The voice that made me change my name.
Since I started kindergarten I’ve been made aware that I don’t follow instructions well. “A- YUUUN,” I would hear my teachers say. My grandmother, my mama, and other instruction-givers in the small Southern town would say “Ann (A-Yuuun) you are so smart, I don’t know why you can’t follow instructions!” By fifth grade I was so tired of hearing my name pronounced with that tone of exasperation, of irritation and impatience, I’d have been happy never to hear my name spoken aloud again. At the start of fifth grade my mother moved us back North to try again on her marriage to my dad, who lived in Philadelphia. My teacher that year, Mrs. Greiner, was a short woman with a belly that made a shelf in front of her body, and she would rest one hand on it as she talked. I struggled a little to catch up to the level of math and science she was teaching; at Mulberry Street Elementary, we hadn’t gotten to fractions yet, and we hadn’t dissected anything. She tried to give us non-academic experiences too. A kiln sat in the back of the room. We poured slip into molds and painted the little jugs, statuettes and vases and she’d fire them in the kiln. She tried to teach us square dancing. Finally she wrote a big L on my left hand and an R on my right hand, because I was too casual about left and right. “Ann, you are so smart, I don’t know WHY you can’t follow instructions!” she’d say. Having my name pronounced differently didn’t make a difference. It was the same tone of voice, and it felt like shame.
Right before the sixth grade started, I decided to change my name. Born Margaret Ann, I had been called Ann, Margaret Ann (when Mama was mad, Annie-Bee, Sweet- pea pickle, and many more. Mama sometimes went through my name, my sister’s name, and all of the cats before she finally got out the one she wanted. My dad, who most often just called me “gorgeous,” bless him, used to say “A child who is loved has many names.” At home one night I announced that I wanted to be called Meg. It was a good Scottish nickname for a good Scottish name, so everyone just nodded and said “okay.” They did well, too, remembering. I still got called all the other names, but Meg was the main one, the settled one, the default. I tried to follow directions a little better so no one would pronounce Meg with that tone of exasperation and impatience. It did happen once or twice, but I was a teen-ish person by that time and it barely registered, like a tiny meow from a new-born kitten. In fact, everything an adult said to me sounded like it was coming from another land, very far away.
I don’t know why following instructions is hard. Mostly, when someone gives me instructions, I can think of several different ways the words could be interpreted. My mind is logical. I like things to make sense, and the way many instruction-givers communicated was unclear, not using the most accurate words, and with incomprehensible reasoning. The instruction-givers were, almost to a person, hostile to the question “why do we need to do it that way?” I understand. They were tired. They just wanted to get on with things. They tell you to write your name on the paper on the upper right-hand corner, and that’s where you have to write it. Just do it. How hard it that? It’s wrong to write it somewhere else. Not just wrong, but subversive, somehow. Just don’t write it somewhere else. Write it where they told you to write it.
Now I know that my personality type is Intuitive, which means I’m in the group of people who not only don’t read signs but don’t’ even see them, always pushing on doors that say “pull. ”Understanding spatial relationships is hard. Turning sewing patterns the right way so as to make a sleeve, answering the “if this pulley is rotating this way, then what way is that pulley three pulleys down rotating?” questions give me a brain ache. If you are describing a space to me, what you are going to do with a garden, or how the highways run in your town, and if you use your hands to shape the space, I do not receive that communication. I see your hands moving, but that doesn’t translate to a picture in my mind. Words are what work for me, or I can watch a video of someone doing the thing and see how to do it, but waving your hands around isn’t going to work here. Feeling apologetic about it is about the best I can do.
The plus side of being wired this way is that I can read your face or your body and know how your spirit is. I can walk into a room and read the atmosphere, whether there has been tension or peace there, whether people are fighting or having fun. I can jump from point A to G without having to know what’s in between. It can be frustrating dealing with an Intuitive, but we’re not doing it to drive you mad. It’s just how we have to do it. We have to ask why and try to invent a new way to do things and sail through the world with our antennae waving, clocking emotions and situations but not able to see that you moved the couch. It’s not where it used to be, and we trip over it. The physical world is a bit of a mystery. Some instructions come in hand gestures or in spatial relationships. “Over there,” with a vague hand motion. “Let’s reverse this and make it vertical so we can get it through the doorway.” Those are the situations in which people might be tempted to say my name in The Tone.
Sometimes instructions are difficult to follow because they involve these gestures or spatial talk, but sometimes they’re hard to follow because I just don’t want to do it that way. I’ve been told I have a rebellious spirit.
In my twenties I lived with a couple in Jerusalem. They were very Christian, rigid, tired, and Dutch. I say “Dutch” because she told me the women of that country have a reputation of being very very good at keeping their houses clean. My job, living there, was to clean her house. She had two small children and a baby on the way, so she couldn’t do it to her satisfaction. She was sick and tired because they had decided God didn’t like birth control. She could see no end to the exhaustion and grind. Cleaning for a Dutch woman is not the best use of me. I’m a fairly incompetent cleaner-upper. Things look fine to me when they do not look fine at all to an extremely tidy person, so she was exasperated with me all the time. Then, to throw another log on the fire, my father sent me a book, “The Forgotten Beasts of Eld,” a fantasy sci-fi book with a picture of a woman on the front. She looked witchy, and somewhere on the cover was the word “sorceress.” The couple flipped. She told me I had to get rid of that book, that they would not have it in their house, that it was Satanic. I tried to explain, but the “sorceress” word had torn it. I told her I would not throw it out, that my father had sent it, so it was precious. She walked me to a trash can on the street and watched me toss it. I was angry, but I needed a roof over my head. She told me I had an evil spirit of rebellion in me, a demon, and that she was going to take me to get that spirit exorcised. I thought that might be an interesting experience, so I went with them to a church near Gehenna. A group of traveling nuns from a Pentecostal movement were there, and they prayed over me. One of them put her hand on my forehead and shoved me so I’d fall over, “slain in the spirit.” I was far from slain, so I took a couple of steps backward, thinking I’d be damned if I was going to get slain in the spirit by these people. I guess that proved their point. At any rate, the exorcism was ineffective, and I moved out of their house into a little place of my own.
That spirit of rebellion is still there, but it’s not a demon, it’s a gift. The world needs instruction givers. It is upon their shoulders that civilization rests. It also needs teachers, which is a different thing. And it needs people who feel like they win when they find a new way to do something. The planet needs people who have a rebellious spirit. We all need all of us, as Theresa Inès Soto wrote.
I’m now of an age and position where very few people feel entitled to use the exasperated tone with me, and I don’t give much cause to anyone by my wife, as far as I can tell. I’m not going to have to change my name again. Just don’t ask me to help you move a sofa or write my name in the upper right hand corner of a paper for no reason and we’ll be fine.