When my youngest daughter was about three years old, she came across a tattered paperback on our bookshelves called, “10,000 Baby Names”. Drawn by the shining face of the baby on the cover, she would bring us this book again and again as though it were one of her story books, and ask us to read through the names. She was surely too young to be able to mull over the complicated thought that she might have been given some other name than the one by which she knew herself. But there was some inkling or connection there, because whenever she got tired of the name book her concluding ritual was always the same: she wanted to hear the tale of her own naming.
Whatever name you were given, it came with a story of some kind. You were named for a relative (or for more than one), or contrarily named because your parents wanted a clean break from the ones loaded with family history. If you were a first boy and were born to a family that went in for the male lineage tradition, you got to be a Junior or have “III” or even “IV” after your name. If you’re Jewish, you may have been named for a favorite deceased relative but almost certainly not a living one. If your parents longed for a son and you turned out to be a daughter, you might have gotten a female twist on your father’s name. If your parents were traveling in some romantic setting when you were conceived, you may have been named for their favorite Spanish or Italian village. If your parents had heroes or heroines, you might be a Martin or Mandela, and if they were focused on popular culture, you might have been saddled with the name of a movie star or famous musician.
What’s in a name? Always, there is a story. In the congregation I serve as minister, during the time of prayer and meditation in Sunday’s worship we read aloud the names of the US soldiers killed in Iraq that week. We’ve been following this practice for three years now, as a way to make visible just one part of the brutal cost of what is unfolding so very far away from us. On some Sundays, the list has been so unbearably long that I have stopped at twenty, or twenty-five, saving the rest for the following Sunday in the hope that the week to come would be less brutal. One Sunday last month — the only one since we began this practice — there was only one name on the list.
One name, or dozens — each Saturday night in preparation for the next day’s worship, I take a deep breath and then go to the website that tracks the dead, icasualties.org. I read the names out loud, alone in my study, and I wonder about the stories held in them. I imagine these soldiers as the babies they were eighteen years ago, or twenty-five, or thirty-seven, held in someone’s arms at a baptism or a naming ceremony. I imagine the proud relatives gathered around as the name was formally bestowed, everyone beaming as the baby cooed or wailed or fidgeted because at these joyous ceremonies, no one really cares what the baby does, only that he or she is alive and among us. There is so much hope and wonder and gladness and pride in that moment of naming. And never, not once in any of the 4,012 ceremonies, did anyone imagine that the road this baby walked would end in a mix of blood and dust halfway around the world in Iraq.
As part of our protest of the war on March 19th in Hartford, we built a cairn of stones that each person had brought, on which we’d written the name of a dead Iraqi civilian. You can find those names online too, at Iraqbodycount.org. Instead of 4,012 and counting, that list of dead is well over 80,000 now, and it increases with numbing speed. I wanted to bring a rock for the cairn, but I was paralyzed by the numbers of the dead. How do you choose one name from so many thousands, to symbolize so much carnage, so much loss? I finally settled on bringing three stones, which I chose carefully from the woods near my home, and on them I wrote the names of three children, each of whom died on the birthdays of one of my own three children.
And I wondered about the names. Always, there is a story. Somewhere between 80,000 and 100,000 stories now, and counting.