Randeep would always ask me, “What’s the religion of the week?” It was the staple question starting my sophomore year in high school. My father was Mexican Catholic. My mother was Atheist. My sister was Wiccan. I was much like a free agent, researching a new team every week and visiting their facilities on the weekend – I sat quietly in Catholic pews and raised my arms shouting for the Pentecostals. I wrote feverishly in the margins of Job to keep up at Temple and I read Greek tragedy to understand the madness of the gods. I did my best at being everything and nothing. I stared curiously as Buddhists explained themselves and – to a teenager – it made no sense not to feel as hard as I could about everything. I realized I had dated a Satanist and that she hadn’t told me. She was really very meek and quiet and relentlessly kind.
I worshiped hardest at the altars of poets – Eliot before shelves of books in the library and Cummings at the old desk on the second floor so sturdy it might have once been the ark, Frost at the blazing fireplace outside admissions during winter, and Dickinson in the gardens when flowers finally opened by the lake.
I met Socrates in a two-week crash course, read Heinlein in an independent study, and took Barker on long trips. Socrates had a cave, in which we interacted with shadows and called this reality. When people died in Heinlein, they went to the afterlife they expected. Barker offered Quiddity, a dream sea in which we achieve what we expect. Deep down, we know what we deserve. We move ourselves to Heaven, we banish ourselves to Hell.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez died yesterday. I wasn’t named after the angel Gabriel. I was named after the author, down to the feel of the syllables. Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gabriel Diego Valdez. Much like Sesame Street taught me letters and numbers, and my parents taught me to figure out not just what the words said but what they meant, Marquez taught me empathy. He taught me pride. He taught me the greatest tragedy humanity had to offer, that of misunderstanding.
I cannot communicate how utterly racked I am by his passing. Putting word to page and realizing I could choose what happened made me want to be a writer. Being bullied in school and all the reading I did because books contained worlds of hope and understanding gave me something worth putting to page. Marquez gave me a standard and an expectation.
On Facebook, it says my religion is Pantheistic Solipsism. This means that I think everything ever written, every thought, is true. Every religion, every story, every fairy tale and TV show and video game – every character and each of their beliefs is true. This is an utterly silly notion. It’s ridiculous on its face. This is not the way I think the universe really works, it’s not how I think anything was made or came to be. But it is what I choose to have faith in – creation. Each of our abilities to create, to make entire worlds and shape new beliefs and refine old ones.
Chronicles of a Death Foretold is the Marquez novel many read first. It begins with its ending – the death of a young man, the result of a misunderstanding. Its tension isn’t about whether the man will live. We are told from the beginning he won’t. Its mystery is about how this misunderstanding came to be. It is a novel about social pressures, motives that go unrecognized, and meaningless omens obsessed over. It is a novel about lies and distractions, and finding the good moments between them to enjoy life.
The truth is that my religion is free agency. My religion is those Catholic pews and raucous Pentecostal shouts. It’s the Bhagavad Gita and Dine Bahane’. It’s scribbled in the margins of Job in black and blue ink and once those ran out red, and it’s crammed into countless post-it notes in Chronicles, and it’s in books on dinosaurs that fell apart at their bindings, and in “The Road Not Taken” and in hair that’s “bold, like the chestnut burr” and in “There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground.” But most of all my religion is in what you haven’t written yet, the story that’s not told yet, the understanding I have yet to be introduced to, let alone grasp.
Chronicles of a Death Foretold begins with its ending – the death of a young man, the result of a misunderstanding. We know through the entire book that he will die. In this, Marquez captures our understanding of ourselves, of the world. The same is true of him, of me, of all of us. We live in an overpopulated world, rife with hunger, war, oppression, racism, misogyny, despotism, rape, slavery, corporate feudalism, pollution, extinction, genocide, you name it. If we were a book, we’d already know the ending. If we were a book, we’d know it’s the result of misunderstanding after misunderstanding after misunderstanding. Some are based on lies, others are honest mistakes.
Composer Stephen Sondheim once said, “Art, in itself, is an attempt to bring order out of chaos,” but a creative act won’t solve any problems. A piece of art can’t heal the world. At best, it can engender understanding and create connection between a handful of people. But two pieces of art can create more connections, encourage more understanding. And a thousand pieces of art can create a thousand times the understanding, and a million pieces brings a hell of a lot of order out of chaos. We never know what that crucial piece is going to be. We never know if it will change one person’s life or be that piece on top of thousands of others, all together tipping the scales. That’s why we need to keep on trying. That’s why you can’t let one failure stop you, because one piece of art won’t solve anything. But you, as an artist, trying day after day and failing and crying and feeling lost and trying again and losing faith and trying again and trying again and trying again – that’s what I believe. That’s why I believe in every religion, every story, every painting and photograph and poem. Scratch what I said earlier – that’s exactly how the universe really does work.
My parents taught me to figure out not just what words said, but what they meant. If you asked me to name the best thing my parents ever did for me, I couldn’t. There are too many good things. They’ve lived lives of working hard and learning to be kinder and more understanding every year. They see a country that’s turned its back on many of the values they fought for, whose politics and treatment of the middle- and lower-classes is shameful. There are too many good things I won’t ever realize they’ve done for me because they never did them for the recognition. But I do know where it started. I know when all those good things began. I can trace them back to a single moment, when they named me after Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Because that gave me a standard. That gave me an expectation. And Socrates raised the bar. And Heinlein raised the bar. And Dickinson raised the bar. And one day, you’re going to raise the bar, too. And the rest of us will keep on rushing to meet it. That’s what I believe in.