When you were a kid, because it was the simplest of all possible answers, they told you that God was up in the sky.
As you got older, when you wanted more complex answers, they told you that God was somewhere within.
As a kid my mother always told me that she knew I’d grow up to be smart. She just knew, she’d assure me. That’s nice to hear, for a boy from his mother, but you have to press on and ask why? Without quantification, that kind of praise can be dangerous. So I pressed on. Why, why, why?
The answer, she told me, was because as a kid I understood about the moon and the sun and space. “Huh?” I’d ask. And she told me that she was always amazed that even before kindergarten I understood that the moon orbited the Earth, the Earth orbited the sun, and the Sol solar system orbited around the giant black hole at the middle of the milky way galaxy, and the galaxy was just a string of other galaxies, probably in a snowflake shape, rotating around something else. “You even knew the name of the sun!” she’d tell me, her eyes beaming with motherly pride.
Of course, when I was a kid my mother explained to me what black holes were, as best as she could, as best as I could understand it then, and that’s probably had more effect on me than the memetic concept of God.
The moon, too.
There’s just something beautiful about the our gray satellite up there, isn’t there? “Magnificent desolation,” Buzz Aldrin called it. And he’s right. It looks so much to me like the physical manifestation of an actual human soul: bleak, sad, barren, empty, but with beautiful patterns within the dust and craters if you want to see them.
When I was a kid, we constantly would hear things like, “Tonight the sky will be clear and the planets will be aligned enough that you’ll be able to see Pluto!” Of course, this is back when Pluto was still a planet, because it was neutered by classifications. But I kept looking up in the sky and not seeing it.
Same with comets. Supposedly we could certain comets up in the night sky. I never saw them. And I kept looking. I kept wanting to see them. I was like Fox Mulder and John Locke. I wanted to believe. That there was something up there in the sky, that maybe there was something resembling a God-like thing in our universe, and, worst of all and most devastating of all, you know what? I wanted to believe I was special and somehow seeing these things up there would confirm that for me.
But I never saw them.
But there was the moon. You could see the moon. You knew mankind had gone there and come up and could, theoretically, go back again whenever we felt like it. It’s up there, whenever we want to visit it, that first step on a greater journey. No matter how bad life is Earthside, there’s something up there for us. There’s tangible proof just within grasp that we can escape Earthly troubles and change our whole view of the universe, for good or for worse.
A few days ago my mother was telling me about the day of the actual moon landing, when she was a little girl. She had been playing in a friend’s yard when both her and the friend’s mother came out and told them they had to come inside and watch something. “What is it?” they ask. “Something important,” they were told. “The future.” So inside they went and watched as man set foot on the moon.
My mother described the friend’s mother’s grave reaction to the event, her still face as she watched the grainy television images with cold eyes. “God is dead,” the woman kept whispering. Mind you, this is two years before The New York Times announced it.
My mother is somebody who still firmly believes in the idea of a God, if not a specific religion, not out of a firm belief, a strong faith, but a strong hope. She tells me that’s all there is. “All human beliefs, at their core,” she tells me, “have that hope at their center. When you fall in love, you hope it’s with the right person, and you hope they won’t be a shithead or damage your heart or your sense of the world.”
It’s from my mother that I get a lot of my sense of the world, those beliefs and hopes that you get before you actually enter the world and see how bad/wonderful things are for yourself. She’s also the first person to walk me out into our garden at night as a kid and point up at the sky and say, “Look at that thing.” She’s also the person who first put on Star Wars for me as a kid and said, “You’re going to love this.” And I’ll never forget her walking in during the scene and saying along with Obi Wan Kenobi, “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.”
But I said this is would be the end of me howling at the moon. So as I get to the end of this, I’ll say this one last thing about my mother, besides the fact that I love her, that she read Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon to me as a child…
The moon isn’t a real thing to us. Just a symbol. It stands for something different – probably several different somethings – for everyone. Even in the art it inspires. But we don’t really think of it as a real place we can go to. Just somewhere we dream about going.
So this is about me. About childhood, and about symbols. So here’s something that’s not a shock, something I’m pretty sure I’ve said before: Batman is my favorite “super hero.” My favorite comic book character, if you will. My obsession with him starts where a lot of comic book fancies start: he’s just cool, right? But to me, he was always cool because he was real. That could be you under the cape and cowl, fighting crime and fighting a hopeless battle to make the world a better place. That could be me.
How sad that I don’t believe in God, at least not God the way others do, but I do believe in Batman?
But Batman is dead now. At least the Bruce Wayne version of him. I believe I linked to it before, but I talked a little about the passing of the Dark Knight in a post at This Recording a week or two ago.
Whenever it came up to write that piece, the editor at TR, Alex, who’s a really nice guy, suggested something about comics. Not a tough subject for me since I’m a bit of a dork, but I’d also say a bit of an amateur expert in the field. And there’s a billion things that I could’ve written about then, but the biggest, most current thing at the time and the thing most prevalent comics-wise in my thoughts: Batman was dead.
Shortly after that piece was written, a story by Neil Gaiman came out, entitled “Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?” It was written to be in the similar vein as Alan Moore’s classic “Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow?” and seen as the last Batman story.
The gist of the story is simple: Batman, recently deceased, is watching his own funeral from the cusp of the afterlife. The attendees of the funeral are all his friends, loved ones, and the criminals he spent his entire life fighting. And everyone has a eulogy, telling a story of how Batman died, all of them starring a different iteration of the caped crusader and depicting a different death.
But when the stories run out and it’s time to move on, Batman is ushered into the sweet hereafter by his mother. He’s fought the good fight, she tells him, and he’s to be rewarded. And the reward for being the Batman? To continue being the Batman.
And we learn that young Bruce Wayne’s mother read Goodnight Moon to him as a child and it was his favorite book growing up.
And as he fades away, in the style of the book, he says goodnight to the things that mattered. His friends. The Batcave. The Bat signal.
And then he’s reborn.
And the story continues anew.
The same here, mostly. No more talking about the moon, I promise. Unless something really, really, really interesting comes up. The story up there has been done for a while, but at some point we’re going back. At some point, everything starts over again.
Keep looking up at the sky and wondering, okay?
See you out there, space cowboys and cowgirls.