Friday, August 31, 2012


Home. (Burlington, VT ).

My Dear Readers,

Below you will find the final report I just completed for the Watson Foundation as well a few photos from the last quarter of my year.  It's a good deal longer than the other quarterly reports I've written this year, so brace yourself.

I think this report will serve as the bittersweet ending to this blog. I have enjoyed sharing stories and photos with you all so much, that I doubt it will be the last time I keep a blog, but I think it's the end of Names Across Nations. I will, of course, post here and let you know if I continue on my research on names in a different medium, or blog about my life in general somewhere else. If you're finding this blog after its completion and have questions about the Watson Fellowship, or suggestions, comments, or ideas about research on names, you can always send me an e-mail at

It is sad for me to say goodbye here because I have been so very grateful for the support and encouragement of my readers. Despite the complaints about the overwhelmingly tech-heavy world we live in, having a way to communicate with the people I care about (as well as strangers-turned-friends who stumbled upon this), was not only a gift but a necessity on such an independent year. You all have been the most supportive, thought-provoking, and dedicated readers that I could have hoped for. Thanks to this blog, I was able to be connected to a couple at a Pastor Training College in Zambia who invited me into their home, and I was able to be connected to my grandparents in Massachusetts, who read my entries aloud to each other.

It's been such a gift to share this journey with you all. As you'll read in my final report, I've been saying a lot of these lately, but seriously, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

With love,

Currently on display in my backyard (Thank you, Uncle Per).

September 1, 2012
To the Watson Fellowship Office,
                It is so lovely to be writing to you now that I can finally envision who will be reading it on the other end.  Hello from Burlington, Vermont, where, after a month of trips to see friends and attend weddings, a family vacation in Prince Edward Island, and of course, the fleeting and somewhat magical Watson conference, I am finally settling back home. Some things are taking longer to adapt to than others. Having two people who willingly feed me and don’t charge me rent has been an easy adjustment; overwhelming American grocery stores and the size of my closet, not so much.  I’m also getting used to being here without my family’s beloved dog, Cally, who died while I was on the last few days of my Watson year.
                The places where I sat down to write my other quarterly reports (Hyderabad, India, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Dublin, Ireland), feel a far cry from my parents’ couch.  When I last wrote one of these (what feels like ages ago), I had just begun my time in project country #6: Ireland.  Soon after I wrote, I moved to Belfast where I lived with a wonderful woman, Tricia, and her seven year-old daughter, Gaby, and spent four weeks looking into the role names play in religious conflict there. Tricia works at the WAVE Trauma Center in downtown Belfast, a cross-community care organization that offers support to people who have been bereaved, injured or traumatized as a result of the Troubles.  Her students at WAVE, who were from Protestant and Catholic families, were a great resource for me.  Several of them had stories from their childhoods about casual name changes they would undergo on a daily basis at their parents’ encouragement. A boy named Terrance, for example, went by the more Protestant-sounding name of “Billy” when walking to school through certain neighborhoods in order to avoid trouble.  It was distressing to learn about Belfast’s recent history especially because it happened  in a place that, in some ways, felt so much like home.
                I used my rainy days in Belfast to meet with professors at Queen’s University about these questions and even had the opportunity to meet with one of my favorite all-time poets, Medbh McGuckian, and talk to her about names. I was continually surprised by the role names play in the Irish tourism industry as well. I met with several historians who explained that because of the remarkable size of the Irish diaspora, tracing names and researching genealogy are large draws for many visitors and present commercial opportunities.   I used my sunny days there to go hiking and bouldering with Tricia and Gaby. Being in the mountains made me feel the closest to home that I had been all year.  I used Gaby as an excuse to explore the city and participate in kid-centered events like the outdoor Festival of Fools and visiting the new Titanic museum.   In exchange, Gaby gave me the title of “adopted sister” on day one and filled me in on all the Lady Gaga songs I had been missing for the last nine months outside of the United States. She was surprised (and perhaps slightly disappointed) to learn that I didn’t speak exactly like the American teenagers she watched on the Disney Channel.        
I spent my last few weeks in Ireland in the western part of the country. Galway felt the most stereotypically “Irish” of any place I’d been to so far, and I took in the great music, friendly populace, beautiful language and seaside. A highlight was meeting with members of the Irish Traveling community while I was there. They told me about their own naming traditions, and how Travelers have specific surnames that are passed on and have become a basis for discrimination.  They also told me that the custom of passing on first names in families was so common a practice within their community that they have an expression for it: getting “titled.”   The stability that “getting titled” provided in uniting generations seemed especially important when in the midst of a fluid lifestyle.  Interestingly, they told me that “Nell” was a common Traveler name, and they had never met a settled person who wore it before.
On June 5th, I took a short flight to Reykjavik and began to make a home for myself in what would be my last country of the year. I was rendered speechless by Iceland’s sheer beauty and between the gorgeous weather, colorful houses and remarkably safe streets, I found it to be one of the easiest places to be a traveler that I’d been to thus far.  It’s also a great place to study names. Similar to what I found in Germany, names in  Iceland are governmentally regulated. An official Naming Committee  approves the names of all babies born in Iceland and follows strict rules about how names are conjugated to fit with the grammar of the language. Names are also regulated based on gender of the child, spelling, and meaning.
Because I had plenty of time in Reykjavik and language wasn’t a challenge, I was able to meet with a wide variety of people about the topic. From Guðrún Kvaran, the former chair of the Icelandic Naming committee, to Pastor Sigurður Árni Þórðarson, a priest who baptizes babies and is figuring out his own personal and legal responsibility in terms of the names he baptizes them with, to young parents I met through friends. Some of my most interesting conversations were with immigrants to Iceland who were trying to make a place for themselves in a homogeneous place. Before 1996, immigrants were required to change their names to Icelandic ones in order to gain citizenship. Even today, babies born in Iceland must have Icelandic names regardless of where their parents are from. As you can imagine, with increasing numbers of immigrants to Iceland, it’s a controversial policy.
It would be a waste to be in Iceland without sampling some of its magnificent landscapes, so in addition to my research, I did my fair share of traipsing around volcanoes and glaciers, never quite believing my eyes. I spent the two months I was there trying to work on my knitting skills like the rest of the population, and trying to adjust to the disorienting 24-hours of sunlight.  I was also the lucky to meet Sarah Brownsberger, a poet and Watson Fellow of the class of 1981 who was currently living in Iceland and who invited me over because, as she put it, “you should always feed a Watson.”
The last month in my Watson year was, counter-intuitively, one of my hardest.  Because, on the grand timeline of the year I was so close to home, it felt hard to be forming new relationships I knew would soon end.  Constantly investing in new places and new people felt more exhausting than it had before. My emotions seemed to swing wildly between aching for home, feeling like I needed to take advantage of everything while I still could, and already anticipating the loss that this year’s end would be.  The last three months of my year was the only chunk of time that was spent exclusively in Europe, and the slightly more familiar systems and foods made me feel much closer to home (psychologically and geographically), than I had been up to that point. Because issues of personal safety and health were less at the forefront of my mind than they may have been in other places, in some ways, it was harder to keep my mind busy and not worry about what I’d face when I got home. Finally, on July 27th, the date I had occasionally counted down to but never believed would actually come, I flew home.
In retrospect, my first few days home in Vermont between when I arrived back in the states and attended the Watson conference were spent in a bit of a haze. I kept myself busy stuffing old clothes into bags for Goodwill, while rapidly trying to hang onto the “Watson year self” I had developed; one that was slipping away at an alarming rate now that I was back in my adolescent bedroom. The conference provided some much needed closure, a refreshing reassurance that this experience would forever be a part of my life, and the chance to be surrounded by some of the most interesting, kind, and passionate people I had ever met. Above all, I was so profoundly humbled to be in their company.
As evidenced by the fact that I still can’t get through more than thirty seconds of the Watson conference video without tears running down my face, the experience is still quite raw. I can’t really believe I’ve already been back in the states for over four weeks now.  I am just beginning to process what a gift this was, how, perhaps in ways that are only obvious to me, it has rattled, shaked, and transformed me to the core.  Burlington, Vermont feels, in some ways, like an entirely different city than the one I left, but I think it might just be me.   
I will admit that writing this final report was somewhat of a struggle for me. On some subconscious level I knew that once I wrote it I’d be closing the book of this year, even though, as many people reassured us at the conference, the Watson experience will be a lens through which I look at the world for the rest of my life.  Beyond this fear of letting go, however, was also the knowledge that I’d never be able to adequately express all I had to say to the Watson Foundation. How exactly do you thank someone for giving you an experience that most people never have in their lifetimes? For having the trust to give me some a generous sum of money and such enormous freedom? To have supported and encouraged me so very much along the way? There is a sense of guilt that comes with having this experience at 23, one that others only dream of, and also from being in so many places where people have so few of the opportunities, and even basic living conditions that I take for granted.  Life can be profoundly unfair sometimes.
Only when sitting down to write this did the irony dawn on me that this was a challenge I faced all year long.  When strings of old Indian women would hand me coconut after coconut to drink, when a stranger in Berlin said I could live with her for a month, free of charge, when people welcomed me into their homes and offices and market stalls with open arms to talk to me about their names, and in doing so, about what they held dear. I faced this challenge over and over again. I feel I’ll never quite deserve all of the incredible goodness the world has offered me, but time and time again as I left each place, I learned to accept it, with open arms right back. To smile and say “thank you”  and make a mental note to pay it forward somewhere, somehow, and accept that giving is a gift too.  This year has left me feeling deeply indebted to the world, and guilt aside, I’m thinking this might not be a bad way to go about my life in it.      
In some ways, it was a year of discomfort. My first night back in the U.S., climbing into my bed, it was as if a physical weight had completely dropped off my chest. I hadn’t even realized I’d been carrying around this weight of responsibility, of being slightly on edge all year, until it had evaporated.  I came face to face with many realities that I hadn’t come to terms with before, and it took being there to realize my own power to do so. Things that I would never have done voluntarily arose out of necessity, and I recognized that they were within me all along. I found the language to console a man after his father had died.  I rode on the backs of motorcycles because that was simply how I needed to get around. I went to dinner parties where no one spoke my language and I laughed when everybody else laughed and nodded as if I understood.  I learned to elbow my way to the front of lines, to deal with taunts and stares, when to cheat the system to get a visa extension, when to go to a clinic.  I learned how much I loved to be alone. I learned that relationships were worth having, even when you had to walk away from them too soon. I learned to feel patriotic about where I came from. I learned to give myself structure in an unstructured world; to redefine productivity, the true meaning of independence.  
Words were a theme for me this year. As I studied names and their meanings, and got wrapped up in informal interviews and conversations, these thoughts would swim around in my brain until I would go home and write about them. I feel like I rediscovered myself as a writer while simultaneously realizing I could find a common language without words. I learned many new languages this year; not just bits of Indonesian and Moroccan Arabic and Icelandic, but also more metaphorical languages. I learned the complicated language of travelers discussing options for malarial pills, and the language of aggressive bargaining in market stalls and medinas.  And most of all, the meaning of names.
I loved my research. I’m proud of some of the writing that came out of it. I’m not sure if I’ll try to continue on my exploration of names in a formal way or not, but I might, because I think what I found was interesting and unusual, and, at the heart of it, so very human. I loved hearing stories. I loved seeing the light in people’s eyes when they told me about how they named their children. I loved making people feel like what they had to say about it was worth telling and worth being listened to.  I loved the family stories passed on, the cultural traditions, the strings of syllables that formed the sounds they called each other by and that somehow, regardless of literal meaning, always meant love.  
When people ask me how this year was, the most honest response I have yet to come up with is “full.” Every moment of sadness felt miserable, every moment of happiness was exuberant.  I was laughing with some fellow Watsons at the conference that at times it seemed like our emotional lives were akin to those of an extremely hormonal pregnant woman. I would cry or laugh all the time, seemingly for no reason. When the simple task of finding & buying a new bottle of shampoo is overwhelmingly difficult, the successes are all the more powerful.
 I’m hesitant to talk about the idea of being full because “living life fully” is such a cliché at this point. But the definitions I created for myself of living a full life this year were complicated and deliberate. It wasn’t just about saying yes more than I said no (though that was certainly a part of it), but also about addressing things head on. A full life is one that is full of discomfort and extremes as much as it is about seizing the day.  It’s about being mindful and sitting with uncertainty but also about being unafraid to talk openly about race and gender and politics and religion, even if you’re scared you might not have the adequate language to do so.  
And perhaps because I had the knowledge that I was living a full life, somehow the extremes of emotions created a kind of balance; discomfort turned into comfort.   I wrote in my last report about the invincibility that arose in realizing I could land anywhere, and be just fine, (metaphorically or physically). This year I learned to create a kind of sustainable happiness. This is not to say that I didn’t have bad days, but that I knew I could create for myself a life that was worth living and that I was holding on to fiercely and gratefully.  Maybe I would have arrived at this point, so free of anxiety, so full of wonder about the world, the people in it, and myself, at some point in my life, but the Watson gave me the gift of reaching this peak while I still have a lot left of it to live. I’ve learned to listen to myself, to figure out what defines me, even (or especially) when everything around me is changing.  I’ve learned my contributions are worthwhile, my head and my heart are full, and I can belong anywhere and everywhere.
My parents are amazed that I am home, with no plans set, and stress-free. I have the confidence that when I need to move onto the next thing, whatever it may be, I will.  I know that whatever decision I make about what to do next, I will somehow turn it into the right decision, at least temporarily, because that’s just how we keep moving through our lives day after day.  There is an immense feeling of liberation that comes from seeing that there are so many different ways to live a life in this world. You realize you can’t really get it wrong.
For now I’ll keep writing, haphazardly applying to jobs in east coast cities that look interesting, enjoying the beginning signs of fall in Vermont, and replaying the Watson video until I’m ready to move on. I know my journey is not over.  I know that these experiences will, somehow, keep unfolding and surprising me. Sometimes the year feels like a dream, or something that happened in another lifetime. At other moments things come back to me so strongly; the taste of a Balinese coconut pancake, the hot beads of sweat on my forehead in a forest in Kerala, the lights of the Berlinale film festival.  I am savoring these memories, knowing they’ve somehow transformed me into a person who is in and of this world. I’m not sure how this year will continue to affect and transform me, only that it will inevitably continue to do so. As to what I’ll answer when people ask me what I’ll do with this experience, I’ll quote a favorite author, Cheryl Strayed, who once said to respond to questions such as these by saying, Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”  
It’s mattered quite a lot.
            Thank you for everything. 

-City Hall & Downtown Belfast
-At the top of Cave Hill, Belfast
-Cave Hill, with Gaby and Jack the dog (Belfast, Northern Ireland)
-Saying goodbye to my new Irish family; with Tricia & Gaby in Belfast
-Seaside & Houses in Galway, Ireland
-Cows in Connemara, Ireland
-Downtown Reykjavik (arrival in my last country!)
-In Reykjavik next to a wall of Icelandic names!
-In my backyard at MIDNIGHT in Reykjavik (please note how amazingly light it is outside AND my new Icelandic sweater).
-On a hill in Vik, Iceland.
-In Reynisfjara black sand beach (Vik, Iceland).

1 comment:

  1. It was a very intresting blog, congratulation! I found it, when I searched "kevivismus" term.
    (I posted about Hungarian names,unfortunatelly in Hungarian.)
    Have a nice life!