The Catalyst

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

A Shared Palate July 30, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:39 am

This prompt included several scents, which were passed around the room in small 35 mm film canisters. A lemon peel really evoked something for me. Also, I had this short piece of a Mary Oliver poem stuck in my head,

“I am thinking now of grief, and of getting past it;” (from “Starlings in Winter“).

Here’s what I wrote:


I’m lucky. I inherited a good palate. My mom enjoyed food, but Pop was the one who could describe tannin or fruit, heat or pepper. He did well in the wine business because of that palate, and it’s also what led him to become a great cook.

At the end of his long life, he lost his sight and his hearing, but that palate stayed sharp. Years after I had inherited his Sunburst Orange Le Cruset pots and his binders filled with recipes he had collected from magazines and newspapers, our main connection was food. The places he lived as he aged—the retirement community, the residential home—they didn’t have good food, so for him, they were joyless places.

Our ritual began with a Starbuck’s coffee and their Cranberry Bliss Bar: a variation on the Blondie with white chocolate chips, topped with cream cheese icing and dried cranberries. “That’s really good,” he’d say, the green and white paper cup shaking a bit as he brought it to his lips. That particular Starbuck’s was in the same building as his retirement community, so we only had to walk half a block to get there. He’d use his cane as we walked there arm in arm; later he’d use his walker.

When he moved to the residential home and was in a wheelchair, I had to bring the food to him. Always a strong cup of black coffee and a pastry from his favorite bakery downtown, or a donut from the shop on West 11th, where they still made their donuts from scratch.

For Christmas Eve one year, I brought over lasagna. It was a holiday tradition in our family, baked in the white Corningware casserole dish, the one with the little blue flowers on the side. I made it from his recipe. My siblings and I waited until the other residents had eaten, and then we took over one end of the communal table, offering pieces to our favorite nurses aides. Pop savored big, gooey mouthfuls, and sipped red wine from a tiny juice glass.

“Who made this?” he asked.

“I did, Pop.”

“It’s delicious,” he said. Blue eyes met blue eyes.

“It’s your recipe,” I said.

“No,” he said,” I never made it taste this good.”

The last meal we ever had together was Easter brunch, just three weeks before he died. I made a frittata with artichoke hearts, spinach, feta cheese, sundried tomatoes and shallots. An arugula salad with citrus dressing, and warm slices of ham on the side. For dessert, an orange cornmeal cake with honey crème fraîche.

“Wonderful,” he said, raising his champagne glass to clink against mine, bellini to bellini. “I love this restaurant,” he joked, and then added, “I hope I can come back soon.”


Only this Moment July 8, 2011

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:15 pm

This prompt is titled “The Five Word Free Write,” and uses five words that have a specific order to them: in other words, there’s a method to my madness. The first word is always a specific living creature found in nature (usually plural, such as “sparrows”); the next word is a color; the next word is something that grows in nature, usually something edible (“apples” or “daisies”); the next word is a something large found in nature (“boulders” or “clouds”); the last word is always a verb ending in “ing” (“falling” produces some very interesting writing).

It’s a great exercise to loosen writers up and get them out of their linear minds. I always use a variation of it on the first night of a workshop.

Here’s how it works: I read five words out loud, one at a time, and allow 60 seconds to free write any associations, ideas, images, words or sentences that come to mind when you hear each word. After 60 seconds, I read the next word, until we’ve free written on all five. Then I say, “Lift your pen from the page for a moment, and when you put it back down, write anything that comes to mind.” Then we write for 20 minutes.

Sometimes the writing is very free-associative and sometimes it is tight and focused; sometimes writers actually use the five words in the longer write and sometimes they don’t use any of the words at all. There are no rules and there is no right or wrong way to do this.

Here are the five words that resulted in the following piece I wrote:

 Butterflies     Fuchsia     Peaches     Fog     Sinking


Here I am, climbing the stairs effortlessly on strong legs, trying in this very moment to be present, fully present, as I rise from one landing to the next set of stairs. The split windows on each landing are open from the top and each time I pass one, I take in a flash of blue, blue sky, the tops of the trees, an occasional bird. I’m breathing in the blue, even after a week with a cold, coughing nights, swollen glands, pain in my sinuses in the morning, even after a week of that, I’m able to inhale deeply, to breathe in the blue.

I refuse to sink down into the sadness, knowing nothing but this moment, this privilege to know another, even as her body defies her, even as her life shrinks, I am holding the gift she offers: to be present this way in the familiar dance of illness, weak legs, a wheelchair. Dependent as we are on one another and the kindness of strangers at the hospital intake, the neighbor who holds the door for us, the woman who offered to help her into the bathroom at the theater when I had gone as far as my gender would allow me to go.

I turn the key in the bolt—I’ve run back up to the apartment for a jacket, some fingerless gloves (she’s cold), and a water bottle. In and out. The living room windows are filled with a view of green park slopes and white deco towers reflecting sunlight. Generous windows. And I pass the photos of her in the hallway: a little girl, a young woman with long, dark hair, her father’s daughter, holding his elderly hand, laughing. That familiar smile.

Back out into the hallway, locking the bolt, another photo on the door: she is standing in front of a spray painted mural that reads, “Everything takes longer than you think it should or thought it would, except your life.” Down, down, down into the lobby. She’s there, sitting on the steps, calm in my presence. I am not thinking of what’s ahead: the Emergency room, the note from the surgeon, the concerned friends who will call and email and text. I will teach her how to text later when she can’t get a WiFi signal in room 11, before I get up to leave, fighting old feelings of guilt about leaving other sick people I have loved. I am not thinking of the meal we will share in that hospital room, smiling at one another, the fig and prosciutto sandwich, the freshly baked whole wheat sourdough walnut roll, the little almond raspberry cake in the blue and white waxed paper bag with gold letters on it.

I don’t know yet that after I leave her, that I’ll try to float above the tears, that I’ll make a bee-line to the coffee cart and serve myself before realizing I only have a $1.00 in my pocket, and the guy running the cart will say, “No problem, my man.” His handsome Russian face and thick accent, “No problem. Bring it to me later.”

I don’t know any of this as we walk out of her building arm in arm; I hold on tight, but not too tight, knowing she might be leaving us soon, knowing she may never make it back up those stairs, knowing—finally, mercifully— that there is only this moment, the warmth of the sun on the tops of our heads, the crows calling in the trees across the street, my little green car, strong and dependable and warm,  waiting dutifully for us at the curb.