The Catalyst

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

Nonna* January 29, 2016

The prompt this time was two lines from David Ray’s poem, “At Emily’s in Amherst“:Scan 26

Outside, standing between Cypresses

I imagine her 

What I wrote in response is below.

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The angel, Gabriel, came to her in a dream, she said. He told her to get her affairs in order: she only had two weeks to live. So she gathered her grown children from as far away as Chicago and Los Angeles, and brought them to their childhood home on Mt. Washington.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked my mother, who was only six weeks late.

“I think I am,” Mom said.

“Yes,” my grandmother said. “And it’s going to be a boy.”

She was right.

We never met. That kidney-shaped fetus was me, and she did, in fact, die two weeks after having that dream.

Here’s what I know: she was a healer. Women would bring their colicky babies to her and she would lick her thumb and make the sign of the cross on their foreheads. “Don’t wash it off,” she’d say, and send them home to sleep.

She baked her own bread and grew her own tomatoes. Made lasagna from a simple recipe handed down to Mom, to Pop, and then to me. Everyone always asks for the recipe.

She never learned to speak English. When my father was a little boy, she used to make him translate for her at the open markets in Pittsburgh, haggling over prices in two languages.

She gave birth to eight children. The oldest, Nicholas, died of pneumonia after crossing the Atlantic with her alone in 1903. They were processed at Ellis Island. Her name is not on the wall there, but she exists in the ship’s manifest in curly script. Nucito was her maiden name.

When I visited her hometown in Basilicata—a hilltop town called Corleto Peticara—I stood in front of the altar in the exact spot where she married my grandfather in the tiny church built in the 15th century.

Life was hard for them. They picked olives and grapes, they tended sheep and cows. To her young, strong body and mind, America seemed like a magical place where life would be clean and new and modern.

Here’s what happened: they lived in poverty, in an Italian, Irish, Jewish ghetto. Her husband had an affair with the homely widow up the street who had a witch’s hook nose and always wore black. My grandmother grew older and had a stern, handsome face, but my sister said she was kind and quiet and always smelled good. She always wore an apron. My mother only spoke a little Italian, but they still managed to have long conversations, and they often held hands.

Sometimes, I still see her in the old country, her hair in a long, dark braid. I imagine her standing between two Cypress trees. I want to tell her not to marry him, to stay in Italy, but I know she won’t listen to me. She wants to come to America. She wants me to have a better life than she had.

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*Italian for Grandmother

 

 

 

The Mating Game January 25, 2016

The prompt this time was a piece I read aloud about Tundra Swans. See the long prompt (and what I wrote in response) below.

True to its name, the Tundra Swan breeds on the high tundra across the Arctic, migrates many miles to warmer weather—up to 3,700 miles round-trip—in cross-continent migration. 

Tundra Swans make the daunting journey twice each year. 

They arrive at their breeding grounds around mid-May, and head south for winter quarters around the end of September.

Though large populations winter in North America, the breeding range extends across the coastal lowlands of Siberia, and from the Kola Peninsula east to the Pacific.

They can be found in the White Sea, Baltic Sea and the Elbe estuary in Denmark, the Netherlands and the British Isles, as well as Algeria, Iraq, Palestine, Libya, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Marianas and Volcano Islands in the western Pacific. 

They are strong and speedy swimmers that take to the air with a running start, clattering across the water’s surface with wings beating. In flight, the rhythmic flapping of the swan’s wings produces a tone that once earned it the name “whistling swan.”

Tundra Swans winter on the water and sleep afloat.

Tundra Swans sometimes feed during moonlit nights.

Tundra Swans mate for life.

They mate in the late spring, usually after they have returned to the nesting grounds. They pair up for nearly an entire year before breeding. Though in their winter grounds they gather in huge flocks, they breed as solitary pairs spread out across the tundra. Each couple defends a territory of about three-fourths of a square mile.

When mating, the birds face each other, wings partly spread and rapidly quivering, while they call loudly.

Tundra Swans pair monogamously until one partner dies. Should one partner die long before the other, the surviving bird often will not mate again for some years, or even for its entire life.

Despite the tundra swan’s dedicated efforts, its entire breeding season is subject to the whims of the Arctic climate. 

Tundra Swans mate for life.

Tundra Swans sometimes feed during moonlit nights.

Tundra Swans winter on the water and sleep afloat.

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If one more person tells me about birds who mate for life, or male penguin couples who raise chicks together in the SF Zoo, I swear, I’m going to scream: “It’s purely biological! This is all about reproduction and survival of the species: those birds aren’t in love!” (I don’t even think Lovebirds are in love. They’re probably rubbing their cheeks together to stir up tiny mites for a snack; more than likely it’s simply a ritual that leads to penetration.)

Love? It’s for the birds, we say, along with other birdy expressions: building nests, nest eggs, guiding fledglings to take flight, empty nest syndrome. I mean, okay, I don’t actually know if birds love one another or not, but it’s more likely they are simply biologically driven to reproduce and help their young survive to propagate the species, just like other animals. Doesn’t the lioness fiercely defend her cubs for this reason? She wouldn’t think twice about swiping your face off with one paw if you approach her and her family, but is that love or instinct?

I’m more like the whale, I guess, sounding out a mating call with the other males. I want the slippery skin on skin, the moaning pleasure, the climax. I’m a Bonobo, masturbating others to help them sleep. I’m a tomcat: multiple partners and then I sleep all day. I don’t have the resilience it takes to fly 3,700 miles and then wait a year to mate. I don’t float while I sleep (or do I?). I have never eaten by moonlight (or has it just been so long that I can’t remember?).

Today, a budding psychoanalyst and I spoke about why neither of us have partners when we are each such a great catch. We live alone. We spend weekend nights with Netflix and medical marijuana. We cry sometimes in the car on the freeway on our way to being alone again. “I’ve made different choices,” I said, reminding myself out loud that I’ve been proposed to three times and said no every time. Doesn’t that prove I’ve made a choice?

“Maybe,” she said, as she approaches 45 and I look back at 50. “But did you really make this choice?”

I wonder.

But what other choices are there? Especially now, with a crepey neck and reading glasses? Sure, I could be your Daddy, but for how long? Eventually, I’ll be an old bag and you’ll be all grown up, staring at young men, looking for your youth again.

I want to be a Tundra Swan, so dedicated to migration patterns that I don’t even know north from south or Palestine from Nevada. I’d just follow the sun. I’d like to fly from a sitting position, to run on water with wide, webbed feet, so sure of myself, and take off, wings whistling, toward fertile fields and icy continents. But I’m just little older me, a man with gray chest hair and tired feet. A homo-Homo sapien, still not sure if loving someone for life exists in this one wild ride—or what I have left of it.