CONTEXT: The Message

Flags at Knapheide 1-30-16 IMG_5791  A writer has a story to tell, or something to say.  She may have a burning desire to share information she thinks is important, or he may want to bring the spine-tingling anticipating that comes with reading a good mystery.  Maybe a new insight came that was so startlingly enlightening, that just claiming an “Aha!” moment isn’t enough–it must be recorded for future consideration.

A few days ago I read a post that challenged the readers (who were writers) to consider WHY they (we) write.  Perhaps we are not finding the type of success we envisioned because we are not writing in a way that suits our purpose.  The idea tickled away in my consciousness and subconsciousness.

Last Saturday I was grateful to be stopped by a traffic light, because it gave me a perfect view of the wall and the flags in this photo I took.  That wall and the flags are large–VERY large, and dominate an intersection where a busy road crosses a multi-lane highway.  But its message is unmistakable, isn’t it?  The large but privately-held company that owns the property devoted great amounts of time and resources to make one particular message clear:  “In God we trust,” proclaimed with nine American flags.

I thought about how many other ways they might have made that statement:  On stationery?  In their advertising?  On a billboard?  How much more private and limited the audience would have been!

I’m challenged to make sure I’m writing to say what I think is truly important, and in a way that will reach the audience for whom it is intended, in a way that represents me as a writer with integrity of purpose. I never would have thought of doing it with a wall and nine flagpoles.


Joseph_Smith,_Jr._portrait_owned_by_Joseph_Smith_IIIJoseph Smith newly found_photo In 1994 a very old photo was discovered and reported to be by far the earliest image of Joseph Smith, Junior, the founder of Mormonism.  Since then, technology has been used to compare the image to a much later daguerreotype, painted portraits such as the one shown above reportedly based on the daguerreotype, and to his death mask.  The measurements appear to indicate that although this image looks very little like Joseph appears in painted portraits copied from earlier portraits, themselves copied from still earlier ones, and others based simply on adoring imagination,  this one appears that it may very well be of Joseph. Some are sure it is, others just as sure it isn’t.

Joseph Smith, Junior, was born in Vermont and grew to manhood in Western New York in an era of population movement, extreme religious questioning, and change. Readers today may be incredulous at the ease with which he found acceptance of his claims to have spoken personally with God the Father, Jesus the Son, and apostles and angels numerous times beginning at the age of about 14.  Perhaps even more surprising was his willingness to declare money digging with the use of a peep stone as his main employment as a young man.  But in that era, he was not alone in proclaiming supernatural news or claiming supernatural powers.

When Jo. was born in 1805, the population of the still-new United States lay almost entirely to the east of the Appalachians–the American Revolution had driven England from the 13 colonies, but not from the vast Great Lakes region beyond the Appalachians.  The British maintained forts and troops there until defeat in the War of 1812.  Then settlers began pouring through the gaps in the mountains and into the “West”:  Western New York and Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, and through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, farther south. Many left behind the old beliefs and constrains of New England:  starting a new life in a place settlers had never come before was a heady freedom, and the freedom was extended to the form of their faith.

Organized religion went through a massive change. From the end of the War of 1812 to Joseph’s publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, Methodists formally split into two distinct parts over the issue of slavery, and more than half a dozen factions of Baptists were organized, including Reformed and Free-Will; in addition, others which had long existed moved West, like the German Baptist Dunkards.  Ann Lee, founder of the Shakers, left New England for New York with her followers.  Also in Western New York, Jemima Wilkinson declared herself to be Christ, and also gained dedicated believers.  Thousands streamed into clearings in the woods to hear itinerant preachers at “camp meetings.” Alexander Campbell came from Scotland to New York, then Philadelphia, then to Western Pennsylvania, where his “restoration” movement to “return to the ancient order of things” had impact on many denominations, and resulted in the formation of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ.

The Smith family also moved west, from Vermont to the Erie Canal town of Palmyra.  Western New York in 1830 was fertile ground for a young man like Jo. Smith, Junior!

Brodie, F. M. (1975).  No man knows my history:  The life of Joseph Smith.  New York: Vintage Books–Random House.

Bronson, Rick.  The Joseph Smith Photograph.  Your Site for LDS Theology.  [web site].

Jackson, Wayne.  Alexander Campbell and Christ’s Church.

Joseph Smith.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints [web site].

Photograph Found:  a 20 year perspective.






Joseph_Smith,_Jr._portrait_owned_by_Joseph_Smith_III     Mormon Peep Stonedt.common.streams.StreamServer   Mormon Smith Home on Stafford Road           Jo. Smith, Junior                     Jo.’s Seer Stone                 Smith Residence south of Palmyra, NY

How was it possible for Jo. Smith, Junior, to become the prophet and leader of a religion with tens of thousands of followers–Mormonism, and also a candidate for the Presidency of the United States in 1844, when he only lived to be 39?  I really wanted to know! This is the second post in the series.

Like many families at the beginning of the 19th century, Jo. Smith, Junior’s family of 11 struggled economically and continued a generational pattern of moving west to seek better opportunities.   By the time Jo. was 10, his family had moved from Vermont to the Palmyra/Manchester area of Western New York. Personal journals, published records, and newspaper accounts of the day are abundant, and because of his eventual fame and the lasting quality of the religion he founded, others have dug deeper into Jo.’s past and continued to publish what they learned.  It is fascinating!

Jo.’s father and brothers farmed, and Jo. helped as well, but it is evident from many sources that his heart wasn’t in it.  Early on, Jo. was a dreamer, a dabbler in the mystical, and more interested in finding treasure than finding farm work. A mystical worldview was not uncommon. As first-time settlers moved west of the Appalachians, they discovered and plundered hundreds of Indian mounds that sometimes revealed caches of ancient pottery, silver, copper, and other valuable artifacts.  Stories were spun to explain who had built the mounds and what had happened to them.  Stories of buried Spanish gold and Captain Kidd’s pirate treasures abounded, as well. Many who practiced respectable professions also dabbled in treasure hunting.  Others chose it as a profession.

About 1830-31 a traveling treasure-finder named Walters who used the paraphernalia of a fortune teller appeared in Palmyra and was paid $3 a day by local farmers to identify the right places to dig for treasure. Records suggest that Jo. soon chose digging for treasure as the profession to earn his income, as well. He used a “peep stone” or “seer stone” to discern where various kinds of riches were hidden and people hired him to look for them.  Jo. later also used a seer stone to “translate” the Book of Mormon.  In August, 2015, the Mormon Church released the first official photo of it (See above).

Using his seer stone for guidance, Jo. would specify the location of the treasure, the time of night the digging had to be done, and the incantations and sometimes blood sacrifices required to insure success.  (It was noted that Jo. kept the sacrifices.) The diggers would do just as he said and dig until they hit something hard with their picks or shovels.  Then Jo. would stop them and say that the devil or his spirits had moved the treasure deeper.  Once he assured them that the wood they splintered off was from a treasure chest that was then spirited away. To the diggers, the fact that the devil himself would oppose Jo. only contributed to the strength of his powers and to his credibility.

But everyone was not impressed.  Best-selling biographer Fawn Brodie, in her epic work, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, documented the records of Jo. being brought to trial in Bainbridge, New York, when he was 21, charged with being disorderly and an imposter. He freely admitted to practicing magic and seeking treasure.  He was found guilty of disturbing the peace.  Surely at the time, no one had any idea of how much peace Jo. Smith, Junior, would disturb in his short life, nor the impact his use of a seer stone would have.

Brodie, F. M. (1975).  No man knows my history:  The life of Joseph Smith.  New York: Vintage Books–Random House.

Joseph Smith.  LDS Media Library.

Joseph Smith Farm Welcome Center [Web site].!1s0x89d12b01d1d48b8d:0x697a78c6c50c7583!2m5!2m2!1i80!2i80!3m1!2i100!3m1!7e1!4s!5s+-+Google+Search

Joseph Smith–History.  Extracts from The History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet [Web site].  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Log Home of Joseph Smith Sr. 843 Stafford Rd., Palmyra, NY 14522.  [Web site].

Mormons Release Photo…Associated Press, August 4, 2015  [Newspaper].

Stack, P. (August 4, 2015).  Mormon Church Releases Photos… Salt Lake Tribune [Newspaper]. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer.




CONTEXT: Writing Close to Home

Sisters in Time Cover Daria  More than a dozen years ago I saw a display for a book series called “Sisters in Time” in our local Christian bookstore.  I noticed that the cover illustrations all portrayed adolescent girls, and each also displayed a medallion with a year in it.  The girls’ hairstyles and clothing  matched the year shown.  I bought a couple of the books and hurried home to read them and to Google the “Sisters in Time” series to learn more about it.

I discovered that Barbour Publishing in Uhrichsville, Ohio, required that each book be set in a particular place and year in which something of historical significance took place.  The junior-high age heroines had to be fictional, but the events and places must be real. Hmm.  I was a writer; I had a degree in history and teaching fields in geography, sociology, government, and economics, which would all be used in such a project; I had two daughters who had successfully gotten through adolescence; and I had taught girls that age for years.  Was this “a match made in heaven”?  I read the books and loved them, then got very bold and called the editor of the series.  He was gracious and friendly, and we discovered that he even had graduated from the same little Ohio college as I had, ten years later.  He encouraged me to write and send him a book to consider for the series.

I was so excited!  I live only about 20 miles from Hannibal, Missouri, “America’s Home Town,” and home of Mark Twain.  I would write about a girl who lived in Hannibal when Sam Clemens was a boy! I started my research.  Hmm.  I found absolutely NOTHING interesting about historical Hannibal during Sam Clemens’s time there that he hadn’t already written about as Mark Twain.

What I did find, however, was that my city, Quincy, Illinois, had several quite amazing things happen in not only the same year, but the same month of that year:  October, 1838.  That summer the U.S. Army had rounded up the Kickapoo and Potawatomi Indians from their towns of tidy frame houses and the outlying farms in Indiana and Michigan, and force-marched more than 850 of them to a reservation in Kansas.  The trip was known as the Trail of Death.  The soldiers, wagons, and the Native Americans, with their young Catholic priest, reached Quincy the first week of October.  It took three days to ferry them all across the Mississippi.

Also in October, 1828, on the 27th,  Missouri Governor Wilburn Boggs issued what was called the “Extermination Proclamation,” a document that expelled the  Mormons from the state on penalty of death.  They began heading for the closest city in a free state:  Quincy, Illinois.  More than 5000 arrrived in Quincy and Adams County, population 1600,  through the next few months, and were sheltered in every available space until their leader, Jo. Smith, came in the spring and led them an hour north to establish Nauvoo.

AND Quincy was a major center for the Underground Railroad!

I had my place and my year, and I began the research to write my book.  (To be continued)

CONTEXT: Becoming Who You Are

Desk image for online  When I was in sixth grade, the primary social media tool was a stenographer’s pad with spiral wire at the top that we called a “Slan” book.  I don’t know if I was misunderstanding that and it was actually “Slam,” as in “slam shut,” or if, perhaps, “slan” was actually short for “slander,” which I now realize actually describes a lot of what was written in the books. ;-D Each page had one question at the top, with the innocuous “What is your name?” on the first page, and numbers down the left side.  Each person who signed it kept the same line number throughout the book. As one flipped through the pages, the questions became more and more personal, ultimately seeking the revelation of the “deepest thoughts” about the most important issues to us 11- and 12-year-olds at the time: our own appearances and the opposite sex.  We added questions all the time, as social situations changed, each at the top of its own page, and continually passed them around, getting our classmates, friends, and enemies, to comment. (Adding a Comment isn’t new ;-D)  It was a big coup to get a BOY to sign your book, but often the boy just did it to write the most shocking things he could. (The owner was then properly mortified. :-D)

Even then, my own life context included being a writer. To the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I wrote, “Write and illustrate books.”

In junior high, I won a writing contest that included a cash prize. In high school, my poems were published in a “literary magazine.”  (In college I wrote course papers, and little else.) After graduating with bachelor’s degrees in history and in comprehensive social studies education, I became a teacher. Writing lesson plans soon morphed into writing curriculum.  I liked writing lesson plans, and I LOVED writing curriculum. Soon it was used by other teachers in my school, then adopted at the district level. When I chose a field for my master’s degree, it was educational leadership: curriculum and supervision.

In succeeding years, I taught every grade from fifth through college, and continued to write curriculum. I conducted and published research in education. Some of my non-fiction articles were also published in magazines. I went back to school and earned a doctorate in teaching and learning. That process included a dissertation that was published.  In the past few years, I started taking turns writing a column for the local newspaper. I started a business helping people write dissertations and books. In the past few months, I started several blogs. I even get to illustrate, in a sense, because I help my doctoral scholar clients design the charts and graphs they use to display their data. I think of myself as a writer–well, sort of.

Sometimes I feel like I’m still waiting to “write and illustrate my own books when I grow up,” because NONE of the seven or eight books I’ve written, including the two that I illustrated at a publisher’s request, has actually been published. The publisher that committed to purchase and publish two of them backed out, so nope, not one in print.

But as I wrote this post today, I found that at this point, I needed to take the narrative in a completely different direction from the one I had planned. I actually had to delete a paragraph and go back!  I realized that in the context truest to my deepest values, “Grammie” may have replaced both “Writer” and “Author”  as the most meaningful literary title I have.  Who knew???  I remembered that I did write and illustrate one more complete book, and printed it myself.  It is in a ring binder that sits on the bed shelf of my oldest granddaughter, and it was my very personal gift to her.  It is entitled, Two Kinds of Mommies, and I wrote it several years ago to explain her birth and adoption process to her in a way that would help her young mind understand and reinforce what her parents had always been so open about.  I wanted to help her tender heart be warmed and feel the deepest sense of belonging in her/our family, because we all prayed for her, and in a completely illogical and totally inexplicable chain of circumstances on two continents and several states, God placed her–only and exactly her–in our arms and hearts in His perfect time. Her experience of being adopted into our family is a picture of how all of us who believe get adopted into God’s family.  I guess I have accomplished the “when I grow up” goal after all!

What do you think makes a person a “writer” or an “author”–writing, or having what you’ve written published, or something else?  When and how did YOU know when you had become what YOU are now?

CONTEXT: Blue in the Eye of the Beholder

Carriage House from South (2) 9-5-15

Behind our 1892 red brick house and back yard, we have a two story, three-bay building I have usually called the carriage house, and sometimes called the barn. There weren’t any stalls in it when we bought it, and it had a wide, red brick driveway under the concrete one. The bricks extend from the street to all the way across the front of the three big doors, then on out under the fence and under the vegetable garden. A long, strong metal rail runs across the front where large doors once hung and slid. The wide doorways on the front–now filled in with overhead garage doors hung slightly off-line from each other, and a set of tall, original, hinged, double doors facing the alley on the back, indicated to me that horse-drawn vehicles came and went on all that brick in the 1890s, rather than farm animals, on this corner in the city.

The outside of the carriage house has always been a well-weathered gray–both the exposed wood and the remnants of paint left on them. I liked how it looked. But decade after decade of weathering takes a toll on wood, and we finally decided it had to be painted. It’s the custom in our neighborhood to paint the wooden outbuildings red to match the big old brick houses; but it was easy to see that our carriage house had never been red. So I brought home paint swatches until I matched the remnants of the original paint, and bought that dark, slate gray for the carriage house. The color was called “Silent Night.”  I liked the color and its name.

The painters finished the job yesterday.  As I watched their progress, first scraping down to bare wood, then brushing on the tinted light gray primer, then painting on the Silent Night, I was soon alarmed to notice that all the sides of the building were not the same color.  I double checked the paint cans, then I went back to the paint store with a just-taken photo, and pointed out that while the west-facing wall virtually always in full shadow was exactly the color I had chosen–the deep slate gray, the east and south sides appeared to be a color that could only be described as blue–and quite an assertive blue!  The paint man wasn’t a bit surprised.  He said that grays ALWAYS tend toward either blue or green in bright sunlight.  Obviously Silent Night tends toward blue!

One  neighbor who only sees the south and east sides from her house told me she liked the color of the light gray primer better than the dark blue paint. Another on the east and south side told me she did not like that blue on the barn–her garage was red, like everyone else’s. Me?  I love the Silent Night. 🙂 The color is perfect for that building in that context:  It’s the color it’s always been.  And I’m guessing that in all the years since 1892 in which there was much paint on that building, the four sides of our carriage house have always appeared to be completely different colors, depending on the direction they faced, whether it was sunny or not, and if there was shade from that overhanging maple tree on the west side.

I think there’s a good chance that I appear to be different when viewed from different sides, too.  It doesn’t mean that I am, it just means that observers have different vantage points: Some see primer, some see gray in the shade, and in the sunshine, some see bright blue. I’m not necessarily changing–their contexts are.  My job isn’t to work at appearing to be the same on all sides all the time, or convincing others that I am, in spite of appearances.  My job is to be true to the integrity of who I am.  I need to be just as content if that’s a nice, rich gray that sort of melts in to the surroundings sometimes, as I would be if it were a just-like-everyone-else red, or an intense bright blue that shouts, “I’m different, and I’m here!” Silent Night. Yep. I can live with that. What do you think?

CONTEXT: Sunshine or Shade?

FullSizeRender  Several years ago, the spectacular 4-1/2′ high by 8-1/2′ wide hostas on either side of the walk between our house and the public sidewalk weren’t there:  the lawn was uninterrupted on our entire corner.  The hostas lived next door, on the shady east side of  the beautiful little front porch of our neighbors.  My dear friend there had planted a lush garden beside that sheltered nook her family often enjoyed.  But the hostas got too happy there, and grew, and grew, and GREW.  They crowded each other and everything else planted in that flower bed. The holly bush appeared to be appealing for help! She decided they had to go, and asked me if I wanted them.  I didn’t even have to think about it. YES!  I love large, exuberant plants!

I had no idea where the hostas would go, so we planted them beside our carriage house/barn, and they survived the hours of sunshine they received there every day, but they didn’t thrive. Leaves crinkled and turned brown  before summer was half over.  So finally, I decided that the beautiful, shady sidewalk intersection under the century-old maple trees out front would become a pair of corner shade gardens.  My husband dug up the plants and dug the new holes and helped me move the hostas; and I added hydrangeas, columbines, colorful little shrubs, ajuga for ground cover, and other smaller varieties of hostas.  I loved it, and everything there thrived.

Then, on July 13, 2015, the unprecedented windstorm that decimated our city and its trees felled the maple tree that had sheltered the hostas and the plants that shared their corners. I have watched for five weeks as the giant hostas have begun to crinkle and turn brown.  I water them–oh, okay, I have probably have even talked to them on occasion, but they don’t have it in them to tolerate as much direct sun as they get now, without the shelter and shade of that beautiful old maple tree, conversation or not.

So I’ve begun a large shade garden under the dogwood tree that stands between our house and our neighbor’s.  I plan to divide and move, or transplant, the hostas into the shade that in the best place for them to live.  If I don’t intercede, I don’t think they will survive a full summer of direct sun.

Remember when Jesus challenged us to appreciate how lilies are clothed, and how birds are fed, and apply that to our own contexts?  I think we’re a lot like my giant hostas, too.  Like them, we do best in the optimum surroundings, don’t we? We might enjoy crowding in the context of peaceful collaboration, and just spread out and enhance or overcome everything else in the environment.  We might be isolated and have too much focus on us to be comfortable in another place, but do our best anyway. Then we might be relieved to subsequently find ourselves  occupying a spot in which we can participate with others in a non-threatening context, and thrive.

We might accept being moved to a different location, and enjoy being the biggest “thing” in the space; then the context of that location changes, and we struggle along, trying to make the best of it, looking and feeling less than enthusiastic, while the less conspicuous ones around us adjust and do well.  We might put up with a little more direct (spot/sun)light than our comfort zones will accommodate for as long as we possibly can, because we’re used to where we are, and see no way to change; but eventually, we have to accept that if we get moved yet again, it will be out of our control, but for our own good. We can thrive again.

I hope I can trust like the lilies for how I will be clothed, and like the birds for how I will be fed, and like the hostas for context in which I will thrive. How about you?  How difficult is it for you to happily “find a new place to bloom”?