My Year Away. And Back.

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


2 Comments

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.


1 Comment

Change, Change, Change.

It’s Saturday morning. The sun peaks above the horizon. The egrets leave their nighttime perches and line up for a trip to who knows where. It’s dead calm outside. A perfect morning for a row on Battery Creek, near downtown Beaufort, SC. This is a course I have rowed for about a decade. Meandering and beautiful—especially during a calm morning at slack tide. Exactly like this morning. Most likely a couple of 8+s will launch with varying skill levels, but filled with a highly enthusiastic gaggle of rowers. These are my people.

Who wouldn’t want to row in these waters?

Except this morning, I’m not there. Looks like I won’t be there next weekend, either. It’s hard to type these words, let alone say them out loud, but here goes. I’m not rowing now. I have to add the word “now,” because I want to leave a crack in the rowing door open. You know, just in case something changes.

But I guess I have finally owned up to the reality. Life is going in a different direction for me now and it’s time I acknowledge that.

It was a slow realization. Multiple hurricanes and a horrendous flood disrupted my rowing opportunities for a while. Then came the fateful morning row when I felt something not-quite-right in my left hamstring, resulting in a ginormous hematoma around my sitz bones, which made sitting in a rowing shell beyond painful. (And, thus, contributed to my decision to sell my racing shell.)  The achalasia diagnosis upended all sorts of parts of my life as well, not the least of which, was rowing.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad things that pushed rowing toward the bottom of the priority pile. Discovering an obsession with travelling to Italy meant limited rowing time in the summer. Buying a Big Brick House in Paducah, KY, for the restoration project of a lifetime grabbed the rest of the summer (and, perhaps, all the summers to come!). Discovering other fun things to do during spring break, like traversing Caribbean islands on a cruise ship, took away another prime week. And, so it continued, until I realized I wasn’t rowing very much. And, turns out, I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would.

Even if I’m not rowing, I am drawn to water. The Tiber River in Rome is no exception.

So. I guess I’m a former rower now. After about 20 years, it’s hard to say good-bye. But it’s time. So, goodbye, and thanks to my four rowing clubs.

Beaufort Rowing Club. These rowers are the best. Some of their technique might drive me nuts, but I so appreciate how accepting this club has been to me—and to anyone who wants to row here. Other clubs should emulate BRC. Thanks for letting me be a part of this club for 10 years, Ken, Paul, Judy, Bill and the rest.

Columbia Rowing Club. The hubster and I wouldn’t have moved to SC for my job if there hadn’t been a rowing club in Columbia. I fondly remember the evening rows in my single with my rowing buddy, Laura. And, I loved rowing the quad with John, Marty and Brenda. We had some serious moments of run.

Nashville Rowing Club. Helping to start this club was hard work. But when you want to row and there is no one to row with, you do what you have to do. The club is now huge and doing incredibly well, but back in 2005, all there was, was me, and an old 4+ that I purchased sight unseen from Georgia Tech. How I found Erika, Joy, and Stephanie to row in that 4+ with me remains a mystery, but it was a time of magical rowing in a less-than-desirable situation. Erika was an emergency room orthopedic surgeon who would come to an early morning practice after operating all night. She was the most competitive rower I have ever had the privilege of knowing. As the stroke, Erika took us to places I didn’t even know were possible. Sitting at #3, Joy was a surgical resident at Vanderbilt and former varsity Virginia rower who was over 6 feet tall. Her schedule left no time for rowing, but somehow, she showed up enough times that we were able to practice for the Head of the Hooch head race. This is the only time I have rowed behind a woman taller than me. Rowing behind Joy was, well, a Joy. And then there was the bow, Stephanie, a recent Vandy grad, who barely pushed 5 feet. I still can’t figure out how she rowed like a tall person, but that girl rowed long. No question that at #2, I was the weak link in the boat, but these women didn’t complain. Maybe it was because I owned the boat. Or, maybe it was because, for whatever reason, when we rowed together, we flew.

Carolina Masters. And, this leads me to the Carolina Masters, my club in Chapel Hill, NC, where my rowing career began. I am thankful to a former student (and university rower) who encouraged me to go to a Learn-to-Row clinic because she thought I “looked like a rower.” I’m thankful to Julie, our volunteer coach, who was patient and encouraging, and helped me realize that I could be a decent rower. And, Ruth, who rowed in the pair with me in the dead of winter when no one was all that excited to row with me.  And the other Julie who also rowed in the pair with me when she didn’t have to. And all the rowers who were a part of those exciting years of racing—especially that second place nail-biter of a race at the Hooch.

You can see in our faces how seriously we took racing. In this boat, I had the privilege to row behind Julie, the best coach I ever had.
We were just a few seconds behind the #1 boat, but it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had racing. Standing on the podum for the medal ceremony was fun too!

And, then there’s Patti, my rowing soulmate. Patti and I were starting to become friends when I asked her if she might be interested in taking a road trip with me to Maine to pick up a single—an old restored wooden racing shell from the ‘70s. I didn’t even know how to row a single yet, but somehow, we both thought this was an excellent idea. We drove from Chapel Hill to Thomaston, Maine, and back again in four days with a stop in Philadelphia to pick up a former Olympian’s rowing shell that needed restoring. Having never transported a boat before, starting in Philly, and driving through cities like New York and Boston was challenging to say the least, but Patti never doubted for a minute that I could do it. We talked about everything over those four days (and, I mean EVERYTHING).  From that trip on, we drove together to racing venues, rowed side by side in our singles during our weekly “chat and rows,” talked about rowing until there was nothing left to say about rowing—and then talked about it some more. For me, rowing means Patti. And it always will.

Patti and I were frezzing in between our races, but that didn’t keep us from have a blast.

I guess you can tell that rowing has had an impact on my life. But, as I’ve been learning recently, just because you love something doesn’t mean that it must stay the same. Living at the beach part of each week, I see the ocean, the beach, and the tidal creeks. They are ever changing whether by erosion, storms, king tides, or anything else that nature throws. We have a lot of birds on Harbor Island, but they change, too.  Sometimes, it’s the ospreys who capture our attention. Sometimes it’s the pelicans perched at the Harbor Bridge. Now, it’s the migrating birds who join us for winter.

We change, too. I love rowing. But I guess I love other things more now. And, that’s okay. I used to think Aretha Franklin’s classic song was called “Change, Change, Change.” Okay, so I understand now that “Change of Fools” makes no sense whatsoever, but still, “change, change, change” could—and perhaps, should—be our anthem.  Bob Dylan once said that there is “nothing so stable as change.” And with that, I say The Beat Goes On.