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October 9, 2013

Sadness and Rainbows

g9530_malala.inddIt’s hard to believe that it’s been only a year since Malala Yousafzai was shot, propelling her into the public consciousness, because I feel like I’ve always known her name. It was a name that solved a small problem of mine, the problem of why we no longer name our babies for heroes. I think we no longer name our babies for heroes because there are so few heroes, and heroes are so fallible that their names could become a burden. But it was different with Malala, whose miraculous recovery made her story a triumph. Now there’s a hero, I thought–somebody brave, smart, articulate, young and inspiring. I love that she is living proof that nonviolence is more powerful than a gun is. I was early in my pregnancy when Malala’s story landed on newspaper front pages around the world, and we decided that if our baby was a girl, we would name her after her.

Malala is a big name for a little baby to live up to, particularly our little baby, who is small, bald and funny-faced. It is Iris’s middle name, and we call her both names sometimes because the name is so melodic, but it doesn’t entirely suit her yet. I wonder what her connection to the name will come to be, though already it means something to Iris’s big sister. She knows the story of Malala, how bad men tried to hurt her because they didn’t believe that girls should go to school. She knows about Malala’s bravery, the force of her nonviolence, and, most importantly, she knows that life isn’t the same for girls everywhere as it is for her. Perhaps even that freedoms are not to be taken for granted.

The name “Malala” means “sadness” in Urdu, and even Malala Yousafzai herself has confessed that it is a hard name to carry for that reason. The meaning had me considering whether this was a suitable name to give my baby–particularly as her sister’s second name is “Joy”. But we decided to name her Malala anyway, because three remarkable women have had this name even with the sadness entailed: the 19th century poet warrior whom the modern-day Malalas were named after, Malala Yousafzai, and also former Afghan MP Malala Joya who Malala Yousafzai claims is an inspiration.

We gave her the name because sadness is part of the story, as an acknowledgement that there is still much to be overcome. But the sadness doesn’t negate the light, the hope. The world is big enough to contain all of this.

But we did call her Iris too, which means rainbow. It’s a fascinating name–a flower, a part of human anatomy, a song by not only the Goo Goo Dolls but also Split Enz (which I listened to over and over again while we waited for her to be born), Dylan McKay’s mother, and a Greek Goddess. A good counter and complement to the sadness, I think, and she suits it (though has been perhaps unfortunately nicknamed Aye Aye, while she does not possess a special middle finger to fulfil the same ecological niche as a woodpecker).

June 15, 2009

The Name Game

We got a cat when I was fourteen, and as I was the oldest and precocious, I decided I would name it. I named it Socks first, I think, after the White House cat (naturally). But then seeing as our cat didn’t have socks, I decided to name it Tim Johnson instead, which was the name of the dog in To Kill A Mockingbird, and I liked the idea of pets with surnames. But that was stupid, so I changed the cat’s name to Daisy, and I can’t remember why. Then we found out that Daisy was a Tom, so I decided she would be called Casey (at the bat?). And then when I decided to change the cat’s name next, my family called it off and Casey the cat stayed, though I never called it that. I always called it Cat, because I’d seen Breakfast at Tiffanys, and wanted to go Golightly.

So this was why I was apprehensive about naming my child. Though I’ve always found names fascinating and entrancing, I’m fickle about them. In many ways, cats and children are different creatures (so I’ve found of late), and you can only change a daughter’s name so many times if you must do it at all. How to pick a name that would stick?

The first name I ever loved was “Julie”, after Mackenzie Phillips’ character on One Day at a Time. Julie was also my best friend in grade one, and I adored her and she beautiful, though she was sensitive about her hairy arms. I went through an “Ellen” phase, after the character on Family Ties, I think. I watched far too much television; I would have died to have been named “Jo”. I fell in love with “Bianca”, not from Shakespeare, but from Shelley Long’s character’s sister in the movie Hello Again. I was particularly impressionable, and agreed that “Cordelia” was the most exquisite name imaginable. I loved the name “Zoe” for a while, and after I read Louise Fitzhugh’s The Long Secret, I thought “Zeeney” was similarly cool, though she’d not been the most appetizing of characters. And these name fixations would go on and on, influenced by all kinds of sitcoms, films and pop stars. I kept ever-changing lists of what my future daughters would be called, though it never occurred to me to think much about a son.

Strange that Louise Fitzhugh ultimately did decide my child’s name. Baby was not to be Zeeney after all (which is good) but Harriet, after the book from which The Long Secret was a sequel. And I’d never read Harriet the Spy until last year, actually, after I heard this feature on NPR. But I fell in love with Ms. Welsch, and her name topped my list. I knew immediately that I wanted a little Harriet of my own one day. I couldn’t think of anyone better to be named after– such a feisty, clever, independent, hilarious, and wonderful character. Impossible too, which strikes me now as a somewhat fortunate/unfortunate quality to project upon one’s child. Perhaps I should have thought it through a little bit more, because this baby fits the bill so far. The name itself means “Home Ruler”, which is appropriate, I think. So this is what we’ve got ourselves in for…

But it sticks. It’s belonged to her since the moment we saw her, and I do love that we now know someone with this name– have a Harriet in our family even! It is a ubiquitous name throughout literature, but all too rare in the real world. I think I’ll not stop loving it soon, because it’s Harriet’s name after all.

Though I do wonder whether she’ll thank us for it. If she’ll find Harriet M. Welsch as charming as I did. It is a tremendous power, isn’t it? Naming a person? Even fictionally, the name is such a determinate and the author certainly bestows innumerable qualities by such a fact. Naming a real person requires as much consideration– this is destiny. I find it strange that we were handed so much power. At the hospital they asked us her name, we told them, and it was that simple. I would have expected some kind of seminar, or at the very least a lecture (a stern one) about the seriousness of the decision we were about to make based on a 1960s children’s novel. Is nothing sacred? Apparently not, but we’re three weeks in, and at the very least, I’ve not wanted to change it yet.

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