Gratitude Journal Entry #18

Today, several worlds collided: libraries, cemeteries and San Francisco…all because of Harvey Milk.

I finally watched the film “Milk” today.

It’s been on my list of films to watch since it was released, but like other films, such as “Marie Antoinette,” anything on JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Winds of War,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Hotel Rwanda,” etc., it’s really hard to be motivated to watch them…because I know how they end…violently. And, when so much of my life has been about surviving violence in some form or another, watching it in another’s life is often more than I can bear. But, when I do finally watch, I always learn something new…about my world…about my perceptions…about myself.

I returned to live in the United States at the age of 18…after living 12 years in  foreign countries…the last of which was ravaged by war. My family eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, which I grew to love as my home in the United States. I loved The City. I loved the diversity. I loved the tolerance. I loved that no matter how odd or geeky I felt or looked, there was always someone nearby who was even more so than I…and I especially loved that no one cared. This is where I learned to drive. I figured that if I could survive a foray into The City with a Honda Civic hatchback stick shift…navigating Market Street and stop signs that required the use of the hand-brake, I could do anything. San Francisco showed me that there was a place for me…that I was powerful…that I was unique…that I was valuable. Apparently, I’m not the only one who experienced the magic of that city. And now, I understand why I love Yerba Buena Gardens and Moscone Center…the War Memorial Opera house, where I heard my first opera…city hall…and The Castro. These places have always been beautiful to me…now they are even more so…because someone who lived there before me made a choice to make a difference.

In pondering the film as the credits rolled, I thought of all the books that are passing through my hands at work…a project that involves all the biographies in the library. Each time I work with a book, I learn something new about a time period, a person, event, a place. And, each time, I marvel. I marvel at the ordinariness of these people’s lives…and the magnificence that mingles with the mundane. Most of the biographies I see are about people history will never teach. And yet, these people did significant things in the eyes of those around them. They made a difference. It may not have been on the scale of averting a world war…but…perhaps it was. And, while Newton’s Third Law may have application in the physical world, not all actions have equal and opposite reactions. Sometimes, human actions have exponentially more powerful reactions that propel something further, or in a new direction,than the original action…and all it took to start the cascade was one tiny word or smile or vote. And then I think, I’m the fortunate one…to be able to learn about all of these people, who, by their seemingly small and unknown lives, have contributed to my life…simply by living…and being…and participating in life.

Then I realize this is why I love going to cemeteries. It’s not because I’m a zombie fan…I’m not. It’s not because I have a love of the macabre…I don’t. It’s not because I have a fascination with death and the dead…I don’t. I’ve seen death…in others, and in my face as I looked down the barrel of an automatic weapon…several times. I’m not afraid of death, but neither do I celebrate it. What I celebrate are the lives of those who have lived before me. When I’m in a cemetery, it’s as though the collective wisdom and experience and knowledge of all those people buried there teach me. It might be something as simple as sitting still, watching the grass grow. It might be the awareness that life is short and that I have the opportunity to live without fear. It might be that I’m inspired to be open to the passionate devotion of a lover and spouse. It might be to strengthen the bonds of friendship with someone who has melted into the background of my life. I never leave unchanged…I never leave without being just a bit wiser…because of someone else’s life.

So, tonight, I’m once again in deep awe and gratitude for all the people who have lived before me…documented either in films, books, or on tombstones…whose lives created tiny changes, that after many years, added up to massive changes for a better existence for humanity. I’m especially grateful for the ordinary, unknown people who often did more significant things…they just didn’t realize it at the time. They just lived their lives…some of them more gracefully than others, but all of them worthwhile and courageous. Tonight, I’m grateful for all of these people…for all the things they did that we might never know…for all the small choices they made that made the world tilt slightly…so that my life could be what it is.

Thank you.

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