We all have our personal traditions—planting the vegetable garden the same weekend each May, doing the New York Times crossword on Sunday morning, picking pumpkins at the same farm each fall, Christmas shopping on Black Friday, that kind of thing. These recurring activities provide a meaningful measure of the unruly spill of our existence, a refuge from the daily tyrannies, a way to mark time. For those of us who have eschewed the "traditional" traditions and sacraments of our forebears, these idiosyncratic outings might be as close as we get to ritualized activity. Picking pumpkins = going to church. Like a religion, traditions are not so difficult to get started: All you need is one person with an interesting idea. Also like a religion, traditions are difficult to sustain over time. There's the problem of constant attrition and recruitment of attendees, organizational imperatives, and founding ideas that grow stale with age.
Among the traditions Lee Anne and I have cultivated is watching the sunset on the summer Solstice from a little field with a panoramic view of the Catskills at the Mohonk Preserve. This tradition is so longstanding that Lee Anne and I have different memories of how it started. Lee Anne believes it was her idea, hatched when she was hiking and had come upon the incredible vista. My recollection differs only in as much as it was my idea, thought up after biking past the spot. (My case is bolstered—in my mind, at least—by the fact that I remember getting the notion to do this from overhearing people at a nearby table in a restaurant explain that they had a solstice tradition of their own which involved hiking up to the fire tower with their grown children and drinking a bottle of champagne. Then Lee Anne tells me that I'm referencing her memory as my own. She was the one who overheard the champagne story. I'm reminded of a line from a Wilco song: "We used to have a lot of things in common / but you know now we're just the same." Our lives and memories bleed together. I'm not upset by this.)
We've watched the sun go down on the longest day of the year at Million Dollar View with dozens and dozens of people over the years, with our besties who lived nearby, friends from out of town just passing through, near-strangers we invited who showed up once and then were never seen again. Most of the original crew is gone: Joe and Megan moved to Albany, then Cincinnati, where Joe now practices Buddhism; Dan, whose top-of-bucket list goal was to get high in all 50 states, took a job counting turtles in Humboldt; Mark and Riddi are in Santa Cruz with two whip-smart kids, Sol and Isla; Pilar married an English veterinarian and lives a bright and beautiful life in the suburbs of Philadelphia; Keith, who showed up with his guitar and led us in sing-alongs after busking his way up from North Carolina, is somewhere in the wind.
Lee Anne and I can still be found each year at our ritual site. We still lay out a picnic, drink wine, and eat cold fried chicken. We still trace the trajectory of that great ball of fire as it plunges behind the hills and marvel at how long the pale yellow-blue light holds fast in the sky. We still wait for the fireflies to set the tall grass blinking like Christmas lights.
This year, an afternoon deluge of almost Noachian proportions kept most everyone away, some of us still showed up as the sky cleared, enacting the sacred mysteries of our secular tradition. Taylor rode his bicycle, got lost in two swamps, and showed up an hour late covered in mud with a saddlebag full of melted ice, cans of beer, and cheese and salami. Robin, in from Tampa on business, was a first-timer who took our tradition like an old hand. Shazam, our beautiful dog, rolled in the grass adorably. We few, we lucky few, sat and remembered (not always accurately I am told) past evenings like this one when we laughed and sang and uttered any absurdity that entered our heads. And we did some of that stuff, too. It's our tradition.