I believe that a lot of what happens in life is serendipitous. Chance meetings, people passing through, brief introductions that somehow snag in your brain and cause you to remember. I met Barbara Ungar through a mutual friend years ago. I had young children and was trying to balance my creative life with the lives I was now nurturing. Barbara was this quiet creative force -- a poet -- her words stormed off the page. Over the years I would receive occasional updates via my friend on Barbara's work. I knew she had had a child and written a stunning collection of poems on motherhood which I promptly devoured. I went to a few readings. But then, as these things go, I lost track of Barbara until one day I was posting a piece over at The Nervous Breakdown and saw Barbara's name run across the header. Much to my surprise it was the very same Barbara Ungar that I knew -- and I sent her an e-mail, turns out we live in the same town now and we met for breakfast that bled into lunch. When I heard Barbara had a new book of poetry coming out I asked her to guest post. She wasn't so sure that she had anything to say -- until she sent me this beautiful piece loaded with bittersweet ennui about the end of summer.
Upstream by Barbara Ungar
Ever upstream from myself,
I advance, implore and pursue myself.
A friend of mine, when asked her three favorite things about teaching, says, June, July, and August. By this July, I was already in mourning. Already counting the days, computing fractions and percentages in my head. Does anyone else do this? Perhaps it began when I used to swim a mile a day: I would not only count the laps, but in my boredom, constantly compute: 9 laps = ¼ mile = 25 % . . . My colleagues are occasionally astonished by my cheerful response to a casual greeting, “The semester’s already 2/7ths over!” I don’t just do this with work and chores, anticipating the end, but with enjoyable time—summers, vacations, weekends—time I wish I could slow down. Each summer I am acutely aware of the zenith, the Ides of July, and from then on, feel summer ebbing away, sucked into the storm drain of awaiting work. This is one of the great joys and worst drags of teaching. We are kept perpetually childlike, subject to the Sunday-night, back-to-school and work-week ache, magnified, each August.
Late August also brings my birthday, which used to be a paradox: I longed for my party (once-a-year horseback riding with my girlfriends) and presies—almost as much as I dreaded the end of summer. I was swinging on my stomach in the backyard when I first understood that dread—I didn’t want to go back to school. I was 8, returning to third grade. And now it’s upon me again, intensified by the strange fact that time moves a bazillion times faster now than it did then. I am getting older; each summer represents a smaller fraction of my dwindling whole. The summer I was 8 was almost eternal, or at least as slow as Zeno’s paradox. Now the months whiz past so quickly, I barely see them go. What happened to June, for example? Now the message is simple and unified: each birthday brings the end nearer.
This is the end of everything! wails the imprisoned Toad in Wind in the Willows. Every single thing he has lived through falls behind. No matter whether he hops, punts on a stream, ambles in a gypsy caravan, tears through the countryside in a motorcar, or weeps on straw. HERE he always is, balanced on the fulcrum of NOW. It keeps coming at you. Turn the page. You never know what’s coming next. Relax
and ride the waves, watch them come and watch them go.
So here I am, wasting precious late summer hours and minutes and seconds brooding over time. Heidegger wrote that human existence is being-toward-death. The death of each moment as it flies—the barn swallows swooping and chattering, keen black wings and yellow bellies. Gone.
Be Here Now, as Ram Dass said, so long ago. Or, in the sayings of the Jewish Zen Masters,
Be here now, be someplace else later. Is that so hard?
Barbara Louise Ungar’s latest book, Charlotte Brontë, You Ruined My Life, is forthcoming in January 2011 from The Word Works. It can be advance ordered now at: www.wordworksdc.com
(or http://www.wordworksdc.com/books.html#charlotte). She is the author of two previous collections of poetry, Thrift and The Origin of the Milky Way. The latter won the 2006 Gival Press Poetry Award, a Silver IPPY (Independent Publishers’ Book Award), an Eric J. Hoffer Notable for Poetry Award, and the Adirondack Center for Writing Award for Best Book of Poetry 2007 (co-winner). She is an English professor at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York.