The Catalyst

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

Friendly Ghosts January 30, 2015

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 3:20 pm
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The prompts this time were:

                                     photo 3-13

It’s time to untame yourself

Bleeding for you/Not bleeding for you

All he wanted to do was revive her

 

What I wrote is below.

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He reaches the twenty-year mark and finally scatters her ashes at the beach. It takes as long as it takes, I suppose. There’s no schedule for grief. It’s a less-than-eventful event: the cool wind, the overcast sky, the silly selfies of the three siblings, their eyes like cats, their eyebrows distinctive.

Afterward, they meet friends at a nearby restaurant, and he orders a dry Rob Roy straight up with a twist. It was her drink. He ordered one years ago in her honor and found the taste of scotch too intense, but this evening it tastes sweet and he drinks it happily. The sunset is hot pink, and he orders Fettucine Alfredo with prawns, eats too much garlic bread, shares a good bottle of wine. No speeches or poetry. No tears.

For years and years after her death she followed him around, popping up unexpectedly in places he hadn’t invited her: the cafe that served violet mousse in Paris, the beach in Miami, under the stars that first night in Mexico. But to be honest, he conjured her up, too: under the high ceilings in Marshall Fields, at the farmers’ market in LA, those birthday parties for his youngest nephew when he baked the cake, chocolate with chocolate chip frosting, or yellow cake with fudge frosting.

In the months after his father dies, they both come to him in his dreams. They are all forty-something, and the three of them sit together catching up like old friends, drinking champagne or iced tea, and sometimes Martinis. “I never really liked vodka,” she says, and he knows this about her. “But this is delicious,” she adds, sipping on a bright yellow Lemon Drop or a pink Cosmopolitan. “Honey, this is really good.”

For years there were nightmares, horrible scenes from his adolescence revived with intensified, vivid details: naked flesh, feces, fear and confusion. Shame. But after his father dies, the nightmares stop and never return. Never. And now, after the ashes are scattered into the ocean, the haunting drums to a close, too, like contractions after a long labor, shutting down like water from a hose, first a trickle, then nothing.

He thinks of her, of course, the beautiful smile, the creamy white skin, her sing-song voice and lovely hair. But she’s no longer an apparition, just a memory of a person he once knew. It’s as though she’s finally found a new home and is settled there. They’ve lost touch, but he’s happy for her.

 

 

The Edge of It January 9, 2015

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 10:53 am

tornado_hor_vortex

 

This prompt asks each participant to pull four index cards from a box; each index card has a word written on it. The words I got were: luxuriate, fetal, Iris, and lattice. What I wrote is below.

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Scholars believe that Iris Murdoch’s last work was written from a place of dementia; as she wrote, she was already peering over the edge of that vast emptiness. I’ve also heard that was true of Agatha Christie. I wonder. What is that place like, the very edge of it?

At some point, paranoia and anxiety must dominate, and I assume, eventually, these are replaced by a kind of terror, the deep animal awareness that something insidious is climbing the lattice of your very self, introducing an imposter.

What surprises me is that those who have examined the work of these two writers reflected on their consistency as storytellers, and (in Christie’s case, at least), plot and genre, even as they slowly slipped away. The only criticism—or perhaps, the only real indication of their disease—is that each woman’s vocabulary was simplified, compared to their earlier work. The words didn’t come. And who hasn’t had that very experience?

You can do all the crossword puzzles you like, read lengthy, theoretical essays in a foreign language, but you can’t guarantee that you won’t eventually lose your memory. That’s scary, of course. And that moment of realization—I am losing my memory, my very self—must be worse than the later stages of the disease, when people—here: I’ll just say it—when my mother seemed to sleep in a suspended, fetal way, as if slipping out slowly, the same way she came into this world.

But what of those earlier moments? Those fuzzy, “Oh, what’s his name? So and so. What the hell? Where are my glasses? (on your head). Where are my keys?” (in your pocket, or the ignition) moments. We all have those frustrating moments occasionally, but people in the early stages of dementia have them daily, hourly, eventually, minute by minute.

I know my own fear about “getting it, too” comes to the surface when I misplace something. The salt residue left behind from an evaporated puddle of witnessing this madness firsthand. It’s frustrating to lose something, but particularly infuriating (to me) when I am certain I placed that missing object in a specific drawer or box or closet. I can really whip myself up into a rage around this, muttering such phrases as, “I know I put it right here!” and “Where is it?” Nothing is as satisfying for me as luxuriating in the confident knowledge that whatever I am searching for—lighter, reading glasses, a book of poems—is exactly where I remember leaving it last: the kitchen drawer, the glove compartment, or on the night table, right next to the bed. Finding a lost item, especially when I have gotten extremely upset looking for it, is never quite as satisfying. Maybe that’s why people with dementia often pass through an aggressive, angry stage. None of us really know, of course, but imagining it now fills me with compassion.

 

Baking my way into the New Year January 1, 2015

Filed under: Grief,Recipes,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 3:00 pm

First, a few prompts:                                                            pecan pie

A layer of chocolate on the bottom

Those brownies made me feel so much better

A pug-nosed pal of my own

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I rarely post anything personal in this first section, the “prompt” section, but I came across this piece today, and wanted to share it for the new year.

Yes, I know the new year is an artificially created date in some ways; the day after December 31st is not so different than the one before it. Still, we humans need these checkpoints, these ritualistic times when we can reflect, and re-evaluate, and plan for the future.

I share this piece with you so that you will be inspired to write about what you hope for and dream of in the future. And to remind you to write it down. (How many times do I have to say that?) When you write it down, you begin to manifest it, to make sense of it, to make it real. Write it down. It’s always the first step.

Happy, happy new year, everyone.

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In my darkest moments, when I can’t turn off the chatter in my head, when the boulders in my path stop me dead in my tracks, I bake. Blondies with dark chocolate chips, lemon bundt cake drizzled with a lemon sugar glaze, pecan pie with a layer of chocolate melted on the bottom. Old standbys that comfort me: blending butter and sugar and eggs, buttering and flouring pans, rolling out pie dough.

Baking is the ultimate act of living in the moment. If you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing—sifting baking powder into unbleached flour, adding salt and vanilla, cracking eggs on the side of a green Pyrex bowl (the same one your mother used to prepare chocolate chip cookies)—if you aren’t right there in the moment, you’ll surely screw something up.

Baking also creates a wonderful anticipation, a sense of hope and joy. As the alchemy begins you can witness the crust browning, the cookies rising, the cake pulling away from the sides of the pan. And of course, you can dream about how it will taste, what you might serve it with: crème frâiche with lemon zest, or salted caramel gelato.

But in those darker moments, baking also helps me to dream. While I’m baking, I will conjure up ideas for what’s next: a blackberry upside down cake, coconut mini-muffins with dark chocolate frosting, rose macaroons, lavender meringue cookies, sweet potato pie with a graham flour crust. Things I’ve never made before.

As I grow older, I find baking more and more therapeutic, and I wonder if I might be able to use it as a model for manifesting other important parts of my future: for instance, a house or a partner, a cottage industry, a short film, a song with my voice in it, a dog I can love and call my own. Maybe the coffee date is the beginning of that, maybe my medicinal brownies will win an award, maybe my favorite deejay will want to play my humble little track loud at Mighty on a Saturday night, maybe my love for my ex’s bulldog will lead me to a pug-nosed pal of my own.

The difference, you might argue, is that baking is more dependable: you buy the ingredients and follow the recipe, right? Well, not always. Some recipes are faulty; all pans don’t conduct heat the same way; changing the type of sugar or flour can ruin a cake; melted butter can flatten a cookie.

There’s a lesson here. When I want to bake something and it flops, I try it again. I adjust the oven temperature, buy a new pan, add an additional 1/4 cup of flour or sugar or buttermilk. I omit the egg yolks or substitute canola oil. But I rarely give up until I reach the goal I set out to reach. I don’t give up.

It’s wonderful to think about, isn’t it, this sweet discipline? To practice thinking and acting this way. To practice, and practice, and practice again. To not give up so easily. It’s wonderful to think about.