The Catalyst

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

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.

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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.

 

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Ready for a Change April 12, 2018

The prompts this time were “nonsensical sentences.” Everyone in the group generates them, we read them around, and then write in response. The result is often some bizarre, playful, surprising prose. (My piece turned out to be a silly character.) 

Here are a few examples:

 “Don’t think about the mouse in the house, said the wheat cracker. “Just look around and step on the little white lines.”

 The chocolate pudding was in love with the dog’s leash, and all the baby yellow-jackets sang a good morning hymn.

 The ballerina decided a barber shave would be a better choice for the hot toddy on rye.

 What I wrote is below.

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Today I considered painting my toenails blue and adopting a Chihuahua. It’s sandal weather after all, and so many dogs need a good home. Of course, I’d have to quit my job at the ice cream shop and stay home to care for little Lulu, but Craigslist is full of “work from home” job listings. I could sell my homemade kombucha door to door if I needed to, with my canine companion right by my side.

Or how about selling those new extreme pressure cookers? I saw an infomercial for one that has about 20 push button options and cooks everything from pot roast to lasagna. Chicken poured right out of the removable, non-stick, dishwasher safe insert, and right onto a platter of rice with a gravy so beautiful and glossy, it was hard to believe the whole process only took fifteen minutes. It was just a matter of adding the ingredients and locking the lid nice and tight. I am seriously excited about this product. I think I could sell it, I really do.

All of this angst might have something to do with turning 26: I could be having my quarter life crisis. I found a grey hair the other day, and am seriously considering just going platinum blonde to avoid seeing more of it. But silver hair and blue toes? Is that too matchy matchy? Well, I want to give it a try. I’m too young to be old.

Maybe Martin planted this seed. He’s a very cute trans male who is traveling the country in a green Nissan Cube with his skinny Irish Wolfhound, Ace. Martin is connecting with other transmen from Ohio to Washington State and chronicling the whole adventure on Instagram. I met Martin here in Portland two weeks ago. We were smiling at each other across the back patio at the Rainbow Cattle Ranch Cocktail Bar. He eventually came over and introduced himself. He’s about my height, but muscular, with big, bushy eyebrows. When I first saw him I thought, He’s so pretty for a CIS male. What a wonderfully surprising world we live in, huh?

Martin and I talked for a while; I was impressed by his mission out there on the road, his positive attitude, and his biceps. When we exchanged contact info, he took my phone and entered his number quite deftly; he has beautiful hands. And when he hugged me goodbye, I got the sense that he was a top, and I wanted to know more about that. He was sweet and smart and cute, and he didn’t have a lot of hair on his arms, which I like. His dog liked me too. Maybe we’ll meet in Omaha for a microbrew at the Old Market, or dance together on the sand in South Beach while Deadmaus spins his holy beats.

Anything’s better that what I’ve got going now: a sore elbow from scooping ice cream and a lot of lonely nights spent with a prison full of lesbians on Netflix. I love those gals, but I think I’m ready for a real relationship. I’m definitely ready for a change.

*Photo above is famous model Ben Melzer

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Growing Pains February 1, 2017

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The prompt this time was about Sea Turtles. I read the group a page of information about these creatures. A few excerpts are:

They spend their entire lives at sea, except when adult females come ashore to lay eggs several times per season every 2 to 5 years.

After laying her egg, she returns to the sea, leaving her eggs to develop on their own. The hatchlings do not have sex chromosomes, so their gender is determined by the temperature within the nest. 

Experts say only one out of a thousand will survive to adulthood under natural conditions.

What I wrote is below.

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We were all settled in at Rockaway by the Bay, napkins on our laps and sourdough bread piping hot, water glasses full, when Sarah cleared her throat and announced that she had “something very important to say.” I felt a familiar tightness in my chest anticipating what this might be about. It had been a tough year with the kids. Since she had turned fourteen, Sarah was always upset with me about something; my middle child, Jamie, had become obsessed with getting nothing less than straight A’s, and recently my youngest, Bobby, had come out to us as trans, at age seven.

Something to announce? I prayed this wasn’t about her support for the Tea Party again. “I can see where they’re coming from,” she had argued with me one afternoon, right there in the kitchen. Or maybe she was going to defend Putin’s behavior in Chechnya (that pig!). Here we were on a Sunday evening in Pacifica, the sun was setting on the water turning everything steel and rose, and she suddenly had to make an announcement?

“Okay, Sarah,” Robert said, just like the therapist had taught us, “What is it you would like to say?” She stood up, flicked her strawberry blonde mane over each shoulder and said, “I am now a vegetarian, and I think you all should be as well. Every bite of flesh that you put in your mouth is contributing to environmental disaster and the suffering of innocent creatures.”

Jamie was already wearing the paper lobster bib the waiter given us, and I was trying to decide between a New York strip or a Crab Louie. ”

Can we eat seafood?” Jamie asked.

“No, Jamie!” Sarah hollered. “If it has eyes, don’t eat it! Meat is murder!”

“All right, Sarah,” I said. “We hear you loud and clear.”

“But I want to talk about it!” she said. “We need to dialogue as a family about this.”

“Okay. I know. But will you please sit down?”

The waiter came over to tell us about the King Crab special: a grilled sandwich with a side of coleslaw and steak fries. Bobby started to cry. “We’ll just need a few more minutes,” Robert told the waiter.

“I won’t sit here and watch you all eat dead animals!” Sarah said, gripping the edge of the table dramatically.

“What about hormone-free meat?” Bobby asked, tearfully. Since she began her transition, she was obsessed with the concept of hormones.

“Murder is murder,” Sarah said, sternly. She crossed her arms and looked straight at me. I could never look at her without thinking about how different we were physically: me with my dark features and she all peaches and cream. Those blue eyes like the sky in Iceland. I remember seeing her the first time in the hospital and thinking, Where did this baby come from? Defiant she was, and ice queen beautiful. Smart and strong, but impulsive too.

“I suppose you’re having a steak, Mother, just to spite me.” I never liked it when she called me by my first name, but when she called me “Mother,” I felt like Faye Dunaway in Mommy Dearest.

“I think I might just have dessert,” I said, surprising myself. “Their coconut cream pie is out of this world.”

 

 

Regenerating Kindness January 13, 2017

Filed under: Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 7:48 am
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                                                                                                                                                                                    pentgonaster-duebeni-3 

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.

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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…)

 

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.

 

Aging (Not So) Gracefully July 22, 2016

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Humor,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher P. DeLorenzo @ 11:09 am
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PAUL-HOLLYWOOD_2731978bThe prompts this time were:

Having an awakening

Well, the only word for it is passé.

I’m terribly sorry, but you’re not going to make love to me tonight.

What I wrote is below.

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At the optometrist, I discover my weakening eyes require a stronger prescription; now it’s harder to read small print in low light. “That’s okay,” I tell myself, “there are some great looking glasses out there now.” But that little part of me that clicks off insults in the mirror is busy with his checklist. “The skin on your belly is soft and flabby, and your neck is lined and red from sun damage.” So begins the nagging voice inside that reminds me I am aging. Daily. Rapidly.

“Try these new lenses,” my optometrist says, taking out a yellow and white box I already hate. “They’re corrective for astigmatism, and yours seems to have gotten slightly worse.” Great, I think. Even my eyeballs are growing more misshapen. “And your feet are dry and cracking,” the shitty little guy inside says. “Better be more consistent about putting lotion on your feet before bed.” Add that to the list of activities I never had to do when I was young. It seems life’s all about maintenance now, all the time.

“Everything dries up as you age,” a friend told me once. “Your eyes, your hair, your skin. There’s less oil production everywhere. Even your body fluids shrink in volume.” Um, TMI? I thought. But thanks for that uplifting information.

After my depressing eye appointment, I stop at Peet’s to get a cup of coffee, too fatigued to make it past four o’clock without a caffeine jolt (or a nap). Everything feels harder now that I’m in my fifties. What is this struggle? I ask myself that over and over and over again. Why can’t I just accept growing older and be happy I’m alive and healthy? These two strong legs, this full head of hair (albeit, with strands of grey, and thinning). Why can’t I love my body as it is right now? It’s only going to grow older.

Some people seem more attracted to me as I age. People call me Sir in a way that sometimes makes me think they want me to take charge in the bedroom. They hold the door open for me and then watch my ass as I walk in front of them. Just yesterday, a young bank teller was giving me the big eyes, flirtatiously chatting me up. The guys on DudesNude and Scruff often refer to me as “Stud,” even after they see my shirtless picture. It seems some younger men would like an older Daddy boyfriend who occasionally enjoys a beer. Maybe there’s a new hotness quotient here I’m missing? Maybe. But why do I still feel like a chubby, middle-aged guy who drives a boring car and is no longer marriage material if so many men keep telling me I’m fuckable and fabulous? How do I learn to see this aging body and this new desirability with grace and affection?

Everyone else seems to understand that this is the most natural thing in the world. Growing older. Becoming more comfortable in your own skin. No one else is comparing me to the younger version of me, 25 pounds lighter with a flat stomach. Nobody is asking me to be younger than I am right now, except me. “Older men are hot,” my close friend Renaldo says. He and I are the same age, and he seems to embrace his older, sexier self. “When are you going to get that through your head?” he asks. Then he adds, “Honey, you’re beautiful. Somewhere out there, there’s a barista lusting over you right now.” When he says this, I believe him. We bubble up with laughter, and I can see the lines around our eyes crinkling up like tissue paper.