(From "Skinning Your Knees on God," manuscript in progress)
I couldn’t move my head. Such a simple thing, moving it to the left or to the right. But I couldn’t, even with the elbow coming straight at my face.
Football practice. High school. A night like a hundred others, same coaches, same plays, over and over and over again so we wouldn’t forget, that we’d not even have to think about what we were doing. Just move here, block there, at the sound of Jody’s voice automatically shifting feet, looking up at who was coming, block them until the play was finished, five seconds, maybe ten. And then we’d all end up in a heap, sweaty and dirty, and get up and do it again. And again. And again. Again.
But this time I couldn’t move my head, and the elbow was coming, and it was, after tracing a graceful arc in the shimmering autumn twilight air, backlit by the field lights, going to catch me flush in the face, and I couldn’t stop it.
It is a strange thing, football. In a school as small as ours, we were all mostly friends. Certainly none of us were enemies by any stretch. When we weren’t playing football, we’d be doing something else together. Most of us had friendships going all the way back to kindergarten or fist grade. I was the first kid in my class to get glasses. Made it almost all the way through the first month until someone realized I couldn’t make out the writing on the chalkboard, even the large manuscript letters and numbers teachers used for academic novices like us. After I got glasses, I was surprised that there was detail in the Jack and Spot stories, in the pictures. I didn’t know I hadn’t been able to see that. What does a six-year-old know about that stuff, anyway?
So my friends laughed and affectionately called me Four-Eyes and other names like that. I knew they were teasing, and laughed with them about it. After a few more years, some of the other kids had glasses, too. Then it wasn’t a big deal at all.
By the eighth or ninth grade, some of us friends were playing football on the high school team. Philip Mann, a big bruiser, was a senior when I was a freshman. He easily outweighed me by a hundred pounds. We weren’t exactly friends, but I knew him and he knew me, and I guess we liked each other enough. But Philip made it his life’s mission to absolutely find and flatten me every chance he got, or at least it seemed so to me. ( I saw him at a funeral for an old neighbor of mine, a friend of my sister’s, when we both had been adults for a long time. I asked him about flattening me every day, but he said he didn’t remember that. He said that if he did do that, it wasn’t intentional.) But I was the dork with the glasses, and I really needed them by then—by the ninth grade, I could barely see six inches in front of my face. I was just the kind of a hundred and fifteen pound squirt people liked to pick on. So I thought Philip was picking on me. Whether he was or not, I still got flattened every day.
I didn’t know whose elbow was coming toward my face. I still don’t know. We all dressed the same, white pants, white jerseys, white helmets, no numbers. I watched it as one might watch an eagle soaring on the thermals, slowly and majestically. I was transfixed by it, it was all there was in my small little view of my little world, It nearly occupied the whole of my visual field. What there was left were smells of grass and earth and sweaty bodies and ammonia from uniforms not having been washed for nearly a week, the popping and crunching of pads, Coach Dombroskas’ deep and resonant voice calling out Perry’s name, as it always did, for some infraction or other, or just because Perry was clumsy enough to invite calling out. There was the feel of bodies around me, under me, on top of me, their weight pressing me down, fixing me to a point like an insect collector fixes his specimens by pinning them to cardboard displays.
And somehow, in all of that chaotic frenzy, my head was fixed to a point, and I couldn’t move it out of the way.
So. We were friends. Had been for years. But you wouldn't know it by our playing. We were tough, ruthless, and ultracompetitive with each other because none of us wanted to lose. The coaches encouraged it, and we understood that practicing that way is also the way we would play in real games. So we knocked each other around, played really hard, and sometimes some of us got hurt, and sometimes hurt pretty badly. Our quarterback, Jody, suffer a very serious knee injury. When we were seniors, one of our players broke his neck, although the sensation he lost was luckily only temporary. Everyone got dinged up from time to time-- cuts, bruises, sprains, you name it. But it was all part of the game we played, and we all knew that, and accepted that.
I felt like I was watching in slow motion. It was like Einstein said about black holes. To an observer watching a descent into a black hole, the dissent is very rapid. But to the one falling, the descent is eternal, without end. That is what it was like for me. It was all slow-motion, and I understood that I was going to be hit in the face, and I knew that it was very likely to hurt. So I watched, fascinated, as the elbow drew gradually nearer, and nearer.
The actual impact was painless, much to my brief surprise. But my glasses broke. There was a violent and wild flashing of lights, and a roaring in my ears, and an overwhelming need for sleep. I try to stay awake, but I could not, and the lights and the roaring faded until they were gone. And so was I.
I had just met a new girl in school, and I remembered that I was supposed to go to her house after practice. But I could not remember her name, nor where she lived. I could not remember where I lived. I could not remember how to get undressed, and into my regular clothing. I could not remember what school I went to, or what my friend’s names were. I had a really bad headache, and that was all. But a part of me, or another me, deep inside, was quite annoyingly amused by all of this. I felt like I was not a part of my own body, and I was not a part of my own mind. Somehow, I had managed to get out of my body, but very near it, and I had managed to get out of my mind, although I was still very close to it. It was a most remarkable thing to me to see myself unable to do the simplest of mental activities, while I was not affected in the least. And I understand now what that means, and what I was experiencing.
And now, I am learning again to perceive things in the same way. I am not my body, and I am not my mind. I am something far deeper and much more intimate with all of life than I ever imagined.
And to think that I was shown that on the football field when I could not move my head.