Walking Commuter Notes

MORNING

I walk to work almost every morning—following East Genesee Street toward downtown Syracuse. Before I leave my apartment building, I usually hang out with my wife Pam and son Colin while they wait for Colin’s school bus to arrive.

Today, underneath a gray sky spitting drizzle, Colin entertains himself by jumping up and down, flapping his hands and pulling his Paw Patrol mask down around his chin.

“Ah, put up your mask when you go on the bus and when you’re inside school,” Pam tells him. He listens and pulls up his mask. Colin is in kindergarten, and he has autism.

He’s dressed in sweatpants and a blue hooded sweat jacket. A maroon and navy blue Fila book bag—packed with the crunchy snacks he likes to eat—is slung over his shoulder.

When it’s time for me to break away, I remove my mask and plaster his face with a couple of quick kisses. Pam then says to Colin, “Ah, say goodbye to daddy.” When his eyes remain cast elsewhere, she holds his face gently and points it in my direction. She holds his hand and helps him to wave. “Come on now. Say bye-bye.”

“Bye-bye daddy,” he says with a clipped delivery.

“Good job,” Pam says.

I start walking on the sidewalk along Genesee, turning my head and waving toward my family, their figures looking tiny while standing under the green awning of the tan, brick building. I see his bus turning onto Genesee Street, and I pray that Colin will climb aboard safely, find his seat up front and remain in place while the bus accelerates.

Then a thought pops into my head. I don’t invite it, but it emerges anyway.

I think: This could be the last time I ever see my wife and son. I realize I am not invincible, that tragedy could strike at any moment and my loved ones could be taken away in an instant.

I look up to the clouds and try to shake the dark thought from my mind, turning my attention to work-related tasks I need to complete.

AFTERNOON

In the late afternoon, I leave the Nancy Cantor Warehouse in downtown Syracuse, walking in a steady rain along Washington Street. I cross State Street and then walk toward Fayette Street. I pass by a standpipe, and I continue on my way. But then I remember Fountain, the ready-made sculpture of a urinal by French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 sculpture Fountain.

I backtrack, pull out my iPhone and snap a few pictures—inspired by Duchamp’s iconic still life artwork.

According to Merriam-Webster, a standpipe is a “high vertical pipe or reservoir that is used to secure a uniform pressure in a water-supply system.” I’ve seen the term before, but I never knew the meaning. But I looked it up online as soon as I got home.

Syracuse Standpipe. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

And I guess that’s the beauty of a walking commute in a city—if you pay attention to your surroundings, you can discover things that other people might miss. It takes practice to heighten your senses and elevate your awareness. But as an urban explorer, if I am willing to pay close attention, it seems the universe is willing to reward me with satisfying visual stimuli. In my case, it makes the everyday extraordinary and the mundane magical (forgive the alliteration).

Here are some recent photos from my walking commute:

Squirrel on telephone pole. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Chair tipped over. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Fountain. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Alley. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

University Block Building. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

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Albert Camus: Notebook Prose

I am still reading Albert Camus’s Notebooks 1935-1942. Here’s my previous post about it.

The book is a writer’s journal, and it includes philosophical passages, descriptions of places, and raw narrative material that later evolved into scenes in Camus’s most famous novel, The Stranger. Camus’s prose is lyrical and poetic, and I find myself re-reading many of these entries because I am blown away by their beauty. And I think writers could use some of the passages as fiction or poetry prompts—cracking them open and taking them in any direction.

Here are just a few entries that stood out for me:

“The first almond trees in blossom along the road by the sea. One night has been enough for them to covered with the fragile snow that we cannot imagine standing up to the cold and the rain which drenches all their petals.”

“From the top of the coast road, the cliffs are so thick that the landscape becomes unreal through its very qualities. Man is an outlaw there, so much so that all this beauty seems to come from another world.”

1940

“Evenings on the terrace of the Deux Merveilles. The palpitation of the sea that is sensed in the hollow of the night. The quivering almond trees and the smell of smoke rising from the earth.

The rocks in the sea covered with white seagulls. With their gray mass, lit up by the whiteness of the birds’ wings, they look like luminous floating cemeteries.”

And I’m not sure if this passage made its way into The Stranger or became a scene in another short story or novel. But I found the imagery incredible:

“Lying down, he smiled clumsily and his eyes glistened. She felt all her love flood into her throat and tears come into her eyes. She threw herself on his lips and crushed her tears between their two faces. She wept into his mouth, while he tasted in these salt lips all the bitterness of their love.”

Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1935-1942. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1962. Ivan R. Dee, Translation, Reprint Edition, 2010.

After I finish this book, I will read volume two of Camus’s notebooks, which covers the period from 1942 to 1951.

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Birthday Poems

I am celebrating my 52nd birthday today. And with each passing year, I feel the weight of mortality and the footsteps of death encroaching. It’s a presence I can’t escape, like Bergman’s grim reaper in The Seventh Seal.

In reality, though, you don’t need a birthday to be struck by that feeling. An impending sense of finality hits me every morning I awaken. But I also feel overwhelming gratitude when I am granted another morning, another day, another opportunity to create and share time and space and precious moments with loved ones.

A poem by the late poet Mark Strand seems fitting for this birthday and for this moment in time under COVID. To me it expresses the fleeting nature of existence.

Mark Strand, 1934-2014

The Coming of Light

Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,
sending up warm bouquets of air.
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

To Mr. Strand’s words, I add a few poems of my own, all focused on the unavoidable outcome of existence. They remind me to accept the inevitable while still trying to extract meaning out of a life that must cease one day.

Interment

I imagine the coffin lid closing,
the pine box being lowered into the pit,
shovels of dirt hitting the top,
and no one hearing me scream,
“Let me out. Let me out,”
as I realize I’ve run out of time
to make my life count.

What You Get

There is nothing you can do
to avoid becoming dust.
You can try to elongate your life,
but you will expire one day.

And whether cremated
or buried in the earth,
your body will not
survive this world.
Maybe your soul will
travel somewhere else,
but really, who knows for sure?

In this existence,
you are granted only two things:
Right Here. Right Now.
That’s all you get.
So make the most of it.

Awareness

How many people are dying
in emergency rooms
at this exact moment?
Right now, how many people are
exhaling their last breaths?
How many loved ones
arrive too late to say goodbye?

Each day ushers in death—
and while we sleep,
smashed brains, shattered bones,
plugged arteries, faulty hearts,
cancer and other diseases
claim their victims.

We try not to notice.
We try to avoid the truth.
We rush about our lives,
never knowing when
our time will come—
until one day it does.

I can’t live like that.
I can’t avoid the obvious.
I need to face death daily,
to recognize it lurking, prowling,
ready to pounce on me.
This knowledge of death
creeping nearby forces me
to examine my existence
and ascertain if I am useful—
wise with my time or wasteful.

I accept the finite offering
of a limited lifespan—
what little measure
of time God has granted.
It’s up to me to make it count.

Outward Arrangements: Poems by Francis DiClemente (2021).

 

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Glimpses of Existence: A Short Film

Glimpses of Existence, an experimental/documentary short film in the form of video collage, premieres tonight at an online film screening presented by NewFilmmakers New York.

Using poetry and scenes captured with an iPhone—both before and during the pandemic—the film attempts to find meaning in the mundane moments of our lives, seeking the extraordinary amid the ordinary.

Noir Smoke. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

The central focus of the film is my son, Colin, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Despite his condition, Colin finds joy in everyday activities, and through his eyes we recognize the importance of treasuring the tiny segments of life we are granted—minutes, seconds, hours—while being reminded about the transitory nature of existence.

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Pigeon on the Sidewalk

I saw a dead pigeon on the sidewalk while walking to work yesterday. I moved around it, heading along Fayette Street toward Salina. But I decided to turn around and come back to the scene and observe the dead bird.

Dead pigeon on the sidewalk. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

I also snapped a picture—my motivation being I wanted to capture an image of the lifeless form as a reminder to myself that my time on earth is limited, that death awaits me. We can’t escape mortality. In one way or another, we all become pigeons splayed on the sidewalk. And while it’s a sobering thought, it helps me to value the life I get to live today.

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Insomnia Poem

A bout of insomnia last night produced a short poem. At 3 a.m., my five-year-old son Colin and I were both wide awake. While he squirmed and rolled around in bed, I covered up to prevent getting struck by his flailing elbows and knees. And in the early morning darkness, these words came to me:

Manifesto for Dejected Artists

To create is to make something
that did not exist before—
something no one requested
and something the world
does not want or need.

And yet, you decided
to make it anyway.
So now it’s here for others
to accept or reject.
Either way, your job is done.

And I have realized from experience that if some lines, words, thoughts, characters or plots float in my head when I’m in bed, that I must jot down the ideas immediately or I will forget them upon awakening.

And on a totally unrelated note, here is a photo of Colin holding his pre-K diploma, which he received on the last day of school on Thursday.

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A Camus Quote

I am currently reading Albert Camus’s Notebooks 1935-1942, and I found this little piece of wisdom from the section May 1935 to September 1937. I thought it was worth sharing, and I hope you find some value in the words.

“One must not cut oneself off from the world. No one who lives in the sunlight makes a failure of his life. My whole effort, whatever the situation, misfortune or disillusion, must be to make contact again. But even within this sadness I feel a great leap of joy and a great desire to love simply at the sight of a hill against the evening sky.”

Camus, Albert. Notebooks 1935-1942. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1962. Ivan R. Dee, Translation, Reprint Edition, 2010.

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