August

an illustration from an 1873 edition of St. Nicholas

by Jessie Lynn McMains

The long summer yawns into August. It’s still summer—the hottest part. The dog days. Sultry, slow, the air so wet you can see it even at night, when the neighbors’ porch lights make it glow orange. There are bees in the lavender, cup-plants and pink lilies and goldenrod growing riotous in the backyard. Technically, summer lasts until late September. Still, August feels like the end of something. The best of summer gone, the new fall not yet born. The odd, uneven time., as Sylvia Plath wrote.

This month has made me sad since I was a child. Time for back-to-school, time to prepare yourself for the coming cold. Even after I was no longer in school, and before I had children of my own to send there—packs of no. 2 pencils on store shelves, trees with an early tinge of orange and gold, the first morning with a chill and the lingering smell of bonfires in the air—always sent me into a fit of melancholy. It’s not that I don’t love autumn. Autumn is my favorite season, but I just cannot bear to see another summer go. It’s a reminder that everything is finite; a yearly taste of mortality. It can be comforting, when times are bad, to remember This, too, shall pass. But it also hurts to remember that: even the good things pass. Everything goes away forever.

August. The true ending of a year. Summer is a gasping, breathless season. It goes out with a bang and a blaze. Then autumn brings its quiet shuffle, and that feels like the new year to me. The new year starts in autumn, when everything is dying, or going to sleep. It ices over in winter, and builds up again in spring—builds up to summer, which has to be the final season of the year. The year climaxes in summer; one last big showdown before it dies to make way for the next.

August is a lonesome old folk tune of a month. The ghosts of summers past are all around. And the ever-present feeling that I’ve wasted this summer, that it didn’t live up to my expectations; that the calendar year is more than half over and I barely did anything I’d planned to. The end of the summer, and its/it’s burning.

The summer ends, and we wonder who we are. Though the autumnal equinox won’t arrive until September 22nd, August is a liminal time, the space between summer and fall. And this August—and last August—have been, for me, even more liminal than Augusts past. Dates and times have lost their meaning in this long pandemic. I still have a calendar, to keep track of appointments and work deadlines, but most days just blur into each other, wet ink on a page. Things were beginning to return to normal earlier this year, but what with the Delta variant I have canceled my end-of-summer and early fall plans. And there isn’t even the usual back-to-school schedule—I’ll be homeschooling my children for another school year. So clock-time and calendar-time, what do they matter to me right now? I measure time, these days, by the phases of the moon and which flowers are blooming in my garden. I am in a liminal space between being in the world and not being in it; I am on the threshold between seasons.

What to do but let the ghosts in, and see the fields beyond the fields. Listen to the blues, and the cicada jazz of the dog day evenings. Eat a Michigan peach. Mix a drink, something with bourbon and honey. Watch how the days get shorter and shorter; wait for the Sturgeon Moon to show its face in the bimulous late-summer sky.

photograph of the Sturgeon Moon rising in 2016, by Admitter on Flickr

ENDNOTES:

I referenced a few songs and quotations in this essay. Here is a list, in order of appearance:

  • Jason Webley – “August Closing His Mouth After a Long Summer’s Yawn
  • August rain: the best of the summer gone, and the new fall not yet born. The odd uneven time. —Sylvia Plath
  • It is a sad moment when the first phlox appears. It is the amber light indicating the end of the great burst of early summer and suggesting that we must now start looking forward to autumn. Not that I have any objection to autumn as a season, full of its own beauty; but I just cannot bear to see another summer go, and I recoil from what the first hint of autumn means. —Vita Sackville-West
  • It no longer makes me cry and die and tear myself to see her go because everything goes away from me like that now — girls, visions, anything, just in the same way and forever and I accept lostness forever. —Jack Kerouac, from Visions of Cody
  • It is August: the true ending of a year. / I’ve grown sick from trying to love who I am. —Carlie Hoffman, from “High Bridge Park
  • August evenings are especially stricken with melancholy – as if the ghosts of all past summers came rushing to haunt my heart —Listy Tamtego Lata, from Letters of Summers Past
  • I love borders. August is the border between summer and autumn; it is the most beautiful month I know. Tove Jansson, from Moominvalley in November
  • Dar Williams – “The End of the Summer” (the summer ends and we wonder who we are / the fields beyond the fields)
  • The word ‘bimulous’ comes from When the Sky is Like Lace, by Elinor Lander Horwitz

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