When I was a kid, I played softball.
Briefly. Very briefly.
To be more precise, I played exactly one game.
Things were going pretty well at first. I’d spent most of the first inning standing in the outfield staring at bugs and thinking about how funny colors looked under the bright park lights. No one hit anything in my general direction, and I was content being left to my own thoughts, far from the action. But soon enough my team’s at-bat came, and I was standing in the lineup waiting for my turn to hit the ball. The line-up wasn’t as fun as the outfield; there weren’t as many bugs, and the people around me were noisy. But I was still mostly left to my own devices, able to stare at the sky and dream whatever dreams are available to 9-year-olds.
Then I felt someone nudging me. “Go!” some voices whispered. “It’s your go!”
I stepped up to the plate, raised my bat, and stared vaguely in the direction of the pitcher. The ball was already flying towards me, and I kept my eye on it dutifully until it connected with my bat and FLEW into the air right over my head.
“RUN!” someone shouted.
“GO!” said another voice.
I didn’t. I turned my head and looked straight up, keeping my eye on the ball. It looked so strange against the night sky and the lights. I wondered if it would keep flying forever, defying gravity and coming to light in thin air somewhere above our heads, like a nearby star.
And then, just as I was beginning to realize that people were yelling at me, just as I was about to put my head down and run, the ball fell from the sky and landed right above my still-staring left eye.
Various coaches and parents swarmed around to stare at my quickly swelling eyelid. One of them – the head coach and father of the most athletic girl on our team – also took the time to ask me what, exactly, I’d been thinking just staring up at the sky like that.
I wish I’d been clever enough to answer him, to explain that thinking was the whole problem. Even as a kid I thought too much. About everything. I thought about how many blades of grass covered the dirt of our playing field. I thought about the ants crawling over the toes of my shoes. I thought about the funny way my teacher held her hand over her mouth when she was angry, and about what would happen to me if my parents died.
Playing a sport like softball – even at the low-stakes little-girl level – required a synthesis of body and mind that I simply didn’t possess. Even as a kid I positioned myself in the world strictly as an observer. I hid quietly behind my long curtain of hair attempting to maintain the maximum level of invisibility, attempting to watch and record the things around me and leave them unsullied by my presence. In order to play well – or at least without eye-swelling incident – I needed to turn my attention to myself within the world. I needed to notice the set of my feet on the ground, the weight of the bat in my hand. I needed to understand how my own shape and movement affected the things around me. I needed to see myself as solid and forceful. I needed to see myself, period.
I never quite got over that refusal to see myself as a physical force in the world. There are countless boundaries between my mind and my body – boundaries that I’m frankly terrified to dismantle. But last night, as we practiced for an upcoming bout, I realized how much roller derby is beginning to put a dent in that fear.
Every time I put on my skates for practice, I know that – if I’m playing right – I’ll have no choice but to recognize my own physicality. My muscles will strain. My back will hurt. I’ll lose my breath in a jam. And I know that if I stop being aware of myself – even for a second – one of my teammates will slam her body into mine and knock me down to wake me up.
Roller derby reminds me that I’m a real person. It asks every girl on the track to know her own weaknesses – and to understand her own power. I wonder, sometimes, if that isn’t part of the reason so many of us seem to become new women once we join a team. Because derby teaches us that we’re real – that the nebulous mass of thoughts and feelings we call a self exists in a solid state in a solid world. It teaches us that our presence is undeniable – that we matter, even when we try not to.
I’m glad to have been that little girl with the swollen eye who couldn’t hit a ball. I needed to be her, for a while – needed to live inside my head and stand at the edge of the world, just watching. But now that I’m all grown up, I need to realize that I’m more than just an observer. Derby is helping me to understand that, one big bruise at a time.