him a Mohawk, while the white strands of silk hanging from his chest blew every which way. He stood as still as a statue for 40 minutes or so, then took slow stalking steps, knees bent backward, big heron feet planting forward with all the grace of the majestic seabird that he is. He stopped, statuesque again.

The point is that George has a name. He’s important to the hotel guests and staff. Even if George were a creature of the wild seen only in the secluded eddies of a meandering river, he has a name: “Great Blue Heron.” I know this name because I value these stealthy birds with a huge wing span and throaty bark that make the rest of the world appear small, if only for an instant. I like the fact that you can’t count on them, so it’s always a surprise when they show up, and they will put up with you or not, according to how quiet versus disruptive you are to their habitat.

My neighbor knows the names of every plant in her backyard as she tends them with care. I hurriedly purchase mine from a nursery, put them in the ground and remember to water them, but by the end of the season I will have forgotten their names. Yet I know the name of almost every spring wildflower that grows in Kentucky—names like wild phlox, trillium, jack-in-the-pulpit, hyacinth, delphinium, dog-toothed violet, shooting star, dwarf iris, pink lady slipper. I know the shape of a wild ginger leaf and how to find the hidden bloom at its base, a burgundy trumpet with star-shaped points, pale yellow on the inside. I know the names of trees—not all of them, but ones that have become my friends—trees like sycamore, sassafras, tulip poplar, white pine, hemlock and redbud.

Mary Daly, an early feminist theologian, said that women have had the power of naming stolen from us. She said this in the ’70s when women in the church kept silent, more or less, and accepted names outside ourselves for divine reality—even bore names ourselves that others (the dominant group in society) assigned to us. Women were “the weaker sex,” remember? Not to be bothered with the complex worlds of business and finance, the liturgical rites of baptism and holy communion, the rigors of “objective” science. We were housewives, teachers and secretaries.

The authority to name belongs to the group in power; this is true of every marginalized people and every marginalized creature. Without a name for yourself, it is easy to be ignored, your delicate magenta blooms trampled underfoot by something bigger and noisier—a four-wheeler, perhaps, or a steam-shovel.

When I was writing a dissertation in feminist theology in the late ’80s, I stumbled across the radical words of an African American poet named Ntozake Shange: “i found god in myself/and i loved her/i loved her fiercely.” That woke me up. What is most wonderful, inspiring, majestic and life-transforming need not reside exclusively outside us. We are made of stardust, no less!

We learn the names of people and things that enliven us.

Chantal is the name of a woman in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is being educated and trained through an organization called Women for Women, International. I know her name and her story. Her life is vastly different from my own, but she enlarges my sense of the world and the power of goodness. I carry her in my heart.

Do you know the names of your across-the-street neighbor, pharmacist and grocery store clerk? Do you know the name of the mountain that rises behind you to the east of your cousin’s farm? Do you know the name of the poem that cracks open your heart?

Do you know your own name?

You are marvelous. You are fierce. You are loved.

Assistant Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice. A composite excerpt of her memoir appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism.


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