Rondine al Nido

Of all the varying accounts of the multiple saints named “Valentine”, why we call February 14th Saint Valentine’s Day and how it became associated with love, I prefer the story that February 14th was the day birds (in my story, swallows) chose their mates.

The rest is far too complicated and decidedly unromantic and swallows have the happy association with spring which cannot be too far away. I like the idea of after all that soaring and swirling though the air, showing off their speed and grace, they settle down to a nice romantic evening in the eave of some church or tower.

One March two swallows built a nest right under the eave by our upstairs window. Of course, I first thought of the beautiful song, Rondine al Nido (click here to listen). We were in Italy from January until June that year. The winter had been cold, gray and rainy. I hugged that window like a moth, extracting every possible ray of natural light possible. Even the skyline of Florence, the Duomo, San Lorenzo, failed to hold any interest in my winter gloom. I kept spoofing versions of “Now is the winter of our discontent …made odious by the gloom” and announcing to Frank as I read the paper (a bad habit of mine, I become the house crier. Or the apartment crier) “You know it is warmer in Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Moscow today than it is here. And it is sunny there. How much longer can this go on?” Before the director of Italian tourism jumps on me, that was a highly unusual winter. There was a 9” snowfall outside our door that season. And I am exaggerating, though not about the snow. I was very happy to be there, but I am deeply affected by short days and dark skies so by February, I am desperate no matter.

There I was, “La Donna della Finestra,” when I noticed two birds flying back and forth near the window. Opening the sash and leaning out very far, I could see a small plaster like structure underneath the eave. One swallow does not make a spring, but two building a nest is a very good sign. Watching them over the next few weeks, so carefully, so precisely constructing their new home, completely oblivious of my post, coming within an inch of the window in their flight, they fascinated and inspired me. It wasn’t just a reminder that spring was coming again, but that building during the gloom was such an act of optimism about the future – making use of the winter of our discontent by preparing for joy. We know about “saving for a rainy day” (which has proved to be invaluable advice) but there is wisdom in spending rainy days in active hope, preparing for the eventuality of the fullness of life returning.

Those little swallows reminded me of an observation in E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End,

The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed. The tragedy of preparedness has scarcely been handled, save by the Greeks. Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty.

And at the book’s end:
Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.
“The field’s cut!” Helen cried excitedly – “The big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!”

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