I have good friends — a couple — who I look to as examples of what “living well” looks like. And I don’t mean a life of affluence, but that they live “right.” They get it.

To use a sloppy metaphor, if they were a meal, it might be fresh-picked steamed (locally grown) vegetables and salmon that slept the night before in some cold stream, full of spices, and just enough mystery and aroma to attract strangers to the table. The wine would be a new wine to others — a discovery — and dessert always, would be a surprise and always the same, either key lime pie from Joes Stone Crab or a rich mysterious chocolate, slightly chilled, next to cut berries and topped with homemade whipped cream. 

The meal would be something one always looked forward to, and it would last for hours because the conversation before and after would weave in and out of the affair like a melody through a sonata — a melody that evoked memory, laughter, and easy connection. The meal, if ever there was an example, would bring all into one focused moment, in the now — individually and for and with each other.

I just finished reading an article about Yo-Yo Ma in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. He talks about being and living in the present.

“You are acknowledging someone’s existence by being in the present. It may take a lot more energy, but boy, is it much more rewarding. It makes me happy. It makes people happy. It’s wonderful,” he observes. 

He links his music to people — as a lifeline — and all music. He sees it as a conduit, a means as well as an end, as a catalyst as well as a template, that explains, connects, gives meaning, and validates our lives — and helps us be in the present.

In much the same way as the music of Yo-Yo Ma, traditions enrich our lives and can lead like the yellow brick road, to instances of happiness, a happiness we all want and need, especially in these difficult times.

I tried to take an inventory of traditions that I know are meaningful to me. The first one that came to mind was writing Christmas cards each year. However, that immediately brought up a dilemma. What makes something a meaningful tradition and when does it become a tradition? Sending holiday cards is a tradition, yes, but that act, overall, doesn’t feel like the “tradition” that I have in mind. Almost everybody sends cards. Some are generic and are only signed. Others include a photo or two of family and a note. The one I send is usually a 3,000-word missive with at least a dozen photos. So, I think that none of the above is the type of “tradition” that I am thinking about. 

However, there is one card that I receive every year (for the past 30-plus years except last year) that, to me, is. It is always a hand-crafted card in watercolor usually that depicts the entire family — the parents, their children and their grandchildren. It is themed differently each year. And every year, there is a handwritten note from Mrs. von Thron to me and my family. Receiving that card each year allows my Christmas season to begin. It is something I look forward to and it is one of the reasons and motivations that has helped me write my Christmas letter now the last 40 or so consecutive years. It is a tradition to me because it is personal, it requires effort, and it helps connect people. The card and note by themselves are the “tradition,” as well as the effort that I know went into the card and my own expectation of receiving it. It brings me joy. It helps keep me connected.

The couple I referenced at the beginning have provided for me, my family and many others, an example of an intentional tradition that fosters connectivity and presence. Every year they travel to San Francisco for a week. They eat at the same restaurants. They visit the same destinations. And they always invite or take friends to come share their West Coast tradition. When they are there, they always call our daughter, Amelia, and have her join them for a meal or two. They always invite Amelia’s friend, Ariana, to join them. We always get wonderful pictures of the visit. It is a tradition that connects and bonds.

Football season at their house is such a wonderful tradition. During the holidays, they have their annual football pool, and everyone who wants to play kicks in their 10 bucks. They wear T-shirts of their favorite teams when they are playing. Lunch or dinner is served before or after the games. Friends from out of state always attend. It is their tradition that everyone expects and looks forward to. It is a big deal because they make it so.

Each spring is cruise-time, and with the exception of this year, they take a cruise with their in-laws. It is a tradition that everyone looks forward to. It is tradition that is personal, that connects, that keeps focus on now, and each other. 

They create tradition deliberately and intentionally. It generates joy for so many. It enriches. And it creates shared experiences.

I started making a list of other traditions that come to mind but I am already over my word limit mandated by the word-counter Gestapo. So, I’ll just throw out a couple more and end by asking you to email me about a couple of your special traditions — RayAppen@Gmail.com.

So here is a sample of some traditions that come to mind.

  • Childhood spring flower garden planting with my sisters and mom. Watching the flowers come up, watering them, appreciating their beauty together. We each had our own little plot.
  • My old friend Dorsey Gray’s duck hunting on Thanksgiving Day in Rockledge, Florida, is one I never participated in but adored because I saw how happy and excited, he, his dad and brothers were. Also experiencing the Grays’ wild-cut Christmas tree each year is a tradition that stays forever.
  • Going to Nutcracker at the Fox with Christina and our children was always treasured.
  • January 1 polar bear swim at the beach with Christina and our beach friends.
  • As a child, watching Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin special for Halloween, during Christmas holidays watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street” with my sisters, going to Tradewinds in Cocoa Florida after church with the entire family, going to midnight service Christmas Eve with Christina and children, going fishing with my dad after getting up at 3 a.m. and eating breakfast at the all-night diner.

My goal is to have the discipline to create new traditions for myself and family. I think that may be more important now than ever. Create at least one and do it by a deadline. It can be a small deal or a big deal. But I need to do it. I have the example to follow. I have the people around me I love and care for who can participate. Create some happiness and some being-in-the-present for yourself and for others. Happy holiday.

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