Wednesday, April 24, 2013

What's In a Name?

Last week I attended a Writing Workshop hosted Rachael Peckham, a creative writing professor from Marshall University.  She prompted us to work on a braided creative nonfiction essay involving our names.   Her workshop inspired me and this is the result. 

What's in a Name?

I am not a Jordan

            My parents thought I was boy as I lay curled unclassified inside my mother’s womb.  They were going to name me Jordan.  Jordan is a fine name, for both boys and girls.  But it’s not me.  When I think of girls I know who are named Jordan I think of tomboys blowing bubble gum, wearing wearing their baseball caps backwards and grass stains on their knees.  Considering that I insisted on being a ballerina for three Halloweens in a row, and was never been able to master the art of blowing bubble gum, I think it’s safe to say that I am no Jordan.  I am a Heather. 

Rustic Beauties

The name Heather stems from a wild looking evergreen shrub native to western European countries such as Ireland, Scotland, and Scandenavia.  In the late summer they burst with tiny flowers in reddish hues and sometimes white. With my limited expertise in shrubbery and flowers I would describe them as something of a mixture between goldenrods and sagebrush.  I’ve seen several photographs of gorgeous, untamed landscapes covered in heather, but I’ve never actually seen these flowers in person.  Perhaps I should.  It seems only fitting for me to meet my namesake.

Red Hair

“Are you from Ireland?”  Is a question I’ve grown accustomed to answering over the years.  I don’t know what it is about red hair that makes people assume you’re from Ireland.  It is actually Scotland that holds the highest percentage of redheads at 13% of their population.  Ireland and Wales come in second with a 10% redheaded population.  I do have Welsh ancestry so perhaps that’s where the red gene comes from. 

My thick auburn hair has been a source of pride for me my whole life.  It’s what sets me apart from everybody else.  It’s unusual that a day goes by without my hearing compliments like, “I love your hair!” and “Is that your natural color?  It’s gorgeous!”  My hair has become so much a part of my identity that sometimes I think that’s all people see when they look at me.  I’m the girl with the long red hair.  Today my hair is as long as it’s ever been as it hangs past my waist.  I feel like a hippie.  Someday I will cut it off as Jo March did in Little Women and learn how to identify myself without it. 

Heather In Lore

In Scotland white heather is considered good luck, just as the four-leaf clover is considered lucky in Celtic mythology.  In 1544 the large Scottish clan Ranald attributed a victory to the white heather woven into their bonnets, and Cluny of Clan MacPherson claimed he escaped from his enemies by hiding in a patch of white heather.  It is also said that white heather grows on the burial grounds of fairy folk.  Alexander Wallace, said in his book, Heather in Lore, Lyric and Lay “The Heather enters into the literature, the poetry, the lyrics, and into the home life of the Scottish people, to a degree unsurpassed by any other plant in the history of nations.”

Heather On the Hill

My dad loves the song "Maria" from Westside Story.  He loves it so much in fact that I remember him speculating that name for my younger sister before she was born.  Unfortunately we have no Latino or Hispanic heritage so that name was rather inappropriate.  She was named Michelle instead and now he sings "Michelle, my belle" from the Beatles. 

As far as I know there aren't any popular songs about someone named Heather.  However, there is a lovely song from the 1950's musical Brigadoon about two lovers frolicking through the fields of heather.  It goes:

Can't we two go walkin' together, out beyond the valley of trees?
Out where there's a hillside of heather, curtsyin' gently in the breeze.
That's what I'd like to do: see the heather--but with you.
The mist of May is in the gloamin', and all the clouds are holdin' still.
So take my hand and let's go roamin' through the heather on the hill.

When I looked up the lyrics to this song the line, "Out where there's a hillside of heather, curtsyin' gently in the breeze." particularly stood out to me.  So much so in fact that I was inspired to paint this self portrait of myself.

This scene in Brigadoon is really quite stunning as Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance through the fields of heather.  Cyd's dress is utterly gorgeous as it flares in colors of red and gold, and good old Gene is as smooth and charismatic as ever.  I watched this movie years and years ago as a young girl, and although the rest of the movie has faded from memory that scene has left a deep imprint on my mind.  Perhaps it was the repetitious use of my name throughout the song that engrained this scene so strongly in my memory.

Not so Dainty

Heather flowers are extremely adaptable.  The can survive an impressive range of moisture levels, from swampy bogs, to acid soils in open woodlands.  They typically grow in heaths, moors, and grasslands whose soil is not known for its plentiful nutrients.  It is an exceptionally hearty plant, able to withstand extreme weather conditions from temperatures ranging from -18 F to 100 F.  Their bark is among the toughest in the world for both trees and shrubs.


To be completely honest I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to upper body strength.  I am ashamed whenever I come up red faced and huffing completing after a measly one or two pushups, and I have never been able to accomplish a full pull up. I may be slightly pathetic when it comes to muscle mightiness, but fortunately for me there are other forms of strength.  Like the heather flower I can be quite adaptable.  I have lived in several places among different cultures across the United States, ranging from the hills of Appalachia to the deserts neighboring Navajo reservations in Arizona. I have always been able to do reasonably well in every place I’ve ever lived.  I make friends easily.  I adapt well to my surroundings.  I am able to do what is necessary to secure my own happiness no matter where I live.  

Calluna Vulgaris

Heather plants have many practical uses.  In fact, it’s scientific name, Calluna vulgaris, means to “clean” or to “brush.”  Which indeed seems appropriate considering people once used to make brooms out of heather.  But that’s not all!  Scottish Highlanders cemented heather and heath stems with peat mud in order to build their huts.  They also used it for bedding, basket weaving, and herbal remedies for coughs, arthritis, and rheumatism.   

Oh the Irony!

As a child my parents tried to teach me the importance of keeping the household tidy.  They gave me daily chores such as making my bed, cleaning the bathrooms, and doing the dishes.  Unfortunately I have not carried these habits into adulthood.  I am married, with a two-year old son and still I live like a college student.  I make my bed approximately once a year, clean out the fridge every six months, and sweep the floors about once a week.  It’s bad.  I think I need to rethink my priorities. It’s ironic that my namesake’s scientific name means “to clean” because that is my least favorite activity in the whole world!

What’s in a Name?

As you can see my name is very suitable to my personality in some ways, and rather contrary in others.  I’m sure if you do as much research on the meaning of your name as I have done on mine you will come to a similar conclusion.  Our names don’t determine who we are.  That is as it should be.  As a parent I would hate to be placed with that much responsibility!  Still, names are fun. I encourage everyone to reflect on their own names and do a bit of research.  You may be surprised by what you find.  


  1. What a nice bit of writing! And the self portrait is very cute. :)

    1. Thanks Maggie! It's been awhile since I've written an essay. I've forgotten how much work they can be!

  2. Replies
    1. Thanks mom. It was really fun to write.

  3. I love this, Heather! It's beautifully written, especially the first two parts, and I love your painting! I haven't seen the movie of Brigadoon, but now I want to :)

    1. Thank you Susanna! It's a bit more longwinded than what I usually write, but it's good practice for me. If you like old musicals than you should definitely try Brigadoon. I'm thinking I would like to watch it again myself.

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  5. Heather,

    I really like your banner on your blog. You need to start doing more pieces to show off. Your illustration is up today on my blog. Looks great!


    1. I agree with you completely. I'm trying to build up a nice portfolio, but I've only recently started to consider illustrating seriously. I have a lot of work to do! Thanks for including my work on your blog!