The Catalyst

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

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.


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.




Regenerating Kindness January 13, 2017

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 7:48 am
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The prompt this time was about sea stars (formerly called “starfish”). I read some information about them out loud, and was struck by the way they can regenerate lost limbs.

A few other facts I read out loud were:                                          

Sea stars have an eye spot at the end of each arm.

Sea stars can move more quickly than you might expect.

Sea stars are famous for their ability to regenerate limbs, and in some cases, entire bodies.

Sea stars can live up to 35 years and are usually about the size of a teacup.

What I wrote in response is below.


Everywhere, kindness. That’s what he’s choosing to see, anyway. That’s what he’s open to. The news fills the airways with horror, loss, murder, disease. Our world is spun into chaos: the end of times. So it seems surreal to notice a sparrow’s carefully constructed nest in the pipes above the carport, the old man in the donut shop having a conversation with a curious toddler, or to read about the Labradoodle who works as a therapy dog at a funeral home, and a herd of elephants who travel 20 miles to mourn a dead man who worked with them for decades and loved them. They came to pay their respects.

Then there’s the woman who waited to pull out of her parking spot on a busy Friday night so he could have her space. There was a line of cars behind him, so he couldn’t back up. “Go around the block,” she said, “I’ll wait for you.” A total stranger. And the clerk at his accountant’s office who so appreciated his interest in her African Violets that she gave him two leaves in a Dixie cup of water. “In about two weeks, you’ll have roots,” she said. “Plant them in soil and then keep them somewhere warm.” On the street outside the office, he used his hand to shield the flimsy leaves from the windy day. Once he was safely inside the car, he placed the paper cup in the beverage holder, careful not to spill it.

There are greater acts too. SS soldiers who worked as double agents and saved thousands from the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Now, two ninety-year-old survivors—one a former guard, the other a former prisoner whom he saved—meet again in Germany after seventy years. They hold one another and they weep. A policeman in Dallas covers a woman and her sons with his own body: he literally lies on top of them to shield them from a sniper’s bullets. And the surgeon, who has just told his patient that he might have cancer, sits for a moment and asks that patient about his life, about his work and where he lives. Sees him as a whole person, not simply a lung or a white spot on a CT scan.

These are dangerous, confusing times, he thinks. Airports are now targets for people who strap bombs to their bodies because they feel their li (more…)


The Mating Game January 25, 2016

Filed under: Grief,Humor,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 5:15 pm
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The prompt this time was a piece I read aloud about Tundra Swans. See the long prompt (and what I wrote in response) below.

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

Tundra Swans make the daunting journey twice each year. 

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

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

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

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

Tundra Swans winter on the water and sleep afloat.

Tundra Swans sometimes feed during moonlit nights.

Tundra Swans mate for life.

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

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

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

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

Tundra Swans mate for life.

Tundra Swans sometimes feed during moonlit nights.

Tundra Swans winter on the water and sleep afloat.


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

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

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

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

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

I wonder.

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

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






Bird Talk October 16, 2014

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 8:46 pm
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The prompt this time was Brian Doyle’s clever, playful, thoughtful essay, “Raptorous” from Orion Magazine. To read the essay in its entirety, click here. A brief excerpt is below, followed by what I wrote.

Special thanks to my Tuesday night writing group, for encouraging me to “type it up.” If I hadn’t read it out loud, I may never have seen its value for others.  flying birds hawks bird of pray 1920x1200 wallpaper_www.animalhi.com_84


From “Raptorous,”  by Brian Doyle

I HAVE BEEN SO hawk-addled and owl-absorbed and falcon-haunted and eagle-maniacal since I was a little kid that it was a huge shock to me to discover that there were people who did not think that seeing a sparrow hawk helicoptering over an empty lot and then dropping like an anvil and o my god coming up with wriggling lunch was the coolest thing ever.

I mean, who could possibly not be awed by a tribe whose various members can see a rabbit clearly from a mile away (eagles), fly sideways through tree branches like feathered fighter jets (woodhawks), look like tiny brightly colored linebackers (kestrels, with their cool gray helmets), hunt absolutely silently on the wing (owls), fly faster than any other being on earth (falcons), and can spot a trout from fifty feet in the air, gauge piscine speed and direction, and nail the dive and light-refraction and wind-gust and trout-startle so perfectly that it snags three fish a day (our friend the osprey)? Not to mention they look cool—they are seriously large, they have muscles on their muscles, they are stone-cold efficient hunters with built-in butchery tools, and all of them have this stern I could kick your ass but I am busy look, which took me years to discover was not a general simmer of surliness but a result of the supraorbital ridge protecting their eyes.


Eyes like a hawk. That one is familiar. They can see a mile down, a fish splashing in the water, a field mouse mousing along the underbrush. Talons opening at just the right moment. Wings extending three feet, or more? I’m trying to stay in this moment, this moment of awe: seeing the hummingbird hover above the cypress trees in Carpenteria, or the goldfinch hanging upside down on the bird feeders at Nina’s; the honeybees landing on purple blossoms on the median on Cesar Chavez St. The tiny moth crazy for the flame at dinner. I cup him in my hand and release him into the night air.

But on the radio, a young woman reports that the majority of wild species on this planet have dropped in populations by nearly 40% in the last fifty years, while the human race has grown 200%. African lions and elephants, part of a long list that was familiar and disturbing. “This might be our last chance to save the bees,” reads the subject line of an email from Food Democracy Now. “Stop the use of nicotinoids.” How many times will I click the submit button before something actually changes, or worse: I finally give up?

The news is full of fear-insighting stories. I’m a daily witness to Armageddon, my psyche so infiltrated that when I hear that Iraqi soldiers have held a town on the Syrian border, defeating ISIS rebels, I actually cheer out loud. War games, and all of them in the name of God.

When thousands of red-winged blackbirds fall from the sky, when polar bears, thin and desperate, cling to tiny floating chunks of ice, when whales wash up on California shores bleeding from their ears, I tell myself it’s all coming to an end soon. But it goes on. Just as I do.

I no longer have falcon eyes; I need readers over contact lenses or I can’t read my text messages. My joints ache and seize. The hollowness under my eyes grows deeper and darker. And yet, like the sparrows, we all continue to eat and drink and reproduce. Even I—after degrading my florescently-lit self in the locker room mirrors at the gym—even I came home, showered, put concealer under my eyes, put on jeans and a baby blue t-shirt and prepared myself for a date with a man too, too young for me.

Later, when he slid his hands down my back and I opened myself to him, he said, “You knew what you were doing, tucking that t-shirt into your jeans. You knew you would get me going.” But I didn’t. Really. I tucked that t-shirt in because it was too long. And yet, didn’t I work with this body that’s slowly breaking down, too? Didn’t I primp and preen like any male bird, trying to get the object of my affection to choose me, to press against me and release himself? To give in? Maybe it wasn’t deliberate, but it wasn’t without intention.

What is there to do but continue? Even a three-legged dog bounds forth with joy for those remaining feet beneath his body. Even the pigeons (which everyone hates, though they are protected birds), even they keep right on living. I’m not a big fan of pigeons, but they do leave me with a feeling of reverence when they startle and roar upward in one great throb. Even they make me look up and squint into the sun as they circle around gracefully, then land again.