One of the characteristics of having an uncommon name like Callan is that it can cause you to become self-conscious when you are young. I have mentioned this before in relation to the choice of my children’s names. Growing up I never encountered another soul called Callan. The first time I met another Callan I was in my 20’s. I asked him, “Do you like your name?” He shrugged, smiled and said, “Yeah, I actually do.”
Up until then, for me, the name had been burdensome – always having to repeat it, spell it, correct people who then somehow managed to respond like it was me that didn’t know how to say my name. Like I was confused and my name was actually pronounced Callum, Calvin, Caleb, Cavan, Kevin and I had somehow invented Callan as a variation of what my name should be. Having this unusual name though made it quite easy to believe that I would need to be unique within myself. In some ways my name has helped me explore my essence.
When my eldest niece turned 21 I wanted a way of recognising that milestone and capturing something of significance for her character – for the things that mattered to her. She and I have shared a love of books and when she was small I had read to her on her annual Northern Hemisphere summer visits to the family in Africa. She is a super-intelligent being and all things academic slip into her with ease. I cannot stop life from happening to her, but I can offer up some spells that might ward off demons and heal the wounds she may incur on her spirit.
For her birthday, I decided to buy her 21 books that had changed my life and that I thought carried a message for a young woman beginning her journey into defining her space in the world. For each book I wrote a note inside describing why that book meant something to me and why I thought it could mean something to her. There was an order in which she needed to open the 21 gifts because each book grew in its significance because of the book that came before it and in preparation for the book that would follow it. A bit like life right?
The first book was Dr Seuss’ “Oh the Places You’ll Go” because how could any list of life-message books not have at least one Dr Seuss book. The gift set included other books like “The Little Prince” and an all-time favourite book of mine by Florence King called, “The Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady”. But the book that meant the most to me in that list, which I sealed in the 21st place was “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker. Why is that?
The letters Celie writes to God capture her transformation. She evolves from the poor, uneducated girl sold into a violent marriage by her father to a cautiously clever woman who falls in love with the intoxicating Shug Avery and becomes the wise woman who is the matriarchal magnet drawing all her family back to her farm in rural Georgia. I have a weakness for epistolary novels and Celie’s poignant letters to God are about life, about love and fear and about learning to become what you are meant to be. Celie becomes deeply aware of her essence – her who-ness and her what-ness. And if each of us were to write down our life in letters to some external force (real or imagined) wouldn’t all our letters really be about who we are becoming and what we know about life.
I guess what I was nudging my beautiful niece towards were some clues that would help her work out that life is all about finding your essence. Just like a fragrance will have its high and low notes, its floral and citrus tones and its unique characteristics, so too each of us have a quality that is our fingerprint on the world. For philosophers, essence is the attribute or set of attributes that make something what it fundamentally is. Last year a met a new word that captured the essence of essence – that word is quiddity. It’s a term that literally means “what it is to be”. Your quiddity then is the you-ness that defines you.
That young boy who hated his name and was confounded by how to make others hear his name and say it with all that it meant to him has grown into this man. The defining moments of my life are too diverse to capture in this little thought provoker but I can say with resolute clarity that these last 6 years have been a crucible of magnificent proportions. I have scorched away a series of delusions and fears to start to show the precious metals that are within – my Callan Quiddity