Building the Foundations of Tradition

There is a new house being built in our neighborhood. It is a curious thing to see amidst the older homes and the settled sense of tradition that emanates from many years of little change. I am fascinated by the creation of this house as I witness its evolution.

First, the land was cleared in a clean sweep that obliterated any trace of its former essence. Many of us in the neighborhood grieved over the loss of large trees that graced the yard with stately presence for so many years. As weeks passed, however, the memories of those trees faded. Our attention turned to the new form that was taking shape in its place. I find that the process involved in creating the foundation of the house especially intrigues me.

Attending to the architectural design of the house, aluminum forms are positioned in the deep hole that was scooped out of the earth to accommodate the house’s base. Concrete is poured into the forms and allowed to solidify before the forms are removed. This seemingly magical process allows what was once fluid to become a substance strong enough to support the weight of a home. In the next few weeks, carpenters will begin the task of framing the house, providing the skeletal structure of the building. In the meantime, the foundation presides over the empty lot, with a gray and somber presence.

At the same time that the house is being built, I am involved with a man who was brought up in the same religious tradition that I was. Though neither of us still follows that tradition, we recognize how vital it was in forming the foundations of our spiritual life. And because we shared a similar upbringing, there is an understanding of our past that simplifies and deepens our understanding of each other.

For many years, especially during the time that my son was little, I snubbed the traditions of my past. Raising him as a single parent set us off from the usual pattern of family gatherings. As a result, the two of us had no traditions of our own to share during those times when others were celebrating holidays with their families. It was only during my son’s teenage years that I realized the need to establish our own traditions…to pour the foundation of meaningful events that would crystallize into shared experience. Started so late, this process is still evolving, and will need years of committed attention before it solidifies into substantive tradition.

Tradition need not be a repetition of past rituals, nor does it need to be shared only with our family of origin. Tradition can be as varied as life experience is. What seems to be most important in creating and continuing tradition is that the elements are meaningful and shared. As in my own experience, tradition is easily abandoned when it loses meaning for the participants. And though many rituals can be enjoyed in solitude, tradition celebrates the sharing of ritual and meaning with others.

In the next few months, the house across the street will be completed, the foundation neatly covered and obscured from view. Little thought will be given to its base once the house is finished. But beneath the surface, this foundation continues to direct its substantive influence over the house. In the same way, tradition continues to influence our lives by giving deeper meaning to shared experience.

©1999 Marybeth Bethel