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 Matters was 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 Matters immediately 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 http://dannygregory.com/ 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.