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

 

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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…)