lenten journal: the lay of the land


    My friend, Doug (aka Pork Butt, for those who read the comments on this blog), is a surveyor. Before we became friends, all I knew of surveying was in the glimpses I had of the guys in orange vests holding poles by the side of the highway while another guy looked through some sort of viewer. During our regular lunches –also known as meetings of the Pastoral Spousal Support Group — I’ve learned a bit more about the field, but I’m far from an expert. What I now know about the two guys by the highway is together they provide the perspective that allows for the land between them to be properly mapped. You have to have a second point of reference from where you are standing to get an accurate reading.

    I started three books today as a part of my Lenten journey, all three memoirs: Practicing Resurrection: A Memoir of Work, Doubt, Discernment, and Moments of Grace by Nora Gallagher; A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah; and The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection by Michael Ruhlman. I picked up Gallagher’s book because her other memoir, Things Seen and Unseen: A Year Lived in Faith continues to be meaningful to me. This time she’s writing about learning to deal with the grief of her brother’s death. John Stewart’s interview with Beah sent me looking for the second book, in which the author tells how he lived through being a child soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone. My friend Mia sent me the third book some time ago and I’m just now getting to it. The author chronicles seven chefs trying to pass the Certified Master Chef exam. In some sense, each writer is telling the story as a way of getting (or giving) some perspective, asking us as the readers to hold the other pole.

    That I got to read most of the day was the result of pulling a muscle in my back yesterday (doing nothing). Since the weekend holds a couple of long days at work, I decided to take it easy today. Ruhlman got the lion’s share of my time because his account of the grueling ten-day chef’s exam reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down until I found out how the test came out. Seven chefs began the ordeal, all of them qualified and successful in their own restaurants and/or careers. Three made it through all ten days and only one became certified as a Master Chef mostly because those judging the tests were culinary inerrantists, demanding a level of perfection that saw no other pole in terms of the skill and creativity of those cooking beyond their own need to see themselves as the banner carriers for Auguste Escoffier, the chef whose name is above every other name in cheffing circles.

    The first year I taught at Winchester High School, I was taken by surprise. My Honors Brit Lit kids came to class like it was their job. They worked hard and I worked with them as though none of us had anything to prove. We all had a blast. During the summer between my first and second years there, I lost sight of the sense of trust and resulting freedom that had made the class both enjoyable and meaningful and fell into thinking that my job was to uphold the standards of Honors classes. Though I had my reasons at the time, looking back from where the poles are now for me, I see I lost sight of something simple and important. I began teaching the subject rather than the students. I lost sight of the people in the room in my search for perfection.

    When Ishmael Beah spoke with John Stewart, he talked about perspective in his own way. The government soldiers who forced him into service gave him an AK-47 and lots of drugs, one of which was a combination of cocaine and gunpowder. Beah said he lost sight of his humanity. By some amazing turns of circumstance, he ended up in the US with people willing to love him back into being. He had to learn how to sleep again, he said. Over time he began to remember what it felt like to be human and felt compelled to tell his story. “Your book made my heart hurt,” Stewart told him.

    As someone who lives with depression, I was moved by Gordon’s reflection at RLP of the humanity two years of depression had taken from him:

    I had thoughts that were not based in reality. Do you know how frightening and horrifying that is to a person like me?

    At one point I decided that my wife of twenty years no longer loved me. I thought that, baby. THOUGHT IT.

    And I thought that the people in my church didn’t like me anymore and were probably talking about how to fire me without totally devastating our family. I figured they would be nice in the way they did it, but yes, people were talking about me and trying to find a way to get rid of me.

    Our humanity suffers any time we lose sight of our connectedness.

    Gallagher actually made mention of the surveyor’s poles in the section I read today. Her brother had been a surveyor for the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico before he got cancer. She writes:

    In order to survey, Kit said, you always have to have two points. In a photo, he leans over his tripod looking through the scope high above Otowi Bridge in northern New Mexico, sighting a distant point on the other side of the river. Below him are mesas dotted with pinon trees, a river gorge, a line of blue mesas, and beyond them nothing but a line of clouds in the sky. He marched through salt cedar and tamarisk, the bosque thick with snakes, finding the landmarks that aligned with each other. He could map anything. I thought of him then as making sense of geography. (27)

    When Doug talks about people hiring him to survey land, he says it’s often to settle a dispute and determine where a property line really is. When the result isn’t what the clients want, they get perturbed. Doug smiles and says, “Look, this is not interpretation; this is just the lay of the land.” Sometimes, I suppose, the geography of the heart is not any easier to make sense of than the reality of the landscape that surrounds us. Both require more than one set of eyes.

    Brian was one of the chefs who didn’t pass the test. It was his second attempt and second failure. Ruhlman describes Brian’s guilt and grief at missing his two-year old’s birthday because of the exam and then describes Brian getting in his Jeep and heading home to his wife and five kids, as well as his successful restaurant, gaining a better sense of perspective with each mile away from the test site. Beah found a new view through the eyes of those who loved him back into humanness. Gallagher tells of those around her who helped her grieve and discern where God was to be found in all of it.

    Finding the lay of the land takes more than one point of view.



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