I hitch-hiked to Vancouver directly after my graduation in 2009. This experience became a rite of passage for me. I journaled, I met strangers who showed me hospitality, I slept outside, I wasn’t distracted by busyness and was able to actually do some good ol’ fashioned soul-searching. This was a life changing experience for me, so much so that it changed my name.
Legally, my name is John Wideman. I am named after my Gramps, John Gibbins, a man I never met but felt a deep connection to. Apparently I used to cry at night because I missed him, I longed to know the person I was named after, who I idealized, and was honoured to be connected to.
But now I go by Johnny. And depending on when people have met me, they use different names when greeting me, or introducing me. A name is important, it’s often the first thing you tell someone else when meeting them for the first time. It represents you in some weird way. For me, this very drastic change happened somewhere off the Trans-Canada highway, just outside of Brandon, MB.
It was there I was picked up by a young man named Matthew. We ended up travelling together for almost three days. It was great. Neither one of us had been West of Ontario before and both wanted to take in the sights. We drove together, read to each other, cooked by the side of the road together, and even shared a tent. It’s kinda crazy how well you can get to know and trust someone given the right circumstances.
The first day I met him, Matthew asked me my name. I answered John. He then clarified, “Not your real name, your travelling name!” To Matthew, everyone on a journey had to have a travelling name, something to recognize the liberation of not knowing anyone, of starting fresh, taking on a persona that fully acknowledged the changes you might be going through. I was quiet, giving the idea some thought. Then, after a long silence I reintroduced myself as Johnny, and I have been doing so ever since.
It’s nothing special, just an extra “n” and “y,” but it’s an intentional choice for me. I see it as marking a certain metamorphosis in my life. Moving into my new identity as a pacifist, an activist, an artist, a lackadaisical anarchist, a vegetarian, a searching agnostic, a feminist, and an ally.
It’s a lot of pressure using words to describe yourself. Sometimes it feels like, by simply telling someone I’m vegetarian, it makes me the official spokesperson of the diet. I don’t want that kind of responsibility! What if I ruin someone’s idea of vegetarians? What if they catch me on a bad day?
But our brains are built to use labels. It makes compartmentalizing things easier. We take on these identifying words in hopes that people will better understand us. These words convey fundamental aspects of our identity. Mother, Cancer survivor, Freegan; if you were to use these words you would fill in some blanks for me to better understand you.
But often these words are ruined by people. People turn good names bad by using them to describe themselves; they become the front lines for any ideology, claiming to live out the philosophies they ascribe.
I used to identify as Christian. That word would have come shortly after my name in the list of important things about myself. I was raised in the Evangelical Missionary Church and was, what I thought to be, a devout and committed person of faith.
But, in reflection, I was a very closed minded, and often bigoted individual, essentially the antithesis of the descriptive words I used to self-identify with a few paragraphs earlier. Eventually I left the church as a away of distancing myself from the ideologies and baggage attached to it.
I felt that I, and many other Christians, had been living more like “Constantinians,” consistently demonstrating hypocrisy, fear, comfort and ignorance as their defining attributes, mutating a once love-focused faith into a powerhouse of oppression and injustice.
So I chose to define myself as an atheist. But that stopped feeling right, so I started calling myself an agnostic, then a church-going agnostic. Now I tell people I pursue a Gospel of Grey, trying to live in-between ideologies and wrestle with them there on a philosophical “no-man’s land.”
As a writer and generally an intentional person, words mean the world to me. I’m essentially obsessed with them. As such, I find myself having a difficult time aligning myself with any ideology known by a word. Even though I can often see the good in a philosophy or faith, the histories and people connected to these ideologies are often drenched in oppression, pain, and oodles of baggage. So, for me, my own identity as “John” held baggage too.
Nothing against my Gramps – I know very little about him, and assume he was a fine upstanding man. But for me, adopting my “travelling” name Johnny marked my transition into this Gospel of Grey, the messy in-between area. It means I can’t ruin a word for anyone due to living it out poorly, and it also marks that I am, and hope to always be, on a journey.
Johnny Wideman is a playwright, short-storyist, closeted poet, and actor. He is the founder of Theatre of the Beat, a socially conscious, travelling theatre company. He lives in Stouffville, ON in community with his partner Leah, three other friends, and their two cats.