February is sort of a transition month. We may still get snow, sleet, and freezing rain but, there is some snow melt, and daylight becomes darkness, later and later. Somewhere out in the snowy woods, high up in a tree, a mama owl is sitting on eggs, warming them with her fluffy self. And squirrels, having found mates, are aggressively defending their territories. Hal Borland*, renowned naturalist, said: “In February, snow will actually melt in very cold weather; evaporating without going through the water stage, and is absorbed by the dry air passing over it. I’ve seen a snow drift shrink six inches in four days, without the temperature getting above 30 degrees. ……the sun is warmer, the day is longer, nights are shorter.” No wonder our skin suffers in winter; dry air = dry skin. Lather on the moisturizers!
Today would be my sister’s birthday were she still with us. Betty (Elizabeth Selenda) was 12 years older than I, and we had three older brothers. She took me to school at least once that I remember --- sort of a senior high show and tell, baby sat me a few times on the rare occasions my parents were away ----- and I babysat her first child when I was in my early teens. We were sort of like ships passing in the night while I was in college, seeing each other mostly on holidays; she was busy with family and later, after college, I was occupied in the same way. We also lived hours apart. But in our later years, saw each other more often and found much to share. She was fond of gardening, bird-watching, and reading. She was also fascinated by the big locks on the St. Lawrence River and collected Cape Cod light house replicas. She and Ray, my brother-in-law, had four fine sons, losing one baby in between. And she gallantly put up with motorcycles, big shoes, and more people in and out of her house than she might have preferred. We were different in many ways----- but quite similar in others ---- and I miss her. I always think of Betty when I see this poem by William Butler Yeats**, the Irish poet: I will arise and go to Innisfree, and a small cabin build there of clay and wattles made, none bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, and live alone in the bee-loud glade. ….I will arise a go now, for always night and day I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore…...” She would have liked the peace and simplicity.
We are less than a week away from Valentine’s Day. Some call this a Hallmark Holiday since it creates considerable income for retailers selling greeting cards, lingerie, chocolates, and flowers. Perhaps you remember, as a kid, making valentines --- and the valentine box at school? Our big table, when the boys were small, was covered with tiny red paper cuttings, glue, glitter and those small, humorous valentines that came in a package of 25.; a rather messy collage of creativity. I loved it! I still have a small stash of red construction paper, lacy doilies, and appropriate verses, in case, some fine February, I am taken over by a valentine-making mood. And of course, we always try to stock up on those little candy hearts with the terse sayings.
The day, itself, is named after a pastor and physician. Valentine, was a Christian Bishop of Rome, when Rome was focused on conquering much of the world. He fell afoul of Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. Claudius was fighting wars and needed soldiers --- preferably young men with no romantic attachments to distract them from warlike duties. So, there was a ban on marriages for people of a certain age. Bishop Valentine, in direct disobedience of the no-marriage edict, continued to marry hundreds of young couples. His defiant behavior came to Claudius’s attention, and Valentine was thrown into prison where he was beaten and finally beheaded on February 14th, 270 AD, thus becoming a Christian martyr. While he was in prison, he sent notes to his friends, signing them “Te Amo ---, Your Valentine”. So, we mix history and romance (and a bit of Latin with English) and get our Valentine’s Day. The world today surely needs more love -----all kinds of love –-- romantic (eros) -- the love of friends (Phileo), without whom, life would be savorless, and selfless love (Agape), which emits grace and appreciation/care for all ----- lacking which, our world has become a mess!
Lack of respect/ compassion, and far too much apathy, greed, and actual evil are all reasons our world seems to be falling apart quite regularly. Another, possibly more fixable reason, could be lack of communication. People don’t listen well even when the conversation is agreeable; we are busy framing replies in our minds instead of hearing what is being said. We frequently fail to “hear” (or even contemplate) viewpoints that differ greatly from our own and --- in addition --- we are often inept at sharing our own opinions in a way that doesn’t put others down. A few years ago, a local foundation sponsored a seminar in listening skills. It was excellent three hours; learning how to clearly speak our thoughts, and how to immerse ourselves in another person’s thinking. This does not mean that in our new understanding, we agreed. But we were able to grasp what someone else saying, and often, why. We also discovered, in this process, that expressing intense feelings without being patronizing or insulting takes thoughtfulness and finesse.
Tolstoy said: “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself!”* If you or I feel very strongly about something, we may find that 1) discussion is uncomfortably threatening to that inner belief and 2) attempts to be understanding may fly out the window if someone disagrees with what we feel is a universal given. Surely if a concept is set in stone for me, it should be for everyone! Tolstoy is right about how we humans think, but perhaps, if understanding is our purpose, we could remember this thought from Henry Drummond**: “Life is full of opportunities for learning love…...The world is not a playground; it is a school room. Life is not a holiday but an education. And the one eternal lesson for all of us is how better we can love.” And no one said the lessons would be easy!
(It would probably also be useful to not bristle like a porcupine, metaphorically covering our ears going: La -La La- La! I can’t hear you!”)
Loving February can be almost as hard as hugging a porcupine. Most of us are unhappy when Punxsutawney Phil predicts six more weeks of winter; we are ready for SPSRING! There may be fewer days in February (Yes, even in Leap Year), but it seems like a too-long month. If there is a thaw and mild breezes (as this week), I cut forsythia branches, forcing them into early bloom inside. Forsythia tries to take over the world, so pruning it is a good deed. If one has access, a mixed bouquet of forsythia and pussy willows is lovely, but our pussy willow trees, unpruned by their lethargic owners, have grown far beyond our reach. Later in the spring, the fuzzy little gray nubbins will flare against the sky about 25 feet up. So, my early bouquet will feature only forsythia.
There was a pussy willow tree on my brother’s farm, grown sturdy and tall, between a stone smoke house and a shed used as a play house. His children and I would climb that many-branched tree, sitting up amid the branches, viewing our “kingdom” o’er. At my home, I had two trees for my personal scaling. One was the cherry tree that met the roof outside my west bedroom window; perfect for up and down. Our cat thought so too; he would climb up to my window and meow to be let in. The other was an ironwood tree growing in a hedgerow in our back pasture. It had a horizontal limb, creating a seat, about five feet up, among the leaves. (And it was nicely far enough away from the house, that I couldn’t hear if anyone called.)
Every child ought to have at least one tree to climb; a sylvan sanctuary! A few years ago, the larch trees in our front yard were at the right height for our granddaughters. Now they have shed lower branches, as larches do, so climbing them wouldn’t be safe but the girls have probably mostly out-grown the desire anyway. Jungle gyms may be good on a playground, but there’s nothing like an actual tree for pure, tactile satisfaction.
February is still winter, but that vase of golden forsythia will remind us that spring isn’t far off. My seed and plant orders will be in this week ---- early for me. Last year I missed some plants I really wanted because I was so late in ordering, so this year, I have pushed myself to order 2 months earlier. I also am trying to restrain my overly-optimistic view of what I can do in the garden. SIGH! Plant catalogs are SO convincing and so tempting with their marvelous photographs. My imagination immediately envisions beds of roses backed by clouds of delphinium, rows of peonies, and lilies. We are supposed to be cutting back, so, expanding my gardens is not acceptable. However ------ fine-tuning what we have is surely a good idea ----- right? I remember (and repeat to my husband and children) this truism: “Gardening is cheaper than therapy ---- and you get tomatoes!”
Whatever the weather outside your window, try to have a little love for February. Right now, at this very moment, it is all we have.
Carol writes from her home in Spencer. She may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Leo Tolstoy – Russian novelist; considered one of the greatest classic writers. 1828-1910
**Henry Drummond ---Scottish writer, lecturer and evangelist. 1851-1897.