The Catalyst

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

First Visitor April 30, 2020

Filed under: Grief,Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 12:03 pm
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In this difficult time during the Covid-19 pandemic, I gathered a group of trusted writers and asked for their help. Knowing that my writing workshops would have to go online, we did a “practice run,” and wrote together for a few hours. The prompt that produced the piece below is tried and true: listening to Breyten Breytenbach’s poem, “Your Letter.” See that prompt here.

What I wrote:

Jose comes into the apartment wearing a mask. “You don’t have to wear that for me,” I say. “But please do whatever makes you feel comfortable.”

He takes it off, looking relieved. Seeing his face after nearly three weeks of self-quarantine (except for two stressful trips to the grocery store)—seeing that beautiful Aztec nose, his wide smile—is like a lifeline.

We’re still here, I think. We’re here in my living room, together.

On the trail below Twin Peaks, we walk single file, trying to stay six feet apart. Seeing the familiar dusting of dark hair on his caramel colored calves feels like a miracle.

We are walking on a trail we have walked on before; he is telling me a familiar story about his romantic relationship, and the details that used to fire up my defense for him, now feel like a mantra or a prayer. Sacred. His body close enough to touch. The lovely sing-song of his Spanish accent. His breath.

“Everyone is afraid,” I hear myself saying, surprising myself, because now I’m defending his fickle boyfriend.

He turns to look back at me with kindness. It’s physical, his gaze. It holds me the way a parent holds a child: lovingly, unassuming. And we are only here, in this moment, with a view of the city skyline rising bright white into a blue, blue sky. We are here. Both of us. Bathed in gratitude.

 

 

 

My Life in Flowers March 11, 2020

The prompt this time was the flower prompt: everyone in the workshop is given a flower that has recently bloomed in San Francisco, and we write in response. For a detailed description of the prompt, see this earlier post.

And just to give you some context for the tone of the following piece, which I wrote last week: we do this exercise every year (and I often do it on my international and Hawaiian retreats as well). So for me, this is a reminder of another year passing. I’ve posted several pieces on this blog in response to this prompt. See those links—as well as what I recently wrote—below.

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https://lagunawriters.wordpress.com/2013/03/29/flower-fanatic/

https://lagunawriters.wordpress.com/2014/07/11/flower-fanatic-part-ii/   ____________________________________________________________________

Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small it takes time—we haven’t time —and to see takes time, like having a friend takes time.

-Georgia O’Keeffe

 

World, I am your slow guest,
one of the common things
that move in the sun and have
close, reliable friends
in the earth, in the air, in the rock.               

-William Stafford 

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I want to tell you a story I haven’t told you before, but I fear I’m all out of stories now. No, really. Perhaps my head is just so filled with news about pandemics and Democratic presidential candidates that there’s little room left for stories that involve flowers, but I think it’s more likely that I’ve told you all of my stories already.

How I drove across the country with my parents on our big move and got stuck in a blizzard in Wyoming. How when we arrived in California at the end of January there were pink blossoms on the trees and mustard flowers growing waist high between the Live Oaks. How my next door neighbors grew orange roses that smelled like citrus, and in early April, the purple irises grew tall and opened lilac colored petals every year: dependable, elegant, the one small joy in my mother’s monotonous days.

Later, I discovered gardenias in Los Angeles—entire paths lined with bushes—so fragrant, they produced a near trance state, and how later, my one big love floated them in a bowl next to the bed we slept in together. In California, I learned that wisteria, with their old and snarled branches, thrive every spring, dropping under their own weighty blossoms, buzzing with bumble bees.

I learned about the Dahlia Garden in Golden Gate Park —about as close to Oz as I was ever going to get—how they came from Mexico originally, how tubers were different from bulbs, how jonquils and narcissus could bloom even in the rainiest February. I want to tell you why lilacs make me melancholy, and why Cecil Brunner roses—tiny pink and candy sweet—remind me of permanence, though flowers are the very epitome of impermanence, and no matter how many babies come into my life, and friends and relatives die, I still have to learn that nothing lasts forever over and over again. Frankly, I’m tired of that lesson, just like I’m tired of telling the same stories over and over again.

What irony, I think now, as I put this pen to paper, that the flowers come back year after year, the cloud of lemon-scented acacia blooming along the back driveway, the Japanese cherry blossoms on 19th Street between Castro and Hartford, the Victoria Box clusters dangling over Sanchez Street near Duboce Park, even the tulips below the 1960’s sign that marks the aging development I live in  (“Vista San Francisco”); they will burst back to life year after year only to die again. Still, I keep loving them. Every. Single. Year. And I keep telling these stories over and over again, with these flowers, these old companions, as my backdrop.

 

Just Another Day at the Office February 9, 2020

The prompt this time was the bizarre clothes catalog, Shinesty, with a tongue-in-cheek holiday theme that I still can’t  figure out. Just as we approached the winter holidays, each writer took several pages from the catalog and wrote in response. I still don’t know how to describe the clothing in this catalog; it could be consumerism at its worst, or it could be a clever joke. Either way, it looks like Shinesty is here to stay. You can check it out for yourself here.  

I focused on this cover image. What I wrote it below.

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As usual, Ben was not cooperating. I knew from previous photo shoots that he was a prima donna. Not that he wasn’t beautiful to look at: the thick cocoa-brown hair, those long eyelashes, the silky beard. His legs were solid muscle, and even though his nose was wide, it was luscious. Edible, really.

“He’s sniffing under my skirt again!” Jasmine screamed. I had only looked down for a minute, and there they were: Ben (looking sheepish) and Jasmine, both of her hands trying to push away his huge head. “Can’t you just photoshop him in later?” she pleaded.

“Carl!” I hollered. “Would you please do something about this?”

Carl walked over with an apple, and Ben, 2,000 pounds of Bison beauty, started towards him, looking excited.

“Watch your feet now, everyone,” my assistant, Kareem announced. “Big hooves are moving!”

It was one of those perfect windswept days in the Central Valley. The backdrop was golden grass, shorn to a few inches, a low line of trees in the distance, and a blue sky painted with wisps of cirrus clouds. Cool, but sunny, the shadows perfectly composed. It was a photographer’s dream.

“Sorry, Don,” the handler said. “He’s extra feisty today.”

“He’s feisty alright,” I said. “Okay, everyone. Let’s take ten and regroup. Makeup?” It was time for a touch-up. Jasmine needed to be de-shined; Ben got his apple and a thorough face brushing, to which he groaned with pleasure, the god damned beast.

It was my third time working with Ben and Carl this year. Apparently, Bison models are all the rage. Ben even has his own Instagram account. Comments on Ben’s posts range from, “Vegetarians against Buffalo beef!” to “We love Benny!” to “WTF? How come I’m sort of in love with you?” to “Ben for president!” It seems everyone is in love with the idea of a catalog cover featuring this handsome ox, but in all honesty, I think it sets a bad precedent.

“Don?” Jasmine was suddenly over my shoulder. “I can’t work this way! He’s freaking me out.” She had tears welling up in her eyes.

“Jazz,” I said, “Don’t do this to yourself. You’re a professional. You’ve worked with much worse. Remember the monkey in Nepal?”

“That little asshole,” she said, and as she laughed, two big tears popped out of her eyes.

“Makeup!” I yelled again. “For Christ’s sake: Makeup!” Jasmine laughed again and wiped her eyes.

“It’s a crazy business,” I said. “Isn’t it kid?” She nodded.

It was going to be a long afternoon.

 

Wise Guy September 2, 2019

The prompt this time was to begin with a list of five cities you are familiar with, then to write about one of them.

First on my list was Mexico City, but I also had my inner adolescent on my mind. What I wrote is below.

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My inner adolescent is on the couch reading when I arrive. He looks up as I struggle through the door with my gym bag, school bag, and lunch bag. “Hey, bag lady,” he says. “Need some help?” He’s wearing white socks, tight Levi’s, and a red tank top; with his 30-inch waist and bulging crotch, he looks like a Blue Boy Magazine model: oozing sex and yet totally unsure what to do with it. I ignore his offer, knowing he’s only being polite, and heave my book bag into the corner by the printer. 

“What are you reading?” I ask, bracing myself for his naive criticism. He only likes National Geographic or Vanity Fair. Quite frankly, I’m not in the mood for him today.

“Something called Saveur,” he says, surprising me. “A special edition on Mexican cuisine. Pretty delicious.” His eyes are darker blue, more like Mom’s, and the whites are bright and clear. Young eyes. His hair is curlier than I remember, from getting caught in the rain, perhaps, or a working up a good sweat.

“I’m just wondering why you’re here,” I say, heading to the kitchen to put a kettle on.

“Beats me,” he says, leafing through the magazine, “I figured you needed to see me.”

“Tea?” I ask.

“Gross,” he says, then catches himself. “I mean, no thank you.”

We volley this way sometimes. That lovely boy I once was who plays cynical now, but really lived in a world with a sense of wonder and spontaneity, two things I have to get high or travel 1000’s of miles to tap into now.

“Actually,” he says, “I was wondering when you were going to buy that ticket to Mexico City.

“You want me to go, is that it?”

“You’re awfully bitchy today,” he says. “I mean, more so than usual.”

I sigh. He sighs.

He looks so earnest. I want to tell him that forty years from now he will sometimes be driving home in the rain so filled with a sense of melancholy that he will want to drive to a bar instead and get good and drunk. That some days, his work will feel like helping countless young people with their whole lives ahead of them, while he feels stuck in his own life, fearful of chronic illness. That he will feel bone-tired.

Anyway,” he says, “have you bought your ticket yet?”

“I don’t know about Mexico City,” I say.

“Why not? You’ve always wanted to go there: Casa Azul, the museums, and now this hot guy you’ve met online—”

“I don’t think living in a fantasy world is healthy for either of us,” I say. He laughs then, that shotgun laugh we get from Mom.

“Oh, please!” he says. “You’re a writer. We’ve always lived in a fantasy world.”

What could I say in response? He claimed me as a writer, and the kid had a point. Has always had a big heart too. Had no qualms about saying no to dissecting a fetal pig in Biology class because it was “disrespectful to the poor, dead, baby piglet.” (His words exactly.) I knew his love for flowers—roses, jasmine, violets—was a reflection of this big heart, and an attachment to romance.

“What do you have to lose by going to Mexico City?” he asked.

“About $1000,” I said.

“Just charge it then.”

“And my dignity, if I contact that beautiful young man.”

“Your dignity?”

“Yeah,” I say, taking the screaming kettle off the burner. “Once he sees what I actually look like in the flesh, he’ll run for the hills.”

“You underestimate how beautiful you are,” he says.

“So do you,” I say.

“You’re better looking than I am,” he says.

“You just have low self-esteem.”

“I’m serious,” he says. “You need to own it.”

I want to tell him that I only feel beautiful when I put eyedrops in my eyes, when I haven’t eaten very much, when someone I love looks at me and I can see myself through his eyes. Or when I am dancing. But I don’t dare. I don’t want him to feel this kind of sorrow yet. I feel protective of him.

“Oh, I know sorrow,” he says, reading my mind. “I stayed home and took care of our dying mother, remember?”

He’s right, of course. Back then I didn’t have the mindfulness I have now. I didn’t have the vocabulary or the lifelong friendships to talk my way through a bad day, a big worry, or the tug of grief when it came in waves. I have options now; I have the freedom to make my own choices.

“If I meet him in Mexico City,” I say, “it’s probably just going to be a sexual thing. Nothing more.”

“Sounds good to me,” he says. “It’s only $366 round trip if you buy the ticket today.”

We look at each other for a moment, and then he just smiles that big white smile. I want to smack him, but I also want to thank him. Instead, I just smile back.

 

Auntie’s Lament August 7, 2019

This character piece came from a writing prompt titled, “Breaking the Rules.” Each writer made a list of unspoken rules of social etiquette, then we read them around and wrote about one of them. I chose, “Don’t talk with your mouth full.”

What I wrote is below.

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Well, frankly, I don’t know what she sees in him, I really don’t. I mean, sure, he’s tall and handsome, I suppose, if you like big muscles. Personally, I find them unattractive. All those veins?! He does have good skin, but otherwise, I’m at a loss here, I really am.

I mean, he dresses in baggy shorts and oversized t-shirts; I’ve never seen him in anything but tennis shoes—high-tops, I think they call them—he rarely makes eye contact, and perhaps worst of all: he talks with his mouth full.

“Great lasagna, Andrea,” he said, with a globby first mouthful of a meat, cheese and noodle so huge, I was surprised to see that there was still some food left on his plate.

“As I told you before, dear,” I said, smiling at him, “all the kids call me, Auntie.”

“My bad,” he said, “Auntie.” And then he smiled a tomato sauce smile, and I cringed, I tell you, I cringed.

“I think he’s going to propose,” Sarah told me later, when we were alone together in the kitchen. I was wearing my red and white hibiscus muumuu and only rinsing dishes, but I was still sweating like a little piglet, I tell you, what with the summer storm building up outside the window, and now this awful news! My blood pressure skyrocketed, it really did.

“What makes you say that dear?” I asked, handing her a plate. She loaded the dishwasher beautifully: there’s an order to it, you know.

“Well,” she said dreamily, “we’ve been talking about it a lot lately. We both want a bunch of kids.”

In this mixed up world? I wanted to say, but I bit my tongue.

“Well, there’s no hurry, dear,” I said. “You’re only twenty-two—”

You already had two babies when you were twenty-two!” she interrupted, giggling.

Precisely,I thought, and look at me now! Living on Henry’s pension—God rest his soul—and a great-great Auntie left and right. Oh, why are we so fertile in this family?

“Well,” I said, “keep me posted, dear,” and I winked at her. I wanted to say, Please use birth control. But I have never spoken to any of my nieces or nephews about sex, a rule I am reconsidering now, since they all seem to be popping out offspring like rabbits.

“Time for ice cream!” he said, his large frame filling the doorway.

“Grab a spoon, ” Sarah said. “You can get started on the Kona Coffee Crunch; Auntie and I prefer Coconut.”

“Okay,” he shrugged. And—would you believe it?—he grabbed a dirty spoon right out of the dishwasher, opened the freezer, popped of the top, and dug right into the pint. I kid you not!

“Mmmm,” he moaned, his mouth full of coffee cream. “It’s dericious.”

And I thought I would drop dead right then and there, I really did.

 

Wonder/Full July 18, 2019

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 2:21 pm
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The prompt this time was the Five Word Free Write. For a detailed description of this prompt, click here.

The five words this time were: Seagulls, Green, Apples, Clouds, and Falling.

What I wrote is below.                                                 

 

A sense of wonder. That’s what he’s seeking. The lovely surprise of seeds sprouting into seedlings, the little green hands reaching for the sun. Or a Monarch—bursting out of its chrysalis—that struggle to come back to life, the wet, crumpled wings, those new unfamiliar legs. He wants to hold onto it—the wonder—to stop fearing the unknown, to be naive, to let the not knowing be divine somehow, not a slap in the face, not a letter grade or an eye roll. to let the expression, “I don’t know,” be an opening. So teach me. Tell me more. Or an invitation. Will you show me?

 

When, he wonders, did he begin to think he had to know everything, the way his friend snapped one day, saying, “You ask so many questions!” nearly pleading. “And I don’t know all the answers.” Who raised these two boys to think that was what it meant to be an adult? Why did it matter so much to know all of the answers?

 

He could study Spanish and Italian verbs every day, but could he ever be fluent? He was so busy comparing himself to his Polyglot friends. One friend speaks nine languages, “But,” his friend once said, “only seven fluently.” Instead of comparing that to his attempts to speak Spanish, why not learn more about his friend? The way Gallic and Gaelic are different forms of the language of ancient, friendly tribes? Why not revel in the discovery that the double L in Portuguese does not carry the Y sound, as it does in Spanish? Why focus on knowing so often, and not discovering? 

 

To discover: such a lovely infinitive. A whole world there on the other side. An entire universe.

 

A Brilliant Idea May 3, 2019

This time the prompt was a tried and true one: “5 x 5,” which uses a list exercise to generate five lists of five words. The words are then used to fill in the blanks in this phrase:  ________________is/are like _____________________. (To see a detailed explanation of this prompt, see an earlier post here.)

My phrase was “Puppies are like ice cream.” What I wrote is below.

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He got a business license, an LLC, because he was sure he had an idea that would make him rich: a puppy farm with scheduled visits. For $25, each person would get ten minutes to lie on the soft green grass and be overrun by a litter of puppies.

“That’s amazing!” his nephew said. “It’s a classic example of how to sell childlike joy.”

They were brunching at a new San Francisco eatery after waiting forty minutes in a line that wrapped around the block. His nephew’s fiancé, however, a bottle blonde from Hayward—whom he detested, if he could be totally honest—didn’t agree.

“Aren’t there going to be some serious liability issues?” she asked, sipping her decaf macha cashew milk latte. “I mean, the puppies could get hurt.” His nephew took a gigantic blood orange vegan biscuit out of the ceramic bowl in the center of the table and looked around for the ramekin of olallieberry coconut spread.

“You can get liability insurance to cover that kind of stuff, can’t you?” his nephew asked, mercifully.

“I would do that, of course,” he said, nodding toward his nephew. “And I’d have monitors to protect the puppies at all times.”

“Monitors?”

“Yes, Bri-ANNE. I would have human monitors specifically hired to protect the pups.”

“And what about vaccinations?” Brianne added. “Aren’t puppies supposed to limit their exposure to humans until they’ve had a series of vaccinations?”

He frowned.

“Dude,” his nephew said to Brianne, “you’re kinda raining on his parade.”

The uncomfortable silence was broken by the waiter, who was just a little too cheerful. He arrived with steaming plates of micro-servings and called out each item. “Okaaaay,” he said, swinging his head to one side so his long bangs flipped over and then fell promptly back into his eyes. “You have the red and yellow kale hash with wild duck yolks, and the chickpea and green marmalade pancakes for you, sir.”

He hated being called “sir.” Did he really look that old? “They’re just being respectful,” his colleagues counter-argued when he complained about students on campus doing this. He also complained about them holding the door for him and letting him pass in front of them. “You complain when they’re rude, you complain when they’re polite—”

“I can get the damn door myself!” he snapped. “Do I look like I’m ninety-years-old? Am I shuffling?” His colleagues usually just clucked in response.

Now the three of them sat in silence again, eating joylessly. Finally, Brianne said, “I didn’t mean to sound so discouraging. I actually think it sounds like a lot of fun, your puppy farm idea. It sounds joyful.”

“Thank you.”

“Once you work out all the kinks and everything—”

“Uncle Bob,” his nephew interrupted, “you could totally make a living doing this. It’s fucking brilliant.”

He wanted to believe them both, he really did, but he was full of self-doubt now. These kids could spoil all your dreams. That’s what you get when you have Generation Xers for parents: cynicism. But he didn’t say anything. He just smiled his tight-lipped smile, sipped his purple Rooibos lavender tea, and imagined being under a pile of squirming puppies.