Time in a Bottle by Jamie Kirkpatrick (Tunisia)

 

by Jamie Kirkpatrick (Tunisia 1970-72; APCD 1974-76)
October 27, 2020

It’s a sobering thought but I’ve reached the point in my life where I can count time in half centuries. To wit, it was fifty years ago almost to the day that I arrived in Tunisia. I was on my way to becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer: the first six weeks of my service had been spent in intensive language and cross-cultural training in America. For the next six weeks, I would be in total language immersion in my new host country. Did I mention that was fifty years ago? Sigh.

Looking back, those fifty years have flown by. Four of them were spent in Tunisia, the first two in the Kasserine, a small town in the rugged mountains hard by the Algerian border and famous for a pivotal battle in World War II. Then there were two more years in Tunis, the country’s capital, working on the Peace Corps staff. Next came two years in Boston at grad school, a lost year in Pittsburgh working in a bank (not my “thing”), then finally on to Washington where I came into myself, first as a manager of international non-profit organizations, then as a teacher, college counselor, and coach at a boys’ school. Along the way, there were children (two), marriages (two), and eventually grandchildren (six). There have been ups and downs, highs and lows, wins and losses. In a word: life.

We never know how much time we’ll have. If you’re inclined to count day by day, who knows when the string will run out. But if, like me, you pretend the passing years somehow aren’t accumulating, then one day you wake up and look back at fifty years — half a century!— of living and loving, succeeding and failing. You’re stunned, ambushed by time in a sneak attack marked by sudden aches and pains, a frequent urge to nap, and an impending sense of doom, probably not unlike what those ancient mariners felt when they sailed out to the edges of the known world, always wondering what really lay over the sharp edge of the horizon.

Counting in decades and then by a century’s half portion makes one justifiably pensive. When you’re young, there’s not much time for reflection. Life’s busy, impulsive; you move along life’s tow path, briefly noting the mile markers along the way but not paying all that much attention to what they’re telling you. Then, all of a sudden, you realize that you’re closer to the finish line than you are to the starting point. The descent becomes more slippery with every step. Where once you were care-free, now you’re cautious. But guess what: as your pace slows and you’re forced to watch where you put your foot, you begin to see more. Details, once blurry or even unnoticed, come into sharper focus. Friendships run deeper. Moments ignored become moments appreciated, even savored. Fifty years ago, I would have scoffed at the notion, but now, even in decline, life is sweeter, more distilled, more precious.

I’m sure there will come a time when, like Dylan Thomas, I’ll rage, rage against the dying of the light, but for now, I’m content to live in twilight time. I know I won’t see another half century, but the one I have seen has been mostly kind and patient. That young kid who headed off to the Peace Corps in Tunisia fifty years ago is by and large content with the man he has become. With any luck, there’s still a little more time in this bottle.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick  is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown, Maryland. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays — Musing Right Along and I’ll Be Right Back are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is musingjamie.com.

6 Comments

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  • Yes, very well put. Looking back, it seems as though I’ve had several different lives, at least marked life stages…youth in rural Oregon, teenage years in Mexico, Peace Corps Volunteer/staff in Central America, international career in five other countries, stateside roles, family transitions/crises/blessings….thanks, Jamie, for leading me to stop and reflect.

  • Wonderful piece reminding me of mortallity and inconsistent attempts to maintain the motivation and discipline to keep and reinforce a sense of mission forf mysel and those I lilve, love and pray for almost daily.

  • I remember meeting Jamie in Tunisia where I served as a PCV (1972-1974). I “permanently’ selected Tunisia as my home when I returned to live fulltime here in 1978. Jamie’s piece (and I would love to read his books) reminds me that all time and life itself is precious whether we are young or old and we never really know when we’ll be called to leave our lives. Perhaps it’s the notion of leaving the places I’ve lived and worked (Tunisia, Iran, Iraq, French -speaking African countries on USAID assignments) a little better for having worked with the people in them and recognizing it’s those people who touch us (and have touched me) in many ways and that make our own lives count.

  • Beautifully expressed and nostalgic. My sister and her husband served in the early days of Peace Corps in Sousse, Tunisia and my visit to Tunisia (Tunis and Carthage) a few years later started my love affair with Africa: Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania. I’d never considered Peace Corps for myself, until–at age 64, needing another way to contribute as well as reboot–I shot off a query and lo-and-behold I wasn’t “too old” after all. I ended up serving in Uganda 2011-2013. It took six years after my return, to integrate my Peace Corps experiences into the larger context of a totally reconfigured life and ultimately write about it (I Miss the Rain in Africa: Peace Corps as a Third Act). Thank you for a lovely piece.

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