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Rachel Lyon | Longreads | April 2019 | 23 minutes (5,849 words)
I signed up for Gmail in 2005, a month after graduating college and outgrowing my .edu address. Technically the service was still in beta testing. It was early enough that I could claim my entire name, beginning to end, no numbers or crazy characters. The simplicity of my “OG handle”speaks to its vintage. I have to admit I’m rather proud of it. It also means I get a lot of correspondence not actually meant for me. Since I joined Gmail, it has grown to more than 1.5 billion active users: 20% of the world’s population. Since I joined Gmail, the world’s population itself has increased by 1+ billion! There are only so many words in the English language. There are only so many variations. Social media handles are stolen and sold like Uranium on the black market. IP addresses are finite.
I am included on the timesheet of a Melbourne store, Boost Juice — scheduled to work the closing shift on March 24 — and on the agenda for the 64th annual general meeting of the Citizens Advice Bureau in a small town outside of London. World Vision UK writes to thank me for my “donation of 10” (ten what, I don’t know). Kid to Kid Utah thanks me, too, for a donation of $9.32 worth of used children’s items. I am notified that my job application to teach at primary school in Leeds, UK, has been received. The school is rated 2.6 out of 5. One review reads: “Want your child to be bullied then send them there.”
One November I receive a note from Matt, who thinks he knows me from East High. “You Freshman Scum! A belated happy birthday this week. Hope all is going well.” (My birthday is in April, and no one would have called me “scum” when I was a high school freshman. I would have blushed. I might have cried.) December, I get a photo from Zoe — subject line: “SNOW,” body copy: “Happy Winter!” — of a courtyard, stone walls, and iron grate, blanketed in white. Adam sends me a photo, accompanied by no text at all, of three men in a lush, walled garden, one holding a Smart Water, the second holding a Starbucks cup, the third showing off three tickets to a Colts game. An American flag is stuck in a flowerpot.
Sophie writes to say how proud she is of my daughter, who “was such a sweet leader in the classroom today.” Marci tells me she signed up her son Cameron for the Abundant Life Garden Project, an after-school program at St. Philips Episcopal Church in Durham, NC, and she thinks my son Jack would have “a fabulous time” there, too. An automated message arrives from a public school in Cherryvale, KS, notifying me that my son Gary is failing English 11. His grade is 39%. What can you do with a kid like Gary? His future is looking bleak. I write to the school to let them know that the email address they’ve got on file for his mother, a different Rachel Lyon, is actually mine. They apologize and I don’t hear from them again — until the following year, when Marla writes to say she’s collecting pictures for a senior slideshow on graduation night, and will need photos of Gary no later than April 19. So Gary’s graduating after all! I’m glad he turned himself around.
One reason for all this misdirected correspondence is there are at least a few hundred people around the world who share my name. According to the dizzying website howmanyofme.com, there are 186 Rachel Lyons, Rachael Lyons, Rachel Lyonses, and Rachael Lyonses in the United States. The consonant-rich website uknames.gbgplc.com approximates 45 people in the UK, including spelling variations. (Canada — not known for its big egos, really — doesn’t seem to have an equivalent site; a search for an equivalent Australian site yielded suggestions for the following “related searches”: how many Daniels are in the world? how many people are named Mitchell? how many people in the world are named Humphrey? Apparently Daniels, Mitchells, and Humphreys are peculiarly given to egosurfing.) We Rachel Lyons are a not insignificant population.
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Another reason I get so very much email, I suspect, is that when people are prompted to enter their email addresses to get something they want — free samples; access to 30 days of unlimited whatever — but don’t want to get all the spam that comes with doing so, they enter something else. What’s an easier address to think up than one’s-own-name@gmail? Given the number of digital receipts I get for things I didn’t buy, I know many Rachel Lyons have put my address down to misdirect their spam. If you’re a Rachel Lyon and you’re reading this, please know: I am here, I am real, I am receiving your correspondence, and I don’t want your spam any more than you do.
I do, however, very much enjoy the non-spam correspondence. An email is a glimpse into another life, a fragment of a story. Maybe I love getting other people’s mail because I am a fiction writer. Maybe I’m a fiction writer because I love getting other people’s mail. Chicken or egg, I do not know. All I know is it gives me a little rush. I read my misdirected correspondence carefully. I read it nosily. I read it with a little voyeuristic thrill and odd surprising pangs of envy. Rationally I know that to share a name with someone is a simple, random thing. Irrationally I can’t help but feel connected to the other Rachel Lyons of the world.
I receive a staffing announcement from a city planner named John Lyon. The body of the email is simple, punctuationless: “Check it out”. An attached PDF, official Toronto city business, includes a long list of John’s accomplishments, his boss’s signature, and a photograph of him. He’s a middle-aged man with close-cropped gray hair, a little red in the face, with a smile of genuine pride. When I tell him he has the wrong Rachel Lyon, he writes back “Sorry to bother”, again with no punctuation at all. I feel bad that I’ve deflated his big moment. I refrain from writing back, “Congratulations on your big promotion! You’ve worked hard for this!”
Years later John Lyon CCs me again on an email submission to a photo contest. The picture is lovely, ordinary: a canoe on a blue lake limned by trees, the backs of two girls in life jackets, oars in their hands, ponytails shining in the sun. I let him know I am not the Rachel Lyon he intended. He writes back, “Sorry, Rachel! What a beautiful name! My daughter Rachel Lyon is 12 years old and living in Toronto.” I realize I’ve replied all when his wife jumps in. “Whoops! Sorry, Rach,” she writes. Rach! I swoon. I love that nickname. Love its homely consonants, its casual affection. I write back again: “No problem!” She adds, “I’ve always wanted to come to NYC. One day,” and tacks an American flag emoji onto the end of her reply.
This is the sort of intimate connection that sharing a name can create. This Rachel Lyon’s parents don’t know me from Adam (except for my name, of course), but they treat me with a tenderness that goes straight to my head. The yearning it provokes is dizzying. What if I were a 12-year-old Torontonian whose dad worked in City Planning, whose parents called me Rach and brought me canoeing with my sister in the summertime? I do not have a sister. I never went canoeing as a child. My parents are New Yorkers who have an aesthetic aversion to the nickname Rach. My correspondence with the parents of the 12-year-old who shares my name leaves me wistful as I used to be when, as a 12-year-old myself, I read novels about other girls — explorers of fantastic worlds, kid detectives, lucky orphans. It leaves an echo in my heart: What if, what if? I wish I could see beyond the ponytails, into their faces and their lives.
I am not the only person who gets a little rush out of receiving correspondence meant for other people with my name. It used to be that on the Verizon network you could text someone just by typing in a name; the author Leila Sales received thousands of texts over five years from strangers who’d addressed their text messages L-E-I-L-A. From 2007-2012 she documented them on an entertaining blog called, “The Leila Texts: Small Glimpses Into Strangers’ Lives, Courtesy of a Technological Glitch.”
Other people have sought out their name-twins (and -triplets, and -quadruplets, etc.), with absurd results. In 2015, BuzzFeed ran an article entitled “People Keep Making Huge Facebook Chats With People With The Same Name” (subtitle: “It’s getting very confusing.”), which told the tale of a name-twin enthusiast named Will Hodgson “who discovered not all Will Hodgsons are as keen to socialise with other Will Hodgsons as he is.” Will started a Facebook chat, back when you could do that sort of thing, with several other Will Hodgsons he didn’t know. His icebreaker: “evening fellas”; the reply: “Can you fuck off mate.” He tweeted a screen shot (caption: “touchy”), and the tweet went viral. Hodgson was credited with starting what some called “the same-same name game.” The Guardian’s article on the topic (“How many Jack Moons? – same-same name game sweeps Facebook”) was as absurd as the title might suggest:
Sydney student Jack Moon, 25, was invited to a group chat of six fellow Jack Moons on late Thursday night.
“What’s happening?” said Jack Moon.
“Just being the best Jack Moon a Jack Moon can be,” replied the Sydney student, 25. “How about you?”
“Yeah just being Jack Moon,” replied the first Jack Moon.
“Oh my word! So many Jack Moons! Hi Jack Moons,” said another Jack Moon.
…The trend is causing widespread confusion and amusement on the internet.
I happen to know at least one person who was caught up by this trend. A friend of mine told me her dad, Laird Kelly — a lovable TV sitcom type of dad, who gets a kick out of a good pun — joined a Facebook group for Laird Kellys; they were all equally tickled by their association.
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The fun of the same-same name game — the initial hunt for people who share one’s own name, the greeting and recognition — seemed to wear off after a matter of months. By 2016 same name clubs were commonplace. Some dropped the surname altogether: an article in Wired tells of a group for anyone named Molly. By 2017, no one seems to have been writing about the phenomenon anymore. Perhaps the Mollys realized they didn’t have much else in common. Perhaps one of the Mollys misbehaved. On the Internet and IRL, initial kinship can sour when someone reveals their dark side. As the saying goes, one bad Molly can spoil the whole bunch.
The Rachel Lyon I have corresponded with the most happens also to be a writer. (She lives in the same small English town as yet another Rachel Lyon, who works as a primary school teacher — and who is often asked whether she is “Rachel Lyon the author.”) This Rachel Lyon has written several children’s books, including one called I Wish I’d Been Born a Unicorn. Our creative work could not be more different; still, we are occasionally confused for one another. She writes,
The BBC channel CBeebies once issued a tweet to say they were airing I Wish I’d Been Born A Unicorn as the bedtime story, tagging you as the author! And one evening, when I was sitting at home watching TV I got a pretty exciting phone call from a film producer in America to say he really liked my book and wanted to discuss optioning the film rights. My heart rate went through the roof, until he began discussing the story and I worked out the call was meant for you!
Recently this Rachel Lyon sent me a photo taken in a school auditorium, crowded with children, in Lancashire, northwest England. A projection of a rudimentary graphic shows her face beside images of her books, as well as mine. One of the children wears a red-and-white-striped Cat-in-the-Hat style top hat. I can only hope these British children don’t enjoy her reading so much that they look up my novel. My novel is… not appropriate for children.
Cases of mistaken identity increase in frequency in direct proportion to the commonness of one’s name. The less uncommon the name, the more exciting the case. Howmanyofme.com tells me “there are 1 or fewer [real] people in the U.S. named Jeffrey Lebowski,” and just think how thrilling that caper was! Conversely, there are 874 Manuel Gonzaleses and Gonzalezes in the US (plus God only knows how many in Spanish-speaking nations). Manuel Gonzales the writer says his email address is “borrowed all the time by Mexicans named Manuel who don’t have email addresses of their own and so I am a subscriber to a number of labor and kitchen job search sites, as well as two different Ashley Madison accounts, one in Peru and one in Brazil.”
There are only 20 people in the US named Ann Beattie. Last summer, spending a few days on Star Island in the Isles of Shoals, NH (not to be confused with the island resort of the same name in Kissimmee, FL), I found myself chatting with one of them. She told me she’d experienced many incidences of mistaken identity. Once she was contacted by someone who, convinced she was Ann Beattie the novelist, insisted she had taken an illicit trip to Disneyland with her accountant, and that she and her accountant were having an affair. Months later, I had the opportunity to correspond with the novelist herself. I asked her about her supposed Disneyland love triangle. She wrote back (eschewing capital letters in what seems to be her signature epistolary style):
no idea. i have been to disneyland twice, once with my husband and a friend who lived in ca at the time, the other time working with a photographer friend for a piece we did on japanese tourists for “esquire” many years ago. and i can assure you, i never had a romantic relationship with an accountant!
Identity mix-ups can make for cute party anecdotes, but they can also be a drag — or painful, even. An acquaintance of mine, let’s call him Joey O’Malley, who is married to a publicly feminist writer, has received correspondence meant for another Joey O’Malley for years. The other Joey O’Malley is “a sexist, misogynist jerk who is obsessed with CrossFit,” my acquaintance told me in an email. He’s:
really into creepy stuff about ‘strategies’ for modern dating. Gross stuff. Have you ever seen Magnolia? Remember the Tom Cruise character? It’s that kind of stuff. Dating as a ‘game.’ Women as victories. Really awful. He’s even written a book about dating, which I cringe to think about. It hurts to have MY name on the cover of whatever that book is. So much hurt. Like, I find it so vile and so dehumanizing, and it’s coming from someone who has MY name. I was born four years earlier than he was. It’s MY name, asshole. I had never encountered someone with my name until the social media age. And I imagine someone seeing this book and the name and thinking it’s me. Especially considering my wife is a writer. ‘Oh, how nice. He writes too.’
Joey says he lives in fear that he will be mistaken for his name-nemesis. Make that name-nemeses, plural: he recently discovered yet a third Joey O’Malley, “a gun-toting, Confederate flag-waving, hardcore Trump guy in Ohio.” At the end of our correspondence my Joey added, “If any of this is interesting at all for your writing, I just ask that you please keep me anonymous because either of these other Joey O’Malleys could kick my ass.” Needless to say, Joey O’Malley is not his real name.
The writer Sara Lippmann (“No h, double p, double n: this was the refrain with which I quickly became accustomed in grade school”), runs into frequent trouble with her name and email address. “The confusion and mix-ups have become part of my identity,” she says. Shockingly enough, a woman with a name almost identical to hers — a fraternal name-twin, if you will — has been receiving her correspondence and holding it hostage. She writes:
I do not know who Sara [single-N] Lippman is. (I do not know if she’s mistaken for a writer of sordid and saucy tales, and what a goddamn nightmare that might be.) I reached out to her after my collection came out, as I’d heard from a few people that they’d requested this or that, and why was I ignoring them, so I asked her if she would kindly forward me messages. She would not. I do not understand. I mean, I get it, it must be a pain in the neck for her. I don’t know how much she receives. But it would be so much easier for me to intercept and try to correct if she would forward those notices to me. The problem has persisted. Friends will see me (friends who know how to spell my name) and ask me why I haven’t gotten back to them. I’ve repeated the request and she ignores it.
As the recipient of email meant for other women with my name, I do sympathize with Sara’s name-nemesis’s frustration. Must we participate in some stranger’s life, just because we receive her mail? Yes, in fact, we must; there is no way not to. In Gmail, unlike IRL, there is no way to “Return to Sender.” Even ignoring the correspondence is a kind of participation in itself — as Lippmann (two ‘n’s) will readily tell you. “We don’t choose our names,” Sara concludes. “The Internet makes the world feel vast but also small, which can be a beautiful thing. Related or not related, we are all connected, and why deny those connections. Why not help each other out in whatever small way we can?”
Of course, for all kinds of reasons — spiritual, emotional, philosophical, practical, and otherwise — some of us do choose our names. A person who’s getting married might change his name to embrace his identity as a married person or simplify his life as a parent. A spiritual person might change her name to become closer to God; a friend told me about a woman he knows who changes her entire name yearly, as part of her spiritual practice. A person who’s transitioning might change their name both to claim their gender identity and to help people gender them correctly. It is not easy. A trans friend told me, “Every time I meet a cis woman with my name, there is a weird moment about it.” She DMed me with the following, deeply upsetting anecdote:
A coworker at my former job once told me she couldn’t bear to address me, a horrible transsexual, by my name, because it was her mother’s name, so she was just going to use initials for me from now on. I have met many others who, when I introduce myself, give me a suspicious look and say “I have a sister named ______,” or like “My niece was named ______.” I could be wrong, but I don’t think this is something that happens between cis women who have the same, relatively common name!
Suspicion does seem to pop up from time to time among cis people who share a name, even just a first name, but it seems to be the exception rather than the rule. My friend Jasmine Sawers wrote me rather gleefully to say, “I’m the only Jasmine Sawers in the world! …That said, I never met another Jasmine until I went to college, and I must say, the urge to ‘get rid of them’ was very strong.” My dear friend Sarah Bridgins (the only Sarah Bridgins she knows of!) told me that the one time a friend of hers, a woman named Jake, met another woman named Jake, she became enraged. Sarah writes,
Every time I meet a new Sarah I always ask her if her name is spelled with or without an ‘h.’ On the surface this is a cute icebreaker, but deep down I know I will judge this person based on how they answer; a sad part of me truly believes I cannot relate to ‘h’ less Sarahs quite as closely as I can to Sarahs who spell their names the same way as me. I am pretty sure all other Sarahs feel this way too based on the nervous giggle of relief that always follows the discovery that both of our names include an ‘h.’ ‘Good answer! Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to hang out with you!’ we ‘joke.’ I am well aware that this is deeply stupid, but so many people have my name that I had to find some way to make it feel special.
I get it. An extra ‘a’ in Rachael looks fussy to me, dated and gaudy. Don’t those Rachaels know Coco Chanel’s classic advice? Before leaving the house, remove one accessory. That silent A is like an extra bangle. You don’t need it. R-A-C-H-E-L cuts a cleaner silhouette. Rachaels just seem so… extra (see: Rachael Ray). To support this theory, I find a list of adjectives on ohbabynames.com supposedly associated with people who use the foreign spelling of my name. They certainly do seem to describe Rachael Ray, at least, better than they describe me: “Communicative, Creative, Optimistic,” okay, but also, “Popular, Social, Dramatic, Happy.” Adjectives associated with my own minimalist spelling: “Inspirational, Highly Intuitive, Spiritual Teacher, Extremely Bright, Uplifting, Truth-seeker.” Aspirational, but I’ll take it. In teasing out the connections between myself and other Rachel Lyons I am, after all, seeking a kind of a truth.
Pastor St. John writes from Parkway Christian Center to say he’s got some mail for my kids Ethan and Grace. I tell him I have no kids, and wish him luck. A few months later he writes again to invite me to lunch, to plan a 20th anniversary party for the Webbers. I decline. A couple of years later, another employee at Parkway Christian emails me, along with a bunch of PCC parents, to welcome our sixth-graders to youth group and Sunday services with the grown-ups. Ethan and Grace are growing up!
Parkway Christian Center is in Virginia’s Rogue River valley, west of Starvation Heights, where generations of early settlers, would-be farmers, were stymied by the infertile, granite-heavy soil. Nevertheless in 1921 they founded a church; today PCC is associated with Assemblies of God. With more than 13,000 churches in the US and 67 million members worldwide, it is the world’s largest Pentecostal denomination. The intricacies of American Christianity are as unfamiliar to me as astrophysics, but I know Pentecostalism involves a belief that we are in the end of days. I know it involves speaking in tongues. Invited to edit a slideshow presentation about the Eucharist, in French (pour être prête pour l’eucharistie, tu dois avoir l’âme pure: to take the Eucharist, your spirit must be pure) I get a photo of a Southeast Asian woman receiving a wafer from a bald white priest. It seems this Rachel Lyon is bilingual. Seems she’s off to spread the gospel in Laos or Cambodia. Even as I frankly balk at her beliefs, I am impressed with her adventurous spirit. I admire her commitment to learning French — something I wish I could do more thoroughly. My feeling of solidarity with her — and, by extension, the world’s other Rachel Lyons — is tested.
I imagine her (me) in the clutches of the Holy Spirit, limbs eyes tongue possessed by a seizure of prayer. Her (my) eyes roll back into her (my) head like a spooked horse’s. She (I) gropes at the air, babbling. Her (my) sixth grade son, new to Sunday morning services, has never seen his mother like this. An otherwise together woman who wears Talbots cotton blends, who is known for her bakesale Snickerdoodles, she (I) has disappeared into herself, has been replaced by something Satanically weird and frightening.
Oh to escape from the echo chamber that is the internet. To travel to a country where there are no other Rachel Lyons. To find myself among people whose names I cannot read, let alone spell, let alone Google. In the end a name — like an email, or a human body — is a data point, a location, a pinprick on the globe. Less a destination than a point of departure. To share a name is to be reminded that we share a world. A misdirected email is an existential pleasure, a key to a door in the imagination. Through glimpsing other lives in motion, my name falls away along with the rest of my self. The world — in all its intricacy and mystery — remains.
The writer Kristen Arnett published a piece in Many Loops, an online triannual “somewhat preoccupied by recursion,” entitled Kristen Arnett on Kristen Arnett. Clearly somewhat preoccupied by recursion myself, I read it. “Here’s the thing about names,” Arnett writes: “they’re yours and they’re not supposed to belong to anybody else.” She tells of another Kristen Arnett who used to surpass her in search results. “Other Kristen Arnett makes Green Make-Up, which means she is Environmentally Conscious,” Kirsten complains. “Other Kristen Arnett Cares about the Planet and Looks Great Doing It. Every few months I searched my own name-nemesis and all those searches revealed she was doing just fine. …It is great and terrible to know there is someone else out there living your own life better than you.” Eventually, however, the tables turn: “Now when I search Other Kristen Arnett, I’m the one who pops up first. What was it like that day she looked for herself and saw me staring back at her? …We’re stuck together, whether we like it or not.”
My friend Sarah Sandman, an artist, designer, and activist who used to teach at a college, calls this struggle the “SEO doppelgänger takeover.” Sarah appears first in search results for her own name, but she became aware of another Sarah Sandman when searching for herself on ratemyprofessors.com. This Professor Sarah Sandman teaches in the department of English and Linguistics at Purdue. She published a book with Finishing Line Press. Though the latter Sarah Sandman — writer, creative writing prof — is the more likely to be my colleague, the former is my friend. They’ve never spoken or corresponded, but my friend is inspired by her name-twin’s very existence. She says, “I would totally collaborate with her!”
To explain, Sarah tells me her friend Kyra Gaunt, a musician and digital ethnomusicologist, found another Kyra Gaunt out there, who is also an academic. (I don’t know how; the latter Kyra Gaunt is effectively invisible online, so thoroughly has she been dominated by the former in SEO.) Sarah and Kyra, who are both TED fellows, had the idea to do a creative-academic summit that would feature interdisciplinary presentations by people who share a name. I can picture it now: the two Professors Sarah Sandman, giving a presentation side by side to an enthusiastic audience of name twins, followed by another presentation by the two Professors Kyra Gaunt.
Since Google “‘learns”’ to give us the results we’re looking for, I asked a friend to search for me on his own browser, in private mode. Even with this feeble failsafe in place, I found that with the publication of my first book, and associated interviews and essays, I had successfully pushed the second-most-searched-for Rachel Lyon down to the second page of our results. That Rachel Lyon is an Emmy Award-winning filmmaker. She has produced more than 65 feature films, movies, documentaries, and limited series. In a recent YouTube video she discusses her most recent film, Hate Crimes in the Heartland. She looks smart, in both senses of the word. Short curly hair, glasses, and an orange blazer. She looks like she could be a member of my synagogue. She speaks with eloquence and passion about media, race, and crime, and punishment.
I admit I have mixed feelings about dominating in SEO. Perhaps I ought to be triumphant. I feel a little guilty. This Rachel Lyon’s career is older than I am. She deals not in fiction, but in truth. For a woman like her to be displaced by the likes of me seems unjust. I imagine giving a presentation with her at the Sandman-Gaunt Summit. What would we discuss? Truth and fiction, maybe. The small role art might play in changing the world.
In a big, overpopulated world it can feel cozy to be connected with all the other far-flung Rachel Lyons of the world. It can also remind me of what I do not have, but wish for. I wish I lived in the country. I wish I were more self-sufficient. I wish I’d had a sister, a happy Canadian childhood with friendly, normal parents who called me Rach. I strive to make creative work that really matters. I hope, one day, to have a child.
Moustafa Bayoumi’s name is rare enough, “this side of Istanbul,” as he puts it, that even in New York City, where he teaches English and creative writing at Brooklyn College, he has never encountered anyone who shares his name. But in his 2015 essay “Coexistence,” he recounts encountering a character called Mustafa (no “‘o”’) Bayoumi in a work of fiction.
Like everyone else (or so I imagine), I feel a kind of ontological concordance between the arrangement of letters that make up my name and the person I believe myself to be. But since my name is of Arabic origin, all romanizations are approximations. What this means is that, perhaps unlike people who have always existed first in the Roman alphabet, I see myself equally in the alternatives. It’s simply a question of transliteration. Spell me however you want, in other words, because all versions somehow revert back to their Arabic ancestor. As with most things, Google confirms my suspicions, since I invariably find listings about me in surrogate spellings. There are multiple versions of me out there, but they are still me.
“They are still me,” Bayoumi writes, and there is something about that idea that I find irresistible. Babies learn to associate their own names with themselves between five and seven months of age — a year before they learn to recognize themselves in mirrors. If we identify as names before we identify as bodies, it follows, by some primal lizard logic, that we would feel our selves in others who share our names.
What’s in a name? Nothing. Everything. The name Rachel means ewe; Lyon, of course, means lion. I like how — given that ewe is gendered female, lion male — my name has a kind of hermaphroditic quality. I like that it is balanced: gentle, first, then strong. It is the opposite of the month of March: in like a lamb, out like a lion. I like how ancient my name is, too. It doesn’t take a Biblical scholar to know that the name Rachel is far older than English, that it’s at least as old as Genesis: about 3,400 years, and counting. My name is a transliteration, too. It just happens to have been transliterated a few thousand years before Moustafa was.
That said, the meaning of my name has very little to do with what it means to be me. Identity is funny this way: even with names and monikers that are also preexisting nouns or adjectives, like Grace, Joy, Faith, Earl, Hunter, Gunner, Wren, Olive, Gray, or Brooklyn; Apple, Rocket, Racer, Rebel, Rogue, or Sage; even — or especially — Blue Ivy, Busy, Stormy, Prince, Madonna, or Common, the person who is named eventually becomes the greater part of their name’s meaning. When I wrote to Moustafa (which means the chosen one) Bayoumi, to ask him for his thoughts on this, he replied, “Separating your identity from your name is like eating an orange without puncturing the skin: an impossibility.”
I receive an invoice. A Rachel Lyon has paid a guy named Matt $200 to exterminate “a bunch of spiders in their newly constructed shop.” The invoice includes her address. Out of curiosity I look her up on Google Maps. The shop is in a tiny town in the Pacific Coast mountains, where Oregon meets Washington meets Montana meets Idaho, where the winters are harsh and there’s no ocean for miles, where golf courses butt up against Indian reservations. I look at the pictures that have been taken nearby. They are all vast emptiness, epic mountains and wide valleys, the kind of landscape that the early violent European settlers of the West meant when they said manifest destiny. Pine trees grow from the banks of clean green lakes, rising up from the flaking shale into the thin air of the mountain sky. A wet road runs past a field of horses, shining under parting rainclouds. Two empty Adirondack chairs on a stone patio look out over a vast blue valley. Two handsome German shepherds pant happily in a field of yellow flowers. A net of stars is thrown over a glowing lapis sky.
Someone named Casey wants this same Rachel Lyon to fill out a form that will help the town’s rebranding committee attract more people to their remote area. Someone named Ruta encourages her to enroll her child in a gardening program through the local public library. Young Master Gardeners is once more planting, Ruta writes. Her syntax charms me. Every child can participate and bring home a plant to care for. A new segment is being introduced called ‘Just Because,’ where fun and unique topics will be brought in and discussed just because it is fun. The first guest will be Mortoise, the Tortoise who is a friend of Master Gardener volunteer, Linda.
At my writing desk in my own congested Northeast city I read these emails before writing back to Matt, Casey, and Ruta, to dutifully inform them I am not the Rachel Lyon they meant to reach. I am not the Rachel Lyon who is hardy, strong, and tall. Who has grit, ingenuity, and large calloused hands. She built her new shop herself. It is so new it still smells like sawdust. Her child will learn to care for plants, and befriend a tortoise. Me, I am childless, useless with power tools, confused by the natural world. And yet, getting a glimpse into this other Rachel Lyon’s life, I feel a sense of the road not taken.
* * *
Rachel Lyon is the author of the novel Self-Portrait With Boy (Scribner 2018); her shorter work has appeared in Joyland, Iowa Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a cofounder of the reading series Ditmas Lit, in her native Brooklyn NY.
Editor: Sari Botton