UPDATE, 10/13/21: This piece was updated to state that Pittard attended college in the 1960s and has built a net-zero home.
On Wednesdays for the last three years, a few friends stand silently on the busiest corner in Black Mountain holding signs that say “LOVE.” They aren’t affiliated with any religion or political organization. They simply want to contribute positive energy into the world.
Ruth Pittard is the creator of the weekly ritual. Born in Newton, she spent her career as a high school English teacher, and she held a variety of roles at Davidson College. When Pittard retired, she sold her belongings and wandered for a decade, volunteering and bartering housing. Now she lives in Black Mountain, where she has built a small, solar, net-zero house
Xpress spoke with Pittard about her inspiration for the “LOVE” project, her guidance on conflict resolution and how activism in her youth influences her today.
This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.
What inspired you to spend your Wednesdays standing on a street corner with a sign that says “LOVE”?
I’ve been an activist my whole life. I went to college in the early ’60s, and that’s what you did. If you wanted the world to be a better place, you protested against the fact it wasn’t.
About the time I was 30, I began being “for” things rather than against them. I’d be for voting rights, rather than against discrimination, and that was a pretty profound shift in my life. Three years ago, I read an editorial about someone who became so passionate about what was happening to children and families at the borders that she protested for the first time, in the same location the LOVE group now stands. It was a beautiful editorial and called me to look at what I would “be for” in that instance. And so I spent a whole week thinking about that.
I’m 75 this year, so I can look back over my life and see how it all fits together. One of the glorious things about being older is seeing patterns in how you’ve behaved. So I thought about my life and realized, it’s all about love. Love is what I am so passionate for that I would stand in the middle of town and proclaim it.
What does love mean to you?
Love to me is a practice. It’s questioning all that you do through the lens of how compassionate, empathetic, constructive or positive you can be. There are mounds of adjectives that go with it, but the closest is kindness.
I work at Chifferobe Home and Garden, and we have a bunch of stickers that are “Southernisms.” One of them is “Don’t be ugly,” which is the one that everybody comes in saying, “Oh yeah, my mother said that!” There’s an old saying that goes, “To be loved is to be seen, heard and valued.” For me, if you have those three things they add up to love.
What do you mean when you say that choosing love as an operating system isn’t casual or easy?
It’s not all about kittens and Hallmark cards, because if you ask yourself deep questions before you act, it’s hard. Being able to look at the black and white and land somewhere in the grAy is, by no means, casual.
There was a time when I was in a group that chose love as an operating agreement. The motto was, “As we go, love.” Well, we ran into a huge problem, where one person in the group disrespected another publicly and everyone got angry and demanded a resignation. I got to be the person to say, “Wait a minute! All of us agreed to operate from a loving system.”
It took three days to come to a solution where neither person felt shortchanged or disrespected and both people felt heard, seen and valued. It ended with public apologies from both parties, and the process involved some of the most intimate storytelling I’ve ever been a part of. It also caused a lot of laughter, because that’s always been one of my tools.
I worked with students for 30 years and I have a beautiful magic wand made of driftwood. I keep it near so when people get angry, I bop them on the head, which brings everybody back to the idea that this is serious, but none of us are going to die from it.
What will die are old thought processes and old ways of reacting. Operating from love opens us up to magic, to something new and different.
Where do you see the ‘LOVE’ project going in the future?
It doesn’t have to go anywhere; it can be just that! What I do hear from people is that they think about it and actually understand the message. Even if just for the two minutes that they come through the intersection, it changes their day. It makes them smile and think about what the word “love” means for themselves.
You know the adage “Think before you speak”? Well, mine is “Think love before you speak.” If I can do that, and if that message can get out there for others, then that’s change.