identification & identity

First, let’s start with words. As a species, we use words to communicate. In the beginning, language was rudimentary. Used to signal an alert of danger or the availability of a food source. In order for individuals to successfully communicate, they had to use the same sets of sounds to identify objects, actions, places, emotions, and the individuals themselves. Over time, human language has evolved from a tool to assist with the basic needs of sustaining life–to how we use it today. Reading a worn copy of Harry Potter, ordering Chic-fil-a through a speaker, emailing friends across the world, happy hour gossip, the comments section in Twitter.

While the ways in which we use language have expanded with time and technology, it still holds true that, within communities, the same set of words are used to identify people, places and things. A name is a word used to identify an individual. But a name doesn’t feel like just another word. We retain our name across the world. It goes with us no matter where we go or who we encounter. Who we are as people, our identity, is tied to our identification. Our background, our familial ties, possibly our generation can all be gleaned from the sounds used to identify us.

Yesterday, I met up with my college roommate for brunch at Le Diplomate in DC. Over buttered toast, she begins telling me about a gripe with her husband of two years over her resistance to adopting his surname as her own. She described their compromise: professionally, academically and legally, she will keep her maiden name. Socially, she’s happy to use his. In the most millennial sentiment I may have ever heard, she says, “So, I changed my name on Facebook and OpenTable.” She’d told him that tradition wasn’t a good enough reason to give up the identity she’d built over the past thirty years. I tend to agree with her.

A quick tangent. I am irked by most traditional marriage conventions. Given that women are no longer moving from the parental home straight to a husband’s home, are no longer property of said husbands, are quite capable of making their own way through the world, can vote, earn income, and own property… you know, equals… why do we keep these silly traditions?? Ok, tangent over.

I remember in college, this same roommate, whose parents immigrated to the States from India, telling me about the trouble of choosing a spelling for her first name. In high school, she’d adopted a shortened, Westernized version. She was unsure who she wanted to be. The all-American girl everyone grew up with, or the girl with the richer name and cultural background? The confident, successful woman sitting in front of me yesterday had no qualms voicing her concerns about retaining the portions of herself attached to her maiden name. At the same time, this wildly intelligence woman, understands and accepts the importance her husband places on being a Mr. and Mrs. Hence, Facebook and OpenTable.

This conversation had me wondering about other friends who recently tied the knot. Checking in with my best friend, who was married this past July, and who has updated her Facebook to include both her maiden name and husband’s surname, I asked if it was legal. With an equally giggle-worthy sentiment, she texted me back after midnight to say she’d been too lazy these past seven months and is now waiting until her taxes are done to add her husband’s last name (sans hyphen) to hers. I can only imagine the hassle of trying to do one’s taxes with two legal names within the same calendar year. You do you, bestie. She leans a bit more to the traditional side but I truly love that she is using both names. If our name, our identification, is linked to our identity, shouldn’t the melding of two lives into a partnership warrant a growth in identification? I guess my issue with this is that it is typically only the woman who grows in this manner.

When I moved to Italy after college, I learned from the family with whom I was living, that Italian women retain their maiden names in marriage and that children adopt the father’s name. Fairly progressive, Italia. This is a convention I know well. To this day, my mom says she should have put her own last name on my birth certificate, but chose that of my biological father instead, for no other reason than tradition. I was legally identified as being family to a man that my mother had no intention of allowing contact with me. This bow to centuries worth of patriarchy did me no harm, and is actually an interesting and meaningful part of my identity. When I was fourteen, I chose to legally change my last name and adopt that of my dad. The man who actually raised me and whose name I used socially anyway.

I like to say that I will not change my name again for a man–I’ve done it once already. However, I do see a kind of gracefulness in changing one’s name with the ebbs and flows of life. Making your identification match your identity at a given point in life does not have to represent a succumbing to a societal norm for norm’s sake. Whether it be using a nickname, adding a hyphen, reverting to a maiden name after a traumatic divorce, or adopting the name of the man who raised you like his own, making a conscious choice about the sounds we use to identify ourselves, one way or the other, demonstrates an awareness of self.

 

at home & abroad.

Christmas Eve. Fang and I are snug on my couch. Safe in America and only thirty minutes away from the homestead. Such a luxury, to be able to see all of my loved ones, in person, on Christmas tomorrow.

It hasn’t always been so for us, and I feel a little guilty in my contentedness thinking of my friends around the world who will not be with family this holiday. This life of service we’ve chosen truly requires sacrifice. And what other time than the holidays to most feel the sharp stab of longing for the comforts of home and loved ones? Life feels punctuated by all the moments you missed.

Looking back on all of the holidays and special events that were just slightly off –because of our family’s duty to Country–you know, they were some of the most memorable and special for it. Nothing will make you appreciate your family and home more than being away from it during a time entirely devoted to the importance of Family.

There was the Christmas in high school when Dad was gone for months, including Christmas, in order that my parents could afford to buy me my first car. A 1992 green Mercury Cougar. With a red bow on it fit for a Lexus. That thing was a tank and I loved it. But I have to admit, at the time in my teenage angst, I was a teeny bit resentful of his absence. Not until I was an adult, serving my own Christmas in a war zone at the age of 23, did I full comprehend what my parents gave up to provide the best life possible for their children.

At 23, the year I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, my Mom’s birthday, my brother’s graduation from college, and so many other moments. I wasn’t without love. The family we built out there on camaraderie and pure survival saw us through the holidays. My job was basically to serve as the mom for all of my coworkers. Duties included jerry-rigging decorations and nagging the guys to not forget to write to their moms/wives/girlfriends/children.

That year for Christmas, my parents sent me a camera so that I could document life. Knowing that I have loved taking photos since I was old enough to understand what a camera was and how to operate it, this was a fantastic gift. Or at least it would have been. Mom sent it through the mail system early and I put the wrapped present under a hand drawing of a tree in my hooch and dutifully waited until Christmas morning to open it. The box was empty! I laugh now, but then, I cried like a baby. Getting a gift from Mom and Dad was the closest thing to normal that I had, and it was off. Mom to the rescue; she went back to the store, probably Target, explained what happened, and I got the camera about a month later. I still have it, even if I’ve upgraded a few times since. That thing went through a lot to get to me.

A week later, tragedy struck. How do you celebrate the coming of a new year and a clean slate when you’ve just lost friends to senselessness? There are no words. Twenty four hours after, I was faced with a decision: go ahead with the New Years “party” I had put together in the MWR or cancel it. I went with something in the middle. God knows why, but I’d found a six inch mirror ball in a storage closet and rigged it on string to drop at midnight. I had our cooks make platters of “American” food and had hoarded enough Johnny Walker to toast with. We used the occasion to mourn and move on because there was no other choice. Life and the rest goes on and there is no stopping.

Fast forward to a year later. I decide to surprise my family for Christmas. I worked it out with a close friend of mine to pick up and drop me off in a giant gift bag that I could hide in and get left on the door stoop. Stupid, yes. Cute, absolutely. SURPRISE. My first flight is significantly delayed and I am told that I will likely miss my connecting flight in Paris. Because, Africa. My heart sank and I felt a desperate urge to Just. Get. Home. I ran through Charles de Gaulle and made my flight. My luggage, not so much. Despite the nighttime arrival, my friend was kind enough to drive me to Target to get a change of clothes and a tooth brush. The gifts I’d ferreted in my suitcase wouldn’t make it that year. But the look of utter disbelief on Mom’s face when she looked down the stairs and saw me-priceless. Air France managed to find and return my luggage back a couple months later.

At 25, I was nearly fired over a special event. My little brother was graduating boot camp in mid-January so we postponed Christmas so that we could all be there. I would fly home from North Africa and head down to see Larry at Paris Island before we all went home and celebrated. And then a month in advance, a project comes up that I cannot miss. No, what I was not going to miss, was another graduation of his. At the end of the day, what am I going to look back on and regret-missing being on hand to open doors for a Big Wig… or missing the moment of pride in seeing my little brother become a US Marine? Easy decision for me. Ultimately, I won that battle, which was made moot when said Big Wig cancelled said project at the last minute. We froze our assess off hoping to catch a glimpse of Larry running by in formation and then hugged his skeletal frame in an auditorium full of other families ecstatic to see their newly minted Marines.

So tonight, I am thinking of my dearest friends all over the world. Sacrificing and serving so that I can sit here with Fang on my cozy couch in America. We’re sending you all hugs and licks. I’m also thinking of my family. It still surprises me every time I realize I can just hop in the car and go see them. Especially during this season. The holidays are special and even if you can’t be with family, they are still out there, thinking of and loving you. Waiting until that next time they get to hold you hard enough to make up for being absent on that arbitrary date which the calendar tells us is special.

Happy Christmas and Merry New Year, everyone.