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: