I was six when the Sound of Music premiered on television. My mother was thrilled and wanted me to watch it with her. Something about her enthusiasm strikes a chord with me to this day. I realize now that she was sharing with her youngest son—her most sensitive child—a bit of her deepest self. It was something she loved, and I was her witness.
The day after the movie premiered, my mother shared the album with me. I fell deeply in love, not only with the snappy brightness of each melody, but with the idea of crossing mountains to find a dream. It was after all a true story, or so I believed then. I listened to that soundtrack over and over.
My mother’s name was Maria. However, I never identified her with Maria Von Trapp. In a way, I think my mother and I shared a fantasy that such a perfect world of sweetness and light could exist. But we weren’t that kind of a family. Really, we were more like something out of Steinbeck.
We moved from New Jersey to Texas during the Reagan years and the oil boom, landing in a tony suburb of Houston. When I was eighteen, I left my family and headed back up to the East Coast, roosting with relatives while I started college in New York. I lasted two years there. Discontented and compelled by something internal I did not yet understand, I moved to Maine and enrolled in art school. During my senior year my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lung cancer. I wanted to quit school and fly home to Texas to be with her, but she insisted that I finish college. I did.
My thesis was a series of photographs depicting popular stories of Catholic lore. I was a lapsed Catholic, and there was little doubt that my mother’s illness brought dark things to the surface. Some things that happen to us mold our internal spaces and, regardless of how intensely we try to deny them, creep up from our subconscious and poise with ominous insistence. Like the Kraken who rises from the depths of the sea, years of discontent with the Catholic church roiled and surfaced. It was my first experience with making art in response to injury. The day of my graduation it was sunny in Maine as my Mother lay dying in Texas. The next morning, she was gone.
Six years later, I am in Salzburg, Austria. I have a decision to make. The year before, I was travelling through India. It was there I began to feel a calling. I, who had been making a living as a photographer and whose relationship with religion had grown even more acrimonious, became spiritually curious. In Varanasi there were many temples for many gods. Not gilded nor gorgeous and Baroque, but beautiful in their utility. People used temples there every day. I was in awe of the omnipresence of the divine; God was everywhere. Something inside me opened. It was not a tectonic shift. Mountains in my psyche did not crumble. It was more like something dormant which had always been there awakened and became generous. It was time to become more sensual about my mythology.
Upon arriving back in the U.S. I began a dialogue with the local Congregational Seminary. I went through the motions of becoming a student. I was stealth; no one knew. I was embarrassed as much as I was compelled. I was confused and not entirely convinced I would follow through with matriculating, or that it was even the right decision. I asked my mother—dead six years—for guidance. I wanted a sign, something that would tell me what to do. The only thing that came to mind was The Sound of Music. So, I booked a flight to Salzburg.
Now, I am on the Monchsberg in a park staring over a vast expanse of green hills that roll toward the Untersberg. It is a peaceful park at the end of a trail, which winds upward between two old stone houses. It is a sunny and slightly cool day. It must be near noon. I had been searching for some poetry during my trip to Salzburg, listening for the muse’s voice to rise up over the aggressive Baroque cacophony. I hadn’t heard it until now, almost a week after arriving. The simplicity of the massive Untersburg tumbles down around the western part of the city. The peaks are dusted with snow. Long before the VonTrapps, the Dom, the Maribell Gardens, Paracelsus’s martyrdom, the Roman baths, before the age when we were telling stories by pressing reeds into clay molds, the Untersberg rose, powdered, un-moving. Finally, after days of exploration I have discovered a panorama of divine magnitude. I find in all of Salzburg’s sweetness a holy spot. This is my church.
I stare out at the Untersberg as the sun tips forward to light its face. It is a beautiful enigma. When, in the presence of a mountain, we must endure its puzzle. It is something greater than us, and everything that is greater than us invites us to rise. Over the past year I have been tested and asked to rise. I have come here for an answer, and the answer has become clear.
The week before I left on this trip, I watched the Sound of Music. It was difficult. I shifted uncomfortably through most of it, and just as the family Von Trapp marched their lederhosen over the Austrian Alps, away from nasty Hitler and his evil Anschluss, it suddenly became cartoon-like. It was difficult not to wince at the irony of the gold scripted letters that flashed across the screen as the final note soared into falsetto: The End. The sentiment made me uneasy knowing that it was untrue.
For years I have been fooled by the happy ending—the bow—that denies us the imperfection of reality. The narrative, however much it may be pointing us toward the happiness we crave, just isn’t the nature of the divine. The perfection that nostalgia aspires to denies us the mystery inherent in all things. It is a subtle tyranny over the senses. The message isn’t bad: climb the mountains, follow the streams, and out there is a dream which leads us toward our destiny. That’s all fine. But I have come to Salzburg with a ghost because of a fairy tale. I am not angry because I finally understand what it truly feels like to surrender. I am resistant, but know I have no other choice.
I look over to the Untersberg and the labyrinth unfurls into a stream. It is nameless. I just invite it in and let it finds its own voice. I lay some things to rest and I find that there is space inside me for more. I have not come to find the happy ending. I do not need the bow, but rather a grand and cosmic ellipsis…
Robert Diamante is a professional photographer and writer best known for his work in the contemporary jewelry industry. His photographs and articles have appeared in books, magazines and blogs. His latest fiction has been published in an anthology called North by Northeast (Littoral Books). He lives in Maine.
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