by Mario Gerada
Life is desire’s own song
No one knew what to do with this child. One day my exasperated mother grabbed my hand and took me to our richer neighbourhood in search of a piano teacher. My parents could not understand why a six-year-old boy wanted to play the piano at all costs. While not understanding, my mother took me there.
La Traviata was my very favourite opera. I was a child, with an enormous voce bianca. I spent many childhood days in my room, door closed, singing Sempre Libera little knowing that I was stepping into the gown of Violetta with my own voice, unfurling all that eros. I found pleasure in hitting those high notes with her. Often, my mother would shout from downstairs, “You are too loud”. In my heart, I would always reply that I was flying. While circumstances were not particularly happy, I was a happy child in love with life. Everything around me shimmered with beauty, even ugliness itself. I felt desire, but could not understand it, as it was bigger than my tiny body. Desire would stay with me all my life, as it stayed with Violetta. She died in Act 3.
I grew up loving Jesus. As man, though we were told insistently that he was both man and God. I learnt later in life that the two never really separate even among the rest of ordinary men. I carried on singing arias from La Traviata while reading the gospels in tandem. So many of my desires were found there, in both places. One of my fantasies as a child was that of living on a desert Island, with Jesus, or perhaps another guy, or the two of them together, were they one and the same? My desires as a child were as confusing as the idea of the Trinity. We learnt about that during Doctrine classes, it sounded like something to do with intimacy. I could not find much of that except in my relationship with my mother, or was it in reverse? No one seemed to like her much, I thought she was ravishing.
As a child, I was loved, but faces started changing expressions as I was growing into my teenage years. I did not always comprehend what that meant. I knew something was wrong, and that was about me. As a child, I spent long hours watching television programmes; MacGyver, Magnum Pi, falling in love with each one of them as I was in love with Jesus. Later I would close myself in my tiny room to carry on singing Violetta’s song - she knew things I did not yet understand but wanted to discover.
Desiring men was the most obvious of natural desires to me. It was later that I understood that was the part I had to hide. It seemed like nobody desired men or rather, they did not want me to. Something was wrong with me, or very wrong about men.
Those facial expressions became something else in the school playground. I stopped playing with boys. I adored them secretly but did not want to play with them. They were rough and enjoyed getting dirty or into fights. I liked playing the piano, singing, and praying. I found the company of girls more agreeable in primary school. At the all-boys secondary school, that would play out more dramatically. As a child, I understood early on in life that I will never be a boy, perhaps a swan. There were secrets in the depths of my being only Violetta understood.
Larynx, Elizabeth’s tragedy
By age eleven I started voice coaching. My friends from piano lessons took me to a retired Soprano, a true Prima Donna, to listen to my voice. She agreed to call my mother to convince her to let me start voice training. I started the weekly lessons learning to stand straight and smile while singing through arias of romance or tragedy. She emphasised that I had to learn to smile through it all. Just above her piano, Bice had a reproduction of the painting of St Elizabeth of Hungary's Great Act of Renunciation originally painted by Philip Hermogenes Caldon. She often told me that the artist she commissioned to reproduce that painting had used her own hands as a model, for St Elizabeth’s own hands, resting on the altar surrendering to the crucified Lord Jesus Christ. Elizabeth, like Violetta, stayed with me. I carried on singing, hitting high notes as tragedy would hit the shores of my life later. St Elizabeth’s painting haunted and attracted me for many years. It was Konrad von Marburg’s image in that painting that brought me disquiet. It is him who I had to contend with later in life as chapel and dungeon fought each other in my own heart until they learnt they were siblings of that same desire.
Love is a broken wing (again)
Dingli at night is the most beautiful place on Earth. When the moon is full or close to being that its light shimmers on the surface of the sea, paradise really. The night is lit up, the sky and the sea equally luminous. On other nights it is pitch black. There are nights when the moon is not visible, like the days of my youth. His hands would hug and embrace me on top of the hill, beneath the large cross. It felt like the light of the moon shining in the pitch-black sky. On other occasions darkness seemed to swallow up the moon entirely, only the stars remained constant. There are stories that can’t be told, or else they are easily judged. The ineffable is a habitat of its own. How can a judgement be translated to a heart in love? How do you tell the night to stop being, when it is at night that the heart is both revealed and violated? How could I judge his touch as entirely sinful when I turned into a blooming flower each time, he touched me and spoke my name? His love confirmed that as a boy I will be forever a swan yet remain a creature of the night for many years to come until peace is forged with the moon palette.
Pleasure turned agony, and love into hatred in an instant. As a swan, I was yet again not enough. I started moulting early. It took me time to grow new feathers, and I did not know which ones to grow. The night turned cold teaching me that one needs to watch out for predators at nightfall. I reached out for a sackcloth veil to walk on through the dead of night.
Life is dogs playing joyfully, running, swimming, play-fighting, and feeding. His name was Fire and he was huge, black, and with red eyes. He turned up one day at the dog sanctuary on his own. His presence was immense, he knew who he was. He did not like nor trust people and yet he knew he was safe with us. I looked at him and he saw me. I laid down on the floor and placed food in the palm of my hand outstretched on the floor. He was suspicious yet slowly walked towards my hand and took the food. I put the next morsel on my butterfly chest, he moved close and ate that as well. There was no fear, but my heart was pounding. I knew he could injure me if he wanted to but understood that he was not that kind of predator. His hunger overcame his fear, and both of us knew we were trespassing those boundaries created by fear-based emotions. He walked away soon after he took the food that was on my chest looking me in the eyes. I loved him. One day, Fire left the sanctuary as he arrived, and we never saw him again. The attar of his breath stayed.
Light is laughter
It was a simple rosebush sketch that kept me hanging on to life. Drawing after drawing the withered rosebush deepened its roots in search of nourishment. And then there was the unexpected, laughter in light that came upon me. That laughter, like Fire’s attar, befriended Violetta, and Elizabeth. How can light laugh when the heart is in so much pain? It was that laughter that pushed me to grow wings again, this time around in daylight:
I rest my eyes
upon the surface
of this sea,
these limpid waters
among the corals
and the sea horse.
Dead man walking
Rose flowers die quickly, yet their bushes push their roots deeper in search of water. Unlike roses, I was made of flesh and was not rooted in soil. The cloister always felt like home, yet it was not a place for swans, there was no pond there. It was at the cinema that I decided to choose social work as my profession instead. A dead man walking on the screen seemed the one who I wanted to walk with. The chiaroscuro of the one calling was shining through again, fleetingly. I did not know what kind of bird I would become this time around.
As social work students, we had to undergo what is called Sensitivity Training. Intense days of undressing, allowing the unconscious to flow, as well as a lot of tears. One exercise we experienced there was a guided fantasy meditation: walking up a mountain and seeing a cave with a lit fire in it. We were asked to walk into that cave and meet a hermit there. As we sat around the fire, he would give us a gift. His gift for me was a crucifix, which I did not want to receive. I was deeply disturbed. I had already suffered enough; it was Elizabeth all over again.
Some years later I was in a hospital room, battling death. It was the crucifix hanging on the wall that held me through the excruciating pain I was experiencing. The pain was beyond imaginable, and the trauma inflicted lingered on. My body would never be home again. Something was broken and it would never completely heal. Wabi-sabi came to me much later. Life was like that for me, as I set foot, the ground would swallow me up a whole.
It was another crucifix that drew me out of Malta. Assisi looked beautiful in Raoul Bova’s movie Francesco. I went there together with a friend and peace came upon us, forgetting the effects of PTSD that I was experiencing at the time, even though I did not yet have a language for it. Assisi remained home, like those constant flickering stars at night in Dingli. On Monte Subasio it was the breeze that spoke and when at the Chapel, I placed my hands on the altar immersed in that magical forest. It was Elizabeth again. There, I learnt that Psithurism is a Temple.
Darkness is found in the heart
For some years, I was flying again, as Violetta did. It was a divine romance, opening scripture and finding words of love, for me. Life was suddenly entirely beautiful and promising, again. The memory of suffering was now a faint one or so I thought. And suddenly it was Bosnia calling, Medjugorje precisely. Bosnia has its own beauty and tragedies. Medjugorje appears as a plain and regular village at first. It is a school of prayer. There I walked up another mountain, this time around contemplating the suffering of Jesus the man, who has a Divine nature as well, two natures not one. It felt like it was all coming together, and soon after it was a collision, supernova really and life became fragmentation. Perhaps, the Christian narrative is one of domestication and my nature was not yet ready for that.
Desire is a moss mural
Violetta started singing again: out, loud, and proud. I yearned for Chiara’s peaceful life, but I was at gay pride, year in and year out, singing loudly that faith was a matter of liberation and not of hiding, or else it was worthless. My home was a cat called Raoul, after that same Raoul Bova. The journey became about others, those who lived in poverty anywhere and everywhere. There were so many narratives that required rewriting starting with the Christian one. We weaved the threads for a re-reading that was about life, inclusive of all humans and all of Creation rather than a staged drama for the pure and the cast out. Wood burns quickly and fire must be tended to, or else it becomes extinguished. The world was haunted by an angry and sadistic father called God. We knew we had to destroy that icon, but how do you purify your own bones from that ire? There was no way to escape fire except to walk through it. Perhaps the one true temple is Atashgah, learning that beneath religious zeal hides the persecution instinct. Walking through the fire, consumed us and yet we remained alive.
Death has a smell
Nights do become darker before dawn. Mum was terrified about old age. She never reached it. At sixty-five years of age, we buried Annie. Three days before she left us, she asked me if I was eating enough. It was the chemotherapy that killed her when we thought she was recovering. It was quick and brutal as often life is. And yet she parted in peace, knowing something of love she was long searching for. I stood there helpless, contemplating that not even all the money in the world would change anything in that final hour. Juan de la Cruz wrote about it. Death has a smell, and it lingers on for years. The nurses were nothing short of amazing, placing a flower in the lifeless hands of my mother, resting on her stomach. One part of her life ended, as another started. I sang Flos Carmeli in my heart as I watched her being returned to the Earth, but I was missing some words. Darkness has its own way of casting bright lights, and yet they blind you.
Life is a flower, it speaks
Grief was bigger than my own life and I was unprepared for it like when meeting Fire for the first time. You don’t know what it is until you get burnt. The absurdity of it all was that while grieving you are expected to carry on, but what, exactly? A person was there one day and no longer there in an instant. As we were preparing for the funeral of my mother, I was thinking to myself, is this how the Theatre of the Absurd started? While asking the undertaker about the kind of wood coffins he was showing me were made of, and if the flowers were fresh. I kept on working, studying, and getting good marks, though the void inside of me grew bigger. I learnt that storms kill butterflies, those same wings that create the effect. It takes time to grow a garden again.
It was Flora that would offer me refuge, the Arabian Jasmine that spoke first. That year, it grew profusely. Later I learnt that the jasmine scent soothes anxiety and depression. In the crevices of my chest, I kept stumbling into flowers; the frangipani, the nasturtiums, the sweet peas, lavenders, lilies, and the list became endless. It became my native language, everything else was noise. It was in this garden that I lost my name. I only found purpose in growing flower buds. Florescence showed me how the body was also home to me, and that I was to be found in fragmentation.
Home is where Eden is, its name is Janna
We do not grow out of grief but around it. It expands the soul, finding its depth as if onlooking into an emptied well for the first time and getting vertigo. Grief blurs the boundaries between the visible and the invisible defining our condition of being human. It has no end, a string of losses followed. It was death itself I had to make peace with. The loss of pets would break my heart open again. It was through a friend's dream that Kitmir reassured me Eden is not exclusive to humans but home to all and called Janna. Angels come to us in many forms and there is a mysterious sweetness to loss when death becomes friend, it releases love. It is a pity that love is usually trapped in the heart for many years. There is no real identity except that of becoming human. Arendt was right, the only act of love we can partake in translates to “I will that you be”.
In the end...
I have one more question Dear Lord: Why did you create us hungry?
© 2023 Mario Gerada
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