Fear and ritual. Football and religion.

I wrote last week trying to figure out my own response to a day when the world felt chaotic and frightening.  The following morning, my husband and I went to a college football game at my alma mater – Auburn University. That is unusual in itself if you know us at all.  I married a graduate of the University of Alabama.  Unless you hide under a rock or choose to avoid all mention of football in America, you have know the tension that football season can bring to such a household.  Since we moved back to Alabama after our Navy days, we have primarily attended his football games with his family and business associates.

Last week, before the Parisians were terrorized and everywhere I turned people were talking about Syrian refugees, friends invited my son, my only Auburn fan in the family, and me to attend the Auburn-Georgia game in Auburn.  He was unavailable, so these generous, gracious friends extended it to my husband who promised not  to smirk when Auburn fumbled or smile when Georgia scored.  We joke that college football is a religion in our state; and well, there’s a little truth in every joke. There’s probably some wisdom in not marrying outside the “faith” too.

So on Saturday morning my husband and I drove across town to our friend’s house to load up for a trip to “the loveliest village on the Plains”.  As we started toward their car, my friends said, “Let’s circle up and say a prayer for your daughter and all the American students abroad and their parents.”  There we stood, the four of us,  her husband and mine both veterans, clasping our hands and talking to God in their kitchen about what was happening on the other side of the world.  Four children, almost all grown between us, who have to launch lives of their own and lead in the future – what do we do for them, what can we say to them?  We are frightened ourselves and we’re supposed to be the grown-ups.  So we turn to prayer; it’s a ritual cultivated over a lifetime and the older we get the less we know for sure and the more we need Divine Love.

The day was as beautiful as a fall football Saturday in the South can possibly be -clear blue sky, leaves turning, jacket weather.  As we walked onto campus a nostalgic feeling flooded over me. I grew up coming here. From the time I was nine years old until I married my husband, I came to every home football game at Auburn, sitting in the same seats where my sister and her family sit today. I spent four years and a summer studying there. The comfort of the familiar was palpable.

Inside the stadium, the pregame ritual was much like it was thirty years ago when I was in school. The eagle makes his flight around the stadium while we all yell “War Eagle”. The ROTC students line the field holding the flags of all fifty states, the colors are presented and the Auburn band plays the national anthem. The announcer called for a moment of silence for the Parisians.  I look at the men dressed in USN uniforms and thank God mine came home to me in 1991.  This week, the band played “God Bless America”. People spontaneously began to sing.

Though we Auburn fans like to joke about our campus being the Holy Land and every football game, especially the Iron Bowl against Alabama, is a metaphorical battle of good vs. evil, there was a moment in the stadium Saturday that I was aware of the sacred space I inhabited.  Sacred because of the memories of love, family, friends, and shared celebrations on the campus. Sacred because I grew up there and many people invested in me as a human being along the way.  Sacred because before anything else we, like many other similar gatherings across the nation, were remembering our French friends and all others in harm’s way  and singing and reminding ourselves of our blessings as a community of Americans.  That’s what rituals do. They remind us.  When we are at a loss for words, we ‘go through the motions’ to remind ourselves what is real.

We lost the game, but it didn’t matter all that much to me. I saw two of my nieces  and the daughter of a dear friend at this game, and each girl I hugged a little tighter because my own daughter was so far away and so recently in Paris.

A few days later, she sent me a text: My roommates and I are eating risotto with broccoli and red velvet cake and listening to Christmas music while cutting snowflakes and paper chains with a mini Christmas tree.  It’s not even Thanksgiving, which these girls  plan to celebrate with American family and friends next week in London, but what are they doing a few days after the Paris attack? Lighting tiny Christmas trees, cutting the red and green strips of construction paper and gluing together the paper chains of their kindergarten years, making snowflakes, and listening to Christmas music. Ritual – going through the motions to remind ourselves of what is real.