I once paid $30 dollars for a T-shirt. This isn’t like me. As a good New Englander, if I can’t get it at a thrift store on clearance, plus the storewide sale price, then I’ll happily don my city basketball league shirt I’ve had since fourth grade. And yes, it still fits perfectly.
It took three visits to the shop, repeated pleas to my wife (who, to be fair, said I should get it from the beginning) and everything short of a prayer meeting to get me to buy the riche tee. But I finally caved. I had to—it had my initials emblazoned on the front. And on top of that, the script was in the blessed, sans-serif lowercase style in which I had been ending emails to friends for the last five years.
So I bought the bp tee. It felt a tad narcissistic, but it was hard to stop grinning as I walked along thinking I’d made some deeper connection with who I was simply by pulling my name over my head.
Then earlier this year these same two apparently humble letters started making headline news daily, and they weren’t in reference to my budding, illustrious literary career.
Not only did I feel I had to prematurely retire my favorite shirt, but if I wanted to end e-correspondences with my signature, “cheers, bp,” I felt obligated to add in some kind of qualifying statement like “the kind that’s pelican-friendly.” One friend responded with: “bp: oil spill-free, but still slick.”
I know I shouldn’t care about what others are doing with my name, but rather what I’m trying to do with it. Then again, should life be about making a name for yourself, or trying to squeeze into the one you’ve unwittingly been given?
I don’t know how A. J. Gordon felt about his initials or his missionary namesake Adoniram Judson. His dad was named after John Calvin, so maybe the enormous moniker “A. J.” seemed more inspiring then daunting. I imagine he spent far less time worrying about his initial implications than I do. This is probably why his are attached to our chapel at Gordon and mine to destroying the Gulf of Mexico.
But A. J. did edit a periodical called Watchword—a synonym for “password,” meaning a word that represents a specific ideology. In essence, a watchword is shorthand for who we are and what we believe—like our soul’s initials. Further, I like to think A. J. also saw the crisp, linguistic beauty in this compound word; the alliterative charge to watch our words, or keep eyes on tongues. We speak what we believe through the same organ we use to receive daily bread. We take in, we name out, and then we watch.
In this sense, perhaps the biggest tragedy in Eden was the loss of our ability to name things—to take concepts and attributes and craft them into the perfect watchword that means one thing but points to Everything. We were separated from God, and we were separated from our names. Death, then, became the tragic misnomer—the word we weren’t supposed to know but whose name we can’t forget.
Now we live to connect our names with eternity, and daily life is the attempt to fuse our bodies with the letters chosen for us at birth, like skin trying to grow into the soul. Perhaps the closest we can get on earth is by wearing it—a threadbare T-shirt that covers the heart but can never touch it.
I am not saying I want to live out the literal meaning of my name—which is the Celtic take on the English “Brian” and means “strong.” If you’ve seen me struggle with a jar of sauerkraut, you know this interpretation doesn’t go very far. What I mean is that true names are our watchword—our mysterious code to the Divine. Until I reach it, then, I am lowercase in search of uppercase.
bryan parys doesn’t like to capitalize his name and now you know a little more about why. He holds an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction and teaches writing at the University of New Hampshire. His next expensive-but-worth-it T-shirt will come from Faith & Fortune (www.faithfortune.com)—a sweet apparel line started by two of Gordon’s swankiest graduates.
NEXT: Institutional News