port·ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. <Fr. portance < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor
Today is the second anniversary of the dictionary project! I want to take a moment to thank you for reading this project and for the many ways in which you have offered your support for the project and have inserted your own stories, meaning, words. I am so grateful.
Our tradition at the dictionary project is to celebrate each anniversary by having a visiting author offer their own take on the first word that I ever chose by closing my eyes and running my finger through the pages of my dictionary. That word is portance. Please enjoy the evocative prose and storytelling of writer Elizabeth Frankie Rollins.
A Meal and a Dream
Once I had a meal and a dream that told me everything I ever needed to know about how to conduct myself, how to carry myself in the world.
Here’s the thing about that meal: it was Tuscany night at the little restaurant out in a village, a limited menu, everything fresh, much of it from the garden right outside the windows where tall lilies waved orange in every single pane.
The salad was panzanella, tomatoes truthfully ripe, hunks of airy, vinegar-soaked bread, basil sparked oil. There was red wine. Summer’s dusk light hung bright around the table. Stories floated over the silverware and glasses.
Not long after the panzanella, I saw Joyce Carol Oates arrive and sit at a long table with a bunch of professorial, writer-looking people. It was August. It looked like a departmental meeting. Oates is unmistakable, with those rather awful glasses, but here’s the thing about her: I had just been staring at four shelves of her books in the library that very morning. So many published books, a good teaching job. I was writing my second book, my first novel. Occasionally, I had to clean attics to supplement the money I made teaching. I stared at her with jealousy.
Still, we were there. The lilies waved at her, too. We were eating from the same limited menu.
At our table of friends, my novel came up. It’s a monster, I told them, scales and teeth and claws. I reach into an abyss every day and I don’t know what will come out, or if it will bite, or be dead, or what. We all laughed. They had questions about writing a book. I was relieved to be asked, and I answered them. It felt good to make the private, difficult life of sentences tangible.
The main course arrived and it was a braised lamb stew, succulent with carrots and glimmering dark. Earth and cosmos and dirt and sun. Beneath the stew, a secret loam of tender mashed potatoes. I ate. I sipped wine. I closed my eyes over the last few bites. My husband squeezed my leg because he loves when I am that rapturous.
After I finished, I noticed that Joyce Carol Oates was being served the fish, and I gloated over my own choice. Also, she wore old lady pants, white with elastic at the waist. Things evened out a bit between us.
For dessert, half a globe of buxom peach arrived, seared and dolloped with sweet cream. I felt as though the garden, in sating me, had granted me a new body. Even my bones felt light.
That night, we slept at our friends’ house in the country, on a white square bed with a woolen-colored dog at our feet and a breeze blowing white curtains over us.
As I fell asleep, I was aware of my husband murmuring, and the dog at our feet. I saw how each of us was a continent, separate and yet sharing the world.
I began to dream. I dreamt a procession of canvasses passing by. Large and small, marked and unmarked. Black lines and white space emerging and vanishing. A small woolen-colored canvas spun by. A rectangle with gray blurred lines, a square with interlocking circles. I watched these blank or marked canvasses emerge and pass by and thought: this is the beginning of creativity, a molecular illustration of how it happens. The marks of ideas in their origins, on their way to becoming other, real things in the world. I became aware of the world around the canvases, a space filled with brilliant, suffused and loving light, a shimmering brightness so good and strong that it was unmistakable. All decay and sorrow fell from me.
I believe that the light and the warmth and the goodness I saw that night is all around us, in and thick with everything. The connections and disconnections and inventions and sheddings. It witnesses the marks made upon us, the marks we make on the world. How one thing grows into another thing and another. And when we die, we simply fold back into that light. We come from it and carry it, and it awaits us.
Once I had this meal. Once I had this dream. I learned everything I need to know about how to conduct myself. And yet. There are days I forget.