As long as I can remember, I’ve puzzled over my relationship to my name. My parents, for all their faults, dreamed up good, strong, unique names for their children. My siblings are Christine Michelle, Martin Damian, Angela Maureen. I am Patrick Dismas.
My middle name come from Father Charles Dismas Clark, a Jesuit who worked with former convicts through the halfway house he founded in 1959 in St. Louis called the Dismas House. Dismas was also the name of the Good Thief, who, according to Catholic hagiography, was one of the criminals crucified with Christ. The story goes that the thief told Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Christ answered the command, “Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I always liked the idea that I carried the label of an empathetic priest who gave home and comfort to the least desirable people in the society. I also favored the idea that a sinner could slip into the Kingdom of Heaven so easily. He snuck right in after a life of hedonistic criminality with just a word to a savior who worked with the poor and downtrodden.
Dismas has been less of a conundrum to me than Patrick. I didn’t choose my moniker. It has been shortened over time and by many to Pat. In fact, since I was in high school, I’ve always insisted on being called Patrick. Only my very closest friends use the pet name Pat.
Patrick. I like being hooked up with an escaped slave who returned to the country of his bondage to do good works. He may be considered an imperialist, a person who sought to convert the pagans of Ireland with a new faith that would hook them invariably into the religion conquering all non-Christians in Europe in the fifth century. But I understand good comes with negative consequences. Druid and Celtic religion fell before the onslaught of Christianity. That faith would rule the island to the present day, with many abuses over the course of the last 1,600 years.
But ever since I was a little kid, I’ve looked in the mirror and asked myself whether I felt like a Patrick. I certainly feel connected to the word Patrick than Pat. But I always wondered, what if my name was left up to me. What other word would I chose? Would I need to attach a word to me? Certainly, people need a handle to grab onto. Hey, you! is not a good way to get a person’s attention.
It’s as if the word and the person are separate. Patrick is what other people call me. When I talk to myself, I don’t ever utter my name. I never say to myself, “Patrick, you need to get your act together,” or “Patrick, you’ve done a good job.” An awareness, a kind of consciousness connects me with me. No name need intervene. I always know who I’m talking to, despite the fact that I use no word to label me.
How would I survive nameless in a world that demands names? Just about everything hinges on a person needing a name. I thought Prince was genius in selecting for a time in his life a symbol for his name. I would be very interested how the musician would introduce himself to others. With the name of the symbol? Puzzled by how to address the singer, most people used the moniker, “The artist formerly known as Prince.” They couldn’t adjust. No mechanism existed that absorbed a person with no name. Our society can’t operate without a way to call someone a name.
I don’t really know what I would call myself, what I would name myself, if I decided to shed the word other people chose for me. Forced to choose a word or phrase, I might call myself something I really favored: Spider, Thunderstorm, Dreary Rainy Day, Prairie, Steppe, Blueberry, Dark Night, Thoughtful, Absent-minded . . . If I did, then I would join a distasteful bunch of people who feel the privilege to name themselves. Their names are often either silly or esoteric. I’m not that special. At the same time, I would also be among admirable people who named themselves on principle, such as Malcolm Shabazz and Muhammed Ali.
Dark Night Prairie. Blueberry Steppe. Spider Dreary Rainy Day. I could live with those names.
There was a moment when I chose a name for myself. When I was confirmed in the Catholic Church at the age of 14, I had to decide what my confirmation name would be. I couldn’t think of a good one. At the last minute, I landed on Andrew. But I had no idea who the saint was. I’ve never felt connected to that name. I wasn’t afforded either the time or the faculty of self-examination to think about the name and its relation to me. We were also limited in what names we could choose. It wasn’t like we had the freedom to elect Fallen Leaf, Maple Tree, or Open Country as our names. It had to be a saint and we had to have the approval of the monsignor.
Patrick Dismas Andrew Dobson. It’s a good name. A strong one. But one that others gave me.
The same disconcerting problem faces me with my family name. If I was to chose a new name, I would go without a family name. The practice of naming is definitely a patriarchal enterprise. I was given the name of my father’s family, though through the years, I have never felt the heritage of that name. About the closest I come is that the Dobsons of our family first came to the United States in the 1840s during the Irish famine. I like being connected to the underdog, the person who started from nothing and climbed at least a little way up the socio-economic ladder. (Believe me, Dobsons have never had money.) But as far as being connected with the heritage of the name, I feel no connection to it.
My daughter, on the other hand, took the last name of her mother. She has a cool name, Sydney Isabelle Rebel. It suits her. I don’t know if she ever thinks about her name or takes any pride in it. She likes the moniker Sydney. I like it too. But the point is that her mother and I chose the name. She didn’t.
I like the way Icelanders name themselves. A parent chooses a name, and the child’s last name indicates who’s son or daughter the person is. For instance, if I chose to name my child Nicholas, his full name would be Nicholas Patricksson. If Nick chose the name Heinrik for his son, the son would be named Heinrik Nicholasson. It is also a decidedly patriarchal system. But it has allowances that would allow women to be involved. Sydney would be Sydney Patricksdottir. If she had a daughter and didn’t have a husband, the child’s name might be something like Ingrid Sydneysdottir.
That scheme would hook me more firmly with someone I identify with. William James, my dad, I know him. He’s a flawed guy but I knew him once. I identify for him more than I do with other Dobsons, including my siblings, aunt and uncle (though Uncle Charles and I are quite close). Patrick Williamsson. I could live with that.
Moreover, my mood changes, priorities transform, life develops, I evolve. My names, if I had some control over it, would be different at different times. Today I like Prairie Blueberry. It’s whimsical and encompasses how I feel right now. After I take a nap, I might change it to something else.
But the world’s not set up that way. They need something consistent and traditional. For the moment, I remain Patrick.