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Keeping the Ground Clear 

by Barbara Hampton

Green patches yearning for sunlight daily I watch my husband remove the protective cover of last fallís leaves to reveal the growth beneath. He pulls the tiny shoots from the soft dirt and tosses them to the side. "Why?" I ask. "Weeds," he says. "How can you possibly tell that tiny little green sprig is a weed?" "It doesnít belong there," he answers. "That makes it a weed."

I press for an answer. "I donít see how you can tell so soon." He responds patiently. "The weeds come up first. If I want what I planted there to grow, I have to keep the space clear until my plants are strong enough to make it their own."

Even though it looks like some harsh form of environmental abuse, it makes sense. Iíve been doing the same thing all winter.

In the spring of 2000, I was accepted for Fall 2000 enrollment at Norwich University. The adult degree program of Vermont College and my life style and goals were a perfect fit. The non-traditional approach to structuring a course of study would allow me to continue to pursue my writing goals, work full-time and finish college in a year and a half.

Non-traditional as it was in form, it would still be a grueling task, so it was not a decision I made lightly. It was, however, a decision I made with great conviction because I knew that immersing myself in this endeavor was part of a life-long dream.

During the summer that followed, I took a much-needed rest. As fall approached, I found myself feeling I was stepping into more than a new endeavor. I had been through periods of change before, so taking on studies I knew I would enjoy didnít frighten me. I assured myself I was accustomed to change. In the past three years, I had absorbed changes that ranged from the effects of recovering from a major illness to my husband going into business for himself, to living in a job in the midst of merger mania.

More than that, I had been adjusting to changes throughout my entire life. When standing at the crossroads, where I could respond the way I had in the past, I most frequently chose change, and sometimes this surprised me as much as it did everyone else.

The growth that followed change was exciting. Tumultuous, stressful, frustrating, but also invigorating, enlightening and expansive. New ideas, new thoughts, new faces. I enjoyed times of growth. I had embraced a belief in life as a journey. I had let go of destination and embraced movement.

The changes of the past, however, usually came at a crossroad I was led to by something external, often something out of my control. This time was different. There was no external event to cause me to return to school in mid-life. I did not expect that a degree in writing and literature would further my career in business. I did not anticipate that taking on a new regiment of student loan payments was the most effective way to plan for retirement. While I had a hope that somehow this step would put me in a position to make other changes in my life, there was no guarantee.

More than that, I wasnít really led to this crossroad, if it was a crossroad at all. It was as if I had been walking along and a quiet Voice started whispering to me. The choice to return to school was made for only one reason Ė in response to a call from deep within my Soul.

That response was clearly my own choice, a choice that had brought the fervor of transition into my life. I wasnít just embracing transition as ideology. I was living it. Every day I made choices, not between good and evil but between something that I had done before and what I was doing now. In the same way my husband pulled up anything that wasnít supposed to grow there, I chose daily what I would toss aside.

It was a hard won lesson. I had started my studies in October 2000 in full force, retreating each night into my study, keeping a strict schedule. I was ahead on this path of determination, so during the holidays I had taken a break. My husband had remodeled the kitchen, so it was a joy to return to baking holiday goodies and fixing meals.

What happened next seemed very strange. It was as if my old life stood up and said, "Here I am, waiting for you to come back to me." Within what felt like only hours, I was taking care of everyone else, meeting demands, anticipating needs. I couldnít even blame it on people who had been comfortable with my old roles. It was me, stepping back into a space I knew and loved.

When all the ornaments were back in their storage boxes and the last gift had been exchanged, I forcefully returned to my studies. It was like starting all over again. I struggled for weeks to get my schedule back on track, to squelch the fears until the calm of the studies themselves returned the new direction to me. The new role wasnít fully out of the ground yet. It had just started to quicken deep in the dark fertile soil of this time in my life. So, given a little sunshine, the memories of the old roles jumped to the surface and I grasped at them because transition, if it is anything at all, is about traversing new territory. It can be fun for a while, but on a cold winter afternoon, it can leave a person yearning for the comfort of the familiar. I now knew I had cleared the space for a part of me to grow and it was up to me to make sure that happened.

I was going to have to do more than just think about transition. I was going to have to truly change, and because this transition was not being driven by circumstances outside myself, I would have to become diligent in making the transition work from the inside out. I would have to let go of old roles. I would have to let go of old ideas. I would have to let new thoughts take root and grow.

While they were struggling to take root, I was going to have to nurture the space. I needed to surround myself with people who said "Great seeing you try a new direction, Barb, you can do it!" instead of people who said "How come you donít do this anymore?" And while it might seem environmentally abusive at times, it would be up to me to pull up the sprouting past and keep the space cleared until this new Self got strong enough to survive on its own.

As I prepare to return to Vermont for my next residency, I have a different kind of confidence. I already know Iím facing stark, dormitory gray walls, communal bathrooms and a roommate whose snoring actually becomes comforting because it sounds oddly close to what I hear at home. I also know within hours of arriving, an atmosphere of exploration will curl up around me, the fires of creativity will begin to burn and the exchange of ideas will drive me to grasp madly at my dreams.

There are things I donít know, of course, like just how muddy the mud season is in Vermont in April or what odd concoction of sauces and vegetables will be on the daily menus, but Iíll be taking what I learned last time very seriously. You see, I know this time that itís more important to have pictures of family and friends for my walls, those CDís I love to listen to and my own familiar mug, than it is to have both a blue shirt and a gray shirt.

I also know when itís over and the plane lands and I drive into the driveway, I wonít be saying "Good to be back." Iíll be saying "Look where I am now." Iím on a journey of transition, so no matter how familiar it looks, even something as simple as coming home wonít be the same.

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 Statements, Barb teaches creative writing in the continuing education program at John A. Logan Junior College. She is studying writing and literature at Norwich University, the adult degree program of Vermont College.

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