by Marji Wisniewski

If you open up Shell Phelps’s book, The Big Bliss Blueprint, you will see the note below on the dedication page. You’ll realize that from the start, Shell is your biggest cheerleader, guiding you toward your own bliss in life, just the way she found hers:

“If you’re picking up this book, you’re probably wondering who the dedication will be for. Well, this one is for you. Since you are seeing this book and reading this page, you dare to seek ways in which to improve your life. For that, I appreciate how hard it is to admit there is room for improvement, but proud you are ready for change. I’m dedicating this book to those in search of the potential of living a better life and wanting to find your happiness. Cheers to the start of creating your own big bliss!”

Living Invisibly

Growing up, I lived with my strong single mom. After divorcing my father, she became a registered nurse. I was only five when my parents divorced, so I don’t really remember them being together. I just knew that I would sometimes go visit my dad.

In high school, I moved around a lot and attended three different schools before graduation. It was hard because I never had many friends, just a few close connections. I always felt like I was fading into the background, invisible in a way. I would just assimilate with my surroundings, never aspiring to accomplish much.

When I was sixteen, my mom didn’t like the life choices I was making — specifically my choice in boyfriend at the time — so she asked me to leave. I had not spoken to my dad for three years, but I looked him up in a phone book, called him, and asked if I could move in with him. No questions asked, he took me in. It was a game-changer for me. My mom was the type of parent who wanted me to be more independent and figure things out on my own. My dad, on the other hand, stepped in and made sure I was doing what I should be doing, like getting up on time and going to school. Their contrasting parenting styles collided and shaped me to become who I am now.

After graduation, I was ready to get out in the “real world” to do, and be, whatever I wanted. I moved in with a friend in Royal Oak to take the city by storm. We had big plans to make something of ourselves. But life took a different turn. A few months later, I found out I was pregnant, and everything changed. 

I became more invisible than ever before. For most of my pregnancy, I kept it secret. Not even my family, friends, or co-workers knew. I didn’t go to the doctor once. I was living in pure denial. I relied on the power of ‘80s fashion to hide my growing belly under big sweaters and leggings. I only gained twelve pounds during the entire pregnancy because my car had died, and I had to walk everywhere. 

One night my friends had gone out. I wasn’t feeling well, so I stayed home. I had suspicions of what was going on, but not having gone to a doctor yet, I reached back into the phonebook and made another call to the “Ask a Nurse” hotline. “What does labor feel like?” I asked, because I had no clue. 

I always kept $20 in my pocket for this type of emergency. I called a cab and when it finally showed up 45 minutes later, the cab driver asked, “Where would you like to go?”

“I need to go to the emergency room; I think I’m having a baby,” I told him. 

He looked at me confused and said, “Like right now?” to which I replied urgently, “Yes, right now!”

To this day, I still reflect on his kindness as he wheeled me into the hospital, scared, cold, and alone. I tried to give him the $20 for the fare, but he insisted that I keep it, saying that I needed it more than he did. 

Laying in a hospital bed, alone, and starring at this little girl in my arms, I decided I needed to tell someone about us. I was raised Catholic, and my mom, and especially my grandma, always made it clear they didn’t approve of women in our family having babies out of wedlock. But, without hesitation, I knew it was time to call my mom. 

The conversation went a bit like this:

“Hey Mom, are you sitting down?”

“No, should I be?”

“Yeah, you probably should.”

“Okay.”

“Mom, I just had a baby.”

“What? You just had a baby? I just saw you two months ago. Wait, I have another call coming through on call waiting.”

My grandma was actually on the other line with my mom now. 

“Shell just had a baby.”

“What? Great! Macy’s is having a sale on baby clothes – let’s go shopping!”

And that’s how my family welcomed my baby out of wedlock — with a sale at Macy’s. I was worried for nine months about them not accepting me, the baby, or our situation, and that wasn’t the case at all. I could’ve had their support from the beginning had I just been honest with them. I was one decision away from having something completely different in my life. 

Sadly, just five short weeks after the birth of my baby girl, Amanda, my boyfriend was killed in a car accident. He had promised to take care of us and be a family. But now he was gone. It became my daughter and I against the world. This drove me to take steps forward in life with the understanding that tomorrow is not guaranteed for any of us. On this day, I promised myself I would live a life of purpose. 

Living with Purpose

Fast forward to me marrying my first husband and having my second child, Xander. We also took in my then-husband’s nephew, Joe, and together we were raising three children. The marriage didn’t last.

However, several years later, I married the man of my dreams. I finished my bachelor’s degree and got a job at a homeless shelter in Flint. I started out doing finance and bookkeeping, but those who work in nonprofits know we wear many hats. They asked me to add human resources (HR) tasks to my other responsibilities. I love connecting with people and I’m organized, so I was happy to help out. 

During my time in the HR role, I decided I wanted to learn even more about people. I got my master’s in psychology and became a therapist. I was able to open my own private practice in Kalamazoo and run it for just over four years. 

One day, I looked at my son closely. He was very into art and theater and heading into his freshman year of high school. I just saw him so clearly all of a sudden and came to the realization that I had to find him a school that would enable him to thrive. 

My daughter was living in Ann Arbor, and I thought it would be a great place for him to connect with other like-minded people and reunite with his sister. Some were surprised that I would just close up my practice and move to Ann Arbor. But I’ve started over many times, and the move was what was best for my son and my family. So, we moved to Ann Arbor. Xander joined a robotics team and his school’s theater production crew, where he helped stage many shows; this is now the passion he’s pursuing in his adult life. I’m so happy that I was able to “see” him for all that he is and could be, even though no one did that for me. Watching him rebound has been a transformative gift for me. 

When I landed in Ann Arbor, I returned to my career in HR. The position was new to the company, so I had a line of employees from the hall to my office door. They used to joke that I needed a ticket pull tab system like you’d find at the Secretary of State office. 

It was here, working through various issues with employees, that I started using colored sticky notes to jot down different support strategies. This came from my previous experience of being a solution-focused therapist. I started sorting the strategies into eight distinct categories. After about six months, I had amassed hundreds of these sticky notes. One day I asked my husband, Paul, how to organize it for other people to use. “Well, Shell, that’s a book,” he said. Paul is so supportive of my dreams. With Paul’s love and support, I was able to push myself to become more visible than ever before.

Living Blissfully

I worked with a self-publishing group, Book Launchers, to guide me through the publishing process. We had a fun group brainstorming session where someone suggested “The Big Bliss Blueprint” for a title. My heart sang! I love the term “blueprint” because that’s what I’m trying to convey in the simplest of terms. And I immediately connected with the word “bliss” because I’m all about focusing on positive thinking and sifting out the negative. 

We were preparing to launch the book in March of 2020 when the pandemic hit. The publishing company asked if I wanted to put my book launch on pause. I slept on it and woke up knowing this book was exactly what people needed in this moment. The book launch looked completely different from what was planned. It went from book signings and bookstore visits to Zoom, podcasting, and live streaming. I had to put myself out there and get on social media to self-promote, forcing me to take risks and be vulnerable. But this is what I was teaching others to do, so how could I not do the same for myself? 

It didn’t take long for my book to find its footing. It was nominated at American Book Fest, and in October 2020 it won in the psychology and mental health category and was a finalist for the self-help motivational category. In May 2021, I was a finalist for the International Book Fest award in the same categories and won. The book also received a five-star review on Readers’ Favorite. But what was more important than the number of stars was one reviewer’s interpretation of the book. She just got it. I felt proud that I was able to take those colorful sticky notes and turn them into something meaningful, knowing it helped even just one person. This is my bliss!

The review reads, in part:

Phelps gently guides the reader to deal with difficult emotions and develop more worthwhile responses. She gives practical steps that you can implement immediately and practice daily to help you get the most out of life. The book depicts life as a beautiful journey that we can all enjoy regardless of circumstances.

After reading The Big Bliss Blueprint, I felt motivated and positive about my life and ready to take on the world…I became more forgiving of myself. —Jennie More

Living Intentionally Visible

My second book was a workbook I published on Amazon, The Big Bliss Blueprint Workbook. I’m working on a third book about professional communication and how we talk at work. I use the acronym TALK to dive into concepts around the premise that “Talking Activates Leading Knowledge.” If we want to lead in our profession, we have to articulate and help people understand our message. Everyone has a different mode of hearing a message, and we need to understand the person we’re talking to and how they will best receive our message. Being a communication stylist, I ask readers the question, “How can we style our communication to fit the message and to be received well?”

I have such a passion for connecting through communication! During a podcast interview, I was affectionately given the nickname Ms. Bliss. I was asked what keeps me blissful. The answer is listening to other people share their stories, journeys, and struggles, and how they overcome them. I love talking with strangers. I just got back from Vegas, and I was taking a lot of Lyft rides. On every ride I engaged in conversation with the drivers, who ended up being mostly women. They’d open up to me about their challenges and their passions. Hearing their stories inspired me and filled me with positivity. 

I guess my interest in talking to the Lyft drivers goes back to that scary night at age 19 when the cab driver showed me so much kindness. We all have stories that should be shared, and l love connecting with people in a meaningful way. 

If I were to give advice to someone who wants to put themselves out there, whether they’re drafting a book, starting a podcast, or whatever new journey they embark on, I’d say: Don’t worry about what other people are going to think. That was my biggest fear — the judgment. If you do what you love and love what you do, none of that matters. I can sleep well at night knowing that I helped at least one person. That’s enough for me. 

Bio:

With a passion for marketing that started as a young girl, Marji Wisniewski created her own marketing and communications organization in 2017. As owner of Blue Zebra Marketing Solutions, she helps local and regional businesses and nonprofits tell their story through branding, graphic design, content creation, and PR. She focuses on customized solutions for each client that are more unique than a zebra’s stripes. Marji is enjoying her new role as Managing Editor of The Brick Magazine. 

Marji has a love for gardening, all things Lake Michigan, Pilates, her family, and dogs