I sat on the bleachers with a sense of relief, eager to face the end of football season. Every game I take a book. Every game someone sits next to me and asks, “Is that a book?” On cue, I put it away, and shake my head as if I haven’t a clue how that book ended up with my camera and water bottle. Then the talking begins. At half time my daughter, who’s in band, is relived to see me fitting in, talking with parents, and being a part of the community. After the game, she wants to know what we talked about, and I assure her it was about her school, their husbands, their church activities, and she looks proud that I participated, though I have no church or husband.
Down here in the Bible Belt, where the football games begin with a prayer belted over the loud speaker, and a loud Amen echoes through the stands at the finish, I’ve learned to quit asking my bleacher mates why this isn’t illegal in Arkansas. Last night a good-intentioned mother snuggled close to me and whispered, so her boys wouldn’t hear, “Yesterday Julie came home wanting to know if Ania was an atheist. She was truly worried.” I said nothing. She looked confused, maybe hurt that I remained silent. “She isn’t, is she?”
“I’ve never asked her.”
“Well, I went on to explain that her father’s a Muslim and they believe in a higher being, and you, well, you don’t go to church, but you know there’s a Creator, and Ania believes in a Supreme Being. That’s right; isn’t it?”
“Her dad’s a Hindu and his wife is a Muslim.”
“Well, it’s all the same. They believe in a Higher Being.” She seemed disappointed her father was a Hindu. Too many gods, too many possibilities. “Ania has a religion, right?”
“She hasn’t mentioned it if she does,” I said.
“Yes, but she does believe in a Creator?”
“We’ve never discussed that either. Sometimes she asks what I believe and I don’t believe in much of anything. I don’t know if there’s a heaven or hell, nor do I care. I tell her Jesus sounds like he was a humanitarian. It’s more important that we live humanely than worry about what happens to our souls when we’re dead. She knows about different religions, but I doubt she embraces any. Nor does she ridicule any.”
“Oh,” she said before moving away. Then she returned, and mentioned how the kids were discussing their mock elections held at school while they were at church on Wednesday night, and how upset one girl was when a Catholic admitted he voted for Kerry. She was even more horrified when she told me about another mother who wore her Kerry pin to the church when she picked up her kids. “He supports abortion.”
“It must have taken her courage to wear her pin at church. You need to respect that,” I said. “I love my daughter. I’ll do everything in my power to make sure abortion stays safe and legal. She needs the chance to make a choice, a safe choice, her choice.”
“I teach chastity.”
Chastity? Sounds like something that may require a Chastity Belt.
“If people are so against abortion, why don’t they support the morning after pill?”
“Isn’t that like contraception?”
“It is a form of contraception.”
“It would terminate the birth. I can’t support that.”
“Wouldn’t it be better for a woman to take one pill that does the job instead of taking a month’s supply hoping it does the trick?”
“They do that?”
“No. No. I support conception.”
I looked at all the teenagers and felt deeply depressed, fearing what may be in store for them. I know their family loyalty, their fear of questioning authority, their agony of breaking away, and wondered how far they’d run, really run, if they broke through all these barriers.
After the game, Ania wanted to know what we were talking about. “The gum stuck on the bottom of my shoe, the fear you may be an atheist, and why one Catholic is voting for Bush, and another for Kerry, nothing too exciting.”
“Uggh. We have a lot more fun with the band.”
“At least the season’s finally over.”
“You’ll miss not talking to these people. I know you will. No matter what you say.”
And in a weird way, she’s probably right. Again.