"Tradition is to the community what memory is to the individual"

Dog walking wisdom

I had the pleasure of looking after my neighbour’s dog, Karly, for a week. Anyone who has loved a dog will know how much they thrive on tradition and consistency. And yet, as many people have noted before me, the great lesson of a dog is that no matter how many times a tradition has been repeated, they still rejoice in it with their full being. If only we could feel so much fullness in the routines of life, right? If only all our traditions provided the peace and health of long walk and warm welcome home...

I enjoyed it while it lasted. Every morning Karly and I would eat our breakfast, I’d grab my mitts and toque, and we’d go for our walk. She would read the world through her nose in dimensions I’ll never know and I would not rush her. Instead, I’d often walk slow and far enough to get through a whole episode of On Being, a podcast I’ve been hooked on, described as The Big Questions of Meaning.

One particular episode with the late Irish poet John O’Donohue was as close as I’ve had to a spiritual experience in a long time. I won’t describe the many moments it moved me, but I must share a powerful exchange on the subject of tradition.

MR. O’DONOHUE: I think there should be a fear of mixing up religion and politics and money. I love that Greek phrase, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” Now the second thing is that, of course, it’s a huge naivety for any organization, or any group or culture to — and it’s actually unscholarly — to believe that a religion, as the locus of the wisdom, and the lived spirit experience of a people, is a naive empty mass. It’s a huge resource. And the best minds and the most critical minds know that. […] I’ve always thought that tradition is to the community what memory is to the individual. And if you lose your memory, you wake up in the morning, you don’t know where you are, who you are, what ground your standing on. And if you lose your tradition, it’s the same thing. And I mean…

MS. TIPPETT: And tradition, like memory, has dark passages and…

MR. O’DONOHUE: Oh, it has huge dark passages, and I mean, I would say that within the Christian tradition there are dark zones of complete horror.

MS. TIPPETT: But the weight of it is…

MR. O’DONOHUE: …but the weight of it — and there are also zones of great light and immense wells of refreshment and healing. And I think it’s a critical question in all of us, for somebody that wants to have a mature adult, open-ended, good hearted critical faith, to conduct the most vigorous and relentless conversation that you can with your own tradition.

A naive empty mass

Many of us, myself included, have a strained relationship with tradition. “Old thinking” is often deployed to the detriment of women and minority groups. On top of that, there’s the difficulty of interpretation - what was the intended purpose of a tradition and the context in which it arose? How does that compare to our present day?

O’Donohue’s words are sharp and kind at the same time when he scolds the dismissal of tradition as a “naive empty mass” but implores us to carry on a relentless critique and conversation with our traditions to understand their impact and relevance. 

This hit me because of its parallels to urban design. I feel comfortable calling for a renewed study and appreciation of traditional architecture and street design. I believe that we can search the wisdom of a Pattern Language to create places that truly feel like human habitat again. And yet, I do not call for a return to traditional community social practices, mostly because it’s unclear what those truly were (after being de-romanticized), and how they fit in a future where we treat each other as equals.

Then I hear the words of Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in a separate On Being episode: "I really feel strongly that you have to be deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity."

And to me this is the core of it. When repairing and rebuilding our cities, I believe we must undertake an intense and thorough an examination of the social patterns that defined our places. These are inseparable from the physical elements of the traditional building approach that we value highly at Strong Towns. Sometimes we won’t like what we find in the past, but we need to open our eyes to it in order to understand why and how it should be changed. At other times, we’ll discover traditions that both protect difference and promote unity. 

Tradition is to the community what memory is to the individual

I was speaking to a friend the other day who expressed that we’ve forgotten how to build civilization - the physical stuff and the social stuff. We have been able to keep little bits of it like the farmers’ market or a pitched roof, but we don’t really understand how it all fits together.

You see this in critiques of certain New Urbanist developments that feel just slightly off-kilter. Standing in one, you can feel that the shapes are kind of right and it reminds you of a village, but there is no richness. As my friend says, it’s like a poorly translated sentence. And we cannot just blame the developer, architect, planner, or engineer - they cannot do it alone (or if it’s illegal).

Close, but not quite. Cornell Village in Markham. Creative Commons by Flickr User Loozrboy

Close, but not quite. Cornell Village in Markham. Creative Commons by Flickr User Loozrboy

We can only bring richness to our places through interconnectedness and citizenship and trust built over time. Again, more triteness from my pen, but how else to put it? We don't get to opt out of civil involvement and personal responsibility and opt in to a warm and cozy community at the same time. Leaning on the words of O'Donohue, I wonder if tradition is a good place to start. But if tradition is to the community what memory is to the individual, we are dealing with very warped memories.

Traditions vs. commercialization

Traditions get co-opted. Most of our public holidays are occasions for celebration and so most of our public holidays have been commercialized. This needs to be resisted and I feel deep gratitude and connection to people who reject today's offer of "consumerism with a side of meaning."

A few weeks ago, for the third year now, I experienced the kind of tradition that warms you up. Due to the near impossibility of commercializing gratitude, grief, and loss, Remembrance Day (I imagine this Canadian version is similar to Veteran’s Day in the US but I can only speak from a Canadian experience) has not spiralled out of control. Growing up in Ontario, we always observed a moment of silence on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month to reflect on the horrors of war and honour the lives of those lost. In New Brunswick, this is actually a statutory holiday and the tradition in Fredericton moved me.

Let's flash back to my first year here. Ryan asks if I’m ready to go to the ceremony. I’m confused - what ceremony? He explains that it’s a town tradition and delicately suggests that I not wear my bright pink jacket because it’s a sombre event. We live downtown and open our door to dozens of people walking, all in the same direction. We join them. As we approach the ceremony, groups from other blocks are funnelling in, filling the sidewalks. Thousands of people converge at a monument, facing forward, not speaking. I cannot hear the officiant nor can I see the activities at the front of the crowd, but I can absorb the ceremony on my own terms. An elderly woman stands with her dog, quietly praising it for staying calm through symbolic rifle shots. Two young brothers stand with their parents, proudly showing their maturity by saving the teasing for walk home. A toddler clings to her dad’s leg, staring at strangers. The families with strollers hang near the back so they can bounce-walk their babies if they get fussy at the wrong moment. A gentleman in uniform stands alone, at attention. A lesbian couple with grey hair hold hands by the tree. Three teenage boys find each other in the crowd and take off their hats in respect. And I am thankful to live in this place.

The grounds are full of different thoughts, beliefs, and pains related to conflict. But the overall vibe is one of gratitude that we can be here together, and grief for personal losses and those of others.

We stand in silence together and then we disperse.

I imagine what my city would feel like if we approached all our traditions with the same level of sincerity? As usual, I’m trying to start at home by learning about the traditions of this land that belong to the people, not the consumerism machine. My search is taking me right back to the Indigenous people who have lived here for thousands of years pre-contact and humble us with their tradition of hospitality (which remains strong, for example). I’m learning about the Acadians, French settlers who loved this place so much that they returned after being expelled by the English, traveling thousands of miles and using traditions to galvanize. Finally, I am searching for my own traditions because I feel out at sea.

New or renewed traditions

As we enter into the next 30 days that epitomize the new face of American traditions, I know I will not be searching alone. Faced with the vacuity of excess, there is also a growing movement of people who long for meaningful traditions. They are searching for real gratitude, kinship, and unity, and they cannot find it in cute but shallow reminders to be thankful for our bounty and then take more, no matter who it may plunder.

Just as we need to physically mend our cities so that they feel human, we need to mend our society. The traditional approach to city-building offers quite a lot of wisdom for the former, but it’s inseparable from the social traditions that supported it. We need to observe the systems and customs that emerged to cultivate a sense of interconnectedness and put a red flag on those that denigrate other lives. Tradition can help make strong citizenship habitual, but first we need to come to terms with how we got here, who we want to be, and what traditions support the society we want.

Music, exercise, game, sport, food cultivation, food preparation, eating, celebration, mourning, honours, restraint, giving, cooperation, work schedules, caretaking, storytelling, education - our approach to these things is the key to our peace and longevity. 

I’m uncomfortable with where this sits in my mind right now because it’s not whole yet. I know we can’t just cherry-pick certain customs and expect them to come together in a resounding kumbaya anymore than a clocktower makes a town feel homey. I want to know all the traditions and understand how they support each other and see how they reveal themselves in the things that we build. But this is not knowable yet - it has to be a wisdom gained through time and caution. The process will be messy and contradictory by necessity. It will never quite end. That's the bigness of aspiring to a strong town and the richness of the work that brings us here.