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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Reminders October 26, 2016

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 9:23 am
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The prompt this time was the five-word free write. For an explanation of this prompt, click here. The words this time were:

Jellyfish   Blackberries    Green    Tributaries    Returning        13451001_10208840704070200_6833925630858366482_n

What I wrote is below.

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Remember this, I tell myself, standing naked in the mirror. I’ve been picking apart my body piece by piece: flabby inner thighs, saggy chest, wrinkly neck, round belly. Remember this. The way you sometimes want a different body, a new body, a better shell.

Remember this in the times the fear rises up inside you like an electrical current: the near head-on collision at Grove and Webster, the rush of adrenaline that made the fist of your heart swell in an instant, the brakes scrape and lock. That moment of I want to live. Remember this as you walk along the edge of the memorial for Orlando, L-shaped, wrapping around the corner of 18th and Castro, a boomerang of beautiful faces—49 of them, all dead—no future now, no way to become parents, artists, nurses, no more bodies to feed or loathe or bring pleasure to on the dance floor with their lovers: no more life to live. Their names written on the sidewalk so they wouldn’t be forgotten. You must remember this.

Remember this body of yours, I tell my future self. The one unmarked by surgical scars, the one that lifts heavy potted plants, carries luggage up frozen escalators, stirs thick cake batter with a sturdy wooden spoon, holds babies who become men and women. When I am pumping my arms and legs on long, winding walks down to 24th Street, or climbing five flights of stairs at the Forest Hill train station, doing a headstand, a backbend, lifting a barbell to my chest: remember this.

When you awaken from a bad dream in a good bed to sunlit blinds, when you sit cross-legged on the floor with old colleagues who know you and love you, when a dog kisses you and climbs into your lap. Remember those dark times when you wanted it all to end—just say it—when you wanted to die, when you wished the suffering was over. Remember this when you come blinking back to life after anesthesia, when you have a drainage tube under your ribs and a catheter in your dick, that you didn’t always know, really, how badly you wanted to live. Not just publish a book or buy a home or climb Machu Picchu, but simply live, share another meal with loved ones, or a birthday cake, grow another flowering plant, or fall in love again.

All the shallow shit just falls away: wrinkles, cellulite, callouses. You’re beautiful as a newborn. You’re whole and present and full of healthy blood. You have to remember this, right here in the mirror. Right here. In the mirror. You have to. Remember this.

 

Beginnings and Endings August 27, 2016

Filed under: Grief,Uncategorized,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:26 am
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The prompts this time were:        FullSizeRender

I never can say goodbye.

Where do I begin?

There’s no love like the future love.

What I wrote is below.

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My youngest nephew recently graduated from high school; in three months he’ll head to Oregon for college, and I will have to send him the care packages I promised my older nephew, but never delivered.

Does it matter, really, how good I am or how much I bake? Because I know that his love for me comes from feeling safe and heard, from receiving advice he can’t ask for from his mother, his father, or his sibling.

“No offense,” he said when he was fourteen, while we were shopping for new school clothes in a practically empty suburban Sears, “but sometimes I wish I were gay. Women can be so confusing.”

“No offense taken,” I said, and we sat together in that quiet, ridiculous, navy blue waiting area outside of the dressing rooms, the table between us holding a vase of silk flowers, the dim light buzzing above us. That day his gay uncle gave him advice about loving women and learning more about them. That day he asked about my dead mother—his grandma, a woman he never met—and my oldest brother, a man he doesn’t quite remember. That day we really became friends.

But he was always familiar. At six weeks, colicky and cranky, we passed him around the church before his baptism, while the priest droned on and on. The baby boy was wailing. Exhausted when he finally got to me, he fell asleep in my arms. I looked down at his tiny face and knew I already loved him.

At two-and-a-half, while playing in my new car, he suddenly turned to me and asked with great seriousness, “Where’s Pop-Pop?” It was what he called his grandfather, an Italian-American, who was, of course, in the kitchen, cooking. “C’mon!” he said, and we ran inside. “Pop-Pop,” he said, reaching out to take my father’s hand, “are you okay?” Pop laughed.

“Why yes, Tiger,” he said. “I’m fine.”

He has my mother’s pale skin, my grandfather’s big brows, his mother’s sarcasm, and a beautiful head of dark, shiny hair that is all his own. And I wonder who he might have been already, in another lifetime, determined this time to come back as a tall, sensitive, strong young man. And now of course, I wonder who he’ll become.

Am I allowed to feel this proud? He’s not my child after all; I didn’t choose an outfit for his kindergarten portrait; I didn’t drive him to the DMV to get his driver’s permit. But some part of me knows, beyond this projection of a childless man who wanted so much to be a parent, that we are somehow linked beyond DNA or history. We belong to a tribe of truth-seekers and sensitive men, of deep feelers and get-down-on-the-sidewalk dog lovers. We know one another; we will never be strangers.

At my father’s memorial, my nephew was barely twelve years old. Shy at the time, and quiet, he surprised me when he voluntarily spoke to the whole room—twenty or more of us, and many strangers to him—about a memory he had. My father witnessed him hitting a homerun one day, and he said it was “the best homerun” he had ever made. My father’s presence there that day on the baseball field had stayed in his young mind as a moment of being, a bright memory of being seen.

Pop-Pop had been a witness to the perfect crack of wood meeting leather, the little white ball arcing up into a pale blue afternoon sky. He still heard him clapping and cheering from the green bleachers, and my father’s voice, filled with praise, was still ringing in his ears.

And while I was surprised that he spoke, I was not surprised at the beautiful way he brought our beloved back to life again, because he has always done that for me. He reminds me of so many people in my family I have loved and lost. He reminds me to keep loving, to never stop, no matter the distance. And for that, I’m so very thankful.