Saturday, July 31, 2010

Greater Meaning Amidst Confusion

What a difference a few days can make!  These last few days have taken me on a very interesting journey that has been greatly encouraging and proven once again to me the power of faith and of the reality of God's sovereign plan, not only for my life as an individual, but for my part in the larger story of his creation. What has happened to draw such statements from me you ask? Quite a lot actually. It is funny how quickly a perspective can change and how much that shift can transform the way we view the world around us. I am keenly reminded once again that what we get out of life is largely a result of the way we approach it. 

When last I wrote I spoke of the official announcement that all temporary employees were to be terminated on September 30. This morning when I reported for roll call the presence of all year term employees (of which I am one) were requested in a meeting with a different supervisor. She proceeded to tell us that the aforementioned announcement was erroneous and that only those individuals being paid with centennial money (which I am not) are being cut, and the rest of us should be kept on for the duration of one year, or very close to it. So I just went from being cut on September 30 to potentially being employed in this position until Jan 2. That is a big difference! She also gave us some additional information about the permanent cert. It is likely going to be released in early September (which is what I had thought back in May) and will probably be for 18 positions. It is going to be released to all sources though, which means I will be competing against people from all across the nation. She did say that they really want to keep as many of us as possible and are going to do everything within their power to do so, but that is not an especially positive situation for someone in my position. Still, there is a possibility, and that is reason to hope! She also said that there is a possibility that some of us could be renewed at the beginning of next year, which means that even if I do not get one of the permanent jobs, I might still be able to stay on in the same capacity. It was some very encouraging news on the whole!

After we were dismissed I began to walk out the door when the aforementioned supervisor requested that I stay behind. I have felt like she has unfairly targeted me in the past and I figured she wanted to bring up some issue and reprimand me about something because that is generally the only reason she would be speaking to me. You can imagine my surprise when the words that came out of her mouth were to tell me how good of a job that I was doing, to tell me that she had noticed, to tell me that the superintendent of the park has noticed (largely due to what he is now referring to as "Garrett Radke fan mail" which keeps showing up on his desk) and that she personally really wanted me to be able to stay in a permanent, or at least longer term capacity. I was nearly struck speechless, as it had not even entered my mind that she would ever tell me anything of the sort. She must have seen my confusion because she went on to say that she recognized that she had never told me that before and that she wanted me to know. Now that was an encouragement!

And it was not only that. Two days ago I was working on trying to figure out special programs to do in September (the due date for submitting any such programs was today) and one of the top rangers at the park was in the room with me. He turned to me and told me that he and one of the other rangers were talking about the top ten temporary/seasonals (about 30 people) they would like to see come on as permanent and that my name was on the list. He paused a moment, and then went on to say that, actually my name was on the top of that list. 

Today I went in early to do the wall washing which meant I got off early. I had noticed that this same ranger and the ranger I am doing my "birth on a nation" bike tour with in a couple of weeks (the two rangers that I most respect, find to be the most knowledgeable, and that are the model of what interpretation should be in my opinion) were doing a bike tour on the bonus march in Washington in 1932 today. It is a topic I knew little about and I knew with those two rangers it was sure to be interesting, so I went on the tour as a civilian. It was awesome. It made me realize how much better I can do at what I am doing and inspired me to keep striving to do anything I can to do this job well. 

Yesterday the director of the bike program came to me and told me that he was going to be unable to do the bike tour on the burning of washington this year. He has done this tour with the latter ranger mentioned above for the last six years on the anniversary of said burning. He was not simply telling me he couldn't do it though. He went on to ask me if I would be interested in taking his place. I talked to the other ranger about it today and he told me that he would rather have me with him than anyone else in the park. So I am going to be co-leading a four hour bike tour on the burning of Washington in 1814 on August 22. Included in the group on the tour that day will be several representatives of different organizations who are connected with the war of 1812 who want to see what it is that we do on the mall so that we can work together for the 200th Anniversary of the war which is going to be starting in about a year and a half.

Yesterday I was working at Jefferson and had fascinating conversation with several different people and gave two 75 minute talks. Both of these programs included a great deal of information that I had learned in Philadelphia last week as well as from my recent reading of "John Adams." I especially enjoyed relating the story of the drama that unfolds on July 1 and July 2, 1776, culminating in the arrival of Caesar Rodney, who has ridden 80 miles through the night to arrive in the doorway of congress "booted and spurred" and splattered with mud just in time to swing the vote of Delaware in favor of Independence. These two programs were amongst the best I have ever given. During the first one I had every person in the memorial (about 35) gathered around me for a while. But as significant as those moments were, the highlight of the way came when an 11 year old girl asked me if I could give a talk to her family. I readily agreed and was soon speaking to them. The family consisted of 8 people, the two parents and six others (not sure if they were all their children) ranging from about 6- 24 years of age. I began giving my standard intro but was quickly interpreted by the 11 year old asking me a question. I was quickly diverted again by the 6 year old boy asking me how they got the top stone on the top of the Washington Monument (seriously, what six year old thinks of that?!?!) and it just kept going from there. This was absolutely the most well educated family I have ever spoken to. I was floored by the questions they were coming up with. They taxed my knowledge about the city, the park, politics, and American history in general. We covered a myriad of topics in a constantly changing conversation that grew ever more fascinating to me as it went on. Finally mom said they had to leave in order to get down to the capitol to make their tour, and then asked if I could go with them and continue to explain things to them along the way because I had done such an admirable job. 

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. What a shift from what I was feeling just a few days ago! And a good thing to as I have now managed to commit myself to quite the lineup of programs in the next two months. Here are the special programs/events I am participating in or leading in August and September as of today...

August 1- Washing the Korean Memorial 

August 6-8-Vietnam reenactment

August 15-"Birthing a Nation" bike tour (I am leading completely)

August 22-"Burning of Washington" bike tour (co-leading)

September 4- Washing the Vietnam Memorial

September 5- chit chat run on the "summer of '63" (focusing on three key battles in July, 1863 and how they changed the course of the Civil War)

September 11/19- "Moments the defined a revolution" (special program on five key events in the American Revolution that occurred in September including the battle of Brandywine on Sept. 11 and the surrender of Saratoga on September 19--hence the reason for the program being on those days if you didn't make the connection!)

September 13-"The stars and stripes forever"-performing a slightly modified version of the vignette I helped write and perform for the 4th of July on the anniversary of the British attack on Ft. McHenry in 1814

September 17/18-"The import of a dispatch: special order 191" (special program about the battle of Antietam done as Chamberlain)

September 25/26-"Preserving the spirit of the frontier" (modified version of my campfire program from Wind Cave with a much greater emphasis on Thomas Jefferson and Lewis and Clark)

It is going to be a busy couple of months and that means I am going to be having to do a tremendous amount of research and preparation to get reading for all of these programs, but I think it will be worth it. :) 

I also worked at the Washington Monument the morning after the FBI received a phone call from threatening to blow it up the next day. Thankfully that did not take place, and I even got to run people out early because of a crazy thunderstorm that came up out of nowhere! 

You never know what to expect going to work at the national mall. 

Living in dangerous wonder...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Peace Amidst the Panic

These have been an eventful last few days! They have been days in which my faith has been tested and where I have been blessed by some truly amazing moments that came across my path.

I came to work yesterday morning expecting a fairly leisurely day as I was assisting on a bike tour. Things were quickly thrown into turmoil, however, when one of the supervisors announced that all temporary employees are going to be cut at the end of the fiscal year on September 30. That, by my count, cuts 27 people including myself. That is half of the staff that works the sites, does bike tours, and makes the park actually work. It makes no sense at all, but apparently there are budget issues and that is what was announced from the higher ups. 

In addition it sounded like there are only going to be 20 permanent jobs announced and the announcement will go out to all sources, which means that I stand virtually no chance whatsoever of making it anywhere close to high enough for them to even see my name. This is very very different than anything that they have been telling us in the past. 

As can be expected these pieces of information threw things into great turmoil, and caused a great deal of angst for me personally because I have just signed a lease and committed to moving to a new house six weeks prior to that date. 

I was struggling to maintain any semblance of a good attitude and an optimistic view of things as I traveled to Jefferson after that announcement. I went into the library under Jefferson and encountered one of the other rangers, with whom I ended up talking for quite a while. It was a divine moment, just what I needed to curb the rising panic. There is no sense in worrying. We do not know what is going to happen.

I went on the bike tour, which was an exploration of the Walt Whitman in Washington during the Civil War. I contributed very little to the tour, but learned a great deal from the other ranger and was taken away from any other concerns. As we neared the end of the tour we were suddenly hit by a huge storm. It came out of nowhere and we had very little warning, but were able to take refuge under the overhang of the Hirschorn Gallery just as it hit in force. Apparently a tornado actually touched down near the city in Maryland. The force of the storm here was impressive to behold. And as it cleared a beautiful sky filled with layers and depth emerged before my eyes. In that moment I felt a great sense of peace, that everything would work out somehow.

I went home last night and watched the movie "we were soldiers," which I have been wanting to do since I started here. I was touched once again by the account of these men, especially John "Jack" Geoghegan,a young Lieutenant whose daughter Camille was born only 5 months before the battle for the Ia Drang Valley in November, 1965. In the battle Jack is killed trying to save Willie Godboldt, a member of his squad. It is a powerful moment in the movie and it gripped me enough that I decided to go and find his name on the wall this morning.

So early this morning I went out to the Vietnam Wall and located Jack's name amongst the other fallen soldiers of the 7th air cavalry. The wall meant something more to me this morning than it ever has before. There was a new understanding, and a new perspective of my own life that came with it.

All of a sudden my angst about my employment here didn't seem quite so important and I went to FDR this morning with a renewed spirit. It was well I did for as I walked through the memorial for the first time this morning I saw a family at the Japanese Pagoda on the south end, and just as I passed the boy asked why it was there. It was too good an opportunity to miss and I engaged them in conversation. Twenty five minutes later they continued on their way after learning about the cherry trees, the connection with Japan, the significance of the location of the FDR and Jefferson memorials, the connection between the men memorialized therein, and the connection between Jefferson and Adams. It was a wonderful interpretive moment.

Later on I gave a tour to two families in which I spent 75 minutes taking them through the memorial and speaking of FDR and the times in which he served. The peak came just before 4:00 though. Someone else was going to do the 4:00 talk and I was starting to think about leaving when a group walked up and the leader came and asked me if someone could guide the group through the memorial. I could have told them to wait ten minutes and another ranger would do it, but instead I told them I would take them right then. It turned out it was a group of 30 history teachers from Delaware and they had until 4:30 before they had to be back on the bus. Do I led a 35 minute impromptu tour through the memorial for 30 history teachers, feeling very self-conscious as they would be sure to catch any mistake or error in my speech. Apparently I did alright as they were all very happy and appreciative at the end. I walked away thinking that these kind of moments are exactly why I am here.

When I got back to the ranger station I sat down at a computer to look for other jobs and check email before going to church and one of the supervisors walked in. I decided it was a perfect opportunity to ask more about this termination and the permanent cert. She had a very different understanding and said that it was only the summer temps that would have to be cut by that date. She also said (as I thought) that it would be impossible to run the park if they cut all of us, and (again as I thought) there is no way this permanent cert will clear and result in new people until much later. So she thinks we will have to be kept longer. It is still unclear what exactly is going on, what this permanent cert will look like, or when it will be released, but as I sit here at this moment I am reminded of the futility of worry and the power of faith and trust. So I will have faith, and I will trust that there are higher powers at work and things going on that I cannot see and if God wants me here in this place, somehow or other it will work out. If he does not, then I will come to understand that when I need to know it and not to worry in the meantime.

Enjoy the moments as they come and appreciate the value of each opportunity and of life itself. There is no better way to live.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Power of the Innocuous Decision

There are times in life when plans are deliberately orchestrated to bring about certain results, but I have found that the substantial majority of life looks a lot more like random chance and is defined by the way we respond to the opportunities that come across our paths. We make countless decisions every day, many of which are innocuous, but some of which have significant and dramatic effect upon our lives. The decision to turn left instead of right, to get up a few minutes later than normal, to unexpectedly call a friend you have not spoken to in years, or to go to a different coffee shop than you normally would can change the course of our lives forever. Granted, the results of such decisions are usually not nearly so dramatic, but sometimes, sometimes such a simple decision can change everything. 

I have made many such decisions on my life. Some have resulted in wonderful opportunities. Others have ended in terrible pain and loss, for myself as well as others. But I like to think that even with such disastrous results, God can still bring about great good if I am willing to let him redeem the situation. I write this message sitting in a row house in Northeast Washington DC. Nine months ago I had no thought at all that I would even be on this side of the country. Sixteen months ago I was living in California and working as a bookkeeper, with little in my life to stimulate, evoke passion, or instill purpose. I had strayed from a constructive path and was trapped in a cycle that was slowly leading to the destruction of my soul. But then I began to make some small decisions, decisions that led to other decisions, which in turn provided me with an opportunity to respond, and it has been the way that I responded to such opportunities that has led me to this room where I sit writing today. 

This will be one of the last messages you will receive from me from this location. In three weeks I will no longer be living in Washington DC. I will instead be living in Northern Virginia, in a house with three other guys who share the same view and mission of the purpose we have in this world we live in. As the result of one such decision I will be moving, not only into a new home, but also toward a longer commitment to being here in this area. A cert for permanent ranger positions on the mall restricted to a merit promotion for already permanent staff came out a couple days ago. It closes on August 12. At a point relatively soon after that the mythical cert I have been waiting for will finally be posted. How much of a real chance I have at acquiring one of these positions remains to be seen, but I have certainly decided to do everything within my power to try to do exactly that. 

A few weeks ago one of the other rangers mistakenly sent me an email about a Vietnam reenactment. I had spoken to him about being involved in Civil War reenacting and he simply connected me with the wrong war. Realizing the error he sent me a second email retracting the first, but also stating that if I did have any interest in being involved in what was going on with Vietnam to let him know. I decided to find out more and as a result of what started as an error I am going to be joining he and three other rangers in traveling to a full scale Vietnam reenactment August 6-8. My supervisors were kind enough to shift my days off so that I would be able to take advantage of this opportunity. I will be joining hundreds of others in full scale combat, attired as a private in the first division of the US Army, complete with a full pack of gear and an M-16. I have wanted to be a re-enactor since I was about 10 years old, and now I am going to have the opportunity to do exactly that. All as a result of a mistake that led to a decision. 

It occurred to me last Sunday evening that as I will be losing my first weekend of August for the reenactment, will be spending the second weekend moving to Virginia, will likely need the third to actually get things set up in the new place, and this upcoming weekend to pack up and prepare to move. That meant that this past Tuesday and Wednesday was quite possibly my last chance to go on a grand adventure for a while. So in a moment of spontaneous abandon late Sunday night I decided that I was going to drive to Philadelphia after work the next day. And I did. I didn't have a plan. I didn't have a place to stay, I didn't really know where I was going, and I really didn't have an agenda. I just went. It was very atypical me. 

That decision led me to a series of interesting and unexpected experiences. I have attached five pictures that, in my mind, capture the essence of the trip as best as I am able. Without a plan and with a willingness to pursue what I would find before me, I left Washington DC and headed toward a state park that I had identified on the outskirts of Philadelphia. I figured I could camp there for the night, but when I arrived I discovered there was no camping in the park. So I decided I would just sleep in the back of my truck and found a nice spot tucked away in the far end of the park where I thought I would evade attention. I was wrong. Before too long I saw headlights pointed towards me and soon had a lovely conversation with an LE ranger who informed me that my plan was not going to work out as the park was closed. So off I went. After driving around aimlessly for a bit I spotted a little church set back from the road wit a lovely parking lot around the back, in which I spent the remainder of the night in peaceful slumber. 

I arose early the next morning and without a shower, bathroom, or proper breakfast, I headed into the heart of Philadelphia where I found a spot to park for the day. Looking like an unshaven, smelly, dirty, homeless park ranger I entered the visitor center for Independence National Historic Park, where I managed to acquire a ticket for the first tour of Independence Hall. My tour guide was full of information, but presented it rather poorly. He was speaking of some of the most exciting drama in the history of the world and he did so in a lackluster manner, without nearly enough passion and dramatic air. I found myself constantly thinking about how I would interpret the site if I was the one giving the tour. I suppose that is the curse of being a park ranger...

Even so I was deeply moved by the reality of where I was standing, looking upon the room where momentous decisions were made, decisions that changed the history of the world forever. The import of such decisions was not lost upon the delegates gathered in that room in 1775-6 and 1787. As John Adams wrote in June, 1776, "Objects of the most stupendous magnitude, measure in which the lives and liberties of millions, born and unborn are most essentially interested, are now before us. We are in the very midst of revolution, the most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world."

And that is where I was standing. It was a humbling moment.(The first two pictures depict this room and Independence Hall). I spent the rest of the day entering other such buildings including the hall where congress met from 1790-1800 while the capitol was being constructed down in a city called Washington, the very hall where George Washington willingly passed authority power to John Adams, a man with no hereditary right or title to the position he was entering into, who had no claim to such power beyond the Republican ideas upon which this nation is founded, in the first ceremony of its kind anywhere in the history of the world. I ate lunch in City Tavern, where Adams, Washington, Jefferson, and many others met and spoke of these ideals during that revolution. I stood in the square where Benjamin Franklin lived and worked as a printer for many years, the house where Betsy Ross sewed that first "American flag,"  Christ Church, where many of these men worshiped our Lord and creator, and before the liberty bell, that tangible symbol of these ideals, forever identified by its iconic split down its side. 

I went on a tour of the Philadelphia mint to compliment the tour I took of the Denver mint last November (Denver's is way cooler by the way). But perhaps the most significant find for me that day came from a whimsical decision. As I was passing by the second bank of the United States I saw a sign about the portraits now housed inside and I was intrigued enough to stick my head in. I found myself surrounded by many faces that I quickly recognized. Amongst the first that I saw was a portrait of Meriwether Lewis what I have seen pictured countless times and I used myself in the campfire program I presented at Wind Cave. As I walked around the bank turned portrait gallery I realized that many of these iconic images surrounding me were the work of one man, Charles Wilson Peale. His was a name I knew, a longtime resident of Philadelphia who was well known for his portraits of many revolutionary luminaries. 

In an effort to procure more information I did what all tourists would naturally do and found the nearest park ranger. I asked this particular ranger how many portraits Peale had actually done in an effort to find out more about the man and his work and also discover why it was hanging in the bank. The ranger answered, but then turned to the young lady wearing a volunteer vest who stood nearby for verification, which I caught my attention because it seemed an interesting thing for the ranger to do when I had asked what I thought to be a fairly standard question that any ranger working in such a location would be likely to know. This "volunteer" seized upon the opportunity to offer additional information and I soon found myself following her into a section of the gallery I had not yet seen and discussing Peale and the men he had painted. What I had thought would be a quick stop just to see what was inside the bank turned into a lengthy and unexpected exploration. What I had thought would be a simple and brief conversation with a park ranger had turned into a much longer interaction with a young woman whom I felt a camaraderie with as I work in such a similar position. It turned out that she was actually a ranger just like I was, but had not yet received her full uniform and so was forced to attire herself as a volunteer. It also turns out that the rangers at Independence National Historic Park do not stay at one site as we do, but rather move around the entire park throughout the day. I left the bank thinking that I would go on about the rest of my day and likely never see this sister ranger again, only to run into her three more times in other locations around the park. After the fourth such occasion I realized that I had unexpectedly made a new friend amidst these iconic sites telling the story of the birth of this nation. 

I left Philadelphia that night headed for the site where Washington crossed the Delaware river on Christmas night, 1776 (third picture). I arrived at that location and enjoyed a lovely walk on both sides of the river. I don't know why Washington had such a problem with the task. There is a very useful bridge that took me straight across from Pennsylvania to New Jersey! Perhaps he missed it. 

I found a lovely park nearby where I planned to spend the night sleeping in the back of my truck once again, and indeed was lying in the back writing in my journal at 10:00 that night when a local police officer arrived and informed me that I could not remain in that location. He was very nice, but also made it clear that I really couldn't be anywhere in the immediate area, so I headed back out in the direction of the highway and found a lovely deep turn out where I spent the remainder of the night. I suppose that is what I get for not having a plan or a place to stay! 

I arose Wednesday morning looking even more homeless than the day before and decided to drive to Valley Forge, where I spent a good part of the rest of the day traveling around the famous encampment out of which the Continental Army emerged in June, 1778 with new discipline, purpose, and vigor, and a road that would lead them to Yorktown. There were cannons at Valley Forge, so I naturally felt obligated to add to my cannon pictorial slideshow. The final two pictures depict my favorite of the cannon pictures and me enjoying the comforts of one of the (reconstructed) huts that the army spent the winter huddled  in. Even though no fighting actually took place at Valley Forge that winter it still holds an immemorial place in the history and identity of this nation and I can now add it to my list of sites that have a new a deeper meaning in my own understanding of the same. 

The seemingly simple and random innocuous decisions of our lives can lead to very unexpected places. It is all about how we decide to use the time that has been given to us. (that sounds like something I have heard someone say before somewhere...)

Living in dangerous wonder...