For or Against: August

How do we enjoy our time when we know it's coming to an end?

August is the Sunday of months, emblematic of just how hard it can be to enjoy our time when we know it’s coming to an end. Right now, in New York City, it’s still very much summer, the greenmarket spilling over with zebra-striped tomatoes and ground cherries wrapped like tiny presents in their loose paper husks. We still can take the subway to Brighton Beach, so long as there’s not a hurricane, and let the cool waves lap at our calves; still meet a friend to split a bottle of wine and a wedge of Brie in the park and stay sprawled in the lengthening shadows till dusk falls at 8 o’clock, or close to it, anyway, and even then—look there!—the fireflies will start to glow.

But even when I’m doing my best to stay in the moment, watching E.T. outdoors while the stars light up overhead or racing to lick the ice-cream cone before it drips down the front of my dress, the knowledge that summer is almost over is like a wash of watercolor brushed on wet paper, seeping slowly in from the corners of my mind. It’s also in August that I’m most prone to existential crises, crooning along to Neil Young on the clock radio while I lie in bed with the AC blasting all afternoon, furious with myself for wasting the day when I should be out living, worrying over what exactly what living is supposed to look like.

In the poem “You Can’t Have It All,” Barbara Ras captures the particular sadness of appreciating love and beauty when you know you’re bound to lose them. You can’t have it all, the poem’s title reminds us, but immediately Ras sets about listing all the things we can have, if we can bear to notice them:

But you can have the fig tree and its fat leaves like clown hands
gloved with green. You can have the touch of a single eleven-year-old finger
on your cheek, waking you at one a.m. to say the hamster is back.
You can have the purr of the cat and the soulful look
of the black dog, the look that says, If I could I would bite
every sorrow until it fled, and when it is August,
you can have it August and abundantly so.

Abundantly August: Reading that line, I remember waking up at a friend’s house in the Berkshires, the summer after I’d moved away. I heard the wind rustling the red oak tree’s glossy leaves, watched the white curtains flutter in the breeze, and I began to cry. I thought maybe I was sad about my relationship with the then-boyfriend sleeping beside me, who I can now say I loved, though I didn’t say it to him at the time. But really I think I was anticipating how I’d miss the mountains I’d called home for a few years when I left again. Now when I remember that morning, I miss it all: the wind in the trees, the ex-boyfriend, that summer when I was 31, none of which I’m ever getting back.

There’s another line in “You Can’t Have It All” that makes me tear up every time I read it:

You can have your grandfather sitting on the side of your bed,
at least for a while,

The line goes on after that, but though I’ve memorized most the poem I find I can never remember the phrase that follows, my mind leaping to my own grandmother in Tennessee, the way she’d laugh so hard she couldn’t finish her own stories, the box of Whitman’s assorted chocolates I knew I’d find each time I came to visit, waiting on my neatly made bed.

Anyway, that’s the best poem I know about August. The best poem I know about Sundays is actually just one of Angela’s monologues from My So-Called Life:

"There's something about Sunday night that really makes you want to kill yourself, especially if you've just been totally made a fool of by the only person you'll ever love, and you have a geometry midterm on Monday, which you still haven't studied for because you can't, because Brian Krakow has your textbook, and you're too embarrassed to even deal with it. And your little sister's completely finished with her homework, which is just, like, so simple and mindless a child could do it. And that creepy 60 Minutes watch that sounds like your whole life ticking away."

How has 60 Minutes kept that same tick-tock going all these years, without inspiring mass rebellion? Perhaps we’re all too demoralized by the sound to do anything about it. In any case, of course it’s rather obvious to prefer beginnings, the proud wick of a new candle, the just-cracked hiss of seltzer, unpacking boxes in a new apartment and vowing that this time I’ll sweep every day and never-ever toss my bras so carelessly over the back of chairs. I feel best in late May and early June, the promise of so many long green days ahead. But the reason I don’t like August is the same reason I suppose I need it. In June, there’s no need to do anything but look ahead. When August comes, I face the truth.