Telling Time

by Katherine Jamieson (Guyana 1996–98)
This essay was published in the newsletter Peace Corps Writers in 2000,
and won the Peace Corps Writers’ 2001 Moritz Thomsen Peace Corps Experience Award

FOR TWO YEARS I LIVED in a country with no seasons. We measured time by other means than falling leaves or snow, new buds on trees. There was a fresh breeze in the air, the ash of burned sugar cane floating in the window. There were times to go to work, times to stay home, an election, an eclipse; all of these differentiated the rising and setting of the same hot sun, and the appearance of a glowing moon and full set of stars. Rain would break the swelter like the fever of a child dissolves into sweat, and the whole city would breathe differently that day. Then the sun would come again and dry what had fallen, and could not last.

I came to this country with the expectation of seasons, and before I had woken to a blinding sun on Christmas, I imagined my yard littered with leaves, a chill in the air. It was here, in this place of 12-hour days and 12-hour nights, of weather and no seasons that I learned to tell time. Telling time is like telling a story: the truth, the time, depend on the teller and the audience. In Guyana, people will ask you, “Now is what time?” or, “Today is what day?” because they know the constants in life. There will always be “now” and “today,” while the names we give them, 3:15 or August 8th, are only names, and names that change.

My watch broke in my first few months; I had calendars, but the holidays changed with the moon. Without the time tellers I depended on, I realized, for the first time, that I was on my own. My days and schedules shifted under the weight of unplanned, unused time, and I discovered that when time had no name, it became a broad expanse of life. Eventually, I learned to measure differently, to find my own names for seasons, without words or numbers. The poet Ted Hughes has written of this experience:

I think of it
As a kind of time that cannot pass,
That I never used, so still possess.

I did not use this time either, I discovered it, and in so doing, reminded myself of what I had so easily and quickly forgotten in a well-measured life. More importantly, I learned to answer the Guyanese questions that had confused me initially. I could say that now is when is the frogs sing, and now is when the rain falls. Now is the howl of monkeys, the smell of curry stewing, the taste of mango pulled from a tree. And today, today is our understanding of being, our sense of ourselves as alive. It is without season or name, sun or rain, it is how we can live wherever we are and grow and grow and grow.

Katherine Jamieson was an Urban Youth Development Volunteer in the Peace Corps. She taught literacy, health, and life skills classes, and helped to coordinate programs at an all-girls vocational training center.

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