That fifth of August feeling

I’m a slow learner, but even so, there’s a thing that happens that takes me by surprise every year, even though it always happens right around the same time — on or about August fifth. I started telling my mom about it when I was a teenager, and she knew exactly what I meant; she experienced the same thing. Later, when I told my wife Angela about it, she got it right away. We never came up with a name for it, which might have been useful, but instead just refer to it as The August Change, or That Fifth of August Feeling. It may happen on August third or fourth, or a day or two after the fifth, but it usually centers around that day. 

What it is is, you’re outside somewhere, walking up your street or somewhere else familiar, maybe in your backyard, not particularly thinking about the time of year, when all of a sudden you realize that something you can’t put your finger on has changed, something about the whole universe, like you blinked and you’re in a different world. It’s a feeling that Fall is coming — it’s not here yet, not by a long toss, but it’s coming, it’s now on the horizon, it is a reality of the near future.  

In the moment previous to getting struck by That Fifth of August Feeling, you could not have imagined Fall, or coolness, or dimming or dark. You were full-on involved in that bright, muggy, narcotic expansiveness of summer. Then Boom! you get this whiff of something that hints at every close and cozy thing to come — woodsmoke and autumn leaves, school, flannel and wool, hot cocoa, choir music and jigsaw puzzles as big as the biggest tabletop you have. It hits hard at first, like the prick of a needle, and then it is not as intense, but after that moment everything is different. 

Eddie, he got it. "The Long Leg", 1935.

It’s not that the days are getting shorter; that’s already been happening for more than a month. It’s not that it’s necessarily cooler out — it’s not the weather. It’s more something Edward Hopper-ish about the light, the way sunlight is entering into the atmosphere. And yet it’s not only that. If there’s any breeze, it sounds hollow and carries a misty melancholy. It’s like one of the five senses, only it’s not one of them, too. It’s a sense of change, a sudden awareness of mortality.

I suspect, after many years of thinking about this, that the decreasing angle of the sun causes its light to refract differently through the prism of the earth’s atmosphere, but why the phenomenon always hits so suddenly and with such a feeling of surprise, I have never been able to divine. 

I think that part of the answer is that the physical change — whatever meteorological thing is occuring every year around the fifth of August — is just the trigger. It releases something inside us that we have over the long course of the year allowed to become dormant, which might be the sense that all things end and begin again, a sense of Earth’s and our own aging and mortality. That Fifth of August Feeling snaps us out of denial and we recognize that the year is about to start winding down as the spiritual part of the physical world succombs to and celebrates that seasonal truth.

I remember sitting on my tricycle at the top of my driveway one morning as a small child and watching my best friend Heather, the little girl next door, walking away down the street with her mother, and feeling a delicious melancholy in that yearning for her. My friend, going. Gone. That morning may or may not have been a day in early August; for some reason I believe it was more likely a day in September. But I associate that memory with a moment years later, in my late teens or early twenties, when I was writing in my journal. I wrote that encountering this mysterious shift in August enables even small chldren to encompass a sense of loss and longing. I probably didn’t use the word “emcompass”, but I wrote something profound, I’m pretty sure. What I can say is that by my late teens I knew that The August Change was a thing I had experienced long before I was old enough to be able to get a thought around it, much less articulate it — which may be one reason the memories are always so strong when it hits.  

This year The August Change came early for me. I felt it when I was walking home after getting off the bus from work a few days ago. Just an awareness that hadn’t been there the moment before that the year has entered middle age. 

And now in the morning the smell of the bull kelp blistering in the warmed up waters of Elliott Bay reaches my nose. And how long has the grass been brown? Now, suddenly, the blackberries are ready.

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15 Responses to “That fifth of August feeling”


  1. 1 Ben August 7, 2010 at 10:57

    Bravo, brother. I know exactly what you mean! Smelled it, felt it, know it. No less here where I dwell, but were I standing there where I knew my youth, I would now know it just the same as surely as you do. Up here, there is a change in the way the clouds gather up the light of the afternoon. There is a pause in the delicious days of sunshine and the month becomes very dreary for about two weeks. Very Seattlish in its grayness. Then, as duck season arrives, we will be back to blue skys, but every morning will start with ear snapping cold. I love it.

    • 2 jstwndrng August 8, 2010 at 08:25

      Ben,
      You mention something I forgot to touch on, and that’s that some years, directly after TFoAF, the sky will go grey for a couple of weeks, and when the sun emerges again it’s very suddenly Very Much Autumn, even though it might be just early or mid-September. Not every year, but I remember that happening once in a while. It looks like we’re having that kind of year this year. It’s grey and even rainy this weekend, unusual for Seafair weekend here, as you know. I’m glad you enjoy those cold mornings. I’m not ready for them. It’s been too short a summer. Cheers.

  2. 3 angela August 7, 2010 at 20:51

    One of the many reasons I love you.

  3. 5 Kip August 8, 2010 at 08:21

    Yes! I know exactly what you mean! I had the feeling not long ago, the feeling that Fall is close. Soon, cooler nights, when windows can be opened and actually cool off the house! That wonderful time of the year when neither air conditioning nor heater need be used. AC being a rather important feature here in the high desert.

  4. 6 jstwndrng August 8, 2010 at 08:33

    It sounds like the phenomenon is not unique to the Puget Sound area, which doesn’t surprise me. Fact, I remember something similar in Ohio. I also lived in North Carolina for a year as a kid (before I knew ye) but I dont’ recall anything except very hot heat in summer.

  5. 7 Joelle August 8, 2010 at 11:57

    Beautifully written. It happens to me too, I was just telling someone about this earlier this week and now I have a term to use for it 🙂
    For me it manifests itself in a yearning for lamplight, rain, chunky sweaters, and the coming of Christmas.

    • 8 jstwndrng August 8, 2010 at 20:34

      Hi Joelle,
      Check, check, check, and check. Yes, all those things are in that whiff of whatever for me, too. Lamplight especially, that’s a very evocative one.

      The term I’ve used here is not very colorful. If you can come up with a better, by all means feel free.

  6. 9 Louis August 9, 2010 at 01:37

    You put the feeling into words, Journeyman! Thank you.

    Interesting this phenomenon. For me,as a child, the August feeling didn’t come along naturally. It was usually triggered by the proliferation of “Back to School” signs that would crop up in late July/early August. Then and only then would I feel the sadness of fading summer and inevitable return of autumn.

    It really wasn’t until my early adult years that I began to feel naturally the shift of seasons without the prodding of advertisers.

    This August feeling is felt below the equator as well. About a week ago, Sonia and I noticed that the rains of the Brazilian winter were diminishing as we were starting to see more sunshine. Furthermore, some of the trees were starting to bud, signaling the approaching spring. In September.

    • 10 jstwndrng August 9, 2010 at 08:30

      It’s an interesting thought to imagine all the ways that this phenomenon might be felt in your more natural settings around the globe.

      I know for me, there is a corresponding feeling of the coming of Spring up here but it hasn’t to do with light, it’s more in some of those physical details you mention — I see the first crocuses, or as you say the budding of trees, and (oddly enough) the kelpy-seaweedy smell that I mentioned in this post also has a spring version — the bay and/or the air above it warms up and I smell that “harbory” smell for the first time and I know that spring is here.

  7. 11 leatherhead109 August 10, 2010 at 08:28

    For me in “high lattitudes” as sailors would say, it is the deeper morning chill, the sun has a dramatically lower arc in the sky all day and the evening light has a golden glow (mind you, we don’t have “evening light” in June or July). And Joelle, I must add to your list. Along with the desire for lamplight is for me, the anticipation of the sudden goose call, flapping of wings and the smell of the marsh grass with coffee percolating in the camp stove.

  8. 12 Janet August 13, 2010 at 03:16

    Interesting that you should write about this. I think that this, my first year in Seattle, is the first year I have had this feeling in early August. In fact, a few days ago I was going to put a nice quote from Haruki Murakami about the approach of autumn but then the days slipped by and it got warm again. Maybe my blog about suddenly seeing the apples getting redder will have to suffice.
    Janet

  9. 13 jstwndrng August 13, 2010 at 08:29

    Janet,
    Thanks for visiting and commenting again. Yes, it’s warmed up again, but everything is different now after TFoAF. For instance, yesterday there was fog downtown all morning, and then it lifted to reveal beautiful clear blue skies — not high summer skies but late summer skies.

    I checked out your blog(s) and scratched around a little bit, and I see you’re back on the west coast of the US after four decades in Ireland. Welcome home, sort of, even though you landed in Seattle, Washington and not Belmont, California 😉

  10. 14 Janet August 13, 2010 at 11:18

    Matt – this might surprise you but actually yesterday I left Seattle (in the fog) and flew back to Dublin. So now it is 8:15 p.m. Dublin time and noontime in Seattle. Nice to hear that the fog lifted yesterday and yes you are right about the late summer skies….but that sun is still very intense – at least it was 2 days ago. I’m now looking out the window here and thinking…does it feel like autumn approaching….it’s cold enough!! I left my Murakami book in Seattle so I can’t give that quote – I’ll find it when I get back. My husband now has his premanent resident visa so we hope to be back soon – just the final packing up here in Dublin.
    Janet


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