Autobiography of an Italian Yogi

Chapter 1

My Parents and Early Life

Minute by minute, I watched the slow arc of the sun as the light inched its way across the room. For eight hours, I watched it. In that time, I saw no one, spoke to no one, ate nothing. I was just 7-years old, and I sat there – alone and silent – of my own free will. Even at that tender age, I felt the impulse coursing through me to reach out beyond myself, to consider the big questions of life. The kinds of questions that weren’t going to be answered by my teachers, or my family. Certainly not by my mother…

It is fair to say that my mother was not exactly blessed with a saintly nature. She was a Gemini, so she had two personalities: bad and worse! She was frequently violent, both verbally and physically. And she would delight in bringing tumult into my life. 

It’s hard for anyone to believe just how angry and violent she was. She was clever enough to fool people. Even to this day, I meet acquaintances who tell me I’m delusional. They tell me she was a wonderful woman. But they never saw her wield a baseball bat at unsuspecting visitors she didn’t like the look of. And they never saw her take out her considerable anger on me. Maybe the violence was genetic. My maternal grandfather in Naples, who lived to the grand old age of 103, had been a very violent guy. Aged 15, he killed a man in an argument over an olive tree. After that, he had to leave Italy in a hurry, and he that’s how he ended up in Little Italy in the North End. 

As a kid, I played with him, and joked around as kids do, without ever knowing my grandfather was a murderer. But even then, I could tell there was something about him. A line that I could never cross. I felt the same about my mother. She’d soaked up some of his violence. As a young girl, she’d seen her father dragging her mother across the floor by the hair. And when my mother tried to intervene, he’d turned on her. She was only 13-years old when her mother died, and as the eldest of five siblings, she would be the one to get it when he needed to vent his rage on someone. She once told me how she would crawl under the bed to escape him.  

Whenever they got together again, they were like cats and dogs, always fighting. Ask my grandfather why my mother was the way she was, and he wouldn’t have taken any responsibility for it. He always said it was because she’d tried to walk on a skylight as a child, and the skylight broke. She would have plummeted several storeys, but she manged to grab on to the sides until she was pulled to safety. According to him, the horror of that experience explains why my mother acted like she did; it was nothing whatsoever to do with the way he’d treated her. The old Italians expected women to behave in a certain way, and if they showed any sign of disobedience, they were punished for it. And my mother, it seems, had been a particularly problematic child, and been punished accordingly.

My father came from violent stock too. His family came had also emigrated from Italy, and were just as hot-blooded. I experienced my paternal grandfather’s temper at close range when I hit him on the head with a bowling pin… 

My mother had put me out on the fire escape at the front of the building, and my grandfather would stick his head out from his apartment, look down at me, and give me a wink. Now, I hadn’t mastered the art of winking with one eye, he knew it, and he laughed at my efforts to wink back. The rage swelled up in me and I grabbed a bowling pin that was lying around, and threw it up at him. I couldn’t have aimed it any better if I’d tried, and it hit him right on the top of his head. He came running down, my grandmother hard on his heels. He tried to grab me when my mother pulled me into one of the bedrooms and put herself between me and him. Standing fast in the doorway, she wouldn’t let him get to me – it was the most courageous thing I ever saw her do. All his rage had to go somewhere, and he took it out on her instead. He punched her squarely in the face, and gave her a black eye. His violence was legendary in our family. 

Where does all that violence go? Does it seep down into the next generation? Where does it end? I didn’t see it in my father. He was a very gentle man, brilliantly clever – he invented all sorts of interesting machines – and he seemed a little more in touch with his feelings. I think my father loved me as far as his capacity to love allowed. He may not have been exuberantly affectionate, but it was more than my mother could manage. I can remember, as a toddler, standing naked on the kitchen table. My father was sitting, eating eggs, and there was such a strange expression on his face. He was smiling at me. I had never seen that expression before; my mother never smiled. 

I was always getting into trouble for mischief; I used to like cutting the electrical wires in our house, just for fun, but I don’t remember my father hitting me out of anger or scolding me. There was just one time when he had to pretend to hit me because he was supposed to, but he didn’t hurt me. 

I had been an unexpected child. My brother (15-years older than me) and my sister (10-years older) still lived in the family home. Maybe you’ve heard that old joke that Christ must have been an Italian? There are three reasons why: For one, he believed his other was a virgin. Two, she believed he was the son of God. And three, he didn’t leave home until he was 33! 

My brother stayed in the family home until he was 40-years old, when he got married. But my mother had been too much for my father to cope with; he left when I was five years old. He’d been holding down a job by day, and studying to be a doctor by night, and the stress of it all was compounded by dealing with her. She made his life a living nightmare, and he just couldn’t take it anymore. I don’t blame him for it. I would have left if I could have. 

But with my father gone, it meant that I was left alone with the lunatic that was my mother. At this stage, you might be thinking that she couldn’t possibly be as terrible as I’ve made out. I don’t think I’ve given you a real flavour of her particular brand of cruelty yet…

At 9-years old, I got polio. This was before the vaccine, and we didn’t really know much about it. I came home with splitting headaches, and my back and neck were stiffening up. In response, my mother beat me. She beat me because I was sick, and that made her angry. It meant that she had to take care of me, and she didn’t like being obliged to act like a mother. In the end, I cared for myself. When the pain was nearly unbearable, I discovered that if I covered my face with newspapers, it helped to ease it. Later, I learned that breathing in the carbon monoxide I’d exhaled helped to thin the blood and reduce the swelling. 

When I was very young and my sister was sick, my mother went to the hospital to see her. The nurses were somewhat taken aback to see her screaming and shouting at her daughter while she was supposed to be convalescing, but our mother had no impulse control whatsoever.

I can at least say that her food was delicious. Anything cooked with real passion is only ever delectable… and she cooked with such unbridled hate! The house would be thick with the aromas of rich sauces on a Sunday, and I would sometimes try my luck and steal a meatball when she wasn’t looking. Her meatballs were just so good that they overcame the fear of potential punishments. One of my friends tried Mother’s meatballs and was still talking about it 20-years later! At mealtimes, Mother liked nothing better than to start fights between me and my siblings. Then, when the fights were raging, she would just sit back, relax, and take a deep contented breath of enjoyment, revelling in the chaos that she had wrought. 

Mother remained combative throughout her life. Years later, when we put her in a nursing home in Little Italy, the psychiatrist asked me, “When did she get this way?” I told him, “She’s always been this way!” He was shocked, “What… no medication, no psychiatric intervention – nothing?!”

My mistake was in trying to love my mother in spite of the horrors she visited upon me. I didn’t know enough then to keep my peace. I was still labouring under the Christian edict that I had to show love, even when I was getting slapped in the face. And yet, in spite of her rage, and her brutality, she was the kind of mother I needed. If Buddha had had a happy soccer mom, we wouldn’t know anything about Buddhism now, we’d just know an awful lot more about soccer! In my own small way, I can appreciate the role my mother played in sharpening my desire to move beyond my limited experience. 

Every moment of small realisation in that attic room moved me further from the kinds of thoughts and desires that would normally have occupied a young child’s mind. I grew accustomed to tuning out the mundane concerns of life in Little Italy, to focussing on my breathing, and ruminating on the questions that really mattered. How is the universe put together? What is truth? What is love? I was looking for some kind of peace, trying to understand that I didn’t want my happiness to be derived from who I thought I was, or who I thought I was supposed to be.

I somehow understood there was power in controlling my breathing, and found my own technique. It felt intuitive, almost as if the knowledge had carried over from another life. It was blissful. I knew I was on the path to something revelatory. But I was too wise too early; I couldn’t escape my situation. At 7-years old, I couldn’t leave my mother, or get out of the North End. But the impulse to keep searching for something other continued. It seemed to me as if harnessing some other power could at least change how I felt. 

It didn’t necessarily sit hand-in-glove with my upbringing. Being of Italian descent, Catholicism was hardwired into me, and the presence of religion – if not the church as a body that we all attended – was a constant presence in all our lives. Saints and sinners alike, we all ended up at the same altar. Our community was a vibrant mix of devout and tempestuous people. I knew that same juxtaposition between the spiritual and the all-too-secular existed in me; I was a product of my family and my society, and that society was mired in violence. One day, that violence would manifest in me too…