Post-Return Blog: Love and Attention

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Dear Readers,

This will be my final installment.

Over the past few months, I’ve really thrown my all into these blog posts. I hope that reading my perspective and experiences could help someone feel less alone or give some guidance for dealing with similar situations. I try my best to always write from a place of honesty and so I am thankful for everyone who supported me on this semester-long journey! Coming into this, I was a bit nervous about writing about myself since I usually write in the realm of fiction, so even the blogging process has been an exercise in vulnerability and growth as a writer and individual.

Studying abroad drudged up a lot of emotions for me and highlighted areas where I needed to grow to achieve what I want from life. One of the beautiful things about this experience was how when you are pressed and challenged, when familiar environments and languages are stripped away, what is important to you becomes much clearer. I came into this experience wanting to become a better artist, wanting to push myself through my craft, not realizing what I needed was to push myself to develop further as a person before I could create something more meaningful. I think I was a little naïve and immature, not in a bad way, but just in the sense that I thought brute determination could propel me further, but I was actually exhausting my resources and not addressing deeper issues.

My program was not as academically rigorous as I’d hoped. I was crushed when I, among many others, was not placed into a studio class despite this being the key reason I chose the school in the first place. I floundered and felt out of sorts. “I came all the way here and for what?!” I thought at several points. It was incredibly frustrating and disheartening to come to the country that inspired me to draw and create beautiful stories through art, but I couldn’t even access it. I questioned myself, knowing I need to improve to professional standards, could I make it on my own? The art world is needlessly difficult to access, it seemed to me, but over the course of the semester, I began to realize that the mindset of “I need to learn professionally to have a career” was very limiting. It insinuates that whatever I have to contribute is not of value or enough which is in direct conflict with that core desire to create. Then I pulled back another layer, if that mindset is in direct conflict with a core desire, then what is that core desire to create? Where does it come from, and why does it keep nagging me?

Instead of being paralyzed by not feeling like a good enough writer and artist, I opted to do the opposite and create something small each day, to push against that negative thought process. Journaling and writing little snippets were less daunting than working on a full manuscript, making a scribbly thumbnail was more productive than painting a whole scene. Before studying abroad, I was unconsciously concerned with being taken seriously and getting the right education because I’ve seen in my family and community how not having the right accolades will often make people with power or resources unwilling to give you a chance. Being in another country where no one expects anything of me since I’m not a member of society freed me from this reality. For a little while, I could exist without the pressure of needing to succeed to escape the difficult situations I was all too familiar with growing up. It was then that I realized I wasn’t able to create anything I was proud of before Japan because I wasn’t seeking fulfillment that actually aligns with who I am as a person. I was slowly silencing who I was in order to survive my circumstances, and although that might work in the short term, it leaves you with an unshakable lack of direction.

That was the hard part. Realizing how much I had disrespected myself, and coming to Japan and living alone I was able to be more attentive to myself and put that first. In writing snippets and these blog posts, I realized the patterns of what I was paying attention to. I once heard in a movie (Ladybird 2017) that love and attention are one in the same. If you pay attention to something, you come to understand it and then love it; if you love something, you are more likely to pay attention to it. I wrote down that quote a few years back but only now do I understand what it means. Understanding and patience are part of loving, whether it be loving yourself or loving the world and all the things that fill it.

The time I spent not creating wasn’t wasted. It was full of stories that I was lucky to witness. The okonomiyaki restauranters in Okinawa, the old man in the yellow jacket in Hiroshima, the little boy watching in awe as planes took off into the sky like birds: I was paying attention to people. And in that attention, they were no longer strangers. Despite the language barrier and cultural difference between my sala talk tendencies and the Japanese impulse to withhold at first when talking with people who look like me, I came to understand that if I pay attention, they tell you enough without needing to say much. For a long time, words have been my tool and friend, but perhaps it shouldn’t be the only one. Observing requires patience and the willingness to receive without trying to place or put a name to the information you have yet to fully understand. If love is attention, then patience, observation, and understanding are the tools to help you get to that point of loving and appreciating well.

My attention was directed at people and the issues that they encounter. Sociological questions about why an aspect of Japanese society was the way it was and how it connected to a broader human experience became a central focus in my journals and these blogs. The way people connect and enjoy their time was a highlight of my day to witness.

On the last day we’d all be in Japan, a friend I’d made before and another I’d made during the program, and I all went to Arashiyama and I was enchanted by how in that moment two parts of my life were coming together and were happier for it. We stood in line for taiyaki and watched as children anxiously squirmed between parents and chauffeurs, how 20-somethings gathered and delighted while sharing the same childhood snack. And later, as my friends and I wandered past the bamboo forest to a neighborhood clearing, we came upon an opening full of wild grasses and flowers swaying in the mountain air. An elderly couple walked alongside one another for quite some time and admired the remnants of spring blossoms of trees before summer came upon Kyoto. I observed their contentment and how the simplicity of the natural space and the warmth of each other’s company brought such quiet and peaceful joy. In that moment, I was doing the same. Spending time with happy old trees and a meld of new and old faces, all these things becoming familiar and dear to me. We barely spoke, my friends and I, while in the grassy space, but there was so much contentment.

Japan taught me many things; some I will unravel as time goes on and realize when situations press me or require it. In terms of an overall arc, though, I think I learned how capable I am of taking control of my career and personal life. I learned a lot about myself, the people I want in my life, and how people always have the capacity for kindness no matter where they go. I think exhibiting that kindness both in our treatment of ourselves and others is vital. I have become incredibly optimistic about what the future holds, what quality projects and experiences are on the horizon as a result of the contentment Japan instilled in me and I hope to return soon.

As of now, I find little happinesses every day just sitting with my journal in the muggy Florida air, writing down all the things I love about this place. Paying attention to the way the gulf tides billow and shatter with the contact of boats and shore. Paying attention to the people who like me were born and raised here, whose stories go untold as overpopulation and over-tourism shape the world’s understanding of what our home has to offer. It’s funny how even in my time away, I was still thinking about this grody place and loving it without even knowing how much. The direction of my work has changed as well as my definition for what “great work” is. To create anything worthwhile, attention is required, thoughtfulness, and the recognition of the truths that underly our fictions. In the truth of our stories lies the love that persists against obstacles which is often silent until all else is stripped away.