Johannes Soldane: Today is everything, do something.

 I have been working on a project for about two years that started when I stumbled up a case involving $7 and an iron safe in the early hours of the Civil War in Jackson County, Missouri.


 I have meant to finish this project and turn it into a snappy manuscript over the past year but instead I have rolled with the changes 2020 has brought and instead mastered the art of Zooming while feeding my dog quiet treats to keep her docile.


I have turned my attention to hanging plants, training for a 10K and learning to paint my own nails (I hate it).  I have mastered the art of keeping my kitchen clean, lined up all my clothes by color and season, and binged more series than I care to admit.  Nothing I do gives me space from this project, instead it seems like every quiet moment I have my mind wanders back to “what if?” and “did you think about” and “oh hey what if this person is the same as …”



By working, I mean putting names and census data on the wall and connecting them with strings and pins to probate documents and naturalization oaths.


 Since I am teaching from home during this strange and slippery time when it’s hard to know what to hold on to, I don’t have as many student papers on my desk and instead have neatly labelled vertical files of things I’ve printed out from digital archives even though it is much more awesome it is to be able to pinch and zoom a document than to hold a blurred copy. 


The physical files are something to hold, to highlight and to read over and over until new things reveal themselves.


 Even after I find new things I still go back and look for more data points to help me connect these dates and misspelled names and silences into stories of people


I have spent many restless nights tossing and turning ruminating on little bits that fit together like a puzzle,  wanting to be done with this and share it already and yet in no hurry to move forward with it all.


 The names have worked their ways under my skin – Gian-Jean-John, Johann, Achilles, and Sylvester who believed he was an Osage Indian and became a powerful leader in turn of the century Oklahoma.   It doesn’t matter at all to me if I am related to any or all of these people whose name I more or less share; their stories as immigrants and orphans  are interesting and important on their own.



Today I put names in digital archives again, just like I do every time I don’t want to grade.

Jean Soldani. John Soldani. Jean Goldani. John Soldan. Gian Soldan.


 I change one letters and dates like a scientist adding drops of this or that into a test tube and holding the results up to the light.  


I print the documents and keep going.  


And no you don’t get them now, because then this wouldn’t be a good story, it would be a data dump and that’s no fun at all.


Ground zero of the big story I am taking you to and through for Pandora’s Safe is  the 1860 census, but today we are not visiting ground zero. It is too boring to start there, and I don’t have time to waste your time by telling this story wrong.  Today we will visit the probate file of someone who may or may not be related to everyone else in this story.  





From what I can piece together, Johannes Soldane left Switzerland for the US in 1848.  I find several documents of people with names similar to his arriving in the US in the 1840s, and there is no reason to believe he was the kind of man who came to the US several times before bringing his family.


I can’t find his marriage papers, and I can’t find his children’s birth certificates. 


A lot of history involves using the stuff you DO find and not losing your mind over what you wish you could find, so I don’t waste too much energy here.  I might never know if he was an explorer, but I get the feeling he was the kind of guy who thought crossing the Atlantic was more fun than being in central Europe as the wars of the 1840s pulsed through changing the political and economic landscape forever. 


There are no pictures of Johannes Soldane or his wife Maria Anna  or their kids, but their actions speak volumes.  Johannes Soland moved his family from Europe to the US right as the US and Mexico concluded the war that would lead to the US acquiring California and finding gold there. Maybe that’s where he was headed?


From what I can tell he didn’t buy land or intend to stay in St. Louis very long – or maybe bad luck struck as soon as they settled in.  Again, I only know what the data points tell me, and the data is pretty raw here.


When a person dies very often they have a will that is brought to a probate court and then dispassionate bureaucrats make sure the everything unfolds legally and fairly – for example, that the deceased’s goods are appraised at fair value, and that proper notice is posted in newspapers etc.   It doesn’t seem as though Johannes Soldane had anything to be probated other than a single bank account, but I’m getting ahead of myself.


Page one of his file says that he died in April 1849, but  he has no heirs because his wife and two children - -whose names were unknown to the lawyers probating the documents – and died in September and October of that same year. 


They didn’t make it to the 1850 census or the 1850 mortality census, which would have given us clues on where they lived and who they lived near.   We can’t tell how many children they had in 1847 – six? Four? Two? – and whether they had older children waiting for them who would never know what happened to them specifically but we can guess.


I guess cholera.  In 1849 a cholera epidemic swept the young city of St. Louis, killing hundreds a day.  Perhaps that’s how they died – one at a time, but all together in the blurr of history – leaving no one to tell their story or claim their bank account. Maybe that’s why Johannes estate is not put into probate until 5 years after his death. 


By the standards of many probate files, this one is thin and lacks excitement. No one contests the itemization, no  one demands changes.  Its freakishly quiet.


The only asset Johannes Soldane has is about $175 he put in an account with three guys whose last name is Rippenstein.  By 1855 the Rippensteins are insolvent and don’t give the money to the executor of the will. 


The data points can be flexed and bent to imply that there are people in Missouri waiting for Johannes Soldane – perhaps his brothers, cousins, children – but no one document I have found in the hundreds I’ve poured through answers that question with certainty.


The lesson from this tiny piece of one person’s life shows us what we all know.  Nothing is certain, no tomorrow is guaranteed.  Today is everything, do something.


And now that I’ve written that I feel like he will rest more peacefully tonight now that his family’s tragic 1849 is no longer forgotten.



How High Can Rocks Fly: Part 3: How fast can dead snails run?

(From December 2017) 
I will forever remember finding a particular envelope the week after Christmas while sorting through odds and ends and putting away decorations and writing syllabi.

I thought the paper envelope was filled with some sort  of fragrance beads, so I got a glass bowl, opened the envelope and shook them out. A bunch of yellow beads fell out, accompanied by about 50 tiny assorted seashells mixed in with tiny beads.

 I spent the better part of the afternoon admiring each one of them and then placing them in to a spiral pattern in the bowl.  I loved each of them.

The seashells tell a story about creatures effortlessly – almost helplessly -- creating beautifully perfect geometric art that they leave as their gift. 

These creatures did not have the choices of  being kind and helpful – or did they? Am I underestimating them? -- but still they found a way to be generous.

 I suddenly want to know more about the communities of whatever these are but oh wait. I am dumbstruck. Entirely.

  I am a grown human being and I do not know what to call the creature that lived and died and created seashells.

Are they snails? I’m thinking snails are land things. 

Snails are like Gary on Spongebob.  Wait, is Spongebob really under the sea? Is Gary a native underwater sea snail  or is he from above the water like Sandy the Squirrel and does that explain why Gary meows?  I want to look this up but stay on track.

The creatures that made these seashells can’t be “snails” and I’m stumped but motivated to get through this and find the right word so I can finish writing this and finally grade.

 I think of typing in “What died to become a seashell?”  or “How are seashells made?”  but I think google would laugh at me. 

Of course I know how seashells are made.

They are made by math, by the golden spiral and by the Pythagorean swirly square root thing.

Each sea shell is  made by a divine creature that instinctively grew at exactly the right speed; they could not go faster or slower, they could not grow into a shape any different than the one they were intended to become.  

I can’t imagine they were aware of their shells, but then I can also imagine an entire show based on snails having shell envy and some snails getting plastic shell surgery to look more like a conch. 

I finally did search “how are seashells made” and have an answer that is boring and ugh.  The smug top sentence for any big search should be disregarded. 
 Then I switched to google image search and got this treasure for you. You’re welcome.

At least now I have an answer.

A variety of sea creatures leave their shells.  They have all sorts of names. Mollusks and clams and oysters and guess what?  As the narrator I get to make choices and for this story we are going to call them sea snails, and leave their names a mystery that died when their entire family-village perished in whatever catastrophic event that caused all these shells to be seeking refuge halfway around the world from their home.

How do I know they are from far away? The tag on the bag of shells read “Made in the Philippines.” Of course I read it, I look for hints and clues everywhere, all the time.

It did not mention whether the contents were food or could be given to children – do they care if anyone is harmed? -- but I bless their hearts anyway, because that’s the right thing to do.

The Philippines are pretty far away from Tallahassee, an unimaginable distance to be covered by any snail, much less a dead one.

That’s right. I now realize my question is really “How fast can a dead snail run?” and the answer has been answered by every single one of these shells.

 It moved as quickly as it needed to in order to go where it was intended to go, and the universe did the rest of the work.


*On exam day I will have enough rocks and stones so that each of you can pick two shells and two stones; one of each to keep, and one of each to give away. 

How High Can Rocks Fly: Part 2: Do not give rocks to children.

(From December 2017) 

I have to answer the question I don’t know how to ask before I can write something I want to give my students before they take their final exams. 

 For years now, ever since at least 2010 when we lost two people in one class, I have given my students lucky rocks at the end of the semester as tangible evidence of my gratitude for our time together and my good wishes for their future.

 We usually begin Final Exam day with stories and rocks (and for a bit there was a picture thing and once or twice I wore my Harry Potter-looking Ph.D. stuff), but that always left out the student who tiptoed in 3 minutes late, or the students who were so genuinely wrapped up in memorizing the parts of the Treaty of Paris (1898) they were unable to listen.  I don't blame them.

I would not want any student to feel left out, so this year I will give them something to read (this).

One of the reasons I love rocks is they remind me that I have a choice in what I keep and what I leave behind.   

I hope that you all take pieces of this class with you, the good parts, the parts that meant something to you.

 If there were times in the semester when you felt frustrated at me or disappointed in yourself, I hope you choose to put that rock down.

One of the things that makes us human is our ability to question things and to invent stories.  Rocks cannot tell you about the 1968 election and connect it to both the Nixon Doctrine and Watergate. 

No matter how hard they try, rocks can’t tell stories.  Rocks have other uses.

Do rocks worry about being useful? Successful? Important?  Lost? 

Would worrying help the rocks get to where they are destined to go?  

Can rocks fly?  Did this rock come from outer space?  Was it part of a meteor once? 

I do not know. 

I did read once that humans are made of stardust. Stardust pulsing though our veins, connecting us to things that have been and will become. Perfectly amazing. 

I don’t know how high these rocks can fly, but your rock has flown from where it was and then will end up exactly where it is intended to be, at exactly the speed it needed to go.

There. Question answered.

Now something else.  When I bought the rocks there was tag on the bag with was a notice smaller than a fortune cookie that read, “Not for children under 14. Not for food.”

I shook my head.

Who needs to be told that????

What horrible person would be giving rocks to kids? Or think rocks are food?  

Still, there must be a reason for them to have taken the resources to have printed and affixed those particular rules to these rather rock-like rocks. 

I choose to practice radical acceptance, so I’m going to practice believing that those two rules are crucial.  

Rule #1: Do not give rocks to children.

Whoa. YES! Best rule ever. Brilliant. Profound, even.
If you give a child a rock, they might cry.   They were hoping for maybe candy or your Netflix password or to use your wireless headphones. 

You can’t always tell if someone is a child or not based on their age, but you will definitely know if a person is ready to believe rocks are magic and that you are offering them treasure.   

If they don’t want your treasure, leave them to the universe to learn what they need to learn on their wisdom path today.

Rule #2: Rocks are not for food.  

Yeah. Right! Anyone who has heard the fable about stone soup knows that rocks can be the key ingredient in making a community feast. 

I am aware that more than one hundred students are  waiting for me to finish writing this and post exam grades, so for expediency sake, here is a recap of the story à

Our service projects this semester have been our stone soup.  Each student has chosen to use their talents to contribute to a greater mission resulting in something bigger and more awesome than we each could have made on our own.

But OK. Still.  I had agreed to agreeing to the two rules and I’m breaking my rule to follow the rules.

 Good thing I don’t have an editor to answer to. Good thing I don’t have to worry about getting a grade on this essay.  

Rocks are not for food. This is probably the stupidest rule ever.  

If we are at the point where people are eating so many rocks that there are rock shortages and rock overdoses lets reconvene and figure out what bad choices lead our society down that to that path.  Was it Yalta? Was it Perestroika? Can it be connected in any way to blaming Mexico for forcing us to join WW1?

Wait, I am still not agreeing.

Radical acceptance might be against my nature, so I have to practice harder than other people. Here we go.

Do not eat rocks. Be careful what you ingest, be careful that it isn’t toxic or harmful.  Practice kindness to yourself, you are treasure.

 Do not feed rocks to people. Do not feed anything harmful to other people. They, also, are treasure.

 Wish for yourself health and protection; offer the same wish for everyone else.   

Now I see it.

The people who bagged these rocks took the time to wish their rocks would do no harm.
Bless their hearts.

I’m almost ready to finish this story and grade that stack of exams that looms next to me on my desk, but not until I answer the question I’m still figuring out how to ask.

(there are only 3 parts, then I really really have to grade.....)