Last Wednesday morning, I joined the world in sadness upon hearing that Maya Angelou had passed away. In that moment, I was instantly brought back to her classroom in the Spring of 2001 – “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance.” What an amazing class and opportunity, something that I know will remain with me forever. What I did not realize at the time, though, was how very relevant her words of wisdom would be at this particular point of my journey, over a decade later.
“The greatest gift you can give to a person is to know their name.”
In spite of the abbreviated nature of the class – only meeting for about 6 or 8 weeks during a semester – Dr. Angelou spent the first three classes having everyone learn each other’s names. Seeing each other walking around campus, we were not able to say “hello, Maura” – Dr. Angelou insisted on following the old Biblical tradition of calling each other by our proper names – so a funny interaction of “hello, Ms. Proulx” permeated the university campus those weeks and beyond, offering perhaps a greater sense of formality and respect than usual. For those plagued with difficulties remembering people’s names, Maya Angelou encouraged us to shift our thinking – rather than saying “I am bad at remembering people’s names,” she suggested instead, “in the past, I have had trouble remembering people’s names.” That simple mental shift proved quite profound for most of us, freeing us of the block that, in the past, kept us from offering this great gift to the others we encountered.
I think of this lesson today, from the perspective of our work at St. Vincent de Paul, whose motto, “neighbors helping neighbors,” truly shines through the way in which people treat each other inside the four walls of this old mattress factory, or even more so, within the four walls of a home visit made by our Vincentians all across the city. People call each other by name. People are treated with dignity and respect, kindness and compassion, and an understanding that each person has a story and a struggle. It is a place where each person’s vulnerability meets that of the other, and in that, solidarity begins.
Isn’t that really what Dr. Angelou was trying to teach us – a group of 50-some college-aged students – during those several weeks? Each person we encounter has a story, a family, a heart; each person is a child of God; each person deserves dignity, respect, and to be called by name. It truly is a gift we can offer each other.
“We are all more alike than we are unalike.”
This course of Dr. Angelou’s followed my semester studying in Dijon, France. Of course I spent much time reflecting on my travels as she repeated this phrase, like a mantra, over and over. It was true, that I experienced a bit of this reality being with my French family with whom I lived, meeting people in other countries, making new friends… but really isn’t what she is saying so much deeper than that singular experience of studying abroad?
Bringing this phrase to my current context, the depth of this reality begins to be probed. How many times have the stories of the people I have encountered on a home visit resonated with my own? How often have I felt, palpably, the struggle or sadness or joy or hope shared with me during a conversation with someone who came to SVDP to seek assistance? While I have not had to suffer and struggle in the ways in which many people we meet at SVDP have, as I allow my own vulnerability and suffering in life to meet theirs, as I hold the greatest moments of hope in my own story as I hear theirs, the people I meet move beyond the data on an intake form, and even beyond a name (which I have tried my best to remember) and become, truly, brothers and sisters. And this is the only way in which I know to approach someone seeking assistance in a way that honors and respects them, in a way where I am my best and truest self, rather than someone just stopping by to “help.” When I am able to live that mantra that “we are more alike than we are unalike,” relationship is possible and hope is alive.
Eleven years ago, when I was working at The Gathering Place, a day shelter for women and children in Denver, CO, I heard that Maya Angelou was coming to Denver for a speaking engagement. Always encouraging us to keep in touch with her, I wrote her a letter, reflecting fondly on the incredible opportunity I had to take a course with her and spoke of my work at TGP, then inquired about the possibility of getting tickets so that these women, too, could hear her speak. She sent a gracious and thoughtful response, including six tickets. Following the event, I sent her a thank you note with words from some of the women who had attended. Months passed, and I received a large package in the mail, and to my surprise and delight, inside was a poster of the words of one of her poems, with a simple signature:
“To the women of The Gathering Place. Joy! Maya Angelou.”
What an incredible gift. And what a profound reminder – that yes, in the midst of our struggles, we can still find joy. Maya Angelou’s life was a testament to that reality – that in the darkness, there is light; that after death, there is resurrection; that in the midst of sorrow, hope and joy are alive. May all those whose lives she touched bring this reality to the world that is so much in need of hope.
Maura (Proulx) Carpinello was once a proud English major, thrilled with the opportunity to read Maya Angelou’s poetry aloud. She is now thrilled to oversee the Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati year of service program through St. Vincent de Paul.