Why is it that we progressives forget how to end things well? Today was the last day of school before the winter break at my supposedly progressive, liberal school. Instead of coming together as a community and sharing a positive upbeat ending, we all packed ourselves into the gym for the annual Faculty vs. Student volleyball game. This tradition started several years ago with a student vs. faculty basketball game, and the tradition has become part of what is needlessly torturous in middle school life.
During this so-called community-building event, the teachers played against a variety of seventh and eight grade girls while the school jazz band serenaded the cheering (or not) fans with favorite pop tunes. The noise wasn’t even a problem since well before the half way point of the game, the students in the bleachers were quieted by the score – the faculty was winning by roughly 20 points throughout the duration of the game.
During this holiday tradition, I ride the bench. I have refused to play on any occasion and instead sit on the sidelines and cheer each time the students score a point or make a valiant play. The faculty team consists of former volleyball players, current coaches and PE teachers and far too many men. A few non-athletic teachers join the team, but for the most part, the students face your average all-star faculty team.
It is depressing, year after year, to watch grown ups trounce middle school kids. I wonder, each year, what the adults get psychically out of this experience. How can it be uplifting to win against much smaller, much less experienced kids? I don’t play because I don’t like the feel of this pseudo competition. I don’t like the us—them feel of the event. I suppose I should play just in order to purposely slow the game down or make enough mistakes to give the students a fighting chance. I don’t even want to condone the tradition by my participation so I sit on the sideline and complain each year.
In contrast to this hyped up and depressing event, our family is making its own new traditions. I have posted previously about my ambivalent reactions to the Holidaze. I will continue to search for ways to make this time of year and its pressures meaningful, and making new traditions is one way to do this.
I suppose the story of a botched tradition at my school led me to thinking about how events can become traditions so quickly; in some cases, we participate once in an event, and it becomes part of our collective memory. Equally intriguing is the idea that we, participants, can create our own traditions. Often, we think of culturally and socially constructed traditions, and fail to see how we can adapt, change, transform or renew those traditions according to our own beliefs and ideals. Perhaps I should take my own advice and break my silence about the student vs. faculty games.
When it comes to families and traditions, I wonder how memory, death, and transforming families shift what we keep and what we ditch. For example, the longest standing tradition that I participate in with my family is our annual Christmas Eve dinner and party with our cousins. The tradition started when I was about 8 or 9, and has continued through the death of my mom, my dad, and my son. One of the families that participated moved to California. It has shifted both in place (who has hosted the event) and size (the number of attendees), but it has maintained its characteristic meal as the central organizing feature, ostensibly the reason we come together.
When my cousins married and when my own siblings and I started to marry, the event became more complicated – there were time when my sister wanted to bail because of feeling over scheduled with various family events on her husband’s side of the family. This tug of competing family events has meant that sometimes we view Christmas Eve as a chore or obligation rather than as a celebration, a connecting, and a meaningful ritual.
The family Christmas Eve tradition was started by my mom and aunt, and with my mom gone and my aunt well into her 80s, I wonder how we, the inheritors of this tradition will transform it and yet still keep its integrity, its essential meaning.
I have visions of hiding under the ping-pong table in my cousins’ basement, screeching with laughter, while the adults did the drinking and talking upstairs. I remember the last Christmas that my mom was alive, how thin and frail she looked, but how she was determined to spend at least part of the time with us at the Christmas Eve party. She died less than two months later. It seemed important to her to make that connection, to set aside her suffering, or at least keep it at bay, while she made this last(ing) memory for us. I remember the first Christmas Eve after Declan died, and how I exorcised, or at least attempted to exorcise my own pain by hosting the party at our house. My sister gave us the first of many snowflake ornaments that have adorned our tree each year in memory of Declan. From childhood, to young adulthood, to parenthood, the tradition of sharing food, talk, laughter, and even tears, with family has sustained me and I hope that as my generation ages, we remember what is important about this tradition.
While holding and transforming the dare-I-say “old” traditions, my immediate family has also tested the waters with other traditions.
Mairead, Hanna, Alex, Ed Monkey Man, Gorilla Girl and I started what I hope will be a regular tradition – we went to Pinecrest Tree Farm for a horse and wagon ride to the trees, and Alex cut a Douglass Fir. The day was filled with laughter and cold, moments of quiet, and even success as Monkey Man and Gorilla Girl were brave enough to pet the very large horses that pulled the wagon. (photo credit: Mairead Saleh)
I like the idea of this ritual because it is about doing something together, about spending time enjoying experiences and making the most of them. I’d love to be able to tell stories with Gorilla Girl and Monkey Man that start, “Remember that time at the Tree Farm when…” Traditions, rituals, observances, they help us to make sense of our connections to each other, to take meaning and enjoyment from the memories we create together.