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

 

 

 



“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


Comet NEOWISE over Carreg Cennen

I Love this image:

Image may contain: night, sky, outdoor and nature

That’s from a Facebook post by Alyn Wallace Photography.  It’s an image of Comet NEOWISE over Carreg Cennen Castle in Wales.

Carreg Cennen has long been one of my favorite castles, and plays a role in “Chapter 10 — Y Garn Goch” of St Cybi’s Well. The view of the castle seen above is from the south.

Jim Downey



“Did we actually go there, or … ?”

One of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well added this note under “TRIVIA”:

Most of the chapters start with information that looks like it came from Internet websites. I typed in some of the URLs, and they are exactly what they seem to be, lending credence to the book.

And several people have commented both on Amazon and on Facebook that the book could function as something of a travelog.

That’s very much by design. The chapter header URLs & info I used in the book are straight from real sites online, though I intentionally used versions which date back to ~ 2012 (the date in the novel) whenever possible. And likewise, each location specified in the book is real. As well as every bit of Welsh history or myth I used.

I did this to lend the book verisimilitude. I really want readers to wonder just how possible the story is, to feel that ‘thinness’ I describe between one reality and another in the book.  I want them to visit the sites mentioned, to feel what I have felt there.

I didn’t start writing the book with this in mind. I figured that I would simply use my own experience in traveling in Wales to ground the book in reality, and use what little I knew of Welsh history & mythology to help add color. But as I wrote, I found myself digging deeper and deeper, spending more time visiting sites virtually, until they became very well known to me.

After a while, I started to lose track of whether I had actually visited some of the sites in person, or had only visited them online. This led to the very surreal experience during a trip we took in 2017 where in going to Craig Rhosyfelin I was absolutely certain that we had visited the site previously … but also absolutely certain that we never had (the latter which was confirmed by my wife). I had spent so much time exploring the site virtually, working through the descriptions and history of it, writing the interaction of characters there, that it really did feel like I had my own personal memories of the place. Bizarre.

The same is true of several other locations in the book, to the point where my wife and I now joke about it. “Did we actually go there, or … ?” has become a standard in our travels.

And of course now, with the limitations imposed by our own real pandemic, such virtual travel is all we have at present. So if you need a vacation, maybe spend a little time in my novel. The links included on the website will help.

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



With apologies to Ursula K. Le Guin

So, since I haven’t been blogging here much in the last couple of years, I haven’t said anything about just how surreal it was working to finish my novel about a global pandemic … while an actual global pandemic was unfolding around us.

Yeah. Seriously. Real Lathe of Heaven stuff, making me wonder about just how much my envisioning a given reality was bleeding into this reality.

To a certain extent this had been an ongoing problem with writing St Cybi’s Well, as I had mentioned previously. I had to keep going back and making the ‘dystopia’ of SCW worse as our own world took a turn for the worse with the election of Trump, elements of Christian fascism seemed to be in ascendancy, et cetera.

But this year, after I had gotten a solid re-start on finishing St Cybi’s Well, watching the Covid-19 virus start to spread, was just … bizarre. And as you’ll see when you read the book, how the virus spread and the efforts that various governments tried to curtail it was pretty much exactly as what happened in real life. Fortunately, of course, C-19 hasn’t proven to be nearly as deadly as the Fire-Flu.

Well, at least not yet.

< shiver >

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



Scotland 2018: 8) No stone circle is really complete without a nuclear bunker.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Saturday, May 12.

We had a nice breakfast at the hotel, and considered our options for the day. Aberdeen and the surrounding area has a lot to offer — our preliminary list had about a dozen possibilities on it, and we had identified at least that many more in looking through “Vistor’s Guides” and such there in the hotel.

In the end we decided that we really wanted to see more of the Highlands, and figured that driving up into the Cairngorms was the best way to do that. It was probably the best decision that we made on the entire trip.

Why do I say that? Well, read on …

The Cairngorm Mountains are just incredibly beautiful on their own. Seriously, like the inter-mountain range of the Rockies in Colorado, though of course they’re not as tall.

And Martha had seen something promising on one of her research forays: Kildrummy Castle.

I admit, I was somewhat unimpressed with the number and quality of medieval castles in Scotland. That’s because for the most part, castles were repeatedly upgraded and renovated … or they were allowed to disappear completely. So you get those magnificent structures like Stirling, Dunvegan, and Edinburgh, or private fortresses such as Eilean Donan and Doune, all of which saw significant rebuilding and modernization through their history. But places like Urquhart and Old Inverlochy are pretty rare in Scotland, whereas in Wales they’re seemingly around every river bend.

But Kildrummy Castle is a magnificent ruin, substantial in structure and easy to understand in terms of layout and architecture. It would have been a formidable stronghold, and played an important part in Scottish history. We stopped in at the ticketing office, and had a chat with the caretaker — who was both enthusiastic about the castle, and a little surprised to find a couple of American tourists stopping in to check out the place. Then we walked up the path to the castle, which I hadn’t seen at all while driving.

But this is what we saw:

Promising …

 

Up the hill and across the dry moat.

 

Across the drawbridge, left …

 

… and right.

 

Elphinstone Tower.

 

Great Hall and Warden Tower.

 

Chapel.

 

Exterior of the Chapel and Warden Tower.

 

Martha in the inner ward.

 

More of the inner ward.

I want to note that we were the only people there, the entire hour or so we spent exploring the castle. On a beautiful Saturday, in the largest National Park in the U.K.

And this, I think, is important, and in itself changed the way I thought about the entire trip. Scotland has done a fair amount of work to promote tourism, and there were places we visited which were crowded with tourists from all over the world. But just a little work to get off the beaten path always took us away from the madness, into a part of the country which was just as beautiful, just as full of history, and a whole lot more enjoyable (at least for this introvert).

We stopped back by the ticketing office. I thanked the caretaker, and told him that I thought that Kildrummy was one of the best medieval ruins I had seen anywhere, in Scotland, Wales, the UK, or on the continent. I’m sure it made his day. Visiting Kildrummy made mine.

Spirits high, we headed further into the mountains. First we stopped at Glenbuchat castle, a nearby fortified home dating to the 16th century. It was well-sited, but closed for renovations. Then we went to Corgarff Castle, a medieval tower which had been expanded in the 18th century, but didn’t hold our interest. We had a nice lunch at a little cafe, then proceeded south across the moors on the Old Military Road:

Stairway to heaven.

We took the A93 back towards Aberdeen for a while, but then went north again towards the small village of Tarland, but stopped at the Tomnaverie Stone Circle. From another website about the circle:

The restored circle is a truly beautiful site to visit, the circle is now neatly grassed over, the quarried area to the south has been filled, and there is a small car parking space available below the hill. The raised location allows for panoramic views in all directions, and there is also an information plaque which gives details of the circle and its history. Those with an interest in prehistory or megalithic monuments will need no coaxing to visit Tomnaverie, and for the casual visitor it is wonderful place for a stroll or a picnic.

See for yourself:

Oh, say can you see?

One unusual feature of the Tomnaverie Stone Circle is noted on the information board:

Which is here:

The small structure just right of center is the bunker entrance.

Strange juxtaposition.

We decided to make one last stop before heading back to Aberdeen, which was just a short way away: Culsh Earth House. Description from that site:

Earth houses, or souterrains, can seem mysterious structures: stone-lined tunnels dug into the earth, usually leading to a dead end and with no obvious purpose. The reality is actually fairly mundane, and it seems that earth houses were simply built as underground storage for agricultural produce.

Culsh Earth House probably dates back to some time before AD100. At the time a timber roundhouse farmstead would have stood nearby, perhaps a direct predecessor of the farm which stands immediately to the south today. The entrance to the earth house might have been inside the roundhouse to next to it, and the earth house itself would probably have been used for the storage of grain or other produce.

Here ya go:

Wonder where that goes?

 

Cool!

 

Looking back.

 

Reemergence.

The rest of the drive to the hotel was uneventful. We had a nice dinner in the pub, and crashed relatively early.

 

Jim Downey

 



Scotland 2018: 3) It’s more than a famous film location, but … pass the coconuts.

Being a photo-heavy travelog of our 2018 trip to Scotland.

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Sunday, May 6th.

We had a lovely breakfast at the B&B, and for the first time I had real, actual, haggis … and discovered that I quite liked it. It was our host’s own home-made, and the slice I had with breakfast was buttery, crunchy, full of flavor. Yum. The haggis I had a couple of additional times during the trip was similar, and likewise quite tasty.

Following that, we packed up, then went up to Stirling Castle, just up the hill. Stirling is a very substantial royal castle, on the order of such Edward I castles in Wales as Caernarfon or Conwy. But as with a number of additional castles in Scotland, Stirling had been renovated and updated repeatedly after the medieval period, serving different functions both personal and military up until almost the current time.

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The Great Battery.

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Nothing quite like commanding the heights.

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The Great Hall.

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Hmm … feels oddly familiar …

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Royal Chambers.

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King’s and Queen’s Knots, seen from the walls of the castle.

It was good that we were able to get there first thing, because by the time we had enjoyed our tour of the castle, the crowds were starting to get thick. We headed off on our way.

To Doune Castle. Doesn’t sound familiar? Maybe this will help:

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I love that they sell coconut halves there.

Yeah, Doune was used for multiple different ‘castles’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As Wikipedia outlines:

  • At the start of the film, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and Patsy (Terry Gilliam) approach the east wall of Doune Castle and argue with soldiers of the garrison.
  • The song and dance routine “Knights of the Round Table” at “Camelot” was filmed in the Great Hall.
  • The servery and kitchen appear as “Castle Anthrax”, where Sir Galahad the Chaste (Michael Palin) is chased by seductive girls.
  • The wedding disrupted by Sir Lancelot (John Cleese) was filmed in the courtyard and Great Hall.
  • The Duchess’ hall was used for filming the Swamp Castle scene where the prince is being held in a tower by very dumb guards.
  • The Trojan Rabbit scene was filmed in the entryway and into the courtyard.

As well as also having served in other films and television shows, including Game of Thrones and Outlander.

Recognize any of these shots from the castle?

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Sir Galahad almost slept here.

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“You must spank her well, and after you are done with her, you may deal with her as you like… and then… spank me.”

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We’re knights of the Round Table, we dance whene’er we’re able. We do routines and chorus scenes with footwork impec-cable.

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In his own particular idiom.

And some other pics:

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From Doune we headed northwest through Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park to Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis. Driving through the beautiful Trossachs was wonderful, and reminded me very much of the area around Snowdon in Wales or parts of the American West in the Northern Rockies.

We had a very substantial lunch at a nice pub along the way, so weren’t very hungry that evening. We popped into a grocery store and got some snacks and cold cuts to make a light dinner. I was amused by the selection of decent scotches (at absurdly low prices) there in the little store:

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Mmmmmmmmm …

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