Kely and Jason’s story

“Our story begins in the 1980s amidst Scooby Doo episodes and Matchbox trucks in the sandbox of my childhood backyard. At the time, my mother was babysitting for a single man raising his two young sons—Jason and Rob.  When I was six, and Jason was eight, his family moved from the Indiana countryside to Cincinnati. Only forty or so miles separated us, but our lives took vastly different paths and that was the last I heard, saw, or thought of Jason. Until 2012.

In 2012, I was emerging from my own personal storm: a divorce after more than ten years of marriage. It was an emotional rollercoaster and, unfortunately, I was tall enough to ride. My normally worry-ridden mind was drowning with even more concerns. How would my 3, 6, and 9-year old children adjust? How would I ensure they had a wonderfully happy life, even if it wasn’t a perfect one? I had so many fears about the unknown. About co-parenting. About the future. It was the right change to make, but it wasn’t without many difficulties.

At the same time, across a state line and unbeknownst to me, Jason was surviving his own storm. As an ironworker, he suffered a fall from the steel that left him broken. He suffered a broken neck, broken back, and other injuries. He faced a long road to recovery, and what that recovery looked like was uncertain and not promised by his doctors. Jason faced radical changes to his daily life, including—at least for a while—no work. During that time, he kept his mind and body busy with hospital visits and physical rehabilitation interspersed with frustrating bouts of rest. During those times of rest, Jason reached out and reconnected with a childhood friend through social media.

That childhood friend was me. And that reconnection was over three years ago. We’ve been inseparable since—two extremely different peas in a pod carved just for us. We got to know one another. We recovered. We worked. We reveled in our good fortune. We mused. We held on tight. We sat in silence. Our children met. We all fell in love.

When I read Love Letter To the World, it spoke to me. It spoke to me as someone who loves the Earth, and, as a professional biologist, I was moved by the words. As lovers of art and tattoos and community, Jason and I quickly decided this project was something of which we wanted to be part. We chose ‘you send tornadoes’ and ‘hail and thunderstorms.’ On February 14, 2015, we sat side by side while the artwork was completed in Cincinnati. It is a daily reminder to us not only of the meaning behind a profound poem, but also of the personal storms that began our journey home to one another.

Many months following our Valentine’s Day appointment, an arbor stood in our backyard. Rugged and imperfect, it was constructed of fallen branches we drug from the woods, and was wrapped with grapevine and lace and crystals—crystals that were supposed to be glittering as they reflected the abundant glow of fall sunlight! Instead, they were clattering in a very cold wind, standing stark against a blue-gray sky. My shoulders hung. I was succumbing to my very own pity-party. This isn’t what we planned. We deserved the perfect day. I thought all the things one looks back on and feels ashamed to have thought in the first place, given the charmed and blessed life they have been dealt to lead. Jason snatched me out of that self-induced sadness with a quickness and with one solid, serious declaration: ‘I don’t care if it pours. I don’t care if it thunderstorms. I’ve waited a long time, and nothing is stopping me from standing under that arbor and marrying you.’

And that’s exactly what we did in our wet, cold backyard during an hour’s break from the days’ long rain on October 3, 2015. Because there will be tornadoes. There will be hail and thunderstorms. And come hell or high water, we will ride them out together to experience the magnificence that awaits us on the other side.”

Keli and Jason on their wedding day

Kely and Jason Wabnitz on their wedding day (photograph by Melissa Hanley Photography)

About chicken sauce piquant. About mountains of peace and love. And about change.

Forest Gray Yerman's "about change,"

Forest Gray Yerman’s “about change,” (photograph by Sergei Isaenko)

“Around fifteen years ago I almost got a tattoo after my brother: a Thor’s Hammer on my right breast. I cancelled my appointment because I really wasn’t sure that I was as Viking as my brother Hrothgar. I don’t regret this decision, but ever since I have wondered whether I would ever get a tattoo.

For the past five years, earlier in my undergrad in creative writing and currently as a graduate student in Appalachian Studies, I have studied Frank X Walker’s poetry, and traveled hundreds of miles, from North Carolina to Kentucky, Virginia, and West ‘by God’ Virginia, to attend readings and ask questions of him. When I found out he was writing a poem for a tattoo project, I knew I was going to be a part of Love Letter To the World. So I got the pleasure, and difficulty, of choosing from the whole brilliant poem. I read Frank X Walker’s ‘Love Letta to de Worl’,’ and I read it again. And I read it again. I copied the poem freehand in a diary. And I read it. I poured over the designs, too, but mostly–I READ.

‘about revolution’ spoke to the brick thrower in me
‘seven different faces’ spoke to the holiness of 7
‘about companionship’ spoke to the spiritual power of love
‘about reflection’ spoke to my own ‘man in the mirror
‘your sneeze a tsunami’ is just good goddamn poetry
‘hail and thunderstorms’ spoke to standing outside in rain and snow storms
‘music and poetry’ spoke to my daily bread

but above all

the line ‘about change,’ spoke to my constant desire to change myself, to change so that I could live up to all of these lines and phrases and words in this poem that hollered at me, ‘change!’ To accept change, too. To be ‘about change,’. This line grabbed all of me, shook me, said, ‘get this tattoo where you can see it so you can change. Embrace the only constant in the universe, Change.’

My friend Justin, who works at Speak Easy Tattoo Co. in Boone, NC, and I talked about the Love Letter To the World project and the tattoo I wanted. Then I went home and got scared. I told myself a tattoo is a tattoo forever. It’s not a haircut, which I’m always changing. It’s not a beard, which I’m always growing and cutting and growing, both like and unlike Uncle Gurton’s. It’s a tattoo on my body forever. A mark.

I hesitated. Then I talked with Justin again. I asked how much this tattoo would cost. He said he heard I liked to cook, and asked me what kind of food I cooked. ‘Mostly southern,’ I said. ‘Cajun?’ he asked. I told him I could do that and we agreed on chicken sauce piquant at his request. I copied the recipe from my mother’s Paul Prudhomme cookbook during Christmas, over homemade eggnog and bluegray cigarette smoke.

Paul Prudhomme’s Chicken Sauce Piquant

-1 tbs and 1 tsp. salt
-1 tbs black pepper
-2 tsp onion powder
-2 tsp garlic powder
-2 tsp ground red pepper
-1 tsp white pepper
-1 tsp dried thyme

-1 cup flour
-2 whole chickens–cut in 8 pieces
-1 ¾ cups chopped onions
-1 ¾ cups chopped celer
-1 ¾ cups chopped green bell peppers
-1 ¾ cups peeled and chopped tomatoes
-3 tbs finely chopped jalapeño
-2 tbs minced garlic
-1 ¾ cups of canned tomato sauce
-1-2 tbs tabasco
-4 cups chicken stock
-cook 2 cups of rice

Lightly coat chicken in 1 tbs spice mix and dredge in flour, then sprinkle the
chicken with the remaining seasoning. Heat ½ inch of oil in a cast iron skillet. Fry
chicken 5-8 min per side in a cast iron skillet. Remove when browned on all sides.
Pour oil out of pan and add ¼ cup back.
Add onions, celery, and green peppers and cook for a few minutes. Add tomatoes,
jalapeños, and garlic to vegetables. Cook for two minutes. Add tomato sauce and
cook for three minutes. Add tabasco and remove from heat.
Add chicken pieces and stock to a large sauce pan and bring to a boil. Cover and
reduce heat, cooking for five minutes. Stir in half the tomato mixture, cover, and
cook for five minutes. Stir in the rest of the tomato mix and simmer for 8-10
minutes, stirring occasionally.
Serve hot on rice.
(My only addition is to serve also with cold beer and good music, which I don’t
think Mr Prudhomme–may he rest in power–would object to.)

I stuck the recipe in-between two Frank X Walker books and waited about five months, going back and forth on whether I was really going to get a tattoo. I told myself I didn’t have the time, and that I wasn’t ready. I backed out. I was busy, which I was as a graduate student. And I read the poem some more. And I read, and I thought about ‘about change,’. I recognized the lifelong commitment not just in the permanency of the ink, but also in the message, the reminder, right where I could see it, to be ‘about change,’.

The semester ended and I had the time. I had the kitchen. I bought the food. I was ready. I rented three VHS tapes of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, because a professor told me these tapes would make me a better person. I pulled a stool up to the stove and set a small tv/vcr on it. And I watched these tapes while I cooked the best goddamn sauce piquant any mountainboy in western North Carolina ever cooked. For a tattoo.

And the food was good, or as my dad might say, ‘gooder’n snuff, and not half as dusty.’ While we ate we listened to a Dewey Balfa record and drank cold beer. Justin said it was as good as his grandmother’s. And, when you can cook something as good as a cajun grandmother, you’ve done right. Then the next day Justin’s tattoo gun changed my left arm forever. I got my first tattoo. ‘about change,’

Every time I look at my tattoo, it gives me the power to change myself. And every now and then I forget I have it, which gives me a pleasant surprise when I look at my arm and am reminded. It’s helping me change, not necessarily always into a better person, because it’s about not being stagnant, too. Maybe it’s also about chaos. And, of course, it is about being a better person, a reminder to change for the better. To change any way possible to remove myself from mainstream American culture, a culture of racism and homophobia and sexism and classism and Islamophobia and oppression and fear and endlessly needless consumption. I’m also reminded that change is more than an overnight process. Change is constant.

I’m changed for the good in being a part of the Love Letter To the World family with this tattoo. I still haven’t met anybody else with a LLTW tattoo, though I’ve seen many of the pictures on the Facebook page and read many stories on the LLTW Blog. I’m amazed at the creative power of this project and the international scope. I love all of the translations, but the one in Jamaican English is a favorite that I have listened to countless times. This November I get to present about LLTW at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) Conference in Durham, North Carolina. Maybe I’ll meet some LLTW family there and see your tattoo, or at least get the opportunity to turn some people onto this project. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to give back, in a sense, for what Frank X Walker’s poem and Kurt & Kremena’s vision have given me.

With Mountains of Peace and Love,
Forrest Gray Yerman”

Note: See if you can catch a different glimpse of Forrest’s tattoo here. Or in Boone, NC. (Or in Durham, NC, if you happen to be there in mid-November.) And be sure to say hi if you encounter him in person. He is family.

Jeri Ray’s “balance”

“When the Love Letter To the World project started, I was hoping that ‘would’ or ‘wood’ would be in the poem to match my Lexington Tattoo Project tattoo ‘would.’ They weren’t, so I picked the word ‘balance’ because it’s next to the comma my husband Ernie has from the global artwork. My daughter told me I should put this tattoo on my other arm, opposite of ‘would.’ She said that ‘it would balance.’

I hadn’t decided when to get my ‘balance’ until a couple of weeks ago. My mom & I are in a NASCAR top 10 picks game with some other family & friends. We talk before every race and I enter her picks in the computer for her. My favorite driver is Jimmie Johnson. I could hear my dad in the background saying if Jimmie Johnson won, he would send me $50. I told mom to tell him I was going to take his money! After Mom & I hung up, I told Ernie if Jimmie Johnson won, I was getting ‘balance.’

I now have 4 tattoos, 2 on each arm and all paid for by someone else. How’s that for ‘balance’?”

Jeri Ray's "balance"

Jeri Ray’s “balance” (photograph courtesy of Jeri Ray)

More commas & more connections … “every day”

Remember the story of Ernie Ray who sponsored a Love Letter To the World comma for Tara Zlacki, who then wanted to pay it forward for someone else’s comma?

At least two things happened in direct response to Tara’s generous offer. First, Angela Baldridge was the first person to write to us and ask about the sponsored comma (Angela now has her own comma and is sponsoring a LLTW comma for someone else!). Second, someone who asked to remain anonymous handed us $50 so as to pay it forward for another comma.

Samantha Harp, another person who responded to the announcement of the comma sponsored by Tara, ended up getting the “anonymous” comma. As soon as we told her she could have it, she said that she, too, wanted to pay it forward. So a few days later, we headed to Third Street Stuff to meet Samantha in person and give her $50. We had also arranged for Becky Fox, the recipient of the comma Samantha was paying for to meet us there.

Samantha Harp gifts Becky Fox a comma at Third Street Stuff (photograph by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova)

Samantha Harp gifts Becky Fox a comma at Third Street Stuff (photograph by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova)

And it gets better!

Samantha got her own comma inked on that same day. Here is the picture she sent us (yes, that was in August, when all of Kentucky was green):

Samantha Harp's comma (photograph courtesy of Samantha Harp)

Samantha Harp’s comma (photograph courtesy of Samantha Harp)

She also sent us her story:

“My obsession with the Love Letter To the World project began a few years ago when I got a Facebook invitation to participate in the Lexington Tattoo Project. I loved everything about it and was devastated when I could not participate. When I received the invitation for the Love Letter To the World project, I knew I had to be a part of it.

When the poem was released, I read it over and over again, trying to decide on the perfect phrase for me. I probably changed my mind ten times; the poem was so beautiful, I could not decide. I was browsing the Facebook page one day when I came upon the blog entry about Ernie, the man who collects commas. Reading about Ernie and his commas, and how he pays it forward for other peoples’ commas, summed up everything about the Love Letter To the World project for me.

From the very beginning, I wanted to be a part of this artwork because I wanted to be a part of something big. Not just something big, but something completely positive. I wanted to feel connected to other people. But I was not satisfied with that; reading the poem made me want to contribute something of my own. This is where I got hung up every time. I did not know what ‘contributing something’ meant until I read the blog entry about Ernie.

This comma is so perfect to me. I feel connected to the poem. I feel connected to all participants. I feel connected to the person who donated my comma to me. I feel connected to the comma that I donated. It’s small, but it’s part of something so big and so good.

What really sealed it all for me was meeting the person who I ‘paid it forward’ to. When we met, we realized that our paths had crossed a few years earlier, though we had not introduced ourselves to one another at the time. So here we were now, meeting for the first time, both obsessed with Love Letter To the World, both obsessed with the idea of commas.”

Two months later, Becky got her own LLTW comma. We met at Third Street to photograph her. Afterwards, we realized we had taken her picture one table away from where we had sat with her and Samantha in August!

Becky Fox

Becky Fox’s comma (photograph by Kurt Gohde and Kremena Todorova)

And now Becky is paying for someone else to get “every day” as their own LLTW tattoo! (She chose the phrase :).) Interested? Send us a message!

tattoo design for "every day"

tattoo design for “every day”

Austin Norrid’s “en armonia”

“I chose to translate my tattoo in Spanish because I’ve studied Spanish since I was four years old. It’s been a part of me as long as I can remember. Two summers ago, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Spain; this fall I will be doing my student teaching in a Spanish-speaking country. Because I am a music education student, choosing ‘on harmony’ was a way for me to bring together many aspects of my life: music, Spanish, and working for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.

The preposition ‘en’ in Spanish has the curious ability to translate both as ‘in’ and ‘on’ in English, depending on context. Another option for the translation of this phrase and the preceding line would be ‘las lecciones / de armonía’— literally ‘the lessons of harmony.’ This translation, in fact, would be the more common way of saying this in everyday speech. I chose to translate it as ‘las lecciones en armonía’ because I believe it better retains Frank X Walker’s poetic intention. It both means ‘lessons on harmony’ and ‘lessons in harmony.’ Last fall, my work with KFTC centered on voter education, registration, and empowerment. KFTC strives to build New Power that will make Kentucky a better place for all people. The work I’ve done with them and the work that they continue to do to support fairness and equality for LGBT people, women, and people of color, as well as restoration of voting rights, illustrates how we as Kentuckians and as global citizens can begin to pass ‘the lessons on harmony.’”

Note: Austin got his tattoo before we published a translation of Frank X Walker’s poem in Spanish. The two translations differ. We believe the sentiment is the same.

Also: Like all the other photographs of LLTW tattoos sent to us, Austin’s photograph will become part of the video artwork we will premiere on Winter Solstice Day, Dec 22, 2015. Here is a minute-long preview–check it out!

Austin Norrid's "en armonia" (photograph by Edd MacKey)

Austin Norrid’s “en armonia” (photograph by Edd MacKey)