Updated: Feb 22, 2021
Back in the old days, when we were young, back before the pandemic, back before the miseries of the world were delivered, daily and unremittingly, to our doorstep, through these virtual windows, back before even the blithest and most self-centered of us were called upon by the prevailing morality to persistently suffer along with anyone anywhere who is suffering, we had a quaint concept we called "the Februaries". Though Eliot famously singled out April, with its "lilacs breeding out of the dead land," we northerners regularly found February particularly cruel. Of course, winter in Vermont begins in late October and continues off and on through April (no lilacs until late May), so one has to consider that February is basically on the far side of the middle of a very long slog, which is, perhaps, what makes it so trying. The symptoms of "the Februaries" might have been described by Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, as they are a species of that noble ailment, to be sure: a pronounced lack of interest in, well, anything really; a desire to sleep, but an inability to do so; a sense that one has accomplished nothing and will never again accomplish anything; migraines; a distinct lack of patience with muddy boots and the layers of wet clothing one has to put on and take off over and over and over and over again; forgetting that one has a body because it is always covered; a sense that winter will never end. A feeling that one is very, very old. As old as Winter himself.
The Februaries are worse, this year. And though I do not need to tell you why (since you know), I do want to tell you a particularly scary thought that has seeped into my February-fevered brain lately. Well, maybe I shouldn't tell you. It might depress you. Depress you more than you already are depressed. You may stop reading now, if you don't want to hear it.
I am certainly not the only one to suggest this. I have read various species of it from various directions. But: what if the pandemic were not just a random temporary aberration, but the beginning of a time of continual crises? What if the situation of ecological, global inter-relations, i.e., the way we live now, makes this sort of thing inevitable? What if, further, it is a great cosmic metaphor for the dystopian direction our world has been traveling along for some time? The isolation amid constant immediate access? The fear of seeing and being seen (objectification, the dangers of beauty, etc., remedied by the need to wear masks)? A conspiracy of technological corporations to make us even more dependent upon their machines? The slippery slope toward totalitarianism, video surveillance, state-control of private life? I read in a guest column on Lapsus Lima's Covidian Aesthetics a comparison between the rise in censorship and the fear of Covid-19 germs: our breath is dangerous; our words are dangerous; both kill. Better keep your mouth shut. Be careful what you write. Be careful what you think.
Of course, if one is a writer, this aspect of the new regime is especially disturbing. Not just because one feels one's livelihood or sense of purpose threatened, but because writing and speaking, asking questions, exploring with words, with breath, is the way we make sense of the world, "come to terms" with what is otherwise too much to bear.
But, in a sense, we are learning to live the way other people before us have lived: in a sort of wartime sensibility; a sort of carrying on despite what is happening; a sort of grim and sometimes gay, but determined "life goes on" for those of us who it goes on for. And it is right that we go on, that we celebrate our private joys, that we do what we can to ameliorate the pain for our near and dear ones and also, if we have means to, for others beyond. But most of us have never lived in wartime before. We don't know how to do it, or have only just learned, as fast as we could, in this last year. One learns such things by necessity, day by day. Rationing hope, if not butter and chocolate; keeping the troops cheered with songs and escapist movies and solidarity hurrahs.
Of course, the ironic thing about the Februaries, is that it's darkest just before the dawn, and Spring is closer now than it was in January, when winter was still new and therefore still sort of exciting. And we now have the vaccine; and a new president; and everything seems to be getting better, no? The light is coming back. The days are getting longer. My niece, who writes the On the Media newsletter, recently compared our current state to "senioritis," those months at the end of high school, when one knows one is getting out soon, so can't bear to go to class anymore. In this analogy, one will be cured by the last day of school. Graduation. Spring will come. At least I hope so. I used to always say, in the midst of the Februaries, that "Spring is inevitable". Another one of those old mottos and concepts. But what, really, can we count on to keep being the same?
Is a kiss still a kiss? If you have been vaccinated and have waited 2 weeks, but 3 months have not yet passed, I guess so. I hope so.
But when will I see your mouths again? Wide opened and raising your voices in uproarious laughter, streaming spittle and steaming up the windows? When will I hear your most outrageous ideas? Your secret fantasies? Your uncensored poems? Your bawdiest songs? Have you been keeping them ready for the great reveal? Will you hand me a bundle of pages, tied round with a ribbon? A confessionial of forbidden thoughts? Will we gather together in small rooms, our shoes scattered in the entryway? Eating out of each other's bowls? Our heads in each other's laps, limbs over limbs, stretched out on the grass? Rolling down the hill, leaping and laughing in the quarry falls? Free of the burden of all we now know (if we didn't know before) about all the persistent misery in the world. May we do this, at least for a moment? Shall we feel free to acknowledge and to celebrate the fact that, if life is indeed made in part of pain and evil, it is also, perhaps even in greater part, made of pleasure and sweetness? Or, even more complexly, that the sweetness comes crushed and more fragrantly sweet from out of the bitter press of pain?
In ancient Roman mythology, February was a month of purification, dedicated to honoring the dead. Let us, then, if we dare, honor the many plague year dead by descending down deeper for just another 8 days. Fully face the darkness inside ourselves and all around us, and then, at its turn, welcome March, a month, here in the north anyways, of wind and change, difficult in its own ways, but...
Let March be for honoring life.