N.B: I want to preface this by saying that I think about my name a lot. I have no idea if anyone else does this–it’s not something I discuss with anyone on a regular or even occasional basis–but, as a cultural anthropologist, I must admit that I am quite curious. What do you think of your name? Does it mean something particular to the world, but something else entirely to you? I’d love to hear your stories!
I was seven months into my first year of college when my academic advisor realized I was a girl. We were sitting there at 8:30 in the morning in our small seminar class that had started with 40 students and dwindled to around 20. I had just answered a question and my advisor, who was also the professor for this seminar, asked me for my name so he could give me the standard bonus point for a correct answer.
“Up near the top–second one down on that list. Connor.” He looked up from the list of names on the overhead projector and stared at me.
“Oh, you’re Connor!”
“… but you’re a girl.“
“Yes,” I said, nodding slowly. “Yes, I am.” You’d never know I’d met with him–in person, one-on-one, two separate times–to have my course loads approved.
“Isn’t that a boy’s name?”
I didn’t give much thought to my name when I was growing up. I never thought of it as strange, or unique–in fact, I was pretty jealous of my friends with what I perceived as “cool” names–that is, ones with built in nicknames: the Elizabeths, Rachels, Rebeccas, and Katherines of my acquaintance.
I’m not even entirely certain what age I even realized Connor wasn’t a “girl’s name.” Since those days, though, I’ve had my fair share of e-mails addressed “Mr.,” plenty of confused glances, and more than my fair share of double takes (many of which took place when I was studying abroad in Dublin. If I ever tried to meet the person sitting next to me, it was almost inevitably a guy named Connor. They were all quite confused by this American girl who shared their name).
When I graduated eighth grade, our (small) class (of six girls, that’s it) elected our Latin teacher to give our commencement address. She was the teacher all of us had known the longest, we said, and she sent us off in style. In true classics scholar form, she presented us with the etymology of our names–white, beautiful flower, maiden, victory, grace, and mine: much wanted, strong willed. That became the manner in which I considered my name for years: a memory of sweet words and the transition from middle school to high school, from New York City to Philadelphia.
I myself did not read any Flannery O’Connor for many, many years. I remember asking mom about it when I was maybe seven or eight; she told me I would have to wait for a few years until I was older. I thought it was quite strange of her to name me after an author whose works I couldn’t even read, but I grew up admiring her from a distance. She kept peacocks, after all, and that was pretty cool.
When eleventh grade rolled around and my English syllabus proclaimed we would be reading A Good Man is Hard to Find, and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor, my stomach squirmed. What if I didn’t like her? What if I was named after this famous American novelist whose work I actually despised? I was a sixteen year old, fantasy novel loving, baking addicted, technical theatre geek of a girl. What could this Southern Gothic novelist have to do with me–and what was Southern Gothic, anyway? It certainly sounded fishy, that was sure.
We read “The Misfit.” We read “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” We read “Good Country People.” My classmates started staring at me oddly. They hadn’t read Flannery O’Connor before, either, and now half of them thought my parents were completely bonkers to name me after this woman.
Me? I loved it. While my classmates shook their heads in bewilderment at these absolutely bizarre stories, I started reading the unassigned ones in my free moments. A free period spent with Rachel in the library, the train ride home, the hours between classes and rehearsals–for a few weeks, they filled right up with these stories by my namesake.
When that section of class ended, I put away my Flannery O’Connor stories. I haven’t read much more of her work since then, actually. Recently, though, I’ve been trying to fix that. I’ve been learning about her: how she thought, why she wrote, what else she did (Cartoons. Who knew?). I stumble across quotes from her stories and essays on the internet and smile to myself, identify with them. The more I read, the more I relate to her–the more I feel like I might, possibly, be like her. A little. Maybe. Even without the peacocks.
While I was off in Ireland last fall, I skyped with my parents semi-regularly. One day, my mom and I were discussing Christmas. I told her I had already figured out everyone’s presents–easy, you know, since I was abroad and everything would be considered awesome–and that I had two requests.
One was a box of Candy CaneJoe Joe’s, which did not exist in Ireland and thus were lacking from my Christmas preparations. The second was a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal, which had been published a few weeks previously. Mom laughed, but come Christmas morning I found both wrapped up in ribbon.
I finally started reading the journal a few weeks ago, and I haven’t stopped laughing to myself since. Miss O’Connor and I, we share struggles. We share hopes. We share dreams. We share a love of words that borders on the visceral. We write prayers like letters, sometimes; we seem to have similar issues with Kafka. We share a sometimes sinful desire to be (or at least be seen as) clever, and are sometimes so lost in thought that our prayers trail off into questions like I’ve been reading this or that, and it’s wonderful. Will I ever know anything? or an abrupt ending of Can’t anyone teach me how to pray? Sometimes we hedge our prayers with disclaimers, like Dear God, please give me as much air as it is not presumptuous to ask for.
I think just about anyone can relate to that, namesake or no, but the name is what makes me pause. Did my parents know all this when they were naming me? Did they know I would grow up loving words stories the way my friends love science, filmography, theatre, or nursing? Did they know I’d end up here, twenty-two, with a list of possibilities and plots swirling in this slightly off-beat head of mine? Surely they must have had some inkling of the woman they wanted me to become–otherwise, why Connor?
In theory, your parents name you, and that name is a gift–one of the first they give you. The more I read of Flannery O’Connor, though, the more I wonder if our names aren’t God giving us something we need: small presents meant just for us that keep unwrapping as we grow to understand who we are and what we stand for and what it means to live in this strange world.
The more I learn about living, too, the more I start to wonder if he’s doing this on purpose–to make us sink roots more deeply and feel more connected to this world that surrounds us, to make us enjoy our time on this side of eternity just that much more, to make us roll our eyes, or just to give us more chances for good stories, good memories, and more chances for laughter–
even–or perhaps especially–when it comes from relating stories of people who tilt their heads after hearing your name, squint at you, and say, “…but you’re a girl!“