Why do we do this? Why do we tell stories?
The first real conversation I had with Fred Rivera took place on Facebook. When he asked me what recent movies I liked, I unintentionally vented out to him that I couldn’t watch anything these days. I hated that everything was being re-done and that none of them seemed to have any substance. His one sentence reply summed up my frustration:
“You don’t need movies; you need films.”
I didn’t need anymore of the fake Hollywood spiel. I needed something real.
And it doesn’t get anymore real than when you’re around Fred Rivera.
I know what people are going to ask when I talk about his book. They won’t ask if it’s won any awards (it has: the Isabelle Allende New Fiction Award, 2015). They won’t ask if it’s being read in classrooms (yes it is). They won’t ask if it’s helped the people who fought for our country (long before it made it to the page, it has).
They’re going to ask me if it’s at Barnes and Noble.
They’re going to ask me if it’s based off a movie.
They’re going to ask me if he’s well-known.
They’re (frustratingly) going to ask me if he’s rich and famous.
My favorite line in Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” is “So many times / It happens so fast / You change your passion for glory”.
The economy is shaky. Politics all around the world are heating up faster than the climate. We’re all more worried for the future than ever.
So it makes sense that we pin our checkbooks to our hopes and dreams.
Fred Rivera recounts his time fighting a war that was as politically popular as a week-old tuna sandwich. The veterans of the Vietnam War are given less honor than those who fought in World War II. Even if given the honors they deserved, it wouldn’t heal the scars–physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. It’ll never bring back the ones who came back in flag-draped coffins.
What do you do when the nightmares continue unabated? What do you do when you dive under a chair when a door slams? What do you do when all you have left of your best friend is a bracelet made from the blood-soaked laces of his boots? What silences the screams? What wipes away the memories? What stops the pain?
What else can you do when the unthinkable is all you can think about?
You do what Fred Rivera did: he told his story.
He told his story of how he survived the war. He told his story of the racial tensions between the soldiers. He told how he helped to break those tensions by befriending a fellow soldier named Herman Johnson. He told how he held Herman in his arms after an attack and how they parted ways. He tells us how he’s had to live, day-by-day, with the burden of PTSD.
He wrote his story with the hope that others who suffer from PTSD and other war-related traumas would begin to move forward with their lives. He wrote his story so that justice would finally be done. He wrote his story to give voice to the ones silenced by death.
He wrote his story to resurrect his best friend on the page.
While I’m sure Fred wouldn’t mind being able to make revenue from his book, his main goal just isn’t that attached to the financial gains. And even so, what price do you put on a peaceful night’s sleep? How many awards do you need to be able to go one day without remembering the horrors of war?
Most of us, thankfully, don’t have to live with the horrors of war. We take for granted being able to wake up, go to work, hang out with friends, and sleep at night. Sure, life gets tough on all of us. We all have bad days.
But we also have good days. We also have magical days. We have moments when we stop and the clouds clear and we genuinely think to ourselves: “Life is good”. We have questions that we ask ourselves and almost instantly, the universe answers back. We finally see what the great poets and philosophers saw when they stared into the vast skies and oceans. When the first cavemen recounted the tales of how they dominated the wild beasts around a raging fire, it wasn’t for a book deal. We all have experiences–good, bad, and every shade between–that we refuse to allow to fade in the transience of human time.
We tell our coworkers how our weekend was because we want to remember how wonderful it was (or not). We complain to our partners about our workday so we feel a little less crazy. We tell our kids over and over again what our childhoods were like so they realize the picture is so much bigger than they know. We tell our parents about the ghost in our closet so we’ll feel less afraid (also that we might want to get an investigator in to see what’s going on). We tell our friends over and over again about that once our crush slipped and nearly fell because we want to remember how cute it was for as long as we can.
We write our stories because we believe the world needs to hear what we have to say–and that it has the power to reach people deep inside. We write our stories because we want everyone to see how special and precious life is so they’ll start living like it is. We tell our stories so we learn to walk in each others’ shoes so we can understand each other. In one of Robin Williams’s finest performances, his character, John Keating in the movie Dead Poets Society tells his students that we don’t read literature, “because it’s cute. We read and write…because we are members of the human race. And the human race is full of passion…poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are the things we stay alive for!”
Fred Rivera gave us a fine example of refusing to change his passion for glory.
It’s alright if you don’t get to make a living off of your art. Just make sure you live a life worthy to be turned into art.
Good night, my loves.