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).

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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

 

 

 

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Falling in Love with Your Words February 1, 2018

Filed under: essays,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 12:33 pm
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This time the prompt was a series of quotes from college students about writing. A few of them are listed here:

I like to write as a hobby, but when it comes to writing for classes, I would rather stick needles in my eyes.                                        

Writing exists for its creator to bleed on the page.

When it comes to writing, I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it: it’s just something for me to do

Writing stresses me out.

I love this art that allows you to sit in silence and escape.

What I wrote in response is below.

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You think I’d tire of it, pen on paper, fingers on keys. The stack of notebooks, the endless shopping for ink refills, pens, and paper. The repetition of words, phrases, images, the circling back to retell the story, moving in for a closer look. But I never tire of it. Never. It sustains me, actually.

I like stretching out extended metaphors, following allegories along winding paths toward clear horizons, similes as dependable as sunsets. I enjoy unusual, brazen adjectives, verbs ending in “-ing,” all those sturdy concrete nouns, the legs of tables planted squarely atop the oak floor of prepositions. I even like academic writing, the kind that allows narrative and pathos, that puts me in your shoes, or sweater, or handcuffs, that helps me smell the sour breath of the interrogating officer, feel the sweat dripping down from your scalp like fear.

Writing sustains me. It’s not an exaggeration to say it saved my life: all those terrible years of guilt and shame, the open grave of my mother’s long illness, and my own homo-self-hatred. The pile of dark earth waited patiently for our dead bodies, but she went, I stayed. I stayed because I took pen to paper, filled journals with adolescent longing and recorded loss after loss. Later, flowers bloomed into oohs and ahhs, beauty blossomed every spring, even when my heart cracked in half, or my best friend stopped walking. Even when I turned 40, then 50, even when the surgeon left titanium staples in my lung. I wrote my way through all of it and out the other side.

Are there days when I have my fill of it? When I can’t write another word, when I feel emptied out, depleted, stuck, when that block lands with a thud on my pen? Of course. That’s when I read, get lost in other people’s words, fill back up with sensory details and description in every hue of pink, or violet, deep royal purple. Then I come back to it again: trusted old friend, familiar face.

Even during those times when I read other people’s work—sometimes for days and days—and I feel far away from my own words, I never lose sight of what an honor it is to bear witness, to be an audience, to marvel as the sheer audacity of someone—anyone—attempting to put into words the growth of a tumor, a visitation in a dream, a field of plastic bottles, a shark without a dorsal fin who leaves behind the bloody red reminder of human cruelty. I am not jaded, no matter how crabby I may sound some days, and I am not envious either; no matter how many books you publish, stories and poems you write, paragraph transitions you make, fluent as tributaries, no matter how clear and sophisticated your thesis, I still feel at home in your words. I still find my way back on this beautiful trail of letters and symbols.

 

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.

_________________________

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.

 

 

 

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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The Imperfect Teacher February 5, 2016

Filed under: Humor,Teaching,Vignettes — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:30 am
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The prompt this time was an excerpt from a long poem by Ron Padgett, “How to be Perfect.”

That prompt, and what I wrote in response, is below.


How to be Perfect

Get some sleep.

Eat an orange every morning.         ING_19043_06216-paper-pile-funny-guy-big-glasses-1024x678

Be friendly. It will help make you happy.

Hope for everything. Expect nothing.

Take care of things close to home first. Straighten up your room
before you save the world. Then save the world.
Be nice to people before they have a chance to behave badly.

Don’t stay angry about anything for more than a week, but don’t
forget what made you angry. Hold your anger out at arm’s length
and look at it, as if it were a glass ball. Then add it to your glass
ball collection.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Do not spend too much time with large groups of people.

Plan your day so you never have to rush.

Show your appreciation to people who do things for you, even if
you have paid them, even if they do favors you don’t want.

After dinner, wash the dishes.

Calm down.

Don’t expect your children to love you, so they can, if they want
to.

Don’t be too self-critical or too self-congratulatory.

Don’t think that progress exists. It doesn’t.

Imagine what you would like to see happen, and then don’t do
anything to make it impossible.

Forgive your country every once in a while. If that is not
possible, go to another one.

If you feel tired, rest.

Don’t be depressed about growing older. It will make you feel
even older. Which is depressing.

Do one thing at a time.

If you burn your finger, put ice on it immediately. If you bang
your finger with a hammer, hold your hand in the air for 20
minutes. You will be surprised by the curative powers of ice and
gravity.

Do not inhale smoke.

Take a deep breath.

Do not smart off to a policeman.

Be good.

Be honest with yourself, diplomatic with others.

Do not go crazy a lot. It’s a waste of time.

Drink plenty of water. When asked what you would like to
drink, say, “Water, please.”

Take out the trash.

Love life.

Use exact change.

When there’s shooting in the street, don’t go near the window.

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Let the piles of essays sit. Make excuses. Say, “I need two weeks to grade these.” Then take three weeks.

Make them feel guilty when they ask. Say, “I was sick,” or snap at them, saying, “I haven’t finished grading all of the essays yet!” Don’t say you’re sorry. Later, apologize in an email.

Organize the essays into two piles. Make a schedule: seven hours of grading. Two hours on Tuesday night, three hours on Wednesday night, then finish on Thursday. When Friday comes, and they still aren’t graded, get stoned and watch Orange is the New Black. Revise grading schedule, then spend the weekend grading essays with resentment.

Realize you shouldn’t grade essays while you’re angry. Several studies have shown this. So take a walk. Give yourself a pep talk. Say, “I make the rules; I’m the teacher.” Feel guilty and drink coffee at the local Starbucks. Charge your phone on their magic tabletop. Stare at the married man and lust over his hairy forearms. Then feel like a perve. Think of him naked and on top of you. Then leave, saving the image for later.

Arrive home and stare at the two piles of essays. Apologize to the essays. Say, “I’m sorry I’m neglecting you.” Then eat lunch.

Feel guilty.

Masturbate.

Then sit down, sigh a big sigh, and begin.

 

 

 

This is Water June 7, 2013

Filed under: Teaching,Videos,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 2:34 pm
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A few prompts for you this time, plus a video that will inspire mindfulness.

Prompts:

Beach, beach, and more beach

What is it about sadness that can be so fulfilling?

He was a thrill seeker

My advice? Save the prompts for later, and watch the film now (it’s nine minutes, but worth every second).

While you’re floating in the space that the film leaves you in, take pen to paper, and see what comes out.

(Note: The film’s narrative is built around an excerpt from the late David Foster Wallace’s famous commencement speech.)

 

 

 

Comrades in Cyberspace May 13, 2013

Filed under: Craft,Recipes,Teaching,Videos,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 4:55 pm
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This prompt is one I call, “Absurd Modifiers.” Everyone begins with a sheet of notebook paper folded in half lengthwise, creating two columns (one in front and one on the back). On one side, I ask everyone to write down ten nouns (a person, place, or thing).

Then everyone flips over the folded sheet and passes it to the person on his or her right, BLANK side up. On this blank side, I ask everyone to write ten adjectives (colors, texture, size, speed, attitude—bitchy is an adjective I often suggest).

I ask everyone to pass the folded sheet to his or her right one more time, and for the person who receives to open it up: now both lists are visible. Finally, everyone takes the two lists and matches up the nouns and adjectives in the most absurd combinations.

Examples of the resulting pairs look something like this:

Red Dachshund

Obnoxious Broccoli

Jealous Fire Escape

Bitchy End Tables

Exuberant Cream Cheese

     

What I wrote is below.

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There were many nights during the spring semester when a stack of student essays sat on my kitchen table waiting impatiently for me to grade them. And although I knew an eight hour marathon grading session was worse than chipping away at them a few hours a day, my resistance seemed to mount the longer they sat there.

This went on day after day.

I wanted to do everything else: watch Dynasty reruns with a close friend, clean up my iPhoto library, read The Huffington Post, see a drag show—I even chose ironing once, a chore I detest.

Who gave them this assignment? I sometimes wondered as I read about human rights violations and environmental disasters. But of course, I knew the assignments were my own creations, foreign to me now in ways I couldn’t articulate.

Another stack consisted of short essays that asked ESL students to summarize, to quote, and to paraphrase. The students also had to construct argumentative theses and integrate outside sources. I looked forward to their repetition the way I look forward to a trip to the gym: with a lack of enthusiasm and a fat dose of guilt.

I had to grade those essays, but I wanted to do everything else: drink white wine from New Zealand, perfect the lemon bar recipe, bake a champagne cake, whip up a double batch of chocolate peanut butter cookies.

Instead of grading papers, I poured over photos on Pinterest and got lost in recipes and food blogs. I dreamt about coconut loaves, cream cheese chocolate chip cookies, Greek macaroni and cheese. I read the bios of business men and women who became food blog celebrities, who survived painful divorces, years being single, and dead end jobs. They all seemed to find a path out of hopelessness that was lined with peppermint cupcakes, pesto-stuffed halibut filets, and mascarpone mashed potatoes, piped into an enamel-coated cast iron baking dish, beautifully browned.

I left the essays behind for awhile and entered this edible world instead.

It gave me hope.