My Year Away. And Back.

Five Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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I Went on a Cruise. By Myself.

Yeah, so I thought that was the story. And then the COVID-19 crisis got real.

The virus was just starting to rear its ugly head in my little world of academe while I counted the days until spring break. First, there were the students who told me their spring break plans included hopping on cheap flights to Europe to party with their study abroad friends who were being called back to the U.S. (So much for social distancing.) Then there was the reality that I had to cancel my travel writing and photography class in Rome in May—which meant my Italian vacation afterwards was also doubtful.

With future plans uncertain, I drove down to Fort Lauderdale to take the last cruise on Holland America’s Nieuw Statendam. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know it would be the ship’s last hurrah for the foreseeable future. I just thought it was going to be a run-of-the-mill “Hey, I’m going on a cruise by myself!” experience.

The first hint that this cruise would be different from my others was at embarkation.  I stood in line with 2,300 other passengers as we all waited to get our temperatures taken. It took an hour, but no one seemed to mind. Plus, I liked the idea of starting this cruise with some assurances that everyone was healthy.

Once on board, all the usual excitement before sail-away was in full swing. I explored the ship. I unpacked. I attended the mandatory muster drill. I met my friendly room stewards. Then, finally, it was time to literally sail into the sunset as the captain turned the bow toward the Caribbean. We all seemed blissfully unaware of the rough seas to come.

The calm before the storm.

A few hours later, the captain warned us that “weather” was approaching. And it would be turbulent. Even with the stabilizers, the ship rocked and rolled for a couple of days. And then finally by the third day, the sea was becalm. And all was right with the world.

Except of course, it wasn’t. Because, while the seas may have calmed in the Caribbean, the rough seas at home were only beginning.

Being alone on a cruise would be interesting in normal times, but navigating my feelings in uncharted territory made me feel distant and helpless in ways I hadn’t experienced before.  

The ship had live TV so I was able to watch the economy go belly up right before my eyes. What else was happening at home? I’d simply have to wait until we docked somewhere and I could get an Internet connection. I found it in the Dominican Republic at a café while I sipped pineapple juice. A WhatsApp call to the hubster brought me up to date quickly. 1. He made to it to our new apartment in Paducah (so we could stop relying on Airbnbs during house renovations). 2. The air mattress was okay, but I could have sent a few more dishes.  3. My university has shut down. Oh, and 4. A car ran pell-mell into our front yard, knocking out our side front metal fence, a front brick pillar, a crepe myrtle, and a few other things. But, no worries: we were still having the open house.

So, all that happened the week I took a cruise by myself.  The juxtaposition of tranquility and chaos was profound. This was my 6th cruise with Holland America. I’ve always appreciated the low-key (some might say boring) approach to cruising with HAL, but never was it more appreciated than in the middle of a galactic meltdown.

Docking in Key West was lovely. It’s hard to grasp a pandemic when this is your view.

For no logical reason, I’ve wondered what it would be like to take a cruise by myself.  As cruises go, it was pretty much everything I had hoped it might be (except for the world-wide plague). I met some interesting people, but not too many. I ate all my meals by myself and it didn’t seem weird. The food was spectacular. I think it’s been the best I’ve ever eaten on a HAL ship. Many of the crew throughout the ship called me by name and always wanted to know how I was faring being all alone.

I’ve written before about the good and the bad of taking a cruise, and I’ve got to say that the last cruise of the Nieuw Statendam was spectacular.

I’ve been home a week now. It’s mind-boggling how life has changed. I’m washing my hands a lot. I’m staying six feet away from everyone. I’m working in the virtual world, attending virtual university meetings, posting virtual lectures, pretending that I know what I’m doing in this new topsy-turvy world. I’m not looking at our retirement funds. And I’m trying to grapple with the fact that I may have to work longer than I hoped. I’m praying for all the small business owners out there who are on the verge of losing everything.  I’m trying hard not to be too sad that I’m not going to teach in Italy in May. I’m adjusting to take-out options.   

I may be losing my grip, but I’m still holding on to hope. One of my favorite books of the Bible is Ecclesiastes for its practical and, often, blunt advice. Here’s my verse for today: “But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” One thing COVID-19 has shown me is that we, indeed are “joined with the living.” Rich or poor, educated or dumb as dirt, Republican or Democrat.

So, there’s really nothing to do but carry on. I continue to teach and do all the other things a professor does. I’m still studying Italian believing that I will get back there sooner than later. I’m remembering my lovely serene solo cruise of just a few days ago. And, I’m planning the next one.