Is it selfish to be happy?

I once had a conversation with artist/author Jerry Wennstrom that I’ll never forget. I had recently created my card deck, Mixed Emotions, but wasn’t really sure what to do next.

“When will I have met my obligation to the Universe?” I asked Jerry. “Have I already met it by creating Mixed Emotions, or won’t it be met until every single copy in the warehouse is sold?”

“Maybe,” Jerry said, “Your obligation to the Universe is to be happy.”

Isn’t it funny how the biggest epiphanies you’ll ever experience are also the simplest?

I didn’t feel like I had much choice in creating Mixed Emotions. Sometimes you have an idea and sometimes an idea has you. Mixed Emotions was definitely an idea that had me. I felt like I was hand-picked to bring it into being. I enjoyed creating it, but once it was published, I had no idea what to do.

Like many creative people, I didn’t have much experience in business. I also unexpectedly found myself separated from the father of my 12-month old son. Our divorce was final three days after my father died, and a few weeks later, the first few cases of Mixed Emotions arrived from the printer. It was onto this fertile soil that Jerry dropped his seed–the idea that my happiness might just be a worthy and legitimate thing to pursue.

I was not raised to believe that my happiness mattered much. It was the happiness I could give others, especially my mother, that mattered. But, to be fair, how am I doing as a parent? Am I teaching Adrian that nothing is more important than his own happiness? After all, he would’ve been happy if I’d let him skip school yesterday and I said no.

As the creator of a deck of cards, I’ve collected quite a few sets of cards over time. One of my decks is by Esther and Jerry Hicks, and is called The Teachings of Abraham Well-Being Cards. My favorite card sits in a holder above my sink and says simply this:

My happiness is my greatest gift to others

Thanks to Jerry Wennstrom, that is now the motto that I live my life by. And if I can somehow get that across to my son, I will consider myself a success as a parent.


Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Happy” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

Illustrating emotions

When I realized that I had to come up with 60 images, I knew I’d need help. So, I invited three dear and creative friends–Tony Nahra, Rand Babcock, and Peggy Fitzgerald–to join me for regular brainstorming sessions. We sat around my dining room table and tackled one emotion at a time. Each of us silently wrote down images that came to mind, and afterward, we discussed them. Usually, one image emerged as the strongest, and we moved on to the next emotion.

Our ideas enabled me to tell artist Kris Wiltse, “Grief looks like an adult curled up in a fetal position.” Kris drew a rough sketch, and after I approved it, started carving the linoleum blocks. In the case of Grief, the rough draft and the final illustration looked a lot alike:

Grief Grief

But other illustrations went through changes before we settled on a final image. Here are the rough and final versions of Hate, for example:

Hate Hate

These changes came about, in part, because I sent the rough drafts to a group of people via e-mail. The feedback that people sent led to better images.

One of the things I enjoy most is collaborating with others to create something that none of us could have created individually. Being artistically ungifted, there’s nothing better than working with a commercial artist as talented as Kris. But Kris wouldn’t have had anything to illustrate without Tony, Rand, and Peggy. What a gift they gave to me, and to the world!

The best place to see all of Kris Wiltse’s illustrations is in the free e-cards area on the Mixed Emotions web site. Just click a thumbnail to view a larger image.

The extremely high price of not following my feelings

Not being an artist, I knew I’d have to hire one to illustrate each card in the Mixed Emotions deck (there are 60). At the time, a friend of my former husband’s was just beginning to represent an artist who appeared to be quite talented. Though I had misgivings about working with him, I convinced myself that what was best for Mixed Emotions wasn’t necessarily what was best for me.

The contract with the artist was set up in a way that enabled him to receive a monthly income while dedicating himself fully to my project for a year. Over time, it became more and more evident that he wasn’t going to deliver. By the time I finally pulled the plug, I’d paid him more than $50,000, which, of course, I never got back.

I learned a couple things:

  1. When I have misgivings about something, I don’t talk myself out of them anymore.
  2. I needed to be the one to determine how each card was illustrated, not the artist. Which means that I needed to tell the artist what grief looks like. I needed to tell the artist what exhaustion looks like, and so on.
  3. To do that, I’d need to brainstorm with a very creative group of friends. More on that later.

I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about losing that much money. Imagine how I must feel writing about it.


Embarrassed. Really, really, really embarrassed.

May this cautionary tale, and the very existence of Mixed Emotions, prevent you from making the same mistake.

*Kris Wilste’s illustration for the “Embarrassed” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

A universal language

When I was 28, I traveled behind what was then the Iron Curtain with friends. You know the part in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy & Co. enter Oz, and the movie changes from black-and-white to color? Well, crossing the border between West and East Germany was exactly like that, only backward. Everything became gray and colorless, and it seemed like we went back in time about 40 years.

We stayed with several families there–people that my friends had met through their church. Sitting at their kitchen tables behind the Iron Curtain enabled me to confirm that Sting was right. The Russians (or in this case, the East Germans) really did love their children, too. They experienced joy, grief, and fear just like I did. And a Berlin Wall in my own heart came tumbling down.

That’s when I realized that our emotions are a universal language. No matter where we live or what language we speak, what we feel is exactly the same. And that makes us One.

Loving (platonic)

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Loving” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

How it all began

When I was in my thirties, words were my trade. I was good at expressing things–especially technical things. Yet, I found myself sitting across from a therapist, perplexed by the question she had just asked, which was: “How do you feel about that?”

I was tongue-tied. How could it be so difficult to put my feelings into words? And I found myself wanting to cheat. What I needed was a list of feelings that I could choose from whenever she asked me that question. But a list alone wasn’t enough, I needed each word on the list to be movable. Maybe it needed to be something like emotional Magnetic Poetry or emotional Scrabble or, maybe it could be cards.

Hey, cards. Now there’s an idea.

So, I created a deck of cards to help people put their feelings into words. It’s called “Mixed Emotions,” and I’ll be writing a whole lot more about what I learned, and the mistakes I made in later entries.