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

 



“If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales …”

I’m just going to post this entire review:

Reviewed in the United States on July 28, 2020

From the very first page, St Cybi’s Well steeps you in the rich culture and landscape of Wales. It has a feel of ancient otherworldliness—until the scientific and political realities hit you full-on.

This book sounds uncanny echoes of our present predicament: Pandemic. Police. Politics. Racism. Rioting. Revolt. You can hear the ripping of the social fabric as fear overcomes reason.

And yet, there is hope. Hope for healing. Hope for a better future. Hope for us all.

With protagonist Dernell Sidwell’s quest for hope/healing/redemption set in the mystical, ancient sites of Wales, the reader feels deeply drawn to the power of the past—all while checking over their shoulder for what new nightmare the present has to offer.

You’d think the author was a time traveler, considering how closely Sidwell’s journey parallels the challenges we now face. You will appreciate Sidwell’s determination, his acute survival skills, and his willingness to consider, confront, and accept some things that stretch his perceptions of what is possible.

If you’ve never experienced the magic that is Wales, take the trip now. This is an urgent adventure that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the last page. I’ll see you at St Cybi’s Well.

St Cybi’s Well, and my other books, will be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month. Please download & share! And as I’ve said before: “And please, if you do read it, leave a review.”
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



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

 

 



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

 



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.