The Catalyst

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

Friendly Ghost August 22, 2017

Filed under: Grief,Teaching,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher 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.

 

 

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Strange Company June 13, 2017

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher 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 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 2o 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…)

 

Reminders October 26, 2016

Filed under: Aging,Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher 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 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.

 

At Sea August 14, 2016

Filed under: Grief,Vignettes,Writing Prompts + — Christopher DeLorenzo @ 9:32 am
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The prompt this time is this one photo. It’s what inspired what I wrote below.

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It’s a hot clear day in Corsica. Our ship is docked in the large port, well out of sight, and we’ve taken a fifteen-minute bus ride down the white coastline to spend the day at the beach. The Tyrrhenian Sea is so clear, you can see the sand beneath your feet a hundred yards from shore.

Everything is blue.

The beach is filled with beautiful, dark-skinned families with thick black hair and large brown eyes. But in line for the restroom, I share a tiny patch of shade with a man who looks more like me: fair-skinned with blue eyes. We have a conversation in broken English and French, and I notice he has a similar stocky frame, threads of silver in his dark blonde hair, a few lines on his forehead and around his eyes. He’s muscular, but has the softer stomach and chest that often come with middle age. I find him beautiful, and even more so later, as he lies on the chaise next to me, and I wonder for a moment if that’s how some people see me as well. For a moment, I stop self-denigrating and feel a strong appreciation for my own body, still vital and healthy after all these years of living.

When the sun becomes too hot, I lie on my back in the water, and I realize it’s been 26 years since I escaped this way: a long, lazy day at the beach, floating in the sea, looking up at the sky.

I can only see the sky above me and feel my body, weightless. With my ears in the water the only sound I can hear is my own breath, my lungs filling and emptying, filling and emptying, and I wonder how my breathing will feel different after surgery.

Everything is blue.

After we return to the ship, I can’t pull myself out of this lovely, languid laziness. We’ve pulled away from shore and are once again at sea. There’s a pool party going on on the Lido Deck; house music is pumping from the speakers and young men are dancing in their skimpy bathing suits. But I don’t feel like dancing, so I’ve found a shady chaise on the Observation Deck, starboard side, away from the views of land and three floors above the poolside disco. My friend has gone to get us drinks, and for a moment, I am alone on the deck with only the sea rushing by. Tall glass wind guards frame the view.

I have a sudden rush of gratitude for this life I’m living. A voice inside me hollers, “I want to live!” like Susan Hayward (which really means, “I’m afraid to die!”), and though I laugh at my own melodrama, I am also acutely aware of the short time left before my upcoming surgery—just thirteen days now—and that old fear rises up again like ice in my chest. Focusing on my breath takes on a whole new meaning when I feel anxious about losing a part of my lung, but I do it right then and there, and stare at all that beautiful blue moving swiftly by on the other side of the glass.

What if death is like this? I think, replacing my fear of nothingness. What if death is just a blue sky and a blue ocean rolling by endlessly? It could be true. What if the afterlife is simply an endless sunlit blue day at sea until we bloom again into something else: a grasshopper, a wild iris, a volcano, or a newborn baby? But the problem I have with the concept of reincarnation is that it still seems like just another way of dealing with our fear of death. Who knows what happens after you die? No one.

Anyway, I tell myself, nobody’s dying right now. We’re out at sea; we’re having cocktails; I’m reading a hardcover of beautiful prose, signed by the author, a gift from a friend who shook that author’s hand, who looked into his eyes. We’re heading to Rome tomorrow, then to Mallorca. We’re on a luxury cruise ship. There are no catastrophes here. None at all.