The Handwriting (Behind) the Wall

  1. Weekly I read that someone “sees the handwriting on the wall” and quits her job or leaves a bad situation of innumerable sorts. A small sampling reveals that people know what it means, as in something bad is about to happen, but not its source.

Strictly written, the phrase began as “a hand writing on the wall.” That’s literally what happens in Daniel 5; a hand appears at Belshazzar’s feast and writes four words: MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSHIN (These Aramaic words mean “numbered weighted divided.”). As usual, the usual suspects –magicians, sorcerers, astrologists—can’t interpret. Daniel comes and explains the meaning of each. By extrapolation, he can see that the kingdom is finished and will be conquered. Sure enough, Darius invades that night, Belshazzar is killed, and a kingdom comes into being. Daniel is made chief among the 120 princes and a friend to the king. His time in the lions’ den doesn’t come until Chapter 6. And then we’ll have another phrase people use when something bad is happening. (In Darius’ defense, he didn’t want to throw Daniel in but had to etc…)

[Two earlier stories also lend idioms to our language. In Daniel 2, we learn about the dream Nebuchadnezzar forgot but wanted interpreted. Only Daniel could see the figure with a head of gold and “feet of clay” and explain the future of the world that it revealed. In Daniel 3, we have his friends endure the fiery furnace when they won’t bow down to a 98-foot tall statue when certain music plays. They come out unsinged and unsmoked. [Random—hiking the Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace in July must be daunting.]

Since no one is likely to say “hand writing,” the use of “writing” is fine, but “handwriting” isn’t, not quite. You’ll see one in the next week, I’d expect.

That is all well and good, but it’s not the title, BEHIND the wall. Or under would work, too.

There is a new tradition—probably hundreds of years old but not to me—of writing on the wall beams of new construction. A friend in Utah showed me how her new friends took Sharpies and wrote sweet notes on the beams in her basement. Another just did it on her brand-new build—the “love words” she and her late husband shared. Someone else talked about a preacher’s beams covered with scriptures his congregation had added. And—how cool is this?—a photographer I know wrote his name within the walls of the Walt Disney Concert Hall AND The Getty Center. (I haven’t been to the Disney but have seen The Simpsons episode where Marge writes Frank Gehry to ask him to design Springfield’s hall. That counts, right? I have been to The Getty a number of times; it could be me in the picture above except I prefer more color.)

The picture for today was from Pompeii, one of the Italian cities buried by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It’s a fascinating story. People had time to flee but not all did (Lesson #17 for the Ages: Flee!) and thousands died. People like Pliny watched it happen and wrote about the horror. So, when the city was covered for hundreds of years, the “writing on the wall” was also covered. The word “graffiti” is, after all, an Italian word for “scribbling” first used in 1851 to describe the writing uncovered in Pompei. This article proclaims it as art, and its prime artist about whom I know nothing is Banksy. Well, that’s not true because I did read the article.

To conclude: The idea of words hidden behind our walls is talismanic, which has to do not only with the magic that wards off evil but also with its roots in consecration. It seems a comforting thing regardless, words of beauty or grace or blessing holding, supporting us silently and secretly. No way to do that on a house built in the 1970s? Why not imagine words? Close your eyes and wish them there. It’s a planned, retro-consecration…

Two New Tools

It’s not that I haven’t written about questions before. Here is a short one discussing questions in general, named after Ben Stein’s famous “Anyone?” line in Ferris Bueller. In this memorial to a friend, I include the opposite of questioning—gullibility, mostly mine. And finally, I wrote about the antidotes for finding the truth, which includes questions.

Last night (January 21, 2022, lest I forget), a group of people gathered to read papers on a variety of topics. My thesis was that reading literature prepares us to be media literate. I outlined the process we use to assess articles and such at Ad Fontes Media. My poor old brain struggled to write the thing, honestly, but it was well-received by the people who presented more excellent work.

The most interesting paper I heard was about a novel (post-apocalyptic, of course!) in which language has been degraded with the resulting loss of culture. Here is an example of how Riddley Walker looks: “On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.” More accurately, this language is a dialect based on real ones, but it feels more like the examples on Facebook that say something like “If you can read this, you’re a genius!” Which should make us all feel good for three seconds. The entire book—now 256 pages down from 600—should be on Audible for clarity, but I couldn’t persuade the young man who read last night to record it for me—beautiful voice! Now the most interesting part: The author is Russell Hoban, someone most parents know because of all his Frances books. Bedtime for Frances, A Birthday for Frances, A Baby Sister for Frances, and many more. His wife Lillian illustrated them. Frances wasn’t his only character. My favorite was made into a film by Jim Henson and the Muppets, Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas (1977). The music is by Paul Williams; here is “Ain’t No Hole in the Washtub.” Catchy, not post-apocalyptic.

My paper took months to write because it kept changing. The title alludes to Macbeth. His wife has died, and he is far and away bad off: “It is a tale/Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing.” “It” is, of course, life. Although I do quote a passage from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, I don’t use the initial opening which refers to an episode from a podcast called (SUB)text) called “Yielding to Suggestion in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  Wes and Erin discuss a particular word in the speech (actually, the word is “word”), and Erin realizes she has misread the meaning because of her text’s notes. That’s not as important as her further realization that she had then mistaught her students. They then laugh about Wes’s use of “the marshmallow test” that neither passes, which makes no sense unless you know about this experiment. Young children (age 4) are left in a room with a single large marshmallow. They’re told they will receive a second one if they choose not to eat it for 10 minutes. The obvious lesson is to do with instant gratification. The second is that you shouldn’t eat the marshmallow some kid leaves because he/she has touched it 14 times, licked it, or smelled it WITHIN their nose. Maybe all of the above.

And that’s just one example. I asked colleagues at Ad Fontes Media for literature examples and used all their suggestions. I thought of others. Two bits of supporting thought came from non-fiction sources.

First, I read Malcom Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers, not because Oprah recommended it but because a son had finished it, handed it to me, and said, “Read this.” It, in turn, is based on Timothy R. Levine’s Truth-Default Theory. Simply put, we believe what people tell us, and we don’t even think about the possibility they aren’t telling us the truth. How many of us—in the early days of Internet use—forwarded emails detailing all the uses of Coca-Cola (dissolves nails in four days!) or posted the horrors caused by Head and Shoulders shampoo (it’s a lotus pod) without consulting Snopes? I did. And then I snopesed people all the time…

Second, (this came to light listening to a nutrition book called Eat Smarter: Use the Power of Food to Reboot Your Metabolism, Upgrade Your Brain, and Transform Your Life), our brains get hijacked when they hear a question. This source describes “the instinctive elaboration reflex.” Once we hear a question, we can’t think of anything else. Multitasking is a myth, apparently, but for my purposes, the point is that accepting and questioning cannot exist in the same space.

The word “cynic” has a long history. Most people are not cynical, but I’m advocating for its occasional use in a new way. “Question everything” can be a mantra without the negativity of disbelief. This excellent article discusses positive ways to be cynical, which sounds odd. Even if you don’t read it, look at the graphic for a particularly nice glass-half-full/empty visual. Even for matters of religion, we aren’t to take everything we’re told as true. We are supposed to test and prove the principles we’re taught. If something is true, there is no reason to be ashamed of it. In my faith tradition, we are admonished to pray for confirmation, always. In other words, thinking is to be encouraged. I find that I have two new tools here. We shall see if I remain gullible…


MLK Day and Our Beloved Community

When I wrote about Martin Luther King, Jr. two years ago, I didn’t know that it’s the only federal holiday designated as a Day of Service. Last year I was on a national call with AmeriCorps, the government entity responsible for volunteer efforts throughout the year. This short article gives a summary of the holiday’s history. Perhaps you’ll hear the phrase “A Day ON, not a Day Off.”

This is another sentiment that Dr. King used, here in 1960 in Raleigh, North Carolina: “There is another element that must be present in our struggle that then makes our resistance and nonviolence truly meaningful. That element is reconciliation. Our ultimate end must be the creation of the beloved community.”

That is poetic and beautiful to imagine. If more of us would hush and do some good, the world would be a better place. We’d be better for doing whatever we do, too, even to the point of the relief of physical and psychic pain. I’ve seen it happen.

Below is the list of projects assembled for my church (and my community, as it happens). A few are local only but could be adapted anywhere. FreeRice is an app with multiple choice questions is a variety of calm but not easy topics. I’ve tried out the FindAGrave and found it easy and satisfying. I’ve done transcription for the Smithsonian. Let me know what you pick…

                                              Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

                                                              January 17, 2022

For 2022, we have a service opportunity that can be done outside and that can involve families. Many people use cemetery information in their family history research and are already familiar with Volunteers take pictures of gravestones or memorials requested by individuals and upload them. Cemeteries all over the stake include requests. Register at Go to the bottom of the page and hit “Contribute” or use the link here and choose “Photo Requests.” Place the pin over the area where you live and choose a radius. A list of names, cemetery locations, and requesters appears. Names can then be “claimed” meaning that they are now off the list and waiting for the photo to be uploaded. Requests at the DFW National Cemetery include specific location of the grave. At-home options are also available in the Contribute section: transcribing headstones and verifying transcriptions. differs in that it offers specific GPS locations for every grave and every headstone listed has already been photographed. Adding photographs and transcribing are also available.

The weather and other conditions can affect plans for January 17. Below are service ideas that can be done either completely at home or mostly at home.

  • Additional information is available at the website for AmeriCorps, the government agency that oversees the national effort and collects responses. 
  • donates 10 grains of rice for every correct answer from many categories of general knowledge. Age 7 and up. Available online at or as a device app.
  • Create birthday cards and holiday cards for local nursing home residents. Make a video for them:
  • Donate pet food and unneeded pet supplies an animal shelter. Navarro and Ellis Counties have shelters but no direct links for donations. Tri-City, the animal shelter in the northern sector of the stake has this website:
  • Donate food to a local food bank and include a “birthday box” with cake mix and a tub of frosting. 
  • Support a local “little library” by stocking it with children’s books. 
  • Charlton Methodist Hospital can use these items: recent magazines (within 6 months), easy crossword or word search puzzles; adult coloring books with crayons; new playing cards. Call Dana Alexander, volunteer coordinator at 214-947-7676, for sewing or crocheting patterns or to make an appointment to deliver items. 
  • Transcribe documents from multiple sources at the Smithsonian so they can be searched digitally; the link below directs to the Freedmen’s Bureau opportunities, but there are many more possibilities:





Working title for this post was “Notes on Abandoning Genuineness.” That didn’t have much of a ring to it and was abandoned. I had listened to a podcast interview of Dr. Samuel Brown. He is not one of those Famous People but one of the Really Smart; he graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in linguistics with a minor in Russian and then went to medical school. He works as a trauma intensive care doctor, medical researcher, and a professor of pulmonary medicine. The interview opened with his report of the intensity from the last months of COVID treatment.

The purpose of the interview, however, was not medicine but his journey from atheism to belief which he chronicles in his latest book, Where the Soul Hungers. What caught my attention was not that story but his remarks about Harvard. It is, in fact, where lots of the Really Smart attend and teach, regardless of what some detractors may say. When our mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, we met with the surgeon, whom she began to interview. Her basic line of questioning was “Are you any good?” He said he was and pointed to his Harvard medical diploma. Satisfactory, though he later disappointed her when explaining she had a primitive tumor. Apparently, she had hoped for a sophisticated one.

In one exchange, Dr. Brown candidly admits that he expected himself to be “the smartest person in the room” when he moved to Utah and describes himself as detached and arrogant. Here came my revelatory moment: If he were to be “genuine,” those characteristics would define him. He would prefer, then, not to remain genuine but to be better.

Among my numerous soapboxes is one called “my truth.” This blog writer tells of a friend who confronted a woman who was “cruelly yelling” at her children in a grocery store. “Confronted” is probably not the right word because he asked her to treat her children with “kindness and love.” I guess he didn’t have his three toddlers in his own cart, but I digress. His approach was rejected. The writer has this section heading: Truth Is About How We Feel. To which I say, “No. It’s not.” If I am arrogant, I can choose to stay that way or work to be less so. Putting off the genuine, authentic me is not a bad thing.

Yesterday, someone told me she’d liked a talk I’d given on the topic “Why I Believe.” As far as I can remember, no one else has had that challenge, but I did and decided to describe my journey to belief as candidly as possible, “warts and all,” as they say. She offered that phrase that is always an unexpected delight: “I needed that.” Later in the day, another friend described herself as “disorganized”, “incomplete”, “unprepared”, “chaotic”, “inefficient”, “undisciplined.” And she assured us we all probably were too, at some point. Again, I could add lots of other negatives. She rather brilliantly added that with divine help, we can change all those “dis-, in-, and un-s” and move on. I don’t know how to punctuate that, but you get the point.

The image that all this gave me was “lifesaver.” I needed to hear Dr. Brown say he was arrogant. I also needed to say I had been a force for good in someone else’s life, if only for a second. I commended my disorganized friend for her remarks (even though she does seem any of that list to me.)

One sees actual life-saving lifesavers at pools, of course, typically hanging on the wall. That shape informs the iconic candy of our youth. Life Savers are an old brand, 1912. Those of a certain age will remember the “books” of candies exchanged at Christmas. The word for what happens when you crush the Wint-O-Green flavor in the dark is triboluminescence, which I didn’t know when I went into a closet some decades ago with some friend or young relative to try it out. No one knows how it works, but it does, and I’ll probably get some Wint-O-Greens later to try with other, younger relatives. A phenomenon I’d forgotten.

Actual lifesavers can be anything that floats. I once gave an inflatable raft to a scuba diver who emerged a few feet from me in Lake Travis, far from shore. His nose was bleeding, and he said he needed it. I was young, so only moderately startled. I doubt I saved his life, just probably made it a little bit easier.

This video lasts only 18 seconds, and a life is so literally saved that I watched it twice. Yes, there is blood. No, the quality isn’t great (police bodycam.) Yes, the Tweet warns you. But don’t watch if you’re squeamish. Even if we can’t do something dramatic, we can smile at someone. Maybe it will improve their day. If we see a woman screaming at her kids, maybe we can offer to help (offer a Life Saver, cherry flavor?) instead of giving “helpful” advice. Here’s an example with a mother not picking up her screaming child. Yes, a bit of candy is involved.

Working Title(s)

Year of the Tiger. As my friend from Taiwan reminded me, 2022 is a Tiger year, beginning in February. At last. Here are some of the attributes of someone born a Tiger: quick-witted, resourceful, versatile, kind. This site adds information like this: “The Tiger is known as the king of all beasts in China. The zodiac sign Tiger is a symbol of strengthexorcising evils, and braveness. Many Chinese kids wear hats or shoes with a tiger image of for good luck.” Sounds about right, but wouldn’t it be nice not to need courage, just once? For better or worse, that’s not how life on earth goes. Welcome, Tiger!

On to Genesis. For Sunday School in my church, we study the scriptures in cycles: Old Testament, New Testament, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants (including church history). When I was first a member, I read D&C because it is shorter and more modern-sounding. As my English students would have chosen a story for the same reasons.

Podcasts now guide my learning. One doesn’t want to admit shallowness, but sometimes it’s just true. As I once taught in a class, I read scriptures every day; that’s not a good thing. Better words abound—study, search, ponder, memorize (!), highlight, apply. Yes, much better words. I envied people who either taught SS or Seminary, the early morning class for teens. I can’t remember how or why these podcasts came to my listen. Probably one was suggested by a person, but I didn’t much like it, and the Internet saw fit to show me 18 others. Only a slight exaggeration.

Three favorites: Teaching with Power is designed for those Seminary teachers because it includes classroom techniques, but the insights shared aren’t limited by age. It’s one teacher talking to other teachers, minimum personality with occasional personal history. Ponderfun is actually a YouTube channel but also available as a podcast. It uses whiteboard illustrations. One selling point is its length—very short, 10-15 minutes max—making for a perfect introduction. Current top of the three is Follow Him, hosted by Hank Smith and John Bytheway. Each week they invite scholars, most with PhDs, to discuss their areas of expertise. These women and men are enthusiastic and incredibly knowledgeable. All my decades of “reading” seem like a placeholder now. An advanced degree in Hebrew really can matter.

Don’t Start. Finish. As children we sat down New Year’s Eve and wrote out our resolutions. I wasn’t then and am not now much of a goal setter. Throwing resolutions over isn’t a personal failure, though. Recently I heard someone say she set herself a goal before the New Year instead of waiting (commendable), added a time limit (workable), and reported good results already (remarkable). But rather than start anything new, I hope to finish all the…ok, some…of the things I began in past years. I’ve noticed an inverse return on things I tell people I’m working on, so I won’t say what until the deed(s) are done.

Saying goodbyes. It was an obviously difficult year for many. More died of COVID in 2021 than in 2020. Here is as good a list as any, with pictures. On December 31, it was Betty White. She was 17 days shy of turning 100, but at church a young man said yesterday he had always wanted a date with her. Someone else said she was holding the world together. Most of us had been watching her for most of our lives. She was the queen of the one-liners which made her a natural for game shows, too. She was quite the scene stealer in The Proposal (2009) and remained friends with Ryan Reynolds. A new documentary will come out on January 17, as planned for her birthday. It was good to laugh with her.

So, the takeaway? Be brave. Learn some stuff. Finish some stuff. Laugh. As good a list as any…