Sunday, September 26, 2010

My Life as a Quitter

I don't know what's wrong with me. I really don't. I've passed up so many opportunities to really do something with my life. My parents discouraged me from going to college, and it'd hard to blame them. They really couldn't afford to send me, and my grades sure weren't good enough for a scholarship. I never brought home a book during high school. Actually, I hated school and hated studying, but I somehow had it in my head that I would do well in college despite my track record for being lazy with the books and not sticking with things. I didn't recognize it for what it was then. I just knew I had a kind of restlessness in me that wouldn't allow me to focus on anything long enough to get good at it or take it seriously. I also had a prideful streak. I was a darn good basketball player for instance, but when we moved to a new town and I had to transfer schools after my sophomore year, I decided I didn't like the new coach and would just be a walk-on in college. Of course college never happened really. (I did eventually get a year in). I went into the Army instead and was basically a washout there too. That is, I didn't even finish my first hitch once I was offered an early out. Also, my second day at boot-camp, myself and one other recruit, were pulled out of the lineup and taken to a room where we were both offered the chance to go to West Point because our entrance scores were pretty good. Here I finally had my chance to go to college, and I promptly turned it down!, saying I had already had enough of the Army. All I did was complain the whole time I was in too. And there were other missed opportunities. Lots of them.
My sister and I were going through some old books our parents had after they died. In one of two big family bibles I found the following pictures. I drew them when I was only about five or six years old, and I think anyone would admit these are pretty accurate drawings for someone so young. And no, I didn't trace them either. Most of these cartoons were on a lunchbox and thermos I had. I just sat in front of them and drew what I saw. The Popeye drawing comes from a punching bag I had. Part of the reason it looks a little out of kilter compared to the others is because I had to try to follow around the curve of the bag,
and also because I wasn't very good yet at up-sizing and down-sizing pictures, so trying to make this big print on the punching bag fit onto a small piece of drawing paper was quite challenging for me as a child. However, I soon managed to draw this Popeye picture from memory. I recall all the kids in my 1st grade class hovering around my desk waiting for me to finish a drawing of Popeye for each of them.

Many people, especially teachers and an artist from our church, constantly told my parents to get me into an art school. I'll tell you what happened though. When I was in the 5th grade I met a kid who was better then me. He already knew all about shading and other things no one had taught me.
I didn't realize at the time that someone had taught him these things. I just figured he was naturally a lot better or smarter than me, and I didn't want to do something unless I could be the best at it, so I basically quit drawing after that. That was my life in nutshell until I was in my late thirties. I seldom finished things, and would quit anything art related if I thought someone was better than me. I guess the latter was a pride thing. I wanted to make my mark in the world. It's hard to do that when other people's marks are so much bigger than yours.

What turned me around? God and Christianity did. CS Lewis once said that Christianity was an education in itself, and that it's what permitted a guy like John Bunyan to change the world with just one book despite his lack of formal education. I think this must be true. I had read the bible all my life, but had never really studied the thoughts of other people about God and the world. I had plenty of my own thoughts about the cosmos, because I had been a slacker and had little else to do but daydream and think about life. I figured no one else thought like I did about things. Then I read Mere Christianity and found someone who had all my thoughts. More than that, Lewis knew of lots of other people who had had those same thoughts long before either of us did. He had studied the philosophy of mankind through the ages and the mythology that inspired so much of it. Before long, reading philosophy became a passion for me too, especially theology and thoughts in general from Christian thinkers. I learned things from them, but it was mostly this confirmation of my own thoughts I was after, and I found it in spades. There was something about studying spirituality on a deeper lever that turned my whole life around although I couldn't tell you how it happened. All I knew was that when I emerged a few years later on the other side, I was suddenly a better man. I could stick to projects and get things done. I've recorded several CDs, written a book, made a movie etc. None of these are great art by anyone's measure, but just the fact that I was able to get them done seems a minor miracle considering how useless I was before. I guess that's the bottom line in a Christian self-education. It takes useless people and makes them useful. They used to call Christian hippies Jesus Freaks, but those same people would reply, "God doesn't make freaks out of people; he makes people out of freaks."

I always knew I would have to be an autodidact if I was going to learn anything in life. I don't like formal education. I enjoy learning what I want to learn on my own. But it took Christianity to give me the tools to do it right. I'm fifty-one now, but I'd like to think I'm actually gaining steam, and the best is yet to come.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Fray José de Guadalupe Mojica

When I was about five years old I was playing in the woods near my house when I found some old broken records sticking out of the dirt. They looked like they had been there for years. They were also about a quarter of an inch thick--much thicker than other records, and I had never seen anything like them before. I eventually discovered that these were Edison diamond discs and could only be played back on a diamond disc player.

Ever since then I've wanted an old Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph. When I saw one on Craigslist this week for only $150, I jumped on it, figuring I'd never see one that cheap again.
The guy I bought it from also gave me one diamond disc record to go with it. Now I'm not one of those people who believes there are no coincidences and that every single event in my life is orchestrated by God. For one thing, a life that's nothing more than a written script would be very little fun for God or me either one. When someone ties their dog to the back of a bumper and accidentally drives off later, dragging the dog to his death, I don't think God's behind that. That person simply made a mistake. Accidents happen. Tornadoes kill people. Old folks fall and break their hips. There's plenty of happenstance in the world. But there are also times when God intervenes and puts you on a particular path for a particular reason, and it's important to be able to discern between the two. And now, as I listened to the voice coming through the speaker I began to feel that God put this recording in front of me for a reason. The recording was made by someone I had never heard of. His name was Jose Mojica. I began to research him, and was very glad I did.

Jose was born in Mexico in 1896. As a young teenager he was already tall and strong. He ran with a tough crowd and eventually joined Francesco Madera's group of revolutionaries that ousted Porfirio Diaz from power during the Mexican Revolution. It was also about this time that Jose discovered he had a real talent for singing opera. Overnight he was able to bring his family out of poverty and became a sensation both in Mexico and abroad. But this was just the beginning. While on a trip to Mexico, Enrico Caruso took in an opera in which Jose was appearing. He was so taken with the young singer that he had him brought over to his table. They quickly became friends for what was left of Caruso's short life, and Caruso, unbeknownst to Mojica, recommended him to the producer of the Ravinia Festival in Chicago in 1919. Jose would remain there for the next nine years singing with the Chicago Opera. It was during this time that Thomas Edison signed him to sing for Edison Records after having no luck finding any good Italian tenors.

Before long Mojica's talents and good looks also came to the attention of movie producers, and in 1930 he made his only American movie called "One Last Kiss" in which he played a sort of Zorro-like singing cowboy. He made several other films in America aimed primarily at a Mexican audience, and afterwards he would go back to Mexico and become a regular big screen attraction there where he was known as the Mexican version of Valentino.

But he also, for some unexplainable reason, would very often find himself playing religious roles in films even though he was not a particularly religious person like his mother. In fact, Jose was always in search of a good time, and more often than not he found it. He always had an eye for the ladies, and the ladies sure had an eye for him.

He had several friends in both the opera and movie industries. People like John Wayne, John Ford, and Gary Cooper often would visit at his sprawling Mexican estate. He would later give this estate to his mother as a gift.
He never knew his father, and like a lot of young boys in that situation, he grew-up being very close to his mother. After her death in 1942 his life would take a staggering turn. Before she died, she asked him to give his life to the church. This was the one woman in his life he found hard to refuse. But another would soon enter. He was working in America at the time, all the while deep in grief and depression, when he suddenly had a vision of St. Theresa of Avila who outright commanded him to follow the path of Christ. Now he was certain of what he had to do.

At the age of 46, he gave away all his possessions, most of it to the church, and started a new career. He boarded a plane for Peru with nothing but $35 in his pocket, and joined the Franciscan order as a monk and was given the name of Fray José de Guadalupe Mojica. Within five years he would attain priesthood.
After becoming a full-fledged priest, the church decided they would use his talents rather than put them to waste, and he began singing at many fundraiser events while also doing missionary work. He eventually worked in three more films over the next twenty years, always playing himself as a priest, with the proceeds going to the church.

He wrote two of these films including one which was based on his big selling 1958 autobiography I, a Sinner which he wrote to earn funds for the rebuilding of a school which had fallen from an earthquake. During the mid 1950s he counseled another great Mexican movie star, Humberto Almazan, advising him to also follow the gospels, turn his back on the bright lights, and give away all his possessions, which he did, and today Father Almazan's story is equally inspiring.

In 1969, Jose was given a tribute by the National Institute of Fine Arts in Mexico City. He was beginning to go deaf, and it was one of the last events at which anyone would ever hear him sing. Soon after he returned to Peru where he spent his final years in retirement among fellow monks.
He died in 1974 of heart problems, and oddly, like Thomas Edison who had given him his start in recording, he was nearly completely deaf but as content as a man can be in this world. It's been said that Edison liked Mojica's voice so much that he played his records every night before going to bed even though he was so deaf that he had to actually bite down on the record console so the vibrations from the record would travel through his teeth and make their way to his inner ear.

For a hundred and fifty bucks I got more than a record machine; I got an education.