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Our desire to name things is so powerful that most of us come into the world already named before we ever take our first breath.

Amy Jo – December 1968

Often the names we are given come still attached to another loved one – my middle name is Jo, after my father’s father who died long before I was born – or a memory, or a special place. Other times a name might be randomly drawn out of a hat when a decision cannot be made among too many possible contenders.

But no matter what name you are given, each of us is a unique manifestation called a human being, who will spend the rest of our lives learning the names of our loved ones, our emotions and every other single thing we see, hear, smell, taste and touch, along with the myriad of thousands of other things that affect our lives every day in every way.

“In many ways love has already named us before we can even begin to speak back to it, before we can utter the right words or understand what has happened to us or is continuing to happen to us: an invitation to the most difficult art of all, to love without naming at all.” – David Whyte Consolations

In the beginning, we love without naming. During our first formative years, our love is entirely reciprocal. If all goes according to plan, we are shown love by our parents. We are taken care of by them, fed by them, our full diapers changed by them, taught by them and nurtured by them. We are made to feel safe and loved and in return, we reciprocate that love with a smile or a snuggle when held in the arms of someone who loves us.

We have no names for any of these feelings yet, just an invitation to return the love we are given.

Slowly, over time, we learn that the large protuberance on our father’s face is called a nose, and the long thing that sometimes pops out of our mother’s mouth in an effort to make us giggle is called a tongue and that it is pink, and the sky is blue, and there is only one sun, but we each have ten fingers and ten toes.

Our vocabulary grows each day exponentially as we gradually learn the names of everything around us, until one day if we’re lucky, we’ll be walking in the middle of the woods and stumble upon something we don’t know the name for yet.

And then (if you’re anything like me) you will go home and learn its name, and the next time you see it, you will speak it.

But as so often happens, as soon as we name something, that becomes an end to our inquiry.

Once we know its name, we assume we know the thing, but of course, that’s not likely the case.

I remember seeing a damselfly dipping in and out of a river once and confusing it with a dragonfly until one alighted on my arm and folded its wings up together across the top of its back, unlike a dragonfly that holds its wings out perpendicular to its body. I knew its name was damselfly, but I was wrong about what it was. And that wasn’t an isolated incident.

Several years ago we set up a nesting box for owls. The following summer I see a duck flying in and out of it. I know it’s a duck because I learned its name long ago when I was a child. But unlike the mallards I was accustomed to seeing every summer, this duck was determined to nest in the box we had attached to a large oak more than ten feet off the ground instead of laying its eggs in the reeds down by the water as the mallards do.

So the first thing my kids and I do is set about trying to find out just what kind of duck it is. We want to know what it’s called. We want very much to know its name.

After doing a bit of digging, we feel certain it’s a wood duck. We tell everyone we know how lucky we are to have wood ducks nesting in our owl house.

We learned everything we could about them including how long the eggs are typically incubated so we could gauge when to expect they would hatch.

After keeping vigil for days, my daughter and I were fortunate enough to witness each tiny, fuzzy, bundle of feathers take their leap of faith as one by one they each jumped out of the box, tumbling into the leaves at the base of the tree where their mother stood guard waiting for the last one to jump, before hurrying to escort them all down to the pond.

Only we were wrong. It turns out they weren’t wood ducks after all. When I showed the above picture to my niece, who then showed it to someone she worked with, we learned what they were. Now we call them by their name: hooded mergansers.

They are distinctly different from all other ducks just as we are each distinctly different from all other human beings, and while our urge to name everything is strong, often in doing so, we miss the truth of what something – or someone – really is.

Words elicit strong emotions.

Black. White. Rich. Poor. Republican. Democrat. Man. Woman. Refugee.

Many of us disagree with each other based solely on our reactions to certain words.

If I hear someone being described as an old, rich, white, religious, Republican male, I immediately form an opinion of that person – and it’s not a good one. Chances are I would opt to steer clear of that person based solely on the emotions those words elicit in me.

But those very same words could be used to describe Fred Rogers, from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. 

So many of the words we use to name things are so charged with perceived meaning that they create a stigma around them and skew our interpretation of someone before we ever have a chance to get to know them.

Naming someone ‘crazy’ or ‘disturbed’ or ‘nuts’ when talking about someone’s mental health promotes the negative stereotype that people with mental illness are dangerous and often prevents someone who might be suffering to seek out the help they need.

So it is with naming someone an alcoholic. The minute we hear that word we think we know that person’s story.

Instead, we could challenge our perception of someone as opposed to blindly accepting who we think they are based on our labels for them.

Change your perception, change your reality.

“We name mostly in order to control but what is worth loving does not want to be held within the bounds of too narrow a calling.” – David Whyte Consolations

Every so often while I’m out walking in the woods (without my dogs), I get so fully immersed in my attention to every single thing I see, that I allow myself to imagine what it would be like if I didn’t already know the names for everything.

For some reason, this works best with butterflies and bees.

For the briefest of moments this tiny creature – this thing that can fly! – alights on my arm and I pretend I have no idea what it is or where it came from, but I know that I love it.

Like the stories I am sharing here. In the past, I had names for many of them, and I judged some of them harshly for the painful memories they rekindled.

But by revisiting them I am able to better understand them for what they were and for what I learned from them, and relish them all.



About Amy

I am many things to many people. Daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, friend. I am a worshiper of nature on a journey inward, rewriting my story one word at a time.

2 Replies

  1. Linda Wells

    Oh Amy! Your writing is so amazing!! So beautiful it makes me catch my breath sometimes!! I am so proud of you for taking on this project as you call it!!! Beautiful words, writing! Just like you!! I love you! Linda

    1. Thanks so much for your unwavering support, Linda. Love you!

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