The Journey of Unlearning

I remember the first time I met our friend and neighbor Kremena. It was four summers ago, and we had just moved in to our home in a charming 1930s bungalow neighborhood in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. Our next door neighbors invited us over for dinner in the backyard, and that’s when I saw our next-next door neighbor. Her clothes were a delightful riot of colors. I can’t remember the exact color combination from that evening, but it was probably a mix of lime green and fuchsia, electric blue and vivid orange. She would have been wearing a tank top and a fluffy skirt. And probably bright, chunky jewelry. Probably not her signature knee-high socks, though. She saved those for cooler weather. But definitely no make-up. She didn’t need it. She was and is naturally, truly beautiful.

And in just a few moments, I realized where that natural beauty was coming from. From the inside. She exuded kindness. And warmth. And peace. She took a sincere interest in me and my husband. She cared about our stories. She had grown up in Bulgaria as an atheist, but now she and her family are Roman Catholic. Amazingly, she didn’t seem the least put off or confused that I was a female pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She actually wanted to know more. And even in the first few moments of conversing with her, I somehow felt that she already championed me. 

That evening, I also noticed that she’s one of those brave souls who has tattoos on her body. Across her shoulders were the words “deep roots,” and like a bracelet cuff around her bicep were the words “to ourselves.” Around the words were tiny constellations of something that looked like stars. If ink could sparkle on skin, these tattoos did. 

Later, I would find out that these words were from a tattoo art project inspired by Kentucky Poet Laureate (2013-14) Frank X Walker’s “Love Letter to the World.” In fact, “to ourselves” are the last words of that poem. “Love Letter to the World” was also the springboard for another art endeavor by Kremena and her collaborator Kurt. ( The poem features these hauntingly powerful words: “We can’t pass the course on humanity if we keep failing the lessons on harmony and until we unlearn fear and hate.” And thus began Unlearn Fear + Hate. It’s what one might call an art movement, but what Kurt and Kremena more profoundly describe as “an intervention into our shared lives,” something that “aims to promote public dialog and civic engagement.” This intervention led to intricately designed metal “halos” with the words “unlearn fear and hate” (first in English, then in many other languages) to be displayed around downtown Lexington. People were invited to have their pictures made in front of these halos. And then there were the stencils. On sidewalks all around Lexington, one could find the simple but bold statement in brightly colored chalk paint: Unlearn Fear + Hate. And then there were the cross stitch projects. As we chatted with Kremena one evening, she was stitching an Unlearn Fear + Hate pattern on fabric, and I remarked how beautiful it was and how much I loved the variegated green thread she was using. The next day, she brought the finished artwork to me. It still stands, in its little wooden hoop frame, proudly on our mantel. Even a thousand miles away from Kentucky at our new home in Texas. Poetry and art speak truth to power, and we still see its impact, see the ripples moving onward and outward.

That’s why, as I embark to the mountains of eastern Kentucky with fourteen youth and two other adult sponsors on a mission-service trip next week, I want to talk with our group about Unlearn Fear + Hate. That’s why I spent the morning in a local arts-and-crafts supply store getting embroidery thread in all sorts of colors and nubby cross-stitch fabric and sidewalk chalk and body paint for temporary tattoos. I want them at least to touch the beauty and power and depth of this thing called Unlearn Fear + Hate. 

To unlearn fear and hate. . . . What a compelling turn of phrase. Of course, a poet should be the one to share it with us. It’s one thing to say, “Get out there and love!” But it’s another thing to say, “Unlearn the fear and hate that have accumulated in your soul over the years.” Because to unlearn something is perhaps more challenging than learning something the first time. As the mother of a two-year-old, I’m very concerned now with helping our child learn and learn well. To learn colors, shapes, and numbers. To learn how to do simple tasks. To learn to treat others with kindness, gentleness. To learn good things from the beginning. Because to unlearn something is painstaking and often painful. Like scraping away layers of crusty paint and varnish. Like reprogramming an entire system. Like removing a cancer from the body. 

And what might this unlearning look like? It could be looking into the eyes of your hijab-wearing barista in downtown Lexington, and see not “The Other,” but the face of a friend. (The coffee house theme continues!) It could be opting for the re-usable cup, even though it’s so easy to grab a plastic water bottle. (As Frank X Walker writes, “I love you world.”) It could be teenagers painting the house and cleaning the yard of an elderly person in a remote Appalachian town, when it’s so much more comfortable to stay at home. It could be respecting and using the descriptors and pronouns that people use to identify themselves, even if they’re not the words we learned to use earlier in our lives. It could be making art that urges us to wonder, to question, to dialog. It’s awareness and openness and a willingness to grow. It’s any thing we do—big or small—that works to un-do the fear and the hate that we’ve picked up along the way. It’s the shedding of an old and suffocating skin. It’s our move toward what Walker calls our “passing the course on humanity.”

Ah, that poet gets us again with his choice of words, his imagery. As I moved from grade school through college to graduate school, I remember that anxious feeling at the end of each semester or school year, waiting to find out my grade. Was it an A? I had worked so hard! But interestingly, Walker doesn’t call it “acing” the course on humanity. He simply speaks of “passing” the course. To simply pass the course isn’t a bad thing at all, here. Because learning and unlearning in this life can be a real struggle, and to pass can be reason enough for exultation. And the goal of all this is not to be the best human—but simply to be human . . . And to celebrate that shared humanity in every person we meet.

Pattern by Robyn Wade of ReBelle, Lexington, KY; Cross-stitch by Kremena Todorova