Monday, November 29, 2010

A Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our Beneficent Father who Dwelleth in the Heavens

November is rapidly coming to an end and with it my time in service as a ranger at the National Mall in Washington DC. I have officially entered into my final two weeks in service. It is very strange to think that I will be leaving so soon! Many people have asked me to tell them if anything further happens in regard to the permanent positions here on the mall. Well… I don’t have much to tell. I did finally receive a notice of results which gave me my rating for the position. I did well, but it remains to be seen if I did well enough. And nothing further has been done with the position since then. The supervisors have yet to receive a list of names, so I have no idea if I even have a chance. I will most likely not know until after congress decides to pass a budget as, at present, it is really not possible to hire any new positions without knowing how much money is actually going to be available. So once congress decides to do something, things will move forward once again. Until then I will be unemployed as of two weeks from today.

It would be easy to grow discouraged and lose hope, but I am fighting very strongly to not only not let myself do so, but also to focus on the many things that I do have to be thankful for. And there are no shortage of those! I am blessed indeed and have come to see that very clearly in recent days. I have a splendid job that has allowed me to do some incredible things here in Washington, have been given an excellent place to live, have an amazingly supportive and loving family, and a girl with whom I am truly blessed to share my heart, just to name a few!

Appropriately this last week marked a celebration of Thanksgiving, a time of looking to Almighty God in recognition for the blessings and gifts He has lavished upon us. That tradition began during the Civil War, during a time where things looked bleak indeed, but in which President Lincoln called the nation to rise above that immediate perspective and to look upon the world on a higher plane.

On October 3, 1863 he issued the following proclamation…

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity…peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.

-Abraham Lincoln,  October 3, 1863

This first celebration of Thanksgiving was followed in consecutive years by a further commitment to the same. Thus we all spent this past Thursday taking part in this celebration.

These last two weeks since last I wrote have been filled with moments of great blessing, not the least of which was spending Thanksgiving Day up at the ranch, sharing dinner with 14 other people gathered around a common table. Amongst the many other moments I could write about, a few stand out above the rest.

Today was the last bike tour, not only for me, but for the entire season. Because another ranger had to back out I was able to step in and take this final tour, a tour about Haunted History, or more simply put, ghost stories. It was great fun. I had no idea there were so many fun stories here in Washington concerning spirits, specters, and ghosts. Included amongst them are the ghost of the murdered son of Francis Scott Key warning Secretary of State Seward of an impending assassination attempt, Abigail Adams doing laundry in the East Room of the White House, Winston Churchill walking naked from the bathroom to his bedroom in the White House and encountering Lincoln standing by the fireplace, and a Demon Cat that appears at the capitol shortly before a national tragedy.

On Friday, November 19 I gave my final special program, a dual presentation  with another ranger in which I portrayed a Union soldier who had borne witness to both the Battle of Gettysburg and the
dedication of the National Cemetery. I spoke of many things over the course of the program, but by far the most moving for me was when I actually gave the Gettysburg Address, speaking the same 272 words that Lincoln spoke 147 years before on that very day with the words inscribed behind me on his memorial. Twice when I was finished I was greeted with rousing applause from the audience.

Last Wednesday I journeyed to Philadelphia with Alison for a day filled with potential for unknown adventure. We went with little agenda, deciding to let events take their course as the day unfolded before us.
And unfold it did! We went on a tour of Independence Hall followed by a visit to the house where Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, and stopped by Christ Church on the way to an excellent hole in the wall joint called Nick’s Roast Beef where we ate lunch (a Philly Cheese Steak for Alison and a Philly-not-cheese-steak for me). We only got about halfway through lunch though, before realizing it was later than we thought and having to frantically pack up and run to barely make it on a special tour of the Todd and Bishop White houses (which only ten people get to visit each day).

By random chance that morning Alison had read that the Franklin Institute was free on the third Wednesday of the month, which just so happened to be the day we were in Philly. So we asked at the visitor center, but no one, not the rangers or anyone else, knew about it. By calling the institute we eventually confirmed that, indeed, it was open late that night and had free admission. Not only that, but we also found out that just down the road was the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the stairs of which are featured as the culmination of the famous run in “Rocky.” Well that was far too much of a temptation so we took a bus down to the museum, and after finishing our sandwiches from lunch along with a curious squirrel we participated in the obligatory reenactment of the running up the stairs scene and watched the sun setting overlooking the city. After a brief stop by the Rodin museum we headed over to the Franklin Institute. Contained therein we found a planetarium, a special 3D movie about mummies, a hands on exhibit about trains, a huge model of a human heart you could walk through, and a special exhibit about electricity (appropriate don’t you think?) in which you could shock each other, which we naturally had to do repeatedly.
Earlier in the day I had made a reservation at City Tavern, which we barely made by running to the tavern after the bus dropped us back off by the visitor center. We then proceeded to enjoy a lovely dinner by candlelight in the “most genteel tavern in America” as John Adams put it.  Not bad for a day of random adventure!

Sometimes when we can’t see the way ahead, the best course of action is to embrace the mysterious unknown and to find joy in the journey itself, for it is often the journey and not the destination that brings true meaning and significance into our lives.

Living always in dangerous wonder

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Embrace of the Unexpected Opportunity

I would generally say that I truly love what I do here. There are times of frustration and aggravation, as would be the case in most any position, but there are far more times of joy and excitement, and perhaps even a deep sense of honor that I am gifted with the opportunity of doing that which I am doing. It is these latter moments that have convinced me that this is such an excellent fit for me, and the place in which I should be serving and working to bring God's kingdom to earth in tangible ways.

Most days I am assigned to work at a specific memorial and recently (due to the departure of many of the rangers due to term expiration in most cases) that has increasingly meant working at the Washington Monument. This can certainly get tiring after a while but even amidst such a routine there are still moments that shine forth. When I reported for duty a week ago after my days off I was given an opportunity to take advantage of just such a moment. The education specialist at the park had arranged a series of special programs/tours for a gifted education school in Virginia. Each day of the week this facility pulls different gifted students out of their normal classrooms and brings them together in a different setting to give them a greater opportunity to learn and expand their cognitive abilities. These 4th and 5th grade students had recently been studying structures and building methods so their teachers arranged this special tour of the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument with our education specialist to learn more about them. So for five days in a row these teachers brought a different group of kids to the mall for that very purpose.

When I showed up for work on Veteran's Day I expected to be sent to one of the special ceremonies at one of the war memorials, but instead I was asked if I would be willing to assist in giving this special tour that day. After replying in the affirmative I learned that I would be solely responsible for taking 15 kids and two teachers down to the Lincoln Memorial, back to and up the Washington Monument, and then on a special walk down tour of the monument. As the last item on that list is something I have never done before in any context with visitors and I have never done anything officially with a group of school kids this was an especially interesting opportunity.

It proved to be infinitely better than I could have imagined. These kids were the model of elementary scholarship. I was amazed both by their level of knowledge and their level of engagement. They constantly kept me busy answering questions for the three hours I spent with them, and consistently impressed me with their quick and correct answers to questions I put to them. Since it was such a good group I tried to make it as special as possible, taking them around the back of the Lincoln Memorial and pointing out things I would not normally have shown them, and especially emphasizing how significant it was that they got to walk down the Washington Monument. As previously mentioned I have never given a tour of the interior of the monument, but thankfully I have paid attention to little bits of information picked up here and there and have a pretty good working knowledge of both the construction methods and the stories behind many of the commemorative stones lining those interior walls, and was able to pull it off.

An unforeseen and unexpected request turned into a wonderful opportunity to help establish a connection to these symbols of America that these kids just might carry with them the rest of their lives.

Another similar opportunity was thrust upon me the very next day. This time I was asked to assist in giving the special VIP tour for the Secretary of the Interior. Normally a single GS-9 Ranger does this tour, but there were more people on this particular one than could fit in a single van, so I soon found myself driving a 15 passenger van around the city giving a tour of not only each of the memorials, but of Arlington National Cemetery, and the city in general. Most of the official interpretation at each stop was done by the GS-9, but I did do all the talking at the Washington Monument and at the Lincoln Memorial, and did a great deal of impromptu interpretation and answering of questions while driving and walking around. I brought in all sorts of random knowledge I have accumulated from other rangers, reading, and my own exploration as a tourist and ended up sounding like I really knew what I was talking about.

The next two days brought further opportunities for special tours, this time on a bike. Saturday was a special tour on sites and events connected with the Civil War and the month of November, a completely random idea that had never really been fleshed out. It was not until the hour before the tour that the ranger leading it and I really discussed what we were going to do, and as it played out, he did the introduction and the final stop and I did the two hours in between, taking a group of 15 visitors around the city and weaving an account of events that changed the course of the war and this nation that had ties to the month of November. For a tour that was largely put together in the hours immediately proceeding it, things turned out quite well!

Sunday provided the final installment of my four days of special tours with a special bike tour on the Gettysburg Address and the events that led to it. This time I was with the same ranger with whom  I have planned and done several other bike tours as well as the university lecture on the siege of Petersburg. We only had five people on this tour, one of whom was Alison, but we put on the full show nonetheless. We didn't get to much of the information I had hoped to cover as both of us leading the tour have a propensity to get overexcited and talk far more than we should to stay on schedule, but it was still great fun and another excellent opportunity for me to learn and grow.

With the completion of these four days I officially entered into my final four weeks here at the National Mall. While I have great hope that I will be able to come back in a permanent capacity, unless things suddenly change in the next few weeks I will be addressing the public here on the mall for the last time in this position on Sunday, December 12. Though this thought it a sad one, I also feel that I have made the most of the time that I have had here, giving my all to embrace the position and convey the significance of these stories to all those whom I encounter that they might have a greater sense of their role in this ongoing story.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

For Such a Time as This

Last Saturday, October 30, 2010 John Stewart and Stephen Colbert staged their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or fear on the National Mall. It was a major media event with people converging upon the mall from all directions. My estimate of the crowd as seen from the top of the Washington Monument was 180,000. The paper put it at 200,000. That's a fair number of people supporting the idea of restoring sanity and finding a middle way.

I fully support such a notion in concept, but I must sadly report that, having observed hundreds of the people who had journeyed to the capitol in order to accomplish such a feat, sanity was most assuredly not restored on Saturday. In fact, I was consistently amazed at the lack of sanity and even basic intelligence exhibited by many of the attendees. It was a far cry from a picture of hope for this nation.

That is not to say that sanity and hope were not evident on the mall on Saturday though. Far from it. I saw evidence of such qualities not amongst the multitudes flocking to Colbert and Stewart, but rather from my vantage point at the WWII Memorial that day. We had three honor flights come in, each bringing men who had traveled across the country to view their memorial, each a veteran of the war, coming to commune together in a shared brotherhood in celebration of the values that their service and sacrifice represented. As has often been the case before I was deeply moved as these men came to the memorial, and their attitudes and sanity stood in stark contrast to the hundreds of other visitors (nearly all of whom were there for the rally) I spoke to that day. It was a keen reminder of what sacrifice, loyalty, liberty, and patriotism look like. I have one particular image that is indelibly etched into my mind as a symbol of this nation and its greatest generation. It is an image of three brothers, all of whom had volunteered and fought separately in the war, two in the navy and one in the army. None of the three had visited the memorial before, and they came together that day, unified in a common purpose, common values, and by common blood. These men at 90, 94, and 96 years old, displayed a sanity and appreciation rarely seen in this country today.

We live in significant times. The election this past Tuesday will bear great significance in years to come, potentially helping to set this nation onto a new course. In such times as we find ourselves in, we would do well to remember moments like the three brothers at the WWII Memorial, moments of love, compassion, and brotherhood. This is a recurring theme that I have encountered in many different forms here in my time on the National Mall. This is a time of both death and rebirth. A few weeks ago I wrote about the season as a symbol death in the midst of life. I am reminded once more of the truth of that imagery and its potency in my own life.

I am potentially facing the end of my tenure as a park ranger on the National Mall, and as I look into the future I know not what will come. But I know that God has called me to this place in this time and I am going to continue to embrace what time I have remaining wholeheartedly. I continue to be blessed by the wonderful opportunities to reach out and touch the lives of others in what I do. In recent days I experienced this at both the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. Last week I was sent to Lincoln alone, finding myself responsible for everything at the memorial that day. It would have been easy to be bitter and frustrated and let that come through in my talks and interactions with visitors, but I instead decided to use it as an opportunity to touch as many people as possible. Exhausting as it was I saw it bear immediate fruit, as three of my programs ran for nearly an hour as visitors were drawn into a picture of freedom, equality, and unity, a vision that permeates not only the memorial, but the fabric of this nation.

A few days later something very similar happened at Jefferson. I was leaving at 1:00 that day, but was assigned the 12:00 program. I had intended to cut it short to make sure I made it back to the ranger station with enough time to leave at 1:00, but as people gathered to listen I was drawn into the moment and that program too ended up stretching to nearly an hour as I painted a picture of the birthpains of a nation founded upon the God given rights of liberty and freedom. It is a powerful story and the stars aligned that day in such a way that that particular program emerged as one of the best I have ever given.

When I did leave work I picked up Alison and went to Prince William Forest Park to hike and appreciate the wonderful colors of Autumn. It proved to be a poignant depiction of the vibrancy of life filling the world around us, filling me with a great appreciation of the myriad ways in which each of us are blessed in this life each and every day. This same feeling was intensified a few days later when Alison and I traveled along skyline drive in Shenandoah, a land surrounded by the colors of the season. We were a few days late to experience the full impact of Autumn and we arrived just in time to be hit by a rainstorm, but that didn't stop us from finding ways to experience and appreciate the wonder around us all the same. We hiked along the bearfence trail to a splendid overlook stretching nearly 360 degrees around the entirety of the blue ridge mountains and Shenandoah Valley. If I had not already believed that the National Parks were America's best idea, that view would have convinced me!

So deeply is the spirit of the park service ingrained within me in fact that when we carved pumpkins just before halloween (on a dare from Alison) I took it upon myself to carve the image of the NPS arrowhead into my pumpkin. It took a great deal of exacting care and my set of precision exacto knifes, but I succeeded in producing a passable representation.

The weather has turned here as well. Apparently on November 1 it decided it was time to be cold. I have officially switched to the winter uniform once again in preparation of cold to come. And I have continued the charge of splitting and stacking firewood in preparation for winter. Over the last several weeks I have produced a modest stack of firewood along the back wall of the house. Included in the pictures attached to this email is one of Alison having just successfully aided me in that charge as an acting lumberjack for the day.

There is change on the horizon. In six weeks I might well work my last day on the National Mall. But then again I might find myself in the position of a permanent ranger, firmly established as a representative of our nation's history indefinitely. It's hard to know how to proceed when one does not know the future. But perhaps it is in such times that we are best able to appreciate joy and wonder, best able to see the world as God sees it, to realize the roll we play in the larger story of the redemption of creation. Perhaps it is when we see the world in such as fashion that we are most sane. Perhaps much that has happened in our past has led us here to this juncture in this moment. Perhaps the many blessings God has lavished upon us have prepared us to deal with the formation of hope and restoration of sanity around us. Perhaps we were brought to this place, exactly where we are, in the roles we are in, for a time such as this.