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?

Standard

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.

Standard

The Pull of the Moon

While walking to work this morning, I saw a spectacular orange full moon hanging low in the sky. I half expected Elliott and E.T. to go flying by on a bicycle in front of the surface of the orb. I wanted to take a picture of the sight with my iPhone, but my view was obscured by the buildings, streetlights and wires lining East Genesee Street near South Crouse Avenue.

So I have no images—you’ll have to trust me that the moon shone brightly in the early morning hours. And while I stopped on the sidewalk and looked at the moon, two thoughts came to me: 1) God does some beautiful work . . . and 2) I am so small in the grand scheme of existence. All of my cares, worries, fears, dreams and desires are insignificant when viewed through the vast prism of nature. And these thoughts comforted me as I strode up the hill on South Crouse Avenue on my way to work.

Standard

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.

##

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.

##

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.

##

Standard

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.

Standard

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.

Standard

Built-In Inspiration

One of the great things about working for a university is the opportunity to explore iconic buildings on campus.

Crouse College exterior. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

Today I had to go to Crouse College—home of Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts—to pick up a check from the BBC that was mailed to the wrong office.

I stood on the steps outside the wooden doors, admiring the exterior archways and the designs on the reddish-brown columns. Stepping inside the building, I noticed sunlight pouring through a stained-glass window above me, while one floor up, someone was playing the organ inside Setnor Auditorium.

Stained-glass window inside Crouse College at Syracuse University. Photo by Francis DiClemente.

An artistic ambience enveloped the place, punctuated by warm tungsten lights illuminating the hallways and panels of medieval artwork hanging on the walls. I walked past the Winged Victory statue as I looked for the business operations office, which was occupied by cheerful employees sitting in cubicles. Large windows framed a postcard winter scene with snow falling on a row of evergreen trees. A woman handed me the lost check and I went on my way.

Winged Victory Statue at Syracuse University. Photo by Steve Sartori.

But before I left the building, I wondered if I could get transferred to an office in VPA or at least do a three-month rotation.

Railing and staircase inside Crouse College.

Then I thought, would such a stimulating environment spur my creativity or would I fall victim to sensory overload, viewing and consuming art every day but not producing any work? Too bad I won’t get the chance to find out.

Standard

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.

Standard

12/12/84

Today marks a momentous anniversary in my personal history. As I’ve written about before, on this date, thirty-four years ago, surgeons at SUNY Upstate Medical Center (now Upstate University Hospital) in Syracuse, New York, removed a large craniopharyngioma that had enveloped my pituitary gland, leading to stunted growth and delayed puberty in my early teenage years.

Craniopharyngioma example.

The surgery left me with panhypopituitarism, a deficiency of all of the hormones the pituitary gland produces. The tumor returned twice during the intervening years and I would need follow-up surgeries to wipe away the remnants, along with Gamma Knife radiosurgery in 2012 to keep the neoplasm from coming back. So far, so good; my last MRI showed no traces of my benign nemesis.

My objective with this post is not to elicit sympathy by rehashing my medical past. Instead, I want to pause, reflect on the adversity I’ve faced and express gratitude that I’m still here. If you spend any time in a hospital you discover how quickly life can be snatched away. As I type these words, someone is dying and loved ones are mourning that person’s death. My story could have had a darker, alternate ending.

In looking back on my health crisis, I am thankful for the following.

My vision works—despite my need for progressive lenses and reading glasses. In waking up after the surgery, I could see, and this was not a given since craniopharyngiomas can cause visual disturbances because of their location near the optic nerve.

At Disney World in the winter of 1985; the scar from my surgery is visible and my hair has not grown completely back.

My brain function remains intact; the wedge of cauliflower in my head is capable of reasoning, performing calculations and doing what it’s intended to do (the majority of the time). And while my adult intelligence and decision-making ability could be open to interpretation, the surgery did not—as I had feared it would—disrupt my mental capacity or alter my cognitive function. When I woke up in my hospital bed, I knew my name, the date and the president of the United States (Ronald Reagan). And I remain thankful to this day because the me I knew as me had not disappeared after the surgeons cut open my skull.

Boy to Man

Although my youthful appearance lingered into my late twenties (a direct result of the delayed puberty caused by the tumor), I am grateful I finally matured with the assistance of injections of synthetic growth hormone and testosterone, which spurred growth and the development of secondary sex characteristics. I have shed the outer skin of a boy, revealing the man I knew resided underneath.

My wife Pam and son Colin.

My health has diminished with the subsequent diagnoses of osteoporosis and rheumatoid arthritis, and panhypopituitarism requires constant and vigilant management, e.g. making sure I take the numerous drugs that sustain my life. Even so, today I live a pretty normal existence. The surgery did not provoke a desire to engage in thrill seeking activities. I don’t think you can go full throttle all the time—“living each day as if it’s your last.”

I am content to wake up, blink my eyes and focus on my surroundings, climb out of bed and face each new day with the knowledge of how truly lucky I am.

 

Standard

little tree: a poem

While doing some internet research, I came across a Christmas-themed poem by the brilliant E.E. Cummings.

In the spirit of giving, I thought I would share it so others can derive joy from Cummings’ simple, heartfelt words.

[little tree]

little tree
little silent Christmas tree
you are so little
you are more like a flower

who found you in the green forest
and were you very sorry to come away?
see i will comfort you
because you smell so sweetly

i will kiss your cool bark
and hug you safe and tight
just as your mother would,
only don’t be afraid

look the spangles
that sleep all the year in a dark box
dreaming of being taken out and allowed to shine,
the balls the chains red and gold the fluffy threads,

put up your little arms
and i’ll give them all to you to hold.
every finger shall have its ring
and there won’t be a single place dark or unhappy

then when you’re quite dressed
you’ll stand in the window for everyone to see
and how they’ll stare!
oh but you’ll be very proud

and my little sister and i will take hands
and looking up at our beautiful tree
we’ll dance and sing
“Noel Noel”

The poem inspired an illustrated children’s book, which I found for sale on Amazon.

Standard