My Italian/Sicilian Soul
When one refers to soul there are many possible associations that come to mind: religious, cultural as well as musical. The way Thomas Moore defines soul in his philosophical book Care of the Soul is as a deeper Self connected to family, ancestry, all profound attachments, and life’s particulars, as well as shadow or repressed sides of us. He contrasts soul with spirit, which can be strident, idealistic, but ungrounded, even wounding in its naiveté and exhilaration.
I like to think of my American self, the persona born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, as a metaphor for my spirit, while the part of me that lived at home was my soul. Growing up in Brooklyn, in the 1950’s in my Grandparents Italian home was quite a mix. While my intimate world had many Italian customs, beliefs and traditions, I also had Howdy Doody, Davy Crockett, Mickey Mouse and all the dreams of post War II American children. To boot, I was born on the 4th of July which many in my family considered a good omen. I lived near the Statue of Liberty and loved the American hero, Superman. I sang songs my father brought home like, “Old Soldiers Never Die” and “Jimmy Crack Corn”. I owned the first Howdy Doody Puppet in my neighborhood and felt part of an old frontier I had never seen with a Davy Crockett coonskin cap, as well as battles for and against an England I did not know. Not until I was in college in the late 1960’s and grad school in early 1970’s, did I feel the need to explore and actualize a part of my being that had little connection with this frontier tale. It identified with darker others, their struggles, rituals, with the ways of people like Native Americans and African Americans, as well as journeys to the African continent.
I found my Sicilian roots by way of Africa, a continent I never planned to visit, but ended up making several trips to. Africa came into my life from early childhood. I fantasized myself an Egyptian priestess dancing to middle eastern music and dreamed of Bedouins in long billowing robes riding across the dunes on Arabian horses, sometimes with me on the back. One Halloween at the age of 16, to relieve some of the hold the fantasy had on me, I dressed in purdah from toe to head, covering myself completely in a pale blue robe and veil. I could barely see or speak. Yet, I confess I felt a power in invisibility, a truly secret observer, a spy in the world. I understood that to be covered is to be the void, a hidden potential ready to be fulfilled by your lover or husband or parent’s request or any external projection. Islam veiled women and the Moors had conquered Sicily. Perhaps this had in part accounted for my dreams and need to explore this territory within me and those lands. There was also my Catholic upbringing, where the figure of the Madonna in blue veil dominated. She was the mysterious woman, virgin and mother who stood for compassion and tenderness. Later she would be revealed to me as the Great Goddess Isis from Egypt, the same Goddess brought to Sicily as the Black Madonna. As a veiled woman, one gets to be the mirror and know oneself through the other, but at this same party, when the music was turned up, I found I wanted my freedom to move and dance. I pulled off my robe and veil, and danced my heart out to the rhythms of soul music.
Thomas Moore, like Jung, suggests the more one efforts to leave something, to be other, the more likely we are to repress those qualities that later back with a bite! America had a way of doing that for immigrants, promising wonderful new opportunities, a chance to leave the past behind, to escape generations of limiting beliefs based on class, history, inertia. My Grandfather, often said America was full of bright ideas that were not well thought out, like the automobile, which might come back to haunt us. He never understood why we didn’t develop the rails like Europe did.
My Sicilian roots haunted me in other surprising ways. By age 20, I was seeing an Eritrean, an Ethiopian and a Sudanese, men from cultures where women were expected to play traditional roles. My soul seemed to come from many places and many of them had both a rich ancient history and a history of female subjugation. I noticed that this side of me was introverted, bookish and had a deeper darker aspect that called me to ancient Greek and Egyptian myth, with a steady somber song playing in my heart.
My family on my father’s side was 100% Sicilian. I associated Sicilians with an amazing focus and adaptability. My father’s mother, Luigia Gianno was born in Palermo. Her husband, my Grandfather, Antonino Calio was from Agrigento. They had a great love that broke family ties and rules, eventually taking them to America where Nino died at age 50 when my father was a boy of 12. When my Grandparents arrived in America they had to start over at new careers. Although my father’s mother was educated in music, she learned pattern making and became a designer in New York City working all of her life in the garment industry. My Grandfather, a businessman selling surgical instruments became a presser and died suddenly from pneumonia. Most of Grandmother’s family still lived abroad, some in Palermo, a few in Libya until driven out by war and Rome. We rarely heard about them or planned to visit. We had a cousin from Palermo come to live with us to attend medical school in America, but he never spoke about our Sicilian roots either and quickly married an Irish girl. My father was the only one of their 3 children born in the USA. He seemed the all American prototype, a blue-eyed Joe. His name was Joe, I thought, until I saw Guiseppi on his birth certificate! Joe wanted to be a baseball player and made the minor leagues before he was drafted and served as a GI in the second wave at Normandy. While in Europe fighting for our country, some of our Sicilian family was fighting on the other side, the enemy. Later in life, Joe worked in high fashion with Ralph Lauren a Jewish American from the Bronx. To me both men seemed to be the ultimate Anglo files creating styles that had a British flair.
I grew up nearly convinced we hailed from England having been educated in English/American schools with a white washed history of colonial America, knowing little of slaves or Indians or Italian immigrants. Only because of the protests of the 60’s did I get a chance to study African American literature and art at SUNY Albany with an excellent Richard Wright and Jean Toomer scholar named John Reilly. Yet, the island of Sicily would come to have the greater influence on my unfolding as an adult, an artist, spiritualist and writer. I would discover the why of my call to Africa, to black Madonnas, spiral dances, to create modern day rituals that expressed my feminine self. My father, who had encouraged my independence as a child, became more authoritarian when I grew up. My mother acted like she personally was in charge of my virginity. These behaviors came from the old world.
Even if I wasn’t born in Sicily, it seemed Sicily still lived in me.
Louise Calio is an internationally published, award winning author and photo artist. She won: 1st Prize for “Bhari” fr.City of Messina,Sicily (2013),1st Prize for “Signifyin Woman” Il Parnasso” Canicatti, Sicily (2017). Finalist for Poet Laureate, Nassau County, honored at Columbia Barnard as a Feminist Who Changed America( 19763-75), Director Poet’s Piazza at Hofstra University for 12 years, she was a founding member and first Executive Director of City Spirit Artists, Inc. New Haven, Ct. Her latest book, Journey to the Heart Waters was published by Legas Press( 2014).