“I think we all belong somewhere. I think the biggest barrier to this sometimes just isn’t in our view,” states Karl Johnson.
When you meet Karl Johnson, you feel like you belong. I met Karl Johnson in college on a problematic spring break mission trip. I’ve only seen him a few times since, but each time I’ve felt that he cared about me. I know that sounds simple. But simple is good. And caring is rare. Karl Johnson is rare and good and good at writing.
Karl writes a blog, belong_ng, where he shares his own journey towards acceptance—from others, of self. “I think connection with other people and really reflecting on, and feeling, the value of our relationships is really essential to what it means to ‘have a place,’” he says. ‘Place’ is a common theme on his blog, and it’s apparent that Karl writes from a transparent space. He says, “Between me and the page, that’s where I don’t have to worry about judgement or escaping truth.” There is a searching quality to the posts he writes. His confident inclusiveness is measured by the unease of self-discovery. Karl’s commitment to self-reflection, coupled with his commitment to honesty on the page, invites people to drop their cynicism for a little while. Karl persuades readers, and works to persuade himself, that it’s possible to live a life vulnerable enough to accept oneself. This is a big task. It takes someone as earnest and honest as Karl to do it.
In addition to his blog, Karl shares poetry on his Instagram account @kaaarrrlllj, although he is not one to overshare in an age of endless content production. “I think the internet is great and there are a lot of benefits. I don’t want to be constantly connected, however,” he says. Like many, Karl wrestles with the relationship between art and commerce, and the modern commodification of content. The sheer amount of content available can be staggering and intimidating. Knowing how you want to present yourself in the digital world is difficult. Crafting your work for a particular audience is enticing. Karl feels having his own blog is “a little bit sacred maybe.” It’s a place where he can write longer pieces and customize the design. Karl holds that, for an artist, a greater emphasis should be placed on the interaction between themselves and their craft, less on their relationship with an audience. “I don’t think generally that we should feel entitled to an artist’s relationship with him/herself, their process, intention, etc. If the artist chooses to share that, then so be it,” he says. Validation can be achieved within oneself, within the process and completion of the act of art itself. Karl states, “I would love to be a poet. I would love to publish work. As far as having an ‘audience,’ I’m not really sure.”
Karl first started dabbling in poetry in high school, but it wasn’t until college that he brought greater focus to the practice. “It was a really great way for me to think about and express some difficulty handling my mental health, as well as my own personal narrative,” he states. Karl’s relationship with poetry has changed how he interprets the world around him. It’s an essential component of life with incalculable value, prophetic in its nature. He says, “Poetry is not some abstract and lofty thing, but it’s a lens I see the world through. It’s not just writing, but how I notice things, how I see and feel things.” For Karl, that ability to slow down and pay attention to the world, around and inside of him, is power.
Karl’s artistic influences are many. Recently, he’s been diving into mindfulness in a new way, inspired by people like Sam Harris, David Whyte, and Julia Cameron.“The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is a fantastic book and added a lot of language and intention to the actual purpose and process around my writing. It is an intensely spiritual and emotional work,” says Karl. That mindfulness helps Karl manage both his creative and spiritual identities, and explore how they entwine. “I’ve really gotten into meditation and find it really helpful in my day-to-day. Especially as a creative, and just how my brain works, it’s so good to be able to come back to quietness and practice being in the moment,” he says.
You can’t care about poetry and not care about music. Karl cites Rainbow Kitten Surprise and Brockhampton, two groups that vocally advocate for queer rights, as two of his favorites. “Both groups put immense amounts of personality behind their music. The feeling and channeling that it gets me into is super fun and inspiring,” says Karl. Both Propaganda and Lecrae have also had a big impact on Karl. They were the first rappers that made him consider his faith beyond the church. Their fearlessness to comment on activism and racial injustice were refreshing for Karl, “Especially coming from an all-white church, where these kinds of ideas naturally weren’t expressed.”
The last time I saw Karl Johnson was at my brother’s wedding in 2017. We talked a little bit, but not enough. Next time, we’ll talk more. And hopefully it will be socially acceptable (and safe) to give people hugs in public again. Because Karl Johnson is the type of person that gives you a hug and means it. Karl Johnson is complex and interesting and welcoming. Karl Johnson belongs.