Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Sacred Space

It is no secret that my now 16 month old son Adam has an obsession with a silly little game called basketball which is, here in Kentucky, the closest thing we have to a tribal religion. I have written on this before.

Across the street from our house is a park with not one but two full court basketball courts. Every day he and I make our hajj, our pilgrimage, across the street to watch the spontaneous games on these courts. But never is he allowed to cross the white line which divides the spectators from the participants. Never is he allowed to cross the line dividing the laity from the clergy. He can only watch as the local priests of his religion celebrate their daily mass, offering up their humble prayers to the gods of hoop.

This past week it has been hot. Oppressively hot. So hot that it isn't exactly safe to take him on his daily (sometimes hourly) trip to the park in the middle of the day. He have to pick our spots, choose our moments carefully, avoiding the afternoon son which turns our fair skin into the scorched color of a boiled lobster. So, this morning, before the thermostat cranked its way up again, we took an early trip to the park, before anyone else was up and out.

We dropped by the playground, visiting his favorite swings and slides. He crawled under his favorite play structures, hiding in their shade from the rising sun, milking his time outdoors. We played our version of tag, with me yelling in a playful, taunting, sing-song voice, "I'm going to get you!" after which he always giggles and scurries as fast as his short, stocky legs will carry him. I catch him and swing him in the air, just like I always do when he decides to let me catch him.

After our play was done, even though the ballers haven't climbed out of their beds yet, we walked down to the basketball courts, our basketball courts. There was no game of hoop to watch, no religious ceremony to observe. Only the quiet, lonely sanctuary of the empty courts. As usual, Adam walked up to the painted white line that marks the barrier of one of the courts, the great divide between those who can ball and those who can't. Adam can't ball because he is, of course, still far too small. I can't ball, or at least I usually don't, because of a bum knee. Every now and then I play, schooling the hyper-athletic teenagers whose games, alas, are not as mature as their bodies. But most of the time I only watch, knowing that if I dare to play I might finally really need that surgery I've been putting off for almost a year.

But this morning the courts were empty. No one to trample Adam. No one to tempt me to push harder than I should - the competitive fires burn perpetually in those who have been seduced by the game - only to wind up once again on a surgeon's table. So we stood, like we always do, just outside the white lines, staring at the great divide. And with no one on the other side, we crossed over, onto the court.

The look on Adam's face as we passed through the barrier he's never been allowed to cross was one I'll treasure forever. He was like a new high priest of ancient Israel, passing through the curtain into the Holy of Holies for the first time. He stared up and the goal in awe, then ran up to it and put his arms around it, clinging to it in the sweet and desperate embrace of a forbidden love. He had arrived. He was on the court. And, at this moment, there was no one who could beat him.

I let him hold the goal for a little while, before I called him out to the free throw line to try to teach him a thing or two. That's how much of a sentimental fool I am. He's 16 months old, and I'm trying to teach him how to move on the court. Sucking the spontaneous fun out of his game? He ran around for a little bit, like a good child not listening to a single word his father said, so mesmorized was he by his sacred space.

Perhaps I'm projecting my own guilty idolatry onto him. My father is, among many other things, a baseball coach. For years I honestly believed that I loved baseball, so powerful was and is his love for that game. But the look of awe on my son's face seems sincere. His love for hoop starts early and runs deep. If it is as deep as it seems, then he will grow up in at least one of his father's many religions.


Liam said...

That's a beautiful post, Chris -- it's very impressive how you can talk about sports using religious language in a way that is illuminating to both topics.

Filius imperatricis pulcherrima Africae occidentalis wants nothing to do with basketball or any other sport. That's no problem, though it would be fun to share my joy in it with him.

Sandalstraps said...

Thanks, Liam.

If you liked the style of the writing, you might want to check out John Edgar Wideman's Hoop Roots sometime. I know you don't have much time to read, but that is a book which mixes religion, philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology and just about every other inflated academic discipline with wit and observations on basketball. I had Wideman in mind when I wrote this.

I first encountered Hoop Roots in a summer course on African-American literature. In that course I wrote a paper on Wideman's strange use of language which convinced the professor to ask me to do an independent study with the goal of turning that paper into a publishable academic paper. The paper isn't published yet, and probably won't be - I haven't shopped it around. But I am pleased with it, especially since it is not in any discipline I've ever really studied.

Anyway, thanks for your comment. I was really happy to write this piece. I had more fun writing it than I usually have. It gave me more freedom to play around with language and work on the craft of writing, rather than just building an argument.