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

Love, Light, and Little Details

            I just wanted a cup of coffee. A dark chocolate latte—to be more precise—from my favorite cool, quirky, Baroque and Celtic music playing, Catholic icon decorated, contemporary art covered, fantastic smelling, local coffee shop. I exchanged pleasantries with the owner/barista and was about to hand over my debit card to pay, when I heard a deep, rumbly voice behind me. “Excuse me, sir. Her money is no good here.” I felt confused and shocked and readied myself for a confrontation. But, in the matter of seconds as I was turning to face my accuser, my brain also registered a lilting warmth in that voice. It was then that I saw a familiar, welcome face . . . An older gentleman who was a friend from the church where I serve as an Associate Pastor. A friend who is a kind listener and encouraging supporter. “Her money is no good here.” Oh, hi, social cues. He was joking. And he was wanting to buy not only my cup of coffee but the one I was getting for my husband, too. Sometimes, I take things so seriously. Sometimes, I’m quick to assume the worst. But I’m discovering that Love and Goodness always, always break through . . . Often in ways that surprise me.

            I laughed and bantered with my friend, and, as I left the coffee shop and took a sip of my drink, I found that latte to be the sweetest, warmest beverage I’ve had in a while. And that’s part of the reason I want to write, to share.

            It’s also because of a dear friend who knows my love of words and who recently looked me squarely in the face and straightforwardly proclaimed, “You should write a blog.” How could she have known that only a few days prior that same idea flitted across my brain, and I had quickly shoved it aside? I’m thankful for friends who have vision and courage and enthusiasm and don’t put up with my silly excuses and hesitations.

            It’s also because of my husband who adventures with me in this life and brings out the best in me as a human being. It’s because of my daughter, who views this world with wide eyes, open hands, and squeals of joy.

            It’s because of all of my family members and friends-who-feel-like-family. And my acquaintances. And the people I happen to meet. And the people who don’t like me. All the people who shape my life and help me to grow.

            And it’s especially because of one dear friend who passed away only a few weeks ago. A friend we affectionately call “Scotty.” He was a well-respected Physician’s Assistant in neurosurgery. But, outside the operating room, he had a passion for light—stage lighting in particular—and photography. He taught me to capture the moment in pictures. And when you take a photo of a child or a baby, for goodness’ sake, don’t just peer at them from above. . . . Get down on their level and discover the light and sparkle in their eyes. And when you place lamps around your home, create warm, soothing light with just the right bulbs. You don’t need those harsh, clinical-looking fluorescent lights glaring down on you all the time.

            In addition to light and photos, Scotty taught me about what is good. I loved to chat with him about food and recipes. Recipes that his sweet little Mama from Mississippi (or “Miss’ssippi,” if you’re saying it right) taught him years ago. Recipes for delicious meals made from simple ingredients but with lots of love and would make you feel like you were surrounded by a big ol’ hug. From Scotty, I learned which brand of canned green beans was good. Where to get the best frozen spanakopita bites so that it tasted like you’d gotten them fresh from a Greek bakery. How to make barbecue shrimp in the oven with these certain herbs and spices. It’s easy but tastes like it took forever to make. And don’t forget some good, crusty bread to sop up that extra barbecue sauce. All the words of wisdom about good food and how to make it.

            And when you’re at a restaurant, don’t immediately put in your order and be in such a hurry. Take a moment. Have a nice, glass of wine and an appetizer. Talk (and listen!) to the folks gathered around you. People-watch a little. Take it all in. Savor the moment and savor your meal. Enjoy what’s good.

            And, as you go about your day or make plans for something important, make a list. Jot down all the little details. Because the details matter. Details like bringing what Scotty would call a “sack of biscuits” to the technicians servicing your car. Not necessary at all, but it made a difference. It showed gratitude. Or making and bringing a chicken and rice casserole to a neighbor in need. Or just because you were neighbors. Or caring about all the elements of a stage production—from hair to make-up to costumes to the singing and dancing—and, of course, the lighting. Always the lighting. Always about illuminating what was good and what the world needed to see. Even the little things. The often-overlooked things.

            And that’s what I want to share and write about. Good things. Love, light, and little details. In honor of the people who live Love and make this world better by being in it (or by having been in it). People who engage this world with integrity, hope, good humor, and joy. These will be my reflections on the big things and the small things of life, through the lens of Love and Light. With eyes and heart open to all the little details.