What I’ve Learned: Rafael Noboa Rivera

Writer, Activist & Veteran, 33

I’ve been writing since I was 9. My step-dad had different ways of punishing me; he was very strict. One of the ways was to make me write essays and compositions about what I’d done wrong. One summer, I was forced to write an essay every day before going out to play – and that’s what got me into the habit of writing. I’ve got blank books full of stuff I’ve written: poetry, prose, drama, you name it.

Writing for me is a way to let out the stuff that roils me on the inside. I write, and I can physically feel it flowing through my fingers onto the keyboard or the written page.

I never knew my real father. That’s why I’ve never been intimidated by strong women. My mom raised my sister and I by herself, and worked two shifts as a pharmacist. She married my step-dad. He wasn’t a great father – by American standards – but he was the best father and husband he knew how to be. That’s got to count for something.

Every year, on my birthday, I go through an exercise. I review the year, see what’s happened, see what I’ve done – what I need to change, need to keep doing. I started doing that three years ago, when I turned 30. Helps keep everything in focus.

This year? Mostly, it went fast. Seriously, I’m like, wait, wait, WAIT! I’m not ready for it to be December! But I’ve had rougher years, where I was like, seriously – can this year end already? I mean, 2005 – that was a rough year! Had cancer, lost my house, my wife left me…I mean, wow. This year, the worst thing was that my divorce became final – and I can’t say I was surprised.

When you hit a personal bottom – and boy, do I have experience with that – you have two choices, really: roll over and die or move on.

Life knocks you down 999 times, you get up a thousand times. To me, that’s the ticket.

I make mistakes. Lots of them.

One thing I keep becoming more aware of: I’m a phenomenally lucky SOB.

I wouldn’t be here, doing this, if it wasn’t for people that cared about me on many different levels. Ain’t no such thing as a self-made man or woman – we all stand on the shoulders of giants. I could very easily be dead, or homeless, or so many other things. Other people took the time to guide me, teach me, show me a better way. And I’m grateful for that.

Another thing – I feel I’m becoming more gentle as time goes on.

Used to be, I’d get set off over the smallest things. I mean, thermonuclear pissed! My approach has changed radically over the last couple of years, and I think it’s made me a better person. You can’t go around life with a chip on your shoulder.

I had somebody ask me recently what I wanted to do. Man, there’s so much! And yet, I don’t know.

I know this much: I don’t want to be defined by my job or by things I’ve experienced. Mostly, what I want is to make it to 80 and say, yeah, that was a life well-lived. I did what I wanted to do, and I at least gave it a good, long ride.

I’ve learned you’ve got to shake things up every once in a while, otherwise you get stale. Especially when you’re young. Move around, try different things. I was 22, 23, I wasn’t going anywhere fast – just drinking and wasting time. So I joined the Army. I’m not saying that’s the answer for everyone. It was the answer for me, at least at that time. Then it wasn’t the answer for me anymore, so I left.

I’ve learned that you can’t go through life without friends.

Hard to imagine, but up until a couple of years ago, I didn’t have friends. People see me, they think: What? You? No way! It’s true, though – I’ve always had a hard time opening up to people, letting them in. I’m slowly changing that. I mean, what’s the point of living if you live alone? You gotta have other people to share these amazing experiences with.

It’s like the turtle – in order to move forward, you have to stick your neck out. God, that didn’t sound like a Hallmark card or anything.

People ask me what the Iraq War was like. I’ll tell you, in a single word: Boring.

No joke. Sure, there were times when I was terrified, but there were long stretches of boredom. That’s why I haven’t written about my personal experience over there – there just isn’t much to tell!

Other people may disagree, but I don’t feel that I can add anything that hasn’t been said or written far more eloquently by better people. Go read Colby Buzzell; he’s a great writer. Go listen to Nate Fick and Andrew Exum; they got the policy down.

Me, I’m just a broke dick sergeant who’s just lucky to be here.

I didn’t become active in politics until after I got back from Iraq. Look, we’re all in this together, and the whole point is make this a more perfect union.

If gay people or women have their rights violated, if they’re not able to participate as full members of society, then that means that I’m not able to participate as a full member of society. In a war, no one cares if you’re gay or a woman – all we care about is that you can watch my back and carry me the same way I watch your back and carry you. I refuse to accept that we’re all separate. We’re all in this together.

Put it another way, the way my favorite writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates said it: “How do you have responsibility without community? Perhaps, you can, but I can’t really imagine it for myself. What so often keeps me in line, and has kept me in line over the years, is not my own expectations, but the expectations of family and friends.”

What else have I learned?

Things never turn out how you think they will.

Grab hold of every moment and enjoy it – be happy. Even if, like me, you’re a melancholy sort.

I have a new favorite poetic line. I used to think it was a John Lennon joint, till I found out he cribbed Browning: Grow old along with me/The best is yet to be/The last of life, for which the first was made. Now I’m cribbing it.

“This above all: to thine own self be true/It then follows, as the day the night/That thou canst not be false to any man”.

Man, that’s good advice there. I try to follow it; can’t say I’ve always succeeded. I think I’m closer than I’ve ever been though, and that counts for something.


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