Perhaps it was because Dad was a lion tamer that I ended up funny. Yes, a lion tamer—and no, I don’t mean comic. This was all in his past by the time I was born, and since he was an absent father—there but not there, like so many men of that generation—I got to know him through his memories, or at least what I imagined were his memories. These I formed myself, from a pile of old photos that he stubbornly refused to talk about. He was ashamed of something.
He’d run away from his native Calabria in the 1930s to join his cousin Blacaman, who was touring South America with lions and alligators as the, “Hindu Animal Hypnotist.” When he fell out with Blacaman and ran off with his girlfriend Koringa to Paris, he managed her before moving on to an acrobatic dancer called Gwenda. Koringa was exotic and French. Gwenda was respectable and English. Dad admired England. Handily avoiding Mussolini’s call to arms, he ended up interned on the Isle of Man. They married and she became like him, an enemy alien. That ended their performing days.
These are the people who raised me. At least, they tried.
“Dad, where was this picture taken, and who's that girl with you?” No answer. Just a grimace. He'd get mad when I pleaded, and I'd get mad right back at his silence. A child needs the stories of the parents, preferably from their own lips. Mum told me everything, but she was no male role-model. He controlled us at home and I vowed never to be like him. But of course I never really knew him, so it was a difficult vow to keep.
The only person he spoke to—in absolute privacy—was his priest. He’d maligned Holy Mother Church for years and had more regrets. He clung to his newfound English and Catholic respectability like a talisman, but the life that I witnessed never inspired me quite like those old photos.
They empowered me to live passionately and uncompromisingly—just as, I supposed, he'd done when he was young and interesting. So when at the age of twenty-two I got to choose between a life as a social scientist and the opportunity to go native with a pride of learned Tibetans, it was a no-brainer.
I didn’t see my decision as an escape but it was. Just as Dad got away from the priests and mafia of his childhood Calabria, but he never escaped his unresolved past. I didn’t want to end up like that.
I knew he’d thrown everything to the wind, and I did too. He joined the circus. I became a Buddhist monk. He tamed lions and alligators. I tamed my mind (or tried to). He abandoned Catholicism temporarily. I gave it up for good. “You’re just like I was,” he’d say. Everyone would nod sagely and turn away.
I turned away too, of course—but not only from them. Eight years later I abandoned Buddhism and found myself on the margins of two cultures. I didn’t even aspire to fit in anywhere. I wasn’t happy and didn’t expect to be. Did he feel that way too, despite his success as a respectable restaurateur, husband and father?
Monastic life had given me more respect for my mind than I’d ever had before. I studied history, computer science, typography, design, book production, psychology, neurology. I wrote a memoir and other books. I fed my brain and developed my skills as assiduously as I avoided my heart.
I called many people ‘friend,’ but never got from them what I needed. I only realised it when I made a new friend, someone who recognized my passion for mindfulness and encouraged me to teach it. I’d trained for eight years. Why didn’t I use it?
That’s when everything changed. I became happy. She helped me put on workshops. I loved public speaking and wrote books. I’m often thanked for my teaching and praised for my intelligence, but there’s still a voice in my head that says I'm not enough. It no longer does the damage now that it once did. When it shows up I see it, counter it and refuse to follow.
This is the process of self-acceptance. My work has shown me how hard it is for others too. We’re all susceptible to shame and the defensive, defeatist voices in our head—but that’s no reason to give up or to even attempt escape. I married that friend, though the belonging part is still elusive.
What did I learn from Dad? Escape is not only impossible—it makes everything worse. My work fulfills me because it requires me to be ruthlessly honest. Teaching, writing and communicating this sort of deep meaning and emotional intelligence fills my life in many ways.
End of story: I avoided being like him, more or less. I’m happy to share my stories. I hide nothing. I catch my reactivity better than ever, and face those voices without any desire to escape. I connect the dots. Perhaps he did that with his parish priest. I’d like to think so.
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