The Catalyst

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

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).

________________________________________________

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

 

 

 

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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.

_________________________________________________________________________

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.

 

 

All in a Day’s Work March 4, 2016

Filed under: Poems,Teaching,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:36 am
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imageI wrote the first draft of the following poem in one of my evening workshops.

The prompts were:

Just another day at the office

Out of the mouths of babes

I’ve got good news and bad news

My poem is below.

_________________________

Teaching Composition

It’s a wave crashing,

falling over itself

coming down hard.

It’s the week ahead

rolling toward the shoreline of work, work, work

nothing but work, pulling me in, in, into the undertow

It’s work.

Lists and obligations and student papers and meetings

and phone calls and emails

that never-ending stack of essays

young minds struggling with verb placement and the reason for a comma

introductions to hook the reader.

Meanwhile, they’re distracted by acne and fantasies of stardom

the latest music videos, hip-hop tunes, bling, bling, and bling

how to be sexy and slutty and still respectable,

to maintain agency,

when they don’t even know what agency means.

Agency? What’s that?

An agent is someone who gets you into a movie, right?

Agency. Or the lack thereof. That’s my concern, anyway.

Conviction: the self on paper.

How do I teach them about the self on paper?

When I’m buried in deadlines and reply-to’s and notebooks,

When the list of personal errands I can’t get to grows so long

I’d have to take a leave of absence to buy a sofa, have a massage,

because of all the work, the homework, the workplace work that comes

with this territory, this territory of counting absences and asking people

not to interrupt, and helping someone literally young enough to be my daughter

spell misogyny. “What’s that mean?” she asks.

What’s that mean? “That’s the hatred of women,” I say.

She writes it down. Shrugs. “That sucks,” she says,

a white light coming on in her head.

The lists and the obligations are stacked so high between us,

I almost can’t see the light, but it’s there. It’s there.

And for a moment

that’s everything.

 

 

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Flowers/Growing September 18, 2015

Filed under: Grief,Poems,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:45 am
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For this prompt I ask everyone to write two short pieces, and give them about five minutes for each.

IMG_0704For the first piece, I ask them to write about something or someone they have strong feelings for. I remind them that they can use short phrases, full sentences, even single words, and be as specific or as abstract as they like: there’s no right or wrong way to do a free write.

For the second free write, I ask them to write about something found in the natural world: trees, clouds, mountains, a specific kind of flower, anything that comes to mind.

After the two five-minute free writes are over, we combine the two pieces, taking them line by line: the first line from free write #1, followed by the first line of free write #2, then the second line from free write #1, followed by the second line of free write #2, back and forth this way, taking one line from each piece and putting them together to create one new “braided” piece. 

The result is always surprising, and often ends up being something like a prose poem.

Mine is below.

__________________________________________

Sometimes he comes to me in my dreams. Yellow golden blossoms. He’s young and vibrant and a deep chestnut brown. Sweet scent. Golden red. I brought him home from the nursery. Tiny. My comfort during the worst of my adolescence. He grew tall. He’d lie with me on the cheap carpet while I’d cry. In the late spring the flowers came. Paw on my arm, sometimes he’d lick the tears from my face. On warm summer nights, that familiar smell. I had always admired others and wanted one of my own. Loyal. Impulsive. Gentle. Expensive. With a ferocious bark. Fragile. And a plume of a tail that could clear a whole coffee table of champagne flutes. Lanky. Just a sapling. I filled the wine barrel with dark soil. The roots were wound tight. I’d come home from school, the front door wide open, but he’d be right by Mama’s side. It was healthy. He wasn’t afraid of her madness. The other plants needed fertilizer, but the little tree grew. He never ran off, like I wanted to do. The front door wide open, and there he was. A few years in a row, I would smell it drifting up from the yard below. He was always with us, in one of our rooms, occasionally on one of our beds. I planted that, I’d sometimes tell myself, inhaling deeply. In the dreams, he’s still with me on our long hikes, like the ones we used to take in the hills behind our house. When I moved, it was too heavy to take with me: the roots had grown through the planter into the ground. He led the way, and always stopped and waited for me, looked back. It’s still there, growing, flowering. It’s still that way in my dreams, bringing someone joy. Like he’s watching over me. Still alive.

 

Bridges November 7, 2014

Filed under: Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:29 am
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The prompt this time was inspired by an aria from La Sonnambula, but I had the following poem by Marie Howe stuck in my head, especially the title, “What the Living Do.”

What I wrote follows the poem.

bay bridge

 

What the Living Do

Johnny, the kitchen sink has been clogged for days, some utensil probably fell down there.

And the Drano won’t work but smells dangerous, and the crusty dishes have piled up

waiting for the plumber I still haven’t called. This is the everyday we spoke of.

It’s winter again: the sky’s a deep, headstrong blue, and the sunlight pours through

the open living-room windows because the heat’s on too high in here and I can’t turn it off.

For weeks now, driving, or dropping a bag of groceries in the street, the bag breaking,

I’ve been thinking: This is what the living do. And yesterday, hurrying along those

wobbly bricks in the Cambridge sidewalk, spilling my coffee down my wrist and sleeve,

I thought it again, and again later, when buying a hairbrush: This is it.

Parking. Slamming the car door shut in the cold. What you called that yearning.

What you finally gave up. We want the spring to come and the winter to pass. We want

whoever to call or not call, a letter, a kiss–we want more and more and then more of it.

But there are moments, walking, when I catch a glimpse of myself in the window glass,

say, the window of the corner video store, and I’m gripped by a cherishing so deep

for my own blowing hair, chapped face, and unbuttoned coat that I’m speechless:

I am living. I remember you.                                                                            

___________________________________________________________________________

On the radio today, a group of philosophers debated the issue of fairness, and leapt around in the arena of justice and liberation, tribal culture, even economic prowess, but when they touched down for a moment on the topic of family, I got stuck.

Family. Still the central focus in the lives of human beings, they said. Family. Where we spend 90% of our time with others. Family. I got stuck there, sliding over the new Bay Bridge, white and sleek, the old bridge right next to us, rusted out and slowly being dismantled. I got stuck on the bridge on the concept of family.

I had a family life as a young person, and the majority of my siblings are still alive. But even though they and many close friends—my chosen family—live nearby, I still come home to an empty apartment every night. I still sleep alone at night.

I keep thinking I’ll get used to it, or it will change. I tell myself that everything is temporary, but some part of me doesn’t believe it. Some part of me is sure that this is it, that the beginning of the end is here. The long, slow road to a head of grey hair and brittle bones is beginning.

I know people find love after 50, they start new lives. But I have to ask myself, what’s next? Because waiting for the last half of my life to show up and surprise me doesn’t seem like a good plan.

Here’s what I thought on that bridge that surprised me: I’ll never have children. I won’t have my own family. I’ll never know the oxytocin flood of a baby against my chest, or push a stroller down 24th Street. I may one day marry and find I have a new, blended family; I may marry into some satellite version of parenthood, some faux version of this, but I will not have children and a family. I just needed to say it. I need to hear it. I need it to be said.

Will you tell me I’m freer than others? That my spa days or Sunday night disco dancing is a privilege that only single people have? That I have no worries about my childen’s college tuition, or their student loans, or worse yet, raising a child only to lose him or her to an accident or addiction. And you’re right, of course, you’re right.

And I will vote, and get my hair cut, and take long walks, and buy expensive skin care products, and plan for the future. I will. Even without a family. I will grow older, grow forward, grow up. This will happen. Even as I push away loneliness, the awareness of what did not happen. I will climb into that big, comfortable, empty bed. I’ll do all of that. It’s what the living do.

 

 

My Little Rose February 28, 2014

Filed under: Craft,Poems,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 10:40 am

For this prompt I ask everyone to write two short pieces, and give them about five minutes for each. For the first piece, I ask them to begin with a list of emotions, and then choose one and write about it. I remind them that they can use short phrases, full sentences, even single words, and be as specific or as abstract as they like: there’s no right or wrong way to do a free write.

For the second free write, I ask them to write about something found in the natural world: trees, clouds, mountains, a specific kind of flower, anything that comes to mind.

After the two five-minute free writes are over, we combine the two pieces, taking them line by line: the first line from free write #1, followed by the first line of free write #2, then the second  line from free write #1, followed by the second line of free write #2, back and forth this way, taking one line from each piece and putting them together to create one new “braided” piece. 

The result is always surprising, and often ends up being something like a prose poem.

Mine is below.

 

tilda

I miss her. Every April. Her wrinkly nose, her little black eyes. Big pink and yellow blossoms. I love the way she snorts in my ears when she kisses them. Fat. Juicy. Her tongue is whiplash fast. Fragrant. I love her chunky body. I love that bush. The squat legs, the tiny clip of a tail. The first one he gave to me. When she sees me, she smiles. Taller than any other. Wiggles her entire back end. Sometimes I have to tend to it. Crying. She and I have a history of tenderness. I spray away the bad stuff with a non-toxic soap. We shared a home that could have been. Clean. Sometimes. My bulldog love. I clip a rose, bring it inside, set it in water. My bulldog love. It blooms like a peony, layer upon layer, opening. My bulldog love. I never get tired of that. The way it looks. So lovely. He asks every year if I can stay with you. Every year. My heart swells, it does. I have to tell him no. I’m in love all over again. Still, I have to tell him no.

 

Stepping Back July 19, 2013

Filed under: Grief,Poems,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 6:23 pm
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The prompt this time was Breyten Breytenbach’s poem, “Your Letter,” which was written while he was being held as a political prisoner in South Africa, fighting Apartheid. I’ve pasted it below, but for an audio link, click here.

It’s a powerful poem that produces powerful writing. What I wrote is below, following Breytenbach’s poem.

 

your letter

 

your letter is larger and lighter
than the thought of a flower when the dream
is a garden—

as your letter opens
there’s an unfolding of sky, word from outside,
wide spaces

I slept in green pastures,
I lay on the cusp of the valley of the shadow of death
during the last watch of the night
listening to those condemned to die
being led through tunnels in the earth,

how they sing
with the breath at their lips
as residents at the point of leaving
a city in flames, how they sing,
their breaths like shackles,

how they sing—
they who are about to jump from light into darkness,
they who will be posted to no destination—
terror fills me at the desecration

the table before me in the presence of my enemies
is bare, I have ash on my head,
my cup is empty

and I fled to your letter to read
of the orange tree decked out in white blossoms
opening with the sun,

I could smell it on the balcony—
I can smell you
lovelier and lighter than the thought of a flower
in this dismal night

I will be suspended from the sky of your words—
grant that I may dwell in your letter
all the days of my life

your letter is wonderful, larger and lighter
than the thought of a flower when the dream
is the earth of a garden—

as your letter opens
there’s an unfolding of sky, word from outside,
memory

________________________________________________________________________

Who was it that shone a light in those dark years? My teenaged friends, of course. The ones who passed me joints and wrote me cards and took me on hikes. Had I been isolated, withdrawn, I wouldn’t have had those relationships, and I wouldn’t have survived.

Loss is complex. I can’t spell it out for you, can’t simply say, “She died and our whole world fell apart.” Because dementia doesn’t work that way. It’s insidious in the truest sense of the word, seeping in like water into stone, like mold into layers of plaster. A slow rot. Now you recognize her, now you don’t.

Had she simply died, it wouldn’t have messed me up so badly. I wouldn’t have always expected the worst, or felt incapable of everything adult for so, so many years afterward.

I resist the tedious details. The way her mind unraveled, the way she couldn’t feed herself, or remember where she lived, or use the bathroom. Fifteen years this lasted. Do you know what that does to a family, to a fourteen-year-old boy?

No one really wants the details. And even now I can’t tell you who really pulled me up and out of that hopeless place, the place that said, Just die with her, because the guilt of surviving her—and perhaps the fear of having to grow up without her—was too great to reckon with, while all of life stretched out ahead of me.

I was lost. (But am I found now? Am I?)

Who saved me?

My father, though he made a lot of mistakes. My father, who fed me: risotto, carbonara, and chocolate cheesecake, who made Thanksgiving dinner and watched Dynasty with me every Wednesday night, laughing at Joan Collins’ terrible makeup and hilarious dialogue.

My loyal, loving dog, the same dog who followed Mom around and kept her safe. Who recognized her over and over again when she lost the ability to recognize herself, me, her own hands.

A few nurses, who guided me back to school, to daycare for brain-damaged adults, to medical journals and national associations.

Those few kind lovers, and one remarkable therapist.

And I suppose I saved myself, didn’t I? By reading and dancing, by believing in the future despite my DNA, my sexuality, my lack of resources. I found flowers and airline tickets. I kept believing—I still believe— in love, in healing, in practicing patience and kindness. I had faith.

I suppose I promised her in some silent way that all the time she spent with me in childhood, through the fevers and fears, through the hunger and the celebration, that all her good love wouldn’t go to waste.

And here she is on the page with me now, still humble, reminding me: Look what we did together, you and I.

Look how we did that together.