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What I did On My Summer Vacation by Barb Hampton

When I'm chatting with friends and we get around to the age-old question - "What did you do this summer?" - my answer is a simple one. I did nothing.

I'd love to say I planned it this way; that it was an elaborate design carried out with great efficiency and determination. I must admit, however, I started with a totally different concept for the Summer of 2000.

The groundwork for my summer plans started several years ago. In February of 1997, I was diagnosed with a serious illness. During the recovery year that followed, there were times when all I could do was sit in the swing in the yard and contemplate life. I knew I wanted to finish college. I also wanted to move into a house that better suited both my and my husband's needs. I wanted to change professions. Those contemplations grew into what I have since called my Five Year Plan which would, I decided, support what I had discovered was most important to me - to dedicate more time to my writing.

Recovery in hand, I stepped back into part-time academic life in 1998. By May of 1999, I had finished my associate degree and graduated from John A. Logan Junior College. As I planned a celebration for my family and friends, I embraced the "one down, two to go" feeling. Moving was next on my list.

We had lived in our present home for over twenty-five years. Our relationship with our next door neighbor, Corkie Young, was a good one. She often said she and her husband, Jim, had watched us grow up. Our son Shawn was a frequent play-mate for her granddaughter Kathy, during summer visits, and Jim barbecued the best salameats I had ever eaten.

As the years passed, so did Jim, and Corkie finally began to spend more time sitting with us in the yard. She talked about her great-grandson Trevor, and was always anxious to see pictures of my grandchildren. Though she was happy to read my latest foray into fiction, it was the gardening interests she shared with my husband David, that lay at the center of our friendship.

The property line between our houses had long ago disappeared into the landscaping, and we shared plants, trees and numerous flowers. So when Corkie started talking about moving to Florida to live with her son, it seemed only natural that we would buy her house and adjoining lot. We agreed when the time came she would give us the right of first refusal.

Corkie started talking seriously about moving in 1997 and initially planned on moving at the end of the summer of 1998. About mid-summer that year she changed her mind and left early for Florida, vowing to return in the spring. We were disappointed, to say the least, but she did return early in the spring of 1999. Negotiations went quickly and, once the details were settled we found ourselves the proud owners of a total of 30,000 square feet of real estate.

Because we had handled the entire transaction without a realtor, and because we had known Corkie for so long, we tried to be understanding about when she would actually move. Weeks passed. Spring turned into summer, and I started to wonder if we would be able to complete the necessary remodeling in time for me to host Christmas Dinner.

It was a bittersweet moment when she finally handed us the keys. We talked about how much we would miss her as her car disappeared around the corner -- just before my husband started cutting down the apple tree in the front yard. By noon that first day we were tearing up carpeting and scraping walls because it was early August and we had a schedule to keep.

Months of painting and cleaning followed, not to mention the inevitable moving - a somewhat strange project considering we had kept our old house. When friends asked if I needed help on moving day I just laughed. "I only have the two boxes," I explained. "I load one, he carries it next door and empties it, and by the time he comes back I've got the other one ready to go!" We were far from finished, but we did spend our first night in our new home on August 21, 1999 - our 29th wedding anniversary.

According to my Plan, remodeling was supposed to be finished so that I could dedicate the Fall of 1999 to writing. I felt like writing was key to the change in professions I hoped for, and I felt it was time to take writing very seriously. Life, I have discovered, doesn't stay with the Plan. Earlier in the year, while I was finishing my degree, the plant my husband worked at started downsizing. We thought twenty years of seniority would protect him, but he lost his job in the last round of cuts. After a lot of discussion, we decided it was the right time for him to start a landscaping business because my job was stable. He was working on his first paying endeavor when it was announced the financial institution where I was employed had been sold. When the first job change for me came it seemed to be a better fit than my original position. We were hip deep into the remodeling and moving scenario, however, when my position changed again. After staffing cuts I found myself working longer hours. Late one frustrating evening, as I was sitting on the floor in the corner of what would someday be my living room, I was near the end of my rope. My feet braced against each wall, pulling at the most stubborn piece of baseboard I had ever met, I started mumbling to myself - "As soon as this is finished, I get a break." It became my silent mantra when I was filling cracks with putty, touching up paint, carrying yet another stack of junk to the trash. I kept telling myself, "Hang in there - fall will be here soon."

We were making great progress, and Fall of 1999 did indeed arrive. We made the decision to put off remodeling the kitchen until next year, so I was ready to pick up my writing notebook when I got a phone call - the opportunity to teach a writing class in the continuing education program at the local junior college. I couldn't pass that up. Before I knew it, Fall 1999 had slipped into Winter 2000, and I was preparing lesson plans, composing lectures and grading papers. Time for writing would, it seemed, have to wait until spring.

It was with clear determination that I sat down on the front porch during early Spring 2000 with my notebook in hand. I was hoping the awakening going on around me would stir my creative juices. But I quickly discovered just staying in front of my journal was a chore. My pages filled slowly with doodles and scribbles. There were vague whispers of ideas, but I couldn't seem to get them on the page, let alone nurture them into anything that remotely resembled a story or a poem.

As my industrious neighbors were putting out their gardens, I was still stumbling around. I dragged out my inspirational materials. In an attempt to get myself rolling, I dusted off my writing exercises. I tried writing every day, writing a paragraph a day, writing a sentence a day. I tried pretending it was e-mail, hoping to stumble across something that resembled writing. Friends cajoled me. "Don't worry" they said, "You're just out of practice". But as spring started to wane, my neighbors had radishes and onions. All I had were scribbles and unkept promises.

I was chastising myself for my inability to keep my writing promises in mid-May 2000. It was a quiet afternoon. I had taken a couple of days off, spent some time with the grandkids. I was looking for a quote I remembered writing down somewhere, and I came across the only writing I had done during my illness. As I turned the pages of the tiny journal, I was reminded that in 1997 I had made myself a promise.

Like many of the women I know, I take the promises I make to others very seriously, but the promises I make to myself are another matter. In 1997, I had sat in a doctor's office and listened to him say he thought I was dying. Five weeks later, in May, my specialist explained to my great joy that while I was very sick, I wasn't dying. In the year that followed, I took my medicine and rested and exercised, but most importantly I promised myself life would be different.

I had started out with good intentions, and I had to admit I was on track in many ways. But in the preceding six or seven months, I had begun to lose my way. My job once again absorbed my energy. I was driving myself from one project to another. Add a couple of family illnesses that required our attention to unexpected car repairs, and life in general seemed to be picking up speed. As what seemed like a natural consequence, completing my degree had been put on hold for the same reasons I hadn't finished college when I was in my 20's. There was remodeling, we needed to replace our aging cars, and we really wanted to take a vacation. I had been thinking of late that it might make more sense to get a degree in business. What was I going to do with a degree in writing anyway? Business was the logical choice, if finishing college right now was logical at all. Thankfully, three years to the day I found out I wasn't dying, I had the words from that tiny volume to remind me that when it came right down to it, many times it's not about logic, it's about keeping promises.

That very afternoon, I picked up the phone and called Norwich University in Montpelier, Vermont. I had spoken with a counselor last year and knew their low residency program would give me the chance to finish my bachelor degree in writing and literature in two years. They told me they could get me in for summer, but I told them I wouldn't be ready to enroll until Fall 2000. Then I went into the kitchen, fixed a cup of tea, and stepped out onto my front porch.

This is it, I told myself. I promised myself a rest. I had a rest coming and I was going to rest no matter what.

I started out resting like I tackle every other project. Plan, schedule, be determined, persevere. The first day I went back into the house three times; first to retrieve a notebook and pen, then something to read, finally to refresh my tea. It was torture. I felt like I was slacking off. I was worried I was giving in to writer's block; maybe I'd never write again. A sense of panic was creeping around the edges. Feeling like I had to do something besides just sit there, I listened to Thomas Moore's tapes On Creativity. In the thoughts he shares on those tapes, he reminded me of earlier learned lessons. The creative life requires nurture and when we do not nurture ourselves, the Well within, that place from which we water all those ideas that flutter around us, goes dry. He went on to say that we need to honor the call from our soul and sometimes what the soul is calling for is silence.

So, beginning that afternoon in May, and in the months that followed, I honored my silence. I stretched out in the middle of the pile of fiction I had hoped to have time to read someday and practiced the fine art of page turning. I drank tall glasses of iced tea in the shade and ate store-bought cookies. And, as outrageously preposterous and sinful as it sounds, some days, for hours at a time, I did absolutely nothing. I let my Well refill and as the liquid energy lapped around the sides, I guarded it carefully.

As fall settles in around me, I'm growing excited about heading off to my first week at Norwich. I'll be working on that kitchen project soon. I've got lesson plans to update. Someone asked the other day why I was suddenly so busy. Why didn't I do some of these things this summer? The answer to that question is an easy one. I was busy this summer. I was busy keeping a promise to do nothing.

Barbara Hampton is a long-time resident of a small town in southern Illinois where she has been wife and companion to David for 30 years. Her writing is driven by the variety of roles she finds herself in, including wife, companion, mother, grandmother, financial adviser, student, lay minister, inspirational speaker, group leader and expert on all things chocolate. Previously published in the John A. Logan Junior College literary magazine (Expressions), Barb is studying writing and literature at Norwich college.

E-mail Barbara at:

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