Calaveras

dayofthedead

This past weekend was the Day of the Dead, a lovely Mexican tradition in which people visit the graves of their loved ones and bring a picnic to share with the souls of the departed. Patti and I loved this holiday — it combined our morbid fascination with graveyards and mortuaries with a sense of humor and cartoony festivities. I wrote about this three years ago, when thoughts of death had suddenly assumed a new and less whimsical tone.

Last Saturday, Jenny and I joined thousands of other Angelinos at the Hollywood Forever cemetery to commemorate the Día de los Muertos. It’s a huge party. There’s a contest for who can build the most impressive memorial shrine and everyone has their faces painted to look like grinning skulls encrusted with jewels and flowers.

I love that this holiday turns the traditional gloominess surrounding death on its head.  Instead of an occasion for grief, it is a celebration of the lives of the deceased. The Mexicans believe that a person dies a second death when their memory is forgotten and that makes a lot of sense to me. Immortality means you had an enduring effect on the world, that the things you did for people while you were here will be carried around in their hearts. If you set an example for others to follow, you never really pass away. I see that in Patti — because people have such vivid and positive memories of her, she lives on.

These days, I live a life that is three thousand miles from many of the memories Patti and I shared.  I am not walking the streets she did, no longer live in her house or sleep in her bed or see the people who knew her so well. I worried about that when we Jenny and I first talked about coming West, that Patti’s memory would somehow fade when I was far from the physical world she lived in.

Now I know that’s not true, because I brought Patti with me.

I brought her photo in a frame that I see every day but more importantly, I brought the part of me she created over the quarter of a century we spent together. I also believe that Patti wanted me to grow and change and have adventures. She told me so a million times,  a million times I did not hear because I was encrusted in my habits and fears. Now, when I feel the pieces scrape and shift inside me, I know that she would approve. She would be so happy that I am here, with Jenny, in this mini house, painting in this garage.

Patti was the one who taught me how to love, how to go beyond my self-absorption and love another unconditionally.  If she hadn’t taught me the importance of true love, I could not truly love Jenny as I do today. But loving again does not diminish my first love. And conversely, the bottomless well of love I had to share in my past with Patti does not mean a drop less in my future with Jenny. There’s plenty to go around. The more love you give, the more love you have. And the hardest part is learning to share that endless love with yourself, to be kind and generous with who you are.

Recently, a Facebook friend who had suffered a recent loss, sent me a few questions about my experience with death. I’ve been waiting for a reason to share them with you and DIa de los Muertos seems as good a one as any.

-How did you survive your worst sort of days?

I guess I had no choice. I had a loving wife and small son and what other option was there but to persevere? I didn’t believe in God. I didn’t believe in karma or fate. Life was shitty and I could either deal with it or check out. In retrospect, I think that my love for my wife was a key factor to my will to continue. We planned a life together and her accident was not going to stop us from being together and having a meaningful time of it.  When she died, I no longer had that to hold me together, But I had my son and my commitment to be there for him. And I had my memory of Patti and her example, the fact that she had survived a huge blow and had carried on for so long. She loved life and she loved people and I tried to absorb some of that spirit, to look on the bright side, to count my blessings, to continue to be creative. I used my art to gain perspective on the blows that were dealt me, to get them out of my head and on to the page, so I could start to put the loss behind me, and have some thing to live for. And I reached out to other people, I shared my story, I tried to make my life meaningful, and of service to others.

-Days when getting out of bed seemed impossible what motivated you?

After Patti had her accident, I got out of bed to change Jack’s diapers. He was nine months old. Life was going on. The sun was still rising and setting. There were new things to experience. I wanted each day to be better than what had preceded it and slowly but surely it did.

-What do you say to people who say things that they think are very helpful and seems to create a deeper hole in your soul?

I am glad they are trying to help and I think them for it. In each person’s story there is something useful. But I know that only I can truly understand what I have gone through.  Platitudes can be so annoying and distancing but I try to concentrate on the love that is behind them.  The fact is, people don’t really know what to say. And often it is surprising how certain people react to tragedy and change. I was amazed when people I thought had seen it all disappeared when we needed them. And I was equally amazed at people who I thought barely knew me stepped forward, rolled up their sleeves, and helped me so much.  Do not underestimate the importance of other people’s love and comfort. But don’t be disappointed if they don’t know how exactly to help.

-being blindsided… Moments or days where you almost feel normal and a smell or a texture brings you to your knees in grief. 

Yup. That’s very familiar. Grief appeared and knocked me on my ass when I thought I was long out of the woods. And it isn’t necessarily prompted by a smell or a sound, it can just pop up out of the blue.  The flip side of this is that in time those little moments turn from painful to sweet, a lovely reminder of what one has  lost, of how much it meant, of how dear it still is.  I can smell perfume, hear an Ohio accent, and be transported back into Patti’s arms.  What was once unbearable becomes cherished. Give. It. Time.

-Does it get better, Danny?

If it didn’t our species would have long vanished in a never-ending rain of pain.  Every day you make progress. Sometimes you slip, sometimes you jump forward.  It is a wound and if it doesn’t kill you, you emerge wiser and happier.  As the Buddha told us, “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

- What helped and helps you the most as you continue moving forward?

In so many ways, my life today is better than ever. It is the life Patti always wanted for me. I have changed almost every aspect of my work and my home and am now on new adventures.  My life is going on. It took three and a half years to get here.  It was worth the trip. Thank you, Pat.

— Anything other words of experience you can think to offer?

I got a lot out of The Other Side of Sadness: What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss by George A. Bonnano. He points out that 95% or so of people emerge from grief in a year or less.  And of course, I  got a huge amount of help and wisdom from my grief counselor and from my lovely and wise girlfriend, Jenny James.

Mechanical drawing.

brake lathe

So it turns out that there are some shortcomings to owning a twelve-year-old truck. Nothing major, just a reluctance to start the first time I turn the key. I spent the afternoon at my local mechanic’s garage, inhaling the heady perfume of grease and metal shavings, while he replaced some worn bits and poured in some fresh magic potions. Meanwhile, rather than watching the History Channel in the waiting room, I drew the brake lathe. My mechanic, who also likes to draw, made a color Xerox of my journal pages and hung it next to the centerfold in the office. A pleasant way to spend the afternoon. Can’t wait to go to the dentist next and draw my root canal.

My other wheels.

cruiser
In New York, I had become quiet used to the Citibike program, to having a fresh bicycle waiting in a rack outside my front door to drive wherever I chose. I had always assumed that in LA I would be forced to drive every where — I remember from past visits that if you walk on foot down the sidewalk (where there is a sidewalk) , people look at you like you were covered with blood and dragging an axe. And the thought of toodling along on a bike where people are driving Ferraris at top speed while simultaneously talking to their agents on their blue tooth, sniffing cocaine off the dashboard and eating a double-double In’n’Out burger, well, that seemed pure fantasy.
As it turns out, Venice is something of a fantasy land. You see these bulbous beach cruiser bikes all over the place, and their riders are quite brazen. I’ve often had to yank my truck to the curb to avoid some blithe hipster, high on prescription marijuana, who its talking on his iphone while driving the wrong way up the middle of the road. People never wear helmets or pay attention to stop signs and generally make New Yorker cyclists look like uptight, law-abiding novices.
A friend lent us a cruiser of our own. So far, I have ridden it once and drawn it twice. It’s just not my thing. It would seem too ironic to get run over here in L.A. on a big girl’s bike. To hell with that, I’d much rather go out in a spectacular car crash like James Dean or Jackson Pollock.

My colleagues.

hangdog
I’ve always envied people who could bring their dogs with them everywhere. Old coon hounds sitting in the back of a farmer’s pickup. Fashionistas with their Pomeranians in their purses. Airport cops with stoic German shepherds on short leashes. Hip entrepreneurs writing code in old warehouses, with mixed breed companions named Woman or Copernicus or 8-track sitting under their Ikea worktables.
Finally, I have joined their ranks. Every morning, my hairy coworkers report to the garage with me. First, they make sure no one has accidentally left any bacon or chicken bones on the floor during the night, then flop down to supervise me while I work. That supervision is very trusting as Tim and Joe generally fall asleep within minutes and leave me to carry on unattended.
slumber honds
Every hour or so, something or other will pass outside our fence and they will leap outraged from their slumber and hurl themselves down the drive to bark angrily through the cracks. Then, huffily, they strut back to their stations, exhale indignantly and return to dreams of New York sidewalks and slow moving cats.
If I have to go into the house to freshen my martini or buy another ream of typing paper, they escort me to the door and wait by the kitchen steps. When I return, usually seconds later, they are delirious and insist on asking me all about my absence. Then back to bed. I mean, work.

Thinking outside the books.

gallery garage

A canary sits in its cage, gazing through the bars. Year after year, it watches the world beyond and dreams. One morning, it notices that the cage door is open. The canary catches its breath and waits to see when it will close.

Eventually, the canary hops onto the edge of the door and pops out of its cage. It flies around the room, sits on the back of the couch, perches on the bookshelf. An hour later, it returns to the cage and goes back to gazing through the bars, dreaming. The door is still open. So is the window beyond.

Freedom is not easy. Security, comfort and familiarity are.

……..

Many birthdays ago, long before I had the habit of drawing, my mother and my sister chipped in and rent me a studio for a month. It was the most terrifying gift I had ever received. I went down to Desbrosses Street in Tribeca, and walked into the studio. “Mine, all mine,” I muttered under my breath. The room was about fifteen feet square and empty. I took out a pad and a piece of charcoal and wrote about how I felt having studio all of my own. I filled several pages with writing in charcoal, taped them to the wall, and left.

I came back a week later and made a small collage from cut-up pieces of magazine. I taped that to the wall and left. A week after that, I drew colored lines on the collages with a highlighter marker. The final week in the studio, I brought in a photo of my grandfather and a large canvas. I painted a very bad copy of the portrait onto the canvas. At the end of the day, I left the canvas, the collage, and the charcoal writing on the studio, locked the door, and never went back.

……..

When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had planned to work in the second bedroom of our house, to sit at a small desk in the corner and write my new book. Then I saw our two-car garage, 300 or so feet of emptiness. Like the garage, I stood with my mouth wide open. I spent the first week, filling it with tables and shelves and cubbyholes.  I spent the second week sitting at my desk, writing my new book and rearranging bottles of ink. Occasionally I would draw in my journal, using a fountain pen and a white pencil.

I spent the third week thinking. I realized had managed to reproduce my office in New York. I had a lamp, a rug, a laptop, a phone, a box of thumbtacks. I ate lunch at my desk and surfed the web. I was even filling my calendar with a record of my daily doings in case I had to fill in timesheets at the end of the month. All that was missing was a couple of account executives and a client.

So I went to the art supply store and bought whatever I wanted (if you remember my old essay, “Art Supply Porn“, you’ll know my fantasies are legion). At first, however, that just amounted to a few tiny palettes for gouache and a bottle of ink. Oh, and a block of 14 x 17″ mixed media paper.

Back in my empty garage, I opened the block and did a tentative self-portrait in ink. This simple act I was breaking one of my cardinal agreements with myself. I was making drawing, with no writing , that was not in a book. No wonder the self-portrait looked like I had just eaten something bad. Then I did a gouache painting on the block and pinned it up next to the self-portrait. Then in a fit of pique, I got a house paint brush, dipped it in inks and drew a huge painting of Tim on the back of an empty Ikea box.

I felt slightly winded and rather nauseated. I took out my journal and told it what I had done, revealing my betrayal and the dim feelings I had about it.

The next day, I bought a 64-box of Crayolas and some tempera and did a wax resist portrait. Then I did some more gouache paintings, then a painting of the back of the house in poster paints on cardboard. Soon the garage wall was full.

michael-ave-hi-resAThe following week, I sat on the corner of my street holding the fattest Sharpie I could find. On a big sheet of cardboard, I drew the house across the intersection. When I had filled the whole board, I went back to the garage and got another piece of cardboard and continued the drawing, a big, grubby, dog-eared diptych.

michael-ave-hi-resBThe next day, I continued the drawing, working my way down the street. When I was done, it was eleven and a half feet wide. Then I added gouache, creating a cheerful portrait of another glorious day in my new neighborhood. Just as my hero David Hockney was transformed by the California sunshine, I felt a call to use candy colors and bold lines and to work as big as all outdoors.

michael-ave-hi-res

Click to see it bigger.

Now I am working on a drawing that is as big as my garage wall, fourteen feet in all, a broad panorama of all the crazy houses arrayed along the Venice canal. I even added a gondolier.

My sketchbook now looks a bit small and grey but, despite my sudden expansiveness, I love it still.

If you are getting little set in your ways, check out the door of your cage. The world is wide and a little terrifying, but it’s wonderful out here.  You don’t need to chuck your job, your home and all the rest, but try flying around the living room a bit and enjoy the view. There may be a cat out there, but if you fly high and far, you’ll be safer than you are trapped in a cage with an open door.

The sour life.

Lemons

“Why don’t you go on west to California? There’s work there, and it never gets cold. Why, you can reach out anywhere and pick an orange. Why there’s always some kind of crop to work in. Why don’t you go there?”   —Johnny Steinbeck, Grapes o’ Wrath.

It’s a schlep, people.

I have to get out of my lawn chair, walk all the way to the back of the yard, pick a half dozen lemons and limes from our dwarf trees, then walk all the way back to the kitchen, plug in the squeezer, slice and squeeze till my glass is half full, add soda water, and stagger back to my lawn chair.

I’m exhausted. Yet refreshed.

The art of living.

flowers

Life is not an oil painting, sealed behind varnish and clamped in a golden frame, hanging in a white walled gallery in Chelsea, waiting to be bought by a hedge fund manager’s third wife.
Life is not an edition of etchings, a long series of identical impressions.
Life is not a mural, intended as a public display or the backdrop to an expensively furnished room. Life is not wallpaper.
Life is not a bronze sculpture, cold, monumental, an abstracted, idealized image of a hero long forgotten.

Life is a shelf.
A long shelf partly filled with journals. Some of the journals are hand-made, some store-bought, some in ornate covers, some stained and dog-eared.
Some of the journals are completely filled, others are abandoned half-way, maybe to be taken up at a later date. Some of the books are filled with paper that felt just right under your pen, smooth and creamy, bold and bright. Others were experiments that failed or overreaches, made of materials you weren’t ready to master quite yet.
Sections of the shelf may be filled with identical volumes, a type of book that you found comfortable at the time and stuck with it, disinterested in experimentation and change so you kept filling one after another. On the shelf, they may look the same, identical spines all in a row like a suburban cul-de-sac. But inside, each page is different, drawn by the same hand and pen, yet recording unique observations, days that fill up identically-sized boxes on the calendar but were all filled with different challenges, discoveries, lessons and dreams.
Each page of each journal is always different. Some are perfectly drawn and brilliantly written, insightful and illuminating. Others are a failure, with poor perspective and distracted lines. Some of the pages are dappled with raindrops or a splash of champagne, others are drawn in haste, still others crosshatched with great intensity and care. Some contain shopping lists, phone numbers of new friends, boarding passes to far-away places. Some are bright and colorful, witty and bold. Others are intimate and personal, never to be shared. Some pages describe loss and death, others a drawing of a gift you took to a baby shower.
None of these pages is an end in itself. No matter how good it seems at the time, eventually, you turn each one over. Even the ones at the end of a volume are merely leading to the first fresh page of the next. You fill the page, maybe you like what you drew or maybe it was a disappointment, but there’s always another to follow and another beyond that.
You try your best with each blank page, try to make something fresh and beautiful. Some of the time you feel excited and proud of what you’ve made, at other times you are disappointed and desperate. Often, a page you thought was just a turd looks a whole lot better when you come back to it years later. The drawing you thought was clumsy and flawed reveals some new insight and truth about who you were at the moment, fresh energy, naiveté, hope, darkness before the dawn. Each drawing, whether you know it at the time or not, contains truth. You just have to trust it and keep on drawing and writing and living your life.
Life is a process, and every one has the same end result: that last volume, partly-filled, cut off when we thought there was still art left to make. No need to rush to get there. Make the most of the page that lies open before you today.