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.
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.