What’s In a Name?

May 2016
Blaine Kuss,  L’Arche Boston North Assistant

“Behn!” The sharp call of my name combined with the rap of knuckles on my door to jar me into wakefulness. I had moved to Haverhill, MA, to work for L’arche Boston North just two weeks prior in late August, and I was overjoyed that Donald knew my name—not quite Blaine, but close enough. However, the time was 7 AM on a Friday, one of my two “time away” days each week. I had a two-hour drive down to Cape Cod to see a friend facing me later in the day; a few more hours of sleep sounded nice. I groggily stumbled to the door of my room and opened it to find the familiar face of a fifty-something year old bald man who stands five-foot even, and who has Down Syndrome, staring back at me, his eyes wide with expectation. “You give me a haircut!” Donald demanded. “Today is my time away,” I mumbled. “Why don’t you ask Michael to do it?”

Not helping Donald that morning continues to rattle me. Because that morning was my time away, I was not obligated to cut his hair, and finding someone who was on the schedule elsewhere in the house did not bother Donald that morning. At the same time, though, I could have helped Donald in a small way at no cost to myself—other than the five minutes shaving a head takes—and I chose not to. Would this guy disown me? Would he ever speak to me again? Would he ever again use my name? Come to think of it, why is it important what Donald calls me so long as I do my job?

That weekend in September, I did go to Cape Cod. I walked on the beach. I went to the movies. I ate dinner at a pub. But, eventually the time arrived for me to drive back north to Haverhill. I dreaded that Donald might not want to talk with me, or that he might not ask me to cut his hair ever again. “Behn!” Donald greeted me with a warm hug around my waist as I walked in the door. “I missed you! Where were you?”

Since that “welcome weekend”—as I’ve come to call it—seven or eight months have passed. I have evolved into “Tuna Fish,” and I have had ample opportunity living down the hall from Donald to reflect on the importance of names, especially in L’Arche. This important man gives a nickname to many of his closest friends, be that name “Muckleheads,” “Woody Woody Woody Hoods,” or the ambiguous “Oakish.” Whenever I hear Donald use one of his unique names, I smile, because my companion just showed affection and made someone feel special. I suppose that’s the power of names, be they legal or otherwise: Names give senses of identity, uniqueness, and belonging to their owner.

Don and BlaineOf course, names also have profound power to hurt, but that’s an entirely different blog.

Within L’Arche, there are a lot of different names used to describe duties and places within the larger organizational structure. Titles—professional names— like “core member” and “assistant” and terms—functional names— like “formation” and “sharing time” are commonplace. Each of these words carries specific meaning and lends intentionality to all that L’Arche does. As someone actively exploring what living a contemplative life might mean for me, this specificity resonates deeply with me.

My life right now consists largely of assisting core members. Because adults with developmental disabilities are at the center of what L’Arche does, my housemates such as Donald are called “core members.” I don’t go to work for eight(ish) hours a day, but rather I “share time” for eight hours. Thinking of my life in terms of time I “share” with others makes me—an assistant—feel as though my time is valuable and worthy of being shared. As long as I remember that I’m sharing my apparently valuable time with core members, this L’Arche thing is a pretty sweet gig. I get to live life surrounded by my friends, and if I’m intentional about it, I get paid every couple of weeks!

Part of “sharing time” is doing rather mundane (yet oddly fulfilling) tasks like folding laundry, doing dishes, and fixing dinner. However, sharing time also means touching noses with Phil, or watching wrestling with Jimmy, or going out for coffee with Deb. L’Arche allows me to fully live into my title as an assistant, which while not quite as unique to me as “Tuna Fish,” does place me in a group of compassionate, dedicated, self-aware, and creative individuals of which I am so proud to be a part.

Here I sit on a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of what will be a long and joyous journey with L’Arche Boston North. The name Donald uses when referring to me will change, I am sure, as a fellow assistant’s name recently transitioned from “Big Shrimp” to “Big Foot.” Changing a name is in this case okay, as a change just reflects a change in relationship. What will remain consistent, though, is my title as an “Assistant” and my housemates’ title of “Core Member.” My relationship to core members will undoubtedly change in the coming months, but what won’t change is my dedication to do what I can to assist core members along their journey.

So why is it important what Donald calls me? The answer, L’Arche has taught me, is both readily apparent and difficult to understand: Names are vital because of what they say. When combined with ownership, a name speaks everything.

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