Sabbatical

By Shlomit Auciello | Jul 23, 2020

I started writing Letter From Away while living in and covering Warren for Good Neighbors Community Newspaper – serving the five non-coastal towns of Knox County. The column started as Just One Opinion. But anyone who's met me know I have more than one opinion, so I changed the name in 1992.

In 2000, after I ran for the Legislature, Jill Lang offered me a column at k2bh.com, the precursor to VillageSoup's first incarnation. I'm committed to print but liked being able to insert my photographs throughout the text. It was a good situation, until Sept. 11, 2001, began to expose the fragile nature of our social contract.

Political discourse would be published on the site, but no longer paid for. Just about everything I write as a columnist has a socio-political message, and Jill had been given no clear guidance from the publisher, Richard Anderson. When he refused to meet with me to define the boundaries, I quit.

Three years later, I went to The Courier begging for a column. It didn't have to pay. All that mattered at this point a was pressure to write and access to an audience of readers. Eventually, I was getting $25 per column, a step down from what I'd been getting at VillageSoup, but I felt like part of a real news organization. The audience grew, and I would occasionally see people reading my stories out in public.

By 2008, I moved to Rockland and was living with and caring for my mother during her final year. She died that June. In August, Richard Anderson bought Courier Publications and Leanne Robicheau offered me a spot as a full-time reporter. The offer was contingent on my giving up political advocacy in print and I was ready to make the shift from sharing my opinions to the discipline of setting them aside.

I went to work for The Lincoln County News in 2013 and worked there for a little over a year. I still liked the work, but the beats are much bigger in Lincoln County, and the miles were taking a toll on my back and my car. I was covering more fires and court cases. I was going through stuff. I needed a change.

Armed with an idea for a screenplay, but no knowledge of the skills needed to write one, I decided to return to college. I'd had 40 gap years, was ready to buckle down, and had finally learned how to take notes. I was lucky enough to stumble on College of the Atlantic, in Bar Harbor, to get in, and to receive great financial aid. For three years I immersed myself in biology and music, improvisation and fractal physics, shared student housing and respectful discourse.

I returned to Rockland three years ago, with a degree in human ecology and about $25,000 in debt. Like most newly-minted college graduates, I was unsure about what I would do next other than look for work. Unlike most newly-minted college graduates, I was 64 years old.

For the past couple of years I've worked summers at The Salty Owl, a tiny restaurant in the tiny airport in beautiful Owls Head. I love to cook. I love everything about cooking, even taking pride in a rack of clean dishes and finding extra satisfaction in getting cooked-on gunk off the pans. I learned some customer service skills, never my strong point, and worked for two of the best bosses I've ever had.

Restaurant work is the most physically demanding I've ever done, more so than the gardening I did the summer before I started at COA. I know I can't do it forever, but was planning on staying as long as they'd have me. Well, we all know what plans are for. Especially in 2020, when many of us are keeping some distance in the hope of reducing the impact of a rapidly traveling microbe that happens to make a fair number of humans very sick.

College instructors are often given breaks to study and explore. The time off is called a sabbatical, after the Biblical practice of leaving fields to lie fallow for a year out of every seven, to regenerate without the pressure to produce.

This COVID-19 is my sabbatical, and I've come to see the disease and our response to it, as one of my life's greatest teachers. As is the case for most college professors, I've had income during this time – from Social Security, an extension of my unemployment benefit as a seasonal worker and $600 a week in Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. My current monthly income of roughly $4000 a month won't last beyond this month, but it is the highest I've ever had and for the first time in my life I have savings, maybe enough to pay for my roof and utilities until spring, when I might be able to find work in a kitchen again.

Meanwhile, I apply for jobs and use my sabbatical to try new things, find ways to create and strengthen connection, observe the life around me, and now, to write.

I've got a deadline again, and am expected to produce. It feels great.

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