Most of you can probably guess that Saul of Hearts isn’t the name I was born with. I’m not going to tell you what that name is, but I’m sure you can figure it out, either by asking someone who knows or Googling it.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my birth name — it just wasn’t for me.
It’s the name that I wrote on the top of my reports when I was a straight-A student. It’s the name that my teachers called out during roll call, at school plays, at science fairs.
It’s a name that other people gave me. And I’ve never been OK with letting people define me from the outside.
I knew from early on that someday I would change it. But still, it was an uphill battle against conventional thinking, societal expectations, and 20 years of momentum.
The biggest obstacles came from those whom I thought would support me the most — my close friends and confidantes, who thought they knew the real me.
The more I fought to assert my identity — my right to define myself as I saw fit — the more important it became to me, even more than the name itself.
It was scary, frustrating, and deeply rewarding, all at once.
I learned how a name — that most personal of things — can hold so much meaning for so many different people.
What I thought would be a simple process took years.
And yet, even if the name I had chosen meant nothing to me, the process of changing it taught me everything.
It challenged people to look at me differently and rethink their assumptions about who I was.
I could finally start the process of defining myself, word by word.
The first time I went by the name Saul was around my junior year of college. Everyone already knew me by my birth name, so I wasn’t trying to “change” it yet.
It was a pen name, an alter-ego — the first four letters of my last name, in fact, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch.
I had a few friends who went by other names — who’d had one nickname in college, and another in high school, or who took on a stage name when they performed with their band. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal to me.
After college, I started hanging out with even more unconventional people.
You would never ask someone their real name. What was a real name, after all? Why was your playa name less real than your name in the default world?
It was exciting to meet someone who went by “Lucifer,” or “Lt. Disaster.” It would be a letdown to find out their name was really Dr. Jacob Smith.
After a few years of going to Burning Man, and traveling the country, and hanging out with hippies and couchsurfers and anarchists, I ended up with two groups of friends: those who knew me as Saul, and those friends from college who still called me by my birth name.
Eventually, those two worlds were going to clash.
A few years after college, I decided to go all in.
I looked down the list of possible surnames I’d come up with over the years. None of them worked.
Finally, in a burst of inspiration, I settled on “Of-Hearts”. It was so absurd, so obviously not my birth name, that it just might work.
I changed my Facebook name, my online dating profiles, my resume. This was it.
And then I hit the wall of resistance. My friends just didn’t get it.
I’d ask my friends to call me by my new name at parties and game nights, and they’d just shrug and forget. I’d send out e-mails signed “Saul,” and they’d come back, “Hey _______.”
Scott and Jenny, who had been to Burning Man with me, and knew other people who called me Saul, were more understanding than others.
They’d often slip and use my birth name, but would quickly correct themselves. It meant a lot to me to know that they were trying.
But my friend Drake took it personally. He seemed to think that because he’d known me so long, he knew the “real” me.
That changing my name was a personal affront to him — that it infringed upon his right to call me as he saw fit.
Or, worst of all, that I was trying to be something that I’m not.
Occasionally, we’d host guests from Airbnb at our house, with whom I was the contact person. They knew me from our conversations as “Saul,” and they would show up asking for me.
But when I introduced myself, Drake would step in, rolling his eyes: “That’s not Saul,” he said, “that’s ________.”
And I had to explain the whole story. A story that, frankly, I didn’t want to explain. I didn’t think it was my responsibility to explain away a name I’d never chosen in the first place.
I became afraid of bringing new friends over to the house. If I went on a date with a girl from OKCupid, I would hesitate to bring her home.
I didn’t want her to think that I was lying to her. I didn’t want her to think I had something to hide. She could Google “Saul of Hearts” and find my life poured out on blogs and social networking profiles. I was as transparent as could be.
I just didn’t want to make love to her as ________. It wasn’t me any more.
So Drake and I began to fight. We had long conversations about it. He didn’t think it was his responsibility to “remember” what to call me. He thought I was trying to run from my old identity.
I just wanted him to accept my new identity, to give me the space and freedom to be myself.
Eventually, I fell in with a new group of friends, a bunch of artists and Burners who lived in an intentional community called Synchronicity.
I went over for dinner one evening and introduced myself as Saul of Hearts, waiting for the inevitable skepticism. What’s your real name? someone was bound to say.
It never came. Weeks passed, and no one asked.
I had never been so grateful.
Over the next few months, the pressure eased. Suddenly, I didn’t have to be on edge anymore, waiting for one word from Drake to start the inevitable landslide back to my birth name.
Now, if he called me ________, he would be the one in the minority. He would be the one that people would look at funny: “Who are you calling _______? Do you mean Saul?”
Occasionally, as my groups of friends mingled, my name did too. Some friends learned my birth name as others adapted to my new identity.
It didn’t feel quite as wrong to hear my old name any more. It became more and more rare for anyone to call me by it.
I still use it on my legal documents, and on my driver’s license. I might change it someday.
But it was no longer quite so threatening. It no longer had any power over me. It made for a funny anecdote when my new roommates sorted through the mail.
Maybe a time will come when this name too wears out, and I’ll have to change it all over again.
But it doesn’t matter. The transition has already happened. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and if I had to, I’d do it again.
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