Most of us make choices without exploring possibilities Were we given a choice as to our birth names? Somehow it seems to have been my life’s quest to live up to mine. I was born fifth in a family of ten. I grew up as Leon, my name. I responded to this along with all the unkind nicknames used to belittle me. I don’t ever remember being told my full birth name. I don’t remember anyone ever saying, “Your real name is Leonardo.” Why would they? It wasn’t until much later in my life that I asked why I was named as such, neither of my parents could give me a reason why. During my preparation for college I made a conscious decision to adopt the birth name I was given. I remember writing a full two pages in my high school annual acknowledging that I was leaving Leon behind, to become… Leonardo! Little did I know the challenges I would be facing by making this choice
I remember, I was about ten when an older brother told me I showed particular creativity in the use of my hands. He may have called me an artist, but I don’t quite remember. I took him to mean this though. Up to that point I had only participated in grade school craft projects. When I was thirteen I came down from the hills, a small copper mining town, Morenci, Arizona, where we lived, to the far away city of Phoenix, Arizona. This was my first time to be away from the comfort zone of home. I was sent off to participate in a fine arts camp, I felt so untrained, lacking experience, I felt like I had to pretend I was making art. It was such a traumatic experience. I couldn’t help compare the stiff, forced images I was making with the “art” being made by the young people from the big city. Those with hip clothes and art lingo… I felt utterly lost.
For me it was two weeks of hell. I couldn’t wait for these classes to come to an end. I longed for the familiarity of home. Looking back, I can see now, I was afraid to leave the isolation that kept me like a prisoner. I felt totally self-conscious at this camp, feeling everyone knew I wasn’t an artist. I couldn’t even fake it. I would nervously splash on the paint, feeling I was adulterating good canvas boards. I remember hiding the canvases, not wanting to see them again after this camp was over. I’m glad I didn’t use my whole name, as things could have been worse. I confess to not even knowing about Leonardo da Vinci. I might have denied any reference to him defensively at that time, having to answer jibes about a name. I was, Leon. However, when I graduated from high school, I decided that Leonardo would be my name It seemed like a important choice for me to move forward, far better than the unkind name calling, ‘little leon” or ‘leon-peon’!
In my new life at college I was not counting on the constant association with–Leonardo da Vinci, it was such a psychological challenge. I struggled to enunciate my name with authenticity, as much as I could muster, to act as if I owned my name. I began taking general studies including some beginning art classes. It was an ongoing struggle, feeling that I was faking my creativity. I knew my path would have to be somehow different. Thankfully, a couple years later, graphic design courses were offered, I took it on as my major. I got to be creative. I got to make statements. I didn’t need to know how to draw good or be a “great” artist.
But this wasn’t an easy solution, either, I always felt less than average. I must have had a little going for me. I was selected to be part of the university Student Designer‘s Workshop. I did “okay” in my work with clients on and off campus, designing and creating promotions for print production. Many in the group had great design minds excelling in developing complex design concepts, I was more interested in letter forms and twisting words; I felt a little out of their league. Again, I felt transparent, not authentic. I was trying to balance, trying to fit in and the new freedom of becoming my own person, a young gay man, used to being teased and feeling judged. It made those times in my life so much harder, it was so different back in the day.
I new Graphic Design was going key to me somehow. I had big, important statements I wanted to say through art, I felt deeply about these things and was determined to share them. I had an aversion toward the world of advertising, it felt offensively crude. As students we were taught right up front that there were subliminal tricks in the craft of advertising: that these tricks could be used to influence people, to make them consume whatever it was we were promoting. It felt dishonorable to me. As a child, I was a poor reader, that too had its effect on my confidence. Words, their spelling and meanings were what made me curious, not so much language and literature. People familiar with my unique interest in words encouraged me to pursue advertising, I was told that there was power and big bucks to be made using my particular skills. I never really felt like I ever had found my niche. For too many years I fumbled around as a freelance designer, partaking in anything creative that came my way, living day to day, job to job, all the while hoping to encounter someone who like myself wanted to speak in new terms, to the masses via words, to inspire new thinking.
I persisted in my journey, however, never giving up the idea that words could experienced in many different ways. Twenty-five years ago I was asked by the Director of The Foundation for Senior Living: “Leonardo, if you could give a talk to a crowd of people, what would you present?” Almost without thinking, I said “WORDS” I could share how to see, hear and think about them in new ways. She said: “Do it!”–Somehow, this encouraged me to present two “Wordshops”. Both were well attended, lots of word-curious people came, hungry for wordplay, and new Scrabble words, or so I heard. This was an invitation to experience words, to look at and think about them like they hadn’t before. I didn’t realize it then but I was asking them to consider words as multi-dimensional, to experience them as energy. People stood in line after each presentation to tell me with excitement of all the institutions they thought could benefit from using this tool!
The response overwhelmed me. I could imagine that this process was as limitless as was thinking itself. I had to question why this way of seeing and thinking was being revealed to me, the concept seemed too great a responsibility for me. I am not a trained linguist or entomologist. I imagined that my thinking would not be taken seriously, and might even be criticized and attacked. I had no formal education in language or any idea of what exactly the benefits of what I was trying to communicate through this experience we had just shared. The Wordshop experience showed me there was great interest, similar to a new playground and new toys where we could evaluate and develop new perceptions. The general public seemed to hunger for this; as an artist I wanted to find ways to express creative ways that were entertaining and educational. I saw a profound relationship in thinking about words, with new attention we can also learn to feeling them. We can experience them with all our five senses with new awareness. I firmly believe with this new awareness we can re-energize the words we use, to take their meaning to new experiential level.
We had just stepped into the new century, 2000! People were resonating with enthusiasm and had lots questions about the future? The idea of going beyond the indoctrinated thinking used to educated most of us, to me seemed to be key. Times were changing quickly, not getting any easier. Technology was speeding up accessibility to everything, all signs seemed to be pointing to people reading less, communicating less, having less inter-personal encounters. It seemed to me like a numbing and an awakening were happening all at once. I thought, I just might be delivering this “thinking tool”, at just the right time. I kept inching my way forward, all the while, still doubting that I had it in me to explain why thinking about words mattered.
Looking back, I think I may have been hindered by an undiagnosed case of ADD, attention deficit disorder, among other things. It took another fifteen years to allow myself to express and produce something to illustrate my point, there are unlimited options of thinking accessible to us if we can see words, old and new, through new eyes. Five years ago, I created my Brave New Word poster: one thousand new words, terms and puns. It was fun but lots of work, I posed a twist on an old postulation to be provocative, “If a picture is worth a thousand words — what’s a thousand words worth”? A fifth grade student named Bronco responded with, “It’s a blueprint for a whole new picture”. That’s the kind of thinking I wanted to hear, an original response. This art piece was quite an achievement for me, giving me new license to look at things that we all might miss: to look at past and current issues with freedom to speak from my own platform. It seemed to encompass various aspects of spiritual, sociological, psychological, anthropological and many other realms of thinking to the conversation for an open interdisciplinary discussion.
I remained preoccupied with not being formally educated in any of these areas, I had to contradict the idea that I was just being clever. It was important to me that we share an awareness of what seemed to be an obvious commonality: that we need to use words to make sense of every aspect of our lives. I wanted to invite others to take a closer look at our reception and perceptions of words, to form and understand, to modify and create the reality we want. Experiencing a lot of self doubt, I felt like a lonely dancer–dancing on the fine line between something that was genius and total madness. I had to accept that my obsession of thinking about and working with words sounded and looked a lot weird; most of us don’t think about the words we use, we just repeatedly–speak them.
I couldn’t seem to keep myself from creating and processing new words, it wasn’t just for the sake of making words, it was because of how they made me feel. Most important, was that I felt my mission was to share this mind expanding exercise that we can all partake in; an open mind is all that’s required. For more than five years I have posted a Brave New Word almost every day, trying to leave it somewhat open for creative discussion; I create a visual image to support it as well. I found even more reason for me to proceed in the development of Brave New Word, people said the concept seemed to open their thinking up. I began to understand that I was creating words–for my own empowerment to–have the bravery and courage to be and express my authentic self. It wasn’t until very recent that my ninety-nine year old father gifted me with a new response as to why I was given my name; he said “you were named after the lion, he said,–I was the lion in my family”. Hearing this meant so much to me. All along this journey, it’s been suggested that I write a book, make my own dictionary and by now, of course, there were a few thousand words I had coined. I wanted to call mine my–Fictionary, it was all out of my head and my heart. I was making it up or maybe channeling this. It was me and not me! It was time to sit still and create a new tool to ignite a wider conversation. Not wanting to be overwhelmed, I chose 101 of my new words, choosing was very difficult, even for me: I wanted to share words that exemplify the need to look at and think about the magic of words–even closer.
I was fortunate to reconnect with a friend I had met a few years earlier, Richard So, a trained linguist. He assured me I wasn’t going word crazy, his educated affirmation made me feel more confident about the task at hand.“You see words in ways we don’t, he said, expressing it as your art form is really smart, it frees you from academic dictates that inform modern day thinking and attitudes. I had found a unique art form, my own artistic expression, bringing many aspects of my creative self–together. My desire is to share thinking about things that I think are important, I want to visually express these feelings through words and concepts that don’t yet exist. I feel so blessed that my dear parents were here to see the manifestation of Leon becoming Leonardo. I will be eternally grateful that Richard So agreed to help me publish my first book, it might never have happened: Brave New Word/Open Mind Game is now available on Amazon.
In this book,I offer my imagined, many illustrated, showing how playful and pliable words can be. I also included a spelling game, the Open Mind Game, the challenge being to spell words that don’t yet exist. I told a ten year old niece of mine about it the game, she told me,“that’s hard”, but she didn’t say, that’s impossible. It was also suggested that I might want to define my 101 words to add value to the experience of seeing and thinking about new words. New words, we all make them, we just don’t validate them. It‘s never been my intention to tell people what to think, only to invite them to think. Unlike a dictionary, I get to share my heartfelt thinking via my Imagi/Notions, my personal views.
It has taken tremendous effort and many, many years to conceive, believe and receive this book. Through it all, I’m grateful I was able to continually remind myself that this was far more than about any personal success. Brave New Word came to me as an exercise for Thought Liberation, a thought builder. Whether we can admit it or not, too many of us are suffering from inattention to ourselves and from others, I want my attention back. Who would imagine how much we could learn from an alphabetical disorder like mine. I feel that this might be a way to unlearn unquestioned beliefs that we hold as true. We CAN learn to play again, by remembering and exploring the limitless possibilities of being a child again.
It was exhilarating to receive my first two books from Amazon. To my total surprise, that very week I received a message from another published author also selling on Amazon, more accomplished than I, He already had about five or six books in his name, also named Leonardo Ramirez. He respectfully suggested I might want to include a middle initial in my name to distinguish us from each other. He had no middle initial, neither do I. I said no thank you, I was just born plain old Leonardo. Why would I even think I had to choose another name?
Getting back to the subject of this story, Choice. Did I choose the name Leonardo? I don’t know but I finally choose and accept that it’s my gift from my dear parents and from universal intelligence. Brave New Word is my gift to the universe.