Hitting the 50 Mark

As I celebrate my 50th birthday today, I want to offer some brief reflections on hitting the half-century mark.

Most importantly, I must express gratitude for surviving this long. Since 1984 I have endured four surgeries to remove a craniopharyngioma (pituitary tumor) and its remnants, as well as managing the hypopituitarism that followed. In subsequent years, the diseases of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis have been added to my medical history. But my diminishing health has taught me some important lessons. Here they are:

  1. If not this, it would be something else. Yes, I have some challenges, but I have not been given a stage four cancer diagnosis, and I do not suffer another fatal illness. And for that I am thankful.
  2. I must accept the limitations imposed on me by these diseases, keeping the attitude of always trying to do my best and reevaluating my goals and what I am able to accomplish.
  3. The importance of cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I am thankful for my family, friends and full-time employment status, but I also continually remind myself to be grateful for the things we often take for granted. For me these are: standing upright, breathing normally, having brain function (although somewhat impaired at times), having five working senses and working limbs.

So there’s only one more thought on turning 50: I don’t know how many more years I have left on this planet, but I will try to make each day memorable, not in achievement but in the ways I connect with others, spread compassion and leave a positive impact wherever I tread.

 

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Expressions by Vincent

In remembrance of Vincent van Gogh, who passed away at age 37 on July 29, 1890, I wanted to share some profound words from the great Dutch painter, written in letter form to his brother Theo. Through these words, we feel the heart and spirit of an artist who would not be denied his destiny to create master works of oil on canvas.

Self-Portrait, 1887. Art Institute of Chicago.

This letter is dated July 21, 1882, and it appears in the collection The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Vincent writes:

“What I want to express, in both figure and landscape, isn’t anything sentimental or melancholy, but deep anguish. In short, I want to get to the point where people say of my work: that man feels deeply, that man feels keenly.

“… What am I in the eyes of most people — a nonentity, an eccentric, or an unpleasant person — somebody who has no position in society and never will have, in short the lowest of the low.

“All right, then — even if that were absolutely true, then I should one day like to show by my work what an eccentric, such a nobody, has in his heart.

“… Though I am often in the depths of misery, there is still calmness, pure harmony and music inside me. I see paintings or drawings in the poorest cottages, in the dirtiest corners. And my mind is driven towards these things with an irresistible momentum.

“… Art demands dogged work, work in spite of everything and continuous observation.

“… I am not without hope, brother, that in a few years’ time, or perhaps even now, little by little you will be seeing things I have done that will give you some satisfaction after all your sacrifices.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

Wheatfield with Crows, 1890. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

 

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Dreaming of Lemon Trees

Dreaming of Lemon Trees by Francis DiClemente

I am pleased to announce that Dreaming of Lemon Trees, a full-length collection of poems, is slated to be published by Finishing Line Press on Nov. 8. Advance sales are underway and will continue until Sept. 13.

Dreaming of Lemon Trees is a combination of three previously published chapbooks—Outskirts of Intimacy (Flutter Press, 2010; second edition 2017), Vestiges (Alabaster Leaves Publishing/Kelsay Books, 2012) and In Pursuit of Infinity (Finishing Line Press, 2013).

This book is comprised of narrative, confessional and philosophical works, written in free-verse style, with a focus on identity, masculinity, family, romance, illness and death. These poems are accessible to all readers and address issues that people deal with in their daily lives.

Pre-publication sales will determine the press run, so if anyone is interested, you can order the book online. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I appreciate it. Below you’ll find some excerpts from the collection.

Outskirts of Intimacy (2010; second edition 2017)

Stanwix Street

A vanilla ice cream cone
covered with sprinkles of dirt,
a handful tossed by small grimy hands
across a chain-link fence.
A blond child’s whine—
flat, constant and eerily melodic.
The girl then turning away,
screaming upstairs to her mother,
sound asleep in the mid-August heat,
the lime-green curtains fluttering in the
second-story window of the adjacent brick building.
The child just standing there, scraping off the grit
and licking the melting residue
trickling down her forearm.

Post-Op Image, 1984

Sprawled out on my mother’s bed,
I hear chunks of ice falling from the roof,
and a city snowplow rushing past our house.

I tilt my neck to glimpse at the wooden crucifix
perched above my mother’s head,
and feel my putting-green hair and
surgical scar meandering from ear to ear.

I then pester her with a flurry of questions,
diverting her attention from a Danielle Steel book.
She delivers no rebuke, though,
but merely clasps her nut-brown rosary beads,
and brushes them gingerly
against the disfigurement.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

I extend a hand to touch an angel trapped in marble.
Its face is cool and damp, like the earth beneath the slab.
I pose a question to my deceased father,
Knowing the answer will elude me.
For his remains are not buried in this cemetery,
But instead rest on a shelf
In my sister’s suburban Ohio house.

Vestiges (2012)

Streetlight Paradise

Chalk marks on sidewalks,
fireflies stalking the night,
creaky porch steps,
chain-link nets and
the crack of the bat.

Sour-puss lips break a smile,
then sneak a kiss.
It’s cool to hold hands with
the girl of your dreams,
the one who says she’ll
love you forever.

But forever is too far away.
Our time is now—a passing moment
when our parents look the other way.

Summer fun in the springtime
of our lives, sucking it all in
under this streetlight paradise.

Father’s Day Forgotten

Daddy and Christi parted ways at a bus depot
In the early morning hours.
No big scene, just a kiss on the cheek,
Then she turned around and was gone for good—
Hopping aboard the Trailways bus
Headed westbound for Chicago.
And she never looked back.

Daddy went home to his beer bottle and sofa seat,
And he drew the living room curtains
On the rest of the world,
Letting those four eggshell walls
Close in and swallow him up,
Wasting away in three empty rooms and a bath.

And the memories can’t replace his lost daughter and wife.
So he tries not to remember his mistakes
Or how he drove them away.
Instead he recalls Halloween pumpkins
Glowing on the front porch,
Training wheels moving along the uneven sidewalk,
Little hands reaching for bigger ones in the park,
And serving Saltine crackers and milk
To chase away the goblins that haunted
Dreams in the middle of the night.

Now Christi has a life of her own,
And she lets the answering machine catch
Daddy’s Sunday afternoon phone call.
She never picks up and rarely calls back.
So Daddy returns to the green couch
Pockmarked with cigarette burns.
He closes his eyes, opens the door to his memory vault
And watches the pictures play in slow-motion.
He rewinds again and again
Without noticing the film has faded
And the little girl has stepped out of the frame.

Revelation

A courtship of contempt,
filled with swirling fury and churning angst,
not halted by the hands of God.
Zealous rituals express unwavering faith,
and outstretched arms set hearts aflame.

Trees topple under a crescent moon—
a gleaming scythe that carves the frost-burnt night,
invoking stones to crush the gnarled root,
as fragments of identity rupture
into paralyzing self-hate.

In Pursuit of Infinity (2013)

Dreaming of Lemon Trees

I dream of words
I strive to recapture
When I awaken in the morning.
I dream of stories with endings unknown,
Vibrant scenes imagined in my sleep—
A Degas ballerina alone in her dressing room,
A wagon train backlit on the horizon,
A hummingbird dancing on the windowsill,
And a lemon tree in the church courtyard
In mid-afternoon.
Wherever I go in my dreams,
The air is balmy and sunlight abundant.
Trees sway and the scent of evergreen
Finds its way to my nose.
I dream because when this tired body hits the mattress,
It relaxes, then releases and gives up its earthly weight.
My eyes close and I sink to the deep recesses of my mind,
Setting the subconscious free.

The Shed

Independence Day, Late 1970s (Rome, New York)

Whipped-cream clouds smear a powder blue sky,
while Grandpa nurses a carafe of Chianti
and dreams of waltzing down Bourbon Street.
The DeCosty family gathers on the patio,
with Uncle Fee roasting sausage and peppers
and Nana dribbling olive oil over fresh tomatoes,
then adding alternating pinches of basil and parsley.

Inside the backyard bordered by overgrown hedges,
the rambunctious cousins wham Wiffle balls
with a thin banana-colored plastic bat,
evoking the hollers of Grandpa . . .
who watches out for his mint-green aluminum shed,
situated perfectly in left-center field—
serving as our own Green Monster.

And when we get ahold of that little white ball,
it smacks up against the aluminum obstacle,
clashing like two marching band cymbals
in a halftime show.
And with sweat coursing down his neck,
Grandpa barks out his familiar line
under the patio awning:
“Son of a bitch . . . keep that goddamn ball
away from my shed.”
But Nana is always on our side,
and cancels out his power and keeps him in check.
“Fiore, you let those kids play and mind your mouth,”
she says.

Grandpa abandons his no-win cause,
turns up the volume on the Yankee game
and pours himself another glass of red wine.
He watches quietly as the shed stands erect
in the late afternoon sun,
sacrificing its facade for our slew of ground-rule doubles.

The Bridesmaid

The most adorable pregnant bridesmaid ever
Waddles down the church’s center aisle,
Unable to hide her protruding belly.
And with her feet swollen,
Her lower back sore and forehead warm,
She endures the ceremony standing
On the altar beside the joyous couple.
But she nearly passes out while
Posing for pictures in the lakefront park.

Inside the reception hall,
She almost vomits at the sight
Of shrimp cocktail and chicken Florentine.
She orders hot tea and lemon from the top-shelf bar,
And dines on rolls and garden salad.
This single-mom-to-be, though not merry,
Offers a smile when others turn to stare,
And bobs her head to the music
As the guests hit the dance floor.

She nibbles on a sliver of white-frosted wedding cake,
And asks for guidance from her parish priest,
Wise old Father Meyer.
Then the bride overthrows the eager females huddled
Near the dance floor and the bouquet lands
Softly in the expectant mother’s lap.
Her face turns red as everyone looks at her.
So she just grabs the bouquet and throws it back.

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Wisdom from Vincent

This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh, Penguin Classics.

And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.

Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.

This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”

He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.

He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”

The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:

“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”

Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.

The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.

And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.

And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.

Almond Blossom by Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

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A Poem for Father’s Day

If ten years ago, someone would have told me that I would be a father now, I would not have believed it. I’ve always been a late bloomer—in physical development, in the realm of romance and in the area of family life. Yet here I am, a husband and the father of a three-year-old boy. I can provide little advice, except this: being a parent means surrendering control of your life to others. It’s as simple as that; your individual life ends, but a new, collective one begins.

And so on Father’s Day, I offer these words in the form of a poem. This is what being a father means to me, as I learned from my two role models—my dad Francis and my stepfather Bill.

Being a Dad

Being a dad
means improvisation.
It means peeing in the sink
when your wife and son
occupy the john during
the nightly ritual of bath time.

Being a dad
means admitting
you don’t always
know the answers,
can’t figure out the solutions,
don’t have a fucking clue
how to stop that kid from crying.

Being a dad
means living with less—
less money, less time,
less sleep, less sex.

Being a dad
means doing
your best every day,
but accepting the failure
built into the equation
of marriage and parenthood.

Being a dad
means loving
your child
even when
you’re exhausted
and when your
patience is tested.

Being a dad
means being grateful
for the gift
of being a dad.

©2019 Francis DiClemente

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Hotel Room Drapes

Recently I spent a weekend in a hotel room in the Albany area while my wife attended a dermaplaning class at The Aesthetic Science Institute (ASI); she works as an esthetician in Fayetteville.

On the Sunday afternoon, while my three-year-old son curled up on the bed and fell asleep, I could not turn on the lamp to read or flip on the TV because I was afraid the bright light or the noise would wake him. I’m sure parents of toddlers can relate—you don’t mess with nap time. So while I had nothing to do, I listened to the AC unit purring and studied the drapes fluttering. And I thought about the loneliness of hotel rooms—especially on a Sunday afternoon.

I thought about all of the lonely people passing solitary hours in hotel rooms scattered across the globe. If I could have listened to music, I would have selected some Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison or Hank Williams. If I could have read a book, I would have chosen a Kerouac paperback or Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America—or even pulled the Bible out of the drawer and thumbed through the New Testament.

But with the baby sleeping soundly nearby, I dared not move. Instead, I pulled out my phone and captured the hypnotic motion of the drapes blowing. I wanted to freeze the ephemeral moment and preserve it digitally.

Later on, when I thought about the scene, I was reminded of Edward Hopper’s Hotel Room (1931).

Hotel Room (1931) by Edward Hopper.

And just a side note: the best part of my hotel weekend was being able to get fresh diner coffee from the Denny’s nearby.

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Location Scouting

While taking a walk in my neighborhood in Syracuse yesterday, my eyes turned to a white stucco house with three levels sitting on a block of East Genesee Street.

Stucco house on East Genesee Street. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

The architecture seemed out of place for upstate New York, so I transported the structure in my mind to a sun-baked, Southern California setting.

And in the LA film noir projected in my head, I imagined Lauren Bacall or Barbara Stanwyck appearing in the top floor window dressed in a negligee and smoking a cigarette.

Lauren Bacall

The femme fatale drew back the curtains, waved down to me and invited me in for a drink.

Barbara Stanwyck

I then wanted to push past the establishing shot, swing the camera inside the house and find out the rest of the story.

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Freewriting Exercise

Sitting down to my computer this morning I felt compelled to do some freewriting, just to string together some sentences and see what would bubble to the surface. I have been preoccupied with finishing two poetry manuscripts that I hope will eventually see the light of day, along with editing an indie documentary film. As a result, I’ve had to take a break from working on my long-term memoir-in-progress, so I’ve missed writing prose.

I don’t have anything profound to say in this post, except something that will be obvious to many of you—that writers need to trick themselves into creating something, abandoning the editor voice in their heads and just letting the ideas rip. Writers need to give themselves permission to write bad sentences, bad paragraphs and bad first drafts—all of which can be fixed later.

On this morning, my three-year-old son is sleeping nearby, and I hope my tapping on the keyboard will not awaken him. The coffee pot is fired up and I am ready to face another day.

This freewriting exercise may not have been very productive; it yielded no potential literary heroines or ideas for publishable works. But seeing the clumps of words accrued on the computer screen still pleases me.

I also wanted to post something fresh because I’ve switched to a new theme—Ryu—after being inspired by seeing Muhammad Shahab’s clean and elegant blog.

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Waiting Game

I should have posted this short poem yesterday, after we received a burst of snow as a cruel April Fool’s joke. But I think it’s still apropos, since the cold and snow will remain with us for a bit longer.

Plea for Spring

Dear Mother Nature:
I have one small
Request as the
Calendar turns
From March to April.
Can you give us
More Easter and
Less Christmas,
Please?

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The Poetry of Stones and Stars

As a poet, I often feel the urge when visiting the library to pull some slim poetry collections off the shelf and explore the words inside. I feel obligated to peruse them, since the poetry books never garner as much demand or attention as the novels they share the shelves with.

I recently discovered Stones and Stars (Dedalus Press), written by Paul Murray, an Irish Dominican priest.

Stones and Stars by Paul Murray.

In these spiritual poems—written with precise and accessible language—the author addresses universal themes of humanity and poses questions all of us consider in the course of our lives.

Here are a few short excerpts that stood out for me:

The Awareness

This
is my fear, this
my desire:

The naked, simple awareness
— like a flame —
of all that is not myself

the wound
of the knowledge of being.

The Question

Midnight.
All is silent.

Yet the question
of the void
amazes the stars.

On Living Life to the Full

When your heart is empty
and your hands are empty

you can take into your hands
the gift of the present

you can experience in your heart
the moment in its fullness.

And this you will know,
though perhaps you may not
understand it,

this you will know:

that nothing
of all you have longed for
or have sought to hold fast
can relieve you of your thirst,
your loneliness,

until you learn
to take in your hands
and raise to your lips
this cup of solitude
this chalice of the void

and drain it to the dregs.

Beginning

Now, after a long night
of stillness and longing,
on my brow, in the
tiny furrows of my palm,
thin lines of dew
are forming. And what I
had despaired of so long
is here. The sun,
true to its vow, with
prophecies of light and air
wakes the horizon.
I have come through
after all. I have a new
dawn on my shoulders.

Murray, Paul. Stones and Stars. Dublin, Ireland: Dedalus Press, 2013.

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