Communion Of Dreams


Machado-Joseph Disease: wabi-sabi

“Jim Downey was a noted book artist, conservator, and author who, at the height of his skills, was betrayed by his body with the onset of Machado-Joseph Disease in his early 60s …”

That could be the opening line of my obituary some (hopefully many!) years hence. Or perhaps a change to my Wikipedia entry.

But the thing is, I don’t feel betrayed by my body. Not in the least.

Yes, I likely have MJD. And yes, it has started to cause me physical difficulties in accomplishing things, as well as additional pain, as I have been outlining here on the blog.

But we all live with limitations. Of strength. Of endurance. Of skill. Of intellect.

I can’t fly like a bird. Should I say that I am therefore ‘betrayed’ by my body? Of course not.

I can’t think as rapidly or as clearly as I could when I was, say, 40. Again, that’s not a betrayal. That’s just change that comes with being a normal human. Of living a normal life.

There’s a Japanese concept of wabi-sabi that informs a traditional aesthetic common in the culture. It has roots in Zen Buddhism, which I studied and tried to embrace as a young man. It can be a difficult concept to explain, but concerns an appreciation for that which is imperfect and/or impermanent in nature and beauty, as all life is imperfect and impermanent. A classic example of wabi-sabi is an elegant teacup which has a flaw (perhaps broken accidentally), but made more beautiful by the application of a gold filling to repair the cup and make it functional again. It is an understanding that all things can only be fully appreciated by respecting their limitations, and that experiencing the thing in the moment, as it is, with all the flaws it has.

As I noted a couple of months ago, I’ve been working to finish the leather-bound edition of St Cybi’s Well. Though this has been complicated by the onset of MJD, I’m almost finished with the edition of 14 books. As I was working to “turn in” (the process of folding the leather around the edges of the bookboard for the cover) the covering leather on one of the first of these books, I made a mistake. My hand slipped. And the tool I was using, my favorite thin bone folder, marred the cover.

Dammit.

I took a deep breath, finished what I was doing, and set the cover aside to think about it later. When these things happen, the >worst< thing you can do is panic and over-react. A lot of times if you just leave it be and revisit it later, you can usually mitigate the damage with a little careful pressure, or extra moisture, or one of several other techniques.

I turned my attention to the next cover.

And as I was finishing that one, almost the exact same thing happened. Not in the same place, but a similar, though worse, tool mark. Like this:

Gawddammit.

We all make mistakes. “It’s inherent in hand process”, as is commonly said by artisans. But making two very similar such errors?

That was likely thanks to MJD symptoms. Which I had been working through.

I quit for the day.

And as I thought about what it meant, I had to consider how I thought about myself, and my art. I am now an artist/artisan who has this additional limitation, this new part of who and what I am. Allowing that to be reflected in my art — indeed, embracing it — was the only honest thing I could do.

It was time for a little wabi-sabi.

So I did this:

A little gold leaf, to embrace the imperfection.

In fact, I added a wabi-sabi element to each of the 14 books. Because I made more mistakes as I finished the edition. Not all of them had tool marring, but many did (and, curiously, all along the top edge of the covers). I decided that for the edition to be complete, for it to reflect this particular moment in time, each needed to have a similar flaw/enhancement, though each one is unique.

Here they all are:

As a conservator, I can’t afford to celebrate my mistakes. There will of necessity come a time when I need to stop doing conservation work, out of respect for the items entrusted to my care. That time is rapidly approaching; indeed, it may already be here. I’ll know more after my neurological assessment tomorrow.

As an artist, I’d be a fool deny my mistakes. Because denying them would be to deny myself, and what has brought me to this point in time. This particular, wonderful, moment.

Jim Downey



Nine words.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

* * * * * * *

I have a secret I’d like to share. It’s something that almost everyone thinks they know. But it is something which we all think doesn’t apply to us.

The secret? Just nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

* * * * * * *

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so.” -Will Rogers

* * * * * * *

I don’t care who you are. We’re all prone to making this mistake. To ignoring this thing we know – which has been common wisdom for millenia, and across almost all human cultures as far as I can tell.

Why do we do this?

* * * * * * *

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” *

* * * * * * *

I think that we do it because we have to. Trusting our knowledge, our experience, is the only thing that allows us to make sense of the world.

It starts with the most basic things. Breath. Life. Light.

Then it grows upon those, builds with knowledge accumulated and shared.

* * * * * * *

“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.” Kay

* * * * * * *

“That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

It’s the central mystery at the heart of Communion of Dreams.

What does it mean?

* * * * * * *

From Communion of Dreams, Chapter 16:

Jon shook his head. “I still don’t see where it really makes that much difference to us.”

“Perhaps not to us. We’re inside the bubble. But to the crew of the Hawking, it made a very big difference. They got on the other side of the bubble.”

There was a moment, a heartbeat, as the implications of this sank in. And then the universe changed. “Sweet Jesus . . . ”

* * * * * * *

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

Actually, it’s just attributed to Twain, thanks to a Reader’s Digest entry from 1939. It sounds like the sort of thing he would have said, but Twain scholars haven’t been able to document it as actually having been his.

Nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

Neither am I. None of us are.

More later.

Jim Downey