Art & Culture

What’s in a Name? Finding a constellation of Orions … and the truth

What’s in a Name? Finding a constellation of Orions … and the truth

I have a weird name. It was weird by the standards of Sonoma County, where I grew up, and it’s weird by the considerably less conservative standards of Berkeley, where I live now. My name doesn’t match the assumptions people make about me based on my appearance, and nearly every time I need to tell someone my name, some version of this little skit plays out:

Them: “What’s your  name?”

Me: “Orion.”

Them: “Are you Irish?”

Me: “No. It’s a Greek name.”

Them: “You’re Greek?”

Me: “No, I’m Italian. And Swedish.”

Them (confused): “Uh, OK … what’s your first name?”

Me: “That is my first  name.”

Them (getting visibly annoyed): “Uh … how do you spell it?”

Me: “O-r-i-”

Them (even more annoyed): “Wait, what?! ‘O-r-y’?”

(this goes on for a bit…)

Them (exasperated): “OK, what’s your last name?”

Me: Letizi

Them (head exploding in rage): !!!

The shorter version––when, for example, I’m at a cafe and don’t care if they get my name right––goes like this:

Them: “What’s your name?”

Me: “Orion.”

Them: “Ryan?”

Me: “Yep.”

I’m not the only one I know with a weird name, but I am the only one I know with my particular weird name. Some years ago, my friend Hiya Swanhauser wrote a story published in the SF Weekly about people with odd names. She interviewed me and asked about my name’s origin story. I told her, “my parents were hippies.”

I lived with that narrative for decades. And it was partly true; my parents were indeed hippies. I was born at home in Pacifica in the 1970s and spent my first year off the grid in a far-flung Northern California town called (no kidding) Happy Camp. And I didn’t meet my grandparents until I was one year old. By then, I was named Orion.

That was the story, anyway. The story, though, brought out the truth.

One day, not long after Hiya’s article was published, I went to my grandmother’s house to have dinner with her and my father. When I walked in the door, they were both seated in the living room, my dad looking sheepish. I knew something big was happening because my dad never looks sheepish. It turns out my grandmother had read Hiya’s article and told my dad that he needed to tell me the true story of how I got my name. I sat down.

“You remember Chris, don’t you? My best friend, your mom’s first husband who had a brain tumor before you were born? Well, when we brought you as a baby to meet him for the first time… ”  My father hesitated. This was difficult for him to tell. It is his truth, and now it had become my new story. My mother’s first husband, Chris, had a brain tumor and the surgery the doctors performed to remove it left him severely incapacitated. In their grief, they turned to each other for support. 

“You see,” said my dad. “When Chris met you the first time, he announced, ‘You shall call him Orion.’ So, we did. It was Chris who named you.”

That was a big, new piece of the puzzle of my origin story––which my parents still haven’t fully filled in for me. Their current hedge, whenever I ask for more details, is that they don’t remember. That may be true, but it’s a deliberate forgetting––an erasure, not the natural blurriness of memory fading over time. It was a painful time for them and it’s painful for them to remember, so they choose to forget.

I don’t know what my father expected of me in telling this story. I do know his mother, my grandmother, forced his hand and told him I needed to hear the truth. I do know that this isn’t the whole truth––I still don’t know when exactly I was named or any further details. I do know that it took my father great humility to tell it.

“Oh,” I said. 

My story had changed with the truth. 

I live out my life with a weird name. There aren’t many other Orions in the world, certainly none in mine. The misspellings and misinterpretations on Starbucks coffee cups are myriad: Ron. Ryan. O’Ryan. I’ve given up correcting people if I don’t have to. But I’ve never given out anything other than my name. I’ve never been tempted to just simply say my name is David (my middle name) at Starbucks. 

And this is because my name, despite its weirdness, is important to me. In Hiya’s SF Weekly article, she quotes me saying, “I’m not going to change my name. It’s sort of like an attribute of yourself, like your eye color or your ethnicity.” When I was married, my then-wife asked me if she should change her surname to mine. And I told her the same: “Keep your name. It’s your name.”

I’ve kept mine, even if it is misunderstood at almost every turn. Even if it means I don’t fit in.

Recently, on Twitter, someone gathered together a bunch of people named Orion and we started a thread about our name. Our experiences were similar, almost identical, in how we navigated life with the name Orion. The misspellings. The Starbucks cups. It was the first time in my life I’ve been able to talk to someone else with the same experience with this name. 

My partner asked me how that felt. I told her, “It felt good to fit. To feel less weird.” My name has been a symbol of “not fitting in”––and it started with my origin story; my parents met in atypical fashion, my first year was spent hidden from the world. 

But here we are––the Orions have it.  We understand each other’s weirdness. It is disruptive.

There is the story that Orion is a weird name. And there is the truth of all the Orions; that we are more than one. 

In the climate of a pandemic and protests and fires, we are more than one. There is the story that we are told, that no one else is out there to help, that we are on our own. But there is the truth, too, that we aren’t weird. The truth transforms the story. I was named by someone other than my parents. That is the new story. But the story never transforms the truth. The stories never transform facts––one is dependent on the other, but truth lives on.

Here is the thing: My truth is that my name is Orion. I won’t change my name. It is a unique name. It is the name of the Hunter. It is a constellation in the sky. It is a Japanese conglomerate that makes a wonderful concoction called Choco Pies. It is truth.

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