Communion Of Dreams


The debts we pay.

“How far did you drive?” she asked, a noticeable touch of twang in her voice.

“From Columbia. Missouri.”

“That far?” She looked honestly surprised. “Y’all are very, very kind people, to drive that far.”

* * * * * * *

A couple weeks into the New Year, a Facebook friend forwarded a pic to me. It was of a medium sized dog which kinda-sorta looked like a German Shepard.

They’re looking for a home for this pup. She’s here in the KC area.”

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, dog

* * * * * * *

Thirteen years ago, we adopted a stray. A stray we named ‘Alwyn’.

He  was a great dog.

And he did a lot to help heal me, following the closing of our art gallery the previous spring. I was deep in the depressive trough of my bipolar cycle, feeling like I had failed. Having a new pup to love and train helped pull me out of that darkness.

And saw me through the many troubled times ahead, being a care-giver for my mother-in-law through the arc of Alzheimer’s, with all the stresses and demands that included. There’s nothing quite like a brisk walk with the dog for clearing your head. And the routine of it, walking a mile or so every morning, probably helped keep me alive as well as sane.

Alwyn died suddenly and unexpectedly when he was about 8 years old. Since he was a mutt and in good health, we had expected to have him for at least another four or five years. But it was not to be.

I grieved for a long time.

Then, a year or two ago, my wife and I decided that we were ready to welcome a new dog into our lives, and that we would keep our hearts open to that possibility should one come along who needed a home.

* * * * * * *

I passed the picture along to my wife. “What do you think? Her name is ‘Ramali’, and she’s from Kuwait.”

She thought the dog looked like a good candidate.

I got in contact with the folks from Puppy Rescue Mission. Ramali was still available. We decided to apply for adoption.

It took a week or so, with the application, and discussion, and background checks and everything. We had someone come look over our home and make sure it was suitable (fenced yard, decent neighborhood, no evidence that we were running a meth lab or conducting animal experiments, etc). The folks at the rescue were polite, helpful, and thorough. A few days later we drove to Kansas City and picked her up from where she was being fostered. Here she is on the trip home:

Ramali was about 14 or 15 months old, and hadn’t had the best life. She’d come over to the States with a service member, but things didn’t work out. After bouncing around a bit, she came to the attention of the the rescue, thanks to the microchip she had, and had been transferred to the foster home while they sought to get her a permanent place.

On the application for adoption, there were the expected questions about our experience with animals, previous pets we’d owned, and our thoughts about training and discipline. We’d filled all that out with confidence that we’d be able to deal with whatever challenges Ramali might have — both my wife and I had always had dogs, and I had always had a great deal of success at working with dogs to train them, whatever their background. We expected that while Ramali might have some issues due to her previous home life, that we’d be able to work through them without too much a problem.

We were wrong.

* * * * * * *

Well, we were right, for the most part. There were some problems she had that we were able to work through. She was a sweet pup, eager to please, though high-energy. She just needed a stable home and regular exercise, combined with consistent training and attention. Within the first couple of weeks we had gotten past the worst of it, and she was learning to be well-behaved while walking on a leash, or playing, and was making real progress on almost all fronts.

The one problem was her response to cats. To our cats inside the house. To the neighbor’s cats she saw through the window. To cats she saw on our walks. At first I thought it would just take a little work as she adjusted to living in a home with cats, and that as she settled into some stability, the problem would pass with regular discipline. That had always been both mine and my wife’s experience in introducing dogs into a home with cats, or cats into a home with dogs. After a week or two everyone would calm down, and they’d get along pretty well from there. I expected that the same tactics would work with Ramali’s problem with our cats.

It didn’t.

In fact, it got worse over time.

I started reviewing online resources about training a dog to deal with this problem. I consulted friends with experience having both cats and dogs. From all those resources,  it looked like we were doing the right things, and that if we stuck with it, it’d work eventually.

It didn’t.

Finally we consulted our vet of 20 years for his thoughts. After discussion with him, he recommended an animal behaviorist in the area who has a great reputation for working through such problems. We got in contact with her clinic, and after a long discussion they said that they probably could help us with Ramali, but that it was likely to take months or even years to succeed.

That’s when we told the rescue that we just couldn’t keep her. It wouldn’t be fair to our cats, who had basically taken up permanent refuge in the climbing tree I had constructed for them last year, any time Ramali was in the house and not shut up in her crate for sleeping at night. It wouldn’t be fair to Ramali, who would have to be kept on a close leash indoors at all times to prevent her from attacking the cats until the training could change her behavior. Ramali needed to be rehomed, someplace where there weren’t cats, and where she could have a sane and normal home life. The folks at Puppy Rescue Mission agreed, and set to work to find her another home.

* * * * * * *

They did find a good home for her, one without other pets. In North Carolina. Arrangements were made for transport. We said we’d be willing to drive her to Nashville (about halfway), where she’d be put up in a pet hotel overnight until the second half of her journey could be done the next day.

We got to the pet hotel about 2.5 hours late, due to a massive traffic jam an hour or so north of Nashville. But Ramali had been a good girl, and stayed pretty calm and relaxed through it all. We got her situated inside the kennel, then were chatting with the owner before we got back in the car to go to our hotel.

“How far did you drive?” she asked, a noticeable touch of twang in her voice.

“From Columbia. Missouri.”

“That far?” She looked honestly surprised. “Y’all are very, very kind people, to drive that far.”

“She deserves it,” I said. Which was true enough. But I had also done it for my own selfish reasons. And to pay an old debt.

I hate to fail at things. But still, being human, and ambitious, I do fail.

Alwyn had helped save me after a previous big failure. Adopting him had been mostly about healing myself.

Adopting Ramali had been about healing her. And though we couldn’t keep her, we’d made progress in healing her. Sometimes, all you can do is be part of the chain; doing what good you can and then passing along the person, or pet, or thing, to the next link in the chain. Driving to Nashville was my way of closing that loop the best I could.

Goodbye, Ramali, now known as Pepper. Have a better life.

 

Jim Downey

 

 

Advertisements


Forward, into the past.

I sewed up a book yesterday.

* * *

It’s been a rough year.

Oh, a good one, in many ways. The delightful trip to Wales was certainly wonderful. And I was pleased to finally wrap up our two-year work on the brick walkway; I recently used it, and it was nice to see how it has settled solidly after a couple of months weather. There have been other highlights, time spent with those I love, sharing & caring.

But it’s been a rough year. Mostly, because back in early spring I started my slow bipolar descent, and then got stuck stumbling along the bottom of my personal trough for the last six weeks or so. And, while I haven’t talked about it (or anything else) much here, the political situation has been extraordinarily depressing. It’s been a weird combination of things I have long dreaded and things I was writing to warn people about in St Cybi’s Well, and after significant effort to re-write the draft of that book to reflect the new political reality I found myself without the energy or inclination to continue. I felt paralyzed.

* * *

But, as these things go if you are lucky, the wheel continued to turn.

Even if the progress is steady, and consistent with my previous personal experience, it’ll be some 4 – 6 months before I completely climb out of the depressive part of my bipolar cycle.

But I sewed up a book yesterday. This one, for the first time in at least a year and a half:

Yeah, it’s one of the premium leather bindings of Communion of Dreams.

Finally.

For whatever reason, completing those books got mixed up emotionally with completing the writing of St Cybi’s Well. I think I understand it, but I don’t think that I can explain it. Well, I understand it now. At least part of it.

That’s how you solve art, sometimes. And how you walk out of depression: one part at a time, one step at a time.

The writing wants to start again.

In the meantime, I sew books.

Happy New Year.

 

Jim Downey

 



My ambivalent year.*

2016 was odd. Just plain odd.

On the one hand, I had the same dumpster-fire of a year that everyone had, in terms of notable deaths, bizarre & unexpected election results here and abroad, and surreal news & social trends.

On the other hand, I’m alive. Which is something of a small (technological) miracle.

I now understand better (thanks to more discussion with my doctors, research, and experience) what happened with my heart, and what it really meant. Turns out that I didn’t have any plaque build-up even in the convoluted artery in question, as I initially thought. No, it was just that badly kinked, and probably had been all my life. I had started to notice it just because of normal aging, meaning that the normal parts of my heart were slowly getting weaker.

In the last six months or so I have finally been able to strengthen the 1/3 of my heart which had never had proper blood supply. Meaning that now I am actually in better cardiac health than I have ever been before. I walk three miles most mornings (5-6 days a week, usually), and don’t feel the slightest bit fatigued from it. The other parts of my 58-year-old body may limit me, but my cardiac condition isn’t a problem at all. Part of me wonders what it would have been like to have had this kind of stamina when I was young and athletic. Another part of me realizes that those limitations helped me develop awareness and self-discipline which I may have missed, otherwise.

Related to that, as mentioned in this post, early last year our financial situation stabilized for the good. We still need to be reasonably prudent about how we go through life, but I no longer feel as if I am hanging on by my fingernails sometimes. Without that change, I may not have felt secure enough to have my heart checked out when I did — meaning that I was very much at risk for the slightest little blood clot to trigger a massive heart attack.

Unrelated to any of that, the election lead-up and results also proved to be both a blessing and a curse for me. I was astonished at the results of both the Brexit and US presidential elections (and no, I’m not going to argue the point in comments — so just refrain from making any on this topic), yet it solved a problem for me with writing St Cybi’s Well. See, in the alternate time-line of Communion of Dreams, prior to the onset of the fire-flu, the US had become an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state. But I was having a really hard time explaining how we had gotten to such a point when actually writing SCW; everything I came up with just seemed too outlandish for the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

Well, that’s not a problem any longer. No, I’m not saying that I think that the US is headed for an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state … but because of the rhetoric and rise in power of some groups both in the US and the UK, that is no longer an unimaginable future. As a result, I have been revising the finished chapters of SCW to reflect these new insights, and I think that the book will be *much* stronger for it.

So yeah, I have really mixed feelings about 2016.

Oh well, I suppose that at least I’m around to have them. And that’s a good thing.

Happy New Year. Remember, today (and the first of every month until I say otherwise), both Communion of Dreams and Her Final Year are available for free download.

 

Jim Downey

*You should watch this sometime. Fun movie.



Why yes, as it happens I *am* still alive …

The past few months have been … eventful.

* * * * * * *

A couple of weeks ago I got back to work on St Cybi’s Well. Yeah, the break since I finished Chapter 14 was much needed, as I had hinted in my last cluster of blog posts at the end of May.

Why? What happened?

Well …

… in no particular order:

  • Discovery, and subsequent treatment, of a major cardiac health problem.
  • Completion of a full course of cardiac rehab.
  • A substantial change in our financial situation resulting from the sale of property we owned.
  • A bunch of resultant legal and investment research, planning, and changes which every adult should do but few of us ever get around to actually completing. Something about almost dying tends to focus the mind on such matters.
  • A couple of extended out-of-state trips.
  • My starting to train someone from the MU library staff in proper conservation techniques a couple of afternoons a week.
  • A complete new computer system & software upgrade, with all the fun of transferring archives and working files.

And then there’s all the usual business of living and working. Having a couple of months of my life sucked up by dealing with the cardiac problems & treatment meant a lot of changes and trade-offs … but it sure as hell beats being dead from a massive sudden heart attack.

* * * * * * *

So, a couple weeks ago I went through and re-read the entire text of SCW to date, then started working to pick up the story again and bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Here’s an excerpt from the next section:

Darnell looked out Megan’s bedroom window, across the little lane into the large field beside the Tanat. The field, where so recently cattle peacefully grazed, was now a small village of tents and temporary structures. Most prominent among them was a large marquee someone had found and brought from a nearby town. Make-shift walls had been constructed of large plastic-wrapped round bales of hay from down the road, their tough skin making them weather and even somewhat fire-resistant. The marquee was the main recovery center, where people would be brought from the church after healing, allowed to emerge from the deep sleep at their own pace.

He turned and looked at his sister, who was sitting on the side of her bed. “There’s no reason for you to get up. We can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

There was a faint blue-white shimmer to her skin which never left her now. It wasn’t like she was glowing, exactly, but more like she had a permanent echo of the healing energy which she had used so much in the past couple of weeks. She shook her head. Darnell wasn’t sure whether it was in response to his comment, or just an effort to clear away cobwebs of sleep. “It’s better if it comes from me. I’m known as the Guardian of the Shrine. That carries some official weight with the Church.”

* * * * * * *

I got my garden in late this year. No surprise, given how things went with spring and the early summer. So my tomato plants were not as far along as they could have been when the first waves of heavy storms hit in June. Since then we’ve had fairly regular poundings of storms. And it looks like the tomatoes are almost at the end of their producing for this year — a full month or so early. But between what I harvested, and extra tomatoes picked up at the farmer’s market, I’ve put up about 60 pints of chopped tomatoes. Not quite as much as I would normally like to have, but not bad considering the situation.

And my habanero plants seem to be doing OK this year. Won’t be a bumper crop, but it ain’t nothing.

* * * * * * *

The past few months have been … eventful.

And a lot of things which normally get done, didn’t. Or were handled in a more superficial way than I would usually do.

But that’s OK.

 

Jim Downey



Making an impression.

My, how time flies …

I’m a little startled to discover that it’s been three years since I last posted about doing the leather bindings for the custom edition of Communion of Dreams. No, I know it’s been a while — but I have been giving this binding a lot of thought, so it seems like it was still a recent ‘pending’ project. I liked the idea of using the sewing structure to incorporate classic raised leather cords on the spine of the book, but I just didn’t like the sparseness of the rest of the cover design. The initial tests were OK, but the more I thought about them, the less satisfied I was with what the final product would be. The problem was that while the cords under leather gave a nice tactile effect, there wasn’t enough detail possible.

So I kept trying to figure out how to keep the relief I liked but to get more definition. I won’t go through all the different iterations of ideas I considered, but there were a lot, mostly along the lines of trying different ways of mounting different weights of cord/string or molding/engraving the board under the leather. But each approach failed to give me the definition I wanted. Worse, each one felt further and further removed from the image of the “Williamson Oak” by Peter Haigh I had used for the paperback/printed hardcover/website.

Then recently another bookbinding project got me to thinking about using something like a woodcut as a way to make an impression on a leather cover, and I realized that I had gotten so set on the idea of using the raised cords of the sewing structure as the basis for the rest of the cover texture I hadn’t considered the possibility of impressing the leather rather than trying to raise it. What would be required would be to make a plate which would press down most of the leather, leaving the design I wanted alone so that it would stand up (and out).

So that what I tried today. Here’s how I did a quick test:

20160529_160407

That’s my high-tech, fancy “polymer plate” … also known as a plastic cutting board. I did a quick sketch on it with a marker, then carved into it using a couple of different cutting heads on a Dremel tool.

Then I mounted a piece of goatskin and a piece of calfskin onto some bookboard, got it good and damp, and then pressed it quickly in one of my book presses. Here are the results:

20160529_160343 20160529_160355

This was just a trial to see if my press would generate sufficient pressure, and if the plate would hold up to it. I am very happy with how well they turned out, and I learned what I need to change for the final version (such as smoothing out the surface of the plate, adding more detail and title, and — oh, yeah — reversing the image).

So, progress! Hey, it only took three years for me to get past my perceptual bias … 😉

 

Jim Downey



Spread your wings and … walk?

No, this is not about the ongoing fiasco which is the TSA. But it certainly could be.

Rather, it’s a chuckle I thought I would share about my cardiac rehab sessions. Remember those? I started them about a month ago, with all the expected advice about diet and exercise. Since then, except for a trip to California to visit family early this month, I’ve been a good boy about going to my sessions and putting in the time and effort to meet the goals they have for people who had a couple of stents installed like I had.

Actually, let me amend that: I met all the goals they have set with my first workout session. As in, for where they want you to be at the end of 36 rehab sessions. Today, at my tenth such session I hit twice those goals. That isn’t to say that I am some perfect physical example of athletic prowess; rather, it’s that typically when people have the procedure I had done, it’s usually because they have systemic atherosclerosis with all the problems that entails. I had a genetic defect. And while I am overweight and out of shape, I’ve managed to avoid the real damage of cardiovascular disease.

Anyway, I’ve been going to rehab 2 – 3 times a week, in addition to my regular morning walks and other yard/garden work. Frankly, I mostly hate it. I hate the TVs which are always on, tuned to some inane morning show. I hate the cheery encouragement of the nurses, particularly when they want to go over yet another handout they have about reading food labels and strategies for managing portion control when eating out. And I hate the pap of “motivational posters” featuring lovely outdoor images (which are fine) with mostly trite inspirational phrases in a very distinct typographical style. There are about a dozen of these things on the walls, mixed in with yet more posters about diet strategies and charts showing exertion and pain levels.

But …

… I noticed this one, lost in among all the others:

20160525_090230

It’s a little hard to read, with all the reflection/distortions, but it says: “Limitations. Until you spread your wings, you’ll have no idea how far you can walk.”

Er, what?

Turns out (as one of my friends noted on Facebook) that this is actually a DEmotivational poster. Yeah, one mocking the usual trite inspirational phrases ones.

I think that this is absolutely hilarious.

I don’t know whether it was slipped in there by someone as a joke which no one else has ever caught, or it was seeded among the others to give cynical bastards like me a chuckle, but it works. I get a laugh out of it every time I go to rehab. It makes the grim process of exercising slightly less annoying. And I think that is wonderful.

 

Jim Downey

 



The virtuous heart.

I got an object lesson in privilege yesterday. My privilege.

I went in for my first session/assessment for cardiac rehab, following the stent procedure I had two weeks ago. The RN who did my assessment had been a cardiac surgery nurse, and knew her stuff. She also had all of my medical records pertaining to my procedure, and was completely familiar with my overall health and particularly my cardiac health (which, as I have mentioned previously, is actually really good).

We went through what is the normal procedure for such things: I got hooked up to a heart monitor, she checked my blood oxygenation, my blood pressure, my pulse. All were excellent. Then we went through my exercise and dietary habits in pretty thorough detail, discussing the few points where my eating habits deviate from ‘accepted medical recommendations’ (which are actually just ‘outdated medical recommendations’ such as limiting how many eggs you eat in a week to just one or two) according to the forms she had to fill out. All that was routine, and the same material I had been over with at least half a dozen other medical professionals in the last month.

Then we got into discussing just exactly what the condition of my heart now was, and what was recommended to help me improve it, post-procedure. She started out with the model heart on the desk, relating it to how my own chart compared, and complimented me again on the fact that I basically have no other evidence of atherosclerosis or plaque build-up anywhere in my heart other than the one problem section of my RCA that they stented. She said something to the effect of “genetics plays a role, but undoubtedly your regular walking every morning for the last decade has made a huge difference.”

“I’m lucky. I’ve been able to arrange my life so that I could take the time out to do that, for the last dozen years or so,” I said.

She nodded. “A wise choice.”

“Well, not one a lot of people can make. Most people can’t just schedule an hour for daily exercise. Like I said, I’m lucky. Very lucky. ”

“True,” she said. “But I always tell people that whether or not to exercise is a choice they make.”

I paused, considered, then nodded. We went on with the rest of the assessment.

Why did I hesitate? Because in that moment — in her statement of my ‘choice’ — lies a perfect summation of my privilege.

I’m a ‘virtuous patient’, in the eyes of most of the medical community. I’m a nice guy, who is well educated, professional. I exercise regularly, eat (relatively) healthily, don’t smoke at all, and rarely drink to excess. I maintain good social integration, and work to have a happy marriage and a good support network of friends. I even floss more than is probably average.

So, since I do all those things, in their eyes the quirk of a fault that is my kinked coronary artery isn’t really my fault. It’s just a small bit of bad luck. A small bit which can be forgiven, because I make a lot of ‘good’ choices about how I go through life.

But while I have indeed made a number of choices which can be considered to be virtuous, my privilege lies in having been able to make those choices.  Realistically, how many people who are earning minimum wage are able to plan to go walking through their neighborhood (or at the local YMCA or city activity center or mall) every morning? How many people living in a food desert have access to plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables? How many people who are actually obese (I need to lose a good 50 – 60 pounds to be at my ideal weight), would be perceived as being lazy rather than working to maintain good health? How many people have the formal education and time to stay on top of modern medical research and discussion of best practices such that they can discuss the nuances of diet and exercise and the role it plays in cardiac rehabilitation?

I could go on and on. But I’ll refrain. For those who are already concerned with such matters, it isn’t necessary. And for those who seldom or ever consider how privilege affects health, it won’t be sufficient. However, perhaps a few people — you? — will take the opportunity that my privilege has presented to realize that how we judge the choices of others comes mostly from how we perceive them as people.

 

Jim Downey