I intended to write an article about retirement. And then I hesitated. Was I sure, absolutely sure, like put in writing sure, that I was going to retire? It wouldn’t be the first time I said I would retire (third actually, but who’s counting?). I procrastinated and procrastinated despite our PR chair’s gentle but persistent prodding.
Despite the fact I had said “retire,” my old league heard “come back to play with us.”Who could blame them? They’ve heard it before. As I was, and am, engaging in this mental tug of war, I realized this writing was not going to be about retirement. It was going to be about belonging.
Our sport is an amazing sport to play. Whenever I talk about one of the reasons I hesitate to retire, even non-derby players get it. There is nothing like this sport. There is nothing I will take up that comes close to the speed of sprinting on skates, the mental chess match of reading play, and the physicality of giving and taking hits. I will certainly miss these aspects of it. Whenever I’m in game play, even when it’s not going well, there is nowhere I’d rather be. I honestly could not care less about my graduate degree, my utility bills, or if continuing to play derby would make me less of a parent, employee, or friend. It’s kind of like a drug that way. But that’s not the thing the retirement tug of war is really about.
It is cool as shit to be a derby player. Anyone who tells you that’s not part of the reason they play, I’ll accuse of lying. It’s got social cache´. More than once it’s opened up doors and conversations, personally and professionally, that I’d never gotten into without that first “Really? You play roller derby? How cool!” But that’s not the thing the retirement tug of war is really about.
You make friends, lots of them. I have found so many people I never, ever would have found without derby. I have friends of almost every imaginable background. I even got the love of my life out of the deal. All those boot camp posters that say you’ll get 50 new friends? Try hundreds. You will always have a place to stay and someone to skate with. You can drop into any mid-size and up town in the nation (and in a lot of instances, the world), and email your local derby league, and you will have friends. But that’s not the thing the retirement tug of war is really about. Close, but not quite.
In thinking about retirement, one of the things I reflected on was my friends who have already retired. I’ve been around a bit, so there are plenty of them. I see their path being something like this: Months 1-4, gloriously happy. They can’t believe all of the things they get to experience that they’ve been neglecting. Other sports, sleep, non-derby friends, Saturday nights. Months 5-12, still pretty happy. They’ve taken up a new interest or two. They miss it some, maybe they drop by some games, sporting their track jacket, but overall still pretty happy. One year plus. Either they come back, or they deeply miss it. This is scientifically proven by a careful analysis of Facebook and Instagram. Maybe it was playoff season, maybe an after-party, but something pulls them back in or sends them into a deep longing.
This. This is the thing that the retirement tug of war is about. Belonging to something, and what happens when you leave that something. Derby is a demanding and fickle mistress to be certain. What is demanded of you is time, emotional energy (gobs of emotional energy), physical work whether you play or staff, giving up on other things you love, your non-derby talents (if you call writing a rambly run-on blog talent), your body, sleep, and a whole host of other things I’m probably not thinking of right now because of all those things I just mentioned. But what you get in return is belonging to something. Belonging in a way many of us never experienced in other areas of our lives.
I was stalled out finishing this piece until I saw a quote from leaguemate Slamuel L Jackson (Jax). In being asked about a mantra or motivation, she said, “Get up. Your team needs you”. I teared up. She uses it as morning gym motivation. And I’ve seen her say something similar before. This time I realized, it wasn’t just about her alarm clock in the morning. It’s so much more. It’s your will. Your reason for popping up after a monster hit. Your reason for the umpteenth time you’ve said, “I can’t, I have derby”. For some of us, our reason for staying on the planet. You belong to something. You belong to something better than what you are by yourself. A team, a community, you’ve found your people. And that is an incredibly, incredibly hard thing to walk away from. Sure, you can still see a game and go out to lunch with your friends, but we all know it’s not the same as the deep sense of belonging you feel when you are part of a league or team.
Next month the Bruisers head to Mitten Kittens. I am so lucky and grateful that not only will my team be there, my partner will be there, but also many friends from derby. It’ll be great, but I’m tired today. My work load is huge. December graduation of my Master’s seems eternal ages away. My beautiful babies are getting ready to start school, and my bed is comfy. Really, really comfy. But I will get up and head to practice. My team needs me.