Author Archives: Gail Johnston

A Katrina Story of Encouragement

May this story be an encouragement to the people of Houston and to those who are called to be there for them. It is taken from the The Social Cause Diet, a collection of inspiring personal accounts and essays on the subject of volunteering.

Social Cause Diet Stories - CrayfishFried Turkey and Boiled Crawfish


The shotgun style house stands about a city block from the Mississippi River in uptown New Orleans. The street wasn’t flooded during Hurricane Katrina but the wind blew old Mr. G’s roof to pieces—which is what can happen when you’re too poor to pay for termite treatment. The rain did the rest of the damage; by the time Mr. G and his sister, Miss B, got home, there wasn’t any way to save the walls. Like so many in the city, they needed to gut and chuck and start to rebuild.

It took two years to find help, because they sure didn’t have enough money to go it alone. Forget insurance, and they weren’t getting much from the government. But they had friends and they had church. And the time came when they wound up at the top of the list of the Rebuild program of the Episcopal diocese of Louisiana. Every week a different group of volunteers came by and took a turn. When it was our turn, the job was well underway. The walls had been stripped and rewired and reinsulated. New vinyl windows were set in the old frames. Although creaky and crooked, the old reprobate started looking pretty good with its new clothes on, in this case gypsum drywall and a first coat of tape and compound.

We were the ones who dressed it up. No big thing except that none of us had ever done anything like this work. But we came for a reason–to help–and the diocese had a couple of twenty-somethings who showed us what to do. Kiel was the teacher; he’d already worked for six months. Mike was the other one, just a few months in. Talk about positive role models. After this stint of volunteering, Kiel was off to seminary and Mike to the Peace Corps.

The work started slowly Monday—we had just arrived from home state Connecticut, and everyone was getting to know each other and settle in. We came from six different churches, about half from the city, half suburb. We were black, white, Latino, mixed up. It was a fine group. Pretty soon we were all goofing around and making too much noise and waking up late. Aside from a bit of adult yelling, adolescent roughhousing and one broken window (the other one was already broken when we got there!), we managed to get where we needed to go.

The great thing about these short term mission trips is that they are an immersion in an experience that can’t help but open your eyes to some things you need to see. The main thing is the people you meet. People whose lives are hard and who need our help. People whose faith in God teaches us what really counts. People who show us Christ in action. New Orleans is full of abandoned houses and people waiting for help. But it is also full of new life and old beautiful homes and a funky sort of jazz, jubilee and we’ll-get-through-anything sort of spirit. Times are hard, but they are not hopeless.

By Thursday we were old hands. The place was sheetrocked and taped and about done. It was time to feast. Mr. G had been out back all day, cooking. We gathered around a makeshift table, grabbed some paper plates and waited. The pastor carved up a golden fried turkey while Mr. G finished cooking another one. A huge mess of boiled crawfish smelled incredible. We got a lesson in how to eat them: take off their head and the end of the tail, strip off the shell and it’s that morsel of spicy, salty meat that pops into your mouth. We said grace. Mr. G was visibly moved when he thanked us for our work.

We dug in and ate. And it was good.

Rev. Matthew Calkins is the coauthor of SpeakEasy: Mary Lou’s Rules for Engaging Conversation. Your neighborhood churches may offer similar mission trips.

Why Run: A Reason For Every Decade

In anticipation of running the Bay to Breakers tomorrow, I’m reposting an article about reasons to run for every decade. These are personal reasons, but hopefully some of them will relate to the athlete in you. I’d like to start by saying that one of the main reasons I run today, a reason not stated below, is to keep me in shape for other things I like doing. I’ve found that having at least one good run a week gives me the stamina for dancing, hiking, or any other lively activity that comes around.License plate

DECADE ONE: In the first decade of my life, I exercised unintentionally, primarily by running away from a little boy named Scott at recess. He was so cute, much shorter than I, and could easily be outrun. On two occasions, he employed his taller, not-so-cute friend named Raymond to catch me. While Raymond held me still, little Scott would jump up and kiss me. Ever since, I’ve loved the name Scott (and eventually married one), but at seven years old, the running was what I loved most. Racing through the huge grassy field every day was bliss. I hear that kids don’t get to run willy nilly at recess anymore. This is a travesty, and I hope concerned parents everywhere will make enough fuss to return recess to its rightful place.

TEEN DECADE: In the second decade of my life, my teen years, I ran to lose weight. This was entirely unnecessary, but I did not know that then. The more I ran, the bulkier my legs got and the more I ran to trim them down. My legs were monsters. Not really, but with my teenager brain, I thought they were. At least my misperception kept me running, something I enjoyed, whether it was hot and humid or bitter cold. Running was a part of experiencing the world in a newly independent way, breezing down the trail of the old railroad tracks with no one to answer to but myself.

TWENTIES: In the next decade, my twenties, I ran for social reasons. My dad would say, “Gail doesn’t date anyone who won’t run with her.” This was true. My husband ran with me on our first date. Running with me and being named Scott kind of sealed the deal with him, that lucky guy. Unfortunately, he stopped running with me after we got serious. This is another travesty, but a very personal one, so only I need to fuss about it.

When I was 28, on two occasions, I ran with Robin Williams through the streets of San Francisco. We were part of a running group that gathered at Fleet Feet Sports on Tuesday nights. When I hear the slogan, “I left my heart in San Francisco,” I think of those early evening runs, along the Embarcadero and up and down the hilly streets.

THIRTIES: Then came the thirties, the years of running to escape. There’s nothing like running after a long day when it seems like everyone wants a piece of you. Responsibilities at work and home escalate like crazy in the thirties and running brings release. But it’s harder than ever to fit it in.

One night, I ran out of the house when my kids needed me. Their father was home, but working in his studio, so I was essentially on duty. We lived on a country street and it was dark outside, really dark. Coming out of our long, graveled driveway—running fast—I stumbled into a huge dead deer that had been hit by a car and pulled off to the side of the road. This spooked me silly, calling me to my senses. I immediately went back home to the kids. Running, as great as it is, should not come first.

FORTIES: In my forties, I started running for health and preservation: preservation of muscle tone, skin elasticity, energy, and the ability to sleep through the night. At one point, however, I started wondering. The medical community was babblying about running being bad for your knees. We NOW know that weight bearing exercise strengthens your knees, but the studies weren’t out at the time. I was worried because walking tends to bore me; it depressed me just thinking about it. So I put the question into a prayer—like I do with every troublesome issue—sincerely seeking direction. That week, license plates arrived for my new car and the first four characters were: 1RUN. In California, plates start with a number, so the “1” was as close as you could get to an “i”. But I had not asked for vanity plates! This was the result of uncanny coincidence or divine providence. I believed in the later and joyfully went running as soon as I put the plates on my car.

FIFTIES: Now in my early fifties, I run to help me think. For example, I’ve never suffered from Writer’s Block, but I do get Writer’s Sinkhole. Once I spent six hours trying to write one sentence. Well, maybe it wasn’t that long, but I don’t really know because I got lost in the effort, sinking deeper and deeper into this muddy place where I don’t want to give up because I almost have it, but it’s not quite right so I keep up the good fight while my brain gets more and more muddled. The best remedy, I have found, is to run—one mile will do it. My head clears, and when I return to my desk, the writing flows. Other exercise will work, too, as my almost-famous Jazzercise post explains.

BayToBreakersI would be amiss in this personal discourse on running if I failed to mention the Bay to Breakers. There are many races throughout the world that inspire people everywhere to keep on running, but the annual Bay to Breakers is the one for me, year after year, decade after decade. Last spring, I signed my son up to join me. He worried, “Mom, I haven’t been running for awhile,” but I told him that he was eighteen, a picture of health and had nothing to worry about. Sure enough, the photographers for the event captured my son prancing effortlessly in his minimalist shoes across the finish line (while my pained face tells a slightly different story). And do you see the near perfect number—11110—on his running bib? Like my license, it must be a good sign.

Spending Money is Not a Sin

Greeting the New Year With A Discussion of Values

The start of a new year is a good time to consider values you hold dear. Are they still working for you? Maybe you don’t even know what your values are, but the decisions you make are usually based on values. Even if you make a decision because “someone made you do it,” or rather, due to peer pressure, that reflects a value you attach to looking good in front of other people, or earning approval, or something like that.

At this time of year, people may be upset about all the money they spent over the holidays. Except for someone I’ll call Bob. Bob spends very little over the holidays because he values saving a buck above all else. Really? Is that what life is all about? Bob seems to treasure dollar-saving coupons more than his loved ones. Who cares if his wife hasn’t had a night out in months; dinner at home is much cheaper! Who cares if the dishwasher is broken; do without and save some money! It appears that Bob thinks spending money is a sin.

I actually understand this because I used to feel the same. In my 20s, I decided not to attend my best friend’s wedding because I thought it would be irresponsible to spend so much money on the airfare. Oh my gosh, what kind of values does that reflect? Now I realize that my friend is way more important than money. Today, I’d be there for her no matter what.

The fact is that I have always placed a high value on travel, of exploring new places. Yet, in my young adult years, I used to suppress my love of travel, thinking it was self-serving and possibly “wrong” because of the money required. But if you look at the ultimate role model of worthy values—Jesus—you would see that going places offers the opportunity to spread peace to the ends of the earth. Jesus clearly traveled! Granted, he went by foot or boat, but the point is that travel, if anything, is a value that has been blessed by our Lord (Mark 16:15).

Incidentally, Jesus also approved of a woman pouring expensive perfume on his head, to the surprise of many people around him who thought it was wasteful (Mark 14). Jesus valued relationships more than resources.

Yes, being financially responsible is important, but back to Bob who won’t get the damn dishwasher fixed, others are inconvenienced and left feeling unimportant because he doesn’t want to spend a dime. He actually has plenty of money, but due to warped values, he thinks he shouldn’t spend it.

The particular value that I’ll be reassessing for myself this year is one I’ve been trying to shed for a decade: the value I place in perfectly ordering my day. I’m kind of odd in this area, I suppose, but I seriously grieve, even suffer, over wasted time. My peace-of-mind is often disturbed because I’ve spent all morning writing this article, for example, when I really should be doing something else. I scold myself, complain to my husband, and drink too much coffee to work faster and make up for lost time.

Come to think of it, being overly precious with my time may not be that different than over-valuing money. And who’s to say when spent money and time is really “wasted”? Maybe I’ve learned something by taking too long on a project that goes nowhere. Only God really knows what’s actually going on in any situation; there are too many variables beyond our limited perspective for us to fully understand.

Which leads me to the value I want to hold in highest regard moving forward: the value of trusting God with my life, which includes trusting Him for my imperfect past and use of time. God does not require perfection. Jesus’s friends were crazy imperfect! But God does want us to invite Him into our lives and trust Him even when we make mistakes. If I trust Him with mistakes I’ve made in the past so they stop making me cringe, maybe I’ll be freer and more clear-headed in the future with the choices I make, knowing that I’m not going to rack myself over the coals if I do something like—horror of horrors—mismanage my time.

So the new year provides an opportunity to look at what is really important. If you have a value that is interfering with something that is more valuable, like caring for family and friends, make a willful decision to reshuffle those values. For me, I’m going to elevate the values of keeping my peace-of-mind, complaining less, and trusting God even in my imperfections. As for travel, that value can stay right where it is—close to the top.

Whatever in Buenos Aires

Travel poem
I’ve shared a few of our fun Buenos Aires photos on Facebook and wrote about the art on my Johnston & Alves blog. But there were some tough aspects about the trip. For example, due to a neighborhood power outage, the Airbnb place I had booked three months prior had to cancel on us three days prior to our departure. This was horrible news because I had gotten to know the area of our first place well. I had researched the neighborhood and knew exactly where to go on our first day to rent bikes, book a restaurant for Christmas dinner, etc. The place would have also come with a local cell phone. However, all that disappeared when the night before we left, I finally found something that seemed halfway decent in a neighborhood I knew nothing about. This new place didn’t come with a phone. It didn’t even come with water at first. We arrived after 24 hours of traveling and really wanted to use the facilities, but discovered the water had been turned off because of construction in the building. I could go on, but I’ll stop here and share some good news. The Airbnb host, an attractive Buenos Aires woman in a flowing dress with that lovely Argentine accent, greeted us all with kisses on the cheek. Then we met my daughter’s Argentine friend who also greeted us with kisses on the cheek. My husband was glowing.

Another difficulty on the trip was the amount of closed doors we experienced. I’m not talking about the “Closed Door” restaurant experience, which was fantastic, and I highly recommend Casa Felix. I’m talking about the closed doors due to the holidays. In the United States, businesses take advantage of holidays for making a buck, but not so in Buenos Areas. On the up side, I was surprised to discover that locals celebrate with firecrackers on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and the rooftop of our place turned out to be a great place for watching them.

Toward the end of our trip, I wrote the poem I call “Whatever Travel.” Maybe I should have called it “No Problem” because I noticed people in Buenos Aires said that a lot.

Now back at home at my computer, I put the words to crazy type. The typography itself communicates the unpredictability of travel. The intention with the type is also to slow down your reading, just like a trip might slow you down and help you see things in a new way. I’ve uploaded a few versions of the poem on and


Quotes of comfort

I opened A Rumor of Angels to process the tragedy in San Bernardino and decided to share some quotes from the beginning of the book. They’re only words and won’t do anything to end acts of terrorism, but it’s all I have for now (especially since my laryngitis won’t even let me so much as whisper!).  Dragonfly_gail-johnston

“Duration is not a test of true or false. The day of the dragon-fly or the night of the Saturnid moth is not invalid simply because that phase in its life cycle is brief. Validity need have no relation to time, to duration, to continuity.”
—Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift From The Sea

“The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it.”
—Michel Eyquem De Montaigne

“Hope means to keep living
amid desperation
and to keep humming
in the darkness.”
—Henri J.M. Nouwen, With Open Hands

“‘And yet.’ Those are my two favorite words, applicable to every situation, be it happy or bleak. The sun is rising? And yet it will set. A night of anguish? And yet it, too, will pass. The important thing is to shun resignation, to refuse to wallow in sterile fatalism.”
—Elie Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs

“It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt

“Now is not the time to think of what you do not have.
Think of what you can do with what there is.”
—Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

“What is life? It is the flash of a firefly in he night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the winter time. It is the little shadow which runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
—Crowfoot, Canadian Indian, dying words

“There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of one small candle. In moments of discouragement, defeat or even despair, there are always certain things to cling to. Little things usually: remembered laughter, the face of a sleeping child, a tree in the wind—in fact, any reminder of something deeply felt or dearly loved. No man is so poor as not to have many of these small candles. When they are lighted, darkness goes away and a touch of wonder remains.”
—Arthur Gordon, A Touch of Wonder

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
—John 1:5

A Rumor of Angels Review

A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting GoI just want to share the wonderful review I received for A Rumor of Angels: Quotations for Living, Dying & Letting Go. I’m copying it from the reviews on where I recently started selling my books.

“I’m a new Hospice Aide in Home Care. It’s my passion and I’m very excited to enter this field. A Rumor of Angels will live in my work bag for years to come. It’s a great tool for caregivers, aides, nurses or anyone in healthcare. For those quiet moments, I plan to read my favorite poems/quotes out of this book to my patients and their loved ones. It’s simple to read and understand, yet I’m amazed at how well the quotes and stories flow within the chapters. The quotes are SO fitting, meaningful and motivational for both the living and dying. For the low price, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality. This book isn’t limited to those dying or healthcare workers. It’s for anyone who loves reading inspiring quotes.” —Kendall Morales

Thank you, Kendall, you’ve really encouraged me!

Graphic Design Then and Now

SeymourChwast-note-smWhile cleaning out an old file cabinet, I discovered a note Seymour Chwast wrote me after I visited his studio the year he was inducted into the Art Director’s Hall of Fame. If you want to know who’s who in my field, take a look at Chwast’s archives. I had forgotten about visiting Chwast and the famous studio he cofounded (Push Pin Studios), but judging by the wear and tear and holes in the left corner, I must have had the note posted and packed numerous times while moving from apartment to apartment in New York.

Those were the days before the internet messed up job hunting. To find new work, rather than sending an email that got lost among hundreds, you would just show up. Actually, I still do that on occasion, the nonconformist that I am. I encourage new grads to do the same, but I don’t think they listen to me.

Letters-drawn-by-handMy cleaning spree also revealed lots of hand-drawn logo studies, such as this one for Legendary Foods. Everything started with drawing back then. Seymour Chwast has faithfully maintained the drawing discipline, but sadly most of us designers have gotten lazy, due to digital tools at our disposal. Don’t get me wrong, I love Adobe applications and I’ve made a lot of money thanks to Steve Jobs, but I want to stop shortchanging the step of conceptualizing on paper first. Different things happen with a real pencil, sketchpad, and kneaded eraser. What, you don’t know what a kneaded eraser is!? If that’s the case, do get yourself one and have fun. While you’re at it, maybe you can write a real note to someone, rather than an email. A real note that someone can post on their wall, then store in a file cabinet for twenty years, then take out and post again—digitally, if not literally.

A rose is still a rose in heaven


A-rose_5x7_lightquotes-lowresI’m grieving the loss of two people who died yesterday, way before their time. I’m grieving for the family of the one we knew. This family is so supportive, loving, talented, kind. May they not blame themselves. May all of us in this community know how to be and what not to say. I’m waiting for the right time to show up.

I had coffee today with Sally, a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years. We found each other on LinkedIn and all of a sudden wanted to resume our relationship. She showed me a card I had given her when her mother passed. It’s of a rose I had scribbled on a napkin for A Rumor Of Angels with a quote from a 7-year-old girl who said, “A rose will still be a rose in heaven, it will just smell ten times sweeter.” Sally had kept the card all these years, tacked it up in her office so she saw it every day. That encouraged me. My greatest desire is to be used by God and encourage others to draw near to Him. Especially when there’s no words to explain things.

Courage, Creativity and Kickstarter

Have Courage Image from VISION

This is one of my favorite images in Creative Cues From The Cat, a book I coauthored and designed. The image is a composite and manipulation of three stock images. It goes with the quote: “Courage is the capacity to confront what can be imagined” by Leo Rosten.

Working on this book has been an exercise in courage, as well as creativity. Every creative effort, even a small one, causes us to take a step into the unknown because we’re creating something that isn’t there yet. The unknown can be as exciting and as dangerous as a jungle, and there’s no guarantee we won’t come out with a few scratches. The scratches could be small, say a few hurt feelings by someone who doesn’t like our poem, idea, desert, or whatever it is we’ve come up with, but feelings tend to be a bit raw when it comes to creativity.

I decided to run a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the printing of Creative Cues From the Cat. Doing this campaign took a lot of courage for me because it requires a video (something I hadn’t done before) and because of numerous unknowns, the main one being the question as to whether or not I’ll meet my “funding goal.” I have ten more days left in the campaign and it’s a tad nervewracking.

But still worth it. I’m grateful for the whole crazy creative experience of putting together the book and Kickstarter campaign. The book is about creativity after all. Yes, it’s also about cats, but cats are utilized to make analogies about the vision and courage needed to take innovative steps. As I worked on this book, page by page, I became even more convinced of its value. We are all creative beings. When we engage our creative selves, we enrich and energize our lives so much. I hope you get a copy of our book and step into the jungle.

Cats & Creativity Book Launched!

GailPerryJohnston Vision: Creative Cues From the CatMy Kickstarter campaign is up! I launched just yesterday here. If you’re unfamiliar with Kickstarter, it’s basically a way for people to see if there’s interest in creative products or ideas before actually going into production. Every Kickstarter campaign has a designated time in order to raise funds. If the funding goal isn’t met within that time, no funds are actually collected.

Please visit my campaign today! I need to kick this baby off!

Justin McRoberts says the creative process is like a mountain. When you are first inspired to do something creative, you see the mountain from afar and it looks glorious. Later, when you actually start climbing the mountain, it can be tough and tedious. You lose the beautiful view of the mountain; you only see the dusty trail that you’re hiking. I’m climbing the mountain now. Please help me get to the top!

Brief Review of Movie Chef

Chef movie reviewChef is about a lot more than cooking. It’s about creativity and what is at stake when a person’s creative spirit is crushed. It’s about social media—its glory and anguish—how it can severely impact an individual and move the masses. It’s also about about a boy. As a parent, I thought the boy story was particularly genius.

The boy, the chef‘s son, is at the age when a kid is smart and incredibly capable, but still on the younger side of puberty. As such, he can tear up easily and be extremely vulnerable. The boy openly craves to be with his dad at work, around the house, with his dad’s friends, etc. The chef doesn’t entirely understand the significance of his son’s requests or know how to deliver for him, but—thanks to upheavals at work and a supportive ex-wife—the dad comes through fantastically.

I’m not a psychologist, but I imagine it’s at this stage in a boy’s life that anger might take root and grow; that is, if a boy is not initiated into manhood with the help of dad or mentor and is not validated as a person that matters, a person who can contribute. If you’ve already seen the movie, that silly cornstarch scene…well, I’m a woman, but I think that was an initiation of sorts. And the hard work the boy did to clean the truck? That lifted his self esteem way up—even though there was a big argument at the end, revealing that good parenting is still messy and far from perfect.

I hope this movie encourages parents to stay in touch with their kids during the transition-into-adulthood years. Not just parents; adults in general, if given the opportunity, can validate kids who are so capable but still so young. It’s really a beautiful phase.

The movie Chef has a lot to it, more than what I’ve touched upon here, as I haven’t even mentioned the cooking. Be sure to stay for the credits. You don’t want to miss the final clip, which is about a grilled cheese sandwich. How generous to end with something we all can do—and aspire to do with more love next time.

Empty nesting is not so bad

Empty-nest-is-not-so-bad by LightQuotesI was pretty weepy after my youngest left for college last month, but it lasted just two or three days. I had been preparing myself for a long time. When your kids leave, there’s the obvious sadness that you won’t see them as often. But there’s more to it. Parenting has been a primary purpose in my life for 20 years! In work and play, my decisions were largely based on how they would impact my kids. For a while, I thought I’d feel purposeless in an empty nest, and I probably would have if I didn’t have a few strategies. Here’s how I readied myself and how I am still nursing myself through this huge transition. If you are nearing the empty nest, you may find it helpful. (If you have more ideas to add, please do so in the comments.)

SOCIALLY: I joined the Commonwealth Club and made new friends who are great conversationalists and remind me that the world is much bigger than my own neighborhood.

SPIRITUALLY: I bought a fancy notebook for a journal and now spend my newly free time in the mornings journaling, praying, and petting my bunny rabbit. (I’m not sure about the spiritual significance of the rabbit, but thought he deserved a mention.)

PROFESSIONALLY: A year before the kids left, I decided to pursue a new kind of client to rekindle my passion in my business. For me, as a graphic designer, that meant finding clients in the wine industry. Granted, not everyone can redirect their careers, but looking for ways to ignite your interest in your work is always a good practice, especially if you have huge college bills.

ROMANTICALLY: My husband was given the wise advice to start dating me again. I suppose if either the husband or wife demonstrates eagerness to become a couple again, to return to the fun of just the two of you, the spouse will likely follow. This effort needs to include an ample dose of forgiveness, by the way, as the stress from child rearing probably left its mark. I’m happy to report that my husband and I we are optimistic about spending more time together and we seem to be laughing a lot. (I’ll leave it to single parents to advise each other in this area.)

PHILANTHROPICALLY: For replenishing a new sense of purpose in life, there’s always volunteering. I haven’t added anything new to my schedule since the kids left, but I’m looking forward to writing more regularly to the children I sponsor through Compassion and World Vision, both great organizations I heartily recommend. (If you want to find a service that feeds your soul, try reading The Social Cause Diet.)

PHYSICALLY: What? I haven’t even mentioned exercise yet! How nice it is to spend less time in the kitchen and more time exercising. The older we get, the more we need exercise, right? Empty nesting and exercise go great together.

CREATIVELY: It seems to me that Etsy is the needlepoint of today. People search the online marketplace to find creative things to buy, to make, and/or to sell. I spent 40 hours last week filling out my shop called LightQuotes, and that is when I came up with the egg design for this post and determined that empty nesting is not so bad. Etsy aside, what is it that you always wished you had time to do? Now’s the time. Enjoy!