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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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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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Sundries

Busy with work and side creative projects, I haven’t had a chance to update this blog in a while. So here is a mishmash of entries from a scatterbrained blogger:

I snapped this photo of University United Methodist Church on my way home from work on Thursday evening. The way the late afternoon light hit the stone façade of the church commanded my attention.

United University Methodist Church in Syracuse, New York. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

As I took the photo, with the cold air nipping my face and the evening traffic rushing along Genesee Street, I thought the image served as a reminder to me to not allow the hardness and difficulties of this world to form an impermeable barrier around my heart—to separate me from other people.

And looking at the tan exterior of the church, the scene hinted—at least to me—that Christian faith rests not with bricks and mortar, but rather upon trusting in God and loving others. And I think that’s a good message for the Lenten season.

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Early in the week, Sunday night into Monday morning, I spent several hours in the Upstate ER due to a stomach virus; I spiked a fever above 103 and my sodium level dropped. Because I have hypopituitarism, I require a stress dose of cortisone when the flu and other short-term health crises strike, since my adrenal glands do not produce sufficient amounts of the hormone. So a nurse put in an IV, they gave me fluids and pushed a high dose of cortisone.

And sitting upright in the bed—since I was feeling nauseous (which was treated with Zofran)—I listened to a 99-year-old man on the other side of the curtain wailing in pain after breaking his hip. He told the nursing staff he lives in Pulaski, is widowed and has three children. He also possessed charm when engaging with the nurses on the floor, telling each of the women who rushed in to assist him, “I love you like a friend.”

And then after someone from the surgical team came to talk to him, he said, “I’m ready to go home to my heavenly father.” The surgeon was trying to find out from the man whether he wanted them to perform CPR if necessary. The older man never answered the question.

Later I heard him praying aloud, saying, “Please help that surgeon’s hands to be where they need to be. Guide his hands Lord.”

A few hours later, I was well enough to be released. And I realized, once again, the importance of gratitude, especially in terms of health. Every time I go to Upstate—whether to have blood drawn, to get an MRI or to be admitted for any reason—I am thankful for the essential functions of my body. I can breathe, see, hear and my brain works. I remain upright, capable of walking, and my fingers can type on this keyboard. It takes about ten minutes in an ER waiting room to make you realize how quickly your health can fail, how easy it seems for your life to be erased. Illness and accidents await us every day.

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And a day later, lying in bed on the night before I would return to work, I felt stressed about the workload I would face. As I let out a few deep breaths, a line came to me that led to a short poem: “It’s only life.” And here is the finished product.

Gaining Perspective

A thought to keep me calm
Amid the pressures of work:

It’s only life.
Why worry about it?
For in the end,
Despite your best effort,
You will die anyway.

I know this poem is trite and mawkish. I am guilty as charged. But the more and more I write—or should I say attempt to write, or better yet, attempt to write something worth of being published—I have come to a conclusion, one that mollifies me when I consider my lack of success in my literary pursuits.

And here it is: sometimes as a writer you do not choose the words, the story or the best means of expression; instead the words choose you as the only instrument capable of delivering them. So while I am not proud of the above poem, I am glad the three-word first sentence popped into my head and spurred me to put something on paper that did not exist before. That bad poem needed my voice to give it birth.

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Poems to Spur Reflection

While searching for some novels at Bird Library recently, I discovered a poetry collection by an author whose work I would like to share. David Ignatow’s Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, Ltd. 1999) drew me in with its short poems, spare language and universal themes of family, advancing age and death.

I was also attracted to the small, black and white author photo to the right of the title; with his white hair, glasses and mustache, I felt an immediate affinity for David Ignatow. He seemed like a great uncle who would serve you lemonade on the porch of his house in the summer while discussing his crop of tomato plants.

The publisher’s note in the back of the book indicated Ignatow wrote most of the poems in the collection in 1996, a year before his death at age 83. He was born in 1914, raised in Brooklyn and passed away at his home in East Hampton, New York, on November 17, 1997. He wrote several poetry collections, served as a poetry editor and professor and earned numerous honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Robert Frost Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.

In Living Is What I Wanted, Ignatow reflects on his life and presents truths accessible to any reader; you don’t need an MFA in creative writing or a Ph.D. in English literature to understand or appreciate these poems. The most prominent subject is death, which seems to hover like the figure in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; yet Ignatow does not run from death, but rather greets it head on, accepting the inevitable.   

Here are a few selections from the book:

Staying alive

Reason for living.
I don’t have any.

What is your reason for not having a reason?
Is there a difference?

Are you that sour on life?
Can I separate one from the other?

What is your strategy for staying alive?
Isn’t being oneself enough?

Is it worth living without a reason?
Do I have a say in the matter?

Would you prefer not to have been born?
Did I have a mind of my own then?

Would you rather be dead now?
Do I have a choice?

Then you are opposed to suicide?
Isn’t living hard enough?

Then to live is to be brave and on the move.
Are you telling me?

What would you recommend for others?
Can’t they make up their own minds?

Then you should be congratulated.
Have I said something exceptional?

All living is lying

All living is lying:
we are unable to say what this life is.
We speak about it in metaphors
as if it could be other
than what it is, and even of ourselves
we say we are like this or like that.

Patient we wait
so that
once dead
we’ll know perhaps just who we were,
with others thinking back on us.

Where I built my house

Does being born matter
now that I am leaving it behind? Where
is a world I can go to
other than this ground
on which I walk and where I built my house?

Am I complaining of the shortness of life?
I am, and that makes me much like everyone else.
Follow Adam, the leader, into the ground.

Into the circle

To my friends I am in good health
and voluble, but I have moved
into the circle, after many years
in sun and shadow, having walked
as does a sightseer, in no fixed direction.

Into the circle I stand looking back
on that life. I cannot leave
nor seem to want to. As though programmed
I look out in an act of living.

Presence in an empty room

I must accept aches and pains of the body
if I am to accept
my presence in the empty room,
with no motive for being
in an empty room, and so
with no motive for being. If
I can accept aches and pains,
I exist.

Ignatow, David. Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (American Poets Continuum). Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1999.

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Winter Survival Revisited

I wrote this poem about a year ago, and thought I would re-post it in light of the fact we are in the grips of a polar vortex and with Groundhog Day set for this weekend. Let’s hope February will be warmer with less snowfall than January. But I wouldn’t count on it, at least in Central New York.

How to Survive Winter in Syracuse

The only way to survive
a Syracuse winter
is to think of the snow
as a friend and not a foe.
When you scrape the ice
crusted on your windshield
and the snow clogs the streets,
when your tires spin,
or your car veers off the road—
regarding the snow
as a friend and not a foe
will help you to endure the season.
Even when the snow lashes
your face as it blows sideways,
or frozen clumps melt inside your boots,
making your feet cold and damp,
you must remember to
view the snow as a friend instead of a foe.
And what a friend … a friend that keeps on
giving and giving and giving
six months out of the year.
To which I say:
thank you my dear friend,
but I don’t need your generosity.

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Unsung Christmas Song

Leave it to legend Roy Orbison to shatter the festive mood of the holiday season.

John Hercock/Central Press/Getty Images

While listening to the “Holiday Favorites” station on Amazon Music, I heard Orbison’s “Pretty Paper” sandwiched somewhere between “Jingle Bell Rock” and Burl Ives’ “Holly Jolly Christmas.”

The song packs a narrative punch in just two minutes and forty-five seconds, as it tells the story of a lonely man on a sidewalk ignored by Christmas shoppers. Sadness prevails in the lyrics and the vulnerability expressed in Orbison’s voice and in the backup vocals draws us into the story, putting the listener on the busy street with the other passersby. I asked myself: Would I pay stop and say “hello” to the man? Would I even bother to notice him?

It’s also worth mentioning that Orbison did not write the lyrics. According to Wikipedia, Willie Nelson wrote “Pretty Paper” in 1963.

Photo by Jeffery Washington, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The line that devastates me is, “And in the midst of the laughter he cries …”

The full lyrics follow. And I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Pretty Paper
Willie Nelson

Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Crowded street, busy feet, hustle by him
Downtown shoppers, Christmas is nigh
There he sits all alone on the sidewalk
Hoping that you won’t pass him by
Should you stop? Better not, much too busy
You’re in a hurry, my how time does fly
In the distance the ringing of laughter
And in the midst of the laughter he cries
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue
Wrap your presents to your darling from you
Pretty pencils to write I love you
Pretty paper, pretty ribbons of blue.

Songwriters: Willie Nelson
Pretty Paper lyrics © Roy Orbison Music Company, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group, Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.

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Happy Thanksgiving: Italian Style

I wanted to share a recent Thanksgiving tradition in our family. During Thanksgiving week, my wife, Pamela, and I make Italian pizzelles—both anisette and chocolate flavored—according to the recipe of my late mother, Carmella DeCosty Ruane. This simple Italian cookie pairs well with a cup of coffee; it’s also one of the few things I can make from scratch, along with pasta fagioli (fazool), lentil soup with ditalini pasta (box version) and marinara sauce (pronounced madinad in Rome, New York). The pizzelle tradition is even more meaningful as this time of year always reminds me of my mother, since she passed away seven years ago on Nov. 22, 2011.

You will need a pizzelle maker in order to cook up a batch of your own.  Here’s a snapshot of our final product:

Chocolate and anisette flavored pizzelles.

And here are the instructions from Carmella’s original recipe, with some slight modification by Pamela and me:

Italian Pizzelles

3 Eggs
1 Tsp. Anise Flavoring
1 Tbsp. Vanilla Flavoring
2 Tsp. Baking Powder
2 Cups Flour
½ Cup of Butter or Margarine, melted
1 Cup Sugar

Beat eggs and sugar. Add cooled melted butter or margarine, and vanilla and anise. Sift flour and baking powder and add to egg mixture. Batter will be stiff enough to be dropped by teaspoon. Makes 30 Pizzelles.

Before the first pizzelles of the day only, use a pastry brush to carefully coat the entire surface of the both halves of the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil or melted shortening. Spray shortenings work very well for this purpose. Do this only at the start of each day that you bake pizzelles. Wipe excess shortening off the grids. The first pizzelles may not come out well. These directions are for my pizzelle maker. Your pizzelle maker may not require you to do this.

Pick up about one heaping teaspoon of batter and place in the center of each grid pattern. With some experimenting, you will learn that placing the batter slightly behind the center (that is, away from you) can produce full-size pizzelles. You may also prefer to use half as much batter to produce smaller pizzelles with a snowflake border. Baking will take approximately 30 seconds depending on your preference for browning, or the consistency of your batter. Remove pizzelles with spatula and place on a flat tin. Once pizzelles are completely cool, put in a plastic container or a plastic bag so the pizzelles stay crisp.

Chocolate Pizzelles

Use 1 ¾ cups of flour (not 2 cups), add 3 heaping tablespoons cocoa and add 3 tablespoons sugar to the basic pizzelle recipe. If desired, you can substitute chocolate flavoring instead of the vanilla. Do not add anise flavoring.

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Medical Magazine Message

Please forgive my terrible alliteration, but I couldn’t think of a more accurate headline.

While getting some blood work done at the Upstate University Hospital patient blood draw lab, I spotted this message written on the back of an issue of Upstate Health magazine (Winter 2018):

Dear Meadow,
I am so Glad
you have a friend
like reily (or reilly). I hope
you have fun tonight.
I Love You!
You deserve to have fun!

The message was dated Saturday, Sept. 22 and was written with a black Sharpie and adorned with two red ink hearts.

I hope Meadow had a fun weekend.

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