Message on the Sidewalk

While walking this morning, I found this message spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of Grace Episcopal Church on Madison Street: “Get Kate out the hutchings basement.” The “hutchings” refers to The Hutchings Psychiatric Center, a mental health center in Syracuse operated by New York State.

The missive was signed by a woman (name withheld), and the statement produced a flurry of images and questions in my mind. Who is Kate and what is her condition? I pictured an exhausted woman confined in a straitjacket in the basement of the facility at 620 Madison Street. I felt empathy not only for Kate, but also for the woman who wrote the message. What did she expect to achieve by spray-painting her note on the ground? Was she so desperate that she hoped God would look down from above and intervene on behalf of Kate?

I don’t know the fate of the two women, but the discovery of the message made me more aware of people struggling with mental health issues and how these conditions can affect anyone. And this blog post is an attempt to send some positive thoughts to Kate and her friend.

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Lasting Impact: An Essay

Since the school year is wrapping up, I thought it might be a good time to share a short creative nonfiction story about an influential teacher in my life.

Mr. Lanzi’s sixth-grade class, DeWitt Clinton Elementary School, Rome, New York (1980-81). I’m third from the left in the first row.

Our sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Lanzi, was a towering figure with a swarthy complexion and dark, wavy hair teased high and coated with hairspray. Not a strand seemed out place. Imagine, if you will, a taller, thinner, nattier version of Elvis Presley. That’s how I remember Mr. Lanzi.

I think he had previously studied or worked in the theater, and he wore a hint of makeup to class—light powder on his cheeks—as if he might be called upon in the middle of a school day to fill the role of an understudy and he wanted to be prepared to take the stage and claim his big break.

What I remember most about him were his powerful hands; if my best friend, Billy, and I acted up, Mr. Lanzi would casually walk behind us, the scent of his musky cologne wafting near our desks, place his hands on our shoulders, and squeeze our trapezius muscles. We would squirm in our seats and then cease our misbehavior and pay attention to his instruction.

My best friend Billy and I celebrate our sixth-grade graduation.

Mr. Lanzi’s passion for learning was contagious, and he made education a rich, interactive experience for students. He expanded our imaginations with projects and activities that surpassed textbook knowledge.

Our class hosted special events like Italian Day, when we cooked an Italian supper and learned about Italian culture. I remember trays of food spread out on red and white checkered tablecloths, and our menu included spaghetti, breadsticks, cannoli pastries, and even small cups of espresso (which we sweetened with heaping teaspoons of sugar).

Mr. Anthony Lanzi, our sixth-grade teacher.

Mr. Lanzi’s class produced an annual stage play; during my sixth-grade year we performed a version of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and I played the Ghost of Christmas Present, dressing up as Santa Claus for the part. I was disappointed Mr. Lanzi didn’t cast me in the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge, but he expressed confidence in me that I could make the Ghost of Christmas Present memorable.

He encouraged me to shout “Ho, ho, ho” when I entered the auditorium through the back doors and then sit on the lap of a strict fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Stocknick, who sat in the middle of the audience. His direction led to rousing laughter and applause, and a jolt of energy and excitement rushed through my body as I climbed the steps to the stage.

The lessons Mr. Lanzi imparted have stuck with me to this day. He instilled a love of the arts in me and showed me the importance of taking pride in your work.

Mr. Lanzi never had a “dress down” day; instead he wore clean, dark suits devoid of wrinkles. He never went through the motions or watched the wall clock—wishing the seconds would tick down and the school day end.

And as a firm but compassionate teacher, he served as strong role model, someone for all students to admire and emulate.

But what I respect most about Mr. Lanzi was that he demanded excellence from the students of DeWitt Clinton elementary school, even though the school was situated in a poor section of Rome, New York, and many of the kids came from low-income families. He expected us to succeed. He didn’t accept our excuses and his faith in our abilities gave us confidence that we could achieve high goals.

DeWitt Clinton sixth-grade graduation, 1981.

I remember during one of our last classes, after we held our end-of-the-year picnic and before our graduation ceremony, a girl named Aimee and I were talking about starting junior high school in the fall. Because Aimee and I were both short, we felt nervous about making the jump to seventh grade and feared getting “swallowed up” in the larger school and getting picked on by the bigger kids.

Mr. Lanzi overheard us and said, “Don’t worry. You’ll both be fine.” After we thanked him for his kind words, I think he smiled and said something like, “Remember, we expect great things from you.”

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Backyard Forest

Since the warm weather has come to upstate New York, I wanted to share a poem that seems fitting for a season of humid nights, swaying trees and buzzing insects.

Photo by Luke Palmer

Enchanted Forest

When I was a young boy,
I wanted a forest for a backyard.
I wanted to open the sliding glass door
on the bottom floor of our raised ranch home
and step outside, entering a tract of land
with acres and acres of evergreen and deciduous trees.
No neatly trimmed lawn, no tool shed,
no swimming pool or garden with basil and tomato plants.

I wanted a secret place I could run to and get lost in,
the green canopy shimmering above me
as me feet struck a rocky, brown path
leading deep into the woods.
A place where I could be still and quiet
and make friends with forest companions—
cardinals, blue jays, hawks, owls, deer, elk, moose and fox.

I created this place in my mind so the cacophony
of screeching woodland birds and hissing insects
would muffle the sound of my parents
screaming on the other side of the drywall.
That’s what I wished for at night,
while closing my eyes and trying not to hear
the yelling coming from the next room.

And when I couldn’t fall asleep, I’d pull myself up,
part the navy blue, sailboat-adorned curtains
and look outside my bedroom window,
where, to my dismay, I would see nothing
but a plot of green grass in our backyard.

Photo by Lum3n.

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Resplendent Vincent

In taking out the garbage this afternoon, I snapped a picture of a tree in bloom set against the blue sky, and the beauty of nature reminded me of an entry from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

Tree in bloom. Not the greatest picture, but it does capture the glory of spring.

I started reading this 500-page-plus book about a year ago, and I still have about 100 pages left to go before I finish it. I skim a few passages at a time, and for me the book is similar to the Bible—in that I can close my eyes, open it up at random, point my finger to a page and start reading. There’s no plot you need to follow, and you don’t have to read Vincent’s letters in sequential order. In the Bible, I discover Christ at random in the action scenes of the New Testament. Vincent’s collection reveals the artist’s creative progress and his struggle to connect with other people.

In this entry to his brother Theo, dated September 17, 1888, Vincent is working in Arles in southern France, where he has set up his Yellow House. He describes being inspired by the scenery.

The Yellow House (The Street), Vincent van Gogh, September 1888 Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

“You see, I have never had such luck before, nature here is extraordinarily beautiful. Everything and everywhere. The dome of the sky is a wonderful blue, the sun has rays of a pale sulphur, and it is as soft and delightful as the combination of heavenly blues and yellows in Vermeer of Delft. I cannot paint as beautifully, but it absorbs me so much that I let myself go without giving thought to a single rule.”

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

Passage from The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.

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Inspired by Signs of Spring

While taking a walk this morning, I saw a field of flowers in a small plot of land adjacent to the Syracuse Center of Excellence. Their appearance inspired a poem. And it’s yet another example of why I always carry a pocket notebook with me and a few ballpoint pens buried in my coat pockets. Fortunately, today there was enough ink in the old pen to write these words.

Yellow flowers.

Seasons

 
Hearing the sound
of my footsteps
on the sidewalk
of a deserted street
in Syracuse.

No one else around
except two teenagers
kicking a yellow
soccer ball
in a parking lot.
But I won’t report them
for not wearing masks
and failing to maintain
a six-foot distance.

Sunshine, cool air,
puffy white clouds,
budding trees and
bulbous flowers blooming
in canary yellow color.

There’s no denying
spring has arrived—
even here in
upstate New York.
But this year,
with coronavirus,
the chill of winter remains,
and April hasn’t
chased away
the shut-in feeling
of mid-February.

And I wonder,
will we be able
to celebrate spring
when summer gets here?
Or will coronavirus
postpone our fun
until autumn?

Yellow flowers, close-up.

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Laughing While Peeing

Laughing While Peeing

While taking the last leak
before going to sleep,
I can’t help but laugh
when my four-year-old son Colin
switches off the bedroom light
and slams the bedroom door behind me.

Here in this small, one-bedroom apartment,
with our three-person family
locked in coronavirus quarantine,
laughter cannot be kept away.
It bubbles to the surface despite
the seriousness of the moment.

My toddler son doesn’t know
the world faces an existential crisis,
doesn’t understand that a pandemic
grips humanity in peril, upheaving our lives.
He’s just a boy who sees the door and thinks,
“Hey, let me slam this and see what Daddy says.”

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More Coronavirus Poems

It seems like nothing but coronavirus occupies my mind these days. And so here are a few poems I’ve fiddled with in recent days.

Coronavirus Plan

If I fall victim
to COVID-19,
if it appears
I will not
survive the
coronavirus
pandemic,
I will:
Submit.
Resign.
Accept.
Relent.
And try to die
without infecting
anyone else.

Getting On

You get one more day.
One more day is all you get.
So take a deep breath,
Count your blessings
And get on it with.
Make an attempt to
Live today like
There is no tomorrow.
Because with coronavirus
On the prowl, there may not be.

Coronavirus Kid

The child may not
see tomorrow.
Yet he lives today.
So let him be a child,
full of laughter and play.

Harrison Street, Syracuse, New York.

A Coronavirus Poem With No Ending

The reality of a pandemic
heightens our fear of death.
Today it’s you.
Tomorrow it could be me.

But I can’t grasp the figures,
can’t imagine 100,000 people dying.
I wonder how far the victims’ bodies
would stretch across America.
Would the line of corpses reach both coasts?

And with the world in crisis,
everything nonessential drifts away.
Nothing matters now but survival
because we can no longer picture
life untouched by coronavirus.

We’re in the midst of this crisis
and my reflections prove
frivolous and inconsequential.
I offer no gleaming insights,
and my words flounder on the page
as I try to wrap up this poem.

I’m unable to extract the perfect line
to deliver a tidy ending.
The fact is, I don’t know
what coronavirus will bring tomorrow,
and so I won’t pretend that I do.

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Coronavirus Musings

Life is altered now as we follow the instructions intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the fear of the end—once far removed from daily conversation—now bristles to the surface. We are aware of our potential demise, and being immunocompromised, I resign myself to the likelihood of death if I contract the virus. It seems odd to think coronavirus would take me out, instead of a car accident, heart disease, cancer or a fall at home.

And the seriousness of the situation instigates other thoughts. We are fighting so hard to survive now that coronavirus is rampant. I wonder, why didn’t we live this way before? Why did we need a pandemic for us to treat life as sacred? Why did we allow frivolous things to preoccupy our time and attention? It’s because we thought we had plenty of time. Coronavirus has forced us to acknowledge that we don’t.

But there is something else, an offbeat thought that brings me a little comfort. I think: maybe death is not so different from life; maybe when we die, we don’t know we’re dead, and death is not an end, but rather, a continuation. Maybe we exist in some other form.

My son comes into my bedroom as I write these words on a scrap of legal pad paper; he switches off the light and begins jumping on the bed. And so my writing is done. I hope to put more words down tomorrow.

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Coronavirus Poems

In between working at home and watching streaming content, I have been playing around with some poems inspired by the coronavirus pandemic. The poems are nothing more than word nerd exercises, but they help to keep my mind active. Plus, I do believe writers must write—no matter the circumstances.

Fine Wordplay

I may be
FINE,
but I may
also be
FIN´.

Coronavirus Wordplay

Take the word
DEATH
and mix up
the letters.
Insert an R
to make the word
THREAD.
So here we are,
a THREAD
away from
DEATH.

Keep Away COVID-19

Stay clear COVID-19.
Don’t come
around here.
Don’t come
knocking at our door.
Go jump in a puddle
or dive into a dumpster,
but leave us alone,
and let us live
and die on our own.

One More Day

Alive for one more day.
Granted the gift
of one more 24-hour cycle.
One more rotation
from morning to night.
One more chance
to love those in sight.
One more chance
to do it right.

Coronavirus Fear

Look at the word
FEAR.
Now drop the F.
You get two options
for alternate words:
EAR and ARE.
With my EAR,
amid coronavirus panic,
I hear wolves howling,
markets crashing,
Gabriel’s horn echoing
throughout the land
and the hooves of the
Four Horsemen thundering
across the face of the Earth.

But I also hear my son’s laughter,
birds chirping outside my window,
tree branches swaying in the wind,
and my own heart beating.
The sounds remind me I am alive.
For now, just for today, we ARE still here.

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Morning Snowfall

I looked out my window this morning and saw snow falling, with big flakes covering the windshields of the cars in my apartment building parking lot. It reminded me that snowfall is typical in late March in Syracuse, New York. Here, the official start of spring doesn’t mean the end of winter weather.

Of course everything is different now with coronavirus, but the normalcy of seeing snow falling comforted me. It reminded me that nature goes on, that life goes on. And the silence of the falling snow made me feel safe and secure, even as I remained trapped inside.

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