Wednesday, January 14, 2015

My Name is Ettel and I Have a Double Identity

They told us to write down our names.

They gave us those Hello! My name is _______ stickers. You know, the name tags you slap onto your freshly pressed blouse as you smile clumsily at strangers in an unfamiliar room. Those stickers mean it’s the beginning of something, an encounter with a bright empty space waiting to be etched with experiences.

Today is the first day of graduate school. They want me to introduce myself and tell my story, to provide a colorful explanation of why I chose to be here when I could have been anywhere else in the universe. I care about making a good impression. But my story is still under construction and there’s no distinct theme, and sometimes I feel like I’m a character in a never-ending prologue with no Chapter 1 in sight.

A dozen other twenty-somethings are seated on either side of me in a semi-circle. They’re all fidgety and tentative, nervously shuffling through their welcome packets and staring alternately at the floor and the doorway.

Maybe the facilitator knows that everyone’s stomach is in their throat and their palms are sopping wet, so he’s trying to do us a kindness by simply letting us jot down our names and become acquainted with each other. A very non-threatening first assignment as graduate students. After all, everyone knows that a name is a given. A reflex. The safest possible starting point. But I have this habit of complicating everything, my name not excluded.

What is my name?

My fingers clenched around my pencil, I braced myself for the impending confrontation with the Hello sticker. Self-conscious that the rest of the room would observe my hesitation, I pretended to be intrigued by the course list in my welcome packet.

For everyone else, the instruction to write down our names brought a moment of relief. A meaningless space sandwiched between the important things on the agenda. Their calm only made me more flustered. My thoughts darted wildly in every direction and I was positive the entire room could hear my heart thumping frantically against my ribcage.

But somehow my inner voice expanded to fill that tiny space. It demanded that I decide right then and there who I wanted to be.

HELLO! My name is Ettel.

There it was. My scribbled identity, born of impulse or intuition or maybe something more.

The name felt awkward as its syllables escaped my lips, jerkily and one at a time. They all looked uncertain saying it back to me.

Your name’s not on the list, the facilitator said. I explained that I have two names. It’s kind of confusing…it’s a little complicated, I stammered.

Who I am is complicated.

I’m one of many in this semi-circle. I’m a student breathing in the freshness of a new start; shrinking in moments of self-doubt; wondering what is to come. Will this place unearth all my inadequacies and challenge all my truths? Will it strengthen me or will I stagnate here? There’s the part of me that’s scared of what this new beginning will bring.

But then there’s the part of me that knows my existence is stabilized by more than the sturdiness of this chair, the comfort of this space, the security of this educational path. My identity is connected to something beyond all of this. It’s something that doesn’t care about first impressions or A pluses or being “successful.” That part of me knows that everything is as it is meant to be and the story will start and end where it’s supposed to.

That's what Ettel represents. Every time others address me, that name will remind me that who I am is not so simple. I have layers and dimensions and unrevealed depths that spiral from an infinite source. The name channels my spiritual self and engages it in my daily interactions with the mundane world. By uttering "Ettel", the very people I fear will challenge my identity will be the ones to offer the most poignant reminder of it.

"Ettel." Repeated the facilitator gingerly. "Welcome to the program."

I feigned indifference as my peers studied me. My alternative name, my long sleeves in August, my bagged lunch in place of the free breakfast buffet. I could tell that I was, in some ways, a mystery to them. But I'm okay with that, because I don't entirely understand myself yet either.

What I do know is that my name is Ettel, and I think that's a pretty solid beginning.

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