From Norris to winterSmith: A Long Quest for Identity


One of the first things my parents did when I was born was saddle me with the wrong name: Norris Gilmer Smith, Jr.

I hated that name. The Smith part was good, but the rest… I never liked Norris because it sounded … I don’t even know how to articulate this. It made me different without making me special.

Then there was the Jr. part. Daddy wanted a little him. Because that’s the sort of self-involved person he was. Of course, I never came anywhere near being a little version of him. Never wanted to be, and once I reached a certain age I started going out of my way to make sure he (and everybody else) understood it.

And Gilmer – I’m going to assume this one is self-explanatory.

When I moved to Iowa for grad school in 1987 I ditched the Norris and started going by Random. No, the derivation isn’t “random,” as in “proceeding, made, or occurring without definite aim, reason, or pattern.” On the contrary. It was an amalgamation of Brand, from Hawthorne’s “Ethan Brand,” and CS Lewis’s Elwin Ransom. Ethan Brand was the man who abandoned his life and went to search the world for the unpardonable sin. He found it: “The sin of an intellect that triumphed over the sense of brotherhood with man and reverence for God, and sacrificed everything to its own mighty claims!” Ransom, of course, was the salvation figure in Perelandra.

Denial of kinship of fellow human, salvation figure. Brand + Ransom = Random. Yeah, it was on the pretentious side, and sadly it was confusing as hell for folks. It sounded dumb. I’ve always lived in a world of symbols and back then was a bit full of myself. Thanks to those of you who put up with me during this phase.

Awkward first steps notwithstanding, the point is I was shedding an identity that wasn’t me and embarking on a quest for my real self. It wasn’t all in my head, either. People who grow up with you, people in your hometown, they have an idea about who you are. They aren’t interested in your discomfort with who you’re supposed to be. Their image of who you are is reality and the rest is silliness. Get back in your box and stay there. And that box has the name your parents gave you on it.

While in Iowa I changed my name legally to Samuel Random Norris Smith. Samuel was my grandfather, and he and my grandmother took me in when I was three. My parents split and it was wisely decided that I should be raised by adults. So Sam was the closest thing to a father I really had.

I kept the Norris so I could cash any checks made out to the old name. Literally.

And in 1994 I asked people to call me Sam.

Along the way I’ve made use of any number of personas, handles, and noms des plume. I was Road Angel online and fancied myself sort of a moral icon along the Information Superhighway. Or something. I was Dr. A Thaddeus “Tad” ver Bose, a writer and professor who was, well, a tad verbose. I was Roger Daylights (if I ever do an action/adventure film, that’s who I’ll be). My noir anti-hero character is Hawthorn Curve, Private Dick.

I blogged as Dr. Slammy for a long time, and while Slammy was me, he was the unforgiving, caustic, suffer-no-fools side of me. Slammy was a smart and relentless political thinker, but he he wasn’t especially fun to be around. Over time his toxicity began to take a toll on me.

Dr. Sidicious “Sid” Bonesparkle is an emissary of Hell turned American culture wag. He’s the voice in my head who takes over when things that are a little extra heretical need saying.

These days I use Doc in most of my social media profiles. I spent six years getting the damned PhD – I might as well get some use out of it.

And on and on.

Now we arrive at the present day. I said above I was okay with “Smith.” It’s as common as mashed potatoes, and try checking into a hotel with the name Sam Smith sometime. But a smith is also a creator, and for my entire adult life I’ve been a writer. A wordsmith. Now I’m a photographer and digital artist, which I suppose makes me an imagesmith. So Smith is right.

The “winter”part is a slightly longer story, but perhaps the one that brings it all home. I was born at 4:27am on Feb 2 – Imbolc, the midpoint between Solstice and Equinox. Midwinter. While many people, if not most, seem to hate winter, I never have. I don’t mind the cold. I love snow. Its bite reminds me I’m alive.

Nor am I bothered by the darkness. Bleakness, overcast, nighttime – in some ways this is my natural element. My art has always sought out the beauty in the darkness, whether in words or pictures.

Then, a few years ago, I discovered Terry Pratchett’s novel Wintersmith. In it the young witch, Tiffany Aching, gets caught up in the seasonal rites and accidentally awakens an elemental spirit. He becomes enraptured by her, obsessed. He sets out to become human and make her his own.

But the Wintersmith has no understanding of what it means to be human. He observes and imitates people, but his efforts to woo Tiffany are instead alienating, terrifying. And his attempts to connect with her ultimately threaten the natural order of the seasons and of life itself.

He wants to be human. To love. To be loved. But he doesn’t know how.

A good friend and mentor once said artists don’t get to live life life, they only observe it. I wish he’d been wrong, but in Pratchett’s misguided spirit I feel more kinship and empathy than I enjoy thinking about.

I was always a smith and was born a child of winter, but finally I’ve come to terms with winterSmith. Perhaps it isn’t the self I hoped to find, but at least there’s peace in the knowing.

I’ve long thought that the name we’re given at birth should simply be our childhood name, and that when we reached a certain age we should choose our own name. I’ve imagined this would happen when we reached legal adulthood at 18, but reflecting on my own journey maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe it should happen when we turn 50…

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