The Catalyst

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

Happiness October 4, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:44 pm
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The prompt this time was to list things you love.

My list included the following:  

Fat babies

Puppy breath

A good diner

Ice Cream

Reading in bed

Orgasms

What I wrote is below.

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“This little piggy went to the market,” he said out loud, once he was back in the car.  He had just exchanged his new 32 inch waist pants for a pair of 34’s. He often spoke to himself in the car, laughing at his own jokes, unintended rhymes, or on-the-spot limericks. Occasionally, he’d catch a pedestrian staring at him and think, Ah, well. Maybe I am a little crazy. But he wasn’t concerned. Certainly he was more sane than 25% of the country who voted for you know who in the last presidential election. Happy? That was another story.

Did he have a middle class life, complete with a dependable Japanese car and a good health insurance policy? Yes. Plenty of food to eat (obviously). A safe, quiet place to live, vermin free, with hummingbird visitors and at least one kind neighbor. Yes. He was creeping toward chronic singledom, but he was still healthy and desirable enough to get hit on at a bar; he even had repeat gentlemen callers, albeit married or much younger. Life was mostly good. So why the sullen grey afternoons and the lonely Sunday mornings? Well, it was all bad news on the air: suicide bombers and air raids, all those horrible videos of racially motivated police violence, and the beautiful, golden city of Aleppo now a pile of rubble. Every day his heart was broken.

And yet, there were heroes too: young, bright scientists finding new ways to cure cancer; religious leaders shifting gears and discovering what tolerance and love really mean; people building homes for the homeless, or the victims of natural disasters. The Pacific Gyre was a swirling plastic dump the size of Texas, but in Southern Mexico, human volunteers were helping baby Sea Turtles make it down the beach and into the surf. In Kenya, grown men slept with orphan baby elephants to ease their nightmares, and a boy from Nepal, who lost both his parents at 16, created a non-profit to build schools in the isolated rural village where he grew up, because he said, going to school in Katmandu had changed his life, but he had been too far away from his parents.

Life, like happiness, is not a destination. He learned that from Ralph Waldo Emerson (or was it a Hallmark card?). Happiness doesn’t always feel like a choice either, but sometimes you have to let it in. It might be the sweet, wet-nosed greeting from the skinny old pit bull in apartment 10, even though the guy on the other end of the leash rarely says hello. Or the baby in line at the grocery store who sees right inside you and knows you are kind. Sometimes, it’s a good book late at night in bed, a hot bath, the perfect slice of chocolate cake, a thank you card in your mailbox, or a long, lazy, silent walk on a breezy day. In this world so filled with pain and longing, sometimes you’ll run into happiness. When you do, you have to remember to let it in.

 

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A Detour on This Dead End Street June 11, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:04 am
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I don’t usually write a lead-in to my blog posts. I usually begin with the prompts, and then simply follow up with what I wrote. But this prompt, and these times we are living through, require a little more context. And it feels especially important during Pride month, when beyond the parties and parades we are encouraged to remember that many people fought for human rights during Gay Liberation. People fought—and are still fighting all over the world—for basic human rights, and the right to love one another openly.

The prompt was the poem below, written by the now deceased Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamu. I cannot remember where I found it, but it haunted me in a beautiful way for months, and I was careful to choose when to present it to my workshop participants. I was careful, because although we sometimes talk and write about current events together, I know those 2.5 hours a week are a respite for most of us, especially from our worries about world peace, and human rights struggles, and I want to preserve that space as much as possible.

I feel before you read my response to the poem that I should offer a caveat: what I wrote below is not an attempt to sugarcoat how worried I am about the world, nor do I think gratitude lists and a positive attitude are going to save democracy and promote human rights. But I guess I also want to say, it can’t hurt. And if nothing else, I hope it will remind some of you how safe you are, and how free.

 

In This Dead-End Street                       

by Ahmad Shamu (Iranian Poet, 1925-2000)

In this dead-end street

they smell your breath

lest, God forbid,

you’ve said I love you.

They sniff at your heart—

these are strange times, my dear

—and they flog love

by the side of the road at the barrier.

Love must be hidden in the closet.

In this crooked dead-end street, twisted with cold

they fuel their bonfire

with poems and songs.

Danger! Don’t dare think.

These are strange times, my dear.

The knock on the door in the night

is someone who’s come to snuff out the light.

Light must be hidden at home in the closet.

Butchers, with their bloody clubs and cleavers,

are posted at the crossing.

These are strange times, my dear.

They remove smiles from lips, and songs from mouths,

by surgery.

Happiness must be hidden at home in the closet.

Songbird kebab

roasts over flames of lily and jasmine.

These are strange times, my dear.

The devil, drunk on victory, feasts at our funeral.

God must be hidden at home in the closet.

 

What I wrote in response is below.

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On the train heading downtown, a homeless man with no shoes—only filthy white socks—shuffles into the car and then shuffles out, and our little protagonist exhales. The stench of a body unbathed, layered with piss and shit and vomit. A body coated with a thick layer of hopelessness: it hangs there in the car.

He’s sick, our protagonist thinks. Cracked open, ill. He’s snapped. So many people on the street suffering, and yet the sigh of relief: It isn’t me. And also the inhalation, the catch breath of fear. There before the grace of God go I. How many paychecks away are you? There’s $170 in his savings account. How much is in yours?

Later, on the near empty street, tall buildings on all sides, he waits, our little protagonist, for a group of friends. They’re meeting for an overpriced dinner at a trendy oyster bar and grill. The walls and tables and curtainless windows—all those hard surfaces—they bounce the loud voices. It hurts his ears. Packed, the little restaurant is, with too many people. The whole planet is overpopulated, he thinks, we’re like insects. A human swarm of 8 billion and counting.

Down the street, at outdoor tables under heat lamps, young men in rolled up jeans and loafers talk tech over Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Lap dogs and a crowded entryway. “Are you on the list? Do you have a reservation?” Everyone so busy trying to look important, hip, well-groomed. He finds it all so meaningless.

And yet, after his friends arrive, a bottle of pink champagne, fried oysters on deviled eggs, crab salad on toast, a tiny cup of french fries, and for dessert, mocha mousse and Hungarian dessert wine. He’s one of them now, the people laughing at the table inside a warm, dimly lit restaurant. He’s become one of them.

The next day he catches himself complaining: the hectic grocery store, the difficulty parking, the men in the gym crowding the sinks, primping. He catches himself complaining about privilege: a clean grocery; fresh food at his fingertips; a safe, warm car; a community in which men openly love one another, kiss goodbye on the street, flirt openly at a health club with clean showers and toilets, large windows.

On the radio, news from refugee camps with 1000’s of displaced people, people with no home, no running water, in limbo in a foreign country where no one understands their language or culture. He catches himself complaining, our little protagonist, and he feels his cheeks burn with shame.

 

 

Ready for a Change April 12, 2018

The prompts this time were “nonsensical sentences.” Everyone in the group generates them, we read them around, and then write in response. The result is often some bizarre, playful, surprising prose. (My piece turned out to be a silly character.) 

Here are a few examples:

 “Don’t think about the mouse in the house, said the wheat cracker. “Just look around and step on the little white lines.”

 The chocolate pudding was in love with the dog’s leash, and all the baby yellow-jackets sang a good morning hymn.

 The ballerina decided a barber shave would be a better choice for the hot toddy on rye.

 What I wrote is below.

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Today I considered painting my toenails blue and adopting a Chihuahua. It’s sandal weather after all, and so many dogs need a good home. Of course, I’d have to quit my job at the ice cream shop and stay home to care for little Lulu, but Craigslist is full of “work from home” job listings. I could sell my homemade kombucha door to door if I needed to, with my canine companion right by my side.

Or how about selling those new extreme pressure cookers? I saw an infomercial for one that has about 20 push button options and cooks everything from pot roast to lasagna. Chicken poured right out of the removable, non-stick, dishwasher safe insert, and right onto a platter of rice with a gravy so beautiful and glossy, it was hard to believe the whole process only took fifteen minutes. It was just a matter of adding the ingredients and locking the lid nice and tight. I am seriously excited about this product. I think I could sell it, I really do.

All of this angst might have something to do with turning 26: I could be having my quarter life crisis. I found a grey hair the other day, and am seriously considering just going platinum blonde to avoid seeing more of it. But silver hair and blue toes? Is that too matchy matchy? Well, I want to give it a try. I’m too young to be old.

Maybe Martin planted this seed. He’s a very cute trans male who is traveling the country in a green Nissan Cube with his skinny Irish Wolfhound, Ace. Martin is connecting with other transmen from Ohio to Washington State and chronicling the whole adventure on Instagram. I met Martin here in Portland two weeks ago. We were smiling at each other across the back patio at the Rainbow Cattle Ranch Cocktail Bar. He eventually came over and introduced himself. He’s about my height, but muscular, with big, bushy eyebrows. When I first saw him I thought, He’s so pretty for a CIS male. What a wonderfully surprising world we live in, huh?

Martin and I talked for a while; I was impressed by his mission out there on the road, his positive attitude, and his biceps. When we exchanged contact info, he took my phone and entered his number quite deftly; he has beautiful hands. And when he hugged me goodbye, I got the sense that he was a top, and I wanted to know more about that. He was sweet and smart and cute, and he didn’t have a lot of hair on his arms, which I like. His dog liked me too. Maybe we’ll meet in Omaha for a microbrew at the Old Market, or dance together on the sand in South Beach while Deadmaus spins his holy beats.

Anything’s better that what I’ve got going now: a sore elbow from scooping ice cream and a lot of lonely nights spent with a prison full of lesbians on Netflix. I love those gals, but I think I’m ready for a real relationship. I’m definitely ready for a change.

*Photo above is famous model Ben Melzer

 

For Merijane: One year Later February 28, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:33 am
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Two prompts this time, from my friend, Merijane Block, who was a lovely writer and an extraordinary person.  You can read about her here and here.

“When grief sits with you, you can invite it to tea, treating it like the old friend that it is, or you can ignore it, but that’s harder, especially if you’ve been raised with manners.  A friend at the table should be offered something: sustenance, however meager; dialogue, however halting; recognition, however resentfully.”

“Death makes no sense, it only makes good poetry, at least in the right hands”                                                                             

What I wrote is below.

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It’s beautiful here in this post sadness, this garden of falling flowers. The mourning doves can’t seem to stop mourning, and there’s a whole chorus of other sad songs. The shock has passed, but now I feel hollow inside. I keep trying to commune with the dearly departed by eating her favorite foods: thin, crisp prosciutto pizzas from a brick oven; fettucine with anchovies and lemon, topped with a feathery coat of Parmigiano Reggiano; ice cream from Bi-Rite: salted caramel and strawberry balsamic melting onto a freshly rolled waffle cone; toast with almond hazelnut butter; black tea with honey and milk.

I know from other losses that the empty space inside will eventually fill up with other memories. But for now, I’ve decided to sit down at the table with grief and eat. I still feel post-funeral: my desire for food, wine, dance, and sex is quadrupled. I want to be held. I want to visit a friend’s house and talk with people who know me well. Long hours of solitude won’t soften this shock.

Of course I know that everybody dies—I know that— everybody and everything. Look at the plumeria littering the roof of the rental car, the poor dried out shell of the beetle, see the pitiful carcass of the little animal torn open on the highway. Everything dies. But that’s not really a comfort now. It just makes me sad and angry.

And yet, here we are, all of us, shimmering together on the edge of this light, part of this big swirling gyre of atoms and red blood cells, bone and bacteria. I’m GRATEFUL, don’t get me wrong. How else could I push past the sore hip, the stiff hands, that web of fascia and scar tissue that sticks to my ribcage? How else could I appreciate the residue of ocean water on my lips, or an octopus who grabs your finger, a saffron finch in the green leaves, or a sparrow who can navigate the open air terminals in the Maui airport? When she cocked her little head, and hopped up onto the seat next to me to get a closer look, I wondered: have we met before? Would you eat from my hand?

Sure, I’m grateful. Even though this list of graves I know is growing, even though lilacs will always make me miss her, even though the honey cake—with all those gorgeous layers of golden buttercream—will always be missing one fork. I’ll still sit in the garden and be thankful. I’ll stare out into the horizon. I’ll plan my next meal.

 

 

 

Falling in Love with Your Words February 1, 2018

Filed under: essays,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 12:33 pm
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This time the prompt was a series of quotes from college students about writing. A few of them are listed here:

I like to write as a hobby, but when it comes to writing for classes, I would rather stick needles in my eyes.                                        

Writing exists for its creator to bleed on the page.

When it comes to writing, I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it: it’s just something for me to do

Writing stresses me out.

I love this art that allows you to sit in silence and escape.

What I wrote in response is below.

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You think I’d tire of it, pen on paper, fingers on keys. The stack of notebooks, the endless shopping for ink refills, pens, and paper. The repetition of words, phrases, images, the circling back to retell the story, moving in for a closer look. But I never tire of it. Never. It sustains me, actually.

I like stretching out extended metaphors, following allegories along winding paths toward clear horizons, similes as dependable as sunsets. I enjoy unusual, brazen adjectives, verbs ending in “-ing,” all those sturdy concrete nouns, the legs of tables planted squarely atop the oak floor of prepositions. I even like academic writing, the kind that allows narrative and pathos, that puts me in your shoes, or sweater, or handcuffs, that helps me smell the sour breath of the interrogating officer, feel the sweat dripping down from your scalp like fear.

Writing sustains me. It’s not an exaggeration to say it saved my life: all those terrible years of guilt and shame, the open grave of my mother’s long illness, and my own homo-self-hatred. The pile of dark earth waited patiently for our dead bodies, but she went, I stayed. I stayed because I took pen to paper, filled journals with adolescent longing and recorded loss after loss. Later, flowers bloomed into oohs and ahhs, beauty blossomed every spring, even when my heart cracked in half, or my best friend stopped walking. Even when I turned 40, then 50, even when the surgeon left titanium staples in my lung. I wrote my way through all of it and out the other side.

Are there days when I have my fill of it? When I can’t write another word, when I feel emptied out, depleted, stuck, when that block lands with a thud on my pen? Of course. That’s when I read, get lost in other people’s words, fill back up with sensory details and description in every hue of pink, or violet, deep royal purple. Then I come back to it again: trusted old friend, familiar face.

Even during those times when I read other people’s work—sometimes for days and days—and I feel far away from my own words, I never lose sight of what an honor it is to bear witness, to be an audience, to marvel as the sheer audacity of someone—anyone—attempting to put into words the growth of a tumor, a visitation in a dream, a field of plastic bottles, a shark without a dorsal fin who leaves behind the bloody red reminder of human cruelty. I am not jaded, no matter how crabby I may sound some days, and I am not envious either; no matter how many books you publish, stories and poems you write, paragraph transitions you make, fluent as tributaries, no matter how clear and sophisticated your thesis, I still feel at home in your words. I still find my way back on this beautiful trail of letters and symbols.

 

Second Home October 25, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. 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 other 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, 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 who 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, 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 Iraqi 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.

Berlin is 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 Roses 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 fleeing countries like Chechnya and Egypt? Here is a neighborhood brought back to life, vital and elegant, a microcosm of the city itself. City of rebirth, artistic expression, freedom of thought. A place that’s been vilified, feared, and attacked, beaten to the edge of life. Look at it now, vibrant, teeming with life, healthy and strong again. A place to live out loud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friendly Ghost August 22, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. 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.