When I was 5 years old, we moved from Hollywood, Calif., where my comedy writer dad had just been kicked off of the "Bob Hope Show" for an excess of high spirits. We ended up in Brooklyn, New York for the next eight months to live with my mother's Sicilian family, the Todaros. My dad, Jack Houston, and I felt like strangers in a strange land, what with the different language, food, music and the ebullient, Italianate life in the streets.
The Catholic Church was a mystery, as were all the saint's festivals and the rowdy street fairs that accompanied the mystic parades down the avenues as burly men carried the huge saint of the week. Invariably, she (the saints were mostly "shes") was dressed in gorgeous satins which could barely be seen, covered as they were by a massive number of dollar bills offered by the faithful. As dad was a Southern-spawned, agnostic Baptist brought up on grits and chicken fried steak, his stomach was naturally adverse to the vendors offers of spicy sausages stuffed into a roll with onions and pepper, cannoli, (the fried cake tubes bursting with marsala custard), Zeppole (golf ball sized rounds of fried dough filled with jam) and other joys of Sicilian festival cooking. He would give me a sickly look and proclaim in words from a Texas and Louisiana childhood, "Jeanie-pot, I feel knee-walking, commode-hugging sick."
Just then my grandmother, Vita Todaro, who I called "Nana" noted my poor father's greening complexion, and taking him by the arm, announced, "Aspetta! Veni ca Giaco, Andiamo a la Casa."
Back at the house, Nana placed a picture of the Madonna in Dad's hand, while she brewed him a potion made of the juice of a few flowers and other secret ingredients. Either the Madonna or the potion worked, as he soon felt better.
As I went to the window to watch the exuberant festival passing by our house, my Nana came over, and with a broad smile, grandly swept her hand over the proceedings and said, "Abbondanza!"
She did not speak much English, not needing it, living in the Sicilian enclave of "Brookalina." But that one word took on a great significance between us. At her great family Sunday dinners she would wink at me when I looked stunned at the vast array of Sicilian foods, the groaning table no mere metaphor.
"Abbondanza," she would chirrup in delight.
And then when La Famiglia, all the sons and daughters and cousins and remote kin and their spouses and friends, all 30 of them would eat and argue and sing, and offer many toasts with the homemade red wine, she would smile in deep satisfaction and exclaim over the noise, "Abbondanza."
She would take me on walks through Prospect Park to look at the latest plantings, the trees, bushes, ponds, meadows of grass. "Abbondanza." If she saw a baby carriage, she would peek in at the newborn and murmur her favorite word.
One night she took me outside when the stars were bright, and raising both her hands to the heavens, she affirmed the generosity of the cosmos. "Abbondanza!" Then, turning to me, she placed her hand on her heart and then on mine and together, we understood, and together said "Abbondanza."
That was a long time ago, but my Nana's celebration of life has stayed with me in all corners of my life. It has turned heartbreak into understanding, and allowed the appreciation and gratitude for the little things of life: the happy wag of a dog's tail, the smile on the face of the clerk at the checkout counter when she looks me right in the eye and says, "Have a nice day," and really means it; the gruff agreement of the bear in my apple tree when I congratulated him on consuming so many apples, wished him well and suggested that he come back later when the dogs were asleep; the memory of my father's wild humor and fascinating eccentricities; my mother's fey, almost fairy-like qualities and ability to do almost anything she set her mind to; the lost term paper I recently found garnered with a great red C; the autumn fall with colors that stain the eyes with glory; reading a great novel in a hot bath on a cold night.
And then I think of the time in which we live, and for those reading this page the good fortune of having access to the sheer abbondanza of this era of access to education, knowledge of many cultures, multiple disciplines. Wh,y you can mine the depths of human possibility, hang out at the farthest reaches of psychological functioning, have both means and time to explore what in the past was impossible. The cosmos in its macrocosm and microcosm dimensions is in our mental backyard, as is the history of the planet, its species and the story of the human journey. The world's art, literature, music -- all there to be experienced for the asking. And farther, to have the relative comfort, security, and opportunity to live life in ways that to your ancestors would have seemed to be that of legends, a truly mythic life.
As my friend Andrew Cohen has put it, "... we enjoy a degree of freedom that is unparalleled -- personal, political, religious and philosophical. There have never been human beings who have had the extraordinary liberty we have to experiment with our own lives -- to think in whatever way we want, to do almost anything we want, to say anything we want, to go anywhere we want, to be whatever we want." (Andrew Cohen, Evolutionary Enlightenment. New York: Select Books, 2011, p. 78)
Now you would think this prodigious a wealth of opportunity would have everyone shouting "Abbondanza." But sadly, too often this is not so. Most moan and regret the pains and losses of their lives, pay little heed to the blessings, focus only on the hot spots, oblivious to the grand journey that is their birthright. Along with Cohen, I see this journey as the gift of evolution, all the millennia of development and discovery that have led up to you and me. We each carry the impulse of the evolutionary agenda; our minds are star gates, our bodies are celled of mysteries containing the memories of the past and the unfolding of the future; our spirits remain conscious that we are in the forefront of a 14 billion-year experiment that has resulted in your life. We are evolution in action, in beauty, in abundance and in the consciousness that this is so. And this miracle is occurring while living on the most beautiful planet in the galaxy. And yet, too often, we keep our eyes and other senses focused on the ground of our misery. What a waste.
"Discraziata!" my Nana would have said.
I believe that it is in the waking up to the fact of your vast endowment from evolution of all the gifts in the 14 billion-year journey even if you are not quite sure what that purpose is. My life is about an exploration into the Abbondanza of what you contain, and how by developing these latent but realizable gifts, you can, if you choose, become a player in the evolutionary game and bring new mind to bear upon both the challenges and the promises of our time. What is more, you will have a grand time of surprise and discovery as you find that you are so much more than you pretended to be.
My Nana did not know about evolution. She entered the great stream of being in 1955, but perhaps now, she does, and, if so, I am sure she is saying to all of us:
"Avanti, Avanti, Amici. Abbondanza!"