The Catalyst

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

The Return of Sound April 4, 2023

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:28 pm
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Yesterday I heard the wild parrots screeching across the sky, and the hail coming down onto a metal roof. I heard someone whispering in the corner of the classroom between student presentations, and a bicycle coming up the street, then whooshing past me. These may seem somewhat benign to you, but for nearly two weeks, because of a middle ear infection, I could not hear at all with my right ear. Two weeks ago, what is now only a soft bit of white noise, was the pulsing of fluid and the beating of my heart and nothing else. My electric toothbrush was an annoying vibration. I could not hear the wind rush past me.

Every day, my hearing returns more and more and it’s miraculous, really, this world of sound we live in, the one I took for granted. Until last week, singers sounded tinny and childlike, so listening to songs with lyrics was unpleasant. My own singing voice was foreign and buried, so there were weeks without music or harmony. The rushing water in my sink finally sounds like fluid, and not like crackling paper. I can hear the bus at the bottom of the hill humming at first, then the engine purring louder as it climbs up, up, up. It turns out that the lonely dachshund on a deck nearby is still yapping at passersby. And today in the grocery store, I felt the once muffled voices in the next aisle break through a shroud with the clarity and pleasure of good old eavesdropping.

Even my loud neighbors are bringing me joy.


The writing prompt for this piece is below.

Onomatopoeia is a word that imitates the sound it represents. It is derived from the Greek ónoma meaning “name.” and poein, meaning “to make.” It literally means to make the name.

Here are some common onomatopoeias:

splash smash bang drip gush kerplunk slam plunk buzz whack  wap growl  pop   squeak  clip-clop

mumble hush boom tinkle clang moan groan murmur slap crunch boom bam wham plop kerplop                  

For this exercise, please begin with one of the words above, and place us in the middle of a scene with the sense of sound. Allow your writing to take you on a journey; don’t be too concerned about where you’re going. Just let the sound take you somewhere, and write into that place. Consider the action in the following sentences to lead you into a scene:

A plate is dropped on the floor.

A balloon just burst.

A gun shot rings through the air.

Someone is eating something crispy or crunchy.

A bright light is switched on.

A fierce dog is behind a rickety fence.

Somewhere, a small bell is ringing.


Finding Hope in the Rubble March 10, 2023

Filed under: Grief,Humor,Short Stories/Short Shorts,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:50 pm
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I’m trying to get used to this new world.

“Can we postpone our call?” my friend in Seattle writes. “I need to go to the gym and get some exercise; I couldn’t go out for a walk today; the air isn’t safe to breathe.” Fires? I write back. She sends a thumbs up emoji.

Later, on my own walk, I spot several giant green parrots sitting in a Cypress tree behind my neighbor’s apartment building. They have red cheeks and are softly cackling to one another as they preen. I love seeing them there, and I also feel the world tilt: these birds are not native to the Bay Area. They are descendants of escaped pets, birds that were smuggled in from Central America.

A few of my closest friends have a “You can’t control everything,” kind of attitude, but it feels like they’re really saying, “You can’t control anything,” and we can argue semantics all day long, but it means something, doesn’t it? That they’ve given up, or that they might prefer to just get stoned and binge watch a new series?

“I won’t pay for Netflix,” another friend says. “It’s too expensive.” Meanwhile, he’s finishing an eighteen-month remodel on a multi-million dollar house in the desert, while I’m trying to pay off the Visa card I used for my new desk chair. Everything is upside down. Comedians make fun of Margery Taylor Greene as they show footage of her latest campaign ad: she’s shooting wild boars from a helicopter with a semi automatic weapon. I don’t think it’s funny.

What you can do? (sic) my brother’s Italian tailor used to say. That question resonates with me. Because doing nothing just isn’t acceptable, as far as I’m concerned, but I also know that you can’t save everybody (or anybody, really) and you can’t, as my sister used to say, bleed for everyone either. You can’t save the world all on your own. But I am not willing to accept this dystopian narrative as set in stone—or silicon, as the case may be—as awful as it might seem. I refuse to give up on this one precious life on this one precious planet (but please, by all means, reserve your spot on Mars, with a layover on the Moon).

I have absolutely no idea how to live into the future when at times everything already feels like it’s crumbling around us, or is so covered in graffiti that we can’t even read the freeway exit sign beneath it. And yet, surely these fifty-seven years must have delivered me some sense of wisdom, some gut feeling about participating in community gardens, and frequenting farmers’ markets, and reading thought provoking stories, articles, listening to lectures. Some part of me knows that you have to seek out the teachers, the lessons, the opportunity to move beyond sleazy erotic massages or horror themed Hulu originals, or loud motorcycles, long lines at fast food chains. You have to find the homemade falafel stand in the corner or the parking lot, the one with the handsome man who is willing to tell you his story of survival. How he beat the odds, how he fled everything he knew and loved for freedom. How he never gave up hope.


This piece was generated in my writing workshop at Laguna Writers. The prompt was the five word free write (see a detailed explanation of that prompt here), and the five words were, Wild Parrots, Avocados, Grey, Fire, Reaching.


The Way Forward (A Prayer for the New Year) January 1, 2023

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 7:36 pm
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Tell me how to mother myself on the days when a young man in class won’t pay attention while I’m talking, and instead of rolling my eyes at his immaturity, I ask myself if anything I’ve ever done in my long career as a teacher has ever really made a difference. Show me how to make the list of ingredients from memory for Pop’s lasagna, even though I’m not eating cheese or wheat or beef right now, show me how to find a way to recreate something warm and comforting that would somehow be equivalent without confusing my gut. Let me see red sauce instead of simply seeing red. Help me find a cashew cheese that actually melts, lead the way to the boxes of red lentil noodles, remind me to add a splash of balsamic instead of red wine. Sit me down in time to enjoy this meal.

Remind me what it was about San Francisco that I fell in love with all those years ago, when I was a teenager with a wild cloud of wavy chestnut hair and I had my whole life ahead of me. How we traveled by car across the country and arrived at that sparkling bay and that fantastic old bridge. How we ate from little paper cups on Fisherman’s Wharf, bay shrimp and crab cocktail, little oyster crackers, warm sourdough bread with butter. Take me back to Ghirardelli Square that first time, the golden lights spelling out the Italian name above the old brick structure, remind me that buildings, like lives, can be rebuilt, renovated, reborn.

Tell me the story again of how my parents fell in love with this city fifty years ago, the clang clang clang of the trolly, the bells ringing out over the Stanford Court with the Tiffany dome at the crest of Nob Hill, where the view in all directions looked like a postcard. Remind me that it still does, even on the days when I am driving in my sensible purple car past tent cities, or slamming on the brakes because someone on a scooter has decided that stop signs don’t matter anymore. When I feel like the air controlled bubble I am floating in could break down any day now after nine years and 70,000 miles, and it seems impossible to imagine buying a new car in this economy, in this historical time in our troubled lives.

Don’t let me yearn for the old days, like a wizened old man, let me accept that they are gone. And teach me, someone, some ancestor—Mama, Merijane, some good ghost—please teach me how to see the way forward with the same light and hope I had looking for my first job thirty years ago, when I was twenty-seven, trudging through a rain-soaked SOMA in secondhand clothes. Don’t let me cling to these three decades of loss and change. Instead, shine a light on the path ahead, even if you don’t come with me, shine a light, please, so I can find my way through.

I want to be able to hold the memories like something precious, a sleeping baby or a favorite old book, and at the same time, I want to look ahead, not constantly behind. I work so hard not to feel regret, to instill hope in others, even that boy today in class with his stupid smirk. Even him. Help me find the way to see the path ahead, just a little of it, and to not be so afraid of the dark.


The writing prompt that inspired this piece was 4 x 4:

Generate four lists:

1. Four cities you are familiar with (they do not have to be cities you love)

2. Four colors

3. Four people you love or have loved

4. Four favorite foods

After you’ve generated the lists, take one word from each list, and create four new combinations. 

Choose one of the combinations that interests you the most, and come up with a few descriptive words or sensory details that you associate with each of words in that list. Don’t think too hard or write too much. This is your prompt.

Now write for 20 minutes: anything that comes to mind. Don’t worry if the writing takes you somewhere unexpected.


Dia de los Muertos November 2, 2022

Filed under: Grief,Mexico,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:30 pm
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I imagine them together now, in a way that might seem childlike to you. She with her wavy hair tucked behind her ears, and he with those thin lips that disappeared when he smiled. They were just bone chips and dust in Ziplock bags the last time I saw them. I was surprised how different their ashes looked: his were brown and heavy, hers were light and soft grey. We mixed them together.

We threw white roses into the water, something I learned from the Brazilian goddess Yemanjá, via Africa. It felt ancient and important. The pounding surf washed the flowers up against our bare shins, along with the ashes, soaking our rolled up jeans.

Sometimes, when I think about them now, they could be calacas, the bony espiritos from Posada’s drawings. Mama could be Catrina, with her big hat and long gown. Pop could be wearing a scarf, smiling now without lips, driving a sports car. In my dreams, for years after Pop died, they were always hanging out together, offering me champagne, reassuring me. We took long train rides together, in which they inquired about my siblings like gossipy old aunts, and once Mama showed up to a party to try the brownies I had made, because she wanted to see what I’d done with her recipe.

I can’t say that I believe they are in Heaven, but I also don’t believe they are nowhere at all. Reincarnated? Maybe. I feel like their spirits are still somewhere fleshy and warm, like those sticky nights I spent with my first lover in Mexico all those years ago. The ceiling fan whirling and whirling, the sheets cool and slightly damp, our naked bodies entangled, sleep fractured, nearly impossible. We were floating together, but we were also part of that mattress, that tiled floor. The rest of the world had fallen away. That’s how I think it is for them now. Two lovers, alone at last.


The writing prompt that inspired this piece was a “collected poem”: a poem created from many lines from several different poems. See below.


Anything you lose comes ’round in another form

Pink roses and white roses

those words were all that was left

Certain phrases, topics, must be approached with care

People are good

they offer up their pain

I imagine you

When you died

What’s unsaid is palpable as dignity, as death

All motion stopped when he died

Long-faced irises.

when you had to be helped on with your shoes

before you leapt off


Anything you lose comes round in another form

When grief sits with you

you hold life like a face

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come

and giant sunflowers

I will love you

Pink roses and white roses

Anything you lose


“Grief” contains excerpts from the following poems:

“Cantaloupe,” by Lee Robinson

“April,” by Judy Bebelaar

“The Thing Is,” by Ellen Bass

“Moment of Inertia,” by Debra Spencer

“Making Things Right,” by Barbara Bloom

“Return I,” by Elisabeth Stevens

“What People Give You,” by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno

“Unmarked Boxes,” by Rumi


Magical Thinking June 20, 2022

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Humor,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 9:02 pm
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My sister recently shared a modern version of Disney’s Cinderella trailer from 1950. What I imagine was originally a corny 1950’s soundtrack for the two minute trailer was replaced by a modern remix, no doubt to reach a more contemporary audience. “They ruined it,” she said. Earlier, we had serenaded her fiancé with an a capella version of “I know you (I’ve walked with you once upon a dream)” doing our best to harmonize. “Very nice!” he said.

If you’re not familiar with it, the narrative of the song is love at first sight, with a kind of 1950’s emo set of lyrics that confirm the person of your dreams can literally appear before your eyes, and so you should trust your gut when it comes to that first hello.

After another glass of wine, I soothed my sister’s soul by finding the original version of the trailer, complete with a late 1940’s choir singing that very song and nailing the crescendos, as only those hired to sing on a Disney soundtrack can. “That’s more like it!” my sister said, then busied herself with the dishes.

I watched it again, with the volume turned down, and remembered how fantastic that film was to me when I was just a little baby gay boy. The magic of the fairy godmother, the rags-to-gorgeous-gown transformation, the sweet mice as friends, all that pink and blue, and the gleaming white castle in the distance. It’s the prince of course, who steals the movie, with his broad shoulders and thick dark hair. The prince, who really says nothing except, “May I have this dance?” and then literally sweeps old Cindy off her feet.

You know how it ends: the glass slipper, the evil stepmother and selfish stepsisters outdone by kindness and courage, and of course, happily ever after. Boy was I stuck on that one my entire life. My sister—who is planning her third wedding—doesn’t like it when I get academic and psychoanalyze fairytales. She detests the violence of the brothers Grimm, and prefers the sanitization of Disney to the real thing. Any argument I might have made in the past about the meaning of the story—that sleeping Beauty and Cinderella are allegories about young women growing into sexual beings, who can only be awakened by handsome young men—were dismissed as too serious or no fun. And she’s right, of course. I am too serious, and sometimes, at least when analyzing narratives, I am not much fun at all.

I’m still waiting for a Disney movie about a same sex crush and ends with the main characters going off to separate colleges in the end (like real life). But no matter how much Disney disagrees with Florida’s conservative governor, I don’t think that’s going to happen.

What I want to say is this: Cinderella fucked me up. It fucked me up. Because I grew up believing in love at first sight, and happily ever after, and that big one: a man will come along and sweep you off your feet and take care of you for the rest of your life. I spent my 40’s with someone completely ill-suited for me because we were both convinced that fate kept bringing us together (and maybe it did, but now I know it was trying to teach me something very different from what Cinderella taught me).

I much prefer films like Pixar’s Up . At least that one is more like real life: grief and broken dreams and the willingness to love again, to keep your heart open, to go on another adventure. To not become a bitter old man because you have loved and lost. Let’s sing the theme song to that movie, shall we? Let’s all harmonize to that one instead.


The prompt that inspired this piece was a music prompt: Orla Gartland singing, “Why am I Like This?”


Love was blind, but now I see March 3, 2022

The idea behind this prompt was to freshen a cliché and have some fun with it. The original phrase is “Love is blind.” But I thought it would be fun to take out the word “blind” and try filling in the blank as many times as possible.

Love is _____________(not blind:, but what other ways might it be disabled or challenged/challenging?)

We all came up with lists. We read a few from our lists, and then chose one and ran with it. We wrote for about ten minutes.

Here are a few from my list:

Love is a cry baby

a gutless bully

an old porn star

a one note wonder

a night of bad karaoke

a prude with coffee breath

a pile of dog shit on the hot pavement

a terrible rash 


What I wrote is below.


Love decided to go into hiding, at least that’s what I tell myself. But maybe I’ve stuffed Love in a box in the attic and am hoping he won’t be able to get out again. The last I heard, Love got run over by an SUV; it was a hit and run, and Love broke several bones, was in a wheelchair for a while. When we last spoke, Love was limping around, but was driving again, running errands and healing bones.

Just to be clear, it wasn’t I who ran over Love and just kept driving, but sometimes I wish it was. Don’t think poorly of me, it’s just a metaphor. Love was always so good at taking away my agency, my personhood. Love loved to call me a bitch and a little girl. Love was toxic masculinity in the flesh, and I let him rule me with his deep voice and big dick. Love is really just an abused little boy, watching his father throw his mother through a sliding glass door. Love was only three when they left him in daycare all day at the casino, and he had to pretend he was four (because that was the minimum age). Love was almost saved by a social worker when he was 14, but then his mother said she was abused when she was a child, and Love fell under her evil spell and decided to feel sorry for her.

And now you probably feel sorry for Love, don’t you? See how insidious Love is? Even though he took my youth and splattered my romantic dreams all over the windshield, you still feel sorry for him (and not me). That’s okay, though. I know the real story, and Love wasn’t worth saving. It was either Love or me: there was only room for one of us in the lifeboat. So I pushed Love into the water. Don’t worry. Love can swim. He’s already on another shore destroying another island. Love is relentless, that’s what Love is, but at least he’s not my mine anymore.


Sweet Dreams February 1, 2022

Filed under: Humor,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:30 pm
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Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022)

This piece was prompted by a quote from the late Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Because you are alive, everything is possible.”


“Here’s how I imagine it,” Ricky says. We’re talking on a screen with 6,000 miles between us. “You move to Italy and settle into your own little stone house. I head over to Paris to pick up Eddie, and we get on a train to meet you in Italy.”

Eddie lives in London; Ricky is in Berlin.

“Why Paris?” I ask. Ricky can’t stand Paris. Dog shit and rude waiters. Those are his main complaints.

“I don’t know. Because I want to meet him when he arrives on the Chunnel?”


“We take the train to Rome, and then transfer to wherever you are in Italy.”

“That’s a long train ride,” I say, knowing it’s over 11 hours. “Why not rent a car?”

“This is my fantasy, okay?” he says, a little annoyed. “In your fantasy, you can rent a car.”

“Okay. The train is better for the environment,” I say, trying to smooth over my annoying interruptions.

“Exactly,” he says. “When we arrive, you have a beautiful spread waiting for us: local cheeses and meats, local wine from the winery where your Italian boyfriend works—”

“Oh, I like the sound of that!” I say.

“Well, I know how you are,” he says. “And bread of course, which you’ve baked yourself.”

“Nice. What about dessert?” I ask.

“We’ll bring dessert from Paris.”

“Ooo la la!” I say. What I really think is, After a whole day on a train, even the sturdiest eclairs will be soggy. But I don’t say anything. This is his fantasy about our reunion, and in his fantasy, we all live in Europe, and travel at the speed of light.


Second Home December 7, 2021

Filed under: essays,Mexico,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 1:36 pm
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I want to live somewhere where it still rains. In Puerto Vallarta, it rains a lot, except in winter. From November to April, barely a drop (except for those rare rainy days in February, which the locals call febrero loco, crazy February). I fantasize about living in Puerto Vallarta, and not just because the men there are beautiful and seem to like me, but because I feel alive and at peace when I’m there.

“That’s because you’re always on vacation when you’re here,” my friend Erick says. “You should try living here for a few months to really get a sense of what it’s like.”

“And then I wouldn’t like it so much?” I ask him.

“Not at all!” he says, “Then you’ll know you really love it.”

“PV es tu casa,” my friend Oscar always says (Puerto Vallarta is your home). “Don’t cry when you leave this time,” he told me a few years ago. I always cried on the airplane, or in the taxi on the way to the airport. I never wanted to leave. “You’ll be back,” Oscar said. “You’re going to live here someday.”

I went back in June for my first time in two years. Before the pandemic, I visited at least once a year, usually twice. I led writing retreats there for six years, had two different lovers there, lost one of them to cancer; the other one still writes me and sends me shirtless pictures occasionally. He was only twenty-five when we met fourteen years ago. “I’m old now,” he wrote the last time. “I’m too fat for you now.” But his dad bod realness only made him hotter. “No,” I wrote back, “Tu eres un hombre ahora,” (No, you’re a man now).

PV has changed a lot since I first visited in 2007. Modern high rise condos now populate the hillsides, and the Malecón (the boardwalk) is crowded on one end with loud, huge discos. But the city hasn’t lost its charm: the cobblestone streets, the restaurant patios strung with tiny amber lights, the mosaics in the central square. I was relieved to know that most of my favorite restaurants and bakeries had survived the pandemic (including the exquisite French bakery, which is just a refrigerated case in a tiny doorway filled with gorgeous pastries). The sidewalks and the sewer systems have been upgraded.

“You’ll be back,” my favorite vendor at the airport told me, as she wrapped my gifts: beautifully decorated matchboxes and journals made by local artists. “You belong here.”

The taxis are all air-conditioned now, and new. I miss the old ones, with their worn vinyl seats and manual transmissions. It was always a hot, windy ride to the airport in those old taxis. It was the perfect place for a good cry.


The prompt that inspired this piece was the five word free write, and the five words were: Foxes, Pomegranates, Orange, Rain, and Breathing. You can read a detailed description of that prompt here.


That Time of Year October 28, 2021

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 6:12 pm
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The ghosts are back. It’s their time of year, you know. All Hallows Eve is just around the corner, when the veil between the living and the dead grows thin. Don’t be alarmed. I know it’s never easy to face the dead, especially the ones who didn’t go gracefully. They might border on haunting, but not if you pay attention. Listen to them. Like all spirits, like the living, they just want to be heard.

It was that way once with my brother, Marty. He was an enigma to me, really, most of years we were alive together on this planet, so when he moved to the other side, our relationship didn’t change that much. Except that one year, when he came to me in my dreams, his photo on my end table bleeding so profusely, I woke up and turned on the light; a child again, frightened awake by a nightmare. “Okay,” I said out loud, to an empty room now washed with harsh light. “Okay, okay. Stop haunting me.”

It was November 1st, and my Day of the Dead altar was fully decorated and covered with photos of past loved ones. But not Marty. I dug through an old box and found a B & W of him from 1970. He was 18, his dark hair long and wavy, blowing in the wind. He had a smattering of acne, Grandpa D’s deep set eyes, Mom’s full lips: his two front teeth crossed over a tiny bit, just like hers did. He looked uncharacteristically un self-conscious, relaxed. He had his whole life ahead of him still, and was heading off to New College in Florida, trying to get far away from all the boring people he had to endure where he grew up, including his parents, and every conservative midwestern suburb he’d ever lived in. Later, after many arguments with Dad, he would head to Southern France.

“There,” I said out loud to his photo. “Are you happy now? I haven’t forgotten you.” I knew then as I know now that ghosts don’t want to be forgotten, but no one had ever reminded me quite so vividly in a dream. Subtlety was not one of Marty’s strengths, dead or alive, it seemed.

I have a photo of him on my fridge now too. After all these years, his ghost and I seem to have built a loving friendship.


The prompt this time was the poem, “Ghost,” by Cynthia Huntington. You can read it here.


Write Your Way In September 19, 2021

Filed under: Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 12:59 am
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“The act of writing is a radical loss of certainty,” teacher and author Nancy Sommers once wrote. He reminds his students of this as they discuss her essay in class. What does she mean? He interprets it as not knowing what it is you want to say until you begin putting words on paper. Letting it be messy, letting the ideas come as you write

Write into the void, he tells himself. Don’t think, just write. It’s a difficult practice. But the thinking gets in the way. So keep writing, and look for that little spark, that moment that Pat Schneider used to call, “turning the corner.” Let the writing take you on a journey. Follow it.

Sometimes, the path is so clear: the essay about the difficult student who taught him a lesson, or the way in which friendly ghosts sometimes hang around and offer advice. “Don’t try to control it,” his dead mother tells him, and she would know, since she liked things a certain way. “Just have some fun,” the dead dad says. “Oh, honey, go with the flow. See where it takes you,” says Merijane.

The words help him wind down, ground himself again in the motion of the pen sliding across the page, or the words filling the screen. Still, it’s easier when there’s a story, characters to follow (or to hide behind). Like the grown niece who offers her professional advice as a registered dietician, convinces him to get tested for Vitamin D levels, and prescribes the sun and spices: turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, swirled into a coconut oil base, dissolved into hot almond milk. Or the nephew who calls for advice during a painful break up. “We still love each other,” he says, “that’s normal, isn’t it?”

Children he has nurtured now grown up, becoming lawyers and music producers, and friends. You give love, you get love. Is it really that simple? Nothing is that simple, he thinks, and then the chorus of the dead returns. “Love doesn’t have to be complicated, ” one of them says. “Trust yourself,” says another, “your intuition is strong.” He sips his tea, does his morning yoga, talks to living friends on the phone in late night conversations, imbibing rosé and raw almonds, desiring cheese. But the only thing that really brings him back to the center is the writing, the action, the unknowing, the trust. These words. Here on the page. Two feet on the solid foundation. Concrete, not brick. Strong as a ship gliding across the sea. Tall as the tallest building, never wavering.


The prompt this time was the “Two Lists” prompt, which uses two headings that are in opposition. For a detailed explanation, see this previous post.

This time the two headings were:

Things that are durable/strong  

Things that break easily or are fragile