As you read this, you might easily see how we struggled to capture the essence of this refection in the title. Some options we discussed were:
The Name Game
Rebranding our life — together, as a couple
A surname to reflect the love behind the marriage
We said ‘yes’… to a new surname!
Our nontraditional matrimonial moniker
Read on to see how my wife and I dedicated a tremendous amount of time trying to figure out what to call ourselves since our wedding last year. What we settled on is, like us, is a combination that better captures what each individually didn’t.
We hope you enjoy this as much as you might learn something about yourself.
What’s in a name?
Depends on how you look at it.
Most children get in trouble for calling each other names. Labeling someone as something is said to ‘paint them into a box.’
Yet, we call each other names all the time and we are ‘labeled’ long before our parents have had a chance to get to know who we really are.
What we’re called, by the world and those we love, in the most public and private moments of our life, literally help define our life.
Supposedly fixed from birth, we will likely be referred to as the same name on our headstone.
That is, unless something out of the ordinary happens.
But when two are ‘joined as one’, there can be a bit of soul-searching: What SHOULD the nomenclature be for newlyweds? Legal and cultural norms usually don’t care much about what we might care a lot about and our ‘titles’ in life can be altered without our explicit approval.
Most people don’t pause to question something so fundamental to who they supposedly are: Their name.
When we said ‘yes’ to each other we discovered this was a perfect time to reflect on who we are, as individuals and as individuals together in marriage.
What we discovered was something we wanted to share.
Historical and holistic perspectives
Contrary to what most people in developed countries might believe, we quickly discovered that how people are named and who does the naming, how long those names last and what may prompt a name change, and what happens when two people are betrothed are all far from universal across cultures or time.
Children are not necessarily named before leaving the hospital, or before their 8th day on this earth, or even when they hit puberty. Some cultures wait until the child becomes an adult — and some let the unnamed choose their own according to what they think represents their essence. Yes, modern life has almost entirely eradicated this option, but the philosophy behind the “we’ll grow to know ourselves best so why can’t we name ourselves” approach is quite intriguing.
As is the allowance that certain life events help recreate the person to the point of their essence changes, and a name change is a natural reflection and honoring of the transition. The new name might be imposed upon someone or it may be self-chosen, but both acknowledge that what we’re called might not be expected to be static and unchangeable. Growth is a natural part of life, so why can’t our names grow and change as we do?
What is a rather disempowering tradition is the forced expectation that a woman will ‘take’ her husband’s surname. Devised in archaic times when women were considered property (chattel), this is an interesting practice that should have become extinct as did the flat-earth and other dogma that kept the world in the dark ages for way too long.
Getting personal by depersonalizing?
The poet, David Whyte, eloquently captured the fact that many of us don’t have just ONE marriage in our life…we have THREE: the easy one is the traditional one that comes to mind between two people, but the marriages to ourselves and to our work are two that don’t. When considered together, we must dedicate as much time and effort to all three or all three suffer. In order to be whole, we must embrace all three, but not equally…we must intensely personalize our life around them without being defined by any one or all of them at one time…seeing yourself as a complex person beyond just one dimension.
It is almost ironic, then, that most people do not dedicate more time thinking of how all three are fundamentally fluid and this quality should be embraced. As we age and mature, we spend tremendous amounts of time trying to ‘establish’ who we are — through self-help exercises, exercise, education, and experience. This same list, however, is what we then cling to like they are our lifeline to our happiness. Yet, when we define ourselves as ‘them,’ we simultaneously cut ourselves off from being something different, something more… something greater.
A marriage is creatively destructive of both partners’ cherished notions of themselves. David Whyte
We can only navigate out of this illusional impasse by realizing that each epoch of our lives happens in discrete and unique moments, undefined and unconstrained yet intimately linked to what came before. We must use words to describe what was and what currently is while preventing the same from creating a static and lifeless existence.
When the choice of how it unfolds is stripped away from the participants (by the laws and/or traditions that ‘speak for them’), the traditional ‘renaming’ that follows a marriage can be mutated from liberating to enslaving.
By the very nature of this reality, we are given endless opportunities to expand and deepen, to better clarify who and what we are, by embracing the apparent paradox of words and meaning.
“In the beginning was the word” is such a profound blending of the very elements that summate it all: Without words (or language) we cannot become fully conscious (or alive) because we have no capacity to capture what we experience.
Enter in the cathartic and enriching exercise of unnaming and renaming
August 11th, 2018 was an epic time in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Sure, there were raging wildfires across the state, but one event changed forever the lives of nine people.
Nestled in a breathtaking cabin overlooking the Panhandle Reservoir, Joanna Patricia Elizabeth Butler and Gary James Keil II were brought into a new life when they self-united in marriage. Six other family members and a photographer witnessed and heard the ceremony that was crafted word-by-word by the loving couple. Songs of joy and praise, poetry of ecstasy and agony, and vows of potential grandeur and disappointment were shared.
The power of the words brought into the ceremony paralleling and co-creating the power of love.
On that day, the signatures placed on the License and Certificate of Marriage were the same mentioned above. All the witnesses signed their names and we entered into a legally binding union a few days later when the paperwork was filed.
We remained, however, Joanna Patricia Elizabeth Butler and Gary James Keil II. Effectively and legally, the same people who flew to Colorado days before the ceremony…yet completely transformed.
When we returned and began updating our information (accounts, contacts, etc.) we were either forced to assume a new title (e.g., Mrs. Butler) or to have presumably taken on a new one (e.g., Mrs. Keil).
Neither of which accurately reflected what happened, let alone the energy WE brought into the ceremony and our new lives as ‘separate yet one.’
Dissatisfied by most encounters to what was an uplifting event, we started searching our options. How could we capture ALL the aspects mentioned above? Remaining true to ourselves, as individuals and as a couple, as well as honoring our family, ancestry and cultural norms? Oh, and remaining compliant with international laws?
We began by diving deeply into who we are and what we represent. Yes, ‘naming’ what we could that captured our historical successes and failures, our current worldviews and understanding, and our future hopes. Defining us as individuals while simultaneously defining us in the plural.
Numerous options arose that encompassed the ‘just do the traditional thing’ of becoming Mr. and Mrs. Keil (or, more technically correct and professionally driven, Dr. and Mrs. Keil) but this was the least favorable of all options to us.
Hyphenating our surnames was considered but all combinations fell flat or were deemed technically a pain in the ass. Would it be Keil-Butler, Butler-Keil and would both of us take the same one or one take one while the other took the other? What about the “II” (i.e., the ‘second’ as I carry, nontraditionally, the full name of my father (instead of being called Gary James Keil, Jr)? Would that be lost as there is no Gary Keil-Butler or Gary Butler-Keil in existence to warrant the II? And when it comes to computer systems that don’t readily handle “special characters,” what would happen to the hyphen and/or the “II”? Would they get lost or transmutated somewhere along the way (as they have multiple times in the past)?
We next considered alternative but traditional surnames that linked us to our ancestry — by either locality or ethnicity/race (which themselves are all ill-defined words)? Tossed those out straight away.
How about non-English words that could be translated to our historical names or to something germane to the debate? As beautiful as some of them were, it made us feel like we would be connecting ourselves to a different world that we’ve not known intimately.
The hunt, therefore, circled back to US. What experiences helped solidify us as individuals, what might have contributed to our ‘oneness in our separateness’ and helped us in perhaps all three of the marriages David Whyte spoke about?
Extending Whyte’s thoughts… what could we do to help recognize and celebrate the naturalness of changing our name as a couple that parallels the ever-changing roles and titles that we embrace as our career advances from job to job, as well as recognizing and celebrating the naturalness of the ever-changing nature within ourselves, as individuals?
We had visited multiple places in the UK together. We had explored the grandeur of the mall in Washington, DC together. We had traveled the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and Wyoming and even traveled to California.
The one place that created the most intense connections for us, and between us, and helped us realize what our ‘true work’ is all about was where we ended up a year after we’d first visited the place: the Redfeather Lakes region of Colorado. The exact spot we chose for our wedding and the place that helped us decide to craft our own ceremony that included a few Native American rituals and blessings. The natural beauty and timeless rustic power of mother nature. An intimacy in life granted only by disconnecting from the modern world at the same time an infinite connection with the universe is granted.
The compound word, Redfeather, stems, obviously, from the merger of two simple words with their own powerful symbolism. Firstly, red symbolizes the color of extremes, of passionate love, seduction and adventure, of fire and blood, energy and primal life forces. In more modern uses it is the international symbol for stopping, which can include pausing, reflecting and meditating, and is the third primary color of importance after black and white. It signifies good luck, marriage and happiness.
The feather is one of the most universal symbols for ascension or spiritual evolution to a higher plane, communicating with Spirit, and to express celestial wisdom. Feathers represent the power of the thunder gods, air and wind. Its weight would be compared with the hearts of the newly dead to determine the worthiness of his or her soul to enter in the underworld. It also represents the virtues of charity, hope and faith.
Each name is a powerful representation of the qualities of life that we hold as vital — combined they create an even more powerful and more complete picture. Neither alone, however, can represent the totality but the can represent their part to their maximal extent. They are, essentially, as is everything else, ‘complete in their incompleteness.’ Just like people… wonderfully complete in their incompleteness, perfect in their imperfection. When combined we remain as we were yet are more fully representative of the total potential.
The Redfeather Lakes region was named after a brave Cherokee chieftain, described as a ‘true leader… beloved by his people, other tribes and travelers alike for his gentle nature and giving spirit’ which are endearing qualities to be mirrored. There are certain aspects of his lore, however, that are powerful reminders of what sounds nice on the surface might not be when viewed from a different angle… just like any word can have many and, sometimes contrasting definitions. For example, Chief Redfeather supposedly died after a protracted battle between the Cherokee and the Pawnee tribes, seen by some as the ultimate act as a leader: self-sacrifice for the good of their people. Yet, this is exactly what we should not do — we should never compromise our own health and wellbeing to the point of death, especially over material things (like land) that were never ours to own. The land and every other ‘Nature-gifted’ (or ‘God-gifted’) thing is transitory and not ours to own. The only ‘thing’ we own is our own spirit or soul, and even that is not ‘ours’ to barter or relinquish. Finally, the name reminds us that, just like Chief Redfeather, we will all eventually pass into the realm of our ancestors and what fully matters in the end is how we chose to live the life we are given.
In total, then, the name Redfeather encapsulates nearly every aspect, quality, idea, ideal, characteristic, label or designation that we hold sacred and dear to our hearts.
In order to capture both the countless experiences we had in life that brought us to the cabin in the Colorado woods, to honor the love and transformation that happened on August 11, 2018, and to remind us and be an outward and living testimony to all who will meet us, we’re happy to pronounce ourselves to you:
Mrs. and Dr. Redfeather.
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We hope this reflection has helped you understand not just our intensely personal decision, but that it helps you understand yourself a bit more: from where you came, where you might currently be, and where you might go, redefining yourself in both word and deed along the way.