Alexander's World Essays


More Essays

Canada's Defences in Shambles
(Jan 7, 2003)

Adoption Open Records Bill-77 Delayed
(Dec 13, 2002)

Forever, Brothers
(Nov 18, 2002)

About Birthdays And Ghosts
(May 17, 2002)

An Open Letter To Anne McLellan
(May 9, 2002)

Coming Out Gay At 16
(Feb 11, 2002)

Male Bonding / Am I Gay?
(Jan 23, 2002)

The Times We Live In
(Dec 5, 2001)

About Names and Their Meanings
(Jul 15, 2001)

Movie Review: Chocolat
(Feb 15, 2001)

About Names and Their Meanings

Most of us have one name, given at birth, which we keep for life. Those of us who are adopted have more. Some adoptees consider changing their names upon finding their birth names. I belong to an online adoption peer support group. Many of us do a schizophrenic dance in our message signatures; names before and after, names pregnant with meaning, emotion, baggage. It got me thinking.

A name is very personal thing. It is a powerful piece of who we are. A name is applied to us, identifies us, it is the sound we respond to. Our name is an invocation of who we are; repeated it becomes a chant -- a seductive siren call from a lover; an angry reproach from a parent. It is personal, it is fundamental: it is not all of who we are and yet we are someone quite different when it changes.

At 14 I had a vision one morning, very powerful, about being a soldier in Korea and, in crossing an open space, rice fields perhaps, being gunned down and dying there, my buddies at the edge of the space, hiding in the trees. I was no longer in the body of the soldier. I reached down to the lifeless shell and examined the tag around his neck to see the name: James Allan Ross. A date of death flashed before me and I floated up and away into the heavens.

I was startled, as a result, when on my 18th birthday I was given my adoption papers (one pink piece of paper from the Saskatchewan courts) with my original birth name emblazoned on the first line: "In the matter of the adoption of JAMES ALLAN ROSS". (I had always known I was adopted; this was the first time I had seen or heard my birth name.) That vision a few years earlier had been so powerful, seemed so real. I must have heard the name somewhere as a very, very young child -- did it pass from my birth mother's lips the one time she held me in her arms in the hospital? Did she cry and whisper it into my ear?

In my teens I wrote poetry full of teen angst, about not belonging in the world; about death, isolation, and desperate loneliness. I signed the poems James Allan Ross: the name in my vision. I even made a recording of some of them at 18 which I made a gift as a one-off LP to my sister. I am so grateful to have that time-capsule today because that young man still lives in my heart; the anguish, the grief, the resignation in the readings touches my soul profoundly.

I have asked my birth mother where the names James Allan come from and what they mean to her. There are no James or Allans in the family tree that I can find. I really must ask her again because the answer seemed non-comittal. I hope the names mean something to her: she said she just liked them. Maybe I was named from Hollywood glamour magazines of the day -- James Dean and Allan Ladd were two of the biggest stars at the time. (In 1954, Allan Ladd starred in a movie named "Saskatchewan". Co-incidence? or synchronicity?)

My adopted name is Roland Alexander Inglis. Roland is the name of my maternal grandfather; Alexander is my dad's middle name; and my dad's father's middle name; and my great-grandfather's middle name. As a child, I was named Sandy, a diminiutive for Alexander. I had blond hair and until age 11 I remained Sandy. I tried on Roland over the summer and then settled on Alexander (Alex) in September when I changed from grade to junior high school.

Now I am 47 years old; I have been Alexander for 35 years; my mom still calls me Sandy. Bless her heart! She uses Alex/Alexander sometimes but you know I really prefer it when she calls me Sandy and in this moment I realise I have never told her that. I will do that next time we talk. Because Sandy is her son; for me Sandy evokes all the memories of childhood and the unconditional love and safety I knew growing up.

Scots ancestry has always loomed large in my way of being: the Inglis came from Aberdeen in the 1820s and moved to Toronto. Ross is a rather Scottish name, though not exclusively. I had always thought Scots background "fit". So when I learned my birth dad's name was Barclay -- very English sounding to me -- I was surprised. The name doesn't resonate inside; it doesn't stick.

Casually, in an early e-mail with my birth dad, he mentioned the family name had been changed in 1930 -- from Swerdfeger. I was astonished and immediately tried to determine what the origin of the name is. I recognized Swerd as being "sword". In a picture of my birth dad's father, taken on the Canadian prairies in the late 1930s, I couldn't detect anything especially English about the man. And no wonder! He has that craggy, dour look of a dutch peasant ploughing a field with a pipe in one hand and an ox being guided in his other hand. Swerdfeger, it turns out, is North German/Dutch and means "sword polisher" or "sword forger"; perhaps my ancestors were workers attached to an elite group of knights.

So many preferences became clear in that instant, made sense, rang true with my roots. My first taste of genetic memory! The very first images which held magic for me were portraits of peasants dancing gayly painted by the dutch master Breugel. I adore organ music but am very fussy about the "sound" of the organ: north german and dutch organs harmonize with my soul, feel right; not italian organs; not english organs; not french organs; not even south german organs. The same is true for harpsichords of the 1600s.

A very evocative image for me is a drawing by Arthur Rackham of the young boy Siegfried standing with a look of passionate joy and joy, one arm raised holding the sword he has just fashioned, pointing to heaven. In the Wagnerian opera Rachkam illustrated, Siegfried's parents have died and he was raised "adopted" by a dwarf. The dwarf had tried many times to forge the sword Siegfried has just made; the boy has the magic skill because the pieces come from his father's sword which had been shattered in battle leading to his father's immediate and violent death. Only the son could restore the sword.
A second very powerful personal myth is the story of Parsifal which has been told in many variations. Especially poignant for an adoptee, a young man stumbles upon a spiritual oasis in the forest while wandering alone and lost. He doesn't even know his name. After tasting grace but not able to incorporate it into his life, he is banished from the kingdom and does not find it again until middle age. Parisfal, we discover, means "innocent fool". Adoptees usually are not allowed to know their own names or those of their parents and birth family.

The name Swerdfeger, although I would never consider changing my last name to it, definitely evokes in my being so much of what my genetic heritage probably is. I have traced this branch of the family, by some good luck, back to Bavaria and the 1650s. I wish I knew more because there must be some further Norse blood in there. My other very very strong pull is to Russian, perhaps Ukrainian; and to very northern climes. My honeymoon was spent partly in the Shetland Islands; the name means "Sword Hilt Land". I absolutely insisted on going there (we compromised; my wife got a week in Paris as well) and while on the beautiful island, a three hour flight north of Scotland and closer to Norway than the UK, I felt a sense of peace I have not experienced from the land before. It was profound, very deep, very ancient.

So what's in a name? A lot. A name has a mysterious power, somehow it captures, shaman-like, a piece of our soul. For those of us who are adopted, we might have many names to choose from. For me, each of these names holds some power, some magic which reflects my essence. And yet I know some people who have legally changed their names more than once. What sort of tortured souls they must be! A name is not a pair of shoes one changes to suit a mood or circumstance.

So if we meet on the street, you can call me James and I will respond as an adoptee sharing our journey. You can call me Sandy and I will respond feeling the love and safety of childhood. You can call me Alexander and I will respond from the present, in the moment. And I hope you will call me "friend" and take my hand and ask to journey for a while in this lonely world I inhabit, struggling through the rebirth of finding roots and family after so many years.

Just don't call me Al.

Alexander Inglis (July 15, 2001)
In Toronto

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