Now that it’s the end of the year, many people have been posting their “best nine” - their nine most “liked” Instagram photos from 2017. As I reflect on the year, some of my “best nine” could also fit under “worst nine” because life is funny like that. In that spirit, here are some of the many things that shaped 2017 for both Kwohtations and me personally. They’ve blended together a bit, kind of like when you spend too much time with someone that you really like. Here goes:
You and all of your support - thank you for listening and bearing witness; for sharing your ideas and life experiences; for dropping by to say hi during markets or through social media; for supporting the business and keeping it up and running; for sending / wearing / using art out in the world, as it is meant to be; and for making the world a more interesting, vibrant place just by being in it.
Kept Kwohtations alive, because sometimes it’s harder to continue working on something than to start something new. Kwohtations has been my side hustle for six years to the day - I opened my Etsy shop on December 31, 2011 ( which tells you what a wild, raucous life I lead). Running even a small creative business on the side of a full-time job is hard. Running a business while just trying to do life is hard. Spending Saturday nights ironing tote bags, or sitting outside for 10 hours trying to sell paper goods in the rain, or trying to figure out expense categories from the IRS website is not particularly fun or inspiring. And yet, for reasons still inexplicable to me, Kwohtations continues to be an outlet; a platform; a reason to get out of bed; a source of purpose and pride; and a way to get to know people, places, and myself in ways I don’t think I would otherwise.
The letterpress studio continues to be sanctuary, where there is nothing to do except spend time with two of my favorite humans (who are also amazing artists) and crank out little cards on a big press.
Made new things that I hadn’t planned to - like a unicorn wearing a strap-on. I’ve long felt like I stumbled into making cards - sure, I could carve and paint small people out of linoleum and letterpress simple words onto square cards, but it felt like that was the limit of what I could do as an artist. This year, I gave myself permission to do and share something different, even if I didn’t know what or how. The result has been liberating, and opened up so many more ways to play with and present ideas and sentiments that I couldn’t within the constraint of a greeting card, and the opportunity to put art on everything from bandanas (I swear they’re coming back into style) to bus stops.
Moved to Brooklyn to be closer to my chosen family, who are pretty much the only reason I’ve made it through anything in life. It took me six years to finally make the move, but I did it so I decided that’s what counts. One of the things I miss most about Somerville is the community of store owners, makers, and supporters there that Kwohtations has introduced me to, who have made the journey of building up a creative business a little less confusing and far less lonely. I’m both excited and daunted by the prospect of being and growing in a new city, as both a person and a business.
Continued to grieve in a tangle of rage and regrets, but mostly just sadness that runs underneath all of the art and activities and food put on top of it, which every so often erupts to overwhelm everything else. But I’m learning how to live and change with it, and am trying to become a better, rather than worse, person for it.
Had many feelings, among which, I realized that though it feels like it has been put through a meat grinder, wrung out, and then pummeled into an unrecognizable state, my heart has retained the capacity to love - and love deeply - and in some ways, it can’t help but. I’ll have to think of a card for that.
Also, I just finished a month-long, outdoor holiday pop-up shop that is chock-full of experiences and learnings that I’m still digesting (and thawing out from). And I bought myself a label maker.
Cheers to 2018.
I generally walk around with two questions bouncing around in my head: Why is my shit perpetually such a mess, and how is everyone else keeping their shit so together?
In his New York Times op-ed, "Don't Let Facebook Make You Miserable," Seth Stephens-Davidowitz writes about how what we choose to share about ourselves and our lives on social media presents a very different, incomplete picture from what we actually do or experience in real life. Or, in 21st century terms, how our public Facebook or Instagram posts compare with our private Google searches: there are about 2x as many tweets about golfing than doing dishes, even though Americans spend about 6x more of their time doing dishes; there are more Facebook awareness and support groups for people with migraines than for those with irritable bowel syndrome even though the two are equally prevalent; people who own luxury cars are more likely to announce their affiliation on Facebook. We know all this. I know this. And yet, I find myself participating on both sides, and I'm not quite sure why.
I expend more time and energy than I'm comfortable with scrolling through photos and announcements from people I don't particularly care about or don't know at all, like binge-watching a TV show I'm pretty sure I'm not enjoying but can't seem to stop. And then I inevitably go down the rabbit-hole of comparing how they and their lives are so much better than me and mine, running through all the things I dislike about myself and the iffy life choices I've made until I'm reduced to nothing but a big pile of regrets walking around on two (short and chunky) legs. It feels a bit like running a race that gets me nowhere and nothing except that I'm really, really tired at the end of it. And then I feel guilty about feeling sad and insecure when I'm supposed to be all thriving and empowered, and for not keeping more perspective and being less self-involved given everything else that's happening in the world. Which makes me feel even worse. So then there's that.
As my most logical self, I know that what people share is a highly curated, filtered snapshot of their lives. And yet, I can't help but believe that some people really are that infuriatingly well-adjusted and happy in real life - like unicorns, they seem impossibly, effortlessly perfect. They make me feel like I'm looking into one of those fun house mirrors - we're kind of the same general shape, except completely opposite in the dimensions that seem to matter: they have a Passion that they also excel at and can make a living off of; they tick off life milestones as straightforwardly as checking off a grocery list (and I regularly have trouble remembering to get all the things on the grocery list); they've successfully given up all the unhealthy things I love to eat, and they look and feel better for it and will probably live longer; they inexplicably don't seem to sweat as much and can buy clothes online (okay not that important but still, come on); they read books and long articles and publish thoughtful pieces in the Washington Post; they give TEDTalks; they own property and other assets; they travel; they appear well-loved and fulfilled and impervious to Facebook rabbit-holes of despair. They represent impossible standards of health, wealth, and happiness. They make me feel like shit.
I try to post - and more importantly, to make - things that highlight some of what I think is hard, messy, and confusing about life because I think that's where a lot of the real living is, or comes out of. But I also find myself posting photos that selectively represent what being me and running Kwohtations is like: promoting craft fair days with chirpy captions about how rah-rah I am to be setting up shop at 7AM on a Sunday, while in reality I'm exhausted and grumpy and demoralized because no one is buying anything? Guilty. I've posted about funny cards (yay!) and working on new projects (double yay!) when in reality I'm holding my phone in bed paralyzed with anxiety about everything and nothing all at once, because life is hard even when it's cushy. I haven't posted about all the times I've delayed or missed an order this year because I'm sick with grief or norovirus or strep or scabies or surgery. I've Amazon Prime-d myself an iPhone charger and a box of granola bars because between my full-time job and Kwohtations, I'm too exhausted to go to the store, even as I #hustlehard #shopsmall my way across Instagram.
I curate the life that I share with others on social media and in person - we all do. And yet, because I only see part of everyone else's story, that's the part that I latch onto, that I believe, that I take and compare with everything I know about my own life - and I never seem to stack up. It makes me feel like I made a wrong turn somewhere, that I missed all the boats and memos, like I'm pedaling just as hard (or harder) but only inching forward - or toppling sideways. Everyone else seems like they're fine, like they belong up on the pedestal where I've put them, instead of down in the muck where I spend a good amount of my time. Of course, I don't always share about the muck. Or I do when it's been slightly better arranged and from a good angle. And so, ironically, to others we may seem like the ones who are the unicorns.
In my heart-of-hearts, I don't think that anyone is perfect. I think we just often aren't privy to others' wobbly, weak, and downright nasty bits - those bits that we all have, and that we're all hyper aware of in ourselves. And I also don't believe that perfection is the right thing to be striving for. I think that we're all wildly beautiful and flawed and complicated. I think that we're all both good and bad, succeeding on some fronts and failing on others, and doing the best we can, which on some days is better than others.
At the end of the day, I kind of think we're all just horses wearing strap-ons, running around trying to be unicorns. And that's okay.
things to do when you're in a depressive spiral before you crawl into bed (from one human to another.)
I don’t know about you all, but I often feel like I’m both okay and not okay, sometimes in a ping-ponging sort of way that’s a little crazy-making, and sometimes – even more confusedly – both at the same time.
On one hand, I recognize that I’m extremely lucky and privileged in so many ways; if I ever followed through on keeping a gratitude journal, it would be in tiny print and overflowing. I spend my spare time semi-compulsively making greeting cards and occasionally baring my soul on the internet, so I’m not going to pretend like I don’t have an almost-embarrassing amount of freedom and time on my hands. On the flip side, I’ve been through my share of fucked-up shit (i.e. trauma, as my therapist prefers to call it) that I feel like I’m perpetually crawling out from under, hauling my emotional baggage around day to day, place to place, like a pound of bad pennies. What all this adds up to is very confusing to me.
So, as when I try to solve most things in my life, I’ve made a list. This is a list of things I have to do before I’m allowed to give up on life and crawl back into bed: I run an errand. Then I listen to a podcast and clean the stove. Then I go sit at a coffee shop. Then I exercise. Then I call a friend. I turn to this on those days that are hard, when everything seems inexplicably wrong, when I’m completely paralyzed by all the things that I can’t fix – in my own life, in the lives of those I care about, in our society. Those are the times I find myself wanting to sleep, not because I’m tired, but because I don't want to have to engage with the world.
This list is essentially a pact that I’ve made with myself. When I feel like I can't do anything, I pick some things from the list and do them anyways. I think of it more as a menu of options than a set of to-dos: I can go for a run or take a walk, read a book or watch a movie, go out for drinks or invite a friend over. It doesn’t matter much what I choose to do, as long as I do it. And, at the end of the day, I might find something interesting, distracting, or even fun during my self-imposed scavenger hunt for sanity. Or it might still end up just being a really bad day. But at least I'll have tried, and that’s what counts.
The “things to do when you’re in a depressive spiral before you crawl into bed (from one human to another.)” print is based on this mental list of ways to spend the day when I don’t feel like spending it. I made it because I needed it, and I hope that some of you find it useful too, whether you have the occasional bout of the blues, or are going through a particularly hard time, or struggle with chronic depression, or whatever it is you're dealing with. Please take what’s interesting and doable, leave what isn’t, and add your own. And then get out there. Because the world needs you to participate in it. It would be such a shame if you didn’t.
With love from one human to another,
Instead of the regular rotation of holiday markets, I spent these last couple weeks camped out with my sister in a Taiwanese hospital helping my dad recover from an emergency surgery because, well, 2016. There's really no way around it - on a personal, national, and global scale, this has been a shit year. It kind of feels like the 2014 snowpocalypse throughout which everyone kept saying, "there's just no way it can keep snowing" and then the universe would - *boom* - dump another couple feet of snow. Like that, but with shit instead of snow.
I told myself that I would stop talking about grief, stop writing about it, stop infusing it into everything I think and do, lest it tire and push people away more than it already has. I'm realizing that was a futile and somewhat meaningless promise to make, and especially impossible in any attempts to reflect on this year so I'm going to talk about grief, but also about gratitude:
Last month, my office put up a "Thankful Tree" and asked us to fill it up with paper leaves bearing something we're thankful for this year. I immediately decided that there was no way I would be participating. I kicked off the year reconciling the truth and reality of my partner's sudden death and ended it in a fugue of IV drips, stony-faced nurses, and blurry naps on foldout chairs, and somewhere in the middle of all that, an internet troll became our next president while other parts of the world literally and figuratively blew up. I feel like this year has stripped away everything - my sense of security and stability, ability to function on a daily basis and to imagine a future, the innermost feeling of being me - and I'm not going to entertain for one moment the idea that I'm grateful for any of it, for anything.
And yet, that's not entirely true.
My friend Sheeren introduced me to the work of Patton Oswalt, whose writing this year has been one of the truest accounts of grief for me. 102 days after his wife's death, Patton wrote:
...102 days at the mercy of grief and loss feels like 102 years and you have shit to show for it. You will not be physically healthier. You will not feel "wiser." You will not have "closure." You will not have "perspective" or "resilience" or "a new sense of self." You WILL have solid knowledge of fear, exhaustion and a new appreciation for the randomness and horror of the universe. And you'll also realize that 102 days is nothing but a warm-up for things to come.
You will have been shown new levels of humanity and grace and intelligence by your family and friends. They will show up for you, physically and emotionally, in ways which make you take careful note, and say to yourself, "Make sure to try to do that for someone else someday."
While the truth is that I have never felt so isolated or alone as in my grief this year, I also have never felt so loved. My sister and my friends - my chosen family - showed up for me the only way a group of fierce, brilliant, loyal women (and a few really stand-up men) can. They cried with me and slept in my bed, and welcomed me without reservation when I showed up at their doorstep with little notice and a simple "I didn't want to be alone." They patiently listened to me rail and reason and ask unfair questions of them that have no answers. They wrote me letters. They called "just to check in," and didn't hold it against me when I didn't call back even though I was comforted just by seeing the missed call notification. They packed my lunch almost everyday for work. They sat with me as I cried in empty conference rooms. They shared google calendars so that others could be there when they couldn't. They are still showing up for me in ways that I don't know how to ask for. They are truly the loves of my life.
Last year, I wrote about how I was thankful that Kwohtations has given me a platform to share my ideas, my humor, and my life in a way that I often find difficult to do in person. That has continued to be true when now more than ever I'm confused about what to say or how to say it, or why I feel the need to say it at all. But more importantly, it has given me a community that I didn't fully recognize or appreciate until I needed it. Fellow makers, store owners, market organizers, and customers have shown up again and again this year to say "I see you, and I'm here" on the days that I've felt the most invisible, in ways that I am surprised and humbled by. Arbalest Press - the letterpress studio itself and the kind friends who run it - has become my weekly therapy, and one of the only places left in the city where my mind quiets down. I found myself wandering into Davis Squaredearlier this year when I didn't know where else to go, and Mel pulled me into the stockroom to offer hugs, advice, and wine. I've been stopping through regularly since, supposedly to drop off inventory and invoices, but really because it feels a bit like being home. Others - Lucas at Boutique Fabulous, Sofi at Olives & Grace, Matt at Hollingworth 5 & 10, Vanessa at La Brasa, Greg at the Somerville Flea - all wrote to say they'd be there whenever I was ready to return.
Vendors who I mostly met at markets and through Instagram, have become friends in real life, constantly cheering me on in addition to injecting some much-needed care and beauty into the world around them. When I've found myself caught between being lonely and wanting to be alone, it has been infinitely comforting to know that I can walk into any weekend craft market and see some friendly faces, exchange some hugs, and have real conversations in which I can laugh, cry, and talk about booth displays all in the same breath and they understand. Michelle (Michelle Barrett Ceramics), Kimberley (Porcelain & Stone), Carla (wantapony), Eling (Migration Goods), Alicia (AEO Designs),Sharrel (Mud & Yarn), Abigail (yeiou), Katie (Soy Much Brighter), Kristen (Honeycomb Creamery) and many others have truly beautiful souls as well as creative imaginations.
Customers - some of whom I've met and others whom I haven't - have encouraged me to keep channeling life into art, and reminded me that in whatever small way, Kwohtations matters. When I've drawn, written, printed, and posted in blind attempts to work out what the hell has happened to my life - my way of screaming into the void - I've received nothing but a chorus of love and affirmation in return.
All that to say, this year, I am thankful for you. You are the hopeful sprig of green growing out of shit mountain that is the rest of this year. Thank you for reading, for listening, for bearing witness, for reaching out and sharing. I hope to do the same for someone else one day.
In extreme freezing conditions, your body restricts blood flow to all extremities, conserving and redirecting its limited energy to preserve only the most vital organs. When Napoleon died, I similarly dropped everything, including Kwohtations, because it was the most I could do to simply continue existing in the present reality. I wrote in April, "I’m taking a break from Kwohtations because it’s all a bit much now. I have to assume that at some point picking up a paintbrush will help ease the pain, rather than heighten it." My friend Roxanne wrote me in response, "I recognize that moment; I have inhabited that moment. It will come." She, as usual, was right.
The initial period after I lost him is still unspeakable; I don’t think I will ever have the words to describe the places my heart and mind went to, and I’m sure there are pieces I will never get back. I’ve found that this indefinite period after is also its own unique kind of terrible - when the cards, flowers, and prepared food stop coming, and the initial rush of visitors return to their own lives. Even while I've resumed doing things like attending meetings and going out for drinks and posting funny things on social media, my world remains incomprehensible and irrevocably changed. I’ve experienced grief to be isolating, confusing, and downright crazy-making: The flash of a sneaker, a movie trailer, a snippet of a song, whips me back to an instant, a conversation, something I want to remember to tell him, until I remember that I can't. I cry and laugh and forget and remember over and over again, and feel like one big jumble of competing and demanding emotions that pull and pummel me at unexpected times and places, even as life continues to seemingly hum along.
When people ask me about the inspiration behind my cards, I tell them that I pull from the commonalities I hear and observe from others' experiences, but that also often they're the cards that I'd want to receive myself. I never imagined I'd be on the receiving end of so many sympathy cards this year, and I wouldn't have predicted how much they would mean to me. I've read and re-read them and clung onto the love and truths scribbled in them - that it's okay to grieve for as long and in whichever way I need to; that I won't have to face and tackle all of these recurring waves of the shit entirely on my own; and that sometimes just acknowledging that things are royally, undeniably, regrettably fucked is more comforting and helpful than the most sage advice. Also, humor has its own way of fighting to the surface in the bleakest of times, and thank whoever's up there for that.
So the most honest answer as to why I made these cards is that I made them for me - partly as a reminder to hold onto those truths, partly as an attempt to pin down and articulate my own ceaselessly swirling thoughts and emotions, and partly because I still don't know what to do with myself so I might as well make some cards. I also hope that they bring the tiniest bit of comfort to anyone else struggling with loss or who loves someone who is similarly lost.
So here's a FUCK YOU, UNIVERSE set of three cards for the grieving. The intention is to give them in whatever order and timeframe, to someone who needs them. It can be days, months, or years after the fact, around a meaningful occasion or holiday, or even past when you think they need a card. Because, in my experience, they do. Even if all you write inside is, “I don’t know what to say,” you will have said something important – you will have told them, “I see you, and I’m here,” and that can make all the difference.
With love & appreciation,
FUCK YOU, UNIVERSE: CARDS FOR THE GRIEVING
• THREE BLANK CARDS [Fuck You, Universe | Permission to Grieve | I’m Around]
• THREE ENVELOPES
• THREE 68¢ STAMPS
Each card is lovingly & individually hand-printed on an antique press in Somerville MA. You can get them here.
In the past couple years, Kwohtations has not only served as a crash course in starting and managing a business, but a lens through which I’ve come to see myself and the life I’m building. It’s taught me about what I think matters to stand up for, about finding and following my own voice, about growing up and giving thanks. Unintentionally, it’s also been a way through which I’ve experienced love and, most recently, profound loss.
My partner, Napoleon, recently passed away unexpectedly. He was a beautiful person in all the wonderful, unpredictable, and complex ways that makes someone truly alive. Throughout our three years together, Napoleon never once gave me flowers or jewelry. We never celebrated Valentine’s Day or anniversaries, or had fancy date nights, or talked much about definitions or labels, or any of those milestones that are usually associated with romantic relationships. Hell, I’m pretty sure I bought my own drinks on our first date. But he tried to make it to every single one of my weekend craft markets, and consistently managed to make it to most, usually bearing coffee and always with a smile and a kiss for me. Sometimes he’d stay a while and chat, or man my booth to give me a quick break. Sometimes he’d check in for a few minutes, make sure I was okay, and then go on with his day. I thought it was the most romantic thing ever. I still do.
Without meaning to, Napoleon showed me how I want and need to be loved. Instead of gifts, he gave me his attention, time, and energy. He’d sit with me doing his own work as I tackled bookkeeping, emails, and business planning. He often happily accompanied me to the thrift store, the art store, and the hardware store, and helped me build and paint my booth display. He listened to me talk endlessly about paper types and printing presses, about my plans and questions and struggles with the business. He was excited when I made progress on the cards and consoled me when it was hard. He made the most mundane tasks fun, made the small victories a reason to celebrate and the setbacks only temporary. He made everything seem doable, and so much less lonely. He cared about Kwohtations simply because I did.
I’ve often thought and talked about Kwohtations like it’s just me plowing through it all alone, but I’m painfully realizing that this story isn’t completely accurate. Because the truth is that Napoleon was always there with me every step of the way, and his absence is palpable now everywhere I turn.
I’m sharing all this because I want to explain why you won’t be hearing from me for a while. But also because I want people to know at least a little bit about how amazing he was. And I want to remember for myself how much and how well I was loved, and this is the only way I know how.
I’m taking a break from Kwohtations because it’s all a bit much now. I have to assume that at some point picking up a paintbrush will help ease the pain, rather than heighten it. Whether that’s a few weeks, a few months, or a lot of months from now, I’m honestly not sure. But I’m promising myself and you that I’m going to pick myself up, glue the pieces back together, and get back to the business of living life in its fullest sense, because it’s what he would have done. Until then, be kind and take care of yourselves.
If you would like to donate to the gofundme campaign to help cover the costs of end-of-life services and a permanent memorial to honor Nap's life, please donate here. Thank you and much love.
I think a lot about what kind of person I want to be when I grow up (although I suspect that I will never feel entirely “grown”), and what kind of impact I want to have on those around me. The “what” is actually the easy part: I want to be me – but a happier, better adjusted, more present, healthier, richer, more content, more giving, more loved and loving, less scared version of me. The “how” of getting from this me to that me is where things get a little fuzzy. And by fuzzy, I mean at times utterly paralyzing.
In other words, how do I continue to change and work toward becoming Janine 2.0, without fundamentally compromising who I am or what I believe in? I feel like I’m constantly toggling, conceding, and negotiating between all these needs and desires: How do I be content while constantly striving to be better? How do I make more money without feeling like I’m selling out? How do I develop an effective leadership style as an introvert with social anxiety? How do I stay present in the moment while planning responsibly for the future? How do I be a supportive friend while dealing with my own baggage? How do I love wholeheartedly without losing myself? To get to where and who I want to be, what are the trade-offs that I’m willing to make and which are the ones I’m not?
Over the last year, I’ve been turning this question incessantly around in my head, not just as it applies to me as a person, but as a business. Kwohtations is still my side hustle and a one-woman operation (me) – design, production, marketing and sales, R&D, finances, social media – I’m either doing it, or frantically YouTube-ing to figure out how to do it. I still make every card by hand – letterpressing the words, block printing the characters, painting them in, drawing in the eyes and cheeks, stamping the backs, and packing them into little plastic sleeves. I truly enjoy the process of making each one in this way, and cherish the fact that that each card is a little different, a little quirky, and paid the love and attention that I feel few products are nowadays. But it’s also a very labor-intensive and time-consuming process: last year I spent about 350 hours stamping, painting, and packaging cards, the equivalent of 1.5 months of just making cards, 8 hours a day, 7 days a week. So even if I’m basically chained to a paintbrush and foldout table (which is actually not too far from reality...), I’ve hit a ceiling in terms of how many cards I can make this way. As a business, this means I can’t grow much beyond where I am now. And where I am now is fun and gratifying and educational, but not sustainable or profitable or scalable.
So now I’m at a crossroads. I know what I want Kwohtations to be – a company that makes things that bring me and others joy, and that hold up all those experiences that make us and life so complicated and wonderful. But I also want health insurance and weekends and a stable income that lets me eat out or buy a new jumpsuit or run away to another part of the world every so often. So do I stay small, or do I grow? If I grow, what opportunities would open up, and conversely, what are the costs? What are the changes I would have to make, and am I willing to make those? People are always telling you to pursue your dreams, but fewer talk about how you sometimes have to tweak your dreams so you can also pay your bills. So how do I produce a product that I can build a viable business around, without compromising the heart and philosophy behind why I started making cards in the first place?
The truth is, I don’t know but I’m hopeful that I’ll find my way to an answer. So far, I’ve completed the first two steps of my very imperfect problem-solving process – first, agonize endlessly, and second, make a spreadsheet.
I’ve wallowed, self-reflected, dissected, examined and re-examined, and verbal diarrhea-d about this issue to my closest friends and complete strangers long after their eyes glaze over. I’ve thought about it until my brain hurts from thinking about it, sometimes productively but sometimes just circling through the same tired fears of failure and self-doubt, with a little self-flagellation and imposter syndrome thrown in for good measure. Because what does it say about me and my abilities that I've stayed stuck at this juncture? Maybe that I’m not smart enough, or disciplined enough, or creative enough, or fill-in-the-blank enough. But maybe, just maybe, it means that it’s time to try something different.
Now that I’m sick enough of the incessant self-defeating, backward-looking voices, like a fly hurling itself against a closed screen, I think I’m finally ready to search for open windows. I recently took all of the recurring concerns and fleeting ideas and laid them bare in an Excel spreadsheet. And in a decidedly unscientific way, mapped out some initial production scenarios against these key considerations based on what I think I care about:
- Can I make the cards with less time and effort?
- Is it cost efficient?
- Does it keep the handmade quality of the cards?
- Do I like the way the cards look and feel?
- What does it mean for how I’m spending my time? (e.g. in the studio vs. in front of the computer, on production vs. other business activities)
- Is it even feasible?
- What’s my gut feeling about putting this product out into the world?
This helped me narrow down the options and see where some of the trade-offs were. For example, printing the cards digitally would be the most time and cost efficient option, but they lose the handmade texture and uniqueness of the cards. It also helped me see where I have question marks – Could I possibly letterpress the entire card? Could I try a combination of letterpress and screen-printing? Could I outsource to a professional printer? These are things I don’t know but would like to find out.
I’m just now getting to the third step of the process, which is to try some shit out and see what happens, because that’s the only way I’m going to know what works. First up is trying to letterpress the entire card, including multiple colors - both a daunting and exciting prospect. Eek. So, no answers yet, but still doggedly plugging along on this funny little journey I’ve set out on. Follow along @kwohtations to watch me re-imagine the card-making process – it’s bound to get a little messy, but in a good way. Wish me luck and as always, if you have thoughts, advocacies, suggestions, or general wisdom to dispel, follow along and drop me a line.
Every year around this time, I can’t help but reflect on all the thoughts and feelings (oh, feelings) that Valentine’s Day stirs up for me and others whose love lives might be better portrayed by a long string of expletives than dancing hearts. Even now, I’m still not sure where to draw the line between like and love, between infatuation and love, between platonic love and non-platonic love, between love and not-lonely, between loving someone and being in love with them, and if you can draw such lines at all. Last year I wrote about why I give valentines even though I hate Valentine’s Day. For Valentine’s Day this year, I’m launching a new collection of Cards For Love and Other Feelings, for those of us who need something different than what the CVS card aisle can offer.
In Hollywood movies, love is actually quite a consistent story: Boy meets girl. Something keeps them apart. They get over it, declare their Love (burning, passionate, capital-L, you-had-me-at-hello love), and then they live happily ever after off-screen. Hallmark apparently agrees, with their line after line of pink-and-red cards with declarations like “You Complete Me” and “I Love You More Than Ever” and “You’re Mine & I’m Yours.” Seriously.
I mean, no wonder I’ve done my share of keeping the wine industry in business trying to figure out where I went so wrong that I haven’t yet landed the perfect man who looks like Ryan Gosling but doesn’t know it, and who acts like Colin Firth in basically any movie he’s been in. This, in spite of the fact that I know this is not how real life works. In real life, love looks and acts and feels differently for everyone. Sometimes boy meets boy or girl meets girl. Sometimes girl meets boy, but boy is already with someone else. Or boy leaves girl in hopes of meeting someone “better” but then regrets it and then obsessively goes on Tinder dates. Or boy messages boy online but then doesn’t respond to boy’s reply, leaving boy to wonder what he did or didn’t say and if he’s fundamentally unlovable. Or girl likes boy but he likes another girl so she dates another boy because he’s nice even though she secretly still Facebook stalks photos of the first boy who seems irritatingly happy with the other girl, but who knows really.
In some ways, this is wonderful and liberating. In a lot of ways, this is progress. We have so much more freedom to write our own love stories, even if they don’t make much sense to anyone else or to ourselves. We can date boys, or girls, or both (at least more than we used to). We can be in relationships with more than one person at once. We can have sex without getting married first. Hell, we don’t even have to know each other’s first names. We can “hang out” indefinitely. We can live together after knowing each other for a few weeks. Or share a life without any formal commitment. We can choose to not be with anyone at all. It’s kind of great, and also really confusing and complicated. Because without a script that we need to follow, we have to do the work to figure out what and who we want. And that’s hard.
As with most things, I’m still figuring this whole love thing out. Which makes it a little laughable that I’m making cards for other people to give on Valentine’s Day. But in any case, here are cards for those of us with achy hearts and a fear of using the L-word, who vacillate between being happily single and desperately lonely, who can’t quite reconcile our need for independence and desire to be taken care of, who don’t have a good answer for the question, “so how do you two know each other?”, and who slog through the endless internet parade of mirror selfies and “hey wsup” messages with the hope that there is someone out there who will like us just the way we are, who have a lot of feelings but don’t quite know what they are. And that’s perfectly ok.
A confession: I’ve been a witness to and a participant in the glorification of “busyness” that has become pervasive in certain circles: of declarations that we’re too busy to eat or pee or think or return calls and emails or even say hello, of stacking dates and meetings, of ridiculous combinations of multi-tasking (I may have more than once tried to work out while simultaneously listening to the news, writing emails, and cleaning my room), and of feeling compelled to say yes to more commitments and to excel in all the identities we assume.
And with the advent of the “quantified self” movement and social media, we’re tracking and sharing exactly how much and how well we’re walking / sleeping / eating / working out / working / spending / dating / traveling / reading / enjoying and living life. The all-knowing Internet tells us that everyone else is doing A LOT (much, much more than we are), and that it’s working out REALLY GREAT for them (much, much better than for us). Which can only mean that we’re slacking and falling behind. That we’re sleeping in when we should be getting in an early morning workout, that we’re home binge-watching old seasons of CSI: NY when we should be out rubbing shoulders with our next great love or potential employer, that we’re sitting in coffee shops writing self-indulgent blog posts about being busy when we should be developing next year’s business strategy. And that’s why we’re not as rich, attractive, loved, famous, and happy…right?
Within the maker and small business community, I’ve found that busyness is often embedded in and expressed as the idea of “hustling” – having the oomph to do anything and everything needed to achieve your goals, and to never stop or slow down or steer away until you’ve achieved them. On Instagram, 3+ million posts tagged #hustle contain inspirational and motivational messages.
I recognize and appreciate the intention and truth behind these messages. All jobs require some hustle, whether it’s working toward a promotion, taking night classes while paying the bills, or networking and pounding the pavement to land a new job. The so-called “maker hustle” is different in that it’s not about proving your capacity to add value to something existing, but about your ability to create something new and then to fight for its existence. I’m inspired by other makers who dream big, and then cram in their entrepreneurial endeavors around their “real” jobs and ongoing commitments, and who give up their mornings, nights, and weekends to bring those dreams to life.
But when my feed is filled with posts that say things like “Life is Short. Don’t Be Lazy” and “Good Things Come To Those Who Hustle,” I get anxious. Because these mantras imply that the opposite is also true: if I don’t hustle – if I’m not constantly on-the-grind and up-and-at-‘em and being a #boss (and a #girlboss and #bosslady and #bossbabe at that) – that means that I’m wasting precious time, that I’ll have less of a chance of achieving my dreams. I feel guilty that I’m not hustling hard enough, not passionate enough, not active enough, not disciplined enough, and therefore not enough, period.
From my copious amounts of Facebook and Instagram stalking, I sometimes feel like all the other makers out there are like these blissed-out, unnaturally photogenic, hyper-productive, well-adjusted elves, spending their days making beautiful things and fistfuls of cash, living out their dreams in sun-lit, exposed brick studios. And meanwhile I’m bouncing around between different life commitments slightly wrinkly and glassy-eyed, trying to build a business out of my bedroom, climb (or at least hang onto) the corporate ladder, exercise every day, read more books, keep a blog, teach myself how to code and play guitar, go on dates, work on my self-esteem, and generally have a social and sane life. Sometimes I feel like Superwoman on a cocktail of #highonlife and #killinit, and sometimes all I can do on a Saturday night is inhale a family-sized bag of Chex Mix while I stare at piles of unfinished cards and try to suppress a salty flavored bubble of panic.
A few weekends ago, I missed the bus and cried. I generally don’t fancy myself much of a crier if it’s not death- or injury- or love-related, but there I was, a spontaneous burst of snot and tears in the middle of running an afternoon errand. This came on the heels of a morning that was a clown car of missteps and mistakes – it was amazing how many fuck ups could happen in rapid succession within such a short amount of time – as I ran around (literally) prepping for the next day’s holiday market, and finishing, shipping out, and hand-delivering orders. This was in the middle of a holiday season of working 12-14 hour days, 7 days a week between my day job and Kwohtations, and I was tired, stressed, and feeling like I was shouldering the burden alone. So I bawled a bit while I speed-walked to the post office (because who has time to sit down for a proper cry?)
Everything ended up being fine - I had a few unsatisfactory sobs, mailed out my package, went home to make more cards, had a good holiday market the next day, got some sleep, went to work on Monday, and was back on my game by Monday night. But it got me thinking about the expectations and demands we put on ourselves, especially as makers and business owners. How much of the work and sacrifice we put in counts as “paying our dues” and “doing the work” and are necessary steps on the start-up path, and how much of it is actually not required (or even helpful) for us to achieve our goals? What is driving all this busyness? In other words, is a midday ugly cry a sign that I’m working as hard as I can, that I’m hurtling myself ever closer to my goals (limitations be damned!)? Or is it a symptom of an unhealthy lifestyle / mindset based on a flawed perception of how busyness is a prerequisite to self-worth, success, and happiness?
I share all of this because I’m still trying to figure out the right balance for me between testing my limits and being content, between being ambitious and exercising self-care, and what success means for me and what the journey of getting there can look like. I want to recognize, for myself and anyone else trying to do something new, that this process is really fun and rewarding, and also really confusing and hard. And I don’t have any answers on how it should best be done.
But I guess that’s what Kwohtations is about – it’s for the people still figuring their shit out, and in the meantime trying to remember to celebrate the little victories, to apologize when we fuck up, to thank those who help us out, and to embrace our true selves in all our flawed and earnest glory, if only we can make the time.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving. And while I struggle with celebrating a holiday founded on an atrocious version of history, I appreciate the reminder to be grateful and the time to reflect on what I have to be grateful for.
In my post Reflecting On 2014, I wrote about how the uncomfortable process of claiming and internalizing the title “entrepreneur” has helped me become a more fulfilled, confident person. What I didn’t say, or anticipate, was that writing greeting cards has given me this funny little 5” x 5” platform to basically say whatever I want, and that in turn has given me a voice that I’ve always struggled to have.
I am a quiet person, pretty much in all the ways. I don’t talk a lot, and when I do, people often literally can’t hear me. Shy, a little socially anxious, and nestled cozily on the far end of the introvert-extrovert spectrum, you can often find me hovering near the food at parties, hiding in the bathroom for a breather during work functions, and completely absent from networking events. In today’s rapid-fire world of cold-calling, drive-by salutations, and elevator pitches, I have a difficult time listening, processing, synthesizing, and opining all at once. I would much rather listen and observe, let ideas sit and bounce around in different parts of my brain, and then maybe 15 minutes, one hour, three days later I’ll think of what I want to say in response, if anything at all.
We have many opportunities to talk throughout the day – to colleagues in meetings and by the proverbial watercooler, to strangers in line and at the bus stop, with friends and acquaintances out at dinner or bars. In many of these situations, I find it hard to push beyond giving sanitized versions of how our weekends were and commiserating or speculating about the weather, and to somehow segue into sharing what we’re really dealing with: the experiences and people that we think have made us who we are, the hardest and best parts of our lives so far, the truths we hold sacred and the questions we grapple with when we have long stretches of time to ourselves, and all those things that make us all eerily similar and wildly different that I’d really like to know and share. But my curiosity and desire for connection is often overshadowed by the fear that I’ll be revealed as (and therefore feel) dumb, boring, or strange, based on the jumble of words I produce at that moment.
Writing has always been different. I can think for as long as I want about what I want to say and how I want to say it, then leave it and come back and change it all over again. When I’m writing, there’s no one to witness how fast or eloquently I can get out a sentence on the first try. No one hears all the long, tentative pauses, or interrupts to ask me to “speak up.”
Kwohtations has become a medium for me to say and share whatever I want and on my own timeline. Basically the cards are my alter ego -- the puppets to my ventriloquist, the Sasha Fierce to my Beyoncé. They are unapologetically cynical, honest, snarky, and vulnerable. They are a catalogue of my thoughts and experiences, like if I’m making the “right” life decisions and how I should be defining “right” and if I’ve already chosen the wrong ones, if such a thing exists. Like how love still confuses me to no end, both conceptually and practically speaking. Like why there’s so much fear and hate of those who are different and what our role is in either perpetuating or changing that. The cards are my soapbox to silently preach that the freedom to be who you are and love who you do is an unalienable right and that the diversity in our identities and choices is a source of beauty, power, and celebration.
So when people pick up the cards, laugh in recognition and say things like, “This is me!” or “This is my life!” or “I need to get this for so-and-so,” I instantly feel heard, more connected, and less alone. And when I do end up talking with customers, because I’ve already exposed a bit about me in the safe form of funny greeting cards, the conversation skips the pleasantries to sharing about life: Their brother just came out. They’re been trying to having a baby for a while. A lot of his friends are getting divorced. She’s going through menopause. He gets hangry all the time, but so does she. He woke up from a coma last year. They’re moving across the country. They’re navigating their first interracial relationship. She’s hoping to quit her job soon. All the big and little things that matter and make us wonderfully human.
I wrote back when I first started Kwohtations, that the cards are “for all the things we really think and sometimes want to say.” I meant this in light-hearted, simple and funny way, like saying “Sorry I Got Drunk” and “Yay You Made a Tiny Person” and “Thanks For Watching me Ugly Cry.” Somehow, this has become a truer, deeper statement as I think about all the fears, aspirations, failings, and accomplishments that I’ve channeled into creating these cards. Maybe speaking through greeting cards is a temporary workaround or a strange defense mechanism, or maybe it’s finally a way to be as vocal and vulnerable as I know how. In any case, Kwohtations cards are not only for all the things I want to say, but as it turns out, has also given me the means to say it, for which I am truly grateful.
I hope you all have or will find a way to share your voices too, because the world needs to hear what you have to say.
Two weeks ago I was in Colombia visiting my friend Amy, with no agenda to speak of except to wake up when it got too bright out to stay asleep, have lovely meandering strolls and even lovelier, more meandering conversations, notice and admire beautiful things, and eat delicious food on the cheap. Basically, all I want in life besides $50 million dollars and the ability to teleport.
Since I’ve been back, I’ve found myself suffering from a severe case of the “post vacation blues,” which, according to my extensive research (ie. Wikipedia) are brought on because “after the person returns home, they realize how boring and unsatisfactory their normal lifestyle routine is when compared to the activities he or she did while on their holiday/vacation. Post vacation blues may result in tiredness, loss of appetite, strong feelings of nostalgia, and in some cases, depression.” That sums up my current state quite nicely, except for the loss of appetite part because I have a tendency to try to drown my feelings in wine and finish them off by smothering them with cheese. So this is my attempt to examine some of this disgruntlement and to see if I can’t self-reflect myself back to health (or at least finish unpacking my bags and do some laundry).
I’ve been extremely lucky and privileged to have been able to indulge my wanderlust over the years. I love to travel for many of the typical reasons – an unexplainable but unshakeable curiosity at what and who else exists out in the world, a desire to encounter beauty and meaning, and a need to escape. But I travel not just to be a person who’s had different experiences, but to experience myself as a different person. In my everyday, I spend a lot of time thinking about myself. And by thinking, I mean questioning, debating, berating, assuring, building up and tearing down all of my personality traits and life decisions. I feel like I’m constantly behind in life – I should have woken up earlier, prepared for a meeting sooner, went on a run yesterday, made this appointment months ago, written a business plan back in 2011, found everlasting love in my twenties, and in general have figured my shit out by now.
But when I’m traveling, I suddenly trust my ability to make the right decisions, despite generally only having a vague sense of where I’m going, how I’m getting there, what I’m eating, what will happen next, and what people are saying to me. Somehow, when confronted with exponentially more ambiguity and rapid decision-making than I face in my daily life, I’m strangely more confident in my ability to navigate new terrain, more self-forgiving when I inevitably lose my way, and more able to enjoy the journey without worrying about when or how I’ll get to the destination. Maybe it’s because I recognize it’s absurd to expect myself to know what to do in a place I’ve clearly never been. Maybe it’s because I enter into a mindset that every new experience is an exciting adventure no matter how it turns out, rather than a test from the universe that I can fail. Maybe it’s because the entire experience feels so transient that chances are any mistakes I make won’t matter by the time I’ve moved onto the next city. Maybe it’s because I’m so busy trying to figure out where the hostel is and how to buy train tickets using wild hand gestures that I don’t have the luxury of ruminating over where I might have taken a wrong turn in life three years ago. Regardless of the reasons, it’s freeing, and sometimes downright exhilarating.
However, upon returning home, the U.S customs officer might as well have said, “Welcome back, here’s your passport and neuroses back.” Apparently it only takes a week away to throw into sharp relief the absurdity and mundaneness of how I’ve structured my life: waking up to multiple alarms, shutting myself off with headphones from everyone else doing the same thing on the subway to work, sitting behind a computer for eight hours a day and then trying to compensate for it (and the subpar cookie I stress-ate after lunch) by furiously running on the treadmill for an hour, quite literally going nowhere. I’m afraid that I’m squandering too much time and energy on Kwohtations, but am at the same time worried that I’m not investing enough. I wonder if I should “just suck it up” and find a job I’ll probably hate that pays a lot of money so I can afford to do things I’m passionate about. I wonder what I’m truly passionate about, if anything. I’m conflicted about what my deal-breakers and must-haves are when it comes to relationships, and if my problem is that I have too many or too few.
Through Kwohtations, I try to capture the everyday humanity that speaks to larger truths. Similarly, as I think about my short stint in Colombia, I think there are a few larger lessons embedded in seemingly trivial experiences that I'm going to try to hold onto as I settle back into the daily grind of work, love, and life:
Lesson #1: Get on the bus.
In my experience, public transportation in many countries doesn’t always exactly honor schedules or capacity limits. In other words, it’s pure chaos. So when a van or a bus pulls up, it’s often unclear if it’s the right one but you have to decide quickly to be able to make it on at all. In Colombia, we took a minivan from Tayrona to Cartagena, a five-hour car ride. After an hour, without much ceremony or explanation, the driver told us all to get out and get in another van. We got in, and thankfully it took us in the right direction.
In life, I feel like I’m faced with different buses headed in opposite and unclear life destinations, like “Potentially Rich But Most Likely Miserable,” “Defiantly Independent But Sometimes Desperately Lonely,” and “Almost No Stability But With The Possibility of Epic Adventures,” and all the buses are simultaneously pulling away from the station and I don’t know which one to hop on. And because I hesitate so long, I miss all of them and end up living at the terminal. So the lesson here is, just get on a damn bus. Chances are, it’s the right one, or it’ll at least get you closer to where you want to go. Or it’s completely the wrong one but then you end up somewhere unexpectedly amazing, or that isn’t great but will lead you to your next destination. Regardless, you’re moving forward.
Lesson #2: Speak and feel in ALL CAPS.
Amy has a new Colombian boyfriend who texts her incessantly with a lot of emoticons and in all caps. I LIKE YOU SO MUCH <3 <3 <3, he texts her. At first, I found this inexplicably funny, bordering on excessive (Actually, I still kind of do). But the Colombian’s gotten me thinking, why don’t I tell people how I feel about them in large letters accented with lots of tiny hearts? I spend a lot of energy acting like I don’t care, or at least not more than the other person does. I’d rather be blasé than vulnerable. I’d rather not play the game than raise the stakes. But really, how refreshing would it be if we all quit trying to be mysterious and unattainable and just said plainly to each other, I LIKE YOU. I LIKE YOU SO MUCH. I do think that would be better.
Lesson #3: Forget the steps.
One night out, a Colombian friend tried to teach me how to salsa. And by teach, I mean he danced around in dizzingly intricate steps while instructing me, “Don’t look down at my feet!” and “Just feel it in your heart!” To which I protested, “But I don’t know the steps! What are the steps?” But he just kept thumping his heart and yelling, “Don’t do what I’m doing, just hear the rhythm and feel it in your heart!” And I would repeat in bewilderment, “But what are the steps??!” Surprisingly, I didn’t learn how to salsa that night. But maybe going forward, instead of worrying what the “right” steps are that it seems like everyone else is taking (becoming consultants, getting married, buying a house), I should spend some time re-learning how to listen to what moves my heart wants me to make (apparently writing self-indulgent blog posts while eating breakfast for dinner).
I recognize that life is a little more complicated than a trip to the beach. But I want to remember that, just like traveling around a new country, this is my first time going through life, so why should I feel like I should know what to do? Of course I’m a bumbling idiot when it comes to most everything. But if I just keep moving forward in some direction, fully cherish those who keep me feeling happy and sane, and also keep trying to figure out what it is my heart wants, I think I’ll eventually get to where I want to go, and more importantly, have a great time along the way. I hope you do too.
A couple years ago, a friend shared with me the difficulty of finding birthday party invitations for her daughter that featured brown-skinned girls, and asked if I would make her a custom set of invitations. I immediately said yes, but it got me thinking about the bigger issue she’d named.
There is some public discourse about the underrepresentation of minority groups across the mainstream media, including movies, TV shows, commercials, books, magazines, video games, and billboards, etc. The lack of diversity in these images and storylines that we’ve created is jarringly at odds with our increasingly inclusive and open society. It is absolutely crucial that we correct this. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, the media shapes our identities and interactions in powerful ways; outside of our own narrow set of lived experiences, it’s how we learn what falling in love looks and feels like, what it means to be beautiful, the ways that different genders dress and act around each other, how to get what we want, and what is it that we should be wanting. It tells us whose lives, insights, and stories matter to us as a society, and what types of individuals, families, and communities are considered “normal” and valued.
The media is powerful because it enables us to insert our real selves into its constructed stories – we get to become the explorers, the lovers, the dreamers, and the heroes. But what happens when there’s no place for some of us in these narratives? What signal does it send to our children who don’t see anyone who looks, feels, and acts like they do? What does it signal to our children who only see those who look, feel, and act as they do? The media influences how we perceive others and what we think we know about them before we even meet. When only some of our identities and life experiences are represented in meaningful and authentic ways, it means that the rest of us are reduced to flat, sometimes harmful characterizations, or worse, sentenced to non-existence.
So why does diversity matter in the card aisle? For the very same reasons. I’ll concede that these other media outlets likely have a greater influence on societal norms and the public consciousness, but the tradition of giving cards is still very ingrained in American culture despite the advent of email, social media, and texting: 9 out of 10 American households buy cards every year, and collectively buy ~7 billion greeting cards annually. Cards are sold in virtually all convenience stores, big-box retailers, and gift shops, and much like TV commercials or magazines at the checkout counter, you can’t help but notice and internalize the headlines even when you aren’t really looking for them.
Having cards that reflect the experiences of people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds matters not just because it’s frustrating to have to color over your daughter’s birthday card with brown and black crayons, or to resort to buying wedding cards with anthropomorphic animals because they’re the closest depiction of a same-sex couple that you can find. It matters because we send cards when something we deem significant has happened, when an occasion is important enough to demand more than the customary email. Therefore, the occasions for which there are greeting cards sends a clear message about which we think are the milestones and people that are important enough for us to be commemorating, and conversely, which are not. The mission of Kwohtations Cards is to challenge those assumptions, to spread joy and bring people closer together by making cards that recognize, embrace, and celebrate the diversity and absurdity of life.
For Pride Month this June, I worked with my friend Dillan DiGiovanni to design cards that acknowledge and celebrate the experiences of some who identify as LGBTQ individuals. As a heterosexual, cisgender person, I freely admit that I don’t know what it’s like to go through life otherwise. But I know enough to know that it’s full of ups and downs, no matter who you are. I know that as much progress has been made, it can be a pretty narrow-minded, bigoted world out there. I know that it takes incredible courage to be yourself when a lot of people don’t want you to. And I know that change can be hard and scary, even when you know you’re doing the right thing. So I’m continuing to talk and learn and listen, but in the meantime I’m trying to cope with how much further we have to go to become a fully equal and open society by making something. Something small just to say, quite simply, I see you. I see you and I celebrate you, and I’m glad you’re you. I hope it helps a little.
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