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Day 29 of the 30 days, 30 words challenge



spy  v.  spied, spying  1  watch closely and secretly see –n. pl. spies one who spies, esp. to get another country’s secrets.




I spy with my little eye…


We play this game as children. Something is spied—a red shoe, a green tree, a gray button—and then must be discovered. We get a hint. We guess. We get a hint. We’re getting warmer. We’re getting oooh, ice cold. We want to get it right. We want to know what our playmate was thinking. We want to see the same thing they saw. We learn the tremendous power of observation.


“I Spy” is excellent training ground for our creativity. We learn how keen our notice can be. We learn how to scrutinize and select. When we are the spier, we have to pick objects that will be harder and harder to guess. When we are the guesser, we must uncover the tiny details our playmates have decided upon.


We learn to discern between shades of the same color (is something lemon yellow or mustard yellow?). We learn how to read those around us (what objects would he pick?). We learn to be persistent, when we have guessed and guessed and still haven’t guessed right.


I used to love reading mysteries when I was younger: Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes and R.L. Stine. When I was a little older, I read Mary Higgins Clark insatiably. What I loved about mysteries was how they hinged on one small detail. This detail had been there the whole time, for the detectives and the reader to see, but we hadn’t seen it, not until that dramatic moment when we did. And that tiny detail is what made everything make sense. We now knew who did it. We knew the motivation. We knew what needed to be done. Justice = served.


However, the same attention to detail that can make writing come alive can be self destructive when applied to our lives. These mysteries can be so satisfying because they offer a resolution we don’t always get in life. As we grow up and become grown ups, we employ the same level of curiosity except with an intensity rooted in a desire for perfection rather than a need for play. We can look and look and look at the details of our lives: scrutinizing our choices, making pro and con lists, charting out graphs, asking friends for advice, weighing and measuring and weighing again. Sometimes, this can help. Sometimes, however, we are applying this attention to detail in an attempt to excavate ourselves from a hole of uncertainly. And it just doesn’t work. We flood ourselves with details. We guess and second guess. We don’t know which details are the most important. We have too many to measure.


I had a co-worker once who told me that on his Sunday, he had cleaned his house, including making sure all of the screws in the outlet covers were facing in the same direction, vertically. That detail stuck with me, I guess, because it gave me insights into him, into myself, into our differences. There are times when details are very important to me—for example, when planning what to wear for a special event, when selecting or making a gift for a friend—and there are times when I couldn’t care less, as with the direction of the screws on my outlet covers (or, as is true for me now, whether to replace a broken outlet cover). When I find myself spying all the details and becoming mired in them, I know I have lost the bigger picture.


The same attention to detail that serves us in making quality choices can also be our undoing if we can’t let them go. We can make sure our home is in perfect order, that our dishes are clean and stacked, that all our files are labeled and catalogued, that our clothes are put away neatly in our closets, but sometimes we do these things not for sheer tidiness but to produce an illusion of control. We will all experience discomfort. We will all suffer. We will all die someday. And our attention to detail will not save us from these things. On the contrary, they may give us a false illusion of safety that will backfire when we face obstacles.


I think one key is allowing ourselves to observe details in a way that makes us liberated instead of entrapped. Can we notice the details of what makes our lives rich and full at least as much if not more than we notice the details that complicate our lives or challenge us? Can we pay attention all the time instead of just when we are stressed out? Can we allow observation to be the pleasure it can be instead of a chore? Can we investigate and spy without the intensity of needing one definitive answer?





A few things I spied today:  my little black-and-white dog curled up in the comforter; the sun cascading white light through the curtains; a string of mala beads, brown joined with red thread; the red light blinking; a long row of beige tables lined up with a place-setting of papers at each seat; maple and sprinkled donuts on a platter; canary yellow pineapple and strawberries and blueberries in a bowl; a light blue dress with a white pattern; a tattoo of red roses; turquoise bangs; the round marbled body of a banjo; a blue pocket dictionary with white lettering; a blue and black hummingbird floating mid-air just beside me before skirting off to a new destination; an orange and black butterfly coasting just in front of me; two white-haired ladies, one wearing mustard jeans, chatting at a black table over two cups of coffee; a red, green, and gold box with this quote inside: “Happiness leads none of us by the same route”; blue pieces of paper folded inside the box; a white napkin holding a handful of purple grapes, a piece of dark chocolate, a tortilla chip with guacamole, and an oreo cookie; a blue sofa; the yellow and white reflection of the ceiling fan in the glass of the picture frame holding a red and orange and black painting of ships at sea.


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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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diana cropped


Last night, we held our third the dictionary project presents! reading at Casa Libre en la Solana. And we finally revealed the word that our writers and readers had been working with for two weeks: Diana!

We were all grateful for having to engage with Diana: Roman goddess of the hunt, of the moon and childbirth, of all things wild.

One of the most exciting things about our reading series is assigning the same word to a group of writers and seeing the different ways these brilliant minds and hearts experience and interpret that word.  I am grateful to Ian Ellasante, Hannah Ensor, Kindall Gray, Tc Tolbert, and Teré Fowler-Chapman for their writing and for reading last night. And I am grateful to everyone that came.

We will post photos and videos soon from the event, but in the meantime, I would like to share with you the piece I wrote as an introduction. Wishing you a beautiful day.



As many of you know, whenever I bibliomance a word for tdp, I close my eyes and run my finger through the dictionary and then over a page. This time, I landed on the image of Diana.



In yoga asana practice, there are several poses named warrior. In my favorite warrior pose—I say favorite because I’m not holding the position for several minutes now—the right leg lunges forward, knee bent, while the back leg is straight and sturdy, giving the illusion of stillness even as the muscles are working and the tendons wrapping strong around bone. Arms are outstretched in a T-shape with palms facing down, hips positioned to the side. Shoulders are released. And the chest, the chest is open.


The first hundred times I did this shape, or any warrior shape for that matter, I focused on where I felt weak. My arms ached. My legs shook. Holding the position for any length of time felt impossible.


Years later, I have a different relationship to the pose. Instead of noticing my weakness, even though the pose is challenging, I can instead embrace my strength. I can feel my feet and legs holding me up. I can radiate out from the extension in my arms. I can be aware of my chest as it continues to press into the air, opening.


I realize now that the challenge of the pose also reveals my capacity to hold it, but first I have to choose to see it that way.


All week I have been thinking about the different meanings of the word warrior.


I have been tuned in to the presence of violence and the threat of violence, in our country and in the world. First, with the horrible bombings at the Boston Marathon that resulted in the death of three and injury of almost one hundred and fifty. Second, with the news of car bombs in Iraq that killed at least thirty-three people. I listened to politicians and advisors talk about the difference between the word “terrorism” and “murder” on The Diane Rehm Show. I heard a filmmaker talk to Terry Gross about how he survived an IED when he recorded footage on the frontlines in Iraq and about the documentary he just finished about his partner filmmaker who was killed from a shrapnel wound while filming the uprising in Libya. Then, I read and heard about the Senate’s decision not to pass revised gun control legislation that would require background checks before purchasing these weapons, and the responses of both our president and victims of gun violence saying “shame on you.” And finally, yesterday and today, I have watched the unfurling of armed robbery and gunfights and gun deaths and the ongoing manhunt as Boston police search for the surviving suspect of the Boston Marathon bombing. Perhaps by the time I read this, in front of all of you, he will have been found and thus we will have someone to hold accountable. Perhaps we will have some resolution to one particular tragic event that harmed so many and incited fear and anxiety in even more.


And without lessening the burden placed on those that committed all these individual atrocities, the truth is that every one of us is accountable. We are accountable for living in a culture where power and privilege aren’t always used mindfully but instead used with arrogance and thoughtlessness. Accountable for when we choose aggression over talking things through. Accountable for valuing purchasing more and more objects over spending time with our neighbors. Accountable for electing people whose job is to protect us and who have made decisions that do exactly the opposite. Accountable for every word said in anger, every aggressive face or hand gesture made while driving. Accountable when we harm ourselves or others, when we do not live up to our best potential.


At one point or another, we are all guilty of being the wrong kind of warrior.


I grew up in the South, in a city built on the backs of slaves, and in a time when I could count the African-American women who attended my private Catholic school with me on two hands. There were firm divisions by race in this town, ones I was never asked to question but merely recognize and keep. In every unspoken gesture, I read clearly who I was supposed to be friends with and how I was supposed to be. It took going to a poor bordertown in Mexico when I was ten to show me the devastating impact of poverty, as I witnessed children my age begging on the streets, because I never went to neighborhoods where I would have seen it in my hometown.


Life was constricted not only by issues of race and class but by issues of gender—by pantyhose, by scripture passages, by too few female role models giving permission by their presence for me to be creative and curious and strong. For a long time, I struggled to reconcile my femininity with my strength, so entrenched in me were the values of my culture which said that these things could not exist in one person, in one body, in a woman.


My freshman year of high school, I was assigned Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. The front cover of the paperback was black with bold white letters and an image of a man riding on the back of a winged horse. I had been an avid reader since early childhood so I was familiar with stories, but these struck a new note. These were mythological figures that I was allowed to think of as icons (as was not permitted with biblical ones). Here were stories I needed. They were the stories of men and women, trying and failing and trying and failing again. They were the stories of gods and goddesses, all of whom had tremendous power and inevitability colossal flaws. One of the goddesses that bewildered me most was the Greek Artemis, or in Roman culture: Diana. She bewildered me because I grew up in a town where pearls hung around the necks of the women who hosted garden parties and gathered children round their legs. I didn’t see any women walking around with bows and arrows, not even metaphorical ones. Even my mother, who I now see as one of the fiercest and most warrior-like women I know, didn’t appear that way when I was growing up. I read her through the lenses that were provided to me and as a result she seemed more careful and cautious than bold and brazen.


Diana, Giampietrino

Diana, Giampietrino


So when I first read about Diana, I judged her for what I perceived as her “overly masculine” behavior and I wondered how I could fit her into my perception of female heroines, who I had learned thus far were to be smart but not too smart, conversational but not in a way that took up too much space, and above all, beautiful.


Diana is the goddess of the hunt. She is also the goddess of the moon. And she is the goddess of the process of birth. In her, the power for livelihood, for the ebbing and flowing of tides, and for the creation of new beings come together. In her, masculine and feminine energies combine, and it is this balance that gives her so much power.




I’ve been thinking about Diana this week, not just because her name is the word for tonight’s event, but because I feel that her particular kind of warrior spirit is needed in our world right now. Hers is the warrior spirit that stands up against the would-be warriors who say that background checks aren’t necessary, that the solution to weapons is more weapons, that the solution to violence is to meet it with more violence. I’ve been thinking about her because her warriorship is not about using her power to benefit herself; it is not about killing innocents; it is not about encouraging war or bloodshed. Her warriorship is about living from the marrow of the bone, the tender tissue of the heart. Her warriorship is about expressing the fiery aspect of her being without entirely letting go of the reins. Her warriorship about being assertive but also compassionate. Her warriorship requires us not to back down from that which is right but also not to meet those who oppose us with unchecked anger. We will meet them with our minds, with the strength of our spirit rather than swords and shields, rifles and semi-automatics.


In 2011, the United States’ military budget totaled 644 billion dollars. We praise our servicemen  and women, but when we see images of them, we don’t so much see their human bodies as we do the items that cover them: guns, magazines, helmets. As a culture, we praise their power and bravery but when they suffer, we refuse to see their humanness, we refuse to recognize that violence does damage to everyone involved. We only honor the fierceness of these warriors without acknowledging their tenderness.


“I came to the Greeks early,” Edith Hamilton told an interviewer when she was 91, “and I found answers in them. Greece’s great men let all their acts turn on the immortality of the soul. We don’t really act as if we believed in the soul’s immortality and that’s why we are where we are today.”


Diana of Versailles, Leochares

Diana of Versailles, Leochares


In it’s most simple definition, a warrior is a brave or experienced soldier or fighter. It is up to us what we fight for. Because being a warrior at its core is not about death and is not about killing. Being a warrior is about responsible use of one’s power and energy. To be a warrior is to act with bravery and courage and to make wise choices in situations of extreme pressure.


It’s not that we don’t need warriors. We desperately need warriors. But we need the kind who soldier for love, compassion, and understanding.


When I was fourteen, I might have thought that a goddess could not be charged with the duties of hunting and also of midwifery. I might have seen these powers emerging in Diana as completely contradictory. But I don’t think that anymore. Both hunting and childbirth require intense physical and emotional strength. Both require fierceness working alongside wisdom and compassion. In both rituals, there must be encouragement, there must be patience, there must be integrity, there must be a time to hold still and a time to push forward.


–Lisa O’Neill, written for The Dictionary Project Presents!, April 19, 2013



Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, Hans Makart

Diana, goddess of the hunt and the moon, Hans Makart


Diana bathing with her nymphs, Rembrandt

Diana bathing with her nymphs, Rembrandt






Diana and Cupid

Diana and Cupid




Diana, David Swift Photography

Diana, David Swift Photography




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Here we are, the last day of February and our last post for flash fiction february 2013. Thanks so much to Jennifer Holland, our last contributor, for her piece on breechblock. Thanks go also to the rest of our writers who joined us in writing flash fiction this month: Jennifer Rice Epstein, Michael Sheehan,  Mary Woo, and Katherine Hunt! Stay tuned for more bibliomancy and more writing and more flash fiction in 2014.



breech·block   (ˈbrēch-ˌbläk),  n.  the steel part of a breech-loading gun which when open permits loading and when closed receives the force of the combustion of the charge.


It started out as a game, where I would hide parts of my father’s rifle around the house on the nights he got drunk. The rifle was this old 1875 Martini Henry he shot off when the woodpeckers came around the roof. Most of the parts I stole were small: a split pin here, a muzzle cover there. Whatever I could manage to disassemble while he listened to his radio in the garage or argued with my mother in another room. My father was never what you would call mild-mannered, except for when he had a hangover and it was just easier to play along, lifting up sofa cushions and shaking out books while I said “Hot” or “Cold.”


By the time I reached middle school, the drinking got to a point where he didn’t get hangovers anymore. He and my mom were pretty much separated by then, though my mom still wore her wedding ring and slept on one side of the bed. My father showed up at the house occasionally, like a failed actor reprising the role that made him a star. I missed him while he was gone, but hated him when he came back. Once, he stayed away for almost two months, and I took the whole rifle apart, distributing the parts in all the places I was sure he would never think to look. I knew if I told him what I’d done he would get angry, so the next time I saw him, I had my answer all prepared. “You took it with you last time you left.” He looked at me for a very long time, searching his mind for this memory that did not exist. Finally, he just turned to the window to gaze upon my mom, who was whistling to herself as she pulled socks and hand towels from the clothesline. That was one of the last times I heard her whistle, before he stopped showing up for good.


Years later, my mom came across an old rifle part inside a board game that smelled of decomposing cardboard. The house was up for sale and we were packing up her things. “Look,” she said, holding it up. There were many things she was already starting to forget, I didn’t think it would mean much when I said it was a breechblock. “I know,” she laughed, and I caught a sudden glimpse of little silver fillings in her teeth, glinting like buried treasure from some half-remembered world.




HollandPhotoJennifer Holland is currently a graduate student in the School of Information Resources & Library Science at the University or Arizona. She lives in Tucson.

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Screenshot of Woody's Journal taken from "The Making of The Works," album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)

Screenshot of Woody’s Journal taken from “The Making of The Works,” album with music by Jonatha Brooke and lyrics by Woody Guthrie (click for video)


ly·ric  (lir ik),  adj.  [ < Fr. Or L.; Fr. Lyrique; L. lyricus; Gr. lyrikos],  1.  of a lyre.  2.  suitable for singing, as to the accompaniment of a lyre; songlike; specifically, designating poetry or a poem expressing the poet’s personal emotion or sentiment rather than telling of external events: sonnets, elegies, odes, hymns, etc. are lyric poems.  3.  writing or having written lyric poetry.  4.  in music, a) characterized by a relatively high compass and a light, flexible quality: as, a voice of lyric quality.  b)  having such a voice: as, a lyric tenor. Opposed to dramatic.  n.  1.  a lyric poem.  2.  Usually pl. the words of a song, as distinguished from the music.



the words of a song/as distinguished from the music



“The object of art is not to make salable pictures. It is to save yourself.”

 –Sherwood Anderson, letter to his teenage son, 1927



Lyrics have always been a kind of savior.  From times before written word when sounds were bellowed round a fire, when epic poems were sung as a way to pass down history and legend of how a people came to be. Even the sound of the word om, a mantra for invocation, deemed sacred in part because of the vibrations sent out and the resonance of the sound when sung, a-u-m.


Lyrics have saved me at various moments in my life. I think perhaps the greatest gift of these words set to music is their ability to do away with the notion that we are alone. When I am in pain, that is the moment I find it hardest to see beyond myself. There is a meditation practice Pema Chödrön writes about called tonglen. Tonglen is a practice where you get in touch with your own suffering and then breathe in the pain of others. This is in direct opposition to many new age practices that promise relief through visualization: go to your happy place, imagine a bridge covered with ivy and a brick cottage, breathe in the scent of your favorite flower. Tonglen instead asks that you connect with and breathe in the intensity of your own pain and breathe out relief. Then, tonglen asks that you think of all the people in the world who at this very same moment are experiencing the same pain as you—whether grief, loneliness, anger, jealousy, or fear—and to breathe in their pain and breathe out relief. Tonglen makes you aware that you are not the only one feeling what you are feeling. Tonglen gives you an opportunity to offer relief by seeing outside the parameters of your own pain. Lyrics do the same thing.


I have an uncanny memory for song lyrics; they are stacked, filed, catalogued in my brain—the ones I want to remember and the ones I wish I could forget. I also have a habit from when I was very young of spontaneously breaking into song, singing about what’s happening to me or things I see, or inserting song lyrics when someone says a word that reminds me of the song they come from.


I noticed past this fall that I listen to music less and that I sing along less in the car. I’m not sure exactly when this began, but I recognize some of it. Sometimes, even things I love can become things I resist or deny myself. I go through periods of not writing when I am overcome with doubt, when I become focused on product instead of process. When I’m not feeling good about my songwriting or my singing or when I feel I’m not doing enough, I deny myself the moments of even singing along in the car or playing guitar for fun in my home. I even start watching movies as I move about my home instead of listening to music, so permeating is the feeling that I should be doing more. I resist that which matters to me when I don’t allow myself space for it. This is a harsh reality for so many of us: When do we not provide space and time for that which we love out of fear? When does what’s made become more important than the making?


I think in truth that most of us have ideas and words and architecture running just under the surface of our skin. The power of all that we could create scares us into not making time, into making excuses, into making work that is so much more superficial than that which our deepest knowing dares us to make.


Too often, we are liars.


We tell ourselves that the world doesn’t need one more song, one more story, one more sketch.


We are wrong.


The best songs I have written have been the ones that have come out quickly and seamlessly, seemingly out of nowhere. I have sat down with a pen, a notebook, a guitar, and the song has spilled out. This is not evidence of the quickness of art but rather how quick art can come if we pay attention and allow space for it to emerge. Songwriting is a sort of channeling. I know there are people in Nashville who can turn a phrase, who make their living shaping songs for superstars. But like writing, even those who are prolific, would tell you of a certain spark, a certain word or turn of phrase, the key turning in the lock that opened the way to the rest of the song. A crack in the dam. A snap in the hinge. A pull in the thread that unravels the whole hem,  one seam untying to stitch another.


And the lyrics that are made and sent into the world become a place for others to rest within. For hours after a college boyfriend, the first guy I really fell hard for, left to return to the country he was from, I lay on my bed listening to the same song on repeat for hours. It was a Sundays song called “When I’m Thinking About You.” I remember my dorm room and where my bed was positioned by the window. I remember feeling that I had never loved like this before, fearing I would miss him so much my heart would surely break open inside my chest. There were many tears: so many verses and so many choruses worth. I found comfort in the repetition of the same lyrics over and over again. I listened and I cried and by the time I turned the cd player off hours later, I felt better, even if my heart was still broken.


Lyrics become a way of organizing our experiences in life, a place to store our suffering and our solace. The spectacle of karaoke feels less about nostalgia or the desire to be the center of attention than it feels like confession. Singing in unison, the resonating feeling of these words that everyone knows. I, too, have felt this way. Like communion, me too.



“I hate a song that makes you think you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim. Too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling. I’m out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built, I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work. And the songs that I sing are made up for the most part by all sorts of folks just about like you.”

—Woody Guthrie



Several friends have spoken with me about the songs that saved them. These songs held words they needed to hear during dark times. And somehow the fact that the song existed provided a shelter. These lyrics, a place for solidarity and witness. These lyrics, a kiva, where a voice reaches out of the speaker to our waiting bodies, mouths, hearts, skin as these parts of us echo back a simple reply, yes.


One of my favorite songs is Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The first time I heard it, I was in my early twenties and these three young men, handsome and brilliant musicians, were coming through town on a Woody Guthrie Tribute tour. They played this song in harmony on guitars and accordion and it broke something open in me.


Foster wrote the song about people living in deep poverty and deep despair, something I knew  nothing about at the time, something I know a little more about now but not in the way the people he is writing about knew it. And yet, I could hear myself in the chorus. Hard Times, Come Again No More. I feel a sort of yearning in this song and a feeling that the song itself beckons a wish, that in singing the song loud enough, often enough, we could somehow stave away suffering. A hope. An impossibility. When I play the song now, I experience it as a remembrance and a tribute, an acknowledgement of the pain and suffering that is an inevitable part of being human.


Researcher Brené Brown talks about how: “When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak, when you ask them about belonging, they tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. When you ask people about connection, the stories they tell you are about disconnection.” It makes sense then that for many of us the songs that resonate most are the ones that reveal that aching aspect of being human: having loved and lost, having reached out and been turned away, and the hope we hold for a future when things will turn out in a way that meets our needs and desires.


Lyrics feed us. Because we require constant attention and ever-present opening. Because we cannot do it alone. Because we have lived through heartache and heartbreak and have to learn what it means to stand again. Because we must uncover our hands once more from atop our hearts. Because if you needed me, I would come to you. Because there is no other way. Because this fuel, this fire, this field, this flood; this avalanche, this arc, this arch, this aspen; this meeting, this movement, this martyr, this made; this sacrifice, this sepulcher, this sergeant, this soot; this tandem, this tangent, this target, this tongue; this blanket, this buckle, this banter, this bare. Because in singing and seeking, we come to know each other better and we come to know ourselves.


I sing because I’m grateful for having been sung to. And I sing because it is when I am singing that I feel most alive. And I sing because no matter how hard my day has been, no matter how uncertain the road ahead is, no matter the current state of things, I need to be reminded of the beauty that can be found curled up inside a long held note and the calm of the silence in between one sound and another. Songs are of us and for us. They are of our making and they are how we are made.





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flash fiction february


IMG_8758 IMG_9594 IMG_6820


Well, it’s February. Month of groundhogs. Month of valentines. Month of Mardi Gras. Month of celebrating Black History. Month of (for those who don’t happen to live in the Southwest) bitter cold subzero temperatures. Apparently today, in addition to what would be the 100th birthday of the amazing Rosa Parks, is “Create a Vacuum Day” and “Thank a Mailman Day.”


And by now, you should know what February means at the dictionary project:


Flash. Fiction. February.


All month, we will be featuring original flash fiction pieces inspired by bibliomanced dictionary project words and composed by guest writers of the fiction persuasion.


Stay tuned!

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the dictionary project author interview: elizabeth crane

Today, the dictionary project hosts an author interview with fiction writer Elizabeth Crane. Enjoy!



1. Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

When I was in junior high school, my favorite class was Vocabulary. This is not necessarily reflected in, you know, my vocabulary, nevertheless, my best friend and I thought this was the greatest class ever, because we’d learn new words and then have to use them in sentences and paragraphs and I always loved making the silliest possible sentences. “The bombastic misanthrope could not stop talking about the frowzy conquistador’s inability to show up in a decent shirt.” Also, same best friend and I subsequently created our own dictionary called The Betsy Bugs the Bees and Nina the Nerd Random House Dictionary. We each had a copy, and we filled it with slang, words we just liked, and words we made up, like “Feduchee.” We even had Feduchee t-shirts at one point. So, we weren’t in the popular group, but amazingly we weren’t total outcasts either.


2. What is your current favorite word?
I have to choose one??? Jibber jabber. But you have to say it in a 1940s noir movie voice.


3. What is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Oh man, so many! Some I’d rather not even say. But lately one I don’t like is ‘ugly.’ I don’t like the sound of it and I don’t like the judgment in the meaning.


4. What word has been your (recent or past) muse?

I’m having a hard time deciding between “Well,” “Anyway” and “So.” I can always get a sentence started with one of those, even if they don’t stay there for the duration. When I was a kid I thought ‘indubitably’ was the greatest-sounding word ever. It still kind of holds up, though it sounds too fake-Britishy coming out of me.


5. Your debut novel We Only Know So Much just came out this year. Were there particular words that you found yourself using often as you wrote?

Some of the characters have a few things that they say regularly: Vivian, the grandmother, likes to follow almost everything she says with “You see.” Gordon likes any three-syllable word, and Priscilla is fond of ‘seriously.’ Otis is obsessed with three jelly beans that his love gave him, and so I repeated the word jelly beans or jelly bellies numerous times, and these words are very pleasant to me. But sometimes I do global searches on certain words that keep coming up so that I don’t sound like a broken record. “Just” is one that just keeps coming up, and just needs to be dialed back.


6. If you had to write your own dictionary entry for the word “story,” what would it say?

Tough one! Story: v. to make something true out of something not true (this makes sense in my head)


7. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:


lip (lip), n. [ME. lippe; AS. Lippa; akin to G. lippe ( < LG.) ; IE. base *leb-, prob., what is licked (var. of *lab-, *lebh-, etc., to lick with gusto), prob seen also in L. labium (cf. LABIAL)], 1. either of the two fleshy folds, normally pink or reddish in color, forming the edges of the mouth and important in speech. 2. anything like a lip; specifically, a) the edge of a wound. b) the projecting rim of a pitcher, cup, etc. c) the mouthpiece of a wind instrument. d) the cutting edge of any of certain tools. e) in anatomy, a labium. f) in botany, a labellum. 3. [Slang], impertinent or insolent talk. 4. The position of the lips in playing a wind instrument. v.t. [LIPPED (lipt), LIPPING], 1. to touch with the lips; specifically, a) to kiss. b) to place the lips in the proper position for playing (a wind instrument). 2. in golf, to hit the ball just to the edge of (the cup). adj. 1. merely spoken or superficial; not genuine, sincere, or heartfelt: as, lip service. 2. Formed with a lip or the lips: labial: as, a lip, consonant.


I like definition #3 the best. It makes me think of the Bowery Boys. “Don’t gimme any lip!”



braid (ˈbrād) v.t. [ME. breiden, braiden; AS. Bregdan, to move quickly, jerk, pull, twist, see UPBRAID], 1. to interweave three or more strands of (hair, straw, etc.). 2. to tie up (the hair) in a ribbon or band. 3. to trim or bind with braid. n. 1. a band or strip formed by braiding. 2. a strip of braided hair. 3. a woven band of cloth, tape, ribbon, etc., used to bind or decorate clothing. 4. a ribbon or band for tying up the hair.


I always wish I could wear my hair in one long braid, but because it’s so thick, it gets kind of fat and tends to look like a challah.



sum·mon (ˈsum-ən), v.t. [ME. somonen; OFr. somondre, semondre; L. summonere, to remind privily < sub-, under, secretly + monere, to advise, warn], 1. to call together; order to meet or convene. 2. to order to come or appear; call or send for with authority. 3. to issue a legal summons against. 4. to call upon to act, especially to surrender. 5. to call forth; rouse, gather; collect (often with up): as, summon (up) your strength. —SYN. see call.


This is kind of an awesome word I don’t think about much. But I like the way it sort of speaks to possibility, like we can get whatever it is that we need by just calling it forth.



pro·thon·o·tar·y (prō-ˈthä-nə-ˌter-ē), n. [pl. PROTHONTARIES (-iz)], [ML. protonotarius; LGr. pronotarios < Gr. protos, first + L. notarius: see NOTARY], 1. a chief notary or clerk. 2. in the Roman Catholic Church, one of the seven members of the College of Prothonotaries Apostolic, who record important pontifical events: sometimes held as an honorary title by other ecclesiastics. Also protonotary.


I don’t think I’ve ever heard this word! But suddenly I want to call on the Roman Catholic Church next time I need a document notarized.



dy·ing (ˈdī-iNG), present participle of die. adj. 1. at the point of death; about to die. 2. Drawing to a close; about to end: as, a dying social order. 3. Of or connected with death or dying. n. the act or process of ceasing to live or exist.


What we’re all doing all the time. Sigh.


Elizabeth Crane is the author of the novel We Only Know So Much, and three collections of short stories, When the Messenger is Hot, All this Heavenly Glory, and You Must Be This Happy to Enter. Her work has also been featured in numerous publications and anthologies. She is a recipient of the Chicago Public Library 21st Century Award, and her work has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts and adapted for the stage by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater company. She teaches in the UCR-Palm Desert low-residency MFA program.


*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, copyright 1955.

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Tree, Lisa O’Neill

sa·bot    (sab-oh)  n.  [Fr.; altered (after bot, a boot)  <  savate, old shoe; via Turk.  <  Ar. sabbat, sandal]  1.  a kind of shoe shaped and hollowed from a single piece of wood, worn by peasants in Europe.  2.  a heavy leather shoe with a wooden sole.  3.  a small sailing dinghy whose hull somewhat resembles a shoe.  4.  in military usage, a wooden disk or soft metalclip fastened to a projectile, formerly used in muzzle-loading canon.
“Where would I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
But (just) leather on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it”


The ground was rough. So the girl decided to carve herself some shoes. She was tired of stepping on thorns. She had enough of cuts from tiny pieces of glass. Her toenails were torn. Her arches were sore. Her feet were calloused from walking the stubborn earth.
She had tried looking carefully at where she was walking. She had tried looking ahead at where she was going and hoping for the best. She had tried praying for the ground to be other than it was. She had tried laying out a mat which she would pick up and throw in front of her every few steps. All of these were tiresome. None of these worked. So at long last, she decided, though she was no carver, to carve herself some shoes.
She went walking to the place where there were many trees and once she arrived there, she considered them keenly. She placed her hand against the bark. She felt the smoothness of their leaves between her fingers. She considered the maple, the mesquite, the magnolia. She sat on the roots of mighty oaks. She pressed her nose to the skin of the cedar. She did this for days, or was it weeks? She smelled the sassafras. She leaned her back against the bark of the elm. She touched the ashes. She tasted the sap of the pine.
She wondered which wood would give best, which would mar her feet. She considered what she knew about the rings inside those trees, the color of the wood. She considered the way the wood would sound when it met the earth, in walking or in dancing.
She walked to where the water met the trees, she waded, and finally, she settled on something. Cypress.
She pulled something sharp from within her coat and she began to saw. She thanked the tree and took her branch with her.
The girl found a place on the earth to sit and placed her large branch across her lap. She had never made a pair of shoes before. She had never carved anything besides letters into words, color into walls. She wondered where to begin. Begin with this wood, she heard. Begin with this tool. Begin with this time.
So she did. She found the process long, this slow hollowing. The only indicator of time spent was a small curve in the center of the block. And yet there was something satisfying about the sound of her knife cutting into the wood and the sight of curled shavings falling to her feet.
She scraped and she notched and she pulled. She worked and as she worked, she sang. These were the songs she had been taught over the years. Her mother had sung them. And her mother’s mother had sung them. They were songs about truth and what it means to sit in the presence of another human being. She became lost in the music and the slow rhythm of scraping and when she came out of her haze, she saw she had cut a hole clean through.
So she began again, slowly carving, this time not forgetting where she was. People passed her as she worked, some offered to help her carve, some gave her suggestions. She thanked them, she listened, and then she continued to work. The light turned to dark then to light then to dark again, and still she carved. She noticed the rings in the wood. She noticed the changes in color. She noticed the smell of its skin. She chipped, she chiseled, she cleaved and divided. She etched, she hacked, she hewed. She molded and modeled and patterned and sculpted and shaped. She, at long last, whittled the last bit of excess away.
And then she looked at her work. These wooden shoes were not entirely even. They were not exactly smooth. She held one in each hand and considered their weight. She thought about her efforts and why she had begun in the first place. These would not be the most comfortable shoes. They would not be the most attractive. They looked like they had been made by a beginner. And they had. These shoes would not spare her the miles walked in them. They would not spare her the wrong turns. They would not keep her from encountering hard rain or hot sand or a horizon obscured by too much foliage. These shoes would not do this. No shoes ever would. But still, the girl had made these.
She slipped on the shoes.
She began to walk.


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nonfiction november

There Is Nothing Wrong In This Whole World, Installation by Chris Cobb, Photo by Andrea Scher


Hi Dictionary Project People,

I am very pleased to announce that we are adding a new event to our repertoire: nonfiction november.  I tend to write nonfiction essays for the regular weekly words. During November, I wanted to open the doors to other nonfictioneers. All month, we will be featuring short essays inspired by bibliomanced dictionary project words.

While we are on the subject, might I just say that I’ve always been a little unsatisfied by the word “nonfiction” as a descriptor for the genre. A definition in negation. A genre defined by what it is not. I haven’t as of yet found a word or phrase that works to be encompassing of the whole genre, but I’d love to see one. I think what most attracts me to nonfiction as a genre, to write in and to read, is the discovery of all that is true and truly bizarre in our world. I like making connections between seemingly unconnected things. I like listening to people’s stories and thinking about the ways they intersect with art and music and culture, with things I’ve read and things I believe. I like the attempt to get to the heart of the matter. Truth and reflection and beauty are of course present in all genres of writing. Nonfiction, I think offers one thread of connection between the writer and reader: here’s what I see, let’s make sense of it together.  I look forward to sharing with you the nonfiction pieces of writers this month. Stay tuned.


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the dictionary project author interview: andrea scher


On this fourth Wednesday of September, the dictionary project is pleased to host the musings of the inspired and inspiring Andrea Scher. I first became aware of Andrea’s creative work–among her many creative gifts, she is an amazing photographer and thoughtful writer–through her blog Superhero Journal, which has recently been transformed into the gorgeous Superhero Life. Her work is honest, compassionate, and rooted in inquiry into the big life questions we all face. Through her creativity, Andrea invites others to embrace their own artist selves. Enjoy!


by Andrea Scher


1.  Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

In college, after a long game of Balderdash over many glasses of red wine, my friends and I started asking the dictionary questions and randomly pointing to words in response.

“What should be the name of my first born child?” Drivel.

“What is the meaning of life?” Nothing.

And then, we started to get creeped out. As we passed the dictionary around, we started getting more and more accurate responses. My friend Laura, the most woo-woo in the room, asked, “Who is sending us these messages?” She got the word, magpie.

We thought this was charming, a little bird whispering in our ear. We later discovered that in Native American folklore, the magpie is the messenger between the two worlds…. I have been asking the dictionary big questions ever since.


2. What is your current favorite word?



3. What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

When people add the suffix “gasm” to other, otherwise totally harmless words.



4. What word has been your muse?




5. What word feels like coming home?


I love Yiddish words in general, but this one feels like home. I heard it for the first time in my twenties when my first-ever Jewish friend told me, “Don’t forget your schmatta!” (little sweater) Every time I hear that word or say it myself I feel like I belong to something bigger. Something bigger than religion or culture, a kind of belonging that is everyday and homespun.



6. Please respond to the following words and definitions*, picked exclusively at random for you:


Sze·chwan  (ˈsech-ˌwän; Chin. ˈsooch-ˌwän),  n.  a province of central China: area, 156,675 sq. mi.; pop., 47,108,000 (est. 1947); capital, Chengtu; chief city, Chungking.


We are Jewish and therefore spent a lot of time at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. My parents ordered the same thing every time—cashew chicken, spring rolls (extra crisp) and Mongolian beef. For many years, I didn’t know there were any other dishes. Or menus at Chinese restaurants.



da·do  (ˈdādō),  n.  [pl. DADOES (-dōz)], [It., a die, die-shaped part of pedestal, hence pedestal < L. datum, a die, lit., what is given; see DATE],  1.  part of a pedestal between the cap and the base.  2.  the lower part of the wall of a room if decorated differently from the upper part, as with panels or an ornamental order.


Dado is what my boys sometimes call my husband. Dada. Dado.



cro·chet  (krō-ˈshā),  n.  [Fr., small hook; see CROTCHET],  a kind of knitting done with one hooked needle.  v.t. & v.i.  [CROCHETED (-shād’), CROCHETING], to knit with such a  needle.


When I was about ten I became obsessed with crocheting granny squares. Trouble is I never figured out how to weave them together into a blanket, so I had just had an ever-growing collection of squares accumulating in the closet.

This is when You Tube how–to videos would have come in handy.



ground (ground),  n.  [ME. grounde, grund; AS. Grund, sea bottom, etc. (cf. GROUND SWELL); akin to G. grund; ? IE> *ghren-to, what is touched in passing over < base *gren-, to rub against, etc.; cf. GRIND],  1.  a)  originally, the lowest part, base, or bottom of anything. b)  the bottom of the sea.  2.  the solid surface of the earth.  3.  the soil of the earth; earth; land: as, he tills the ground.  4.  any particular piece of land; especially, one set aside for a specified purpose: as, a hunting ground.  5.  any particular area of reference, discussion, work, etc.; topic; subject: as, let us go over the ground again.  6.  the distance to a goal, objective, position, etc.  7.  basis; foundation; groundwork.  8.  often pl. the logical basis of a conclusion, action, etc.; valid reason, motive, or cause.  9.  the background or surface over which other parts are spread or laid, as the main surface of a painting.  10.  in electricity, the connection of an electrical conductor with the ground: abbreviated grd.  See also grounds.  adj.  1.  of, on, or near the ground.  2.  to cause (a ship, etc.) to run aground.  3.  to found on a firm basis; establish.  4.  to base (a claim, argument, etc.) on: as, ground your claims on fact.  5.  to instruct (a person) in the elements or first principles of.  6.  to provide with a background.  7.  in aviation, to cause to remain on the ground; keep from flying: as, the plane was grounded by bad weather.  8.  in electricity, to connect (an electrical conductor) with the ground, which becomes part of the circuit.  v.i.  1.  to strike or fall to the ground.  2.  to strike the bottom or run ashore: said of a ship.  3.  in baseball, to be put out on a grounder (usually with out).


I want to be grounded. I want people to say, “She’s so grounded. I just love being with her.” Instead I am more inclined toward anxious. High strung. Vigilant. I rush to yoga. I shuttle my kids along the sidewalk quickly, for no good reason. I have to remind myself to slow down.

I get panic attacks. They crop up mysteriously at times– looking at Google maps, changing a diaper – then, post-attack, I am in for another week of anxiety. Always trying to catch my breath, afraid I’m not getting enough air. Various shades of these symptoms have plagued me for most of my adult life.

But I want to be grounded. Actually no, as I write this, I see that it’s not even grounded that I’m after. It’s light. It’s light-hearted. It’s caring a bit less. It’s trusting a bit more. It’s holding it all more lightly.



sal·ta·tion  (sal-ˈtā-shən, sȯl-),  n.  [L. saltatio, a dancing, dance < saltatus, pp. of saltare, to leap],  1.  a leaping, jumping, or dancing.  2.  sudden change, movement, or development, as if by leaping.  3.  palpitation or throbbing, as of an artery.  4.  in biology, mutation.


I have an enormous collection of jumping photos. Somehow, having my subject suspended in mid-air always has a certain magical quality — an air of celebration, of appreciating life, and aliveness. These are things that can feel hard to attain sometimes, but I am always reaching for them. These photos help.


Andrea Scher, photo by Jen Downer



Andrea Scher is an artist, photographer, and life coach. Through her award-winning blog Superhero Journal and e-courses, Mondo Beyondo, Superhero Photo and Cultivating Courage, Andrea will inspire you to find your passions, dream big and say YES to the life you’ve always wanted.

Andrea is also a supermom (no capes, just courage) to two adorable boys named Ben and Nico. She is the co-author of a wonderful book called Expressive Photography: The Shutter Sisters Guide to Shooting from the Heart.

*Definitions taken from Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, copyright 1955.


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