New me.

Ages ago, someone told me that we replace all of the cells in our bodies every seven years. Every single one.  That idea has haunted me since.  It seems to mean that I am literally no longer the same person I was seven years ago. Even though I have memories of things that go way further back, they are not the memories of the me of today.

That’s not a completely alien idea; it’s like copying files from an old computer to a new one or making a new printing of an old story. The information is the same but the vessel is new.  But somehow when it comes to the cells that make me up, this has always felt different. Because I think of me as this me, this couple of hundred pounds of meat and skin, these scars, this reflection in the mirror. I don’t usually think of myself as a concept, a construction, or as data that can be re-recorded on a new cassette.

I woke up with idea in my head again and as I write this, I’m starting to realize why. The first and most obvious reason is that I am in the middle of organizing all the data files for Sketchbook Skool, 16 terabytes of data stored on a big stack of hard drives. Part of my archiving process is to make clones of each drive so we have backups in case anything goes wrong with the originals. I put an empty drive into a slot in the dock, put the original in the other slot, push a button, lights flash, and soon every byte has been duplicated and I have two identical drives. All those hours of footage, all those conversations, and drawing demos are now in two places.

And somehow, as I do this, my  body is doing the same thing.  As I watch the blinking on the front of the dock, my old cells, the old me is slowly being copied and then deleted. Old cells are being cast off, exfoliated, dropping onto my pillow, blowing around my apartment with mites of dust, sluicing down the shower drain, peeing into the bowl, crapping out with my digested burrito.

Me shitting me out.

The other reason this popped into my conscious predawn today is that in less than two months, I will slough off the last cell that ever saw Patti first-hand. The last cells that ever talked to her, held her, kissed her goodbye.  Soon every part of me will be a fresh clone with no personal experience of her.

In December, Jack and I took Patti’s ashes out of the cookie jar that has contained them since March 18, 2010, and put them in their final resting place. We went to one of her favorite places, just after sunset, and we put her ashes in a place we can always come back to, a private place in a public spot, one she went to every day, where we know she would be happy to be, no matter where we are.

Her ashes are not Patti. They are just dead cells that were burned and preserved, not in amber but in a heavy-duty plastic bag, which we kept in that cookie jar, on a shelf where I could see it every day and gaze at when memories of her became intense. They stood for her but now they no longer need to do that. For she is in us.

new-cells-3

The process of burying Pattia was not sad.  It was actually slightly comic as Jack and I bumbled our way through it, making a couple of clumsy errors that were pure Patti, pure Hoofy. I don’t think either of us felt sad as we did it. Rather, we felt that she was with us still, that the pain of losing her was a faded memory, and that this was the final thing the three of  us would ever do together and that it should be light and silly just as our best times as a family always were.

Patti’s cells are now forever in that one place. Jack’s are now in Los Angeles, three thousand miles away. And mine are here, being replaced with new cells, new cells that look older, more wrinkled and grey.

Many of the hair cells were not replaced. Some of the brain cells did not replicate with all the memories in place. Other cells have less resiliency and vim than their predecessors. And  yet they are all still me, they all still bear the weathering of the years, the experiences, joys and traumas that made me and still do.new-cells-2

My memories of Patti have changed with these cells. Some are lost forever. And those that used to take precedence because they were at the front of the line, have stepped back into the mists. I am no longer haunted by thoughts of Patti at the window, of the policemen, of the visit to the coroner’s office. I no longer think of Patti as a woman of fifty, increasingly limited by her disabilities, who didn’t want to grow old in a wheelchair.

Now when I think of her, I rummage through my huge archive of snapshots. I see her in a Polaroid, pregnant with Jack. I see her in a soft focussed, black and white picture dressed up to go to a party, I see her laughing in a bar with friends I haven’t heard from in years, I see her smiling through her freshly cut bob, I see her holding our first dog Frank like a big baby, his long legs sticking up in the air, both of them grinning. I see her looking at me like she did on our first date, saying ‘Mommy’, the gap between her front teeth.

As I think of these memories, I feel old tears well up in my new eye cells. These new cells are never overwhelmed by the tsunami of grief that used to seize me but it’s good to know that those old memories can still effect them, even though I am happy, happy with my new cells, my new kitchen, my new job, my new love, my new wife, my new wife. My new cells make up a new me with all the best bits of the old.

Patti and the monkey

Tim sent me the following email last week:

Hi Danny,

Thanks for Shut Your Monkey. I’ve been working on quieting my inner voice for 40 years mostly through meditation. I’ve added Shut Your Monkey to the list of books that have helped me over the years including Be Here Now, Ram Dass; The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle; Experience of Insight, Joseph Goldstein; The Art of Living, William Hart; and Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, Sogyal Rinpoche.

Where your book has been extremely helpful is in discovering those nooks and crannies where my Monkey has been hiding and impersonating my voice with subtle little comments that I didn’t recognize as coming from him. So thank you.

I do have a question for you. I’ve been following you for a number of years and was especially touched by your willingness to be so open about your wife’s illness and death. I’m wondering how that inner voice was part of that experience?

Tim


Here’s what I wrote in response:

Tim:

I’m so glad my new book is helpful.  Thanks for letting me know.  I am flattered to be in such august company.

As to the inner voice and my wife….

When Patti was first injured, we spent a lot of time looking for information. We were in a fairly narrow niche among people dealing with spinal cord injuries: 1) my wife was a woman (obviously), 2) we had a 9 month-old-child and 3) we lived in a big city and 4) she was over 30. There just weren’t many people like her (one more way Patti was special).  We were in a constant quest for information about our particular situation and it was hard to come by in those early days of the Internet. So I started a bulletin board called curbcut.com and it soon became a vibrant community for sharing information and support. You can see part of an archive of it here. The discussion we had there had to be frank to be useful and it became increasingly normal and comfortable for us to tell total strangers some pretty intimate stuff in order to get useful feedback.

Similarly, when I started drawing, there was very little information and inspiration about illustrated journaling. Hannah Hinchman had a book, d.price had a zine, but otherwise not much. So I formed a community on Yahoo! that quickly grew to 4,000 members. 

In both cases, I found that sharing what I was going through with other people helped me and help them. That’s why I wrote Everyday Matters and eventually A Kiss Before You Go and Shut Your Monkey too. And that’s why I have been blogging for all the years: because turning the things of my life into words and pictures helps me understand them better and sharing them with people, even strangers, makes even the worst moments seems worthwhile.

The monkey doesn’t always agree. He told me many time that my sharing was actually exploitation, that I was turning my family into fodder for my bottomless need for attention. That may be true. But so is my other point: when I turn my experiences into some sort of art, it makes my life richer and clearer to me. And when I make art, it seems natural to share it. That’s what artists and writers do.

Sharing stuff publicly hasn’t had many negative consequences beyond the whining of the monkey in my head. And it seems to help other people too.They write to tell me that I am not alone in my feelings or that my description of an experience has helped clarify it for them too.

The monkey has a lot to say about every one of my projects. He has been particularly vocal about my book/podcast/newsletter.  Nonetheless, creating them has been helpful to me and hopefully to others too so I persevere over the cries of outrage in my head.

I hope that’s helpful. Thanks for asking,

Danny

The worst of times, the best of times.

What if:

You could know,
with absolute certainty,
that the worst day of your life was behind you.
And the second worst too.
Would that knowledge change how you lived,
what risks you took,
what dreams you had?

And what if you could know that
the best day of your life
was yet to come.
How would that change your life?

And, even if you couldn’t really know for sure,
what would happen if you lived
as if you did?

Cover story

While I try to do my best making every book I’ve published, my next book, A Kiss Before You Go, is the most important one I’ve written — to me. It’s a recollection of the lovely years I spent with Patti and a journal of the months after she died, how Jack and I coped, how it changed and sharpened my view of the world. Because the subject is so dear to my heart, I have worked very hard to make every inch of it as perfect as I can, to fill it with the bright colors Patti loved, to be as scrupulously honest as I can be, to craft it to the highest standards I can muster and to drive my editor a little nuts by insisting on all sorts of things to make it perfect, from the exact dimensions of the book to the bleed trim on the inside of the cover.

The book itself has been in production for months and I am so happy with it; I have okayed the proofs of the pages and have now only to be patient until the first bound copy arrives in my hands. The part that is always the toughest on every book I’ve done — the cover – took months of experimentation and discussion. How to encapsulate this book in a single visual statement that would attract a casual browser and still evoke all of the richness within? And how to make the most of the fact that this is my first book with a dust jacket, making it feel even more real and special.  I made almost thirty different designs; I even dragged in Patti’s old friend Mick Haggerty, one of the great album cover designers of all times, to lob in his ideas.

Simultaneously, I worried over who would be the best person to write the cover blurb, the first review. I finally decided to ask our old pal Moby who loved Patti and who is the sort of sensitive artist whose endorsement would mean so much. He got the book and wrote, “I loved Danny’s wife Patti. And I love this honest, beautiful book.” That’s so simple and nice.

Last weekend, after I dismounted from my horse, I opened a FedEx package and out fell the first proof of the dust jacket. I wrapped it around a book and, for a minute, pretended I had just come across it in my local independent bookstore. One of my favorite features works perfectly —the dustjacket contains a lovely surprise that will only be experienced by people who buy the book. I do hope you like it.

The book will be out this winter — I’ll be talking about it a lot more in the interim. Meanwhile, here is a peek at some of the designs I considered for the cover.

Two Years

It’s much sunnier on March 18th than it was two years ago. And the sadness and loss I felt then have become memories. Now, when I think about Patti, I don’t feel overwhelming emptiness, just sweet thoughts and warmth. Despite the enormity of her death, Jack and I have continued to find our way and to find things to like about life. Surviving is no longer a guilty feeling; it’s what Patti would have wanted for us.

I have learned so much from her since she left. As the clouds parted, I saw how wise she had been about so many things and somehow, with her gone, I am able to better heed her advice and perspective. I have let many things go that I used to cling to, worries, fears, woeful imaginings. Why? I guess because I have to rely on myself, to be strong, to take on all aspects of myself and my life. I no longer have my love to lean on, to make up for my shortcomings, to protect me from the things I fear.

And being a single parent is much more than double being one of two. Without another person to balance my mistakes, I have to be more careful and also bolder when I help steer Jack to the next stage of his life. Would I have been as supportive of his decision to go to RISD if Patti were alive? Would I have been okay with so many of the choices he makes? Would I be as close to him as I am now? Would I have become calmer, more supportive, less judgmental? Probably not, honestly.

My life will change radically again in six months. Jack will be off to Providence and I’ll have my apartment, evenings, weekends and grocery lists to myself. I look forward to it with a mixture of excitement and dread. For the first time, except for a six month period when I first graduated from college, I will be living alone. I have no idea how I’ll take to it. Will I be lonely? Will I be free? Will I try to end my isolation by living with someone else as soon as possible? WIll I thrive? We’ll see.

I think of Patti at least once every day. I have pictures of her throughout our house and office but they have blended into the background. Instead, the way I come to think of her is because I keep encountering the parts of my life that she was  a part of — how I put the laundry away, the sheets she bought, the desk she sat at, the places she walked the dogs.  So many parts of everything. Some of those routines change, new sheets, new shopping lists, new situations with Jack she never dealt with. But she remains at the core of who I am in so many ways. After all, we grew up together and were molded by the same events, huge and minor and she was my best friend for  a quarter of  a century.

I worry sometimes that Patti’s memory will fade bit by bit until no one but her closest friends and relatives remember what she was like. That no one will know any more what a nut she was, how sweet she was, what a good friend and an inspiration. But I don’t think that’ll really ever be true. Her light burned too bright.

I wrote a book about her life and its aftermath and it’s at the publisher now. I worked on it harder and more carefully than anything I have ever done because I want the world to know about her, to fall in love with Patti Lynn like I did. In less than a year, it’ll be out there, making ripples, and creating new fans for her. I hope she would have liked it.

I miss you, Pat. I always will. I know you wouldn’t want any of us to be sad today or any day. I will always remember you and think of how you would have wanted things to be. Thanks you for being my friend and my love.