It just so happens that yesterday was my birthday. When you’re little, birthdays are all about cakes and candles, parties, presents and friends. But when you’re older, or just old (75 years old, to be exact), birthdays are for taking stock, for remembering, for saying you’re sorry and for giving thanks. They’re bittersweet. You look over your shoulder at all the milestones you’ve passed; you wonder how many more you’ll touch as you walk by. The cake doesn’t much matter anymore; it’s just empty calories.
Retrospection doesn’t come easily to me; I tend to be a creature of the moment. But in the wee hours of the morning when I’m lying awake, I find myself looking back at the people and the places who have made an impression on my life. There are both regrets and gratitudes, paths I’m glad I took, and intersections where I made a wrong turn. But yet, here I am, alive and still kicking, surrounded by good friends and caring family members who wished me well yesterday and meant it.
I’m a lucky man. I have a loving wife. I have found a wonderful place to live. I have meaningful work. My health is reasonably good. No one can foretell the future, but when I look ahead, the skies are, for the most part, clear, and I will make the best of the days I have remaining.
I’m currently reading James A. Michener’s tome on Afghanistan, “Caravans.” It’s one of his typical epics, but it has taken me back to a place and time that were unique in my own experience. I was working on the staff of the Peace Corps, and had been assigned temporary duty for a few weeks in Afghanistan. It was in January of either 1975 or 1976—I’m fuzzy on that detail—but I remember the biting cold, the deep snow on the streets of Kabul, the towering peaks of the Hindu Kush, and the singsong cries of the snow shovelers. One day, another staff member and I had to go to Jalalabad, a city near the border of Pakistan, which was some four rough-road hours from Kabul. On the way, we stopped to let the engine of our vehicle cool, and I wandered up a nearby hill to survey the landscape. At the summit, there wasn’t much to see, but I was suddenly overcome with a feeling that I was as far away from everyone I loved and everything I knew as I could be, and that if I took just one step in any direction, I would either fall off the edge of the earth or be one step closer to home. I was at the end of my tether.
Maybe that’s how I’m feeling today, off on another hilltop, surveying the terrain below wondering what lies ahead. The difference, of course, is that I’m not in Afghanistan. I’m where I belong and tonight, I’ll sleep safe and warm in my own bed.
There’s just one other thing to add: this week, I’m returning to the school where I worked for twenty-two years to serve for one semester in an interim capacity while the school conducts a national search to fill an unexpected vacancy. Much in the landscape of my former profession (college counseling) and on the actual campus of the school (Landon) has changed in the eight intervening years, and I’m both excited and a little nervous at this opportunity. But then I remember coming down from that hilltop in Afghanistan and continuing on with my journey. There was so much more that lay ahead, one step at a time.
And, in the familiar words of that old song, “I think to myself, what a wonderful world!”
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. 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. His new novel “This Salted Soil,” a new children’s book, “The Ballad of Poochie McVay,” and two collections of essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”), are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.