Tag Archives: N

N is for Names

When I was a teenager, I changed my name from Emma to Rhiannon. There were lots of other girls my age called Emma, and if you called ‘Emma!’ across the park, or the street, or the playground, I didn’t turn around, because I assumed you meant someone else. This rendered it less than functional as a name, so I chose a new one.

A while later, my mother remarked that people had started asking her whether she had Welsh family. This was a complicated question – and a new one. After a while, we realised that people who had heard my name, and correctly but often tentatively placed it as a Welsh one, asked this sort of question. It’s hard to answer, because answering the question doesn’t answer the question – if someone asks me whether I have Welsh family, and I say yes, or indeed no, or sort of (it’s very much ‘sort of’, as it happens), I have answered the question they asked, but if what they wanted to know was about the origin of my name, I haven’t told them what they wanted to know. Questions like these are based on false assumptions – that your name was given to you by your parents, for example. In our society, this assumption may be reasonable – in the sense that statistics are on that side – but it’s far from always right.

What other assumptions do we make when we name things or people? In my academic work, I am interested in ways in which people name God, and this obviously has a bearing on that; but there are lots of other settings in which it also matters.

One example which I think is interesting for what it might say about naming generally is the giving and use of nicknames online. In my early days on the internet, it was standard for everyone to use a screen name, a nickname often not traceable, or not easily traceable, to your real life identity. This has become much less common with the advent of Facebook, and was never universal (and there are many parts of the internet where it is still standard – Twitter handles, for example, even if your name is given in full elsewhere). Before that, my experience of being given nicknames was mostly the things my classmates called me at school (which I won’t repeat here; suffice it to say that they had all the cruelty and lack of creativity common among children). A screen name, though, you choose, and you can choose different ones for different sites: context is very important indeed. Someone known as buffylvr83 might well also be called techgrrl10 on another website – and on yet another forum, this same individual might be able to login and post as admin.

In the debates about the use of real names online, it’s sometimes said that people should be able to use their paperwork names if they haven’t done anything wrong (usually people who say this haven’t thought about – or don’t care about – people who’ve changed their gender, or are being stalked or bullied, etc.). Besides some assumptions about the realness of the names on your paperwork, i.e. the name it’s easiest to verify, I think there are some assumptions about the use of the same name with different groups which don’t actually stand up to scrutiny. buffylvr83/techgrrl10/admin is a clear example, but of course lots of people use a different name, or variant of their name, at work, or to publish under – and when all these different contexts collide on one social networking site, lots of people find ways in which things turn weird.

Thought for another day: does this make it appropriate to name God differently in different contexts – such as prayer, liturgy, theology, interfaith discussion, and outreach?

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N is for… Nominations

Nomination is the process by which Quakers find people do to the things which need doing in our communities. The process usually goes something like this: a need is found (new post created or old one vacated), a nominations committee looks for a name, someone is asked whether they will accept the nomination, and if they say ‘yes’, it goes to the relevant business meeting, who make – or don’t make – the appointment.The latter part is important; the final decision rests with the business meeting.

I have never yet served on a nominations committee, and I must confess I’m glad: it must be a very difficult job and it doesn’t seem like one for which I would be well-suited. I have, however, often been approached by nominations committees, and that experience can be very different depending on the committee, the circumstances, and the service which is being sought.

For example, I’ve been approached by email, by phone, and in person. Looking back, I think I prefer to be approached by email in the first instance: I get to deal with that first enquiry in my own time, think about what questions I should ask, and get back in touch when I’m ready to do so. Sometimes when I’ve been approached in person – especially when I have been just caught before or after Meeting for Worship or when I’m otherwise in a rush – I have agreed to accept nominations without knowing enough about the work involved. In at least one case, I accepted a nomination onto a committee I’d never heard of which reported to a business meeting I’d never attended and whose place in the structures of Quakerism I didn’t understand!

I haven’t, as it turns out, minded serving on the committee all that much, although it has been one of the committees I have complained about the most. The phone is better, perhaps because it’s easier to say ‘no’ to someone whose disappointed face you can’t see, and in any case, it really helps if the person making the approach really understands what service is being requested and knows where to go for more information. (Having it written down very clearly and emailed to you looks good and feels reassuring… but isn’t so useful if it turns out to include major factual errors!)

I generally enjoy Quaker service, and will try and say ‘yes’ to a nomination if I can. Everything has to be weighed up, though: the other things I’m doing, both Quaker and non-Quaker, at all levels; the time and energy this form of service would require; the practicalities (you can’t clerk a meeting which you can’t attend, and if you can only attend things which have a reliable bus service, you can be stuck quite quickly); and whether my skills and talents are really suited to the work in question. As you can tell by the fact that I’m writing this blog as well as a PhD, I like writing, and if you ask me to do some writing for Quakers, there’s a very good chance that I’ll go out of my way to say yes; on the other hand, I’m not brilliant with people, especially people who are upset or complaining about something, so I might be very reluctant to accept a nomination for a role like overseer which involves mainly pastoral care.

Of course, to really understand this you should play the card game Unwilling Unable, a game of trying to avoid nominations. In short: you lose the game if you have more than 15 points. Points are accumulated by being appointed for service. The trick is to save your cast-iron excuses for the right moment (“I fall asleep in business meetings”, “Actually, I quite like war”) and then remember not to use them in real life.

(I just added up approximately how many real-life points I would get. I think I’m between about 14 and 16 at the moment.)

N is for… No

There are a whole variety of ways in which Quakers say No. I don’t want to imply by this out the rest of this post that Quakers are negative – I’ve been told that I’m a negative person, but many individual Friends and Quakers as a group are quite capable of focusing on the positive and of making their No an active and engaged one.

We say No to war by working to create and promote peace, as well as by refusing to serve in or support military action. We say No to prejudice by striving to treat all people as equals (not by treating them all the same). We say No to hierarchies and empty religious forms by beginning afresh every week, in silence into which anyone may be led to speak. We say No to many of the standards of “mainstream” or “secular” society by ignoring or rejecting clothing fashions (we’ve dropped plain dress as once practiced but still have a certain communal style), refusing to use titles (when software permits), and a host of other potential actions – of course, there’s still a lot of variation between individual Quakers!

Is this important? After all, it would be easy – and usual – to put these points in positive terms: Quakers believe in equality, are pacifists, like silence. I like those formulations, and they certainly can be useful. But I think there’s a power in the reverse, as well, and one of the reasons is that it draws attention to how different Quakers are. For example: lots of people are in favour of equality, or say that they are; not so many are using worship or business methods which embody it (some groups are trying, of course, and use consensus or related processes).

In my personal life, a lot of my Nos have roots in my Quakerism. As a vegan, I say No to quite a lot of food which other people consider perfectly normal, even vital – I do say a hearty Yes to B-vitamin enriched foods! – and I do that because I have taken on board a religious commitment to lowering my carbon footprint, as part of a spiritual commitment to coming into greater harmony with the rest of the natural world. I work to say No to banks who invest in the arms trade and other activities I consider unethical by moving my money elsewhere. And of course, sometimes I say No to things Quaker nominations committees ask of me – I try and consider a Yes first, but sometimes No is what love requires of me (28).

N is for… Names

I have a lot of names.

I have the names my parents gave me when I was born. A first name, which is extremely common in my location and generation; a middle name which is almost as common and for reasons as yet unclear to me often found in conjunction with my first name; and a surname, my father’s name, my father’s father’s name, which can be traced back to Devon in 17-something. (Never mind that it sounds Scottish; the provable Scottish connection is elsewhere in the family tree.)

I have the name I chose to use online, when I became a member of an internet board at the age of fifteen. I have the name I chose to use online later in life, when I realised that the first one, selected as it was from the New Age Baby Name Book, belonged to members of a culture not my own, and to use it casually and without a cultural connection was offensive.

And I have the name I chose for myself at eighteen, when I saw that the name my parents gave me wasn’t standing up to everyday use. It’s a pagan name, but as a Quaker it is also my plain name, the one I use in everyday life and on documents. Together with my father’s surname, I have used it to publish academic work: I’m stuck with it, and happy about that. It’s the name of a Goddess.

N is for… Nature

What is nature?

In Pagan religions, we often say – especially, perhaps, when we speak to outsiders – that we revere nature or hold it sacred. We contrast this with other religions.

The problem is that, of course, we are not outside nature, and not outside that which we revere. I believe that I am part of nature, part of the cycles of nature, and the things which make me into me, and the things which make me human, do not cut me off from that. Similarly, some people postulate a divide between Creator and Creation, but I don’t believe that they can be separated in that clear way.

I have heard Pagans object to the keeping of ancient skeletons in museums or science labs, because they were buried in earth and should be ‘part of the landscape’. I think that this position is flawed, and that the flaw lies in the assumption that museums and labs are not part of nature and the cycles of life. They may prevent decay, but so does a peat bog. They may put bones on display, but so do many megalithic monuments. They may move bodies from their original resting place, but so do rivers, rodents, and tectonic plates.

This is not an argument that modern human developments are universally positive – but nor is nature; deadly nightshade, volcanoes, the hunting of prey. Nor is it an argument against seeking experiences of non-human nature. It is merely a reminder that humans are also part of nature.