A Rose By Any Other Name

May 1, 2022 / Adrian Weiss

To bear a name is a heavy burden.

When I was a child, my mother taught me the names of the world. I learned to listen for the echoes of words in the summer’s sounds – the wind’s whispering breath, the whip-poor-will’s eponymous three note wail in the warm southern nights. Names of trees and beasts and flowers, of rivers and stars. In those days my brother and I changed our names like clothes, slipping into and out of our skins. Twisting in the current of our youth, I was him and he was me, two of summer’s children splashing across the secret streams that carved through the limestone cliffs behind our home. In the evenings the setting sun would spin the dried grass into gold, and in the dying light we’d race to the cliff’s edge and shout our names into the open sky, claiming it as our own.

Two years older, my brother’s voice would crack like lightning and we’d listen for the echo of his name’s thunder, reverberating across the canyon. But I was young and uncertain, and my lungs betrayed me, the feeble whisper of my own swallowed by the lengthening shadows.

By the sunset of our childhood, my brother embodied Zachary, slipping into the name and all the expectations it came with, his shoulders and jaw broadening under the weight of his name. But I stayed a slender, transient thing, standing on the edge of myself, waiting for an echo that would never come.

There’s a certain power that comes with knowing a name. Through our words, we comprehend and grant meaning to the world around us. Germanic mythology knew this well – a thing named is a thing tamed.

It’s an old story that gets told over and over, the details shifting with each retelling, yet the basic theme remains. A mother, a child, and a name: the miller’s daughter sparing her firstborn by discovering the true name of the titular Rumpelstiltskin, the grieving Norse goddess Frigg invoking the true names of every creature, rock, and plant to make all of creation weep in a vain attempt to resurrect her slain son Balder.

Growing up, I would beg my mother to tell me the story of my naming, trying to fit myself into it with each telling. “Your father and I would argue about it,” she’d say, “but I knew my baby’s name from the instant you were born.” The way she told it, my name was a gift, her first act of love for the child she’d brought into the world. Not just a word, but a promise, on which she pinned all the secret dreams she harbored for her newborn son.

Eight days after I was taken from my mother’s womb, I was introduced to the world with the stroke of a knife and a flash of red. Brought to a synagogue for my brit milah, I was ceremonially given the Hebrew name, שמואל, meaning God Has Heard. Anglicized as Samuel, I entered an ancient covenant, joining a tradition thousands of years old.

I was named after two different men: a revolutionary and a seer. My mother wanted a strong American name and chanced upon Samuel Adams: founding father, agitator, writer and propagandist. From my father’s Jewish heritage, Samuel the Prophet, said to have spoken directly with the Lord.

But I was an uneasy child, ever-shifting, uncomfortable in my skin. Slipping into different personae with the seasons, I looked for identification through reinvention, trying to find something that fit – the manic extrovert ricocheting into a sullen silence, the music posters around my bedroom replaced by scotch-taped poems, only to be torn down in a rage a month later, leaving the walls cold and barren.

Reluctantly, I came of age and into my name, a thin and pale-faced boy at once thrilled and terrified at the prospect of being seen and thus, judged. A name, especially one that comes with a legacy like mine, can be suffocating. Drowning in the expectations that came with it, I grew increasingly convinced of my own inadequacies. How can you summarize your entire life in a single word?

The older I got, the more uncomfortable my name became. I’d cringe when I heard it and fantasize about who I could have been if only my name were different. Perhaps it’s that classic human condition of wanting to be anything other than what we are, but by 10 years old, I was absolutely certain of two things: I would change my name, and my life would change with it.

First it was just small variations – Samuel at school, but Sam at home. Weiss from my friends and Shmu from my father (his diminutive of Shmuel, the Hebrew form of my name). As I took on new names, I crafted personalities with them, orchestrating an elaborate masquerade between potential identities.

With each name, I grew further from my past and closer to my future.

And for a while, I was happy. Maybe it was just the freedom of slipping on a mask and becoming someone new, hiding in plain sight. But still, the change wasn’t enough, especially after all I’d become. When someone called me Sam, all I heard was a string of failures. Broken friendships and disappointed teachers, screaming matches that faded into resentment. It was Sam who nearly missed the bus and got stranded at a convention center in Tennessee. Sam who derailed the entire marching band show. The sum total of my name was hundreds of lost possessions, hollow promises, hurt feelings. These weren’t the actions of a prophet or a revolutionary – just a deeply flawed boy with an irreconcilable name. By the time I graduated high school, I hated myself, and, by extension, my name.

So I killed it.

Something had to go, and it was either me or the name. I could spend my life trying to become something I wasn’t, or I could let go and start again, a new name for a new self. If you don’t want the name to kill you, then kill it first.

I think it was Ralph Ellison who called it “the magic involved in naming,” although the concept has been around much longer. The Hebrew spelling for the word for soul, נשמה (neshamah), contains the letters שם (shem), spelling name. In this, a name transcends the flesh, tying a collection of syllables to the intangible divine. The Kabbalists of legend were well aware of this magic, chanting secret names to breathe life into their golems. Carved from lifeless earth and dust, the legendary giant could only be animated when a scrap of parchment bearing a divine name was placed in its open mouth. Through these rituals an identity is granted: to name a lump of clay is to set it apart from its source, to give it the spark of life.

Our names become who we are. We charge them with our nature, our hopes and hates and loves. They become our masks and our faces, a reflection of our culture and a mirror to our self-identification. But to bear a name is a heavy burden.

There are reasons I chose the name Adrian when I renamed myself. Some I share, some I don’t. Three syllables, 6 letters. Symmetrical, rising and falling like the bird calls of my childhood.  It comes from the Adria river, a name meaning “rich water.” An artist’s name, borne by musicians, actors and writers. For me, it’s a symbol of agency, carving my own identity from the clay of my past. In choosing a name, I’ve chosen a future for myself.

Sometimes I’ll hear my name, any one of them, drifting across a crowded room. There’s a moment of panic as I turn my head towards the sound, trying to find where it came from, if it was addressed to me. Which version of me were they calling for? Which would they find?

More often than not it’s just a trick of the ear, acoustics transforming the white noise of conversation into a familiar shape. So why that name, among so many?

Sometimes when I’m lost in the hypnosis of driving down familiar roads, I find myself turning towards the cliffs behind my old house, killing the engine and stepping out of the car. There’s a familiarity to these woods, although the grass has since turned to frost in the brittle morning air. The streams I splashed through are sluggish and muffled by ice, and the sky is choked with clouds. Dead leaves crunching below my feet, I make my way to the edge of the cliff and look down, a blanket of trees stretching into the gray horizon. Dangling my feet over the ledge, I lean my head back until my vision is swallowed by the sky. Opening my lungs to the cold air, I shatter the silence of the world with the call of my name.

And in the frozen morning, I listen for the echo. ■

By: Adrian Weiss

Photography: Stephanie Ho

Videography: Abby Burgy

Layout: Grace Harter

Stylists: Katelynn Mansberger & Marta Broseta

HMUA: Claire Philpot

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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