For years, I’ve felt kind of weird about my name. I don’t feel a strong connection with it. My parents didn’t use it when I was little, calling me “Baby” to an embarrassingly late age. Not sure if they meant it as a Dirty Dancing joke or just a weird habit. There were lots of nicknames, too.
Anyway, it’s gotten more uncomfortable over the years, to the point where I feel bizarre introducing myself to people.
Two years ago, I met a gender queer person who told me they’d never felt connected to their given name (“John”) and were now asking all their friends to call them “Jamie.” It got me thinking–what would it be like to do that? What name would I choose? What would my family think?
And I never found a name that I felt especially strongly about, anyway.
When we started learning Chinese and planning to go to China (2020!), I thought perhaps I could choose a Chinese name. But the lists of Chinese names available on western websites are nowhere near as beautiful as the names of my actual Chinese friends, and I don’t read Chinese at all, so those websites are out.
Then, last winter, the kids were taking swim class at the pool, and there were some Chinese grandparents there with their toddler grandson. My kids heard them speaking in Chinese and they went over and said hi and asked the lady how she was doing. I introduced myself and asked her name. She said, “Ai-Li,” and I very nearly responded, “But that’s my name!” My heart lept inside of me in that moment, like recognizing an old friend.
And then in the chaos of everything and life, I kind of forgot about it. My Chinese friends are a little offended at the idea of calling me by a Chinese name instead of an American one (although many of them insist I use their English names!), so it just faded as a concept.
This morning, I woke up at 4 am with a line from Romeo and Juliet rolling around in my head as if I had just heard it spoken: “Call me but love and I’ll be new-baptized.” I tried to go back to sleep, but that line wouldn’t leave me. I sat up and my dream came back to me.
In the dream, I was in Arizona and going through this procedure at a hospital. Natalie was with me. She was wearing purple scrubs, but she wasn’t there as a doctor, just there to be with me. The room was big and had fluorescent lights and disinfectant smells and the machine that goes BING and lots of people–all the things about hospitals that normally feel traumatizing (I later found out that they for real do embryo transfers in dimly lit quiet nice rooms). I felt calm and strong and confident, in spite of all of that. The (American) doctors were speaking English, but calling me “Ai-Li.” Somehow, being called that felt like a key to my feeling of strength and okay-ness.
When I woke up, I looked up the name to find out its meaning. “Ai” means “love.” “Li” in the fourth tone means “strong” or “beautiful” (homophones, different characters). Ling told me also that “Li” in the third tone means “truth,” and while all of them are good words, that seems the closest to what I think I heard in this dream and from the woman at the pool.
In Chinese characters, it’s 爱理. I would find a name with impossibly complex characters!
And it was like all the things sort of came together. If I focus on strong love until it is all that I have, I can do this. I can be this. Because, like Macleish says in JB, “Love is all our answer.”
The Bible is all very well and good, but plays are my second scripture.