I am a private person. I use a pen name, and typically keep my writing life and my private life as separate as possible, but this week I’m crossing my own lines. This week is nonfiction; a story plucked from my life, because of the timing, of Memorial Day being honored in the United States, and because this is what wants to be told.
I am not a full time writer, yet. Working on it. I’m not going to go into the details of my day job – not top secret, just not the focus of this story – but this last week it was my job to coordinate a seminar teaching Realtors how to serve veterans and military families with excellence. We had an Honor Guard, two great speakers, over 160 guests, and a ceremony at the end awarding a mortgage-free home to a Gold Star family (Gold Star means she lost her husband in war). It was intense, amazing and emotional, and I could write many stories about it, but what my mind keeps taking me back to is one of our speakers. He is a veteran; medically retired from the Army, and he wrote a book about his experience of combat and war. He transitioned from warrior to storyteller. I’ll come back to this.
In a recent conversation with my mother, she said, “I’m beginning to think that this life is made up of stories.” In her patient way, she then let me pick up her thread and talk her ear off about my pet peeve… people who launch into a story with a smile on their face, leading you to expect delight and laughter, and end up shredding your emotions with a rip-your-guts-out tragedy. I don’t know if it’s the storyteller in me or if it’s just that I’m a sensitive spirit, but those stories stay with me. I find myself wary and even resentful around these tragedy bombers, knowing they are able and willing to hand me a wound. I carry these extra stories with me now, haunting me, though I’ve never met the people they happened to, and in some cases don’t even know how much of it is true. It’s true to me, and I feel it deeply. I ranted to my mother about how sharing a story is a responsibility that most people take far too lightly.
Listening to our speaker, the warrior turned storyteller, I heard echoes of that conversation and was humbled to see the storytelling world from his perspective. He relayed a story about coming home and finding that for the friends he’d left behind, nothing had changed. They lived in the same places, went to the same spots to eat, to drink… but he had changed. He shared a story with them; a hard one. He felt the shift. He’d pulled a heavy weight onto their good time, and recognizing the responsibility of being the keeper of heavy stories, he resolved not to talk about his war experiences anymore.
“The one underlying thing all warriors have in common,” he said next, “is love.” This surprised me. When I thought of a warrior I’d imagine the necessity of putting off emotion so that you can face a fight, or potentially, kill. I hadn’t once linked warriors with love – beyond the odd romance novel I suppose. Someone becomes a warrior, he explained, because they want to protect those they love. Their family. Friends. A warrior continues to fight, against all odds, because of their love for the warriors beside them. When the world goes insane and death’s cool breath is whizzing past their ears, they find what they need to keep going, so those fighting at their back can get home again. And when a warrior does return home, in our case to a society that doesn’t understand or have any context for what they’ve endured, it’s to protect their loved ones again that they fall silent. “This is the reason why I wrote the book,” he said. “To help my brothers tell their story.”
As a storyteller, my mind immediately went to the final step of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey; in a nutshell, the hero’s journey consists of: the ordinary world, a call to adventure, refusal, accepting the call, a threshold crossed as the journey and transformation begins, aid from the supernatural or a higher power, a talisman or item that becomes useful, allies, the trial – death/rebirth, the hero returning home, and then… The hero makes the journey back, having triumphed, but also having changed during their ordeal. The final resolution in any good telling of the hero’s journey, then, is to achieve reintegration, or acceptance, of this changed person. I realized that this missing piece was the reason why this event I’d been putting together was necessary. Our culture doesn’t have room for this last, crucial step. How can we know who our heroes have become if we don’t help them tell their stories? How can we give them acceptance if we only perceive them in terms of who they used to be, or worse, as a stranger?
He had another lesson in store for me. After the seminar was over, we set him up at a table to sign copies of his book. A line stretched around the room, and I loitered near the signing table with a camera, snapping pictures. I was also tracking the progress of the buffet table supplies and answering logistical questions so I didn’t pay much attention to the conversations that were going on, until I noticed the pace of the book signing line. For an hour and a half he listened as each person shared a story of their own. A son, daughter, husband, wife, loved one, friend… everyone had a story of a warrior, and they felt compelled to share it with him. He listened to each one wholeheartedly, thanking the teller for sharing. These were not easy stories people handed him, but he took in each one. And when some commented on the unfairness of fighting on behalf of people naive to what he went through, his response was, “in a way, that’s what we were fighting for. I just wish there was better awareness.”
Stories beget stories. And while this warrior turned storyteller travels the country, speaking, signing, he’s also listening. Willingly accepting the weight of long lines of stories. I realized that he’s already embarked on another hero’s journey, accepting the call. The storytelling and advocating for active duty military and veterans is not just his new form as a hero returned home, but the next cycle. A new form of warrior.
I find that I’m transformed in my own small way after that day, with new respect for not just the power of stories, but the need for them to be spoken. The need for someone to be listening. I still think stories should be shared responsibly. I also believe that if you hold the story of another person’s tragedy, it is not appropriate to drop it into a lighthearted conversation like a bomb. That’s not the same as saying that painful or tragic stories should not be shared. They need to be. Healing comes from lightening that weight.
Warriors and heroes take many forms, and their journeys are vastly different, but in order for them to move forward from their trials, they must find a way to be home again after transformation. We all know someone. They may have fought in a war, or maybe their journey was something altogether different. Maybe it’s you. The thing is, I think we’re all in this hero’s journey together. Perhaps not always playing the hero role, but nevertheless necessary for the journey to move forward. Love ought to be reason enough for each of us to pick up a small piece of the weight from a hero’s story and help them to carry it.
Thank you, for carrying this story, and for all of the other stories we have shared together. Fiction will return next week and the Far Side of Dreams is never far away. Be safe this Memorial Day weekend.
Written by W. C. McClure www.wcmcclure.com. This story may be shared (and please do); just please be sure to share it in its entirety, unaltered (and including this fine print), with credit given to W. C. McClure. Comments are welcome at www.farsideofdreams.com. Thanks!
For information on retired U.S. Army Captain Sean Parnell, author of ‘Outlaw Platoon,’ visit http://officialseanparnell.com/