The Catalyst

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

Feline Intuition March 25, 2019

The prompt this time was “Pet’s Tell the Story,” which is a POV exercise in which you write in the voice of a pet you are familiar with (your own or someone else’s). For a detailed description of this prompt, see this link.

I’m more of a dog person, but I’ve met quite a few cats in my life whom I’ve loved, and one in particular who made me realize that some cats are sweet and affectionate (and possibly wise). The memory of that special cat inspired the piece below.

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Those voices can only mean one thing: the boys are here. I can practically taste the testosterone. Bitter, it is, but not all bad. And I’ve learned by now that whatever nap I had going is over now; these guys will be smoking and laughing and banging cabinets in the kitchen, so I might as well join them.

When I get to the landing, I can hear their voices clearly, and I pause when I hear Marcus. He’s my favorite. The only one who never pushes me off his lap: ever. Kieran, whom I’ve known since he was a little boy, doesn’t treat me with the the tenderness that Marcus has for me. Some humans just get it and some humans don’t, you know?

I take my time coming down, because for some stupid reason they toss their stinky tennis shoes at the bottom of the steps, and I’ve tripped over them before. Don’t worry: I always land on all fours.

I round the corner cautiously. The kitchen is filled with sunlight, and all five of them are crowded together on the L-shaped yellow bench beneath the windows. Everyone loves that kitchen booth.

“Kieran,” Marcus asks, “what time is your mom coming home?”

Kieran’s at the counter, the cabinets in front of him are open wide. He’s stretching to reach a bag of cookies; his long limbs are just the right length for high places.

“Not until 6:00,” he says, his shirt hiking up a bit to reveal a light dusting of dark brown fur and that flat, unnerving navel that humans have. I look at Marcus and watch his deep-set brown eyes slide from Kieran’s bright, bright blues to his flat stomach, then back up again to his face.

One of the guys lights a joint and opens the window.

“Hey! There’s that cat!” the blonde says for the 100th time.

“His name is Mr. Boots, dumb ass!” Marcus says, faking annoyance. And everyone says, “Ooooh!”

“Pass him the joint first,” Kieran says. “He’s testy.” He plops the bag of Keebler Fudge Stripes down on the table. I have no interest in human cookies, but everyone else grabs a few and starts chomping away. Marcus selects one, looks at it carefully, and then looks up at Kieran. “I love these,” he says, and Kieran smiles.

I leap onto the closest lap and walk my way toward Marcus. His hand knows just where to go—that spot between my ears and my neck—and I can’t help myself: my motor starts running.

“You guys going to Pinky’s tomorrow night after the game?” Kieran asks. “Buy one large pizza and get a pitcher of Coke free.”

“I got to study for a Trig test,” Marcus says. His hand is traveling down my back now, all the way to the tail. Then he lifts off and goes back to my head. This kid knows what he’s doing.

“On a Saturday?” Kieran asks.

“Just cheat in Wignot’s class, like everyone else,” the blonde says.

“I do,” Marcus says, “and I’m still getting a D.”

“I can help you study on Sunday,” Kieran says. There’s an uncomfortable silence. “I mean, I’m pretty good at math.”

I can feel Marcus’ heartbeat pick up a bit. He wants to tell Kieran something, wants to tell him that he’s in pain, some sort of grief, though I don’t know what it is exactly. He’s silent. Then the conversation turns to girls: who’s foxy, who’s got big boobs. I thought Tomcats were bad! These guys are like dogs.

I decide to sit on the window ledge to soak in some of the sunlight, but I stay right behind Marcus. He remains silent while the guys— Kieran too— go on and on about girls. So I stay close to him. Real close. I can feel his loneliness, but he knows I’m right there.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Second Home October 25, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Travel,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:26 pm
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The prompt this time was the 5 x 5 prompt. Click here to read how to do that. What I wrote is below.

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Paris and Rome hold memories and regret, a longing for past lovers, a deep loneliness. I love those other cities, but I feel lost in them too. But in Berlin, if I had to help you get from Tegel Airport to the Hauptbahnhoff, I could navigate those bright yellow subway cars, and a few major bus lines too. I know how to get around. I know how to work the bread slicing machines in the grocery stores, how to order kuchen at a café (sit down first, order a drink, then peruse the case). I’m free in Berlin like I am nowhere else.  

Berlin is the only place I don’t feel guilty or haunted. In Rome, I got stood up by a lover who was supposed to hop over from Paris, and I cried into my gelato in the Piazza Navona. In Paris I sometimes felt sad, knowing how Mama had wanted to visit, but never had the chance. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and Rome feeling guilty and sad about who I’ve left behind, but never in Berlin. And it feels good not being haunted for once.

There are things Mama wouldn’t have liked about Berlin: too gritty, too dark in the winter, too hot and crowded in the summer. But she would have loved the Turkish market, the cosmetic section of the Bio store on Bergmannstrasse, and Museum Isle. I can imagine her laughing with me at the Bode Museum café under the dome upstairs, flirting with the Iraqi waiter, like I did, while enjoying a cup of black tea with milk and sugar.

Berlin is the city that rose from the ashes to meet me that first time in May. The peach sky at sunset in Tiergarten, my strong legs pumping the pedals. I had just turned forty and suffered a broken heart, but Berlin reminded me how we remake ourselves again and again in this lifetime, how we heal and mend, how we forgive and try to learn from even the worst mistakes. Berlin reminds me that good actually prevails over evil; it’s not just a nice old saying.

Berlin is the place I allow my tongue to twist out the number of beers I want to order in German, while I bat my eyelashes at the furry bartender from Armenia. It’s where I shed my clothes in a dingy bar because the heat is on too high, where I let myself sleep in, finally wandering out at 4:30 p.m., or ride a bike in the snow, in the pouring rain, or home from a club at 5:00 in the morning, past the Landwehr Canal, swans floating on the surface, their heads tucked under their wings in sleep. Berlin is the place I went to a New Year’s Eve party even though I didn’t know a soul, where I smoked cigarettes and drank warm vodka in Roses Bar sitting in front of a framed image from Madonna’s Sex book, her legs splayed open, the head of a leather biker nestled between them.

Berlin is the place I cried at the Jewish Museum when I saw the map of concentration camps—the enormous, overwhelming number of them in Poland alone—or read the Pink Triangle memorial at Nollendorfplatz and realized that hundreds, probably thousands, of gay and lesbian people were forced to board trains right there at that station, trains bound for concentration camps, trains that sent them to their deaths.

But can you see the neighborhood now? Gay clubs and sleek cafes, hip clothing stores. See all the young gay men living here again, finally free after fleeing countries like Chechnya and Egypt? Here is a neighborhood brought back to life, vital and elegant, a microcosm of the city itself. City of rebirth, artistic expression, freedom of thought. A place that’s been vilified, feared, and attacked, beaten to the edge of life. Look at it now, vibrant, teeming with life, healthy and strong again. A place to live out loud.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friendly Ghost August 22, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:04 pm
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This time the prompts were:           

Not a very pretty kitty

Once upon a time, there was a woman who had had enough

“Your soul pulls toward the canyon and then shines back,”

(from “How to Regain Your Soul,” by William Stafford)                                                          

What I wrote is below.

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You: pop up in MS Word, a document without your name in a philosophical message that makes me think. Or sometimes a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, or Mary Oliver. You both loved and laughed at “Wild Geese“: You do not have to be good/You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles in the desert, repenting. That was advice you might have given too, perhaps not so romantically.

You: come to me in inner dialogue. One day I said, “It sucks that you’re dead,” and I heard your voice reply, “It sucks being dead. It’s so boring!” I laughed then, but I worry that your spirit is tied to those splintered souls you left behind: the old friends and lovers, the ones who try to comfort one another now, like Rebecca, today, who bought me lunch and then invited me upstairs for coffee made with an old Pavoni hand pump espresso. I worry that we won’t let you go and so you still have work to do, I worry that you are still weary and that you need to rest.

But here we are now, in that familiar territory of a relationship between the living and the dead, you and I, after all those conversations we had about our dead loved ones, talking to their photos like I talk to yours now, asking, “Where are you? Where did you go?” A child’s question. Unanswerable. But I suppose you’re still here, in the circle of writers, in the chocolate cake with real flour and real sugar, glutinous flour, processed sugar. “Oh, fuck!” you used to say. “If you’re going to eat cake, eat cake!”

You: still cracking jokes, still holding up a mirror that says, “Look at your beautiful self. You are a great teacher. You are MY teacher.”

Oh, you. How lucky I was to be chosen, to learn from you how to really be a friend. How lucky I still feel having known you all these years.

 

 

 

Strange Company June 13, 2017

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:43 pm
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The prompts this time were: 

 

Hello darkness, my old friend

Bless her tiny body

A messenger for happiness

What I wrote is below.

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The dead come to visit him in his dreams. It’s always been this way. After his mother died, she came three nights in a row, barefoot, wearing jeans and a neat pixie cut; totally unlike she’d ever looked or he’d ever imagined her. He figured she must have wanted to look this way all along.

His father surprised him too, once rushing off with a model to a waiting town car, his hair a salt and pepper faux-hawk, his new body slim and tall: a new body and a new love in the afterlife. Later, his parents showed up together, reunited it seemed, and happier than ever, sipping champagne and leaning in to whisper to him about his siblings.

Sometimes he awoke between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., the true bewitching hour, and as he stumbled to the bathroom to relieve his bladder, he swore he saw his old best friend—dead ten years now—sitting on the living room couch. “Don’t haunt me,” he said out loud, and looked away.

Occasionally, a ghost might hover, usually on the three nights before, during, and after the Day of the Dead. They followed the path of marigold petals from the front door to the little altar illuminated with candles. There they would find chocolate and scotch, oranges and almonds, sometimes a cookie or a slice of cake, and always a tiny bowl of water for the dogs. He had loved and lost so many good dogs.

But the clacking of las calacas never woke him those nights, and there was no reason for them to come to him in those dreams either, for during that holiday he always had conversations with them during his waking hours. He asked for advice (usually), love (always), a new home (twice, and twice they delivered), a clean bill of health (still cancer free), and occasionally, company. Sometimes he sat with them at the table and they rose out of books and recipes, old letters and notes, and poems too. They seemed to love poems most of all.

When he was little, he never wondered where the dead went after they took their last breaths. They seemed to live there in the house of his childhood alongside everyone else. They told jokes around the dining table, or helped mix the cookie batter, dropped the candy thermometer into the liquid sugar and clipped it right onto the side of the pot. They stared at him from photos, unsmiling, but he understood that it was only the fashion of the time that kept them from smiling, or shame at the condition of their poor teeth.

It was the living he wondered about then, especially the hollowed out expressions of the bereaved, all those adults who, after hours of crying, like children, still seemed dazed by death, emptied out. He understood that feeling now, of course, the way loss cracks you open, the way it shakes you off the foundation, unbolted, loose. But he found solace in the dreams, those dependable nightly meetings. In those dreams he learned to sit quietly and not ask too many questions. He learned how to keep the dead company.