Tuesday, January 18, 2011

There and Back Again: A Ranger's Holiday

Life is a journey. This refrain is one that has oft appeared in reflections that I have written, but is no less true by virtue of repetition. Not only is life a journey, but by its very nature an unexpected and sometimes redefining series of moments, connected together in such a way that it forms us into who we are. Our lives are intended to be lived in such a manner, embracing the mystery and the unknown quantities that we are presented with that we might respond to the situations we find ourselves in as best we are able.

I thought I knew what the future was going to hold for me, at least in some respect. I truly believed that I had come here to our nation's capitol to work as a park ranger on the National Mall. I am good at the job, I love doing it, and I appeared to arrive here at the right time to find myself in such a position. On December 12 I worked my last day as a ranger on the Mall, leaving the next morning to embark upon what would become an epic 8259.9 mile journey spanning four weeks and taking me across the country and back again, passing through 18 states along the way. Now I have returned to Washington only to find my hopes dashed upon the rocks of a fairly dismal reality.

Just yesterday I received official word that the upper management at the National Mall has decided to throw out the job announcement that I was in the running for entirely, hiring no one at all for the position, but rather hiring far fewer staff off of a separate announcement that I could not apply for because I do not have permanent status with the Park Service. This decision has come in response to rumors of budget cuts and a hiring freeze from congress and as a direct result of the failure of congress to pass a budget. They are not willing to go through the process of hiring from that application with the ominous shadow of congressional inaction and potential budgetary reaction hanging over their heads. Unfortunately for me that undercuts any chance of me being hired in a permanent capacity on the Mall.

So here I am, back in Washington with a rather large gaping canyon in front of me. It is a canyon I do not know how to cross, a canyon I had genuinely thought I would not have to cross, a canyon of uncertainty marked by the reality that the decisions of those in managerial positions and those who sit in the halls of congress have dramatic impact upon the lives of people like me. It is a place I did not want to be, a place I did not think I would find myself, a place that tries the souls of man. But here I find myself all the same. I don't know how I am going to pay rent next month. I don't know how I am going to live here for very long at all. But I do know that God called me to this place on purpose, and that that purpose has not yet been fulfilled. I thought I saw the path laid out before me, but I have been reminded that you can never be sure about such paths. Life is by nature a journey, a journey characterized by uncertainty and mystery.

In my way of thinking I can't understand why things would point so clearly toward me getting a permanent position on the mall only to have the rug pulled out from under me entirely. It doesn't make sense. But that is exactly what it is, so now I have to decide how I am going to react.

It is well that this news has come following the aforementioned cross country journey and not in the midst of it, as I very well might not have taken the trip at all had I known with certainty that this was coming. Instead I was blessed by the opportunity to see much of the country I had never seen before, visit seven national parks (Mammoth Cave, Lincoln Birthplace, Little Rock Central High School, Petrified Forest, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, and Everglades), spend time with Alison and her family in California, visit Lake Tahoe in the majesty of a winter wonderland, watch the snow fall upon the lake on Christmas Day, receive and fire my Grandfather's M-1 rifle from WWII, move cattle across the ranch on a beautiful winter day, spend time with my family in Arizona, and visit Disneyworld for two days on Alison's birthday.

Now in coming back from the journey I have found myself upon another. I had expected to return more like Bilbo in The Hobbit having triumphantly completed the journey and committed to settling back into normal life. Instead my return to the shire is much more like that of the heroes of Lord of the Rings in the part of the story they left out of the film version. Sometimes the homecoming turns from relaxation and triumph into the beginning of another journey, another task, another kind of story altogether. But the shire is still there if you look for it.

It would be easy to be embittered against congress, against management, against the park itself. It would be easy to focus on the negative, to feel deceived and abused, taken advantage of and used. But that doesn't make for much of a story. A year ago I stood at the place where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I have a dream" speech, facing a crowd of more than 500 people as the stereo broke, leaving me stranded just as I most needed the assistance. I found myself at a crossroads and in that moment, when I embraced the opportunity and decided to give the speech myself, I set myself on a course. It is a course I am still walking today. So rather than wallowing in despair I went to work again yesterday, one year after that experience, this time attired not as a ranger but as a volunteer.

The day was completely different. Whereas last year was a beautiful sunny day and thousands of people came out looking to see the place where the speech had been given, yesterday was cold and dreary and far fewer people came out. I didn't give the speech before a crown of 500 people. But I did make a difference to some. I spoke to one woman from Germany for 25 minutes, painting a picture of why that speech and the events of that day were significant and exploring the true meaning of freedom. Perhaps that conversation is the reason I went out as a volunteer and froze yesterday. Perhaps there is a larger purpose and plan at work. Perhaps I will never know. Perhaps, in the end, it was one moment of many that make up a life, moments where we have to decided how we will view the circumstances we find ourselves in and how we will respond. Moments when we must determine what is worth fighting for and how we will use the time we have before us. Moments that come to define our purpose and existence upon this earth.

In the end the words of Gandalf continue to ring true, that all we have to decide is what we are going to do with the time that has been given to us.

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