The Catalyst

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

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.

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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 

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What I wrote is below.

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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.”

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“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?”

“Okay.”

“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 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 (though not the exquisite French bakery, which was 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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Our Hero in Red May 5, 2021

Filed under: Aging,Teaching,Videos,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:04 pm
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It’s too violent, I think, watching them waterboard June, then threaten to tear her nails out. It’s gratuitous, this 4th season of the Handmaid’s Tale. But something about her journey, and knowing as I do, because of Margaret Atwood’s sequel, that she is going to survive, is enthralling, like a high. Maybe it’s just a familiar sense of hope and the desire for power that I struggled to find during the Trump era, when the orange sky and the spiking graphs of the pandemic left me wondering what was left to fight for. (Everything, the voice inside me says now. Everything.)

Oh, June! A soldier, a warrior, the one that cannot be broken. I know the story is an allegory, a metaphor for misogyny and slavery, or war and the battle for justice. But I still find it delicious when she smirks, when she tells the commander to go fuck himself. When she presses the electric cattle prod against Aunt Lydia’s neck, and I surprise myself in the silence of my living room by screaming, “Get her!” As if I can join the handmaids in their revolt, as if I am part of a group of rag tag femmes finally cornering a now helpless bully.

Too violent, I think, wondering about how Americans have become immune to this, video gamers blowing up cars, even commercials crashing and exploding. Such a violent culture. Callous. But I binge another episode because they’ve gotten out of the van now, and they are running, even with their hands tied, even with one of the Eyes dressed all in black, shooting at them, striking one of them in the back, their red capes and white hats disappearing behind the long, loud train cars. “Run!” I say out loud, “Run!” It’s terrifying and elating.

Who is this middle aged man alone in his apartment, the little belly, the silver hair at the temples? Wasn’t it just yesterday that he was a scared teenage boy who fantasized about escaping? Wasn’t it just last month that he was the twenty-four-year-old finally leaving for college? He’s still here in this shell, rooting for rebellion, joyous in seeing someone beaten down but never broken. June is back for another wild ride, and he’s already bought his ticket. He’s right there with her.

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The prompt this time was the list exercise (see an explanation of that prompt here). The titles of the two lists this time were: What brought me joy/What brought me sorrow.

 

Ring the Bells That Still Can Ring April 13, 2021

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:09 pm
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The prompt this time was the Leonard Cohen Song, “Anthem,” sung by Perla Betalla and Julie Christensen (on the tribute album I’m your Man). Click on the video above to hear the song.

What I wrote is below.

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I wish you rest, that’s what I wish for you. Deep, dreamless sleep. Not those morning mares, like the one you had this morning, where you were being hustled by another sexy man who was out to rob you. Grabbed your crotch as a “joke.” Or the curious one you had Saturday morning, where your friend opened the door, all her hair grown back after chemo, holding a puppy named Atlas. I wish you dreamless sleep with nothing to analyze in the morning light.

You need rest, we all do, because aren’t we just so weary, so worn thin, so tired of having to negotiate everything: a trip to the grocery store, a visit with a friend, a hug? Even what’s for dinner. I wish you delivery service, someone with kind, shiny brown eyes behind a big black mask, delivering food to you in compostable containers. You’ll give them a 30% tip and do your part to keep plastic out of the oceans. A guilt free meal you don’t have to plan, shop for, scrounge up, or prepare.

I wish you some sense of warmth: a long bath with candles and a novel to get lost in, a white faux fur throw on the couch, a cat in your lap, or another body next to yours, another heart beat synching with your own.

The to do list can wait. The documents you need to scan, the recipe you want to share, the trip to UPS to return those drip pans you knew wouldn’t fit, but promised a porcelain finish, an easy clean up, one less household chore to accomplish. Water the plants tomorrow. Give yourself up to the not knowing, to wandering down a street you haven’t wandered down before, the way you used to dreamily drift past storefronts, before they were boarded up, before life changed from the one that you used to complain about, to the one that you miss so terribly now.

Rest, dear one. Make room for it every day, the way you make room for afternoon tea, or take the time to apply lotion to your skin. You don’t need a hammock or a Tibetan brass bowl. You don’t need anything at all.

 

To Dream or Not To Dream? (That is never the question.) February 8, 2021

Filed under: Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:00 am
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He’s dreaming of Italy again. A seductive CNN video and a Forbes article recently revealed that in Biccari, a small town in Southern Italy, houses are for sale for 10,000 Euro, about $12,000 USD. Biccari is in the mountains of Northern Puglia, and is a two-hour drive to the closest city and major airport (that would be Bari: population 325,000). Biccari itself only has about 1,200 residents, and is surrounded by mountains and lakes, where the residents like to picnic on local artisan wine, cheeses, meats and bread. Except for a short, sometimes snowy, winter, Biccari looks like a fantasy.

And that’s just what it is: a fantasy, though he could actually borrow the money from his retirement fund. (He’s always been better at fantasy than reality.) Still, it’s a long shot. He knows this, even as he cuts and pastes the mayor’s email address, composing a letter in his head. Senore, I am sure you’ve had thousands of inquiries, but I wonder, how does one go about acquiring a beautiful little casa in Biccari?

He remembers the trip to his grandparents birthplace in Corleto Perticara, how he took the train to Potenza, (not far from Biccari, really, nothing is very far away in Italy). How he rented a car and wore that cute new jacket with the hood, the one he had purchased in Amsterdam the year before. How he and his third cousin somehow managed to communicate, though his Italian was rudimentary at best, and her English was non-existent. They could have been siblings: the same light eyes, the milky skin, the wavy light brown hair.

He met the only other gay person in town (the florist, of course, it was a cliché made for an old movie), and he remembered how on his way back to Potenza he stopped to let a flock of sheep cross the windy road, led only by a dutiful border collie; in the distance he could see the nearby hilltop towns. Why would anyone ever leave here? he wondered. But then he remembered this rented Fiat, and his little jacket, and for the first time he understood that his grandparents had wanted more for him.

He thought of what it would be like to actually live there: six hours to Rome, one gay friend, his cousin’s beau working the swing-shift at the plastic bag factory. There was fresh pressed olive oil; they sent him home with that, and a big bottle of homemade limoncello, but how long could he be happy in such a place before getting bored or cynical, or becoming the subject of salacious gossip? Back then, he had wondered and worried over this, just as he did now, dreaming of Biccari. The quiet streets and the campanile with those dependable bells, the ubiquitous old men in the square, the promise of a quiet world with less traffic, less technology, less stress. Maybe a garden with a lemon tree. A little dog. And a cat who is good at catching mice.


The writing prompt that inspired this post is the poem, “Odessa,” by Patricia Kirkpatrick

 

Home Sweet Home October 1, 2020

The prompt this time was two lists. For a detailed description of how this prompts works, see this earlier post. The two headings this time were, “During the Pandemic,” and “When the pandemic is over.” See a few highlights from my lists here (what I wrote in response follows the lists):     

                                                                                                               

During the Pandemic

Madonna offered no solace

Horny every day

I try to exercise and feel defeated

I baked like someone on speed

Some nights the loneliness was unbearable

When the Pandemic is Over

I’m going to hug everyone, but not shake hands

I’ll have you over and you’ll eat brownies from my dining room table

We’ll look back and talk about it like people talked about WWII when I was a kid

I will dance to house music in a sweaty club

I will never complain about going to the gym again

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For the first time in twenty-one years, I’m not sharing my apartment. Though I’ve lived alone since 1999, I’ve been sharing my space with writers two nights a week, and on Saturdays and Sundays for day long workshops and retreats. On those nights and weekends, I sometimes scrambled to make it home on time to vacuum, to wipe errant hairs from the white tiled bathroom floor, to heat up the forty-two-cup water urn for tea, and to make sure that whatever I baked was ready to go onto my dining room table alongside some snacks. With the chairs in a circle, and a poem on each chair, I’d rarely have a moment before my doorbell would ring and a group of eight or ten people—some whom I’d written with for years, and traveled with on retreats, some I’d just met—would enter my space and take their shoes off.

The pandemic put all of that to a full stop, just as it did my dinner parties and my annual Pink Pride party (something I’ve been doing for 15 years). It also froze my sex life, and forced me to be more disciplined about watching exercise videos and taking daily walks, since turning my living room into a gym with a weight bench was one place I had to draw the line.

For two decades I’ve shared my home with others, and ironically, when that was no longer an option, I began to seriously nest. Oh, I still fantasized about selling everything and moving to the Costa Blanca in Spain, or finding a little house in Boca Tomlatán, but the longer I had my space to myself, the more I seemed to be settling in. I chose paint colors for the living room, hallway, and bedroom. I ordered fabric swatches and chose a sleeper sofa from Crate and Barrel. I reupholstered a few chairs, bought a vintage footstool, replaced the broken blinds in my bedroom, planted salvia and rose geranium on the deck, repaired my desk chair, and de-cluttered my fridge of old photos and silly notes.

I want to say I did all of this because the place was mine and only mine, and that for the first time in my adult life, I was making choices about my living space that served me only. But the truth is, I was preparing the place—setting the stage as it were— for a time when everyone could safely return. I even decided on a larger, more expensive couch than any lonely bachelor would ever need: three cushions and 90 inches—because I knew it would be more comfortable and fit more people when the time came to open my doors again. Change is coming, I told myself—even when I wasn’t sure I believed it—and you better be ready.