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.