The Catalyst

A Writing Teacher Writes (plus some writing prompts and recipes)

Second Home October 25, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 5:26 pm
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The prompt this time was the 5 x 5 prompt. Click here to read how to do that. What I wrote is below.

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Paris and Rome hold memories and regret, a longing for past lovers, a deep loneliness. I love those cities, but I feel lost in them too. But in Berlin, if I had to help you get from Tegel Airport to the Hauptbahnhoff, I could navigate those bright yellow subway cars, and a few major bus lines too. I know how to get around. I know how to work the bread slicing machines in the grocery stores, and how to order kuchen at a café: sit down first, order a drink, then peruse the case. I’m free in Berlin like I am nowhere else.   

Berlin is the only place I don’t feel guilty or haunted. In Rome, I got stood up by a lover who was supposed to hop over from Paris, and I cried into my gelato in the Piazza Navona. In Paris I sometimes felt sad, knowing how Mama had wanted to visit, but never had the chance. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and Rome feeling guilty and sad about whom I’ve left behind, but never in Berlin. And it feels good not being haunted for once.

There are things Mama wouldn’t have liked about Berlin: too gritty, too dark in the winter, too hot and crowded in the summer. But she would have loved the Turkish market, or the cosmetic section of the Bio store on Bergmannstrasse, and Museum Isle. I can imagine her laughing with me at the Bode Museum café under the dome upstairs, flirting with the Turkish waiter, like I did, while enjoying a cup of black tea with milk and sugar.

Berlin is the city that rose from the ashes to meet me that first time in May. The peach sky at sunset in Tiergarten, my strong legs pumping the pedals. I had just turned forty and suffered a broken heart, but Berlin reminded me how we remake ourselves again and again in this lifetime, how we heal and mend, how we forgive and try to learn from even the worst mistakes. Berlin reminds me that good actually prevails over evil; it’s not just a nice old saying.

It’s the place I allow my tongue to twist out the number of beers I want to order in German, while I bat my eyelashes at the furry bartender from Armenia. It’s where I shed my clothes in a dingy bar because the heat is on too high, where I let myself sleep in, finally wandering out at 4:30 p.m., or ride a bike in the snow, in the pouring rain, or home from a club at 5:00 in the morning, past the Landwehr Canal, swans floating on the surface, their heads tucked under their wings in sleep. Berlin is the place I went to a New Year’s Eve party even though I didn’t know a soul, where I smoked cigarettes and drank warm vodka in Rose’s Bar sitting in front of a framed image from Madonna’s Sex book, her legs splayed open, the head of a leather biker nestled between them.

Berlin is the place I cried at the Jewish Museum when I saw the map of concentration camps—the enormous, overwhelming number of them in Poland alone—or read the Pink Triangle memorial at Nollendorfplatz and realized that hundreds, probably thousands, of gay and lesbian people were forced to board trains right there at that station, trains bound for concentration camps, trains that sent them to their deaths.

But can you see the neighborhood now? Gay clubs and sleek cafes, hip clothing stores. See all the young gay men living here again, finally free after escaping countries like Chechnya and Iraq? Here is a neighborhood brought back to life, vital and elegant, a microcosm of the city itself: city of rebirth, of artistic expression, of freedom of thought. A place that’s been vilified, feared, and attacked, beaten to the edge of life. Look at it, vibrant, teeming with life, healthy and strong again. A place to live out loud.

 

 

 

 

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Friendly Ghost August 22, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 11:04 pm
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This time the prompts were:           

Not a very pretty kitty

Once upon a time, there was a woman who had had enough

“Your soul pulls toward the canyon and then shines back,”

(from “How to Regain Your Soul,” by William Stafford)                                                          

What I wrote is below.

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You: pop up in MS Word, a document without your name in a philosophical message that makes me think. Or sometimes a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, or Mary Oliver. You both loved and laughed at “Wild Geese“: You do not have to be good/You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles in the desert, repenting. That was advice you might have given too, perhaps not so romantically.

You: come to me in inner dialogue. One day I said, “It sucks that you’re dead,” and I heard your voice reply, “It sucks being dead. It’s so boring!” I laughed then, but I worry that your spirit is tied to those splintered souls you left behind: the old friends and lovers, the ones who try to comfort one another now, like Rebecca, today, who bought me lunch and then invited me upstairs for coffee made with an old Pavoni hand pump espresso. I worry that we won’t let you go and so you still have work to do, I worry that you are still weary and that you need to rest.

But here we are now, in that familiar territory of a relationship between the living and the dead, you and I, after all those conversations we had about our dead loved ones, talking to their photos like I talk to yours now, asking, “Where are you? Where did you go?” A child’s question. Unanswerable. But I suppose you’re still here, in the circle of writers, in the chocolate cake with real flour and real sugar, glutinous flour, processed sugar. “Oh, fuck!” you used to say. “If you’re going to eat cake, eat cake!”

You: still cracking jokes, still holding up a mirror that says, “Look at your beautiful self. You are a great teacher. You are MY teacher.”

Oh, you. How lucky I was to be chosen, to learn from you how to really be a friend. How lucky I still feel having known you all these years.

 

 

 

Little Big Man July 6, 2017

Filed under: Aging,Humor,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 10:36 am
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The prompts this time were:  

Dingy, but functional

Something is calling to me

His life was big, too big

 

What I wrote is below.

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Sometimes he thought about a road trip. A ride in his trusty car to the Four Corners or Monument Valley. Yellowstone. The Grand Tetons. Glacier National Park. New Orleans. Something about the fantasy of being behind the wheel of his own car was satisfying in itself. Not a rental car or a bus, but his own car.

“You can fly to Vegas and rent a car from there,” friends said when he told them he hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon. But he wanted the long hours in his own car, the air conditioner blasting, or in the evenings, just the roar of the road with all the windows rolled down.

The busier his life became—the emails negotiating next semester’s schedule, the conference at the end of the month, the dental appointment in May, the tax accountants quarterly reminders—the more he fantasized about the open road.

At one point, he started eyeing tiny wooden campers: cool, modern pods with kitchens in the trunk, or refurbished Airstreams, even a VW Vanagon with a convection oven and a pop top roof. They all made him think about cashing in his 403B for a life on the road. Canada. Mexico. New Brunswick. There were whole worlds to explore.

Would he become one of those sixty-something hippies living in the moment, depending on his Social Security direct deposit and the kindness of strangers? Could he shower in outdoor stalls and have his morning movement in a composting toilet? Would he have a long, gray ponytail and well-worn river sandals, cargo shorts, and—God forbid—a fanny pack?

Maybe. Some days it sounded great. Better than student conferences and curriculum meetings with the Dean. It sounded better that choosing one corporate evil over the other so he could escape to Netflix without the interruption of a frozen, spinning rainbow wheel. It sounded better than trying to find a less expensive apartment with more storage and quiet neighbors. Why not live on the open road? Why not tune in and drop out? It was something to think about, at least. It was something to think about.

 

Strange Company June 13, 2017

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 5:43 pm
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The prompts this time were: 

 

Hello darkness, my old friend

Bless her tiny body

A messenger for happiness

What I wrote is below.

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The dead come to visit him in his dreams. It’s always been this way. After his mother died, she came three nights in a row, barefoot, wearing jeans and a neat pixie cut; totally unlike she’d ever looked or he’d ever imagined her. He figured she must have wanted to look this way all along.

His father surprised him too, once rushing off with a model to a waiting town car, his hair a salt and pepper faux-hawk, his new body slim and tall: a new body and a new love in the afterlife. Later, his parents showed up together, reunited it seemed, and happier than ever, sipping champagne and leaning in to whisper to him about his siblings.

Sometimes he awoke between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., the true bewitching hour, and as he stumbled to the bathroom to relieve his bladder, he swore he saw his old best friend—dead ten years now—sitting on the living room couch. “Don’t haunt me,” he said out loud, and looked away.

Occasionally, a ghost might hover, usually on the three nights before, during, and after the Day of the Dead. They followed the path of marigold petals from the front door to the little altar illuminated with candles. There they would find chocolate and scotch, oranges and almonds, sometimes a cookie or a slice of cake, and always a tiny bowl of water for the dogs. He had loved and lost so many good dogs.

But the clacking of las calacas never woke him those nights, and there was no reason for them to come to him in those dreams either, for during that holiday he always had conversations with them during his waking hours. He asked for advice (usually), love (always), a new home (twice, and twice they delivered), a clean bill of health (still cancer free), and occasionally, company. Sometimes he sat with them at the table and they rose out of books and recipes, old letters and notes, and poems too. They seemed to love poems most of all.

When he was little, he never wondered where the dead went after they took their last breaths. They seemed to live there in the house of his childhood alongside everyone else. They told jokes around the dining table, or helped mix the cookie batter, dropped the candy thermometer into the liquid sugar and clipped it right onto the side of the pot. They stared at him from photos, unsmiling, but he understood that it was only the fashion of the time that kept them from smiling, or shame at the condition of their poor teeth.

It was the living he wondered about then, especially the hollowed out expressions of the bereaved, all those adults who, after hours of crying, like children, still seemed dazed by death, emptied out. He understood that feeling now, of course, the way loss cracks you open, the way it shakes you off the foundation, unbolted, loose. But he found solace in the dreams, those dependable nightly meetings. In those dreams he learned to sit quietly and not ask too many questions. He learned how to keep the dead company.

 

 

 

 

Growing Pains February 1, 2017

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The prompt this time was about Sea Turtles. I read the group a page of information about these creatures. A few excerpts are:

They spend their entire lives at sea, except when adult females come ashore to lay eggs several times per season every 2 to 5 years.

After laying her egg, she returns to the sea, leaving her eggs to develop on their own. The hatchlings do not have sex chromosomes, so their gender is determined by the temperature within the nest. 

Experts say only one out of a thousand will survive to adulthood under natural conditions.

What I wrote is below.

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We were all settled in at Rockaway by the Bay, napkins on our laps and sourdough bread piping hot, water glasses full, when Sarah cleared her throat and announced that she had “something very important to say.” I felt a familiar tightness in my chest anticipating what this might be about. It had been a tough year with the kids. Since she had turned fourteen, Sarah was always upset with me about something; my middle child, Jamie, had become obsessed with getting nothing less than straight A’s, and recently my youngest, Bobby, had come out to us as trans, at age seven.

Something to announce? I prayed this wasn’t about her support for the Tea Party again. “I can see where they’re coming from,” she had argued with me one afternoon, right there in the kitchen. Or maybe she was going to defend Putin’s behavior in Chechnya (that pig!). Here we were on a Sunday evening in Pacifica, the sun was setting on the water turning everything steel and rose, and she suddenly had to make an announcement?

“Okay, Sarah,” Robert said, just like the therapist had taught us, “What is it you would like to say?” She stood up, flicked her strawberry blonde mane over each shoulder and said, “I am now a vegetarian, and I think you all should be as well. Every bite of flesh that you put in your mouth is contributing to environmental disaster and the suffering of innocent creatures.”

Jamie was already wearing the paper lobster bib the waiter given us, and I was trying to decide between a New York strip or a Crab Louie. ”

Can we eat seafood?” Jamie asked.

“No, Jamie!” Sarah hollered. “If it has eyes, don’t eat it! Meat is murder!”

“All right, Sarah,” I said. “We hear you loud and clear.”

“But I want to talk about it!” she said. “We need to dialogue as a family about this.”

“Okay. I know. But will you please sit down?”

The waiter came over to tell us about the King Crab special: a grilled sandwich with a side of coleslaw and steak fries. Bobby started to cry. “We’ll just need a few more minutes,” Robert told the waiter.

“I won’t sit here and watch you all eat dead animals!” Sarah said, gripping the edge of the table dramatically.

“What about hormone-free meat?” Bobby asked, tearfully. Since she began her transition, she was obsessed with the concept of hormones.

“Murder is murder,” Sarah said, sternly. She crossed her arms and looked straight at me. I could never look at her without thinking about how different we were physically: me with my dark features and she all peaches and cream. Those blue eyes like the sky in Iceland. I remember seeing her the first time in the hospital and thinking, Where did this baby come from? Defiant she was, and ice queen beautiful. Smart and strong, but impulsive too.

“I suppose you’re having a steak, Mother, just to spite me.” I never liked it when she called me by my first name, but when she called me “Mother,” I felt like Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest.

“I think I might just have dessert,” I said, surprising myself. “Their coconut cream pie is out of this world.”

 

 

Regenerating Kindness January 13, 2017

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 7:48 am
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                                                                                                                                                                                    pentgonaster-duebeni-3 

The prompt this time was about sea stars (formerly called “starfish”). I read some information about them out loud, and was struck by the way they can regenerate lost limbs.

A few other facts I read out loud were:                                          

Sea stars have an eye spot at the end of each arm.

Sea stars can move more quickly than you might expect.

Sea stars are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies.

Sea stars can live up to 35 years and are usually about the size of a teacup.

What I wrote in response is below.

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Everywhere, kindness. That’s what he’s choosing to see, anyway. That’s what he’s open to. The news fills the airways with horror, loss, murder, disease. Our world is spun into chaos: the end of times. So it seems surreal to notice a sparrow’s carefully constructed nest in the pipes above the carport, the old man in the donut shop having a conversation with a curious toddler, or to read about the Labradoodle who works as a therapy dog at a funeral home, and a herd of elephants who travel 2o miles to mourn a dead man who worked with them for decades and loved them. They came to pay their respects.

Then there’s the woman who waited to pull out of her parking spot on a busy Friday night so he could have her space. There was a line of cars behind him, so he couldn’t back up. “Go around the block,” she said, “I’ll wait for you.” A total stranger. And the clerk at his accountant’s office who so appreciated his interest in her African Violets that she gave him two leaves in a Dixie cup of water. “In about two weeks, you’ll have roots,” she said. “Plant them in soil and then keep them somewhere warm.” On the street outside the office, he used his hand to shield the flimsy leaves from the windy day. Once he was safely inside the car, he placed the paper cup in the beverage holder, careful not to spill it.

There are greater acts too. SS soldiers who worked as double agents and saved thousands from the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Now, two ninety-year-old survivors—one a former guard, the other a former prisoner whom he saved—meet again in Germany after seventy years. They hold one another and they weep. A policeman in Dallas covers a woman and her sons with his own body: he literally lies on top of them to shield them from a sniper’s bullets. And the surgeon, who has just told his patient that he might have cancer, sits for a moment and asks that patient about his life, about his work and where he lives. Sees him as a whole person, not simply a lung or a white spot on a CT scan.

These are dangerous, confusing times, he thinks. Airports are now targets for people who strap bombs to their bodies because they feel their li (more…)

 

Reminders October 26, 2016

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 9:23 am
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The prompt this time was the five-word free write. For an explanation of this prompt, click here. The words this time were:

Jellyfish   Blackberries    Green    Tributaries    Returning        13451001_10208840704070200_6833925630858366482_n

What I wrote is below.

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Remember this, I tell myself, standing naked in the mirror. I’ve been picking apart my body piece by piece: flabby inner thighs, saggy chest, wrinkly neck, round belly. Remember this. The way you sometimes want a different body, a new body, a better shell.

Remember this in the times the fear rises up inside you like an electrical current: the near head-on collision at Grove and Webster, the rush of adrenaline that made the fist of your heart swell in an instant, the brakes scrape and lock. That moment of I want to live. Remember this as you walk along the edge of the memorial for Orlando, L-shaped, wrapping around the corner of 18th and Castro, a boomerang of beautiful faces—49 of them, all dead—no future now, no way to become parents, artists, nurses, no more bodies to feed or loathe or bring pleasure to on the dance floor with their lovers: no more life to live. Their names written on the sidewalk so they wouldn’t be forgotten. You must remember this.

Remember this body of yours, I tell my future self. The one unmarked by surgical scars, the one that lifts heavy potted plants, carries luggage up frozen escalators, stirs thick cake batter with a sturdy wooden spoon, holds babies who become men and women. When I am pumping my arms and legs on long, winding walks down to 24th Street, or climbing five flights of stairs at the Forest Hill train station, doing a headstand, a backbend, lifting a barbell to my chest: remember this.

When you awaken from a bad dream in a good bed to sunlit blinds, when you sit cross-legged on the floor with old colleagues who know you and love you, when a dog kisses you and climbs into your lap. Remember those dark times when you wanted it all to end—just say it—when you wanted to die, when you wished the suffering was over. Remember this when you come blinking back to life after anesthesia, when you have a drainage tube under your ribs and a catheter in your dick, that you didn’t always know, really, how badly you wanted to live. Not just publish a book or buy a home or climb Machu Picchu, but simply live, share another meal with loved ones, or a birthday cake, grow another flowering plant, or fall in love again.

All the shallow shit just falls away: wrinkles, cellulite, callouses. You’re beautiful as a newborn. You’re whole and present and full of healthy blood. You have to remember this, right here in the mirror. Right here. In the mirror. You have to. Remember this.