The benefits of keeping a journal: paper time machines and thoughts from the soul

I keep a hand-written journal, to log the often boring, redundant, silly, serious, terrible, hopeful, vulnerable thoughts that I have. My current journal is handmade and has a sister that I gave to one of my best friends back in 2009. Since she and I have never gotten to see each other much, I decided to make us these “sister” journals to exchange every time we met up. The journals have sections divided by envelopes to hold whatever each of us found that we wanted to share with the other.

The first three sections of this journal are her entries, interleaved with some of my own. But it’s been a long time since we’ve even been in the same country. When I filled up my last journal in 2015, I finally turned to this one to complete the last seven sections as mine.

There are still a few pages left in it for 2017, and typed below is my first entry over breakfast this morning. I felt it was worth sharing.

Important Lessons / Thoughts from the Soul

  • People are their most attractive, most magnetic, most impressive selves when they are doing what they love.
  • The idealistic man is rarely also the ideal man himself.
  • What we hate in others is often what we hate in ourselves.
  • What we fear in others is often what we fear in ourselves.
  • What we hope for in others is often what we hope for in ourselves.
  • Opposites are not the same as differences.
  • Interesting interests do not make an interesting person.
  • It is good to believe in your ideals if you can also learn to use them to guide your pragmatism. Professing your love for an ideal and then flagellating yourself and others with it is destructive to yourself and a destruction of/disservice to that ideal.
  • Judgment can be good. Judgmentalness is never good.
  • Announce your values. Be your brand. Campaign. Market. Protest. Or call whatever it is you do how you need to call it. Just be mindful that you don’t become the caricature in place of your complexities.
  • (And this one’s not mine, but) living well is the best revenge. (Thanks, George Herbert.)
  • People can be so certain about their uncertainties of others, and yet be so ambivalent about the things which could otherwise be guaranteed.
  • This society disadvantages and advantages extroverts and introverts in different ways. Society celebrates the extroverts and binds them up in social nets disguised as social networks. Society ignores the introverts, perceives them as boring or not leader-like, and they then get to quietly produce results in the background (of a world full of increasingly hotter air) while living out a peaceful life. I envy introverts, but man, do I (usually) love being an extrovert.
2010 entry.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma and Love: A Theory & Meditation on Love

Is the trouble with love anything like the prisoner’s dilemma? There is (ideally) no middleman in the game of love to corrupt us or pit us against each other. There’s only us.

And yet…

Because you know how easily I could leave or change my heart, you withhold the part of you I need to feel confident that you love me.

Because I know how easily you could leave or change your heart, I withhold the part of me you need to fall in love with me.

Love takes a certain amount of compromise, a willingness to stop looking for something else, an agreement to stop questioning what we could have with someone else, to work through our imperfections together. Each of us has the option to walk away, and the “prize” of walking away first is a preservation of ego and the cold comfort of not having to deal with the pain of finding out, “Who loved whom more? Who didn’t want the other one enough?” We could also both walk away and both lose. The individual fear that we could both have more than this keeps us from cooperating. The collective fear is that cooperation, while mutually beneficial, doesn’t get us “high” and is potentially not very romantic.

But it’s worth repeating: being idealistic is not the same as living the ideal. So don’t let your ideals and your pragmatism become a false dichotomy. Don’t let your fears make you doubt or sabotage your emotional bravery.

My Paper Time Machine

A few pages I flipped back to that seemed interesting.

2010. Me: some strange rambling. Her: “Hope. You can’t stop.”
2009. Her: “Lonely! 31 July, I have no idea when I wrote this or why I was so lonely. I puzzle myself.”
Me (in response): “Even angry fish has friends. Don’t be lonely.”
My entries on the two days before the presidential election. If I only knew then…

I have three pages left to fill before starting a new journal for 2017. At the end of the journal I found this entry from my friend. What a nice surprise. Where in the world are you, hon? Regardless, thanks for the note.

A love letter from 2010. It’s taken over six years to “find” it again. It was a nice thing to read at the start of 2017.

A welcome interruption: a letter for busy people

We are a culture in transit, both for the joy and the agony of it. Our long work commutes depress us, while ideas of travel and escape excite us. In one of the great contradictions of the human condition, we talk about the journey being more important than the destination, despite what we might think of that inspirational cliché when we’re stuck in traffic.

But maybe it’s not an either-or question; we can’t have a destination without a way to get there, or vice-versa. And maybe what matters isn’t the destination but that we will encounter other places, people, and experiences along the way. We will choose to stop not only for food and fuel, but also for rest, play, and affection. We will stop at the quiet places that ask nothing of us and sell nothing to us. We will stop for someone who interrupts us, to share the moment together. We will stop for a pair of pigeons who, like us, are homeward bound, and who are also willing to pause the journey to enjoy each other’s company.

A Welcome Interruption - two pigeons - ink drawing
A Welcome Interruption, 5 x 7 inch ink drawing by Jenie Gao

We are a culture in transaction. It is well to remember the things we readily stopped for, while we were searching for something else. It is well to notice that life happens in the small moments, and not to miss them while we use our busyness to earn the chance of someday going slow.

This is a letter for friends, family, loved ones, and anyone looking for a reason to pause, reflect, and find center again.

My past week in artwork:

Ink drawings of trees, a study for Jenie Gao's Illuminate Madison project
Ink drawings of trees, studies for Jenie Gao’s Illuminate Madison public project.
Ink drawings of Trees by Jenie Gao
More ink drawings of trees, part of a series for Jenie Gao’s Illuminate Madison public project. Exploring themes of power/disempowerment, future states, and education.
A Welcome Interruption - Pigeons Kissing
A Welcome Interruption, 5 x 7 inch ink drawing by Jenie Gao
Giclee print on canvas of "Redamancy," by Jenie Gao
Picked up a giclee print of my woodcut, Redamancy, from a local printer in Madison. As someone who’s worked in commercial printing, I’m in love with their quality. And man…this itty-bitty canvas is almost too cute for me…
charlemagne-the-cat-02
But this guy never gets too cute for me.

My past week in writing:

Art and Leadership: The Power and Purpose of Creativity, re-published on The Abundant Artist

Who Controls the Content? Our Role in Creating What We Want to Consume, published on Madison365

The love affair of art & politics-and the culture they create

The chase. The game. Love it or hate it, love it and hate it. Choose to play, choose not to play. There’s no getting away from it. Our existence depends on relationships and our fulfillment on how well we play with others.

Today, I’d like to invite you to play a game of make believe.

Let’s imagine that the artist and the politician are the Mom and Dad of society, two idealists with (big egos and) the dream of creating a life together. The communication and balance of power between them can teach us a lot about what kind of culture they’ll create, either together or in spite of each other.

There’s the charitable relationship of art and politics. Mom throws the best dinner parties and Dad always supports what she’s doing. The family does a lot of charity runs and bake sales. The house is always warm and well decorated and the gratitude aplenty. The Jones are jealous of how good we have it. There are still homeless people outside, but that justifies our charity even more. Dad feels important and Mom feels needed. It’s how things have always been, and as long as things are stable, we have no need to question, critique, or innovate upon a working system, so we go with it.

Of course, eventually the problems are more than the feel good stories can mask. Why? Well, it’s funny. Turns out, it has nothing to do with this Mom and Dad (at first), but with what others either don’t have or maybe don’t even want. People start asking questions. Ahhh, gossip and comparison, the beginning of the death of happiness. It’s funny how you don’t worry about problems until people start pointing them out. Mom begins to ask if she should have done something different with her life. Both parents worry about how to preserve their image. Society at large starts pondering different ways of being.

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This leads to a transactional partnership of art and politics that talks a lot about equality and fairness. It’s a practical marriage, but it always feels a little tense and manipulative. It probably didn’t help that we had to sign and agree to a lot of Terms & Conditions, a liability waiver, and a prenuptial beforehand (but, you know, just in case). It also probably didn’t help that we exchanged “keeping up with the Jones” with tit-for-tat-measure-for-measure. Anyway, we probably didn’t agree to enough policies, because it’s obvious that the politician still wears the pants, even if the artist does the talking. But it’s the best picture of equality we’ve got so far, and who’s going to tell Mom she’s getting used for her ideals when she finally has an identity built on her ambition rather than on raising the kids? Who’s going to tell Dad that he’s not the man he says he is?

The arts become a part of our economic infrastructure via propaganda, advertising, and mass media. Despite what the campaigns say, we know where the walls of this box are and whose sandbox we can’t make comments about, even if our company is new and doesn’t have cubicles or a verbalized hierarchy. We either become brainwashed and complacent with how we’re told to behave or disgustingly adolescent and contradictory to resist control. Your choices as a kid growing up in this generation are between being a sheep and a black sheep.

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Now we’ve got a bigger problem. Things weren’t always easy, but at least they were clear when Mom and Dad had set roles. We knew it would get harder when we challenged the status quo, but it would be more gratifying…right? But now we’ve got unclear roles and ideals that we’ve failed to live up to thus far. We’ve maybe even become a part of the problem. It would be a really good idea to talk things through at this point, but now we’re ___ years in. There are kids and money in the mix and a reputation to maintain. The smallest disruption could send us tailspinning into a catastrophe.

Sure enough, the marriage of art and politics falls apart in a dazzlingly dramatic spectacle. The couple fights openly and shamelessly in front of the kids and tries to get them to pick sides. The respect in this relationship is dead. Neither party was actually ever fit or ready to be a parent or a leader, but the position at least looked good on paper.

Mom turns to any avenue to protest and blast her voice and cutting criticisms: graffiti, caricatures, satirical papers, poetry slams, the classic breakup song. Her story will not be silenced. Her ex-husband politician used to love her wit. Now, the jokes are a little too close to much more painful truths. He writes policies and launches campaigns trying to censor or shame her. He didn’t used to be a bad guy. His intentions were good and once upon a time, he, too, was living up to someone else’s expectations before trying to set his own on others. But we’ve forgotten that as this affair became a quarrel. Now, both parties waste their time telling the other to change or to justify his or her value. Anxiety runs high. Blame is rampant. Issues become very black and white. One parent fights for anarchy while the other fights for militance. One fights for expressionism while the other for utilitarianism. Side with one, and you’ll automatically reject the other, without considering whether this is truly an either-or situation. Are we striving for peace or staying at war? And are we talking about war or just how to win the next battle? Are we creating something new or just destroying what someone else has made?

If you can’t relate to either parent, you’ll repress or hate where you come from. The irony of harboring hate, of course, is that you’ll for damned sure remember the impression it made on you. And some day, just like how you lacked respect for all the dogmas and actions of your parents, you’ll grow up to face those same ticks and tendencies in yourself that undoubtedly came from your upbringing. You might then become a pessimist or at best finally grow a sense of empathy.

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But before you let your ideals give into harsh reality, there’s a shift that makes it possible for art and politics to work together.

There comes a point when we learn both to acknowledge and accept the baggage and damage done. We need to make peace with the fact that yes, it should be easier than this, but it isn’t, and since we can’t take back the sins of yesterday, we have to start focusing on today.

It doesn’t matter whether we are the powerful or the powerless. We need to understand how empathy works without falling into the trappings of pity. We need to recognize when staying in a bad relationship becomes as much our own choice as someone else’s. We need to let go of pride and shame alike, to know what we can and cannot do on our own, but also what we are willing to learn to do, so that others can truly help us. We need to understand how to be honest and critical without being disrespectful, of ourselves or other people.

We have to stop comparing this relationship with the good and bad of others’ and our own experiences. We have to learn to build for the new, and to know that letting go of the old does not have to be the same as exploiting, disrespecting, or being ignorant of it. And for us to truly live up to the morals we recognize internally, we have to know what our goals are.

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From here, the artist and politician can become equal partners and leaders, and we see the greater effect of the example they set for anyone willing to pay attention. It is about the example we choose to set, in whatever roles we play. Positivity and negativity are equally contagious, though neither are overnight phenomenons.

We see change begin in our willingness to forgive others’ flaws as we address our own. We see it when we can each let go of control of the outcome of things, not because we don’t care, but because we have the building blocks of trust. We see it when we can set standards–without matching them with judgments.

We see change when we stop creating and abusing loopholes in a system of messy policies that were designed to protect us but in the process failed to educate us. We see it when instead we create policies that foster collective responsibility rather than drive oppression and stalemates. We see it when honesty is a gift and a given from the individual instead of the demand of surveillance, of fear in the name of safety.

We see change in how people care for public and private spaces. We see it in when cities that shut us up and shut us down with noise, ads, and sales pitches give way to ones designed with artistry, when our surroundings beckon us to look and listen, to flow and rest in rhythm rather than stop and go in discord. We see it in our culture’s readiness to appreciate beauty, and integrate it into daily life rather than categorize, monetize, and institutionalize it.

We see change in the style of our learning, in how interdisciplinary we are. We see it in how well we understand the relationship (rather than the conflict) of creativity and logic and of intellect and emotion. We see it in our language, in how comfortably and expressively we communicate when we trust one another. We see it in how we playful we are, in how confidence grows when people don’t take themselves so seriously.

We come to understand how passion can be quiet and peace can be vibrant. The crazy thing is, when we look back, we don’t remember the pledges, the campaigns, or even the courtship dance. We just remember having a life.

**I spend a lot of my personal time writing and playing with different ideas and storytelling structures. It’s not hard for me to write a few thousand words and I usually make time to write on most days. Having said that, while it’s a fantastic exercise for me, it’s hard for me to know whether what I write is always productive or worth sharing. This blog post is a byproduct of these writing explorations. Feel free to let me know what works and what doesn’t work. There’s a reason I’ve called this place “Learning to See.” It’s as much a reminder for me to keep learning as it is a way to share what I’ve learned with others.

To my friend who lost her daughter and what you taught me about love

Sunday, July 12th, was a picturesque, idyllic day.

It started with a promising fourth (?) date. We made breakfast in the morning, then walked around Madison’s Art Fair on the Square.

Then I spent the afternoon with friends, picking raspberries, playing with fat farm cats, joking, drinking beer, having dinner, trying not to lose focus on the road in Poynette, Wisconsin, with a passenger whose attention span is as competitively short as my own, and returning home with not only raspberries for myself but enough catnip to keep Charlemagne high for a week.

Sunday was a normal and happy day for me, as it was for you, too.

But while I was driving home that night with a friend who had just discovered a CD of angsty music from my high school days, you were checking on your daughter in the bath, to discover that she must have had a seizure and drowned.

—–

I have to confess, I didn’t cry right away when I learned about Nicole. I know my concept of loss has changed a lot in the last several years, but I think this event was the first event where I felt the difference in my response to the news of a death so close to my circle. I can’t separate the loss from what Nicole has given you. I can’t see the waste of life by death, because this girl, with her severe autism, was never supposed to speak and yet became the greatest voice for you to be here; she gave you the patience and compassion that you serve so many others with. She did exactly what she needed to do with her life. A lot of other people with a “much higher capacity” never get there in three times the amount of years.

So I couldn’t be sad, not until I saw you at the church, this church that was built specifically to serve families with disabilities, a group of people whose faith is in service of something and not just to honor the faith itself.

I saw you, and then I cried. I saw Nancy, Nicole’s caretaker, place her hat that Nicole always asked if she could have on the altar, and that made me cry, too. I cried because I understood, this was not the life she lost, but the life all of you felt the void of.

I talked with former coworkers, some of whom had been grieving with you all week, and I both empathized and felt the difference and distance that this past year has made between my world and all of yours.

I have never been a religious person, but the priest shared a passage that resonated this day:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?

Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith?

I know, and yet I do worry, and I listen and wonder if anyone else is really listening. Maybe, but then it doesn’t take an hour before people are talking about the troubles of life, the long work hours, the failed diets, if it’s not one thing, then it’s another.

I want to believe that I’m not limited by societal expectations, but I am. I haven’t been back in the US for very long, but I feel the pressure to be busy. I don’t want all the same life milestones as other people, or do I? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. I don’t want the same things, but maybe the ideas those things symbolize. I don’t want a safe career, but I do want a meaningful one. I don’t want a big house, but I love shared spaces, and I love having a space to create. I don’t want a fancy car, but I love where modern transportation can take me. I don’t want to belong to a church, but I cherish the meals I share with people–this experience of “breaking bread”–more than anything. I don’t want a wedding, but I do want love.

And I understand that at least for most of us, these things do not come without any sowing or reaping. To discover one’s life’s purpose is a challenging journey. To appreciate the simple pleasures in life usually comes with understanding the difficulty of it. To be in love–to sustain love–requires not only the risk of heartbreak, but the inevitable event of it.

Love takes a shitload of bravery and resilience, a type of bravery I’m not sure I’ve fully developed. It’s easier to dump someone than to be dumped, easier to move on than to let someone else care less than you do. This seems to be the curse of my generation, at least; we have lots of priorities, that give us every excuse and opportunity to treat love (or the attention we associate with it) like an option.

But if we drop it so easily, then it isn’t love.

I came across a quote recently: When there is love, there is no question.

And I thought, “Yeah, okay,” and then, “Fuck….I have so many questions. I always have so many questions.”

It’s always been unquestionable, Dawn, what you would do for your family, and therefore, for love. It had nothing to do with getting enough attention or something in return. It had nothing to do with not having options, either. But there is a dedication in you that many lack. There is an intrinsic happiness in you that many will labor never to find. There is a belief that love begets love, and so for you, it does. And not an ounce of highly sophisticated logic will ever replicate that or be able to overcome the shadow of doubt that always follows reason.

I look at the track I’m on now, and oftentimes think that I can never be heartbroken again. I’ve wisened up too much for that. But damn, that’s cold, if it’s true. I hope it means I’m growing up a little to be able to say, I hope I can be heartbroken again, not devastated again, but open and wholehearted enough to deeply know my loved ones and miss them. And in this age of convenience and objectivity, where the good dates are as easily forgettable as the mediocre ones; where things and people are easily let go, exchanged, and replaced; where understanding that life can and will go on is easier than ever, maybe (the willingness to face) heartbreak is exactly the elixir we need.