How two years of Covid have cracked and strained our traditions
There’s a college meeting this week. Not official; but friends from the same fraternity gather from all over the country to catch up, drink beers and meet the new guys.
It’s a silly thing, sure, but a special one nonetheless: stepping onto the softball field for the grad/student game; seeing old friends, their children and wives; watching young guys in old shirts that have been passed down since you were in school; shake hands with elders who have been coming for decades.
This is the sequel, really; be part of something older and bigger than yourself, even if it’s just a brotherhood. The black and white photos of the gang from the 50s, the Polaroids from the 70s and 80s; stories of old hijackings, but also updates on where people are now.
The impact on the working brothers is also real: seeing older versions of themselves – men who are now senior detectives, senior Pentagon officers or successful in business, law and journalism – who still care enough to go out, and even lend a hand with jobs or advice.
But from March 2020 to August 2021 – 17 long months – the university campus was closed. Barely a semester passed before the Omicron Panic shut down campus for another month. Lots of changes at that time.
This weekend, when the students and a handful of alumni reunite, it will be the first time they have met since the spring of 2019. The only active members with vivid memories of helping orchestrate the weekend -end will now be the seniors. They’ve planned a good day, but the tension of those lost years will show for the simple reason that they didn’t grow up there.
A broken chain
It’s just a story of brotherhood; a small celebration for a small subset of people. An important element for this small group (an unbroken tradition, until 2020, since the Korean War), but to which the vast majority of us could be casually indifferent.
But it’s not the only one. It is one of hundreds of thousands of gatherings, celebrations, traditions and obligations interrupted by two years of international panic. As much as our economy and our politics have suffered, so has our collective social experience – and with it, our very culture.
Although seen from afar, the culture seems warm and enduring, a closer look shows that what seems solid is actually the culmination of many millions of small, fragile things: Sundays at church and weekends with big mother’s day, spring dances and fall football, family reunions and neighborhood barbecues, company parties and school reunions.
Cities and families across the country have been affected differently. While major cities often languished under severe restrictions for years, the suburbs just outside had returned to normal. But while it may be tempting for those who have been spared the most draconian restrictions to dismiss the complaints of our distant neighbors whose little traditions have been shattered, the sad truth is that the cracks affect us all.
When my grandfather first instituted our annual family gatherings in the 1960s, a firm rule was that it always had to be the same week in the same place. Things changed around us – sand dunes turned skyscrapers as an American beach town became a sometimes grimy vacation town – but we didn’t change, as generation after generation returned year after year. .
He made the rule because he understood how tricky tradition is. An annual meeting like his must be held at a time well known to his seven sons (and their families), as well as at a place well known to them. With these guidelines, reasons for missing out would be few, meaning that every year new memories would be created – and added – to the tradition itself.
A break in the chain – a new and exotic place, a new time or season, or a year in which the meeting was abandoned – could mean a fun week, but would also necessarily mean that this person or that could not be join. It’s hard enough keeping a family together; without established and firm rituals, this is impossible.
These are the things that distinguish the annual from the unique – the annual gathering of the never-fulfilled promise among friends to “get together again next year!”
And lockdowns are the things that break the year. Every year I shed tears at what once was. Maybe next year your brother’s job will keep him tied up or the kids will get old and play sports; perhaps he should “see each other next year”—when his children and yours will be further apart; when the meeting seems a unique moment, rather than a tradition. You may be close to your brother and his family, but if you don’t show it, it won’t carry over.
Annual concerts and plays; city festivals and parades; block parties: it only takes one person who has kept the tradition alive to give up and move on before it’s gone. Celebrities, politicians and bureaucrats said it was fine to miss that Christmas or that graduation, that wedding or that funeral, but the cumulative effect is the erosion of culture.
Sure, erosion happens naturally all the time – but rarely like the past two years. And of course, we have already faced disruptions; in times of war, for example. But just as it was then, in hindsight we can see so clearly what has changed – and what has been lost.
And make no mistake: broken tradition is lost culture. Attempts to find him can be fun, but with rare exceptions, they’re just re-enactments. “Tradition”, said composer Gustav Mahler, “is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.”
There’s no reason to worry about a college reunion or a brother’s busy schedule. These sorts of mundane things, one might say, fall short of what Mahler was talking about. But what is our culture – high and low, public and family – if not a delicate tradition that needs careful nurturing?
And what have we spent the past two years doing, if not putting out those flames?
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