Walking Away… 53 Days to El Camino

The years I spent living in Denver from March 2011 until moving back to Fort Collins in August 2017, I will always fondly refer to as my football years. Having ‘come out‘ in 2009, I attended my first Denver Pride the following summer. It was there that I found a booth for the Denver Gay and Lesbian Flag Football League http://www.dglffl.com, signing up immediately even though I didn’t even live in Denver at the time. The league was exactly what I was looking for: sports and community. Plus football was always my favorite sport, though, as a woman growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, I never had much of an opportunity to play, outside of elementary recess and high school powder puff.

I commuted from Fort Collins to every practice and game possible for the next year and a half until relocating to Denver completely. In 2012, I was fortunate enough to participate on the league’s newly formed, female traveling team, the Mile High Club https://www.facebook.com/MileHighClub2012#, racking up frequent flyers miles enroute to various tournaments all over the country until late 2016. During this time, I had considered myself a ‘football bum with a day job,’ cutting any unnecessary expenses (like a car) from my budget and only taking jobs that wouldn’t interfere with practices and games (and fun) just so I could make it to as many football events as possible.

In 2013, when my father died and life as I had known it started to slowly crumble around me, football switched from being my fun, fun, ‘let’s party‘ time, to ‘I need to escape….let’s party‘ time, to ‘I need to forget,‘ sanctuary time. But the league was always there, still happy to see me even when it became apparent that I would rather just disappear, having fallen into a pretty deep depression, doing everything possible to erase the old me and numb myself to the guilt and shame of the choices and behaviors of my past.

Just when I thought things were starting to turn around, I lost my job as the newly appointed manager of a marijuana dispensary I had worked at for nearly two years. Through my own neglect and consistent history of never taking things like rules very seriously, I missed a simple I.D. check in what turned out to be a police sting that had targeted multiple shops in the area, subsequently getting myself fired just days after I had signed up for my 401k. It was another crushing blow to my over-blown ego that I had unknowingly rebuilt, once again, on false premises. Having thought I had been through the worst of it, I found myself finally at rock bottom not knowing which way to turn. But once again football would come to my rescue, having received an invitation from one of my flag teammates to tryout for the upcoming 2016 season for the semi-pro women’s tackle team, the Mile High Blaze http://milehighblaze.com.

I was so close to not even showing up to tryouts, coming up with excuses left and right about why I shouldn’t go until my (now 14 year old) son intervened. Having had remained in Fort Collins with his more financially stable father after our separation, unwillingly giving up a lot of quality time with me so I could attempt to recapture a youth I never had the first time around, it was Jacob who finally broke through all my whining, selflessly reminding me how I would only regret it if I didn’t at least try. After all, it had been a secret childhood dream of mine which, up until that point, I had been too scared to pursue prior to the invite for fear of not being as good as my ego imagined I should be.

And so I went to the tryouts and I made the team. And though it was a struggle to get myself out of the house and make it to practice, still wallowing in the dark waters of self-pity, it was just the bandaid I needed to release me from my own personal drama even for just a couple hours, a few nights a week. The dedication and energy of my teammates who, unlike me at the time, were so full of life, unapologetic for any sacrifice they made to be there, proud to be a part of something bigger than themselves while still managing to maintain their own uniqueness, that inspired me to at least keep showing up. I craved their passion and their ability to just be themselves.

I had potential for the sport, seeking as much knowledge as I could about my position and how the game worked in all of its intricacies, but unlike these women, I couldn’t seem to get out of my head and into my heart, unable to tap into my personal power, still over-thinking everything and not enough letting go and ‘just doing‘. And while I will always be grateful for the open invitation to truly be apart of a great team, on and off the field, I’m sorry now that I couldn’t be more vulnerable with them, giving more of my real self. Instead, I remained aloof, much like I had with my flag team, like an outsider peering in, wanting to get closer but never understanding how to let down my defenses and truly be authentic. But merely being around authentic people has a way of rubbing off, and just hanging around these women allowed me to go home feeling a little better than when I arrived and I can see now how it was a start to my healing process.

By the second season with the Blaze however, something, again, had shifted. I had began thinking about life after football as my body just wasn’t cooperating the way I needed it to and fear had crept it’s way into my mind. Right about that time all the concussion talk had been sweeping the NFL, I too was unable to ignore the long-term risks I was taking by playing such a violent sport, having suffered my own concussion early on in the season. I questioned every move I made, becoming obsessed with every little ache and pain, knowing full well that I wasn’t getting any younger. This fear,coupled with the guilt about all the time I had spent away from my son playing a game that kept most of weekends and vacation time filled to capacity, had made it harder and harder for me to fully commit to the sport. And if I learned anything about tackle football in my short stint is that if you aren’t fully committed, tapping into that killer instinct, sacrificing all your extra time and energy to prepare your body for the continual beatings the sport entails, one way or another, you’re going to get yourself hurt.

And sure enough, I did. In what would be my last game of a very short season, I heard a little pop after my leg was rolled up on from behind. After my hopes for a high-ankle sprain had diminished after waiting the usual six weeks with no improvement, the V.A. Hospital’s podiatry department granted me an MRI. On the bus ride over to my appointment, I remember worrying about all the possible outcomes, the worst being that it was all in my head. And again, I went back to the thoughts of life after football. The sport had become a part of my identity, my excuse for not pursuing any other goal I might have once had. “After I’m done with football,” I would say to my family and friends who bore witness to everything I was continually putting off. It occurred to me that, one way or other, soon I was going to have to make a decision, that waiting around for the universe to decide for me could be risky business.

When I got off the bus I found myself in one of those rare “aware” moments, maybe because I finally realized that whatever the MRI results would be, the choice about my future was in my hands. And so walking up to the sliding door, even though I had gone through that entrance at least twenty times over the last six years, I noticed a book drop. One of those little wooden boxes attached to a post in the ground where you are encouraged to ‘take one, leave one‘. When I opened the little door and peered inside, the first thing I noticed was the box was pretty scant of materials, much like my own soul at the time. But, leaning on one side, there was a tattered copy of Pro Football from 1979 (my birth year) and leaning on the other side was an unused copy of John Bierley’s Camino de Santiago. I paused, feeling a sense of of foreshadowing. I proceeded to grab both books, ignoring the request to leave something behind, and headed in to my appointment.

When I got home that night, remembering the books in my bag, I pulled them both out and set them on the bed. I sat down and stared back and forth between the two books. The covers seemed to say it all. On the right, there lay the football book, the cover worn thin, much like my illusions about myself and my current life path. And on the left, a shiny, never been used, glossy picture of a ‘pilgrim‘ walking away with no apparent destination in sight.

I was transported back to my vague memories of the Martin Sheen movie, The Way http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1441912/ I had seen in early 2014, just months after my Dad had died, and remembered how the story had tugged at my heart strings, calling me to a new type of adventure that I had quickly shoved down with my usual “After I’m done with football“. I realized that as much as I loved playing football and everything it had taught me about myself, I craved a new challenge, something that would force me out of my element, and I was done waiting.

So when the MRI results came back indicating a torn tendon in my ankle, I’ll admit I was relieved. First, it wasn’t in my head, second, it wasn’t bad enough to require surgery, and third, while it could take up to a year to heal to be completely football ready, I could still walk. That night, I went home and threw the Pro Football book in the donation bag and began reading up on El Camino.

Even though, I still haven’t officially retired from football in my mind, still finding it hard to walk away from it completely, I know I will eventually be required to leave something behind. And while I don’t expect the trip itself to show me “The Answer,” solving all my problems in once fail swoop, I do know, if only symbolically, it’s a starting point for taking charge of my own life and the future choices and sacrifices I will have to make to become the complete and whole-hearted person that I want to be.

“Me and Mr. Jones,” Part One: 71 Days to the Camino…

When the movie The Secret https://www.thesecret.tv went viral in the early 2000’s, there was a sudden surge of awareness around the idea of the Law of Attraction and manifestation. I, being the ‘woo-woo’ person I am, was all about it! Of course, when I didn’t get that million dollars I kept visualizing, forgetting the part about “taking action,” I eventually stopped talking about it to others… stopped practicing it in secret…just stopped. But in hindsight, I can see now how this “Law” has worked throughout my life whether I intended it to or not. Whether it was positive or negative, whatever I wished for or worried about, has all come about…though rarely on my schedule or in the ways I imagined.

What The Secret doesn’t mention, however, is another “Universal Law,” the one about Balance. Whenever you finally do get what you have asked for, you are asked for something in return. A sacrifice must be made. It may not be obvious at first and it may take years for it to occur or even dawn on you that there is a connection, but nonetheless, something or someone will have to be given up. Where there is apparent gain, there will be loss, where there is a windfall, a downfall will follow. Fortunately, the inverse is true as well. When you think nothing could be any worse, something beautiful will emerge.

I could go on and on about the things that seemed so great when they came about initially but ended up leaving me hollow inside, shamed, and feeling like a complete outsider. But the intention behind this blog is to stick to El Camino, what it’s all about and why people from all over the world have flocked there annually for over a thousand years. Having said that, to give some perspective of how El Camino has come about for me, there is no way to not talk about the act of Penance, which, historically, is the main reason for the why behind a ‘long walk‘ that can take around six weeks to complete (on average and depending on the route taken). And there is no way of explaining this without introducing you to my father, Mr. Jones, whose death in 2013 shook the very the foundations of everything I thought about myself and the world around me.

When my Dad died it was the beginning of the most challenging four years of my life. All my guilt, shame, and countless insecurities seemed to bubble up all at once leaving me feeling emotionally paralyzed. ‘What the hell had become of my life, who the hell was I really, and where the hell was I going??’ It was like I had fallen into a vat of my own sh*t and had to take a long hard look at everything I had ever did and, even worse, everything I had never ‘gotten around to.’ I felt like someone had hit me over the head with a sledgehammer but instead of a lot of blood and guts, I was merely a shell, shattered, with nothing but empty space surrounding a shrunken little heart, beating away furiously, fueled by fear and anxiety.

Even writing about this now, after a lot of therapy and hard work, this is admittedly still the hardest writing I’ve ever had to do because its forcing me to digest a lot about my past actions and behaviors that is not all that easy to look at. And because I want to refrain from making this blog end up just another self-pity party for me, me, me, I find myself having to chop up what I know and feel about my Dad’s life and its affects on me into manageable chunks, stripping it down from everything I could say to what needs to be said and when and how to say it in a way that stays on topic; the Camino.

As self-centered as this may sound, I’m attempting to explain how my Dad’s death was a sacrifice he made so that I could learn a hard and powerful lesson about what living is meant to be. That the suffering he endured, what anyone would consider ‘a long and painful death,’ was in fact the most invaluable teaching he ever gave me. And it’s through this writing process that I’ve come to think about his final years of life as his own journey of penance and regardless of the final diagnosis of terminal cancer that had spread through his bones, I feel he really died of a heavy heart, having led a life of constant searching for something he could never find in himself until it was too late.

The final conversation I had with my father, I had asked him what, if anything, he needed me to know. His response was simply LOVE. And so its with love as my underlying focus for my own act of penance that I embark in the footsteps of countless others searching for redemption. No, I’m not talking about hair shirts and self-pity, I’ve done enough of that and it hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’m talking about learning to love myself, my mistakes, everything that has made me who I am today so that I may use this knowledge to further my evolvement as far as I can take it. And though I falter from time to time, still trying to hold onto to old ways and bad habits that don’t serve me, I am learning to love the struggle of what it means to change and am finally willing to do the necessary work. I won’t pretend to know what that even really means yet and I have given up on the illusion of perfection (thank God!) but I am determined to not let my Dad’s death be in vain, to balance his sacrifice by learning to live my life to its fullest for the sake of what remains of my family and friends who still have it in their hearts to love me after all the crap I’ve put them through.

And so I’ll let it hang there for now but rest assured there will be more to come concerning ‘Me and Mr. Jones’. But before I sign off for the night, I’ll leave you with my own definition of the word Penance, modified only because I am not a Christian (though, I’ll reiterate, ‘Jesus is alright with me‘) and I don’t want to confuse my version of sins with the Ten Commandments. And while I know I read it somewhere, its my belief that my biggest sin that I must atone is not living the life I know I am capable of, letting fear and Ego stop me from using my God-given gifts to the betterment of me and everyone I come in contact with. And so it is my hope that whoever is willing to join me along my journey, that they take what they need, and leave the rest as it is; simply one soul’s experience of what it means to ‘grow up‘.

Penance: An act of self-mortification or devotion performed voluntarily to demonstrate sorrow and regret for past actions and behaviors.