The Catalyst

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

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 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.

 

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.

 

 

For Merijane February 28, 2019

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Poems,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:57 pm
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The prompt this time was the poem, “Corrida,” by Elizabeth Haukass       

(See the poem below what I wrote).

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Girl, you are such a good teacher. Remember the day I asked, “Someone recently told me that after surgery you’re never the same. Do you think that’s true?” I was still sore from having those long ports slid deep between my ribs, and you said, “I prefer to say, ‘After surgery, you’re simply different.'”

You always had a way with words.

And you knew about surgery too, your back like a zipper with the metal cage there just under the skin, the little holes where they took out your ovaries, the terrible surgery on your palate, and of course, the flat space where your breast used to be, where your whole, long journey really began.

Today, while meditating, I thought about your acupuncturist, how you always wanted to introduce us. You said he had a beautiful soul. A healer. I imagined meeting him and saying, “She loved you so much.” The knowledge that he had brought you pain relief made me cry.

Crying silent tears while meditating is so strange, because you’re invited to sit still, to not wipe them away, and I really felt them. I really felt how much I love you. Marianne Williamson once said that relationships never end, they just change form, so that’s how I think of us now. You still come around sometimes, though your body has been in the ground for two years.

When I saw you the night before you died, you couldn’t open your eyes, and the darkness in your mouth frightened me, but you were trying so hard to tell me something. It was my first time that close to death. Your hair was wild on the pillowcase, and your hand was cool and rubbery. I told you that you didn’t have to speak. I could read your thoughts: You loved me; you didn’t want to stay, but you felt sad leaving us. That lesson you taught me was like a bright summer day. So clear. And I knew I had to give you permission to let go when I couldn’t bear the thought of this world without you.

“You are a great teacher,” you once wrote to me, after coming home from one of the many nights that we wrote together. It was a midnight email; we were night owls, staying up late at sleepovers, like two school girls on your bed, watching a movie or talking about lost love.

Who can I be melancholy with now? Everyone just wants to comfort me, but you knew how to let me be sad, to just sit with the sadness and the longing. “You are MY teacher!” you wrote next. A two line email. One I treasure. Oh, girl! You’re my teacher too. Even now, writing this, I can imagine you here, just letting me be sad.

 

Corrida

… all stories if continued far enough end in death…
-Ernest Hemingway

It was for the novilladas, the beginners,
The matador, the flourishes,
And the backs turned on death
That I begged my father to take me to the bullfight
The summer we spent in Ciudad de Mexico
As far from the influences of drugs and sex
As he could remove me when I was seventeen
The last summer before I got pregnant.
He went with me everywhere: to the plaza
Bargaining for the silver trinkets for my sister and mother
To the bodega for the cigarettes
He let me smoke in front of him
To the pool where he sat upright, reading,
In hard shoes in the shade as I sunned myself, bored.
For the corrida we had sombra seats, the best,
Sparsely filled. As the sun’s orange deepened
Town boys from the gradas came down,
Sat around us, sometimes reaching out
To touch my gringo hair. In the ring, I expected
The pirouettes with the muleta, color against dust.
Not the other red, cascading down the beast’s black flanks —
To see the splattered velvets, matador, and hide,
To smell the pinkish foam, the bull’s droplets mixed with sweat
When he shook his enormous neck,
The banderillas sinking deep, lodging in muscle,
fluttering vibrantly — I didn’t expect.
One of the boys put an arm around me: No mires, no mires
He whispered into the air. My father stood
Scattering the boys like pigeons.
He smoothed the creases in his pants, appeared to stretch his legs,
Sat again, closer in the swelter,
Draped his arm across my shoulders.
The bull, front legs collapsed, shimmered,
Silenced, as my father and I were,
By the merciful, now, puntilla.
My father refused to let me accept an amputated ear,
Still warm, held up first to me, then to him,
The gesture for bravery, for not looking away

-by Elizabeth Haukaas, from Leap

 

 

 

 

Happiness October 4, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:44 pm
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The prompt this time was to list things you love.

My list included the following:  

Fat babies

Puppy breath

A good diner

Ice Cream

Reading in bed

Orgasms

What I wrote is below.

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“This little piggy went to the market,” he said out loud, once he was back in the car.  He had just exchanged his new 32 inch waist pants for a pair of 34’s. He often spoke to himself in the car, laughing at his own jokes, unintended rhymes, or on-the-spot limericks. Occasionally, he’d catch a pedestrian staring at him and think, Ah, well. Maybe I am a little crazy. But he wasn’t concerned. Certainly he was more sane than 25% of the country who voted for you know who in the last presidential election. Happy? That was another story.

Did he have a middle class life, complete with a dependable Japanese car and a good health insurance policy? Yes. Plenty of food to eat (obviously). A safe, quiet place to live, vermin free, with hummingbird visitors and at least one kind neighbor. Yes. He was creeping toward chronic singledom, but he was still healthy and desirable enough to get hit on at a bar; he even had repeat gentlemen callers, albeit married or much younger. Life was mostly good. So why the sullen grey afternoons and the lonely Sunday mornings? Well, it was all bad news on the air: suicide bombers and air raids, all those horrible videos of racially motivated police violence, and the beautiful, golden city of Aleppo now a pile of rubble. Every day his heart was broken.

And yet, there were heroes too: young, bright scientists finding new ways to cure cancer; religious leaders shifting gears and discovering what tolerance and love really mean; people building homes for the homeless, or the victims of natural disasters. The Pacific Gyre was a swirling plastic dump the size of Texas, but in Southern Mexico, human volunteers were helping baby Sea Turtles make it down the beach and into the surf. In Kenya, grown men slept with orphan baby elephants to ease their nightmares, and a boy from Nepal, who lost both his parents at 16, created a non-profit to build schools in the isolated rural village where he grew up, because he said, going to school in Katmandu had changed his life, but he had been too far away from his parents.

Life, like happiness, is not a destination. He learned that from Ralph Waldo Emerson (or was it a Hallmark card?). Happiness doesn’t always feel like a choice either, but sometimes you have to let it in. It might be the sweet, wet-nosed greeting from the skinny old pit bull in apartment 10, even though the guy on the other end of the leash rarely says hello. Or the baby in line at the grocery store who sees right inside you and knows you are kind. Sometimes, it’s a good book late at night in bed, a hot bath, the perfect slice of chocolate cake, a thank you card in your mailbox, or a long, lazy, silent walk on a breezy day. In this world so filled with pain and longing, sometimes you’ll run into happiness. When you do, you have to remember to let it in.

 

 

A Detour on This Dead End Street June 11, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:04 am
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I don’t usually write a lead-in to my blog posts. I usually begin with the prompts, and then simply follow up with what I wrote. But this prompt, and these times we are living through, require a little more context. And it feels especially important during Pride month, when beyond the parties and parades we are encouraged to remember that many people fought for human rights during Gay Liberation. People fought—and are still fighting all over the world—for basic human rights, and the right to love one another openly.

The prompt was the poem below, written by the now deceased Iranian poet, Ahmad Shamu. I cannot remember where I found it, but it haunted me in a beautiful way for months, and I was careful to choose when to present it to my workshop participants. I was careful, because although we sometimes talk and write about current events together, I know those 2.5 hours a week are a respite for most of us, especially from our worries about world peace, and human rights struggles, and I want to preserve that space as much as possible.

I feel before you read my response to the poem that I should offer a caveat: what I wrote below is not an attempt to sugarcoat how worried I am about the world, nor do I think gratitude lists and a positive attitude are going to save democracy and promote human rights. But I guess I also want to say, it can’t hurt. And if nothing else, I hope it will remind some of you how safe you are, and how free.

 

In This Dead-End Street                       

by Ahmad Shamu (Iranian Poet, 1925-2000)

In this dead-end street

they smell your breath

lest, God forbid,

you’ve said I love you.

They sniff at your heart—

these are strange times, my dear

—and they flog love

by the side of the road at the barrier.

Love must be hidden in the closet.

In this crooked dead-end street, twisted with cold

they fuel their bonfire

with poems and songs.

Danger! Don’t dare think.

These are strange times, my dear.

The knock on the door in the night

is someone who’s come to snuff out the light.

Light must be hidden at home in the closet.

Butchers, with their bloody clubs and cleavers,

are posted at the crossing.

These are strange times, my dear.

They remove smiles from lips, and songs from mouths,

by surgery.

Happiness must be hidden at home in the closet.

Songbird kebab

roasts over flames of lily and jasmine.

These are strange times, my dear.

The devil, drunk on victory, feasts at our funeral.

God must be hidden at home in the closet.

 

What I wrote in response is below.

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On the train heading downtown, a homeless man with no shoes—only filthy white socks—shuffles into the car and then shuffles out, and our little protagonist exhales. The stench of a body unbathed, layered with piss and shit and vomit. A body coated with a thick layer of hopelessness: it hangs there in the car.

He’s sick, our protagonist thinks. Cracked open, ill. He’s snapped. So many people on the street suffering, and yet the sigh of relief: It isn’t me. And also the inhalation, the catch breath of fear. There before the grace of God go I. How many paychecks away are you? There’s $170 in his savings account. How much is in yours?

Later, on the near empty street, tall buildings on all sides, he waits, our little protagonist, for a group of friends. They’re meeting for an overpriced dinner at a trendy oyster bar and grill. The walls and tables and curtainless windows—all those hard surfaces—they bounce the loud voices. It hurts his ears. Packed, the little restaurant is, with too many people. The whole planet is overpopulated, he thinks, we’re like insects. A human swarm of 8 billion and counting.

Down the street, at outdoor tables under heat lamps, young men in rolled up jeans and loafers talk tech over Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. Lap dogs and a crowded entryway. “Are you on the list? Do you have a reservation?” Everyone so busy trying to look important, hip, well-groomed. He finds it all so meaningless.

And yet, after his friends arrive, a bottle of pink champagne, fried oysters on deviled eggs, crab salad on toast, a tiny cup of french fries, and for dessert, mocha mousse and Hungarian dessert wine. He’s one of them now, the people laughing at the table inside a warm, dimly lit restaurant. He’s become one of them.

The next day he catches himself complaining: the hectic grocery store, the difficulty parking, the men in the gym crowding the sinks, primping. He catches himself complaining about privilege: a clean grocery; fresh food at his fingertips; a safe, warm car; a community in which men openly love one another, kiss goodbye on the street, flirt openly at a health club with clean showers and toilets, large windows.

On the radio, news from refugee camps with 1000’s of displaced people, people with no home, no running water, in limbo in a foreign country where no one understands their language or culture. He catches himself complaining, our little protagonist, and he feels his cheeks burn with shame.

 

 

For Merijane: One year Later February 28, 2018

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:33 am
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Two prompts this time, from my friend, Merijane Block, who was a lovely writer and an extraordinary person.  You can read about her here and here.

“When grief sits with you, you can invite it to tea, treating it like the old friend that it is, or you can ignore it, but that’s harder, especially if you’ve been raised with manners.  A friend at the table should be offered something: sustenance, however meager; dialogue, however halting; recognition, however resentfully.”

“Death makes no sense, it only makes good poetry, at least in the right hands”                                                                             

What I wrote is below.

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It’s beautiful here in this post sadness, this garden of falling flowers. The mourning doves can’t seem to stop mourning, and there’s a whole chorus of other sad songs. The shock has passed, but now I feel hollow inside. I keep trying to commune with the dearly departed by eating her favorite foods: thin, crisp prosciutto pizzas from a brick oven; fettucine with anchovies and lemon, topped with a feathery coat of Parmigiano Reggiano; ice cream from Bi-Rite: salted caramel and strawberry balsamic melting onto a freshly rolled waffle cone; toast with almond hazelnut butter; black tea with honey and milk.

I know from other losses that the empty space inside will eventually fill up with other memories. But for now, I’ve decided to sit down at the table with grief and eat. I still feel post-funeral: my desire for food, wine, dance, and sex is quadrupled. I want to be held. I want to visit a friend’s house and talk with people who know me well. Long hours of solitude won’t soften this shock.

Of course I know that everybody dies—I know that— everybody and everything. Look at the plumeria littering the roof of the rental car, the poor dried out shell of the beetle, see the pitiful carcass of the little animal torn open on the highway. Everything dies. But that’s not really a comfort now. It just makes me sad and angry.

And yet, here we are, all of us, shimmering together on the edge of this light, part of this big swirling gyre of atoms and red blood cells, bone and bacteria. I’m GRATEFUL, don’t get me wrong. How else could I push past the sore hip, the stiff hands, that web of fascia and scar tissue that sticks to my ribcage? How else could I appreciate the residue of ocean water on my lips, or an octopus who grabs your finger, a saffron finch in the green leaves, or a sparrow who can navigate the open air terminals in the Maui airport? When she cocked her little head, and hopped up onto the seat next to me to get a closer look, I wondered: have we met before? Would you eat from my hand?

Sure, I’m grateful. Even though this list of graves I know is growing, even though lilacs will always make me miss her, even though the honey cake—with all those gorgeous layers of golden buttercream—will always be missing one fork. I’ll still sit in the garden and be thankful. I’ll stare out into the horizon. I’ll plan my next meal.

 

 

 

Little Big Man July 6, 2017

Filed under: Aging,Humor,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:36 am
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The prompts this time were:  

Dingy, but functional

Something is calling to me

His life was big, too big

 

What I wrote is below.

________________

Sometimes he thought about a road trip. A ride in his trusty car to the Four Corners or Monument Valley. Yellowstone. The Grand Tetons. Glacier National Park. New Orleans. Something about the fantasy of being behind the wheel of his own car was satisfying in itself. Not a rental car or a bus, but his own car.

“You can fly to Vegas and rent a car from there,” friends said when he told them he hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon. But he wanted the long hours in his own car, the air conditioner blasting, or in the evenings, just the roar of the road with all the windows rolled down.

The busier his life became—the emails negotiating next semester’s schedule, the conference at the end of the month, the dental appointment in May, the tax accountants quarterly reminders—the more he fantasized about the open road.

At one point, he started eyeing tiny wooden campers: cool, modern pods with kitchens in the trunk, or refurbished Airstreams, even a VW Vanagon with a convection oven and a pop top roof. They all made him think about cashing in his 403B for a life on the road. Canada. Mexico. New Brunswick. There were whole worlds to explore.

Would he become one of those sixty-something hippies living in the moment, depending on his Social Security direct deposit and the kindness of strangers? Could he shower in outdoor stalls and have his morning movement in a composting toilet? Would he have a long, gray ponytail and well-worn river sandals, cargo shorts, and—God forbid—a fanny pack?

Maybe. Some days it sounded great. Better than student conferences and curriculum meetings with the Dean. It sounded better that choosing one corporate evil over the other so he could escape to Netflix without the interruption of a frozen, spinning rainbow wheel. It sounded better than trying to find a less expensive apartment with more storage and quiet neighbors. Why not live on the open road? Why not tune in and drop out? It was something to think about, at least. It was something to think about.