Barbara Emrys

The Name Game

by Barbara Emrys

This morning, while I was sitting at an outdoor café, I heard a baby saying “blah-blah-blah!” loudly and clearly. “Blah-blah-blah!” Just like that. Her dad was talking to another dad, and “blah-blah-blah!” was what she heard them saying, so she repeated it. To her, the men’s words made as much sense, or nonsense, as her own. And I guess blah-blah-blah is what most conversations come down to. It all starts when we learn the meaning of words and earnestly mistake them for the truth.

At some point, we stop distinguishing words and ideas from reality. On the noisy battlefield of ideas, we wage heart-breaking wars. We hurt ourselves and attempt to hurt others. That may sound like sci-fi craziness, but our actions prove it’s true. Our actions prove that words are in charge of us, not the reverse. A few choice syllables can start a fight. A familiar phrase can trigger guilt, sorrow, or rage. And at the sound of a compliment, our defenses go out the window. We’re at the mercy of words, and we hardly seem to notice.

And then there’s the matter of names. A name tells us all we want to know about a person… except that it doesn’t. Someone introduces himself to me; I repeat it his name. He repeats my name. Now we both know who we are…except, of course, we don’t. The incident with the baby made me laugh at the whole dream. It made me laugh at all my bright ideas and clever comebacks. It also made me think about the main character of my story….
A nice couple named her Barbara years ago, and the name stuck. She continues to call herself Barbara, so many decades later. Although she understands the deception, “Barbara” will be how she is remembered after the woman is gone. But, of course, the woman is so much more than a name. She’s the force of life itself, distilled into the shape of human being. Her time here has amounted to a whirlwind of adventures that transcends storytelling. Her experiences– the thrills they offered and the penalties they inflicted– couldn’t possibly be represented in a word, or in a name.
No, my name isn’t what I am. Yours isn’t what you are. Our journey here tells us something about what we are, but life itself offers the biggest clue: life is all possibilities at once, all actions and all sensations. Life embraces every point of view. For any of us to get a perspective that big, it’s really important that we see beyond the whimsy of names and words.
These days, the syllables of my name seem strange to me, like the sound of autumn winds whooshing through a rocky canyon and blah-blahing toward an open field. The name has nothing much to do with me, but it’s a handy thing to remember when the naming of things seems necessary. And the naming of things is not only necessary in this human dream; it’s the whole game.

Try to play the game fairly. Try to be objective about terms and labels, because they don’t tell the truth about anyone. Notice how you refer to yourself. Listen to the way you talk about other people, particularly the ones who don’t think exactly like you. Listen, and be fair. Words have bewitched them as much as they did you.

We’re coming up on another holiday season. Whether or not you’re with family and friends, choose your words consciously when you speak. Be kind, even when you’re deep in thought. I’m sure you’d agree that humanity could use some fair play and a lot less discord. Being impeccable with our blah-blah-blahs seems like a fair place to start. ♥️

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