The Grounding Spirit of Tradition

Do you watch the NBC show, "This Is Us"? I'm a bit obsessed with it. The show follows one family, the Pearsons, through generations, switching between the past, present, and future, in a way that feels very much like life, where our ancestors and childhoods are always with us, and our descendents and future selves aren't far off. The Pearsons are very big on maintaining tradition, and they actively interact with their family stories. For those of you who know my work and me, it's probably not a surprise that a show focused on lineage, family stories, and tradition has won my heart...

"This Is Us" is terrific, in part, because it captures in a modern way the reason why tradition and family stories are so vital to the quality of our lives. As the title of the show indicates, tradition is a way of saying: This is us. This is who we are. What we're all in essence seeking is to belong, and tradition gives us a means of enacting that belonging in real time, with others, and throughout generations. Who am I? we ask. Tradition provides an answer.

Tradition is also an anchor in troubled times.

It's the constant when all around us things are scary, shifting and collapsing.

Tradition is lighting the seder candles while the Holocaust is unfolding.

Tradition is decorating the Christmas tree after the death of the person who taught us how to decorate it.

Tradition is making wine, as my family did, after our father's death, because winemaking was one of his passions, just as it was for his father before him, and his father, and so on...

Tradition allows us to participate—in life, as opposed to simply in memory—with those we love, even though they're no longer here. It's a means of honoring them.

And tradition is a gift given to the next generation. I see it with my nieces and nephews, the way they love, for instance, our culture and family food traditions—the homemade gnocchi that my mother makes, the garlic bread, the prosciutto and mozzarella. We eat these foods regularly at our family dinners. My nieces and nephews know: These things are us. This is what we—our family, our culture—do.

I pray, when their turn comes, one or two of them will make the gnocchi to serve to their own grandkids, and those children will know it was their great-great grandmother's recipe, and in eating the pasta they will feel a sense of connection, a reaching back through the decades, a reaching past the turmoil that may be part of their world, past the current events, which are always fleeting, to something timeless and enduring that truly belongs to them by birthright. I pray that they know, this is what they belong to and this is what belongs to them.

On Thanksgiving, the Pearsons ostensibly reenact a Thanksgiving from their childhood via traditions. The car breaking down, which forced them to walk several miles to the nearest motel, becomes, years later, a hike through the woods on Thanksgiving morning. The black stovepipe hat their father wore, to mimic the creepy man who ran the motel they finally reached, becomes a prop to be worn each Thanksgiving by a different Pearson male. The children, who never met their grandfather and weren't there on that fateful Thanksgiving some 30 years prior, are folded into the family story because they are encouraged to participate in it.

This is our story, they learn.

This is us.

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