About a month ago, I was invited to speak at “The Marrow“, an event that takes place at The Whistler in Chicago each month. At this event, storytellers are asked to read an essay that gets to “the marrow” of who they are.
As it was the first time I’d ever done something like this, I was rather nervous and wrote a piece that was to be a deep, personal exploration of my self.
It was well-received, but after hearing some of the other storytellers that evening – one spoke about trying to find a rehab facility for his ex-wife on a holiday, another about her estranged relationship with her mother and how it all started the day her mom kicked her father out of the house – I knew that I had just skimmed the surface.
Next time, if there is a next time, I’ll go much deeper. But for now, I’ll share with you the essay that I announced that I’d never read in public again. :::laughs::: I’m so full of it:
The challenge to writing an essay about oneself, especially one that is supposed to get to the heart of who you are, is that you tend to get all caught up in your own bullshit.
You know, you get sidetracked by trying to turn a clever phrase, or using florid language that makes you sound smarter than you think you are.
You find yourself unconsciously using a verbal sleight of hand, one that distracts your reader from the truth that you don’t want them to see you tucking away in your pocket.
So there won’t be any of that from here on out…
Or will there?
(Continues after the jump!)
Imagine if you will, a box. And inside that box is the totality of all that you’ve ever been, are and ever will be. Imagine opening that box. Is the lid wooden and heavy? Are the hinges creaking?
You open the box and the scents of nostalgia, regret and hope, waft up from the contents and reach your nose.
What would you find inside your box? What memories would you pick out and relive? What future events would you peek at?
Come to think of it, what does your box look like? Would it really be wooden with a heavy lid? Or would it be more like mine, light and made of cardboard?
See, I envision the box that contains my life as a “longbox”, the elongated, white cardboard containers that collectors like myself use to hold comic books.
You’ll find several of them in my home office, stacked in a closet, one on top of the other with some sort of lettering scrawled in marker on the end. When I look at them, I recognize that each box signifies a particular time in my life, each a different era from when I was collecting. Each box holds hundreds of books. Each box defines a period in my life.
My life has been defined by many things, but none more than comic books, religion and Star Wars. And for me, all three of these things are pretty much one and the same.
In my life I’ve worshiped a veritable trinity of holy trinities. I went from the Father, Son and Holy Spirit; to Jack “The King” Kirby, Stan Lee and Will Eisner; and finally to George Lucas, Luke Skywalker and the Force.
I grew up in a very religious household. My parents were raised in Pentecostal churches, but thankfully my childhood house of worship was less…loud?
(No, seriously, Hispanic Pentecostal churches can be pretty lively, and they will freak out a five-year-old who’s never seen a drum set in the front of a church before.)
Still, being raised in a fairly fundamentalist culture, my values were shaped by words written thousands of years ago, collected in a book that many said was the the only way to know God. The Bible, in essence, put God in a box.
But as I opened this box and studied the Bible, my brain wrestled with the obvious contradictions between the books, and how God went from being this stern, angry and oft times vengeful deity in the Old Testament, to a kind, loving, understanding father figure in the sequel.
Regardless, each night my mom led me in a simple prayer, instructing me to thank God for the good that He was and to look over my family. I recited it every night with my mother at my bedside, her helping me remember to include each family member and friends from church.
Those were simple times when a child’s faith had answers for everything. I think it was when I turned 12 that God would stop making made sense to me.
My father bought me my first comic book when I was old enough to read. Being of Puerto Rican descent, and living in a household where English was spoken very little, he wanted me to learn how to read the language.
He picked them up at the grocery store, and I never knew what titles he was going to bring me next. One week it would be Iron Fist and Marvel Team-Up, another week it would be Spider-Man and Superman.
Back in the day I gravitated towards the Marvel heroes because they were more relatable to me. Peter Parker was always having problems in school, or with money, or even -gasp- with girls.
Whenever Spider-Man fought the Vulture he had a broken arm, which made it an unfair fight. Or the Green Goblin would ambush Spidey when he had the flu. The deck was always stacked against him, and I never knew what would happen next.
And I mean that literally because my father never bought me the same title twice so if the book ended in a cliff-hanger, where Spidey was going to die from some death trap, I never got to see how it was resolved because dad would simply forget to pick up the next issue. Considering that Spider-Man still lives today, I assume things came out okay.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but my life was changed when I read a copy of “Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles”. The book was one of the many “treasury editions” that Marvel Comics published back in the day. They were these oversized, square bound comics that were printed on cheap newsprint.
In this particular edition, Captain America found himself traveling through time and stopping at different points in American history.
(The book was published in 1976, the year of the American bicentennial, so of course he did.)
By the end of the issue, Cap found himself back in modern day and encountering a group of children who were no older than I was at the time.
“Can we be superheroes just like you, Cap?” little Timmy asked the Star-Spangled Avenger. “Of course you can, Timmy” was Cap’s response, “In America you can be anything you want to be!”
I was floored by the revelation. In all the things I thought I could do with my life, it never occurred to me that I could be a real-life superhero.
Seeking confirmation, I went to my mother who was doing some ironing. “Mami, is it true that I can be a superhero when I grow up?” I asked, “I was reading a comic book and Captain America said that I could.”
My mother put down her iron and looked at me. And with a mother’s love and her eyes reflecting all the the limitless possibilities that life held for her first born son, she said “Esta loco, you can’t be a superhero.”
My mother believed that water could be turned to wine, but not that her son could one day be Batman. Ironic.
Still, the idea of becoming someone who could inspire others to be the very best they could be and help others took hold in my young mind, and it informed many of the choices I made in my life after that day.
My religious upbringing and love of comics collided when I discovered Jack Kirby’s “New Gods”. The book had characters like the Highfather Izaya, who looked very much like Charlton Heston’s Moses in the Ten Commandments. My favorite character was the brooding warrior Orion, son of the evil Darkseid. Orion was destined to bring his father’s reign over the planet Apokolips to an end.
Izaya? Apokolips? You can see why New Gods blew my Sunday School-centric mind.
Knowing that Kirby created the New Gods in the 60’s, I was fascinated by their use of a device called the “Mother Box.” These were handheld micro-computers that pre-dated the iPhone (again, they came from the 60’s) that alerted the user with a “ping ping ping” alarm.
The alarm told the user that mother box had a message from the divine universal mind called “The Source”, which is known today as Wikipedia.
Jack Kirby’s New Gods were the bridge from the religious code that defined my upbringing, to the modern mythology that would help define the person I would eventually become. And I would consume this mythology each week, whenever a new issue of my favorite title hit the newsstand.
Religion brought perspective. Perspective that gave meaning to the meaningless. Religion told me that when my mother refused to take her tuberculosis medication because she was convinced that God would heal her, I shouldn’t question her faith.
Comic books would be my solace, my retreat.
Even more so when the movie Star Wars came out.
Confession time: after leaving the theater from my first viewing of the movie that would influence a generation, I really wasn’t all that impressed. The movie really dragged in the second act and Luke is a tad whiny. Okay, really whiny.
It wasn’t until I followed the adventures of Luke Skywalker and Co. in the comic books Marvel published back then, that I really became a fan.
Luke’s quest to become a Jedi Knight and bring down the evil empire was also my quest. It was a quest to find spiritual truth. To overcome a world of evil that wanted to take away everything and everyone I loved.
I wanted to learn about the Force, or at least about that great mystical energy field that Einstein hypothesized and the Dalai Lama philosophized.
And the religion of Star Wars is pure and without conflict! There are no unanswered questions!
As long as we accept that Han always shoots first.
And we don’t speak of Jar Jar Binks.
All kidding aside, Star Wars reached me at a time when my life would take a turn towards the dark side, and I would face many challenges to my faith.
The hero’s journey, as George Lucas portrayed it, was my journey. Because we’re all the hero in our own story, right?
So there you have it. Comics, religion and Star Wars. The three things that helped make me who I am, and write these words.
I have so many other stories to tell, but my mother box tells me that my time is at an end.
It’s time to close the lid.