Musings — stationery

Living A Brutal (But Fun) Life With A Handmade Stationery Business

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Living A Brutal (But Fun) Life With A Handmade Stationery Business

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.

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Keeping It Together When Everything Is Falling Apart (Fail-Proof)

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Keeping It Together When Everything Is Falling Apart (Fail-Proof)

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. 

With love,

Janine

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40+ Things To Do When You're In A Depressive Spiral Before You Crawl Into Bed (From One Human To Another.)

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40+ 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,

Janine  

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An Ounce Of Gratitude Goes A Long Way (Being Thankful & Compassionate)

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An Ounce Of Gratitude Goes A Long Way (Being Thankful & Compassionate)

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.
And...
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. 

With love,

Janine

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3 Custom Letter-Pressed Cards For When You're Mad At The World

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3 Custom Letter-Pressed Cards For When You're Mad At The World

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. 

card with excerpt

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. 

card with excerpt

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,

Janine 

card with excerpt surrounded by envelopes and stamps

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

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