Today, the Oilman, Sweet Potato and I ventured to Stillwater, Okla., for the first Oklahoma State University home football game against the University of Central Arkansas. More accurately, we ventured to Stillwater to tailgate, as we were home before the game even began.
Among many other blessings, I gave thanks throughout the day for bright orange tents beneath a clear blue sky, for a gray blanket spread in sun-dappled shade, for the human instinct to socialize (with or without alcohol!) and, above all, for the reassuring, unfeigned joy of our fellow tailgaters (both old friends and new acquaintances) when they unexpectedly found a chubby, healthy baby happily at play in their midst — now crawling, now standing, now, er, clapping two (empty!) Coors Light cans together like cymbals!
Ordinarily, Sweet Potato lives a sedate life. We ensure she naps at regular intervals and observes a strict bedtime. We listen to classical music in the car (not because Mozart supposedly enhances a baby’s IQ, but because I genuinely like it). We eschew television for books. We opt for toys she must manipulate herself, rather than toys that merely entertain her. When we go outside, which we try to do regularly, we bring nothing with us, the better to see the birds winging high overhead or the ants marching determinedly in the cracks of our patio.
(More experienced mamas tell me some of these habits will cede to more practical, less idyllic approaches as the number of children in our home increases. A part of me hopes so; a part of me hopes not.)
To let her loose, then, upon a blanket on the lawn in front of the classical architecture of the OSU English building to encounter whatever she would –from the green grass and the moist earth at blanket’s edge to those infamous and irresistibly shiny beer cans! — was simultaneously of a piece with her normal existence and an exception to it. Either way, she made the most of it. She was giddily happy all afternoon long, and I was happy because of her.
In “A Letter to My Children,” Whittaker Chambers writes of his gratitude for his children’s reverence for the natural world, as well as for Beethoven and Shakespeare:
I knew that if, as children, you could thus feel in your souls the reverence and awe for life and the world, which is the ultimate meaning of Beethoven and Shakespeare, as man and woman you could never be satisfied with less. I felt a great faith that sooner or later you would understand what I once told you, not because I expected you to understand it then, but because I hoped you would remember it later: ‘True wisdom comes from the overcoming of suffering and sin. All true wisdom is therefore touched with sadness.’
If all this sounds unduly solemn, you know that our lives were not; that all of us suffer from an incurable itch to punctuate false solemnity. In our daily lives, we were fun-loving and gay. For those who have solemnity in their souls generally have enough of it there, and do not need to force it into their faces.”
For so young a one, Sweet Potato already has such “solemnity in her soul.” Yet, she also has that blissful talent — so unique to small children — of serenely enjoying herself and the attention of others without the slightest trace of self-consciousness. She smiles and claps at such tiny provocations, punctuates my own false solemnity, reminds me to have fun.
Under her sweet and trusting influence, I can occasionally allow my own fearful conscientiousness to be subsumed by a sudden appreciation for what goodness surrounds me. As she grows and acquires that wisdom that “comes from the overcoming of suffering and sin” (as yet, thanks to baptism and babydom, she has no actual sin to overcome!), she will inevitably become more aware of what sin and suffering remains to be overcome (which is not to imply that Christ has not overcome it, of course, but that His grace must continually be accepted!). I pray she never loses her ability to see and appreciate the good that exists alongside it.
On the way home, the Oilman and I talked about it all.
“There’s just something about Stillwater,” he said and then tried to articulate just what it is.
The gist of it was that he shares in common with all those orange-clad tailgaters a particular life experience and a joy and gratitude for it. He’s comfortable among them — even those of them he’s never met nor will ever know — because he knows they’re all rooting for the same team. Furthermore, they’ve all had to assert their loyalty to that team in the face of snide remarks and heartbreaking defeats year after year after year. As they’ve done so, they’ve never lost hope that this will be the year. They bring a palpable excitement with them to every home game, football season after football season.
Ultimately, it’s no more nor less complicated than this: The Oilman loves his alma mater and the friends with whom he matriculated and graduated — loves them purely, loves them loyally. I can’t identify with this, as, for reasons too numerous to mention, I don’t love my own alma mater quite so purely, although I’m grateful for the education I received at the University of Arkansas and retain many fond memories from my time there.
Suddenly, though, I can identify.
“That’s how I feel when I’m surrounded by Catholics,” I say.
We go on thinking about it, the simultaneous aptness and absurdity of comparing the vast tribe of Christian disciples to the vast tribe of tailgaters and our affinities for each.
At the very least, what G.K. Chesterton said about the Church could also be said about tailgates: “Here comes everybody.”
To love them all — that is my baby’s gift and her mama’s challenge, although today, for once, thanks to sunshine and fun and her, it seemed an easier one.
(H/t to R.R. Reno, whose delightful essay, “Roughneckin’ It,” inspired the title for this post.)