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.