Supplementary reading

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I should be reading books from my 50 Book Challenge list. I’m far enough behind already that I shouldn’t even be looking at other book covers let alone cracking the spines. But I couldn’t help myself when I heard about the release of The Name Therapist by Duana Taha.

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Taha is a television screenwriter and a contributor to the gossip site Lainey Gossip, which is how I first came across her work. She writes a column called Duana Names in which she offers, you guessed it, naming advice to expecting parents (and the occasional pet owner). The column is equal parts informing, amusing, and reassuring as she digs into a vast personal bank of names to suggest or, more often than not, tell people they aren’t going too far by picking a name not familiar to most ears. (Although, her column talking a soon-to-be mother of twins out of naming her son Kale is what put her in my must-read pile.)

So I’m sure you can understand why I jumped at the chance to read Taha’s book. With a name like Bryony, I’m often the one holding the “Friend” mug while everyone else has a personalized cup from which to sip their morning coffee, and I’ve written about my name and the novel from which it came before. But, now, I had the chance to read the experiences of another unusually named child.

For those of you familiar with Taha’s column, this book will feel like a deep dive into the topics and issues she only gets to briefly discuss there. For the uninitiated name nerds, you are missing out, as you will learn when you read this book.

The Name Therapist is partly a name memoir, but she uses her own experiences and “name pain” from having an unusual name as a starting point to discuss the stories behind how we name our children; living in a multicultural naming playground; naming trends, influences, stereotypes, and nightmares; and if we are defined by the name we have no say in choosing.

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Just like in her column, Taha’s absolute delight in talking about names is evident. She makes no apologies for her name obsession, more frequently wondering why no one else cares about names with the same intensity. Her writing, while informative and candid, is also light and quickly paced, which may be the only draw back as I wished she could have spent a more time fleshing out some topics such as the white-washing of non-European names or, on the other side, the trendiness of some cultural names to the exclusion of others (especially in light of increasing discussions of cultural appropriation).

Still, I was hooked in Chapter 2, Where Do Duanas Come From? when she names – first and middle – two people, just based on the time they were born, and I know people with those names! I wonder if she is asked to use that skill as a party trick? Come on, Duana, 20 questions and then guess his name. Plus the conversations she has with unevenly named siblings or the bit about Mormon names (I had no idea!) – the section on the name Jennifer alone is worth the read. Taha leads you through all the things you never realized if you have a name easily found on key chains and coffee mugs or has you nodding your head and saying “yes!” if you either carry a unique moniker or have kept a name diary since childhood.

And, while my name never came up, I won’t hold that against her. I’d like to keep Bryony out of the top 100 names anyway.

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All I learned in my son’s junior kindergarten

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My oldest son is reaching the end of his first year of school. We knew sending him to junior kindergarten would be a big change. He had never been in daycare and only interacted with kids at a community playtime or when visiting his cousins. I admit, we were a little nervous about what he would bring home, but for the most part, our fears have been unfounded. He has forged friendships, completed inquiries on topics that engaged his mind, and learned more about the world around him. He loves his teachers and regularly tells us how much he loves school. Kindergarten success!

The main downside of his new experiences has been the increasing gender division throughout the year. In September, his most common afterschool playmate was a girl from his class. For Halloween, he dressed as Julie Andrews. But by January, he no longer played with the girls in his class, and we began to hear about girl colours and boy colours, stories for girls and stories for boys.

Whenever the topic comes up, we try to have an age-appropriate conversation and encourage him to think about why he believes some things are for girls and some things are for boys. Trying to argue about every gender stereotype is a losing battle, so giving him the skills to think critically is our real aim. Watching him grow and figure things out for himself is a joy.

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But this school year just reminded me to watch my gender expectations as well. As the mother of two boys, I lamented for a while about not having a girl to share with all the things I loved growing up, especially books and stories.

Since the beginning of May, my son and I have read Charlotte’s Web twice. I wasn’t sure he would be interested. I don’t remember my older brothers reading this book, though I loved it, and the main human protagonist is an 8-year-old girl. I promised him that we would read the first chapter and if he wasn’t interested we could set it aside. We read four chapters the first night, and the moment we finished the book, he asked if we could read it again. And, in the wonderful coincidences of life, a spider built a web outside his bedroom window, so he named it Charlotte, after his favourite character.

With the success of reading Charlotte’s Web, I’m beginning to get excited about sharing all the other books I loved as a child, without worrying about if it is a girl book or a boy book. I can’t wait to introduce him to Anne of Green Gables or Karana from The Island of the Blue Dolphins.

A good story is just a good story.

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A sanctuary for doubt

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Doubt has an uncomfortable place in faith. We’re not supposed to doubt, not supposed to question the ideas and stories that make up the foundation of our faith. But doubt is one of those sensations that, even as we try to push it down or run away from it, bubbles up until we can’t avoid what is bothering us anymore.

Fortunately for us, writer Rachel Held Evans is comfortable discussing her discomfort. In her third book, Searching for Sunday, Evans writes about feeling out of place in her faith community. The book is not so much about a crisis of faith but a crisis of community. Not of believing you know everything but of wanting to find people you can feel comfortable not knowing everything with.

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As Evans’ faith evolved, from easy acceptance to conflicting doubt, she found that her home church no longer had a place in which she could question freely or live out her faith. She and her husband found themselves staying at home more often than not on Sunday mornings, trying to disengage quietly from the church community in which she had grown up. Using the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation) as guideposts, Evans tells the journey they took from the church home they outgrew, to an experience in church planting, to finding hope and welcome in a new Christian community.

Each section begins with a more prosaic rumination on the sacrament, focusing on something tangible (water, ash, hands, bread, breath, oil, crowns) as a way into the topic. The introductions serve as a reminder of the ways in which we try to comprehend the vastness of God, while the chapters share her personal experiences of those touchstones. Her writing is sprinkled with humour that both informs and disarms, bringing familiarity and reassurance to the lonely experience of doubt.

Reading Searching for Sunday made me feel less alone. Growing up and away from the bedrock community of faith I had been raised in made the whole world seem unsure, and the place I would usually turn to for comfort now felt restricting.

Thankfully, like Evans, I have the support of my husband. Our family is a blended family, by which I mean that my husband and I were raised in different Christian faith environments. I come from a long line of Christian Reformed believers: Dutch, Protestant, reserved. My husband was raised in a Polish Catholic community: ritualistic, traditional, nostalgic.

Growing up, I never really thought about how Christians could be different. I thought that except for a few minor theological divergences, like transubstantiation (the turning of bread and wine in to the body and blood of Christ), the differences were more a matter of style than substance. Never mind that a difference of opinion about transubstantiation would get me burned at the stake during the Reformation, to me, all of that was behind us. You do you, Catholics, and I’ll do me. Christian is Christian.

It wasn’t until I actually had to interact with people of different backgrounds that I saw how profoundly my background impacted my faith. Building a faith life within our family is an ongoing project. When we first met in university, my husband referred to himself as a recovering Catholic and joked that I was a closeted Agnostic. I laughed but the idea that I was not committed to my faith, as I’d always believed in, made me uncomfortable, nervous. I began to notice the ways in which my church community no longer lined up with my thoughts, feelings, and experiences of faith. I began to doubt. And my doubt turned to searching.

We were married in a Christian Reformed church by my family minister, and every moment was perfect, but after the wedding we moved to a different city, and we began to look for a church. We finally settled on the Catholic cathedral downtown. The service started at noon, so we could sleep in, enjoy CBC News: Sunday, and still make it on time. The liturgy took a while for me to get used to, but the sermons always gave me something to think about. I also got to hear the Alleluia Chorus sung by a professional choir for the first time. A perk of having a Bishop preach in your church at Easter, I guess.

Music would play a huge role in choosing our next church home after we moved once again. We spent over a year looking, with many listless Sundays spent at home. We discovered our current church through a rock band we both enjoy (The Low Anthem, in case you were wondering). They were using our church as a venue. We didn’t end up going to the show, but after perusing the church’s website we decided to give it a chance. We haven’t looked back.

Splitting the difference on our religious backgrounds, we started attending an Anglican church in downtown Toronto. The choir is phenomenal, the clergy engaging and challenging, the community supportive. I feel at home in our church for a lot of reasons. In it, we get to live our faith by praising God, welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, writing to the imprisoned, and asking questions. There is room for doubt in the pews and chairs of the sanctuary. For confusion and anger and hurt. Without brushing away those emotions, but embracing them. Feeling comfortable being uncomfortable.

I may have doubts when I enter our church, but I always leave with a bit more hope. Perhaps that is what I search for each Sunday – hope.

Since the beginning of the year, our church has sent forth two priests to other ministry opportunities: one, a recently ordained minister; the other, the head priest for the last 15 years. As we wished them well, the whole congregation gathered around them and sang a beautiful song that I have a difficult time finishing without choking up. As anyone who has been part of a choir, or even just sang with the crowd at a concert, can attest, there is something special about joining a group of voices together. In these two lines, I feel unburdened from my fears and doubts and remember there is still hope.

Be not afraid, my love is stronger; my love is stronger than your fear. Be not afraid, my love is stronger, and I have promised to always be near.