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...

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