Communion Of Dreams


You’re history.

The actor James Gandolfini died this week, from a massive heart attack. He was 51.

I did not know him.

 

* * * * * * *

Recently I met with an institutional client about some book conservation work which needed to be done. I’ve done work with this client off and on for a number of years. He’s a smart guy, well educated, and very much an experienced professional with decades of work in his field. His responsibilities include oversight of a very large collection which includes books, documents, records, artwork, and physical plant. In working with him, I’ve always been impressed with how conscientious he is about collection management.  The items entrusted to his care are important historical and artistic treasures, and he is doing his level best to make sure that they are preserved and protected for future generations.

As it happens, the physical plant of the collection needs some work. This necessitates moving a large number of items into safe storage for the duration, and he is handling all of that with his usual skill. After we had discussed the specific needs of the books I had been called in to evaluate, and that business was done, we were just chatting a bit. And I noticed a large sketchbook (18″x24″) on a desk in his office.

Seeing my attention thus directed, he smiled and picked up the sketchbook, opened it. Each page was a scale drawing of each of the rooms which needed to be closed, showing the exact location of each of the pieces of art, with notation as to which item it was, how it was positioned (if a wall piece, how high off the floor, etc.). Just a simple drawing, done with a ballpoint pen and a ruler.

“I want to make sure we get everything back to where it belongs,” he said.

 

* * * * * * *

In a profile last year of my friend and papermaking instructor, Tim Barrett, there’s this passage:

Barrett’s connection to the old papers was becoming more than simply technical. It was emotional. He detected life in them. He once found the imprint of a person’s thumb on a page in a Renaissance book. “Maybe the papermaker was rushing to fill an order, and grabbed the corner of the sheet too firmly,” he said. “To me, that fingerprint marked the sheet with the humanity of the person who made it. I could feel his presence.”

I’ve heard him tell that same story. Several times. You might say that it made an impression.

 

* * * * * * *

“I want to make sure we get everything back to where it belongs,” he said.

I nodded. “You know, you should get some deacidification spray and treat each page. Also, make a note as to when you drew them, and sign them.”

He looked at me like I was nuts. Deacidification spray is expensive. “Why, they’re just sketches for my own use.”

I smiled. “No, they are wonderful documentation of exactly how each of these rooms was arranged in early 2013.”

“So?”

“So now you use them, treat them, and then file them away in one of your flat files. They’ve just become part of the history of this place, and in a couple hundred years some researcher will delight in holding these simple drawings of yours.”

He looked down at the sketches in his hand. “Huh.”

“Yeah, you’re history.”

 

* * * * * * *

The actor James Gandolfini died this week, from a massive heart attack. He was 51.

I did not know him.

But I did know Paul. He was an old friend of mine, though in the last few years we’d only been in sporadic contact. I woke this morning to the news that Paul died last night from a massive heart attack. He was about my age.

I turn 55 in a couple weeks. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’ve got a couple health issues which need ongoing attention and treatment, but in general I’m not doing too bad. Particularly with as hard as I’ve been on my body.

But I could have a massive heart attack tonight. Or get hit by a truck tomorrow. People die, unexpectedly, every day.

I don’t dwell on this, though it has been an emotional reality for me since I was 11. But on occasions like today, after just losing a friend and reading all the tributes to that person online, I am perhaps more aware of it than usual.

Because whether we prepare for it or not, we’re all history.

 

Jim Downey

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