When I entered this world, my parents named me Laurie – meaning “victorious one; crown of laurel leaves”. Very boastful and bright indeed. My mother always said she saw my name in lights. Maybe that says more about her than it does about me, but anyway . . .
A large aspect of my personality does reflect this name, so I’ve kept it on my birth certificate. It’s the part of me that is outgoing, ebullient, forward, blunt and sometimes aggressive. For all of my childhood, I was called Laurie and I made good use of those qualities in order to survive.
My true name, however, is Penelope – meaning “one who waits; weaver and unweaver”. I came by this name innocently, first through pretending, then adopting, then legalizing, then absorbing.
The story of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey is that she waits patiently for her husband to return from his 20-year journey of adventure and battle without succumbing to the many suitors attempting to win her hand. She fortifies herself by telling the suitors that she will choose one of them when she is finished weaving her tapestry; by day she weaves it, and by night she unweaves it. And this keeps the suitors at bay until Odysseus comes home and kills them all.
When I was 21 and formally changing my name to Penelope, I was confused as to my own motivations. Maybe I was just being weird. What was I gaining from adopting this new moniker? I knew that changing my name would also influence my destiny, but on that end of things I could not see why or how.
Fast forward to now. It’s 22 years later. I’ve been thinking a lot about the problem of attention in our society. Attention Deficit Disorder is the most common mental health disorder in children in Canada. It signifies an inability and unwillingness to focus, sit still and pay attention.
My child self, Laurie, could have easily been diagnosed with ADD; at my school, they did a bunch of IQ tests, classified me as a genius, and decided to call me “gifted”. The teachers came up with a raft of extra-stimulating activities in class to help direct my scattered energy.
In other words, they paid attention to my needs. I’m one of the lucky people.
The root meaning of the word “attention” is “attend” – as in, to be present. To wait upon with patience. To oversee. To tend. In French, the verb attendre means simply “to wait”.
I find it interesting that, as a society, we decide to diagnose 5-10% of the brightest folks in the population with a mental disorder, when our common values have been shown to hold a great preoccupation with rapidity, distraction, hurrying, and switching focus from one thing to another countless times per day. Perhaps people with ADD are just doing all that better than everyone else?
But I digress.
My middle name always started with the letter P, but it was Patricia. At the age of 11, I began trying to trick new kids in our class by telling them that the P stood for Penelope. I just liked the name and thought it was quirky. My friends would always “out” me immediately, so it never stuck. But I remember standing there one day in Grade 5, wondering to myself if I would ever have the audacity to change my name.
Eight years later, at age 19, I began to write poetry and essays under the name Penelope Witcomber. This being the advent of the internet, I joined one of those Chapters Poetry Forums (remember them?) under this name, and I enjoyed being referred to as Penelope online. In Vancouver, a bunch of us decided to meet at a café for an in-person writing session. When writer Lyle Neff (remember him?) casually called out, “Hey Penelope,” my head snapped up.
I recognized my name.
Late that year, after moving across the country and enrolling in a new university, I walked through the doors and introduced myself for the first time as Penelope. “It’s what the P stands for, in my middle name,” I told everyone.
It felt a bit like lying, at first. But gradually it took. I legally changed my middle name to Penelope, and slowly all the people around me began to honour my request. Except my mother and my natal family. They insisted for 20 years on calling me Laurie because that’s the way they remembered me and that’s what they wanted me to be. It didn’t seem to matter to them, the important headway that this new name was making in my personality.
Being Penelope over the past 22 years has changed my personality, and for the better. I adopted it around the same time as I began to practice yoga, meditation, and Earth magic. All these elements have, over time, helped me to slow down and wait. To weave and unweave my life circumstances.
Instead of constant breathless anxiety, I have the ability to pace myself. In place of reactive angry shouting, there has come compassionate curiosity. Rather than talking over everyone with my bright ideas, I’ve learned to engage, listen and reflect.
I’ve learned to pay attention. Deep attention. “One who waits.”
And this learning has benefitted all of society – brief acquaintances as well as my friends, family members, and clients. I’m able to hold space for others, in a way that Laurie never could imagine. I sit very still, in a way that Laurie would have rejected. I contemplate things in a way that Laurie would have shunned.
Now, the bright, aggressive part of my personality has been balanced with a temperate quality that was never present in my childhood. I didn’t receive it from my parents or siblings; nobody waited patiently in my family. The only way I could get attention was to be loud, funny and impossible. But those skills don’t serve in the real world. Successful relationships depend on give-and-take, not over-reaching and grabbing.
When I took on my true name so many years ago, I never realized how much its qualities would infuse my own being. I remember reading a Kabalarian website post that changing my name would profoundly affect my personality.
I think that’s exactly what I was hoping for. Now, like Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, I am fortified, balanced and faithful – to myself, my partner, and my family. I am adept at weaving and unweaving any circumstance to make sense of things and to navigate danger. I can sit still for hours.
This is a lesson that I think our society needs to learn . . . how to wait, attend, be faithful to one’s purpose. Being victorious is empty, unless you can bring others with you on the journey. And bringing others means you must learn to wait. Wait your turn, wait for the right opportunity, wait for the sun to shine, wait for a corner to turn. Sit still and wait.
This is what peace feels like. And we don’t have it, collectively, in our modern-day world.
If we could instill such values in North American society, I think we’d have a lot less ADD and more bright people feeling balanced, calm, well-paced, and accepted as worthy just as they are.
By the way, I did eventually make another legal name change to add Patricia back in, for nostalgia’s sake and to honour my parents. Since I was paying $137, I figured I’d add a few more for good luck. Now, my full legal name is Laurie Patricia Penelope Peaches Periwinkle Hagan.
You get to decide which “P” to call me.