Nuggets From Ruth Pittard's Call
Posted by Audrey Lin on Jan 15, 2021
Ruth Pittard has practiced learning and transforming in love for most of her 74 years. A forward-thinking educator, she spent over 30 years supporting service-learning initiatives in her community and professional home, Davidson College, near Charlotte, NC. In leadership positions at the College, including as Assistant Dean for Community Service, Ruth chose to use love as her organizing principle for programs based in care and compassion. After 30 years of service to the college, Ruth's life took on the air of a pilgrimage as she wandered with a heart open to service opportunities as they arose. She bartered for housing, food and necessities for about five years. Often referred to as "The Love Lady", she practiced trust and cemented her belief in love as an operating system in her life. She is a raconteur of stories of ordinary and extraordinary love.
Below are some of the nuggets from the call that stood out for me ...
- On being the "Love Lady": My learning to love has been a slow burn to a really big flame... Every Wednesday, I stand on a street corner with a sign that says "love" around my neck. Once you hang a love sign around your neck, you have to be really faithful to it -- because people will test it. :) We had a group that accosted us on the streets one time -- challenging the word "love" and our choice of it. In my talking with a man and his daughter -- about 3-4 minutes into the conversation, I realized that the daughter wasn't listening to me. She was watching me. She wanted to know what love looked like, not what it said. So for the rest of the conversation, I tried to answer what love looked like, answering really hard, confrontational questions. I am conscious of wearing that love sign [literally and metaphorically] now for the rest of my life."
- On the Women's Movement in the 70s: "I was a southern-raised girl -- which meant (and this is an asset) that I had to have good manners doing it. I was also told to be quiet a lot (and I love to talk) and I have opinions. I had to wait for the appropriate time to interject those opinions, and [the opinions] had to be solid and kind ... So my participation in the women's movement was about individual women who came into my life, who I mentored, mothered, and mirrored the characteristics that they needed to find their voices -- and in the process, I found mine. It was really a both-and. ... I didn't yell at people. I couldn't. It was not who I was. But I did open my home to women who were in trouble and needed a place to stay. We ate together, so that we could share our experiences, and come to an active consensus of what looking forward meant for women."
- From 'Against' to 'For': "Most of my life has just been a gradual learning, sometimes through pain. In looking back, those painful times are the most productive, actually. ... I went from being against to for. I went from being anti-war to for peace. I went from anti-nuclear to alternative energy. I went from inorganic farming and gardening to organic. In that time of being a parent and in a movement that had very specific goals [of women's rights], my mindset shifted from being 'against' to 'for' something -- to being the best of the divine feminine in cooperation with the best of the divine masculine. That's how I saw the Women's Movement.
- On Service Learning: "I was the first Bonner Scholars Director for a new program in Davidson College. It's nationwide, but their motto was "Changing the world through service." ... The program called for an emphasis on hours of service. I'm stubborn, and numbers are only a servant for me. I said, "no," because then our conversation at the end of the month would be "I've got a half-hour of service left, what can I do?" That's not the right conversation. So we met four times a year for a half hour with each of the 80 students in our program, and we had them define what service was going to be in each of their lives. We had wonderful conversations -- there was no ordinary anything, because everyone did according to what their life view was. Service fit in with what they were studying in school, with their family situation. So they didn't do service -- they became service. The same way you don't 'do' love. The whole point is to be that representation in the world. ... I still am in touch with scores of them who are out living that. It was a program, but it was more an idea operating within a program.
- On Two Gifts: "A gift that I was born with is I hardly ever meet someone that I don't like ... The other gift that I was born with is curiosity. In my own life, there are only two people that I had an instant dislike for. And I worked at both of those, by listening."
- On Leading with Love: "One summer in the 1990s, students [at the college where I worked] came up with a mantra: "As we go, love." Interestingly enough, that's what we're going to be -- what we operate on. If any problems arise, we're going to talk about love, and that's how we settle it. Of course, problems arose. One time, I spent three days saying, "Sorry, this is not about love. Let's move back and look at what would love look like in this situation." (It was a situation that had humiliation at its core. And a lot of ego.) I had this wand ... and every time someone spoke something that was not love, they got bopped on the head with the wand. :) ... Love is not easy. [It was a difficult conversation about our salaries and] when you talk about hourly wage and love, that's a hard conversation. ... But everyone came out of that experience understanding what love looked like when it was used as a way to communicate and come to a mutually satisfying, loving solution."
- On Unearthing the Sacred in Higher Education: "The Lily Program was a grant from the Lily Foundation. They made too much money from selling prozac, so they had to donate money for spiritual wholeness. So all across the U.S., these schools were getting these grants to answer questions like: "How can student life be sacred?" At our institution (Davidson College), we involved staff to participate in this. I signed up immediately. We had a person in our dining services who was difficult. I got those people on staff -- frequently they would say to me "Why don't you work with this person?" It took me four years, because he wouldn't talk with me about food as part of a process. So I started baking him my favorite things and bringing it to him. It took me a year of feeding him before we could talk about food. It was my Aunt's pound cake that did it for him. ... That's what dining is for students -- that's where a lot of their learning takes place. They have ideas about what good food is -- and you could ask them for them. Which he did. And then he found out it was fun to go by and watch them eat it. ... It took about four years -- but it was about listening and asking people to contribute what they considered were their best food offerings. You can make anything sacred if the questions are right."
- On Hospicing the Old, Midwifing the New: "I decided that I wanted to find joy in my 70th year. ... Then, in the next year, of course i had to really experience suffering to really appreicate the fact that joy has a component of learning through suffering. It's not that you're happy all the time, or that life doesn't sometimes bring things to you that are really disappointing. So, it took me until age 73, really, to figure out what that joy looked like. And then up to this very morning, I realized that everything contributes to a movement towards something. I'm a Pachamama organization facilitator. They have a marvelous metaphor: You hospice the old (that means treating it with dignity, not flagging all your mistakes) and, at the same time, you are midwifing the new. So you are replacing the 'old' with a new, renewed worldview. That's what happened in my 73rd and 74th year -- I passed the hospice point, and it's all midwife now. I get to inhabit that space where I'm building something that is focused -- it contains mostly love, because the other is such a distraction. It's like living there distracts from the focused energy of creating -- of planting seeds for love. There's a seed's movement of literally planting love. And watching it grow. That's what laddership allowed me to see -- I have firmly come into that midwifing of claiming love as the way. For me."
- On Standing in Lines & "How Can I Help?": "I *love* lines -- because they are captive audience! [laughs] And, because almost everyone hates lines, I've got my own territory. So I was thinking about all the lines that have been important to me. Once, when I was bartering services, I shopped at Walmart because the person buying the food shopped there, so that's what I had to do. Oh gosh -- lines! ... Mostly, you see mothers with screaming children -- because they put stuff on aisles that children want. All you can do is say, "No, no, no. Don't mess with that." And, plus, you're tired. So I would say to whowever was in front or behind of me, "Can I help you?" Then, they'd look at me [bewildered] as if to say: "Do I look like I need help?" It was a surprise. Once, driving home, after someone I offered help to gave a really strong retort with the f-word, I thought: "I think I'm not asking the right question." I walked in through my door, and the first thing that caught my eye was a red book that said "How Can I Help?" written by Ram Dass. And I thought: "That's the question!" So the next time I was in line, I said to a young woman who looked on her last nerve with a screaming child, "How can I help you?" And she said, "Take this child, and do something with her!" So I parked my cart and walked her child around. I said, "Would you like a cup of coffee." She said, "That's the best thing I've ever heard." She sat down and wept. Because she was alone. Her mother was dead. She didn't have any support. She worked second shift in the factory, and was trying to grocery shop in between all that. I just got to listen. And hold her child, who played with keys (all children love keys). And she just cried. Now, I love being in lines and say "How can I help?" Not one person has turned me down. 'Can I help you' can connote incompetence; it implies something is lacking. But 'How can I help' is very specfiic: just tell me, because I knwo you want it. It's two equals rather than an unequal power arrangement. And I've never had anyone refuse that."