Monday, October 25, 2010

Encountering new frontiers

There is something compelling about the mysterious, the undefined, about uncertainty and the unexpected. Something that calls to you, that draws you in, holds you close, and compels you to continue to move forward in search of an answer. Sometimes we don't even know the question we are seeking to answer, and yet we search after the great unknown, seeking the very edge of the undefined frontiers of our existence.

And if we don't give in, don't shy away, and continue along the journey we often find that the frontiers that we come across are wholly different that what we thought we were searching for when we began our quest. It is in such moments, moments of encountering new frontiers and forging new pathways that we find ourselves closest to the heart of God, nearest to understanding what it is like to see the world through His eyes, held in the majestic embrace of wonder and majesty.

Today was a perfect fall day, a day in which the sun broke out and warmed the earth, offset by beautiful puffy white clouds and complemented by a nearly full moon looking across the sky at the rising sun.

It was a day characterized by a brisk wind, consistently causing the leaves to dance in the trees, leaves in many different phases of changing colors, symbols of the path of life, not remaining static, but embracing the change and shimmering in multi-colored brilliance before letting go of the arm which has nourished them to carpet the pathways with a blanket of colorful and crunchy magnificence.

This blanket obscures the pathways, making it more difficult to see the way ahead, yet simultaneously offering a unique and splendid opportunity to walk a familiar path in a new light.

Sometimes it is only in letting go like these leaves that we can appreciate the world from a new and uniquely vibrant perspective.

On October 15 I embarked on a journey, a journey across the country to simultaneously celebrate the nuptials of a dear and familiar friend and embrace an unknown future marked by unfamiliar relationships rising up from a new path into an unknown frontier I have begun to walk with captivated heart in tandem with a new and unexpected manifestation of brilliance and wonder.

Alison and I arrived in Livermore and engaged in a series of forays into super delicious culinary pleasures, a mission which would demand our attention and allegiance for the next several days. Such forays included stops at cupcakes, ice cream, chinese food, cookies, an array of wedding delicacies, tri tip, Mr. Pickles sandwiches, afternoon tea, and a requisite final detour to in-in-out burger.

Somewhere amidst the eating we did manage to find time to attend the wedding of a dear friend along with Kristen and Corey, celebrating an embarkation upon a new and uncertain path. Perhaps the greatest highlight of the evening was the entirely unexpected arrival of an account of the journey of bride and groom in the form of a musical, designed by the musical loving mother of the bride.

Further moments of great reflection and wonder along the path included a visit to the longest burning lightbulb in history, still burning after 109 years in Livermore Fire Station #6; riding in a '68 Shelby GT 350 Cobra Mustang convertible to go get the aforementioned in-in-out burger; driving through Santa Cruz with the top down in Alison's Volkswagen Bug convertible; and wading in the ocean along the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the journey was one wholly unforeseen, the seemingly innocuous arrival of an old trunk that had belonged to Alison's grandfather at the front door courtesy of closing a storage unit and seeking a new home for that which had been contained therein.

Curious as to what this unknown trunk might be I joined others in going to peruse it to see if entry might be gained. As soon as I encountered the trunk I noticed it had the appearance of a WWII era foot locker, and was instantly intrigued. The quest to gain entry being successful, I soon found myself looking at a complete set of WWII uniforms of a US army infantry captain. The foot locker included the full sets of pants, shirt, coat for each variety of uniform, along with the appropriate hats and belts and numerous other accouterments. It was like walking into a miniature museum right in front of me and finding a pathway covered in a blanket of beautiful and wondrous leaves, leaves out of history, growing into tangible reality before my eyes.

It is not when we follow the safe well marked path that we come to value and understand the life we live, but rather when we find ourselves immersed in wonder and mystery that we encounter unforeseen frontiers that open our eyes to a new and greater appreciation of the value of footlockers rising out of the leaf strewn pathway.

Monday, October 11, 2010

New Seeds of life amidst the impending approach of death

Autumn has arrived! Despite the fact that the forecast high today was 87, the wonderful season of fall has officially come. The trees are beginning to change, which for me, having spent most of my life in Phoenix and San Diego, is a rather unique and exciting phenomenon. Except for today, there is a bite in the air as the fingers of winter begin to reach out to take hold of the arms of summer and draw all of us toward her embrace. The world is changing around me and I am blessed to see it happening as I spend the majority of my days outside in the midst of it.

This is a beautiful season, a season filled with wonder, joy, and fun, but it is also a season marked by the contrast of life and death. This is a time of transition. It is a time in which we move from vibrant green life to barren cold death. The luminous days of summer are fading into the long cold nights of winter. The life that blossomed in spring and came to fruition in summer is now beginning to fade. The green that has so dominated the landscape is beginning to disappear, replaced with a cornucopia of color as a grand display of what will soon be a loss of leaves altogether, as warmth and life is sucked away by the cold fingers of death. Is it not strange then that a time marked by such a transition can be a time of so much joy and wonder? Even as we are surrounded by the telltale signs of the approach of the grip of death we are immersed in the glory of life.

In the end, it really becomes a matter of perspective. Autumn can be seen as such a time as I have described above, but it can also be seen in a different light. It is a time of the seeming fading of life, but perhaps the approaching death is not the end of the story. For though we know well that the cold darkness will come, even as the light fades we know with certainty that it will return. Even as the leaves fall from the trees we believe that it is not an end in itself, but rather a time of changing, a time of preparation for a new chapter, that come spring, new life will bloom and rise forth from the very branches that will soon be so barren.

When we look beyond the impending hold of death we see this, not as a time for sadness and mourning, but rather a time of celebration and wonder. It is a time of appreciation and understanding, a time of maturing and setting in motion things that will grow and develop later.  It is a time for reflection and letting go of things we have been hanging onto unnecessarily. It is a time of stepping back and seeing the heart of how things really are, of stripping off the outer canopy that we might better understand the foundation and supporting branches that lie underneath. It is an opportunity to see and appreciate the seeds of new life amidst the impending approach of death.

These seeds can take many different forms and are what is produced by the seeds might not be at all what we expect. This past Saturday was a day marked by such seeds for me. It was a day marked by unexpected blessings and moments of wonder and fascination. It was a beautiful celebration of the glory of Autumn.

The day began with my arrival at work before the sun had deemed it worthy to appear. I loaded up the necessary equipment and headed down to the Korean War Veterans Memorial where I encountered a group of people who were willing to rise before the sun to give of their time to wash and beautify the memorial so that others might draw greater appreciation and significance from it. I am always impressed by the selflessness of those who come and do the wall washing, but was especially taken with this group. They were all connected with the Air Force and the Pentagon and not a single one of them had ever done this before. One man had heard about it, contacted the park and arranged for a day for them to serve, and then made the opportunity available to his peers. More than twenty of them came out to join me early Saturday morning.

One woman spoke to me about her dream of being a park ranger and wanted to know how to go about pursuing it. As that is a rather pertinent topic in my own life I was able to help her out. Thankfully the announcement for the permanent job on the mall had closed the day before so she could not apply and get hired ahead of me because of her veterans preference! Another man had come with his father who was visiting from out of town. His father had recently retired after serving in the air force for 27 years and when the son mentioned that he was thinking of coming to wash the memorial the father insisted that he come along as well, as a way of honoring his brothers in arms who had paid the ultimate cost of freedom and given their last full measure of devotion in Korea.

It was a touching moment to stand and watch these people serving with no thought of reward, no intention of recognition, but simply because they wanted to honor the lives and values represented by the memorial. In the midst of a place dedicated to honoring the fallen there arose a beautiful and vibrant seed of life, the very seed that so many were willing to fight and die for in a land they never knew, for a people they never met.

After washing the wall I was sent to help open the WWII Memorial. It was well that I was there because in the hour and half I was present at the memorial five honor flights came in. I was once again nearly overwhelmed in speaking to these men, many of whom were living out a dream of visiting their memorial for the first, and likely the only time. One man came to the window and wanted to search for his name on the registry but didn't know how. I helped him do so and when his name and picture were pulled up on the screen there was a light that took hold in his eye. He was a B-17 pilot who flew 25 missions over Europe, emerging unscathed and coming back home to Oregon. As I was walking through the memorial a little later I spoke to another man and when I asked him where he had served he told me in the Pacific. I asked if he had been on a ship or on the ground and he held up the nametag hanging around his neck which bore a picture of him dressed as a naval ensign at age 19. He was a radio operator, the man who received and transmitted all pertinent communication to and from the ship. Tears filled my eyes as he spoke about sitting on his ship off the coast of Japan waiting for the order to strike in August, 1945 when word came over the radio of the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and then of the subsequent surrender of Japan. He told me of the sheer joy with which he both received this information and subsequently communicated it to his fellows. For him it was a source of great hope and joy, a seed of new life planted amidst a world of death and destruction.

For many of the veterans visiting the memorial is a source of great hope, honor, and life. They are often greeted at Reagan National by people holding banners welcoming America's heroes and escorted to the memorial in their buses by motorcycle groups of Vietnam Veterans such as Rolling Thunder. On Saturday one group from Tennessee was joined by a trumpeter from the President's Own Marine Corps Band who played taps as the men gathered around the column representing their state. I witnessed this as I stood at attention myself saluting the American Flag, nearly overcome with emotion. That was not the only playing of taps that took place in the time I was there that morning. Another man, a veteran himself, who has been playing taps for 65 years came in and asked to play by his state's column. His tone was not the best, the sound warbled, the timing wasn't quite right, and it was one of the most moving, touching, and gripping renditions of taps that I have ever heard. It is truly amazing how significant these memorials can be for so many people. It certainly gives me a greater appreciation and value of the life that I live to bear witness to such moments.

My day did not end at work on Saturday though. I actually left early in order to attend the National Apple Harvest Festival just outside of Gettysburg, PA with Alison and her roommate. It was an absolutely perfect activity to participate in on a beautiful fall day. We arrived just in time to watch tractor square dancing. Yes, I said tractor square dancing! Two pictures are attached to give you some idea of what this looked like. Definitely a unique experience! We went on a bus tour of the orchards in which we got to pick an apple directly off the tree and take it with us. We consumed a delicious array of apply foods including apple sausage, apple butter, an apple fritter, apple cake, an apple doughnut, apple pie, and apple cider. Plus I left with a peck of apples and a jug of apple cider. An excellent apply day!

I also learned something I did not know about apple trees on the tour; you cannot predict the type of apple tree based on the seed you plant. If you take the seed out of an apple and plant it, there is no way of knowing if you will get the same variety of apple you removed the seed from, or something different entirely. The only way of controlling the type of apple that grows on a tree is through artificial influences like budding and grafting. The seeds one plants will produce life, but you won't know the variety and flavor of that life until it produces fruit.

After leaving the festival we stopped by a roadside stand and acquired pumpkins (pictures attached) before heading back into Maryland to visit the Lawyer's Moonlight Maze, the largest corn maze in Maryland. The theme of the maze is iron man and the entire thing is shaped like iron man himself. Go to see an aerial picture. We arrived just in time to watch "Iron Man 2" as it was projected on a stack of hay bales. Following the movie we entered into a two hour adventure of successfully navigating our way through the inner depths of the maze, triumphing in our successful identification of all 18 hidden checkpoints and emerging as victorious conquerors as an excellent end to a wonderful day celebrating the beauty of autumn. It was a day of joy, of fun, and understanding. A day filled with moments of great appreciation of the seeds of life found amidst the impending approach of death that surrounds us.