Tag Archives: carriage




Wednesday was The Dictionary Project’s 4th Birthday! So, according to four-year-old development, at this point The Dictionary Project “wants to try new experiences” and is “developing greater self-control and ingenuity”; also, “pretend play is more complex and imaginative and can be sustained for longer period.” The Dictionary Project “approach[es] the world with great curiosity and uses its imagination to help understand it.”*


This project has been a beautiful unfolding, and I want to thank each and every one of you for your part in watching The Dictionary Project grow and develop over the years. I am looking forward to what this new year brings. As is tradition, we’ll start enter this fifth year of posts with a post about our first-ever bibliomanced word: portance.


One of the goals this year is to make the project even more interactive, to invite you more and more into the conversation, so please feel free to comment on your thoughts on our posts or words. We can start with this one. What does the word portance bring up for you?



port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. <Fr. portance < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor



My Carriage Is Missing A Wheel, Too


Our culture is very concerned with appearance. How we look, how we dress, how we cut our hair, how we walk, how we speak. According to The Economist, Americans spend more on beauty annually than they do on education. We are encouraged to give such care and scrutiny to our own carriage and the way others carry themselves.


When I switched schools, from an all girls school to a co-ed school, in seventh grade, I walked nervously across the blacktop that first day to find where my classmates were sitting before the bell rang. I was a chubby, shy twelve-year-old. I began to look around and the girls in my class seemed so much older than me.  With their hair piled atop their heads in high ponytails, they walked with confidence, swaying their hips; they giggled and flirted with the boys. They had a sort of sureness about them. And I realized, to my dismay, that they all had shaved legs. I found a spot and sat cross-legged on the ground, pulling my light blue plaid skirt tight across my knees, and waited for the bell to ring. The rest of the day, instead of focusing on meeting new friends or teachers or how to navigate around the school building, I contorted myself into as many shapes and directions as possible in the hopes that no one would notice the hair on my legs. The last thing I wanted was to be exposed as unaware, as deeply uncool.


Underneath the entire obsession with appearance—plastic surgery and weight loss plans and new workouts and wrinkle creams and and and—rests deep fear of our own vulnerability. We want to be perceived on the outside as what we don’t always feel on the inside: whole, complete, okay. The word portance comes from the root porter: to bear, to carry. We believe we have to carry our selves, our lives, our burdens, our shames, our wounds on our own, and in this belief is rooted one of our deepest sources of suffering: the feeling of alienation and separateness from others. Also resting underneath is a deep yearning to belong. In trying to bear our hardest heartaches alone, we deny ourselves the very connection we so deeply desire and that would help us through these difficult moments.


I read a very powerful article in The New York Times the other day entitled “The Trauma of Being Alive” by Mark Epstein. He speaks about his mother who says she still grieves for his father, her husband of sixty years, four years after his death and that she “should be over it by now.” Our own grief and others’ grief makes us uncomfortable because we are reminded that we are capable of fracture. We are reminded that, no matter how careful we are, we will break. And our own denial of this inevitable breaking only makes our fear stronger. So we tell ourselves to “get over it,” we tell others to “move on” because we want to deny the reality that we live in an uncertain world.


Epstein explains that each of us experiences unavoidable traumas, both big and small, that are simply a part of being alive. He writes, “Trauma is not just the result of major disasters. It does not happen to only some people. An undercurrent of trauma runs through ordinary life, shot through as it is with the poignancy of impermanence. I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster.”


Often, we measure our degree of being okay in relation to our perception of the ease of others’ lives. Look at their sweet family, look at their published book, look at their high-powered job, look at their happy facebook status, look at their fancy house. We assume from our external examination of their carriage that they are getting it right while we are somehow getting it wrong. We assume they live without struggle. Or we assume that they have learned an easy and infallible way to bear.


American Buddhist nun and teacher Pema Chödrön says, “None of us is ever OK, but we all get through everything just fine.”





One of the meanings of the word portance is “carriage.” It would be nice if our carriages maintained their fresh paint, their newness. But as vessels, they are meant to be used. And use results in wear. Paint peels, curtains fray. Doors get nicks and scrapes. We are on our way somewhere and we suddenly feel a jostling and hold on as we are thrown by a lost wheel. We have to stop for repairs. We look underneath the carriage for gear adjustments that need to be made. We put on a fresh coat of paint. We travel on.


What if we strove for a different kind of bearing? One that had less to do with the posture of our body and more to do with the posture of our spirit—a posture that we can accept regardless of its changing nature based on where we are in our lives? What if instead of worrying so much about the timbre of our speech, we committed to saying words that are true? What if instead of thinking of good bearing as where we were born or how much money we make or how “successful” we are, we defined good bearing as the ability to bear life, even when it is hard, with grace or without.


We don’t have to look for every nick, scrape, or paint peel on the outside of other people’s carriages. We can choose to knock on the window and look at the person inside. When stranded on the roadside with a bad wheel, we can invite another to help us whole our carriage so we can travel again. The very nature of this life requires us to bear, to carry, but it does not require that we do it alone. In order to connect with others, we have to be honest with ourselves, to speak our truth aloud. In acknowledging our struggles and imperfections, we give the people in our lives—our friends and neighbors and even those people who challenge us—the opportunity to safely acknowledge their own.



And a little 4th Birthday song for you:




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port⋅ance, v1

As I mentioned in my last post, this week I will be featuring posts by guest contributors who are offering their own insights and observations on the first word ever randomly selected for the dictionary project:

port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor

This first post is from Julie Lauterbach-Colby*.

“Lines Appearing, Distant Points”

We study the line. From point A to point B we have the closest distance. Draw a footpath, map out a solid trail of breadcrumbs. Denote journey and begin.

Intersection of lines, latitude and longitude, a knitting, a stitch. Sense of security; single location of one self in space. I say one, because, can we ever possess our whole selves in any given moment? Denote a journey, a beginning.

We are all familiar with the history of the GPS (I wasn’t). Devloped by the military to deliver an exact point, an exact location. We are talking precision here: the most authoritative mode of travel, point A to point B and nothing else, nothing outside. Similar to (and at the same time, nothing like) medieval road maps.

Matthew Paris, an English monk from the 1200s, was famous for them. He made the maps in likeness to Roman army parchment maps: thin strips, the maps only showing road and important places along that journey. Most often, these journeys were spiritual: how to travel from London to Jerusalem for a holy pilgrimage.

(How to, with accompanying pictures for each: Start in London [A]; cross the English Channel [B]; through France [C, where the whole country was drawn as a single castle with three spires]; into Italy [D]; across the sea [E]; onward to the holy land [J, with a few undeciphered points in-between].)

Notes in the margin of the parchment scaled distance, how long it would take one to travel between destinations. Roads were straight—study the line: from point A to point B we have the closet distance. Nothing exists outside the frame, no chance for wandering minds, no detail for lay of the land. These maps were about getting. About time-management, efficiency. Exactness, with a clear sense of exclusion. As in, “Shoulders back, chin up.” Presentation of one self and oneself. (I cannot seem to stress this enough.)

It was from a fear of its exactness that military personnel insisted that the GPS technology remain hidden from the world citizen. In 199__ the Clinton administration “unscrambled” the codes and put the GPS on the public’s radar.

Take a GPS and map out a ten-mile radius from where you are (your house, your car, your supermarket, your post office, your church) and follow that breadcrumb trail from each direction: go N, NE, E; SE, S, SW; W, NW. Upon arrival, turn 360° and take in the view.

You’re going to this one spot, and it’s a dictated spot. Once you get there, infinite possibilities. The first sea cartographers used x to mark not treasure but danger. Define trespassing: there are a million ways in which I lie.

*Julie Lauterbach-Colby is a writer, teacher and artist living in Tucson. She is currently working on a project that incorporates cartography, mathematical equations and cadavers, and owns her own editing business called Chicken Scratch Editing.

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and the first word is…


port⋅ance (pôr/t’ns), n. [Early Mod. Eng. <Fr. portance < porter, to bear, carry; cf. –ANCE], [Archaic], conduct; bearing; carriage; demeanor

(definition from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language: College Edition. The World Publishing Company. Copyright 1955.)

So here it is, the first word for the dictionary project. I find it interesting that portance is our first word here given my recent obsession with the AMC show Mad Men. Everything about that show revolves around decorum, around the appropriate way to walk and dress, around what it means to be a gentleman or a lady. There are rules for how the advertising executives should conduct themselves with clients. There are rules about the ways wives should take care of their husbands, home and children. There are rules about how marriages should proceed, how wives should look the other way, how husbands should be discreet with their affairs outside the home. And there are judgments based on whether women and men fit into the molds predetermined for them, whether they come from good families.

But in addition to those preset rules and values, there are also excuses made for acting outside of them. Men should always be polite and respectful to women, but, you know, boys will be boys. Men should know how to hold their drink but they should not overdo it. There is a fine line between a good businessman and a lush. You want your wife to act like a lady, but certainly not your mistress. Single ladies should be pretty and proper to attract men, but everyone knows men love seductresses. There is a fine line between a sexy woman and a whore.

I think the most fascinating thing about the show for me is that these rules are so different than the ones we follow. Dress codes have changed. Gender dynamics have changed. The nuclear family has changed. And yet, even as so much has changed in almost a half a century, there is always the memory of this time. Its residue factors into every decision and interaction we have in our daily lives. I remember as I apply for jobs that I would not have been considered for these positions fifty years ago. I remember as I am questioned by family members about my love life that being thirty and single fifty years ago would have been even more of a stigma than it is today. I remember as I see women navigate their work and family lives that there was a time that they were expected to take care of their family and be contented with that. If they were not, they could be sent to an “analyst” to figure out what was wrong with them.

A friend of mine who also watches the show questioned her own fascination with the show and with a time period so many decades ago. She wondered if it meant she would have rather lived then or if it was because her parents had existed in that world and in a similar office environment. I think there was a certain safety in having clearer lines of conduct then, particularly in the distinctions between men and women. You knew how you were supposed to behave. The answers were clear and universal, and all you needed to do was follow the handbook already written for you.

There was safety and seeming ease, but with these strict guidelines came severe limitations. What happens when you are supposed to be one way but you find yourself more complicated as a person than those rules allow? What if you are a man who enjoys taking care of your children and home? What if you are a housewife who enjoys hunting and fishing? What if you have an inheritance but find yourself without purpose and with a desire to do something, to work somewhere?

I think we are a little bit slow to recognize how many rules of conduct are still in place in our daily lives. Everything has changed—it is true. However, it is dangerous for us to assume that these values do not linger on, especially as the show has gained a following of people nostalgic for that period in history. For the truth is as I watch the women secretaries be ogled by their bosses and cohorts, I think back to times when I have felt demeaned as a woman in the workplace. As I see the lead character Don Draper reckon with his past and with his predetermined role as breadwinner and strong husband, I think of all of the men I have known who have suffered intensely from trying to maintain their masculine role and having no one to share their trials with. We would do well to see this show not merely as a reminder of what was but as a clue into what expectations continue to exist. What is good and helpful about them? What harms us as individuals and communities? What rules of conduct exist because it contributes to us being good, kind human beings? And what obsessions with portance keep us and those around us bound?


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