Passages, Mourning and Halloween

Sean At 18  We don’t have many pictures of him


Ever since my younger brother died in 2008, Halloween has been a difficult season for me.  We don’t know his exact death date.  He had schizophrenia and was often uncommunicative for weeks at a time.  His last call on his cell phone record was October 25th.  He wasn’t found until November 11th.  He was 44 years old.  He lived alone. Even though his family, especially my mother and older sister, tried very hard to help him out, he resisted and preferred a life of isolation.  We knew not to push him too hard to do anything.  At one point, he disappeared for about 13 years.  He resurfaced 4 years before his death.
He was very strong-minded for a man who heard paranoid voices in his head since he was a teenager. He worked as an electrician.  He went to work and went home.  He had a perception of himself as being very small and was always drinking protein powder and lifting weights.  I asked him one time if he ever wanted to socialize more.  “If I go straight home, I stay out of trouble.”
My brother was scary.  Even though he thought he was small, he was about 6’2” and built like a truck, broad and muscular.  He always wore several layers of clothes to cover up how small he thought he was.  He was quiet most of the time, but if you ever heard one of his episodes where he would start responding to the voices, start talking about how the people in the television were out to kill him and how one day he would get back at all the people who had hurt him, you would be more than justified at fearing him.
He had a very difficult childhood.  My father was abusive and both my parents were alcoholics.  But my brother had a enough self discipline to maintain a job without anyone thinking he was anything other than weird for being so quiet and never socializing.
We don’t know for sure what he died of.  He was sick with the flu and my sister took him medicine and begged him to go to a doctor, but he was paranoid of doctors.  When they found him, one of the men who collected his body called us and told us to go to the apartment before the hazardous-materials team got there.  My brother had left money strewn all around the apartment.  When he came home from work, he’d just throw his cash out of his pockets as if it were some kind of contaminant.
One of the main worries we had was how we were going to afford bury him.  We all were living from paycheck to paycheck.  My mom was on Social Security and getting less than $600 a month.
My two sisters and my brother-in-law and I found enough money in my brother’s apartment to cover the burial expenses.  It was such a sad sojourn, that act of hunting and gathering. We wore face masks.  He lived a spartan life.  Weights in the living room.  A mattress on the floor.  A table to eat at.  The smell of decay was sharp and thick.  We saw where he was died. We collected his few personal things and the money hidden everywhere.  There was enough to pay for the burial.
It was traumatizing, but it showed me how hard my brother worked to maintain a sense of sanity and to not bother anyone.  It  also ingrained in me a profound respect for the human body, for decay, for the passage we all make from physical matter to spiritual beings.
I mourned his death, but more so, I mourned his illness that isolated him so much. That is what haunts me.  Later we found out he had almost $80,000. in his bank account.  He never spent money outside of what he needed.  The money left was a gift to a family who he never really let close to him, but we would have much rather him have spent it on getting mental help.
Halloween used to be a favorite time, and I loved the whole macabre celebration.  Now I feel removed from it.  It’s a more sacred time and I don’t like seeing the glorification of insanity, wounds and zombies.
Each year since his death, though, I get a little more light-hearted about it. He has helped.  He visits me in my dreams.  When he was young he always played guitar and was quite good at it.  After he got ill, he wrote music with square notes and mathematical formulas that sounded very discordant.  In my dreams, he always has a guitar and is surrounded by melodies like bird songs.
Living around children helps me get through Halloween, too.  I give out candy.  Sometimes I wear a witch hat.  I still love jack-o-lanterns.  But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go to a haunted house or participate in a zombie fest.  And sometimes seeing a particularly graphic costume will send me spiraling into grief.  But it isn’t always a costume that can set me to mourning.
I began to sink into depression over my brother a few days ago.  On the way home from the library, while I waited for the bus, a very dirty and skinny man came to wait with me.  He was muttering and talking to himself, gesturing and making pointed comments in some language of his own.  I began to think of the sorry state of mental health care in our abundant country and the terrible time we had trying to get help for my brother.
When I got home, I started drawing a face and I began a few hours of very passionate paint splattering and mourning.  I realized I was trying to draw my brother.  I’d been trying to do an homage to him since he died, but never could bring myself to it.


I started mourning in full, crying, drawing, erasing, crying, painting.  I got out almost all my art supplies and even my sand paper — putting on color, sanding it off.   I knew I’d gone a little off kilter, but it felt okay.  Sometimes madness is the only possible response.
Finally a face stared back at me.  With a subtle grin.  My brother emerged from all that chaos to say, I think, Lighten up.  And I did.
Autumn Visit
I told a friend about my brother’s death.  She is in her 30s and has 3 young children. She is celebrating the Day of the Dead in addition to Halloween.  She invited me to a Sugar Skull event on next Tuesday, and I felt like I could get through that.  I tried to remember a favorite food of my brother, but he really only ate to build up his body.  I will make a sugar skull for him anyway.
Today, I worked on the homage painting that has been in the back of my mind for the last 5 years.  Just a simple watercolor of him flying off to a saner, more sacred place.  I drew him with an Oud-like instrument, the first guitar invented.  There’s some gold glazing that doesn’t show up in the scan of the painting.
I know I will carry  love and confusion throughout my life.  Mourning is something we must do if we are to feel love and compassion.  If we are to keep our loved ones close in our hearts.
Soon, I’ll build a little altar for the Day of the Dead – for my brother, for my mother, for my grandmother, for all the souls that have struggled through this life and made it to the other side.  I pray they continue to haunt me, trouble and inspire me, until I join them in the great mystery beyond life.

Diminished Scale

I’m still somewhat in a daze after the death of my mother.  The veil between life on earth and the afterlife still seems thin.  It’s a time of growth, contemplation and reconnection.  So much love is available to me through my friends and family that I am unable to write clearly about it.  I spent a week in Memphis where I’m from and where my mom spent her entire life.  Everything flowed together like a golden river — grief, affirmation, and growth. 

I got back home to Portland, Or,  the day before Valentine’s day, which is my wedding anniversary — 3 years and still on our honeymoon.  My husband was so great — he had vacuumed and cleaned the apartment, bought flowers and made himself available to my every need.  We had a subdued celebration of our love with moments spent honoring my mother.

 It happens that the Portland Jazz Festival occurs in February, so we went to see an interview/masterclass with pianist Barry Harris last night.  I sketched while he talked and realized it’d been almost 2 weeks since I’d done any drawings from life.

I decided to post this sketch of Mr Harris for Paint Party Friday as my work in progress — my sketchbook, which will never be more than a work in progress.

Mr. Harris is 84 now, slightly stooped from age, but exudes an ephemeral strength.  He’s a kind and forthright teacher, with a great love of  jazz.  He said it hurts him when he goes to other countries and sees musicians that sound better than Americans — “Jazz is our music.”  We should always be the best — this was his way of urging students to practice, practice and learn the standards.  He was very clear that musicians, even if they weren’t accompanying a singer, should know the lyrics so they know more meanings of the songs. 

I usually don’t post my quick sketches of people because I worry that I don’t capture them accurately.  But this week I am not so much concerned with accuracy as I am with energy, and in this pencil sketch, I like the energy.  Barry Harris has such elegant hands but they look rough in this sketch because he moved them all the time, as if he was plucking music and meaning out of the air.  I hope I captured that energy.

I didn’t get my favorite quote on this sketch:

“The diminished scale is the world.”

In the diminished scale the music is more alive — that was such a good thing to hear when my life seems diminished by a loss and yet more lyrical for having honored that loss.

Let me know what you think.

Barry Harris – The diminished scale IS the world

Go to Paint Party Friday for links to a whole world of art created in the past week.

Three Little Birds – Journal Pages

I got some encouragement from friends to post the following pages from my most recent journal.  They sort of map some moods and also different ways of using a journal.

This was done in pencil, which is why it’s a little hard to reproduce.
“Wanted to draw something hard and sensuous to honor those parts of me that have hardened because of grief and loss.  I imagined traveling to a cemetery or city park — but I can’t get around.  No car, limited mobility and many other things to do.  I settled for this white clay swan of Jim’s.  It’s heavy and hard.  The wings are impressed with feather markings and tiny impressions cover the feathered body.  The drawing makes it look grey but it’s white w/an orange beak, black marking and brown glassy eye.  One chip on the wing tip.
Later, Jim, my husband, told me this an icon swan, one he bought for his late wife Kathleen, as a symbol of someone able “to extract pure essence fro the adulterated mixture.”  The swan is pure beauty although it feeds on dubious food.  He got that image from Thomas Merton.  Kathleen, a family mediator in divorce cases, was able to help really dysfunctional families see the essence of families — the kids, the love, the actions that will have effect 50 years from now.  
So I didn’t have to leave home to find what I’d wanted to find in cemetery — a hard graceful image of the beauty of loss.”

If you are subject to depression, you know that those first days after the depression lifts, you  come up with the most fantastic ideas about what you can achieve. I’ve learned to write them down instead of actually pursuing them:

Post Depression Flights of Fancy:
I decided if I ever got pet it should be a big multi-colored parrot.  Then I want to teach it to sing one of my favorite soul songs — maybe ‘It’s Alright’ or ‘Always and Forever.’
    I saw posters for readings and performances at the library and actually started to sign up or start making plans to go them  (but didn’t)
    Also, I figure when I sell my book (as yet unwritten), I’ll buy the house across the street and have a studio there.  Maybe I’ll train the parrot to bark like a guard dog.”

By the time I finished drawing the parrot I figure I could train the parrot to sing my top ten favorite soul songs.  Then I watched the Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and decided  I couldn’t cage a parrot — unless it was disabled — hmmm.

This last entry was from a relatively normal day mood wise.  I got the newsletter from the Women’s Caucus for Art and it had a wonderful photograph of an Indian girl in dance regalia, so I pasted in my journal.  Unfortunately, I forgot to write down the name of the photographer, so if anyone out there knows, let me know.  I did a quick painting with ink gouache and watercolor pencils.  I loved the festive color and melancholy expression — and how much she looked like a bird that needs to fly away soon.

Here is my year 2012 in journals:

Eight 9×12″ journals, and 7 portable Moleskines.  I learned a lot about myself, writing and drawing. Did I produce anything of merit?  Only time will tell.  But the time spent on them helped me fly steadily through the year.

Book Review: A Kiss Before You Go

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I can’t remember how I stumbled upon Danny Gregory’s book Everyday Matters.  It was around 2005, I was about 45.  I had just separated from my husband, my kids were grown.  I was living off disability in a room I rented from my best friend.  I was floundering around with my identity and searching for meaning in my life and desperately looking for inspiration.
Everyday Matterswas a simple, beautiful gift.  It’s essentially a guide to keeping an illustrated journal, and why that’s important, why everyday of your life matters and is worth recording.  It was an unusual kind of book for me because it emphasized drawing over writing.  It was filled images and reflections on the mundane and the sublime.  It was a record of healing, but there wasn’t some great transformation into an idealized picture of robust life.  Instead it showed life with its scars and pockmarks and all its homely color..
Of Everyday Matters, Gregory said:  “Two years before I started drawing, my wife was run over by a subway train. Sounds really terrible, I know. But, well, this book is about how art and New York City saved my life.”  His beloved wife, Patti, recovered, but had paraplegia and had to use a wheelchair for the rest of her life.  Gregory began to draw and keep a journal of their transition into their new life.  In learning to draw, he learned to see more vividly.  In learning to see more vividly, he reclaimed his sense of wonder.  And then he shared it.
Everyday Mattersimmediately went on my antidepressant book shelf, as well as my inspiration shelf.  I was tenuously starting to keep journals again but they were clogged with confusion, pain and exhaustion.  After reading Everyday Matters, I let myself be distracted from my inner turmoil by objects around the house, by plants and faces.  I let a life long habit of doodling become an obsession.  If I felt myself spiraling into self destructive writing, I drew instead.  I did lots of terrible little drawings.  And I enjoyed it.
I blame Danny Gregory for turning my compulsion to keep a journal into an addiction.  I gave copies of his book to many friends.  He then published The Creative License: Giving Yourself Permission To Be The Artist You Truly Are and An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers, both of which I revisit on a regular basis to keep my creative juices flowing.  I love his advice on better living through bad drawings.  His books are especially helpful after you see work that especially blows you away and you feel like a fraud for scribbling inanely on paper.  Gregory re-opens your eyes to your own unique vision and potential.
His latest book, published only a few months ago, is called A Kiss Before You Go: an Illustrated Memoir of Love and Loss.  This is the journal of his first year after his beloved Patti died.  It was a sudden death, the result of a fall.  It’s a poignant and unflinching look at grief.  

He said, “Patti and I shared so much over the twenty-four years we were together: her paraplegia, raising our son, lots of adventure, laughs, and love. When she died in a horrible accident, I had to face a completely new life and approach it day by day.  A Kiss Before You Go is an illustrated record of our years together and my first year alone. It covers sad events but ultimately it’s a book about loving and living, about beauty in its many shades.”

This is one of the most honest and immediate books on the grieving process I’ve read. There is almost an imperative in society to get over it but this journal instead honors the loss and is honest about the painful process of getting one’s balance back.  There is uplift, but there is a profound respect for the way grief reshapes us and hones our perspective. 
The illustrations are stunning.  As in his other books, the story is handwritten.  Gregory often uses a dip pen and the entries are published as they are written.  The written words are art.  There is a haunting page where he is writing in white ink on a blue background about the day of Patti’s death.  The nib of the pen seems to have split halfway through the entry, or is he retracing every word.  The letters and words seem to be falling apart, or like they have ghosts.  The entry ends with “Nothing seems real.”   
He paints an interpretation of Hokusai’s classic  the Great Wave with a hand form reaching out of the water in the undertow.  It’s a powerful rendering of the way grief comes in waves and “flattens” you.   
The drawings of his son and their dogs crackle with love and energy.
But this book doesn’t flatten you.  The honesty of it is refreshing and the beauty of life is evident on every page.   
Gregory addresses the ambivalence we have when spirits seem to visit us in dreams and in strange coincidences. There are funny moments, like when he spends time with a friend who has devolved into a sort of caveman without the company of women.  “I better watch it.”  And when he gets advice from a friend who tells him the universe is waiting to see what he will make of this, and Gregory’s response is, “Why can’t the universe just leave me the fuck alone?”
The book itself is well bound and opens flat so you can enjoy the two page spreads.  I always look at books without their jackets because I like to see how they are bound and I’m always hoping for a surprise.  This one has a lovely watercolor blue cover and a white ink drawing of kissing figurines.  And the back of the paper cover has a collage of pictures of Patti. It underscores how she lived fully and celebrated each day.
People like to think you get over loss, but I don’t think you do.  I think, instead you learn to grieve properly, to let grief have its place in the rhythm of your life.  This book invites you to feel loss in all its color and awkwardness.  The gift of grief is how it imbues everything around us with memory and magic. 
A year after Patti’s death, Gregory draws a beautiful tulip emerging from dark speckled earth.  He has had a terrible time keeping up her garden.  He writes, “P: The bulbs you planted are coming up again. I can’t always remember to water them but someone’s making it rain a lot instead.  Is it you?”
A Kiss Before You Go by Danny Gregory is published by Chronicle Books and is widely available.   Here is a wonderful trailer he did  for it that gives you a sense of what a work of art it is.

Danny Gregory’s website is  There is a link to his blog and he is a very accessible writer and artist who encourages us all to be creative everyday, because our lives and our losses matter.