A Natural History of My goodwill and loving kindness
By Metta Sáma
My mother phoned me: “your father’s upset with you. all of your names and all of these places you’ve lived. on google. it’s embarrassing.”
Sometimes I forget my name is Metta. Sometimes I lose my temper, deliberately, with full humor, enjoying the feel of energy heating my ear tips, warming my feet bottoms. Often, these tempers end in disillusionment, disappointment.
I live close to the ground. I’m an Earth sign. My moon is fire. I’m a temperamental, patient person. Someone gave me one of those car air fresheners; she’d held on to it until it no longer held a scent. A young blond woman in large sunglasses flips her hair, a thought bubble popped over her head: “I may me moody but that doesn’t mean you’re not irritating!” I wasn’t sure if she was the speaker or if she imagined me to be the speaker. A close friend had recently mailed me an Anne Taintor air freshener: “High maintenance doesn’t even begin to cover it.” What can I say? Two mood-based notes, two friends, one week. I nearly lost my cool. But I’m Metta now.
Back in the eighties, when my best friend was still living, my name was Mickey. Yes, that happy go-lucky dopey-mouthed shirtless mouse with suspiciously-missing suspenders for those little red pants with gigantic white buttons (did those white buttons look like peepholes to you too?), matching white gloves, and those smoking yellow shoes. Ochre, I believe. Yes, my best friend called me Mickey. My mother would style my hair into Princess Leia kinky bobs. Angela saw them as mouse ears.
A few years later, my father’s search for the religious fit would end in Islam and a last name replaced by an X, then two, and on and on. It was the eighties. Newscasters still called Muslims Mawslums or Moosleems. Some friends didn’t want to be seen walking down the street with me, so I’d walk on one side, the friends on the other, conversation meeting in the roads, between the passing cars. I was suddenly in love with my parents. Deeply. To change a name so quickly, so efficiently, so knowledgeably, was the stuff of dreams.
I’m not sure how my dependence on night music began. I recall having a tiny record player and the same two or three classical records. I couldn’t sleep through the night because the records would end. I’d lay in bed and wonder how I’d gotten to that room, that house, those parents. I felt displaced and imagined I was truly a black Italian princess kidnapped and secreted off to the Southern United States, placed with a financially poor family. When my (adopted) mother would turn the record player on, I’d drift off to my birthplace, Italy. At times, I’d drop into the middle of a battle scene, feet clothed in soft gladiator sandals, a short, white tunic, braided cloth fashioned into a belt around my waist. My favorite sword had a dual-edged blade. Sometimes I died at the fiery crosses of Catholicism; sometimes I hid out in forests and led stealthy night attacks. In my dreams, I was never Lydia.
My parents still tussle over what my middle name should be (while I, at eight or five or seven or six, was still trying to figure out how to have hair that could be tousled, my parents and sibling were having brawls about how orphaned I was, a human with no middle name!). I was born nameless. Within minutes, the preacher (who also happened to be my grandfather by marriage) named me Lydia. My father gave me his last name Melvin. Who would get the middle name? For months, the other children tossed names between them. I was a fetus. My father was putting his hands on my mother’s belly praying for a son. It was a confused time. Many prayers were recited, many incantations built & piled on my mother’s belly, which had turned into a worship mound. There were my father’s desirous hands, my sisters’ malicious words, my brothers’ bored eyes, my mother on her back, me inside, curled against them all.
Truckalina (via one sister)
Franny (via one brother)
Sonnetta (via my mother, a name immediately vetoed by my father, nicknamed Sonny)
John Paul (via my father, yes, still in hopes of a male spawn, who could blame him?)
All dismissed, discarded names once I entered this world, hands balled into fists (my father’s daughter (an ex-Army boxer) through-and-through. My family didn’t give the names to the wind, let them blow into some other parents’ ears; no, they held these names under their tongues, Catholicized wafers. (We were some kind of Christian. Forgive me if the wafers don’t actually dissolve, I need them, for now, to crack under the weight of tongue pressed into the frenulum linguae, the sublingual papilla, bits and pieces of now mushy wafer clogging the submandibular gland ducts. Names sucking the incisors, the inferior lip, turning to plaque, then gingivitis, god-ly-like odors burning my ears.
My father calls me Lyl. My mother calls me Franny. Her sister calls me Fran. She elongates the “a”: “Fraaaaaaaaaaan, chile, what you done done with yourself?” My siblings call me Liya. Their children, sonic impressions of themselves, call me Liya behind their parents’ backs, Auntie Liya to their faces. Linda, Lyndia, Lyedia: the teachers.
What’s in a name? Nothing, really. But everything in pronunciation. Imagine being called by one name with glaringly different pronunciations: how can I be any body other than a doubled, tripled, fractured body?
There once was a time I lived a life free of long-term entanglements. Trouble comes, trouble stays, lady leaves. Turns a corner. Sheds a skin. Dissolves. Fragmented, she becomes someone new. Someone
Those were turbulent years. Friends bought me jade plants, green frogs that flew and floated and tipped on edges of wooden boats, fish pole in hand, wide-brimmed hatted head; ones that sat limp-limbed, dangling and contemplative. There were frogs on one wall, a green spread covering the bed, avocados sliced open, emerald gifts mistaken for jade. A lover wanted to change me to Paige. Paige, he said, you know, like the page but with an “i”. Jade is hard, he said. You’re not hard. Of course I thought of puke. Of course I thought I’d pain the walls a devilish slap. In those days, he was right, I wasn’t hard, but friends called me their rock, treated me like a stone, and tossed me into ponds to watch the water ripple. I was Jade, but not jaded.
Before there was a me who dreamed in sequence, and then there was a me who dreamt the pink sky would color me a deadened shade.
I was living in the hottest place I’d ever stepped foot on. A city built atop a swamp. Two months before I moved into my little one-room garage apartment, a woman died in an elevator in this city. Drowned. The city had gone underwater, and people died in elevators. The locals had nothing good to say about the place. There were artists who performed melancholy. Asphalt that crushed the toughest armadillo shells. I changed my name to Mae.
Call me contrary. Call me contentious.
Mae: a name built to hear the skylark’s grass-gurgled call. In my parents’ pasts, there exist women whose middle names bind them: Mae, Carrie Mae, Mattie Mae, Nellie Mae, and on and on. My sister’s middle name is Faith. I have no middle name. With all of these name changes, one would think I was trying to find my center, to fill my middle.
Imagine being a friend of someone like me. Three years in, she’s Bee; three years out, she’s Rain; Cowhide this week, Slated Roof next.
Wouldn’t you grow tired of calling me?
I’m at this artists’ colony. Someone says, “Explain Metta” and guess who shows up to dinner? Ms. Jade herself: “What are you asking me?” And I’ve forgotten to be all Goodwill and Loving Kindness, Peace man. It’s hot outside. The clouds are thickening. The flies are bothersome. “Explain Metta”:
There once was a girl named Lydia
She had a mess of a life in Mooria.
She sat herself down,
& shed the name-clown,
& contrived herself Metta-Mae-Jade-Za-Phoenix-ia.
The visual artist at dinner has a friend who changes her name every year or so. Legally. Documents it and makes art. Another dinner companion told me to look up “Name Change”. “You’re cheating!” they teased. Ed McGowin had changed his name twelve times in eighteen months as a metaphor for art’s evolution. Under each of these legally-changed names, he created completely different works, using a variety of visual mediums, from film to sculpture to site specific installations. He’s no chicken; the government is a beast. But I never changed a name as an art project (as an art practice, yes. One hopes the work alters with the altered name/self). (God, why doesn’t this 8-legged spider kill this fly already!!!?????!!!!)
Goodwill and Loving Kindness. How to be such a fractured self with one name, one legitimate identity, one word that conjures you in the minds of others? Someone once said my poems were schizophrenic. I thought it was a compliment, but of course it was not. There’s something about taking on a new name, a new haircut, a new style, that intrigues people. I admit, I was quite taken by Fernando Pessoa’s heteronyms, but mostly I was taken with the idea of creating personas who talk to one another, who learn from one another, this notion of the self as the most major contributor to one’s own individual learning. I’ve no interest in emulating Pessoa, but I do love returning to these lines from “A Shrug of the Shoulders”:
We manufacture realities.
We use the raw materials we always used but
the form lent it by art effectively
prevents it from remaining the same. A
table made out of pinewood is a pinetree
but it is also a table. We sit down at the
table not at the pinetree. …
Often, I wake in strange places, and I’ve forgotten traveling there. I wake not knowing where I am. I never panic in these moments. I feel utterly free, as if some minor amnesia has taken me and placed me in a place where, unlike “Cheers,” no one knows my history. And sometimes I dream I have a face, but no one calls the face by name. We all address one another in media res, nameless. Who would I be without a name?
My lover says I live for mockery. Sometimes I forget my name is Metta. And forget about Sáma. My heart is peace-loving, my body is pestered by a hungry fly. I’m impertinent and impetuous, and my name, which is due for an upgrade, is something to live up to, something to look forward to. A horse has flies eating out the mucous in his eyes; a fat white bird looks for a cow to sit on. I watch the cardinals come to the window, take a long look at me and fly off when I grab my camera. Perhaps stilling them in image is akin to naming them something permanent.
You can find Metta Sáma either sitting on her couch watching House Hunters or wandering in a park wondering why folks want to own homes.
“A Natural History of My goodwill and loving kindness” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>
Metta Sáma (accent aigu on the first a) paints, pomes, blogs, fictives, reviews. Work in various journals, left behind in very colonies. She has published a collection of poetry, South of Here (New Issue Press, 2006), under the name Lydia Melvin.