I read their intimate love letters

STORY N.06 – SEPTEMBER 17, 2020

Their faces completely at rest. Their eyes looking right in front of them, like staring at something invisible to other people.
They were sitting next to each other, but they looked so disconnected that if it wasn’t for their peculiar clothes I wouldn’t be so sure they actually knew each other.

In the waiting room of that hospital department every chair is occupied, there are about 30 people, but that old woman and that old man are the only ones wearing recognizable clothes from the mountains of Ecuador.

Sure, it could be a coincidence, except, no, it isn’t.
Even if they look completely detached from each other, at the same time it is obvious that they belong to each other. They emanate the same kind of calm aware energy, which feels so different from everyone else’s in the room.

I noticed them right away when I came in, and while I’m interacting with other people a part of me is aware of their presence and that I’m getting closer to them and I’ll be soon talking to them.
What I’m doing with the other people might be a step too much beyond what they might consent to. And it’s exciting.

But what is it that I am doing?

It all has to do with the fact that I was born on May the 2nd.
Which is the reason why I became a shy person.
Which is the reason why objects around me started having feelings.
Which is eventually the reason why in that very moment, in that waiting room, I was holding an old dusty computer keyboard in my hands and typing love letters I would then send via my heart.

The sheer logic behind this peculiar chain of events is simple, although I only became aware of it a few years ago.
In Italy, my home country, school starts in September. You are supposed to start in 1st grade when you are 6, but you can usually start at 5 if your birthday comes within a few months after the school starts.
Well, May doesn’t exactly come within a few months after it, especially considering that school ends at the beginning of June. But apparently my parents insisted so much with the school administration that I eventually was allowed to start at 5 and be almost one whole year younger than my classmates.
At that age, one year difference often means a huge physical development difference, and if you consider that in my family we are not the tallest people, actually rather small, there I was… the tiniest 1st grader of the whole school, and who knows, maybe of the whole country.
This meant that throughout my whole childhood, year after year, I was always the youngest and smallest child in the group, and this, more than a speaker, made me a listener, an observer, after all a sensitive boy.
I would be a lot by myself, and enjoy it. I would play in my room, and when playing, objects often would have personalities, I would make them into the imaginary people which populated my lonely plays. And I never stopped playing that way: later on, as a young adult, when studying to become a creative writer, in the stories I wrote for the short fiction class, objects would often have feelings; and these past 12 years, when clowning, oh well… objects can become anything when you are clowning, they have souls.
And this brings me to that very moment in that waiting room, holding that old dusty computer keyboard, down on my knees in front of a woman sitting on the very first chair by the door, only a few chairs away from the old woman and the old man of the mountains.

I’m on my knees, the computer keyboard in my hands and its disconnected old fashioned cable dangling over my clown pants.
“Good morning!”, I say smiling.
The woman is scrolling down with her thumb on the screen of her smartphone, she does not look at me.
The room is rather small, everyone is sitting very close to one another, and I go on speaking to the woman loudly enough so that everyone else can hear.
“Today we are doing an important activity.”
She looks at me for the first time and then looks a bit confused at the unplugged keyboard. I continue.
“We write love letters to somebody we love. Would you like to participate?”
Kind of unexpectedly, she says: “Yes.”
I get excited: “Great! It works this way: you dictate the letter and I type it on the keyboard and then send it via my heart.”
Kind of unexpectedly, she says: “Ok.”
“Wonderful! Who is your letter for?”
“My husband Carlos, who left us and went live in a city far away from home.”

She says it with a serious but not at all dramatic sounding tone. And yes, she says it out loud while 30 complete strangers can hear it.

“I’m ready”, I say. The keyboard now sits on my lap and my fingertips rest ready on the keys.
“My dear Carlos, I miss you. Please, come back. Your daughter Angelina had her birthday a few days ago and she says she misses her father…”
I type, type, type…
“May God protect you, we wait for you. I love you”. Then she stops.
I ask: “Shall we sign it?”
“Your wife, Estefanía
And then I ask: “Shall we send it?”
She says yes.
So I take the loose end of the keyboard cable and bring it to my chest, like I’m plugging it into my heart. I close my eyes, smile and send the letter to Carlos.

When I first saw her, the old dusty keyboard, she was in an office on the ground floor, abandoned on a box in a corner.
It was the first room I got into when we arrived at the hospital, the Administration office.
I entered without saying anything, just looking with a smile at the people sitting at their desks working. I looked around with naive curiosity, looking for something which would inspire me. And when I saw her, the keyboard, I knew right away it was her who I was looking for.
It was hard to imagine why such an amazing object had been abandoned in that corner. I took her in my hands, hugged her with love showing my feelings to the employees. Then I mimed going out of the door with the keyboard. They just smiled, nobody asked me to put her back, so I took her with me.
I had no idea of what I might do with her.
That’s what I do when I meet an inspiring object: if possible, I take it around with me and let the circumstances choose what it can do, and I’m open to the possibility that it won’t do anything.
It’s like meeting the object at the park, having a casual conversation and if it doesn’t lead to something deeper, we hug and say goodbye.

I kneel in front of another woman sitting in the waiting room.
“Good morning! Today we are doing an important activity. We write love letters to somebody we love. Would you like to participate?”
“Who is your letter for?”
“My son Miguel.”
“I’m ready”, I say with a smile.
“My dear son,
I know this is a difficult time in your life. But I want you to know that your mom will always be here for you. And so will your family.
Don’t worry, we are going to take care of the children until you get out.”
[I assume Miguel is in prison] “Take care, try to stay calm, God is going to help you. I’ll come soon to see you.
Your mom who loves you very much.”

I see her eyes holding tears. I say: “Now we send it to Miguel”, connect the cable to my heart, close my eyes, smile and send the letter.

I had walked and engaged people in many different rooms inside the hospital while holding the keyboard under my arm. Unused. I guess I had taken her for a walk, so she could see how she had been a part of a way bigger world than the Administration office.
But when I eventually walked into that waiting room we, the keyboard and I, decided to do something together.
As I mentioned, the room was rather small, and all those people sitting next to one another, doing the same thing, waiting, probably for similar reasons, looked to me as completely separate worlds. A number of them were patiently waiting for their turn, it looked like they were used to it, a couple were chatting with a low voice tone, some were looking at their smartphones, somebody was watching a video without headphones so there was this background noise with indistinguishable dialogues and sounds.
My first wish was that those separate worlds would communicate with one another, and I happened to have just the right device to make that connection possible: the old dusty keyboard.

Humanitarian clowning is about merging time and space in counterintuitive ways: you take the tiniest moment in time and stretch its space boundaries so that it can room the biggest thing in the world, that being Love.
Daily practice gives you the ability to think in moments, to see the matrix of the fragments of time and compute all the elements of the environment around the person you wish to love, so that a number of possible engaging actions show themselves. Then you act, knowing only your intentions and not for sure what the consequences will be.
I don’t say it to boast about what I do and other people don’t, we all do it when we are present in the moment with a person we love, I just call it humanitarian clowning, and I myself am amazed every time I look back at what happened.

Anyway… you learn to work so much with moments that when the circumstances offer you a whole room full of people ready to be there for hours, you know you are blessed.

I wish those people to communicate, they are so close to one another that they can actually hear one another. I have the help of boredom. I have a keyboard. And I have time. The possibilities are close to infinite, but I know I have one word which can embrace almost all of them.
I’ll use that word and every person will mean it in the very unique way they wish or need to.

It only takes one person sharing a personal story of love out loud for the game to begin. In a few minutes, I don’t hear anymore chattering, that video background noise has disappeared, and there are only people respectfully silent listening to other people’s small stories of love, and even more… there are people sharing intimate stories with a group of complete strangers. Stories of love, whatever it means to them.

“…and who is the beloved person you wish to write to?”
“I’m ready.”
“Dear God, thank you for all that you gave me, my family, my children, my health. Thank you for listening to my prayers and for taking care of my brother here in the hospital. With love and gratitude, Maria Alejandra Herrera.”

I connect the cable to my heart, close my eyes, smile and send it all the way to God.
And now, next in line, there is the old woman from the mountains. Would she even want to participate?

When engaging somebody as a humanitarian clown, as Patch Adams likes to say, it is a good idea to leave your success/failure paradigm at home. Even just a smile might be a huge response, and sometimes you don’t even get that, but the truth is that you can never know what an impact you have on a person just with your presence and intention of caring. Even the most silent and apparently unengaged person may have a storm going on inside them.
Like for example the man in the subway who wanted to kill himself I told about a few stories ago.
And I had noticed how people from the mountains, the most I met being elderly people, usually showed to be quite reserved. Kind, but unwilling to allow more than an exchange of polite smiles.
I keep on saying “people from the mountains“, but the Sierra of Ecuador goes across the whole country and includes many different regions and people, with their traditions and history, which I never got the chance to learn enough about. And if it wasn’t for their beautiful peculiar clothes I would probably barely notice any difference.
So in my prejudiced direct experience of clowning with old people dressing with similar clothes, I never felt I had much success in getting really close to them.
And because I often couldn’t read through their reactions I developed a tendency to avoid pushing any interaction with them, I didn’t want to risk offending them. But at the same time this gap, this place in between us where I’m not yet understanding them is a magic dance floor I hardly can resist stepping onto.
This duality of feelings and intentions lived inside of me while I eventually kneeled in front of the old woman.

Her whole body remains exactly in the position it is, not even a muscle on her face moves. Only her eyes, now looking at me.
With the corner of my eye I try to read any change in the old man’s body language. Nothing.
He keeps on looking straight forward, almost completely absent.
I don’t know what’s coming, but I hold on to my wish to dance in that unknown space between the old woman and me.
“Good morning”, I say with a smile.
She keeps on looking at me, but she does not say a word.
“Today we are doing an important activity.”
She remains completely still.
“We write love letters to somebody we love.
My face is radiating my most wide welcoming smile, she does not react at all.
And there it comes, the moment of truth:
“Would you like to participate?”
There is no way back now.


And then she just speaks.
“Dear husband,
I love you very much.
Thank you for all these years together.
Thank you for taking care of our house, of our children.
For the hard work of an entire life.
Thank you for your love and friendship, for your support in the difficult moments…”

She goes on while I type, and because she took me completely by surprise, it takes me a few moments to realize that she is actually writing a letter to the old man sitting next to her, who obviously is her husband. And yet not even for an instant they look at each other.
“…I’m grateful for this journey we share.
Your wife, Rosa

I catch up with the typing: “…your wife, Rosa.”
“Shall we send it?”

I take the cable and connect it to my heart but this time, instead of closing my eyes, I look at the old man with a caring smile and send the letter.
At this point I know that even if he is not looking at me he is receiving the letter.
And then I kneel down in front of him…

“Would you also like to participate?
He says right away:
“Dear wife,
I love you very much.”

And then he stops.

“Do you wish to sign it?”
“Your husband.”

I connect the cable, look at Rosa, smile and send her the letter.
She looks at me and, for the first time, kindly smiles.

I’ve noticed how we all love to share ourselves with the world, but many times we need an excuse for it. And as weird as it might be, it seems a clown with an old computer keyboard was just the right excuse those 30 people needed.

Do you need an excuse to say it to a clown?
I’m happy to find just the right one for you. =)

Talk with me, I was born on May the 2nd, I’ll be listening.

Thank you for reading this.
If you wish to support the project, you can do it by:
– Reserving a conversation with me
– Inviting somebody who might be interested to connect with me
– Joining the loving people who decided to send a monthly or one time donation

He punched me in the face

STORY N.05 – AUGUST 31, 2020

Subtitle: “I’ve been in prison” (2)

“I am a kind of paranoid in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

When I was younger I looked at quotes as words I wish I had said. They sound smart and so precisely complete, which is how I wished people would think about me. But because I had never actually said those words before reading them in those quotes, for a long time I consciously avoided the whole thing with quotes because they actually made me feel I wasn’t smart enough. With time I forgot about that conscious decision, and quotes became just something which wouldn’t catch my attention. Until one day I stumbled upon this one, which is by J. D. Salinger:
“I am a kind of paranoid in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.”

It was the first time a quote didn’t feel like words I wish I had said but which actually framed something I was trying to do in life.
Even in the moment when that man punched me in the face.

Actually, in a way it was exactly because of that quote that he punched me in the face.

As you might have read in one of the stories I previously posted, it is not so easy to enter a men’s maximum security prison as a humanitarian clown and have inmates participate in what you wish to offer when they believe they have to look “tough” and absolutely not ridiculous. But truth is a men’s maximum security prison, in that respect, is a piece of cake. It is a piece of cake if you compare it with another kind of prison: a young men’s detention center.
Expect the same unspoken hierarchy rules mentioned for adult inmates, then add the complexity of the indescribable tension of being a teenager or young adult, and finally top it with being young men grown up in strong patriarchal and violent contexts.

He said he would punch me in the face. I closed my eyes right before he did it.
I’m sure it was just an instant before his fist eventually hit my face, but it felt like a very long instant which I was able to fill up with a number of thoughts and feelings.

“No-Name”. Sometimes “No-Nombre”.
“If they ask you what my name is, please, say you don’t know it because I don’t speak. Say you don’t know where I’m from, because I don’t speak and so I never told you. Say I’m just part of the group and since I can’t say my name everybody just calls me No-Name.”
That’s what I often say to my fellow clowns while we are on the bus towards a detention center or a prison.
It is only a few years ago that it became a conscious performance choice.
I had noticed how sometimes in some contexts I would spontaneously start interacting with people without speaking, just using my body, becoming a very naive vulnerable character, somewhere in between Stan Laurel and Roberto Benigni’s Little Devil, extremely curious and always on the verge of discovering some marvel that would make me incredibly excited. Big things. Such as that a door opens when you move that handle down, or that it feels unbearably good when your arms embrace somebody and hold them tight. You know, big things like those.
A small naive non-speaking very vulnerable man, with twinkling eyes while enjoying the details of reality, letting people show me how things work, what is appropriate and what is not.
And I had noticed how much people tended to take care of me, of this extremely open and vulnerable little man. Some clearly pretending they didn’t realize I was playing, some others clearly confused but helping me anyway led by the instinct of preserving what is vulnerable.

Since the very first moment and up to when he punched me, his language had been confrontational. A sharp pointy blade.
In my experience, aggressiveness is a symptom of a lack of tools for caring for our own vulnerabilities. “Tough” is often the face we put on when we have suffered and have not been given the chance to learn tools to process that suffering. In my experience, behind every aggressive language there is a human being who feels vulnerable but can’t or didn’t learn how to say it.
And it’s very hard to get that pattern to shift: You believe people don’t like you -> it hurts -> so you put a tough face on to hide those vulnerable feelings -> people notice your tough face walking on the street -> they are afraid, so they cross the street to avoid you -> you notice that -> your belief that people don’t like you is reinforced -> you keep wearing your tough face. And so on.

I want to contribute to shifting that pattern. That’s why when I’m walking on the street I actively look for “tough” faces and smile at them as openly as possible.
I want to show “tough” people that it is ok to show your vulnerability, that actually when you are clearly vulnerable people have an instinct to take care of you, or at very least not to harm you.
That’s why I started bringing No-Name to prison.
Words are power. A person without words is extremely vulnerable. They cannot show intelligence to impress others, they cannot use irony to avoid conflicts, they cannot even beg when desperate.
In a young men’s circle, words are like blades. Codes, inside jokes… And the same spoken word generates completely different consequences depending on who in the hierarchy of the group pronounced it.
And in a young men’s detention center those blades are even sharper. The perfect place for No-Name.

That day we were in the big patio of a young men’s detention center in Mexico.
In this center, the inmates are kept in strictly separated groups. We are told the groups cannot mix, it is not safe.
You look at the faces of all those young people dressing with white t-shirts and slippers, at their body language, and it’s hard not to see that they are just growing up kids, with curious eyes and beautiful smiles. And yet a number of big guards stand all around avoiding anyone but the clowns to cross over the dedicated areas.

No-Name is engaging one of the groups with some fellow clowns.
The thing with clowns and teenagers is that many times clowns – even caring ones – feel quite intimidating: you don’t have ways to read what they might come up with potentially embarrassing you in front of the rest of the group. So the welcome you can expect from a large group of young men in a detention center is inmates standing with crossed arms, some avoiding eye-contact, some leaning on one another mocking you, some showing they don’t care at all.

But No-Name has noticed that if he can make the “toughest” guy to play, then everybody else will.
That’s why every time he comes into a prison he looks around, spots the toughest guy and goes directly to them.
It usually works: because No-Name looks so vulnerable, he is allowed to push boundaries, and if he goes too far it is easier to excuse him, because he is so ingenuous. He doesn’t have words, so it’s ok if he is a bit more physical than you would normally allow somebody to be with you, you understand that without words he needs to be like that.
No-Name puts himself totally in your hands, you can do whatever you wish with him, he believes you love him no matter what.

But this time it is a bit different.
I look for the toughest guy and when I see him, he is not in any of the groups.
He and two of his comrades for some reason have been kept away from the activities with us.
The three of them are standing over a cement step surrounding a tree, he is in the center, the other two leaning against him, they look like characters on the poster of a movie. Protagonists, in control of their destinies. Except right next to them there is a guard, taller than them without even being standing on the step.

All the time while playing with my group, I engage him, the toughtsest guy, from a distance, I throw subtle gestures at him.
Clowning is a very good training in narratives. Because your costume and your presence catch the attention of a number of people around you and also from a distance, with time you learn to have different dialogues going on at the very same time with different people which might even be located in very different spots: say a few people right in front of you on the street, a man selling sandwiches on the other side of the road and an old woman standing on a balcony up on the third floor.
I start a dialogue with the guy while playing with my group. He doesn’t respond, but he looks at me.
At this very moment I have no idea if I’ll be able to directly engage him, but I work on that possibility anyway, I plant seeds and water them, just in case the chance emerges.
And at this moment I have no idea that a fruit of that plant will be a punch in my face.

After a while, I see that my group is doing great and I decide to go check how the other groups are doing.
To do so, I deliberately walk close, but not too much, by the spot where my “friend” is with his comrades and the guard.
I can feel he is looking at me, so at a certain point I look at him.
And immediately he makes a theatrical gesture with his hand:
“Hey you, come over here.”
I gesture back with a smile: “Who? Me?”
He just repeats the same gesture. I walk over.

The three of them stand above me from the cement step. The guard observes the scene without speaking.
The toughest guy asks me with a serious voice: “Why don’t you speak?”

In theater, you usually shouldn’t go out of your character, but in that context I’m not an actor.
I’m a person with clear intentions, and I change my performance as soon as I feel it would better serve my intentions.
So… at that moment No-Name just speaks.

I say: “Because I’ve nothing interesting to say.”
He says with an attitude: “Do you know who I am?”
I ask very excitedly and extremely curiously, like No-Name would if he could: “No! Who are you???”
“I’m the patron.” [In Spanish, it means the “boss“, but it is also a “saint protector“]
I show naive excitement: “Oh… are you religious?”
He doesn’t understand the joke.
He speaks like a character in a gangster movie: “I command here.”
I look at him smiling.
He says: “You have mota, give me your mota.” [“mota” is marijuana]
“I don’t have any mota.”
“You look like somebody who has mota.” [I wonder if it was my face, my attitude or my clown pants. Perhaps all of them together.]
“Even if I had mota, do you think they would let me bring it inside here?”
[In the past I would have been surprised by such a dialogue in the presence of a guard, but I am no longer]
“Give me your hat.”
I give him my hat.
“What do you have in your bag?”
I smile: “Do you want my bag too? [I give him my bag. I do it lightheartedly, like it was a game] What about my colorful jacket? [I put the jacket in his hands before he can say anything] Do you also want my hearts necklace? [I load him with all the things I have in my pockets]
Do you want my red nose too? [I take it off] Do you want to try it?”
I reach out to his head and offer him to wear the nose, he takes it and then drops everything on the ground.
He says: “Do this.” He leans forward and offers me one of his cheeks.

“No!” The guard speaks for the first time. He is authoritative: “You don’t do THAT with him.”
I ask curiously: “What is THAT? What will you do if I do it?”
“I’ll punch you in the face.”

immediately lean forward, offer him my cheek, close my eyes and smile.

As I said, I’m sure it was just an instant before his fist hit my face, but I was able to fill it up with a number of thoughts and feelings. I don’t remember well, but of one thing I’m sure, none of those feelings was fear. Not because I’m brave. It was because my mind was busy with something bigger than fear, even more instinctive.

In many years of daily dressing as a clown, I learned quite a lot about improvising. It is not an inborn skill, it is a muscle. The more you train it, the more alternatives immediately offer themselves to you when reacting to an event. It reaches a point that you don’t even think about what you might do if such-and-such an event would occur. You just know you’ll have alternatives to choose from, that the whole thing will just flow. You feel you have a decent amount of control.

Well, in that long instant I realized I felt I had no control at all over that which might have happened.
It wasn’t conscious, but I guess somewhere in my mind there was the realization that, if he hit me, I didn’t have so many alternative reactions to choose from.
But after all… I am a kind of paranoid in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy.

And then he hits me.

I feel his fist touching the skin of my cheek. No, not strong. Gently, very gently.
And he pushes my face to the side. Just a little. A bit more than a caress.

I open my eyes and I realize that I anyway don’t have so many alternative reactions to choose from. I smile.
“How do you put this on?”, he is trying to figure out how to wear my red nose.
“Let’s take a picture”, he says.
A member of the staff, who had come closer when noticing our interaction, takes her telephone and waits for us to pose.
One of the other two young men wears my yellow hat, the other one my hearts necklace.
In the middle there are my new friend and me. He wears my red nose, we put an arm around each other’s shoulders.

We end up spending the rest of the time sitting on the cement step sharing stories.
And when it is time to go, at the very last second, he tells me something which made me wish I didn’t have to go.
He will soon be transferred to a real prison, where inmates are adults.
I don’t need more words, I can clearly read in his eyes what that means.
There, he won’t be the patron.
There, his tough face won’t be tough enough to hide what he actually is: a beautiful young vulnerable man.
We hug for a long time, and before I let go, my mouth right next to his ear, I say: “Good luck.”

I wish we created a world in which J.D. Salinger wouldn’t write those words because in that world they wouldn’t sound so smart but rather obvious.
But while we create it, if you have a conversation with me and you wonder why I get so excited when we meet online,
don’t worry, it’s just my reverse paranoia.

Thank you for reading this.
If you wish to support the project, you can do it by:
– Reserving a conversation with me
– Inviting somebody who might be interested to connect with me
– Joining the loving people who decided to send a monthly or one time donation

They knew my secret song

STORY N.04 – AUGUST 18, 2020

“It’s 11 past 11 and we are where we have to be.”
One of my favorite songs ends with these exact words. I’m not sure if that’s what the song writers meant to say, but for years now I’ve been thinking that it means that, wherever we are in life, that’s exactly where we are supposed to be as the consequence of all that we did before the very present moment.
Right here, right now, this very minute, I’m the person I can be and I’m doing the best I can. And it’s ok to wish I was doing it better… I’m on my way towards it, exactly at the point on that path where I can be.
Patch Adams offers a powerful formulation to it. He says: “I make me.”

It’s 11 past 11 and we are where we have to be.
And yet I’m not sure Martha was where she had to.
Martha as many other people I met in mental hospitals in Latin America.

This is a story about favorite songs, real and differently-real places and, above all, about different ways of listening.

The best feature of big fluffy clown pants is that they can be easily seen from a distance.
Why that is their best feature I might tell in a future story, but when Martha saw me from the distance, it wasn’t my pants that caught her attention.
It was my ukulele.
My ukulele is from China, and on-board a giant container ship is probably how it ended up in Peru, where I bought it.
Martha instead was from Cuba, and how she ended up locked in the mental hospital in San José, Costa Rica, I will never know.

She saw my ukulele from a distance while walking towards me on the paved path crossing the huge garden of one of the outside areas of the hospital.
I used to love walking on those paved paths by myself, quietly, looking around and letting wandering patients decide if to connect with me.
All those women wearing the same kind of below the knee large shapeless patient dresses, mostly of a faint faded light pink, slowly walking on those paths most of the time by themselves. I had no idea where any of them was going, and my mind tends to think they didn’t know either. And I guess it is because I know they were not really free to go anywhere past the walls that surrounded those gardens, and the mind of a privileged free person, mine, can hardly make sense out of that condition.

A picture I have of them is that of souls wandering in a limbo, a non-place. And yet many of them were, in their minds – when not numbed by medicines – walking in their own differently-real places.
But Martha… she didn’t look at all like her mind was in a different place. She walked right towards me, smiling and pointing at my ukulele.
“Oh! Are you also a musician?!”, she asked excitedly.
I wish I was a musician, I can play very few short random things on a few different instruments, but it’s ok: what I can do is just enough for what I need.
Then I asked excitedly: “Are YOU a musician?!” And as I often do with my ukulele, I offered it to her and asked: “Would you please play something for me?”

One of the ways I learned I can be caring is to offer people the chance to care for me.
It might sound like a contradiction, but what I noticed in all these years of humanitarian clowning, especially in hospitals, is that once you are described as the ill person, you become “the one who must receive care”: stay in bed, don’t waste your energy, don’t worry about things and people, the doctor will come and take care of you. Also your family members, they will worry for you and won’t let you worry for anything.
I know the intentions are good, but it seems that sometimes we forget that to be healthy and happy we need to receive and also to give care.
When I give care to somebody and see the beautiful consequences of it, I feel happy, healthy, empowered. I feel human.
And because I’ve noticed that – except for some cases, I think for example of pet therapy – giving the patient the chance to give care is mostly lacking as part of general health treatments, then it has become part of what I offer as a humanitarian clown.

So I offered my ukulele to Martha: “Would you please play something for me?”
“Oh, I cannot play the ukulele. I compose songs”, she said.
I got even more excited: “How wonderful! Did you compose any song recently?”
“Oh yes, just this morning. I composed a song for my niece Maria, who is in Cuba now.”
“I would be honored to listen to that song, would you like to sing it for me?”
“Yes, of course.”

We started walking side by side and Martha started singing.

It was a song about Maria, about how beautiful she was, about how much Martha missed her and hoped to see her again soon.
And because the words and the melody were so beautifully simple and because they rhymed, it was easy for me to predict and sing along every single word as she sang it.
And because her voice trembled a bit and she sang slightly out of tune, I could just alternatively strum the same two chords on the ukulele and it sounded just perfect.

We walked and we sang the song together, and I can hardly describe with words how it felt.
We sang out of tune but our souls were in tune.

Finally we reached a chair under a roofed area. We had just finished singing and now Martha was holding my hand.
She sat, and because there were no other chairs and she kept on holding my hand, I sat on my knees next to her, our holding hands on her lap.
I looked at her and she had tears in her eyes.
She said: “I don’t know how this is possible… It feels like magic. I didn’t know you. You didn’t know me. But you knew the song I just composed.”
We cried together in silence, smiling at each other. I guess it was another kind of song, the composer of which didn’t really matter.

When it was time to go, I hugged her goodbye and she said: “Take care. I hope to see you again.”
And as anytime I’m told those words in similar circumstances, I said: “I hope it too.”
And as anytime in those circumstances, because my mind assumes that it would only happen if she was still there when I would come back to that place one year after, I didn’t actually know what I really hoped.
I still feel that I am where I have to be, but it is clear to me that Martha neither had to be in that place nor in any other differently-real place of the mind.
She had to be in the very real Cuba, with her niece Maria, singing to her.

The mental hospital was closed a few years ago, and I guess that’s good news, although it also means I have no idea where Martha is now, and with whom.
I like to think though that I know all the songs she is composing.

Later that day, reflecting on what had happened, I thought that, because that song was so universal, when I was singing with Martha it didn’t really feel like I was singing her song, at least no more than she was singing my song. And it occurred to me that I had been listening while at the same time speaking and being listened to. I didn’t know it was possible until it actually happened, so from that moment on I’ve been looking for new ways of listening.
Mental hospitals are places where people speak unheard languages. Listening to them is an active practice, almost like building a bridge without a master plan, without knowing if you are going to reach the other side. It requires hope, creativity and you to be in touch with your own vulnerabilities.

Instead of listening “to”, I call it listening “towards”.

If you are wondering why you might want to say it to a clown, it might be that a clown would offer you a different way of listening.
And me… well, I just would love to listen to your own composed songs.

Thank you for reading this.
If you wish to support the project, you can do it by:
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I have been
in prison

STORY N.03 – AUGUST 9, 2020

“My best prejudice ever”

I have a number of prejudices. And that’s not the reason why I’ve been in prison.
Some of those prejudices come from my privilege of being: white, man, born in Europe, grown up in a loving and financially stable family, and presently living in one of the most privileged countries in the world. Some come from having grown up in the South of Italy in the 80s and 90s, with media, and especially commercial television, feeding me with patriarchy and machismo for hours and hours every single day, not to mention all of the taboos about speaking a true love language. Some come from my 14 year journey into the even more patriarchal and strongly hierarchical world of advertising, from the dungeons of being an underpaid assistant to the valhalla of being on the cool guys’ team.
And I’m sure there are more: it is not so easy to spot all of them, even when I looked hard for years now.

Although I surely have been active in applying them, I call those prejudices “inherited”.
And it is not about those I wish to talk about in this post.
I’d like to talk about a prejudice I “hired”. Yes, exactly like someone you ask to work for you.
I hired a prejudice.
My best prejudice ever.

But how does this have anything to do with me being in prison? Let me tell you.

Quito, Ecuador, 2016. Maximum security wing of the biggest prison of the country.
Seven clowns wait for the heavy metal door in front of them to open and let them in.

Just a few minutes before, we were in a group of 20 clowns. The plan was, as usual, to visit the women inmates of the facility.
We usually choose to visit women in prisons instead of men for a number of reasons.
One of them is that probably the 99% of the participants of the programs I get to coordinate has never been to a prison before – not to mention that most of them have never been clowning before.
We know how intimidating the thought of it can be, and usually the idea that we are going to meet women inmates and not men makes participants worry less.

The facility has new management and the director meets us outside. He says he thought to have us split into 3 groups: one would visit minimum security, one medium security and one maximum security. I visited prisons many times, but this is the first time I have the chance to go to the maximum security wing, so I say to the group: “Who wants to come to maximum security with me?”. Six join me, we say goodbye to the rest of the group and a woman guides us towards our destination.
We go through a number of gates and high walls, until we get to that heavy metal door.
It is locked and two male armed guards stand beside it.

I ask the woman how many inmates are behind the door.
She says: “100”.
7 clowns and 100 inmates.
When you hear such numbers, as a clown, yes, you worry.
Although not the kind of worry one might expect.
You worry that there might not be time and chance to engage deeply with everyone.

I look at my companions, it will probably be a bit overwhelming, but it has happened before and it’s going to be great no matter what.
The door clanks and opens. There are two guards on the other side and we can see a big triangular courtyard of bare cement, enclosed by an imposing wall. A big number of inmates are looking at the door curious to see us.
There is only one small detail we haven’t anticipated. All those inmates are not women, they are men.

I look at the woman who accompanied us and ask: “Weren’t we supposed to visit women’s maximum security wing?”
“There is no women’s maximum security wing, only men.”
Obviously there was a misunderstanding with the director of the prison.
My mind goes into circles: this wasn’t supposed to happen, we did not prepare for this, this wasn’t supposed to happen…
I look back at my companions and some inherited prejudices emerge from within me. We are seven, and five of us are women, two of which are a mother with a young daughter: how are these 100 men, many of which are maybe not going out of that prison ever again, going to receive us?
I say to my companions: “This wasn’t the plan and it is totally fine to go back and join one of the other groups with women. Or… we can just enter that door. Do you feel like going back or going in?”
I have to admit I get a bit surprised when they, one by one, just say with a smile: “Let’s go in.”
So we go in.

Imagine a triangular courtyard, you entering from one of the vertices. The side in front of you is a huge heavy high bare cement wall. The sides on the left and right are high cement facades of two adjacent buildings, with long balconies running one on top of the other at every floor, and on every balcony a monotonous line of cell gates. Now imagine those balconies full of male inmates looking down on the courtyard.

By chance, we seven are all quite small people.
So imagine seven small colorful weird beings entering that courtyard, more or less like a sports team entering the field of a stadium under the look of a full-of-expectations audience. Except we probably looked more like seven hobbits. Seven very naive hobbits. Even more naive.
And I mean naive in its most positive sense.

While we walk in under the look of those hundreds of eyes, I find myself quickly thinking that we need to look “bigger”.

To better convey what I mean, for those of you who have never been in a prison, I need to say something I learned about the walls of a prison.
The walls of a prison are high and massive. You can think of one of their functions as to constrain inmates, and another way to formulate it is that one of their functions is to protect the “people outside” from the “people inside”. They are high and massive, very visible, so that the people outside feel more safe, and so that the people inside feel more hopeless.
But there are also other walls in a prison, as high and massive, except they are invisible.
They are the imaginary walls every inmate builds around themselves to protect themselves.
That kind of walls can be found also outside of prisons, I’ve seen them especially in places where suffering and violence are most present. Here, particularly men build those imaginary walls around themselves to look “tough”. It’s the only way they have been taught to protect their vulnerability. They are taught they should never show they are (what is considered to be) weak.

When you go in a prison as a clown, it is very easy to go through the high massive visible walls, but those invisible ones… they are close to impenetrable. You enter a system of hierarchical relationships whose balance dances on the tops of those invisible walls. To make it very simple: most inmates, men or women, strongly avoid looking silly (weak) in the eyes of the rest of the inmates community.

Humanitarian clowning is about caring engagement and loving interactions. Try to enter with that intention a place where the general assumption is that to be caring and loving means the opposite of being “tough” and everybody there thinks they have to show they are tough.
As a clown, the potential for a major feeling of rejection in such a context challenges your self-esteem quite a bit.

Knowing this, and knowing that for most of my companions this is the first week (that’s how long the clown programs I organize last) in their entire life that they try clowning, I wish to mitigate that potential rejection as much as possible.

While we walk in under the look of those hundreds of eyes, I find myself quickly thinking that we need to look bigger. Bigger than those walls.

100 tough men trying to look even tougher and who probably had the misfortune to see and experience a number of dreadful things in their lives.
How can we seven small clowns possibly look bigger than that?
Of course… with children’s games.

I suddenly see myself running in the middle of the courtyard, making the most “tough” face I can and shouting to all those men with my renowned evil voice:
“Hey everybody! [COMPLETE SILENCE] We came with some very dangerous activities for you all today! [SILENCE]
So dangerous that you need to be very tough to take part in it… and frankly looking around I’m not sure any of you is tough enough… [SOME SNORTING LAUGHTER]
But if you dare… then come down here and join the circle of the tough ones!”
 (which in this moment is just us the seven hobbit clowns)

Around 20 men come down from the balconies and join the circle laughing and giggling.
I look at all the other men still on the balconies and shout: “AH… AAAAAAHHHHH” while my hand makes a gesture which means: “You are afraid…”
“Ok, listen!!!”, I shout to those who joined us in the circle. “I doubt you are ready for this, but here it is…
The first dangerous activity!!!
It is called…

And there we go…
We play most silly games, more men join, some take a break every now and then because they take the games so seriously that they run chasing one another just like children would do, as if tagging is a matter of life and death, and many men just observe and laugh at the silly things that happen.
When we are all tired and I have no more voice to shout, the seven of us split and wander around engaging, playing and talking with those who wish so.

And then it happens what always happens: that I don’t see inmates anymore, I see people.
People to which life and the extreme contexts in which they grew up and lived offered very few tools to deal with oppression, inequality and suffering.
I listen to stories of desperate lives and the thought which has been striking me almost every time I talk with somebody in prison strikes me again:
I could be this person.
It’s really not hard to imagine that, in those same circumstances, I could end up committing that same crime.
The first time that thought struck me, I was forever changed.

Being in prison helped me spot many of my inherited prejudices, but even more helped me formulate the prejudice I hired:
“There are no bad people. There are people who did bad things.” (*)

One man asks me if we can bring a message of only a few loving words to his little daughter who is in the custody of some neighbours, I write down his words and the address.
And when it’s time for us to say goodbye, without anybody suggesting them to, all of them we interacted with line up across the courtyard and all the way to the metal door.
We hug every one of them. One after the other, I have the opportunity to look into their eyes and say thank you and good luck.
And more than one of those “tough” men has tears in their eyes, and through those eyes you can see how much their gratitude is sincere.

As a clown I always question the consequences of my interactions. I carried those tearful eyes in my thoughts for a long time afterwards. Where were those tears coming from? After all what we did was mostly playing children’s games together.
Years after, here is the explanation I have.
They cried because we were “people from the outside”. Ok… a bit weird… and a little hobbity… but still people from the outside.
Once you have been inside, no matter the magnitude of the reason, you are marked forever in the eyes of the people outside.
Even if it’s not the case, you expect the people outside to forever look at you as stained.
Even when you eventually have left those massive visible walls behind you, it is not as easy to do the same with the invisible ones, you hold on to them.
The clowns are people from the outside coming to the inside with love and no judgment, they don’t see the stains, they look for the person behind the walls, and invite that person to come out and play – whatever “play” might mean in that very moment.
Those tears are Hope tearing the invisible walls down. Hope because those seven clowns are the evidence that there are people outside who will look at you with love.

We go out, we all have the beauty of what we just experienced in our eyes. I have literally lost my voice.
I ask the woman who accompanies us: “So… are we joining the other clowns?”
“Not yet, we have six more courtyards to visit.”

We didn’t have enough time, we only took four more.

You can say anything to a clown, they won’t judge you. I won’t judge you.
But I do have a prejudice: that you are the best person you can be.
If you wish to be the object of that prejudice, you are very welcome to talk with me.
And if you know a person who might have that same wish, please tell them they are welcome to talk with me.

(*) I deeply respect the pain of anybody who has been hurt by somebody, and I do respect their feelings and if they believe there actually are bad people. I choose to follow what my heart suggests me, because I learned that that’s how I get to contribute my best to society.

(**) My perspective on prisons and what it means to be an inmate are only shaped by my direct experience of clowning and talking with inmates, guards, staff and activists working inside jail systems of a number of countries. I’m sure there is much more to it, and much I’m not in the position to understand. It’s hard to be an inmate and it’s hard to be anyone working within that system.

Thank you for reading this.
If you wish to support the project, you can do it by:
– Reserving a conversation with me
– Inviting somebody who might be interested to connect with me
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Patch Adams is not my friend

STORY N.02 – JULY 31, 2020

When I first met Patch 12 years ago, it was almost by chance. I was at the Gesundheit Institute in West Virginia (USA), the place where he is building his unique hospital, but I wasn’t there to meet him, I didn’t even know he would show up. I was there to meet and learn from – among others – 2 people I consider the wisest, most intelligent, aware, creative and articulate maestra and maestro I have ever met: Susan Parenti and Mark Enslin.

Genius Danielle Chynoweth, Rob Scott and Melanie Meltzer were also teaching that class. It was the School for Designing a Society, the people that in these last 12 years have taught me almost everything I know about language, intention, performance, and also the people whose actions and thoughts inspire and inform a lot of how I observe, articulate and design what I do.

And one day, in the middle of a class, Patch showed up. Maybe it wasn’t the case, but it felt like I was the only one not knowing he would, and the only one not waiting for him.
He didn’t want to interrupt the class, so he came in from a back door and discretely sat in a place in the back. You could only see his big feet and his colorful socks. But that was enough. The teacher announced he would make a break, because Patch was in the room and he could feel people’s attention had shifted.

Everybody was excited to meet and greet him, and I sincerely wasn’t even sure how to be part of that excitement: I had never seen him, not even on the internet, and although I knew about it, I hadn’t even watched the movie. As I said, I was there for the School for Designing a Society.
But then during the next 5 days Patch stayed with us, because he and I were the only ones to stay up early in the morning, I had the chance to have a couple hours dialog every day with him. At that time I didn’t know how lucky I was: Patch is ever moving and traveling and almost anywhere he travels there are numerous people hoping to talk with him for a few minutes, many times even for just a few seconds. People whose work and actions in life have been profoundly inspired by Patch. And there I was, getting this privileged time without even being aware of it.

It was overwhelming. Patch is overwhelming. Beautifully overwhelming. I had so much to take in, intellectually and emotionally, that I couldn’t really grasp how much those dialogs would be relevant for my future self.
I only remember that, the day he was leaving, I was walking next to him on the grass, in line to get delicious homemade lunch, and I suddenly realized he would soon be gone and who knows if I would ever meet him again (it was my first time at the Gesundheit Institute and, as far as I knew at the time, the only and last one). I looked at him and said:
“Patch, soon this experience will end, and I’ll have to go back to my daily life in Milano. And I don’t know how I can go back to the people in my life and not talk to them in the way I feel I can talk here, and not hug them in the way I can hug people here. How can I make this not to finish?”
He looked at me with his ever twinkling eyes and said: “I don’t know how you do it. I just know the way I do it. When you leave this land, you’ll surely be on an airplane sitting next to somebody. Talk to them. And talk to them in the way you have been talking to the people here, in the way we are talking right now. That’s what I do, wherever I am, whoever I am with, no matter for how many hours, minutes or seconds.”
I got emotional and shyly said: “I’ll do it.”
And while we had now our plates full of food and were going to sit at different tables, he said: “And you know… THIS conversation is not finished.”
Now tears were pouring out of my eyes – probably dressing the salad on my plate – and, with an uncertain smile, I said: “I know, Patch. It’s not finished, I know…”

He was right. It wasn’t finished.
When I was on the airplanes, flying back to Italy, I did talk with the people sitting next to me. And so I did at the airports and on the buses.
But when I came back home I realized it wasn’t so easy to keep on doing it. I felt like I was the only one I knew around me who would see the inner source of what I was needing to pour out in the world. The only other person who would see it was Patch, and I felt I needed his support.

So I started writing him a letter every Sunday. In those letters I would report every single encounter I made throughout the week, I would describe the people and the conversations I had with them, at bus stops, at the grocery, in the subway, on the street, at work. And every few weeks I would receive a letter or a postcard from Patch. They were all different, and with pictures, mostly of works of art, from places he visited all over the world, but they all meant to say the same thing: “You are an amazing activist, Dario, you are doing a great job, keep on doing it.”

And that’s all I needed to hear.
The task I gave myself to write those Sunday reports was an incredible push for my motivation: I had to talk to people and to new people, what would I otherwise write into my report to Patch on Sunday?
I kept on doing it, and with time my awareness of what I was doing, of why I was doing it, and how I was doing it became larger and deeper.
What started from my heart got to meet my mind, and the more heart and mind talked to and hugged each other, the more my design and performance tools to generate the consequences I wished to see became sharp.

A few years later, I was sitting in the Dacha, one of the magical buildings on the land of the Gesundheit Institute, which at this point had become a piece of my home. Patch came in, looked at me and asked: “What are you writing?”
“I’m writing a letter to you.”
He was looking for a mug in the cupboard: “I don’t think there is anything else I can teach you.”
“I am in fact writing that this is the last letter I write to you.”

I actually never finished writing it.
Now I work with Patch regularly, I have the luck to be with him 3 or 4 times a year, during clown-activism programs I coordinate for the Gesundheit Institute and the School for Designing a Society in most fascinating and challenged countries.
And during those days, I usually don’t talk to Patch. I know now how impactful those privileged hours with him have been for me, and I don’t want to take any second away from the many people who might get a chance to talk with him.

I see him using any free moment to write letters and postcards to people around the world, he writes hundreds a month. Yes, he does.
And I imagine on the other side of those letters how many people like the younger me get to be inspired.
And I think that that is probably the most valuable work Patch does, his greatest contribution to humanity.

He says to everyone: “If you need a friend, write me. I’ll be your friend.”
But when I think back at those letters he wrote me, I don’t think of them as Patch writing me, I think of them as the most positive me, the most excited me, the caring me, the loving me writing to me, saying: “Love yourself, you are doing great, keep on.”

Patch Adams is not my friend. He is much more. He is me.
He is my inner mirror which shows me how beautiful, strong, intelligent, funny, weird I am.

One of my favorite things Patch says is: “I dove into an ocean of gratitude and never found the shore.”
That’s exactly how I feel for having him in my life.
That ocean got even bigger when our common friend Derek sent me the video recommendation you can watch at the top of the page. In that video, Patch does it again: being me talking to me.
Even when he is in fact talking to you, what I see is he saying to me: “You are an amazing activist, Dario, you are doing a great job, keep on doing it.”

12 years later, I’m aware of how lucky I am, of the privilege I’ve been given.
And I wish to give it forward.

Patch is the clown I said it to.
And I’d be honored to be the clown you say it to.

Thank you for reading this.
If you wish to support the project, you can do it by:
– Reserving a conversation with me
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He told me he would kill himself

STORY N.01 – JULY 20, 2020

You can say anything to a clown.

I was in the subway in Milano (Italy), when all of the sudden the train stopped in the dark tunnel in between two stations. It happens once in a while, but not for long. This time it was way longer, until the voice of the conductor announced through the speakers that the train couldn’t continue its ride, that they would open the doors and that everybody hat to step off the train on the narrow sidewalk in the tunnel and walk back to the previous station. They said it was just a technical problem and we didn’t have to worry – this was a time few years ago where terror attacks had occurred in major cities around the world.

We all started walking through the tunnel, it wasn’t completely dark because the lights in the train were on and we could already spot the station we had left just a few minutes before. It wasn’t scary at all, actually it was quite a unique interesting experience, at least for me.

The man who walked right behind me asked if I was a clown.
It wasn’t so obvious because at that time I was wearing my clown clothes but not the red nose, I would keep it just hanging from my neck. I did it on purpose, I wished for people to be in doubt and to question who I was.

I turned around and said yes and he smiled at me. We kept on walking in line, until we reached the station. At that point he started walking next to me and said:
“You know, I have to confess something I’m not proud of.”
I looked at him. We kept on walking towards the exit.
He continued: “I’ve thought many times about killing myself in the past months, but every time I was very close to finally doing it, at the very last moment I didn’t have the courage to get it done. So just a few minutes ago, when the train suddenly stopped… well… I confess that I prayed to God that that was a terror attack and the train would explode so I would finally die.”
I kept on looking at him while we were walking, we were now reaching the surface, the sun, the warmth of the asphalt, the background noise of the city traffic.
As we emerged to the light leaving the darkness behind us, on the marble steps, he continued: “But then, while walking in the tunnel, I felt ashamed of myself. How selfish of me, to ask God to kill hundreds of people in that train just because I didn’t have the courage to kill myself.”
And then I heard myself saying: “Don’t judge yourself. When you are in a dark tunnel, it is hard to see who is around you, it is even hard to see your own self, you are just and understandably desperate for an exit.”

And he said: “But then I saw you. And for the first time in months I could tell somebody the things I’m going through. I have not had other people since my mom died. And now I’m thinking that maybe you were a sign of God, that there are alternatives.”
We hugged for a long minute.
“Will you be ok? Will you go home?”

We waved goodbye and I waited until he crossed the square and turned the corner, just in case he would look back.
I love to do it with children, but then again there is a child in every adult.
This episode taught me that, as a clown, I could be a safe space where people could share parts of themselves they had the urge to share but didn’t have a space or somebody to share them with.

You can say anything to a clown.
They will listen to you, they won’t judge you, they might not have the answer, if you believe you need one, but they will hold you while you search for it.

If you know somebody who might need to talk with a clown, please let them know this clown is happy to talk with them.
And if thinking about the story above you are wondering if I would then share what they would say to me with others… no, I won’t.
Their words will stay with me.

Thank you for reading this.
If you wish to support the project, you can do it by:
– Reserving a conversation with me
– Inviting somebody who might be interested to connect with me
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