Things have been a little quiet over here at the dictionary project, and I want to thank you for your support and your patience. The resident logophile (AKA: me) has been teaching two intensive writing courses which means lots of reading, editing and supporting others’ writing and much less time to do my own. But tonight, it feels really important that I take a break from being a writing teacher and do some writing. So thank you for your attention.
Last year, I decided to randomly select two words for my birthday. I saw it as a way of marking the day and perhaps contemplating what might be in store. I picked two words because I was housesitting at the time and the dictionary available to me was in two volumes. Since I’m deciding to honor this tradition as an annual ritual, I again picked two words on my birthday (July 5th), this time from two different dictionaries (my Webster’s from 2004 and my Webster’s from 1955). I’ve written many versions of this post but I didn’t really feel enthused about what I came up with so I scrapped them all. Here is the one that, so far, feels most true.
1for \fər, ˈfȯr\ prep. 1 : as a preparation toward <dress ~ dinner> 2 : toward the purpose or goal of <need time ~ study> <money ~ trip> 3 : so as to reach or attain <run ~ cover> 4 : as being <took him ~ a fool> 5 : because of <cry ~ joy> 6 — used to indicate a recipient <a letter ~ for> 7 : in support of <fought ~ his country> 8 : directed at: AFFECTING <a cure ~ what ails you> 9 —used with a noun or pronoun followed by an infinitive to form the equivalent of a noun clause <~ you to go would be silly> 10 : in exchange as equal to: so as to return the value of <a lot of trouble ~ nothing> <pay $10 ~ hat> 11 : CONCERNING <a sticker ~ detail> 12 : CONSIDERING <tall ~ her age> 13 : through the period of <served ~ three years> 14 : in honor of <named ~ her grandmother> (from Webster’s, 2004)
out·build·ing (out`bil`diŋ), n. a structure, as a garage or barn, separate from the house or main building. (Webster’s, 1955)
After much thought and consideration, I have found that within these two words lies the import of our lives. We are where we are from and we are what we are constantly outbuilding for ourselves so that our lives can be what we want them to be. We are what is in us. We are what we create around us.
First, we are what is in us. This means the place of our birth, the landscapes we grew up in. We are our parents and ancestors, our communities, our ethnicities, our experience of gender, our hometowns, our accents, our languages. We are oak trees covered in Spanish moss. We are the smell of pine in the winter. We are darlin’ and mi carina. We are that time we fell from the monkeybars in second grade and we are the time we won the spelling bee and got to take our picture for the school yearbook. We are pizza and crank calls. We are songs we still remember all the words to because we couldn’t stop listening to them when we were thirteen. We are school plays and school concerts and school games. We are our first loves and our first and continuing heartbreaks. We are looseleaf and ballpoint pens and passing notes in class. We are talking on the phone for hours. We are trying to find the time to write, to email, to schedule a phone conversation when we are many miles away. We are the first time we got tipsy. We are the first time we flew on a plane alone. We are the first time we said “I love you.” We meant it. We are cartographers, drawing our destinies across the country, across the world. We are rivers we kayaked and mountains we climbed. We are movies so spot on that seemed as if the director had peered right into our souls. We are bad and good television. We are bad and good conversation. We are sacrifice and generosity. We are gossip and good neighbors. We are books and instruments. We are cookware and tools. We are the embraces that feel as if they will never end, and we don’t want them to. We are lovers and loving. We are dreams of children and babies we bear. We are holding hands when we lose something, when we lose someone. We are the moments when we know that we are, that we will always be okay, and we are the moments we feel broken beyond repair. We are the sky when it breaks open. We are the way the ground is both solid and yielding. Where we are from rests at our core, and we know that ultimately each of our cores is no different from the others because we are made of the same matter, carbon and water, stardust.
And we are also our own outbuilding, the additions we build, the structures we add on, the tangible and intangible beliefs and dreams and skills and networks that we create for ourselves, these things that are both separate from and a part of us and our lives. We build for ourselves places to live, nooks to crawl into. We build an identity that feels true; we hold it inside our chests, sometimes rehanging pictures, sometimes adding new bookshelves and furniture. We build cars out of tiny scraps of confidence and trust and big panels of adventure, of myth, of risk, and we hope that these vehicles will take us to our next destination. We think we know what it is but we may not. We build something resembling home in every place we set up shop. We look for people who feel like family, and we build them guest rooms and treehouses and porches to sit on at night. We build propellers made of what we already know about ourselves and when they don’t spin right, we figure out where the cracks are, so that we can fly. We build dreams and we hope that the boats we have built to carry our dreams will not flood with water, will not sink.
Knowing where we are from, we outbuild. We are the cornerstone, the hearth of the house. We are the barn outside, stable but always leaning. We are the human heart. We are the body that contains it. We remember who we are (and how that is always changing) and we remember what we love (and how that is always changing) and we continue to be and we continue to build. Because that is, we know, the way this thing goes.