Around 15 years ago I was taking an English class at the local community college. The first night, right near the end of class, the Instructor read a story entitled “A Silent Prayer” by a young woman named Celia Beckett. The story was about a US soldier that fought in the Vietnam War, and while overseas this American soldier fell in love with a Vietnamese woman. The result of this relationship was Celia Beckett. When the war ended, the American soldier left the woman and his daughter behind, never to see them again. When Celia became older, she moved to the States, and she often wondered if she possibly encountered her father without ever knowing it. She was constantly searching for the face of her father. Of course, this left a vast void in her life. She also expressed the difficulty she experienced as being neither fully Vietnamese or American, but living in the middle between two very different cultures.
The Instructor asked us to write a response to the story, primarily so he could evaluate our writing ability. It was the easiest and best thing I wrote that semester, and when I found out the story was made-up by the Instructor, it didn’t bother me in the least! At the time I was going through a very tough divorce, and this helped me find words to express what I was feeling and going through. I wrote just one draft in about 10 minutes, and below is the paper I submitted to the Instructor.
The Story of Us: A Response to
Celia Beckett’s A Silent Prayer
(“The past isn’t dead. It’s not
even past.” William Faulkner)
Driving down 580 after class on Tuesday night my mind was filled with thoughts of Celia Beckett’s A Silent Prayer. It wasn’t long before tears filled my eyes, and it took considerable effort to keep from being overcome with emotion. It wasn’t that Celia’s story was in any sense horrific, or even particularly tragic. In fact, it was the “normalcy” of Celia’s life that caused my heart to resonate with her words. A Silent Prayer, to borrow the title of a recent movie, is really “The Story of Us.” It’s the story of living in the “valley” between how it is, and how we want it to be. Most people spend their lives in this valley, caught in the conflict between dreams and reality. Many of us don’t cope with valley living very well, and simply choose to give up, or else travel through life with a kind of sad resignation, no longer dreaming or hoping for what might be just over the next horizon. It’s hard to tell from A Silent Prayer how Celia Beckett is coping with “valley living.” It’s hard to tell with any of us.
When I reached home Tuesday night, I went into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. I reached down and picked up a framed photograph of a smiling five-year-old boy. I have been looking at that picture a lot lately. I wondered, as I gazed at the picture, was I really that happy then; am I really that sad now? Once again tears filled my eyes because the answer to both questions is still the same as the last time my mind asked. “Yes.” And I wondered; what happened to that little boy, and why did the boy turn into the man he did? Answers come slowly, and are not all together clear. Valley living is like that.
It’s easy to think of Celia, her mother, and her mother’s cousin Loc, as victims. It’s harder to think of the men who raped and murdered Loc, or even Celia’s father, as victims as well. That’s because we tend to think of Celia and her family as “us,” and to think of her father and the brutal soldiers as “them.” The difficult thing is realizing that some of “them,” exists in each of “us.” I’m not saying that everyone in Celia’s story deserves the same level of sympathy, to proffer that would be to make a mockery of the evil that the soldiers perpetrated, or the cavalier attitude of a man who most likely doesn’t know, or even care, that the life he helped create has a huge void that only he, as the father, could fill. I am also not beating the drum of the “woe is me, aren’t we all victims” mentality. To engage in that is to condemn us to forever live in the “valley.” What I am saying, and what Celia’s story so effectively communicates, is that we are all, in various degrees, the “walking wounded” – this is “The Story of Us,” wounded by circumstances and events, often times beyond our control.
It’s often said; it’s not what happens to us that’s most important, but rather how we respond, and indeed, the first step out of the “walking wounded” syndrome, or to escape “valley” living, is to honestly face the past, and to come to some kind of peace with what has happened; to repair the fissure between illusion and reality. As the quote by Faulkner at the top so eloquently states: “The past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.” A Silent Prayer so poignantly portrays the truth of Faulkner’s statement. This is because, no matter how fast we run, we can never outrun our past. It has a way of intruding into the present, no matter how we try to ignore it, or pretend it doesn’t exist. I know. It’s something I tried to do for many, many years. The mistake I made was in believing that finally having the courage to face the past, it would somehow make the present okay. What it did was to shatter the present into a million tiny pieces, changing forever everything and everyone in the process. The Vietnamese expression that Celia mentioned became painfully obvious, “the naked truth hurts.” But facing this “naked truth” is the only way to find peace, no matter how painful the process might be. Most of us live in a state of denial, afraid to face the sadness of our lives, hoping the next town, the next job, the next relationship, the college degree, will bring us the dreams our hearts so much long for. So we go on building sand castles on the desert valley floor, only to see them destroyed by the first really strong desert wind. In A Silent Prayer, Celia is obviously facing the sadness of her life, which is why her story touched me so deeply. It is also why I keep looking at the photograph of the five-year-old boy in my room.