I intend to know you better

Over the past few weeks, little jewels began to appear on our fence line. Pale green gems, about an inch long, were attaching themselves to the underside of the top rails. After consultation with our neighbor, we learned that the gilt-edged capsules were monarch butterfly chrysalides* (*plural of chrysalis; also new favorite word). These unbelievably beautiful baubles look as if a masterful painter of Fabergé eggs had taken the tiniest brush, dipped it in gold, and embellished them solely for delight. We check on them every morning and wonder why they are so pretty and try to guess when each will emerge by noting which chrysalides have darkened, revealing the body of the butterfly underneath.

Chrysalis on our fence (photo by Guion).

Learning what to call these inchoate backyard inhabitants deepened our affection for them. Knowing that they were monarchs, not just any old bug, enhanced our care and consideration. We now feel protective and compassionate toward them; we worry about their welfare; we wonder about their future as the weather turns. None of this would have happened if we had never learned what they were called. Because we’ve rarely left our home this year, we’ve observed so much more of the natural world and been driven to find out the proper names of our neighboring flora and fauna. I now know that a Carolina wren is the possessive little bird that chirps at us on the deck every evening. I learned that red-tailed hawks were the ones performing a dramatic mating dance in the neighbor’s garden. The weed that gives me so much grief is ground ivy, and the big spider that tries to trap me every morning by spinning a web over our front walk is an orange marbled orb weaver.

We have also tried to extend this practice to the human beings in our neighborhood. I am far from a natural socialite, but in pandemic life, I have suddenly become the chatty neighbor out on a walk. (I use the funny blonde baby on my hip as an ice-breaker.) Now that I know so many neighbors’ names, I see them and their houses differently. I see the whole street with a refreshed gaze, refocused by attachment.

I’m a broken record, but naming strikes me as a critical skill of storytellers. Without a curiosity for names and an attending capacity to remember them, our stories grow pale, unmemorable, weak. Our relationships with others depend on our knowledge of names. A storyteller necessarily has a great facility for forming and preserving relationships between creatures. In contrast, a storyteller who was uninterested in names would be a poor storyteller indeed. To ignore the names of people, places, and things indicates a serious deficit of curiosity, which often results in a deficit of respect. 

The desire to learn a name and remember it speaks to a deep well of intention. Inquiring about a name says, I intend to know you better, whether you are a fabulous insect or a new acquaintance. The best way to do that is to begin by knowing your name.

(Letter from this week’s Story Matters, the email I get to write for work.)

. . .

Eating an apple he picked from the backyard.

Meanwhile, this little dude continues to be extremely entertaining and cute. He’s 16 months old and has lots of opinions about how the household should be run. Specifically, if he got to enact his policy mandates, he would subsist exclusively on a diet of (expensive) berries, pull all things out of all cabinets at all hours of the day, never be put in his “independent play” room, walk to the park every day, and dance slowly to Sufjan in the morning, without interruption.

We had to shave him some weeks ago, because he decided that his new sleep routine involved pulling his hair out by the fistful. I miss his flowing flaxen hair! Maybe it will grow back.

. . .

To call you by your name

Since I was a very small, I have reveled in calling a thing by its name. I want to know the name, and even better, to bestow the name. I have always taken stock in the value of names, the meanings behind them, the spellings, the derivations. When I was 10, I checked out every baby name book at the library and read them cover to cover. I wrote long stories about wistful teenaged girls with absurd, meticulously chosen names (Shenandoah Artemis Montgomery was a favorite oft-used heroine). I wanted to know all of my friends’ middle names and reflect on them.

My grandmother has been cleaning out her house, and she has been finding pages upon pages of lists of names I made as a child. Sometimes she sends them to me in the mail. A recent find: On a tattered sheet of notebook paper, when I was perhaps 8 or 9, I have written in pencil three columns of names of dog handlers, dog breeds, and dog names, for an imaginary dog show. Why? I have no idea. It seemed important to me at the time.

When we were small and traveling with Dad on business trips, we listened to books on tape. We were listening to Where the Red Fern Grows, and I was listening with rapt attention. Finally, this boy had saved his entire life’s earnings and bought himself a pair of redbone coonhounds. I was elated. And then the boy said, “I will call them… Big Dan and Little Ann!” My parents said I let out a loud wail from the back of the minivan. They were startled. “WHY?” I lamented. “WHY SUCH TERRIBLE, TERRIBLE NAMES?”

When we first started dating, Guion gave me a compliment that I had never heard before and have thus always remembered. He noticed my predilection for calling out the proper names of animals and plants when we walked. “It is like watching Adam walk through the garden, this need of yours to name everything,” he said, adding, lest I found the remark a reprimand, “and I love that about you.”

So, I’m thinking about names again. (We are on the verge of adopting a trio of bantam chickens, and so I’ve been doing a little research on Indonesian girls’ names.) And that is what I am thinking about now. Why this compulsion for naming?

My best answer is this: A good name gives dignity to its owner. And since I was tiny, I have felt that to be an important virtue.

Whether a plant, a mouse, or a small child, a name gives meaning and worth to that being. This is why farmers don’t name their livestock who will be killed; it is much easier to kill a nameless thing. This is why I’ve never liked the tradition of juniors (for pity’s sake, give the kid his own name). This is why I sigh when someone with a very plain surname gives their kid a very plain first name. This is why we gave our first dog a crazily spelled name (Pyrrha) and why we gave the second one a name in a similar mythological theme (Eden).

Or maybe all of this is just a heads-up to let you know that if and when we have children, be prepared for a weird name. A husband named Guion, after all, means that we have high expectations for ourselves in the odd name department.