Something Lithesome This Way Comes

Lithesome describes something that’s graceful and flexible, like a ballet dancer or a willow tree bending in the wind. Use the adjective lithesome when you need a delicate word to describe a person or thing that bends and turns easily, whether it’s a jaguar in the jungle or a young gymnast on a balance beam.

—-https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/lithesome

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There are things brewing, things I want to write about, but none of them are whole. Some are slithery beasts, like down-deep, from the mud base, pond-water creatures…things that I can’t get my hand around for purchase (and maybe—eeuyewww,—I don’t want to hold onto that slimy thing). Some are just forming, like oobleck in its haze-phase: they are abstract, too insubstantial to explore with words just yet.

I go searching for topic alternatives, and they all run too fast; I flutter forward, but I can only get a glimpse of them, disappearing around a corner far ahead of me.

Then it is Friday night, and I don’t have a topic for my Saturday blog post. I head to my last resort: the prompt jar.

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I unscrew the lid and hand the jar to Jim. He swirls the pieces of paper inside; he digs down deep and pulls out a one-inch yellow square. He opens it up and reads, “Lithesome.”

He hands it to me with an interested look.

“Lithesome,” I say. “Huh.”

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I know what lithesome means. One day long ago, I WROTE it on that little square, after all. But I take the little piece of paper from Jim, and I thank him, and I go upstairs to the quiet writing place.

And I look up lithesome.

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A person that bends and turns easily…I have seen the word used to describe ballerinas and twig-thin models, but never to describe me. Once, back along a rock-strewn road a lifetime ago, I was twig-thin.

Once.

But I don’t think I ever bent or turned easily.

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At dinner I was flipping through People magazine. I am not even sure why it arrives each week; it must have been a bonus prize for ordering something or other.

When it slides through the mail slot, we snort and discount it. “People?” we say. “Who reads this shlock?” And then we leave it on the table so we can page through it, loving shlockiness, indulging a guilty pleasure.

Beautiful people crowd the magazine’s glossy pages.

“Who is that?” asks Mark, stabbing a finger, and I see that it is Jared Leto and a younger woman, a Russian model. He is 49; she is 26 or so. They have been together for four years, but those four years (the magazine tells me) have not been smooth ones.

He is dark, thin, bearded. He looks intense. She is fair and slender. (“She looks anorexic,” Mark says. “Too thin!”)

She smiles at the camera with a certain kind of energy that suggests she is probably bendable. She looks lithesome.

For some reason, that jogs Mark’s memory.

“Have you ever heard of the singer, Lizzo?” he asks.

I have not.

He tells me that she is a beautiful young woman who is NOT lithesome. She is large, Mark says, and quite happy with it.

She is the kind of woman, he ruminates, quite comfortable wearing a bikini. And if you don’t like it, don’t like the way she looks, she’ll just tell you to go away.

I look Lizzo up on-line. She is a beautiful woman, and she is a big one. “Lithesome” was not coined to describe her, but I bet she bends and turns easily, too.

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This week the first hot-hot day came, upper nineties, bringing that pending, just-you-wait feel with it. I walked early, did a little yard work, then holed up in the air-conditioned house, catching up on classwork.

The sun beat down, and the air shimmered.

Toward late afternoon, clouds began to gather. The heat grew closer, pushed down, moist, and the air was like a gasped breath, never expelled.

As we ate dinner, the wind began, softly at first. The small leaves on the tree by the kitchen began to tear off.

The wind grew stronger and bolder; those fallen little leaves were scooped up and tossed. A laughing, wicked spirit was playing.

All the trees joined in then; soon the rain began, hard, furious; it pounded while the trees thrashed.

The small tree by the kitchen bent and swayed; it was lithesome.

The big trees out front flailed and wrenched. Branches flew down, and nosegays of leaves; sweet gum pods detached and bounced through the rain popping in the street.

Those big trees knew how to bend and turn, but they didn’t make it look easy. Each wrenching movement cost a little piece of tree-something.

The next morning, the yard and the street were scattered with tree detritus, and most of the little tree’s leaves were on the ground.

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It’s funny. I have been thinking about trees lately, quite a lot more than usual. We walk on the new path at the college on hot days, the Joe’s Run Trail. We wander through a shady woods; we cross a sturdy bridge over a sparkling brook, and then the path turns woody again, paralleling the road for a ways.

The trees there have personalities; they make me think about blowing the dust off my sketch pad and sharpening a pencil.

There is a big tree, a wise old tree, with interesting silver bark. In places the bark has seized up and made scarred shapes. I walk by and neck hairs rise, just a little; it looks like this tree has a graven eye; it looks as if it this tree is eying ME. And then the silver bark settles down again, smooths itself.

The smoothness has been irresistible to people with pen knifes. The silvered trunk is trusted to tell the tales of old lovers, to remember dates of events we can only guess at, to testify that this certain person was, once, here.

And then the shiny, almost metallic, surface splits again, and a resigned, etched eye peers out.

That tree would be “The Watcher.”

There is a tree with the bark blown away in a swirling swoop; burnished wood slopes down into a plunging root. It looks, for all the life of me, like a proud, sturdy woman showing off a well-turned ankle.

I could sketch that tree and call it, “The Flirt.”

There is a slender tree with long, long branches. One wraps around a nearby companion, holding it back from the fray. Another branch reaches toward the path, as if signaling.

I’d call a drawing of that tree, I think, “The Crossing Guard.”

The Crossing Guard is the only one that qualifies as lithesome, but all the trees feel like they are ready to move and to bend.

And maybe they do when we’re not around.

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I am reading, oddly enough, a novel about trees: The Overstory, by Richard Powers. He starts by throwing out the stories of different people, different families. There are immigrants and travelers; there are happy, well-adjusted folk, and there are seekers and strivers, the ones who can never quite sit still.

There is, for each of those characters, a tree connection, that slowly, slowly—almost as slowly as a tree might grow,—brings those folks together.

There is a beautiful lithesome character in the book. I will not tell you her fate.

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Lithesome! Early this week, Mark and I headed out for an early walk; the world was dewy and cool, and in the semi-circle of iris plants just before the foot of the driveway, a tiny trembling fawn nestled.

It startled us; we startled it.

The tiny thing’s nose quivered; that trembling nose was outlined, I was surprised to see, with a scant row of white fur.

“Where is your MOTHER?” Mark asked it, and then we both thought to fumble for our phones, to take the baby’s first photo.

It looked at us, perplexed, and then suddenly, it was air bound, running away, pointed, in the space of a breath, completely  in the other direction. Liquid, fluid, other.

Lithesome.

We keep looking for that little furry one to come back. We haven’t seen it yet.

“I hope,” says Mark, “that baby found its mother.”

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Life, this year, has certainly moved and bent. One week, we are shopping, stopping for a nosh at the coffee shop, planning an outing, getting ready for a face to face class, thinking about travel.

The next week, we are at home and hunkered down, ready to face a long-sequestered spell.

When, finally, things seem to be ready to ease up, we are planted, facing an entirely different horizon than we previously contemplated.

What, we ponder, will life grow to be like now?

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And, thrust into our thinking, a senseless act of brutality anchors our gaze on things we would not look at. Here it is, the tragedy says. This is racism. Stay and see. We cannot look away.

The times demand bending, moving, changing.

The changes won’t be lithesome; frozen limbs will creak, will groan. There will be snapping and discomfort and laments.

But change has to come.

Or maybe it has to be here NOW.

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I will seek, this week, to appreciate things lithesome, and to accept that I will never join their ranks, will always be an appreciator. But, bending, moving…those are movements I can aspire to, as I flash an arm down to capture that slippery, elusive thing, as I blow cool breath on the haze and help it grow whole.

You Know, I’m Not From Here, Myself

Image from whatmortgage.co.uk
Image from whatmortgage.co.uk

Some days I remember how true it is that I’m not from here, myself.

I got a fascinating letter yesterday from Clarissa, a former student become fast friend, who has moved to a farm some ways from here. Clarissa was detailing her summer exploits…in which she and her husband harvested and canned and preserved, froze, dried, and dehydrated, an amazing abundance of food.

Clarissa writes about the wonders of fresh eggs, the stupidity of guinea hens, and of drying every last piece of the tomato–skin and seeds and pulp,—then grinding the dry stuff to a powder she adds to soups. She writes about squash and cucumbers and corn (which the coons ate; she had to buy her canning corn in town), about an ancient variety of sweet peppers, and getting the root cellar ready.

And she writes about green beans,— picking them, cooking up messes of them, canning, and sharing them. But there was one sentence I just didn’t understand, so I took the letter into work with me.

Taylor and Andy and May were chatting at the front desk. As it happened, they were talking about eating off the land, which gave me an opening. I said to Taylor, “Hey! What does this mean: ‘The pale beans are going to be shelly beans now.’?”

Taylor gave me that ‘you’re an idiot’ look.

“Gimme that,” she said.

She scanned Clarissa’s beautifully handwritten letter and snorted.

“POLE beans,” she said. “The POLE beans are going to be shelly beans now.”

May and even Andy–who’s from upstate, who just moved here,– both nodded knowingly.

“Shelly beans?” I said. “What’s a shelly bean?”

There was one of those sucked in pauses–one of those pauses that gives you long enough to see the thought bubble settle over someone’s head, and to read, “Can you believe this moron????”–and Taylor said, “SHELLY beans. You know–like you SHELL them???”

Oh. Sure. SHELLY beans. I grabbed my letter and thanked her for her trouble and marched back to my office, which, thankfully, is way back at the far end of things. I folded up Clarissa’s letter and put it in my book bag, and maybe later tonight I’ll get on the internet and look things up and try to understand the point at which a pole bean becomes a shelly bean, and what, indeed, a shelly bean is.

And as I marched away I could hear Taylor explaining to Andy, “She’s not from here.”

It reminded me of another time. Mark and I were at a church event in Mayville, New York, and one of the older ladies was talking about the elephant that the town adopted back, I think, in the 1950’s.

“Wow,” I said–it was quite a story–, “I never knew that before.”

“Well,” she responded, and her voice had that same tone Taylor’s did when she was explaining my ignorance to Andy, “you’re new.”

At the time, I’d lived in Mayville almost eight years.

You shuffle your feet, and you’re destined to be the ‘new kid,’ a transplant no matter how long you’ve been there.

Or, instead of shuffling, you settle back in, and you’re a lifer.

Both have their own little cachets. Or stigmas, depending how you look at it.

I was talking to a man the other day who lives in the house in which he grew up. Bill went away to college, got his degrees, and moved back home. By that time, his parents’ nest had emptied. Bill had married and anticipated, quite rightly, as it turned out, that there would soon be children to fill the four bedrooms. So his parents downsized, and he bought his well-loved home.

He and his wife have transformed that home; it is a showplace, a warm, welcoming, expansive space, totally their own.

And still: the house he grew up in. How would that feel?

Thinking of that, I decided to make a list of homes I’ve lived in. I was very surprised to work it out to be 16. That means I’ve lived in three or more places per decade. That means I’ve spent less than, on average, three and three quarter years in each home.

What does that tell me about my life, my roots, my roosting qualities?

There is someone within hollering distance who remembers when Bill fell asleep on the school bus in kindergarten and rode it all the way to the end of the route. They still talk about his high school football exploits, and three of his four school days girlfriends (he married the fourth one) go to his same church. Bill could probably tell you all about a shelly bean and why the town shuts down when the Buckeyes play on Saturday; he can debate the merits of hot chicken sandwiches vs. pulled pork (and talk knowledgeably about whether the cole slaw goes ON the sandwich or next to it), and explain who our first female mayor was, back in the ’80’s.

My history is a little different. I grew up with friends whose mothers cooked duck blood soup (they pronounced its Polish name “Chi-nee-na,” but I would seriously have to look up the spelling) and pierogis, or spaghetti sauce from tomatoes they grew in their backyards, ladled thickly (some families called that sauce ‘gravy’) over homemade, pillowy ravioli. I grew up knowing it was beef on weck, not beef on “wick,” and I remember when the wing came to Buffalo. I had my sports-heart broken a lot of times.

Our winter talk was about lake effect. OUR storm was the Blizzard of ’77.

Here, they talk about the storm that came in 1978, and there are parking signs that tell you three inches of snow constitutes an emergency.

There’s no one here who remembers the time I got stuck vaulting over the horse in gym class and wound up hanging upside down by my toes–earning myself the forever nickname, from my gym teacher, of “Amazing Grace.” There’s no one who remembers the alcohol-fueled argument I had with the guy in the take out place who insisted on talking about the “Equal RATS Amendment.”

In some ways, being peripatetic is a really good thing.

It’s funny, though. I was a terrifically shy kid; whenever I went someplace new, it took me forever to warm up, a long time to reach out and make friends. So it would make sense if I hated moving, if the door jambs from every place I’d ever left had claw marks dragged into them from where they had to tear me away.

But the first time we moved, when I was in third grade, I remember being really excited. My brothers, who were older and settled into their classes, middle school and high school, were not; they were upset at being made to leave home and friends. I had good friends, too, and I missed them, but I was fascinated by the change from Catholic school to public school, from a homogenous grouping to a more eclectic one.

The next move brought me to a neighborhood where three girls my own age lived within half a city block–what a wonderful place to spend my middle school years. And then my parents moved to the house they’d occupy until they moved into their tiny ‘old age home’ apartment. That house was home for my high school years–where the neighbors would come out and ask me about my season as I swung my wooden Wilson racket down the street, walking to the courts; where Mr. Legier would sometimes drive me to my job at the supermarket when Dad couldn’t take me–in a grandpa car-boat fifty feet long that he drove at a steady 15 miles an hour.

Then I moved–college, apartments, marriage, divorce, apartment, marriage, job changes, law school for Mark, aftermaths. And every move has brought new treasures in friends and place and work and quirky, unique details.

I have lived in the town Mark Twain called a stud farm for idiots. I have lived in the town where the actual one-hour photo machine, used in the Robin Williams movie of that name, wound up being used to develop photos, sometimes in one hour, at the local grocery. I have lived in Paul Lynde’s birthplace, and I live in a place now that has a restaurant/bar built from barn wood taken from Agnes Moorehead’s farm, which is just down the road aways. I have lived, I can say with truth, in fascinating places. I have grown in each of them.

There’s an anchor, though, in my husband’s family, who are firm in the area where we grew up, a magnetic north that pulls us back. We have made our own ‘homeplace,’ and yet, for Mark especially, there are layers to the meaning of ‘home.’

Bill and his wife Allie have traveled all over. They’ve probably been to 35 states; they’ve been to Europe, to Egypt, and they have toured the Far East. But they return each time to where they began. Adventurous, inquisitive, their roots are strong and fast in the place of their births.

We are all needed–the intrepid, sometimes clueless, wanderers, the firmly planted live-at-homes. We need the memory of what has gone by; we need the expectations of what a place should be. Between the two, there’s a tension; the tension holds us up higher, makes us reach collectively for a little better life. Reach to match the wanderer’s expectations. Reach to honor the vision of the ancestors who built.

That’s what I think my work is about, at a wonderful community college where the students range in age from 12, sometimes, no kidding–to, gosh–occasionally, there’s someone taking a class who’s even older than I am. And that’s why little shelly bean jokes will never separate me fundamentally from Taylor, whose passion is in helping others reach their dreams. She grew up with some of those same dreams; she made hers come true, a lot of them; she’s got others that are still waiting to come to life. She’s helping, now, too,  her sweet, funny daughter reach for dreams uniquely her own.

My family’s dream required relocating; it’s been weird and painful and interesting; and it’s been fun and informative and priceless. We think that this place, this time, this fit, allows us to get cozy, to settle in, to let those shallow roots search out a deeper level.

We may be here twenty years from now, established [and old] members of the community.

And if we are, someone will say, after we ask about a story we’ve never heard, or inquire about a person we never met, “Ah, yes. You’re new.”

And I’ll just smile, and agree. It’s true, it really is. I’m not from here, myself.

 

Some names have been altered to disguise the knowledgeable.