Last week I opened the folder of files I keep for a perpetually-ongoing book project to see what I’d written for the chapter devoted to February, and the file for this month was empty. February is empty, I thought to myself, and that thought somehow seems apt. February is a blank month—the final month of winter—a short month that seems to sprawl on indefinitely. February is like that wending arc of labyrinth where you can see the end at hand—it’s just a step or two away—but you still have to take the long way around, following an illogical orbit that takes you toward your destination by arching away from it.
February is empty: a blank page. But February is blank in a way that, say, December isn’t. December is the start of winter, when the sudden stopping of summer activity and the abrupt departure of autumn color seem interesting and even enchanting. December is an empty page that’s almost inviting: a fresh field of unmarred, pristine snow. February, on the other hand, is both empty and old: a field of stale, dirty snow you can top with fresh whiteness, but is still stale nevertheless. February is a palimpsest that has been scraped and overwritten to the point of bland nothingness: a blank page worn too thin to accept your impress.
Last week, the grounds crew at Framingham State was breaking up sidewalk ice, chipping it with shovels before hoisting it into trucks. February’s hard-packed ice, born of trampled snow and frozen snowmelt, is tenacious: slick and harder than stone. Anticipating the next snowstorm, the grounds crew worked to clear as much of this ice as they could before fresh snow fell. Shoveling, plowing, and snow-blowing are difficult enough when you’re removing snow from a bare surface, but if you’re removing fresh snow from a pockmarked surface of old, compacted ice, heaven help you. If you don’t remove last week’s snow before this week’s arrives, you’ll learn to regret that decision.
The problem with February isn’t that it’s empty; the problem with February is that it’s winter with a history. Taken on its own, any given snowstorm isn’t unbearable, but what makes it seem so is the heavy history of all that came before it. The crushing weight of February is cumulative. The snowfalls that seemed quaint and picturesque in December have become soul-crushing and exhausting. The snow that falls in February is just as fresh as the snow that falls in December or January…but in February, we ourselves feel old.
I remember last year, my February mantra was “Just get me to March.” March is the month with spring break in it; March is the month for crocuses. March isn’t yet spring, but it begins to feel like spring. March is winter’s last stand: the point of the year when finally, at last, winter seems more tired and demoralized than you are. The earth, Whitman said, never tires, but in February the snow pack does, growing gray and grainy with each melting day. The bare honesty of March mud comes as a surprising relief after the turncoat treachery of February snow: a substance that falls white but ages into gray. March, in comparison, starts out gray, ripens into brown, and ultimately leans into green: springtime’s most welcome color.
But first, there’s February, the month of blankness. Pour anything you’d like into February, and what you’ll get is exactly nothing: blankness topped with a veneer of bleakness. Pour your whole heart into February, and what you’ll get back is exactly nothing. February is a month when the earth herself has grown tired of being tired; a month when even fresh snow seems old.
I started writing this post last week, on a dismally gray day. I hurried to revise and post it today, while it’s still February.