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Reykjavik, day one.

Overnight flight got in at 6:30 this morning, and I got to the flat at 9, still in pitch darkness. Unpacked, set up wifi, had breakfast, walked to the grocery store to buy lemons and ginger (as E texted to tell me she had a sore throat, and nothing works better for sore throats than hot honey ginger lemonade) — and it was still dark. The sky started to lighten slightly around ten, and the sun rose, at last, at 11:15, with a dim rose glow that detailed every rock and fleck on the slopes many miles north across Breiðafjörður. By noon it was this, with a wind so strong I couldn’t stand up straight. And by 3:30 it was dusk again, and now, at 5:14, it has been full night for an hour.

Meanwhile Elizabeth got here, and we ate spicy tuna something with avocados at the Laundry Room, and drank lots of beer and caught up on all the things that you can’t say in emails and texts. And now she is upstairs taking a hot bath while I write and say, how I love Reykjavik. The water smells sweet with sulfur, and the skies aren’t like skies elsewhere.

This must be home.

I came out this morning and found this in my mail box: a comfy little squirrel’s nest, brand-new since yesterday afternoon. No babies or anything, but a well-made little pad of dead leaves and needles at the bottom, then a semi-compacted fluff of more leaves and grass , with a little squirrel-shaped hollow in it. I wonder if this is the young lady I saw yesterday nosing at a small bole in a tree out back: the hole was much too small and she moved on — to here, perhaps.

I imagine her here last night, her bits and bobs pulled close around, knowing she was, as they say, “safe as houses.” She slept, cozy and safe and satisfied with her new home. I feel terrible that I took it all out, that she will have this work to do again somewhere else. Nothing will be quite as good as this (though it would be really really cold if we have another hard winter), but really, she (and presumably, babies) cannot live in a mailbox hanging on the inside wall of my carport, three feet from where I pass a dozen times a day.

Still, I really apologize, miss. I know exactly how you feel. (And if you find a way back in and try again? I will put up a new mailbox and this will be yours for as long as you want it.)

Andi.

I am mostly thinking about my friend, Andi, who died yesterday after a hard, long, grueling last few years. I visited her every time I was in Seattle, and over the years, I saw her grow more tired, especially after her husband died. She loved her toy monkeys and gorillas, she loved Breaking Cat News, she loved mysteries, she loved Stu, she loved Sue Storm. She loved lots of things. She was courageous and politically active. She talked endlessly, a lively, extroverted mind broadcasting on all wavelengths whenever there was someone to talk to.

I hope there is someone to take all her monkeys and gorillas, someone to pat them all on the head and explain things. But then, that’s the gift of stuffed animals. They all always already understand.

I believe this photo was taken by Janna Silverstein.

Where Kij comes from, and why I want you to stop asking not just me, but anyone, about their names.

I just spent two days with a new group of people, an advisory board for a large nonprofit, which reminded me of this. Almost every single time I meet new people, in groups or individually, they ask me about my name. (Though not these people. That’s why I noticed.) The conversation often goes like this:

“…and I’m Kij.”

“Excuse me? I didn’t get that.”

“Kij.”

“How’s that spelled?”

“Kay Eye Jay. Kij.”

“That’s unusual! Where is that from anyway?” [Some start to speculate here; otherwise it happens later, if I don’t give them a direct enough answer fast enough. “Is that a nickname? Is that Icelandic/Asian/African/from a novel or something? Did you make it up? Is that your initials?”

[At this point, I’m already a little annoyed and feel invaded. It’s this person’s first time asking, but for me it is literally the fifth time today.] “It’s from my initials when I was born, but I have been called Kij since I was a baby, and eventually I legally changed it.”

“What was your real name, then?”

Sometimes I try to block the whole sequence: “Kay. Eye. Jay. Kij. Yes, it’s my real name.” But in any group of three or more, someone will persist. No, really?

So I am going to explain my real name and then I am going to tell you why asking this question is the wrong thing to do, of me or of anyone who has a different name than the one they were given at birth.

When I was born, my parents named me Katherine Irenae Johnson. No one can explain why Katherine (and why spelled that way), but family legend has it that I was Irenae instead of Irene to better simulate the Greek pronunciation of the word. (Why? Why.) I can’t figure out whether my parents thought much about this name before giving it to me, because Mom always said that she hated all the nicknames of Katherine, “…except Kate, but no one calls a baby Kate, and I dislike Katie.”

So why give it to me, not caring much about the name and not liking the nicknames, except for the very adult nickname best known as an abused Shakespearean character? Knowing you would be saying and shouting and whispering that name for the rest of your life? Welcome to my parenting.

I don’t know what they would have called me, but we were all saved from whatever it would have been because, back in those remote days, people wrote paper letters. Mom and a distant cousin had given birth fairly close in time, so they wrote back and forth about their newborns and mothering. The cousin’s baby had a hard-to-nick name as well, Harriet, I think; so in the letters they just used our initials instead of our names: KIJ and HAR or something. Suddenly Mom realized that Kij was pronouncable.

By the time the picture above was taken, I was Kij. I hated — actually hated — Katherine Irenae Johnson as a name, before I even made it to school.

I didn’t go to daycare or preschool, so the only real interactions I had with other little kids were in Sunday School and with my brother. I was Kij at church, Kij at home. When the time came to enroll for kindergarten, my mom asked what name I wanted for school. I could pick anything at all: I could be Kitty or Katy or Kathy or even Katherine. (My brother, a year later, went with his whole name, Richard.) No: I was Kij, and I wanted to stay Kij. That was me. I was excited at how the letters were all so close to each other on a typewriter, and in the alphabet.

I grew up and kept using Kij. People asked and asked. I got used to explaining to every teacher and doctor and dental assistant and eye doctor and nice lady at the shoe store and summer-camp counselor that it wasn’t Kathy, it was Kij. Kij, Kij, Kij. “But what’s your real name, dear?” “It is my real name. It’s from my initials,” I would explain, and after asking enough questions they would nod, satisfied, that I was not who I thought I was, that they knew better, because my real name was Katherine, so I was really a Kathy.

I had my first boyfriend at sixteen and that started the next phase, as nearly every guy I dated would in the early stages of attraction decide to call me Katherine. Perhaps they thought it sounded more romantic, or that they were in some way claiming the possibility of a softer, more feminine person than a cough like Kij implied. Whether they meant it that way, it was a denial of who I was in favor of who they wanted to see me as. I felt a little jet of annoyance and despair when they did this, but didn’t yet recognize why.

Adulthood, and so many more opportunities for people to ask me what my name was, really. I developed strategies for answering the five questions I was always asked, including immediately baring my teeth in a possible smile and saying, “Yes, it is my real name,” though even then, someone would push. I changed it legally when I got married, and then to its current form. By then I was so used to Kij Johnson, just like that, that I couldn’t imagine a new middle name — but then I realized I would have to spend the rest of my life explaining to people why I had no middle name. (I didn’t realize yet that legally changing my name wouldn’t stop people asking what me real name was.)

But here’s the thing.

I am Kij, I have always been Kij, I will always be Kij. I understand the many reasons why people can’t leave it alone, but my name means me and I mean my name. Asking question after question…maybe it’s curiosity. But it also in essence says, I don’t believe you are who you tell me you are. Or, even worse: you’re not who you are, and I deserve the right to invade your privacy to get the information I need to keep comfortable. Kij isn’t your real name because Kij isn’t a real name; therefore you have a real name, a name you are withholding. And I deserve to know it and to have an opinion about all this.

I never even realized it until two weeks ago when someone I liked asked me and I got salty about it; but every single time someone asks me that question, I am on the defensive, defending Kij, the Kij that was and the Kij that is. Every. Single. Time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t mean it that way, because it has been meant in exactly that way before this, and it will be again, and how am I supposed to know your intentions?

So extrapolate from this. Asking someone questions like this about their name may feel friendly but it’s an invasive act. And it’s based on perceived differences. In my case, my name is unique, therefore people feel entitled to interrogate it. In other cases, people are asking from a place of conscious or unconscious assumption and bias. In the last month, I have heard someone ask a trans man what his name “before” was, and an immigrant what his “real” name is. However meant, this is an assault on identity. It’s also no one’s business. It’s also rude. It’s also hurtful.

Here’s what an effective and productive introduction looks like for me:

“…and I’m Kij.”

“Kij. Did I pronounce that properly?”

“That’s great!”

…and done.



Other people’s fathers.

I am doing some thinking about fathers for a revision I’m working on, and this is bringing to mind my own father, dead these five years. (There’s also some sort of holiday happening, as I understand?)

This is my dad, when I was five and my brother was almost four. I don’t recognize the landscape, though in a lifetime of driving across the country, I quite possibly have stopped here as an adult at some point or other. We took driving trips a lot, often between our house in Iowa and my grandparent’s houses in suburban Chicago or St. Petersburg — and my parents loved the northwest, so there were a lot of drives out there, as well.

He looks serious in this picture, my dad. He often did, though I remember him making silly jokes, as well. He worked hard. At about this age, he also said Grace at weekly Lions International meetings and announced the annual tractor pull at the local summer festival, Denver Days. He read a lot of car magazines, and daydreamt about getting a Jaguar or a Jensen Interceptor, but bought sensible cars, Volkswagens and a Dodge Dart and little Saabs. He wrote a new sermon almost every week, and had a careful filing system for the notes in case he wanted to use one again, years later. He fiddled endlessly with our hi-fi, building the components from scratch, as being the cheapest way to get quality.

So that’s some small corner of my dad. As I try to shape the father of this character, I am creating a small corner of that man. Also, corners of his mother and his first love — and corners of the other main character’s brother. I can’t build each of these people entirely, of course — that would take a lifetime of actual living — but I can throw some points down on a plane and leave the reader to extrapolate the rest of it. But ultimately, isn’t that all we do for even real people? There was so much about my father I didn’t know. When he died and my brother and I went through the shelves and shelves of paper he had acquired in his lifetime, we found secrets. Even with all the datapoints I had for who he was, I was still surprised by what I hadn’t predicted.

Part of why writing fiction is hard is because people are hard. A motion capture for a CGI character draws a number of dots on a person: the dot on the nose directs the tip of the beak; the dots on the temples direct the antlers. But there’s a lot more of the actor-to-character conversion that is finessed: the long curve of a thigh tranfers quickly, once you identify the end points, the directional shifts of quads and kneecaps. If the filmmakers picked the wrong places for the dots, or if they forgot to include the dot that will direct the elbow, the CGI will have a harder time.

Certainly, as writers we struggle with this with characters; but we also struggle with this regarding real people. Did I ever know my dad, or did I just know the dots I had seen, and finessed the rest? What important moments were lost or never known or forgotten?

Still, I miss him and love the father I did understand at the end. The dots I did have were his gentleness, his autistic characteristics, his hobbies and behaviors, his low rumbling voice, the smell of his pipe tobacco, the smell of him.

Repeat Offenders, rootlessness.

The Gunn Center’s summer program is underway, which means I am busy in unpredictable ways. Yes, I will be hanging out with people, and writing (or trying), and making dinner plans and sleeping (never nearly enough). We will probably (but not certainly) watch movies some evenings. I will play with the cat. I will do laundry. But in what order, on what schedule? Who will I spend the most time with? Why?

Because the new place isn’t yet ready for me, I am staying in the scholarship hall with the attendees. I’ve stayed here before, many times: when I lived in Seattle, when I lived in North Carolina. In 2012, I lived in the dorm for a month, with all my stuff in a baking-hot storage facility, part of a summer of living out of suitcases: leaving Raleigh at the beginning of May, then Columbia with Barbara, Rice Lake with my parents, an Alaska cruise (ditto), the dorms with everyone, Seattle with Elizabeth, a hotel in Lawrence, the new home at last, eleven days after promised, in mid August. So this isn’t even the worst of them.

But this time. It’s hard to stay good-humored and centered — if in fact I would have been those things at the moment. I am ready to start unpacking boxes. I want furniture in places I have planned. I want to get used to the sounds of the new place, and to eat at my own table. I want some calm.

More anon, I am sure.