Communion Of Dreams


Reinvention in the time of Covid

So, about a year ago I made a fairly big change in my life, and posted the following to my professional website:

September 1, 2019 – Please note:  due to increasing difficulties with arthritis in my hands, I am curtailing how much conservation work I am doing.  Henceforth I am prioritizing established clients and works of notable historic value.

Yeah, this has been a developing problem for me the last few years, limiting just how much detailed work I could do. It’s gotten to the point where I can typically do only a few hours a week of the difficult, careful work required. Other kinds of hand work isn’t nearly as demanding, unless it involves shock to my hands, so for the most part I’ve been able to continue with the rest of my life with minimal difficulty.

So, after posting that, I started referring new queries about conservation work elsewhere, and focused on my established clients and institutional work.

Then Covid-19 showed up.

After we got a good handle on just what that meant, I stopped meeting with even established clients. Because while my health today is just about better than it ever has been, I am nonetheless at very high risk of having a very bad case of C-19, should I catch it. Frankly, I probably wouldn’t survive it. So I’ve been telling clients that things can wait until there’s a safe & effective vaccine, and I’ve gotten my dose(s) of it.

Which is fine, because there’s rarely a reason to “rush” conservation work. And besides, I had a backlog of work waiting for me in my safe, as I always have.

Well, had.

Last week one of my institutional clients popped by to collect the last couple of items I had to work on. Just a brief, masked, socially-distanced visit. Previous projects had been mailed off, or likewise returned to clients with minimal contact/interaction.

And now the cupboard is bare, so to speak. For the first time in literal decades.

I mentioned a couple of months ago that Covid had likewise changed something else for the first time in decades: my usual mild bipolar cycle. That’s still disrupted. Well, honestly, it’s almost nonexistent. I don’t really have any sense of change currently; I’m in just a new, vague limbo which is neither good nor bad. It’s an odd feeling. Like so much, these days.

Anyway, to ‘run out’ of conservation work isn’t really a problem for me. We’re fortunate enough to be financially stable at this point in our lives, and I had been accounting on much reduced income from conservation for a while.

And, in a way, it’s good. Just this last week I also got the ‘proof’ of the printed pages of St Cybi’s Well, so I can do the hand-bound editions of that book soon. Here’s the proof copy:

SCW proof

That’ll keep me busy for some time.

And beyond that? Well, reinvention is an American’s birthright. I have more artistic impulses to explore and revisit. I have more writing I want to do (no, I’m making no promises of anything). I have life I want to enjoy.

So, for the time being, I’m going to take reasonable precautions to make sure that I can enjoy it, and do those things. I’ll get back to meeting with clients, and doing book conservation, when it is safe (in my assessment) to do so.

Take care of yourself.

Jim Downey

 

 

 



The Covid Shift

I’ve been pretty open about my mild bipolar condition since I started this blog a dozen years ago. It’s real, and I have to pay attention to it, but I’ve understood it and been able to manage it safely for decades. My natural bipolar cycle (from trough-to-trough or peak-to-peak) is very long, about 18 months, plus or minus a few weeks, and has been remarkably stable since I was in my 30s.

Until now.

As expected, I hit the bottom of my trough sometime last December. I tend to be stuck in that condition (or in the manic peak, which is actually more dangerous) for a month or so. Then things will slowly start to rise, I’ll feel the depression clear, and energy will return for six or seven months until I get into a truly manic state. And early this year, going into the spring, that’s what happened. And that, in large part, is why I was able to finally finish St Cybi’s Well.

Of course, at the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Now, I’ll be honest: Covid-19 has had minimal impact on my life. I’m semi-retired from book conservation due to increasing problems with osteoarthritis in my hands, so I seldom meet with clients. I’m a strong introvert, so I rarely feel the need for much human company beyond time spent with my wife, and easily resist temptations for socializing. I have plenty of things to do at home, and our financial situation is stable. The lockdown and need to be socially distant were not a hardship.

But still, Covid had an impact on me. More than I realized. Because rather than continuing my bipolar climb, I started the downturn back towards depression sometime in May without ever entering into a manic state. It took some weeks before I could be certain that this shift was real (minor fluctuations up & down is normal within the overall bipolar cycle), but it’s been long enough that I am now certain.

When you’ve lived with something like this for literally decades, it’s disorienting and a little frightening to have it suddenly change like this.  I can’t predict my baseline psychological state a month from now, or six months from now, or a year from now. I don’t know if this is just a one-off truncation of my more manic period, or if the cycle is now shortened, or is gone altogether.

Kinda like what the pandemic has done to a lot of things we used to consider ‘normal’. We’re left off balance, uncertain of the future.

Now, there’s no reason to worry about me. Having lived with periodic depression for so long, I well understand how to deal with it. My coping skills are very good (writing like this is one example), and I know what to watch for, when to turn to help if I need it.

But take this as a cautionary note, and pay attention to your own mental health. This pandemic is more far-reaching than you might realize.

Jim Downey

 



Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



Cautionary insight.

I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a medical professional of any sort.

And yet, I spent a lot of time studying the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, because I used that as the model for what the Fire-flu would be like in St Cybi’s Well. And it largely paid off, as I’ve noted previously, since so many people have seen the eerie similarities in how the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded to what I depict in the novel.

That’s because a lot of these things happen consistently in all pandemics, as you can see time and again if you look at the history.

And, having studied that history, even though I’m not an epidemiologist, I feel honor-bound to say: be worried about where things are headed here in the US. Currently, the C19 virus is largely uncontrolled in most states, and I’m afraid that it is going to get MUCH worse in the coming months. Place the blame for that where you will, the fact of the matter is that each individual needs to take whatever precautions you can to limit your chances of catching this disease. Follow the advice of the real epidemiologists out there. Don’t listen to the politicians. Or the conspiracy theorists. Or your buddy from high school who barely passed biology class.

St Cybi’s Well actually contains a lot of solid practical advice for how to prepare for a pandemic, if you step back and think about it. I added all that stuff because I wanted the book to ‘feel’ real, and to show what an intelligent, well-educated person might do when faced with the prospect of a pandemic. That it now might add some insight into what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones going forward is just serendipity.

If you think so too, maybe share the book with your friends and family. It’ll be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month.

Jim Downey



An excerpt from Chapter 14

I mentioned the other day that many of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well talk about how eerily prescient the book seems now.

Well, judge for yourself. This is an excerpt from the book (Chapter 14: Llangelynnin) when news of the pandemic is just really getting started. The main characters are discussing it, and their plans to collect medical supplies since the St Melangell Centre is a designated rural care center. I first wrote this portion of the book about two years ago, did major revisions last fall.

“The government here is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. They’ve implemented a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school, and declared that only essential government employees and emergency workers are to report in. All the bus and train lines have been shut down. They’re even talking about closing all the restaurants and pubs. We’ll probably hear more about that later today. And there have been more anti-immigrant riots in London and some other places. And not just the so-called ‘Tommys’.”

“People are frightened.”

“Yeah, no surprise.” Darnell nodded at the stereo again. “There was also some science reporting about VCS itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, the Spanish Flu, but one which is even more virulent.”

Megan paused, her hands lowered. The towel hung limply by her side. “Didn’t that kill millions, world-wide?”

“Yeah, something like fifty million.”

“And this looks to be worse?”

“Yeah,” Darnell repeated. “This seems to spread just as easily, but kills faster. Well, kills healthy adults faster – that cytokine storm thing, which is basically the immune system going crazy, creating high fever and complete exhaustion, leading to the inability to get enough oxygen and general system collapse. Victims often develop cyanosis – a blueish tint to the skin, particularly on the face and hands. Anyone who is very young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can still get the flu, but don’t generally have the VCS reaction. But there’s a good chance that they’ll develop pneumonia which can kill them in a week or so without proper treatment.”

“But there are treatments for pneumonia.”

“There are. And even some things that can be done for someone with Cytokine Syndrome, if you get to them soon enough. Or anti-virals, like Theraflu.” He sighed. “But there’s not nearly enough of those stockpiled. And how well do you think the health system here or anywhere will be able to handle such a fast-moving epidemic, particularly if health workers are among the most vulnerable group because of massive exposure? Do you remember how devastating hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola have been in isolated areas, because health workers are often among the first victims of the disease? And those require direct contact with bodily fluids . . . this flu is airborne.”

There was a wild look in her eyes, and for a moment Darnell thought he even saw fear. Then Megan closed her eyes, clasped the small crucifix necklace she wore, and muttered what he assumed to be a prayer. When she opened her eyes again, the wildness was gone, replaced with a cold determination. “We already have basic personal protection gear – surgical masks, gloves, even disposable gowns – and it sounds like we should wear them when we go to Llandudno. I’ll get them and meet you downstairs when you’re done with your shower.”

 

Jim Downey



“… telling you a tale that just *might* be real.”

So, almost two months ago I ‘officially’ launched the publication of St Cybi’s Well.

No, I didn’t forget to mention it here. Since I have allowed this blog to go quiet, I didn’t see it as an important venue to announce it, and figured that it would make a little more sense to just let the book exist in the wild for a little while, then write about the reactions to it.

Currently, there are 14 reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.9 stars. Some are from friends. Some are from acquaintances. Some are from complete strangers. Among the reviews I have my favorites, and not necessarily ones which say good things. At this point, after struggling with the book for so long, I have very mixed feelings about it.

But my strongest emotion about the book, and something that keeps coming up in the reviews of it, is just how surreal it is to have finished the book during the middle of a real pandemic, and having our reality seeming to follow the path I had laid out in the book. Here are some excerpts as examples of what I mean.

The first review, by someone who backed my Kickstarter and had an advance copy of St Cybi’s:

With some recent political developments and COVID-19, I found this unsettlingly realistic.

And from other readers:

That he wrote this well before our current pandemic was even a thing is a testament to his spooky prescience

And:

The images are vivid and remain. No one took epidemic plagues too seriously anymore, Polio was long ago. But since Covid and Ebola, there is a realization that the 4 Horsemen of the Apocolypse are alive and kicking.

And:

What I found most compelling is the almost prescient storyline of the Fire Flu and its attendant effects on society. I can’t imagine a more difficult proposition than trying to finish your novel about an apocalyptic disease while having to do so with one currently taking over the news. There are some eerie moments in the book where it feels as though it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story.

And:

Set in 2012, the overlap with current events in 2020 is uncanny.

And:

the story is kind of terrifying considering its striking similarity to current events

Of course, I’m not prescient. I had no real idea that the coronavirus pandemic was coming, though I had long known that we were about due for another pandemic and were likely unprepared for it. And what I put into the book about how the FireFlu virus spread, and how people reacted to it, was just based on history. What we’re seeing now … all the good and bad of it … was entirely predictable, because it is the sort of reaction that human societies have always had to pandemics.

Which, of course, doesn’t give me any comfort. As is said in one of the reviews:

I ended up feeling that the story is part of what science fiction does best – telling you a tale that just *might* be real.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Download my book, or order a paper copy. If money is a little tight, wait until the first of the month, and download it for free. And please, if you do read it, leave a review.

Thanks.

Jim Downey



A light in the darkness.

It’s … been a while.

And a lot has happened. Mostly good.

* * * * * * *

Many years ago, a friend got involved in something called “The Jesus Seminar“, which eventually produced (among other things) The Gospel of Jesus.

My friend commissioned Cheryl Jacobsen, well-known calligrapher and friend of mine from my UI Center for the Book days, to do a hand-lettered edition of the book as a gift for Robert Funk, the founder of the Seminar. The work was done on calligraphic vellum, and when it was completed, I did the binding. This is it, which I have used as the main image on my business homepage for at least a dozen years:

And here’s the descriptive text from my site:

The Gospel According to Jesus:  Full leather contemporary case binding, shown here as tooling is being done.  Collaborative work with calligrapher Cheryl Jacobsen of Iowa City.  Sewn on linen tabs, cover mounted to text block using adhesive.  Covered full in burgundy Chieftain Goatskin, blind tooled using a hot brass folder.

It’s a lovely, but very simple and traditional binding.

* * * * * * *

Continue reading



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

 



Cold comfort.

Thought I’d share a small discovery I made this weekend.

I’m working on a book conservation project for an institutional client. It’s a patient ledger for a public hospital from the 1880s. It’s a large, heavy account book, and the binding structure had broken down, the original leather-covered covers have a bad case of red rot, and a number of the individual pages had been damaged. All in all, a fairly routine project; an important piece of mundane history, but not particularly interesting from a bookbinding standpoint.

So I took it apart, cleaned and repaired the individual pages, organized the folios back into sections, and set to resewing the book. Here’s the start of that process:

And here it is further along, as I’m sewing the individual sections onto ‘tapes’ as part of the new structure:

As I did this, something caught my eye I hadn’t noticed previously: here and there was the world “cold”.

Now, people don’t usually go to the hospital for a “cold”. Particularly in the 1880s, when hospitals were usually places most people avoided. So I looked a little more closely, and saw that the entries were under the column for where in the hospital patients had been put:

Here’s the top of that page:

Why on Earth would you put someone into a “cold” ward? That didn’t make sense.

Then I noticed something else, further across the page. Here’s a pic of it from a blank page, so as not to inadvertently violate someone’s privacy:

What I thought was “cold” was actually “col’d”, the abbreviation used for “Colored.”

As I’ve said previously, about another historical artifact:

So I understand the importance of preserving the artifacts of that history. And so understanding, felt that it was my responsibility to use the skills I have acquired to that end, no matter how distasteful the task. It was my small tribute to all who resisted, who persevered, who fought.

I’m not equating the two.

But it is important that we not forget either history.

 

Jim Downey



Because what is built, endures.*

About 13 months ago I wrote the following:

But redoing a 300’+ length of brick walkway is no small task. To do it correctly would require a lot of work and a fair amount of expense for proper landscape edging, landscape fabric, gravel/chat, and sand. And if we were going to go to the trouble of redoing it, we wanted to do it correctly and expand it a bit.

As noted in that post, we (my wife and I) didn’t expect to finish the entire length of the walkway last year before winter set in. But we did get about 180′ of it done.

And this summer, after our various trips and other obligations were completed, we got back to the project. A few days ago I was able to post these pics to my Facebook page:

As you might guess, that’s where the walkway ends, some 320′ from where it began. If you look carefully, you can see our house hiding behind some trees at the top of the second image.

It was a *lot* of work. No surprise there. But I found it interesting to estimate (with reasonable accuracy) some of the numbers involved to get a scale of the project. We used about 25,000 pounds of crushed limestone. Some 2,500 bricks (most first dug up from the old walkway, supplemented by some salvaged brick from another neighborhood building tear-down). And about 1,600 pounds of sand. I have no idea how much old, too-damaged brick and dirt I dug out of the old walkway, but it was substantial enough for a good start to a landscape berm we’re going to put in along one edge of the walkway, as seen on the side of this image:

* * *

When I wrote the blog post linked above, I noted that I was probably at about the bottom of my mild bipolar cycle. It runs about 18 month from trough-to-trough, or peak-to-peak, so that would mean I’m currently somewhere between a manic high and a depressive low, but heading down. That feels about right, and fits with the onset of cool weather hinting at the winter to come.

I don’t look forward to that. Wrestling with the black dog is never easy.

But I now have a new path to walk, when I need somewhere for my feet to take me. A path which was constructed with much sweat, some blood, and a whole lot of love. A path which respects the past, but builds on it, extends it, and makes it more durable, whatever comes. That helps.

 

Jim Downey

*Of course.