When I left my room at four in the morning to leave for Alaska, I expected a lot of things: It would be cold, maybe I’d see snow, I’d get to learn about a new culture, work in a school, and maybe see some whales or the aurora borealis. And except for the last two, I did all of these things–but one thing I didn’t expect to learn about was names.
Names mean a lot to me: As a writer, a character’s name (or lack thereof) can be the most defining element to a story. As a leader, learning the names of my fellow students is not only a great way to attract new members, but also to establish a genuine sense of community in our group. And as a gay man in a world where marriage equality seems inevitable only a few short years after it seemed impossible, I’ll someday have to choose my name, his name, or a strained attempt at something in between.
But as I learned in Alaska, the power of names doesn’t end there.
On our first evening in the small village called Hoonah, we were given a short introduction to the culture of the native Tlingit tribe. We were told about the three migrations of people from Asia into the Americas; we were told about the historical oppression native communities faced by white, Christian missionaries; and we were told that the Tlingit believe everything has a spirit, and every spirit has a name.
A spirit that is forever intertwined with the name it carries.
Our presenter was adopted into the tribe, and when she was, she was given a Tlingit name. However, this wasn’t like how I have two names–one English, one Hebrew–because when she was given her Tlingit name, she was also given the spirit it belonged to. Except “given” isn’t the right word–it’s more that the spirit attached to her new name became a part of her. So since she was given the name belong to the mother of the man who adopted her, she is now responsible to provide for him as his mother would.
The nuances of this belief go beyond the small glimpse of Tlingit life we were privileged to witness, but I have no doubt that it goes far deeper and shines more beautifully than the basic interpretation of what I was told that I’ve shared here.
Learning someone’s name a sign of respect, an ethical obligation I strive to uphold: If you tell me your name, I will do my best to remember it, and though many times I’ll need reminders, the importance I see in knowing someone’s preferred name has helped me remember names far more efficiently than I used to.
Many times, elders in the community would introduce themselves in both their English and Tlingit names. For the most part I got their English names, but I felt a little lacking when I couldn’t recall their Tlingit names. The language is complicated for an English-language speaker (it sounds vaguely reminiscent of German, with harsh, guttural sounds), so I believe they all understood this difficulty, but I still wish I had been able to learn at least a few of their names to truly show them how much I cared for and respected them.
The reverence they hold for names also got me thinking of names in my own life. In Judaism, children are named after someone or for something (the latter being the origin of many Biblical names). Today, in the Ashkenazic (eastern European) tradition, names honor those who have passed away and it’s superstitious to name someone after a living person, but in the Sephardic (Spanish) tradition, these customs are reversed.
That might be a challenge I’ll someday need to reconcile, but for the meantime this tradition connects me to people I never knew–people my parents wished to honor when they named me. In a way their memory lives on through my me, through my name… I remember, in many Bar or Bat Mitvah programs, parents would make a remark saying their child had the same virtues, skills, or passions as those they were named after… In our tradition, names keep people–and their legacies–alive even after they’re gone.
For the longest time I wasn’t especially fond of my own name, and online I adopted many names that came to define me: micrody, maji, writingwolf. Most of these have past, but others represent a culmination of my identity–the name I take today, the brand I’ve made for myself. I’ve gotten used to signing “Darren Lipman” and can only think of one reason why that would ever change, but for now this name is who I am, and I am this name, too.
Over time, I’ll probably begin to forget the names of those I met in Alaska. One by one, the memories will no longer be pristine and clear like freshly fallen snow; newer memories will take their place, and scant images of smiling children writing poetry and young adults doing physics will slip away, but the impact they’ve had on my life will remain.
Indeed, it has been compacted into my soul like the slow accumulation of snow that one day becomes a glacier–mighty, powerful, and humbling to stand before.