When You Are Your Own

Names are tricky things. They can bind and empower us, serve as vessels of inspiration or shame, tell us who we are and who we belong to, and carry the expectations and futures hoped for by the ones who named us. 

They can move us forward, or hold us back. 

My first name and path were given me when I was born, chosen in part because my mother dreamed I would become a concert pianist and wanted a name that looked good across the top of a hypothetical, gold-embossed program at Carnegie Hall.  I committed myself to this path from the age of eleven and earned music scholarships and a degree in piano before it became clear to me that the life of a concert pianist was a lonely one and her dream more than mine. It took my mothers a few more years to reach the same conclusion. 

Soon after, I took on my next name and trajectory in the form of my first husband. The name initiated me instantly into a new tribe, which we moved cross country to live near. The name signified that I belonged to them, and them to me. At first, it was comforting to feel as if I had my people, but I was young, and that name came with the pressures of carrying on the ideology of the women and wives and falling in line under the authority of an unyielding patriarchy. It was a hard burden for a divergent, feminist soul, such as mine. In our concentric social circles, I was never "known" for myself, but always for the legacy of a family I was still trying to understand. So much was assumed about me because of that name—what I believed, how I voted, where I went to church (and how often), and who I was. It was as if a life had been tailor-made and waiting for whomever the wife would be for the son of this family; it never did fit me.

That marriage crumbled for many reasons, and when it did, I stepped back into my own name with a sense of relief, lightness, and autonomy that I had not felt before. It was like the world was wide open and full of possibilities. I loved the sense of belonging to myself and was thrilled to discover for the first time that I could navigate life on my terms; I was determined to do just that...

But I still hadn't had all the idealism knocked out of me. I started dating again, and life was good, but then someone found me on Facebook—not just any someone, but a guy who I'd loved secretly since I was seven and he was ten. Ideals are dangerous things, and he'd been mine unchecked for a decade and a half. That fantasy drove our flurried, long-distance romance and blinded me to things I might have seen otherwise when he started hinting about getting married after a month and a half. It was foolishness—we called it fate. 

After two months of dating and a month of being engaged, we eloped, and I moved to a very different part of the country to be with him. As un-cautioned as our romance was, I knew one thing with certainty—I would not take on his or his tribe's name, and I would keep my autonomy. We planned to make up a last name to take on together, though we never ended up agreeing on what it should be.

Yet for all that, there was an even more significant exchanging of names. In our short months of long-distance dating, we gave each other monikers that each of us eventually adopted as an artist pseudonym. I loved the name he gave me. It was full of nuance and meaning and gave form to the best pieces of my being and spirit that had hitherto remained just beyond definition, even to myself. It made me feel powerful and creative and reflected the resilience I had already shown I possessed towards life. It made me feel known. I thought he believed in me and understood me in a way no one had. He was someone I knew I was going to love for the rest of my life because all the bad things that had happened had led me to him...

The day we were married, his manner towards me changed as abruptly as a light flipped suddenly off. For a long time, I clung to our names like a life preserver and tried to ignore and explain away the lack of intimacy, the dishonesty, and the mental health issues that were the true foundation of the marriage. I wanted to believe that what I was experiencing every day was not the reality of us—that we were in a phase, a hard time, and that my long-held fantasy was still what was really true. We were in a transition...that was all...someday it would be what we dreamed and someday the guy I had fallen in love with would resurface—I tried to believe that people try to believe the sky is continually blue above the clouds. In the end, it didn't matter, because the clouds never broke, and even the fantasy became so distant that I forgot what blue was. There was no more autonomy; there was only him...only me trying to keep us afloat.

After three years of this, I was drowning, and could only see one way out.

So I left. 

I didn't keep much of what he gave me, but I was leaving with this name he had chosen for me. It wasn't a name I was legally bound to change when the marriage ended, like before, but it felt equally significant nonetheless. It had become a piece of me that I loved. I'd written under this name as a freelancer for a few years now; it was my Facebook name, my public persona, the name under which I pitched pieces and publishers, and the only name that some of my friends knew me by. There was a part of me that was afraid some of my creative energy and artist's path was bound to him and this given name. He had believed in me after all, in a way, and had encouraged me to write, but now all that history was shrouded in a confusing ambivalence of future hopes and failed fantasies and a reality I couldn't unravel to my satisfaction. 

We've all experienced this pain of life falling apart around us—it seems to come with being human. When significant people in our lives disappear—and their support with them—it can leave us doubting if we can still realize our dreams without their belief in us, or become the people we hoped we could become without them cheering us on. This is the fourth time my world has been stripped and reordered; each time, the goodbyes, endings, and letdowns have threatened to shatter my sense of self. My entire life, I've allowed other people to define my personhood and tell me who I was back to me... 

I won't live that way anymore.

So, last weekend, I claimed the right to name myself. A friend of mine is always telling me, "You're a grown-ass woman. You've earned it." I couldn't agree more. 

I am my own—I know it now—and I hold a light within me that was not given me by another and cannot be taken away.

I am
Willa Grey. 
I belong
and everywhere
because I belong
first and foremost
to myself.
It's nice
to meet you.