I have a special affection for this month because my birthday falls in February. So does Valentine’s Day. And Presidents’ Day. And Groundhog Day. And usually in the midst of that, Ash Wednesday floats in and paints an ashy cross somewhere in the calendar.
There’s something about the mobility of Ash Wednesday around all these other strange little days that feels profound to me each year, and each year in a different way. There are times when we get to have hearts and chocolate as part of Mardi Gras, and that is lovely. But there are years, like this one, when our declarations of love happened the day after we’ve walked around with signs of our mortality on our foreheads – and I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more tender toward my loved ones than being reminded that they, like I, will die some day.
I don’t have a great affection for Hallmark holidays in general, but my kids are now at an age when Valentine’s Day has meant that our house has been littered with scraps of red and pink construction paper all week. Of course the kids are making Valentines for every child in their overcrowded classrooms, because that is what they must do – give one to everyone, or to no one. On the one hand, this means that most of these cards will be ignored, unless they have candy attached; on the other hand, it means that my children will have to write the names of every single child in their class, even the ones they would never hang out with if given a choice.
The making and giving of these school-age Valentines themselves seems something like a trial – a test of my tolerance for glitter glue and paper scraps, for last minute bustle and the inevitable sugar crash that will come at the end of the day when the candy that comes with all these greetings has been consumed. I have to work constantly to reframe what is happening here – that we are not just going through the motions or being slaves to Hallmark, but in fact are celebrating the fact that we have the leisure to celebrate all kinds of love, even the generic love of one classmate for another and the fact that these kdis daily have a chance to learn and grow together.
Every year as I put ashes on foreheads I’m reminded that some of those foreheads might not be present next year. It wouldn’t hurt to understand the giving of Valentines in the same way: I cannot know what life will bring these 38 fifth graders in the next year. They could use all the love – even construction paper love – they can get. And if my children learn that the giving of love is not just sentiment but intentional work as well, all the better.