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.


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I Left My Heart (Not in San Francisco).

As many of you know, I am an academic. As a professor in a school of journalism and mass communications, one of the rights of passage at the end of the summer is to attend our annual conference, hosted by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC).  I started going to this conference in 1993. Over the decades, I have presented refereed papers, sat on panels, gone to untold business meetings, and served in just about every leadership role available, including president of the organization a decade ago. I never missed.  One year, I even requested my daughter move her wedding by a week so it wouldn’t conflict. Rumor has it I phrased the dilemma as “Oh, Grace, I’d hate to miss your wedding because I was at the conference!” One of the best parts of the week-long event is reconnecting with colleagues around the country.  This year, even my new book was on display! Exciting times.

Except, I wasn’t there. And I probably won’t be there next year. In fact, most likely I’ll never go to the AEJMC annual conference again. While this news won’t cause any seismic ripples around the world, it’s rather earth-shattering (or at least earth-quivering) to me. I think it means my heart is focused on other endeavors.

It’s just a few more days before the new semester begins. Um, sure, I’m looking forward to the new academic year. It’s just that I really, really, really liked my summer and I’m not quite ready to give it up. The (not so) lazy days of summer started off, of course, in Italy.  Then we came home for 10 days (split between the beach and the city), then one month in Paducah, KY, working on the Carriage House and Big Brick House. A week of visiting relatives in Minnesota and Wisconsin followed. Then the loooonng two-day drive back to South Carolina.

And, now, here I sit at the beach for my last week of summer vacation, thinking about, well, the things I’m thinking about.

My heart is back in Italy. How could it not be? Six weeks split between Rome and Meta di Sorrento. Eating pasta, drinking wine, walking everywhere, daily trips to the grocery, staring at the sea, toasting the sunset (with more wine of course!), and just general soaking up every little ounce of every little tidbit of belissima l’italia! (I’m already checking flight schedules for next year.)

I will never get tired of watching the sun set on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

My heart is also in Paducah. For the entire month of July, the hubster and I poured concrete, wielded jack hammers, pried nails out of lumber with crowbars (which I redubbed “cry bars” and with good reason), took down, put up, measured, sawed, and did just about everything else a person can do in the summer heat while working on renovations of a 100-year old house. By the end of the month, more than one waitperson recognized us at our favorite restaurants (amazingly, little Paducah has a bunch of great eateries!) and people around town knew about “that couple from South Carolina who bought the big brick house.” As we labored, we talked about the possibilities of using the Big Brick House as a seasonal small bed and breakfast establishment. Certainly, something to contemplate as we consider life beyond our current careers.

So this might not look scary, but I am up high, doing carpentry things
that are way out of my wheelhouse.

My heart is also in Minneapolis where our adult kids and happy grandchildren live. Seeing our daughter and son-in-law’s thriving pottery business, Studio2Ceramics (why, yes, they are on social media and they send pottery nation-wide), makes this entrepreneur-minded mom happy. And spending time with my son and daughter-in-law’s kids is always delightful (albeit, exhausting!).

Just helping to clean the bottom of one batch of pre-fired mugs was intense. The least you all could do is buy a mug from Studio2Ceramics!

But my heart is also at the beach.  And, given that we have our beloved beach house on the market, my heart feels particularly vulnerable right now. We need to sell this house so we can move forward with some of the big expenses of the Paducah house. But I also hate to think about not taking a walk on the beach whenever I want. Or even just sitting on the front porch drinking coffee while watching the egrets fly hither and yon. I love my beach, rowing, and church friends in Beaufort, I love singing in the choir, I love having Sunday lunch on the river front. I even love our Publix here.

This selfie of me with our former choir director and organ maestro captures what I think about singing in the choir.

And, now, I have to get up the gumption and search for a piece of my heart that can still find joy in university life.  I’m not going to lie. It may be an extra challenge this year. Our beloved university president has retired. The Board of Trustees then made some zany decisions over the summer while faculty and students were conveniently away that may make all our jobs a little less joyful. I hope I’m proved wrong. But, in the meantime, I muse about the summer as I contemplate the future. There’s a lot to think about. But, as that great philosopher Dr. Seuss said, “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!” Okay. I’ll try. Right after I grab my coffee and settle into the rocking chair, listening for the waves to tell me the tide is coming in.


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The Adventure Begins!

A few weeks ago, we drove 10 hours to Paducah, KY, checked into our Airbnb, and began what we think we will come to call The Challenge of a Lifetime. As I wrote in my last post, we bought a Big Brick House, basically sight unseen. It was now time to come to terms with that decision.

Gary had seen the house after closing in October. But, for me, this was the first time to open the door, look around, and absorb the enormity of what we had done. I was rendered nearly speechless as our decision started to sink in. What. Were. We. Thinking?

I walked through the carriage house (1,700 square feet), trying to imagine the apartment we would build on the top floor and the workshop Gary would build on the lower floor. Then I walked over to the Big Brick House (4,200 square feet. And, yes, I realize that we’re supposed to be in the “downsizing” stage of our lives.). I paced back and forth trying to make sense of this behemoth we had bought. Then I realized I hadn’t even gone upstairs yet. Once on the second floor, I gazed upward into the attic. It’s possible that I gasped. Thoughts like “You could build a whole gymnasium up there” crossed my mind. Dumbfounded, I walked around the house again. Upstairs. Downstairs. Front. Back. Upstairs. Oh, and did I mention there is a basement?

And then, after about 48 hours, I started to see it. Our house! First, in the apartment, I saw the open concept plan (thank you Property Brothers). I saw me sitting on the porch with my morning coffee. I saw where I’d be baking pies. It took longer over in the Big House, but, there too, I saw the kitchen with the exposed brick walls, the cheery living room with the funky fireplace, the tucked away suite where the hubster and I would escape. And once I saw it, I was ready to attack.

First up, the house needed a bit of cleaning. I started by trying to sweep dirt, spider webs, and unnamed gross things out of the spaces between the joists and the brick walls. I scraped off layers of wallpaper on wall fragments that hadn’t been removed.

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Whew. I’m glad this is not the style today! I think my wallpaper days are over!

The hubster and I loaded the car with items strewn around the house that we knew we wouldn’t be using in the rebuild. An old, but not antique crib. A car full (yes, we completely filled the CR-V) of chandeliers. Off to Goodwill we went.

Now I was getting downright excited.  But this is not to say that things moved quickly or easily. They did not.

First, it was crazy cold outside—and also inside since we don’t have heating yet. It’s not easy working with tools with frozen hands or while wearing fluffy gloves.

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Ripping up floors is invigorating. But doing so in winter clothing is challenging!

Second, learning how things worked in the town took some time. We needed to find out about the trash, start the process of getting building permits, figure out how to pay our taxes, try to get the house reappraised. Getting a library card was fairly simple, but from there it got a little bit nuts. We were late in paying our city taxes because we weren’t sent a bill. We were sent a blank envelope from the city, but nothing else. That took a while to explain (and to successfully argue why we shouldn’t pay a penalty for neglecting to pay our taxes). And, just understanding city taxes took some mental gymnastics. Turns out, you pay half of the taxes for the previous year and half of the taxes for the upcoming year. At the same time. Okay.

Our trash bill is part of our water bill. Uh, okay. Recycling costs extra—and recycling is limited. If we want leaves and small brush to be picked up, that’s part of the trash bill, but you have to call and talk to an actual person to arrange for this—every time. I did this for one bag of leaves and a small pile of brush. The phone conversation took about 10 minutes while I answered all the nice lady’s questions. All the while I’m thinking, well, lots of people have their leaves and brush on the curb. Can’t the leaf guy just pick it up when he drives by? (The answer to this is no. You have to call.)

You get your main building permit in the Fire Prevention Office. And you get your plumbing permit at the County Health Department. The plumbing inspector’s office is just down the hallway where people get their HIV vaccines.

I can report, however, that you do, indeed, get your library card at the library.

The good news is that we ended up spending 12 eventful days working on the Big Brick House and getting to know this community we have decided to join. Our Paducah friend Marcie returned from her London study abroad trip in time to spend a few days with us, introducing us to people we should know, running errands, sharing meals. And laughing as we do every time we are together.

This is just the beginning. The task is unending and will be that way for a long time. But that’s okay. I can see the house in my eyes. It is beautiful. And it is Home!

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I know we have a lot of work ahead of us. But that’s the fun! (Or at least I hope so!)


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We Bought a House.

Yes, we already own two houses. But, well, this one was special.

Driving back to South Carolina after our yearly summer trip to Minnesota to see the kids, we stopped to visit our friend Marcie who lives near Paducah, KY.  And that’s when it hit us. Paducah was exactly half way between our Minneapolis family and our home in SC. If we lived in Paducah, we could drive up to visit the grandkids in one day. And maybe they would even visit us!

With those thoughts swimming in our brains, we took a little stroll down beautiful historic Jefferson Street. And there it was. The Big Brick House. In the front yard was a sign that said “For Sale” but there was no phone number, no name, no information, nothing. Still, we jumped out of the car to take a look.  I clamored up the front steps and peered through one of the three front French doors. Flailing my arms, I turned around screaming “It’s gutted!”

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Here is our Big Brick House!

While not everyone’s dream, for us, this was a miracle. We had often talked about how great it would be if some day we could find a house where the outside was complete, but the inside was a blank slate just waiting for us.  And here it was! But how to get information to find out if it was really for sale, let alone if we could afford it.

During the next several weeks, Marcie tried to find people who knew the owner. We heard the house might be for sale, but, apparently, out of our price range until we sold our beach house. Then we heard that a couple of people had started a bidding war over the house. We could feel the dream vanishing.

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Our Living Room with original fireplace tile made right in Paducah.

We had to do something. So, we put our beach house on the market with plans that the minute it sold, we would head up to Paducah and find the perfect house, if not the Big Brick House, something as exciting. We even connected with a real estate agent.

And then it happened. Our real estate agent found someone who knew the owner. For whatever reason, our agent and the reclusive owner connected and the next thing we knew, there was a chance that we could buy it: The Big Brick House, which also included a carriage house and a three-car garage. We had to act fast. Word had gotten out that the owner might be ready to sell and already someone was lined up to view the house that afternoon. So, we called our realtor and said we would buy the house (even though we hadn’t sold the beach house). Right then. Without actually stepping foot inside. And that’s what we did.

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Can’t you see the possibilities?

T.S. Eliot once wrote, “Home is where one starts from.” That’s what The Big Brick House feels like to us. It seems like our whole remodeling lives have led to this house.  We still can’t quite believe that this worked out. It will take years of work, we know. But we’re ready. As Plato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.” We bought a house. We have begun.