It’s true! Valentine’s Day is not for lovers alone. Long ago, greeting card companies created printed expressions for family members and friends to share with each other. I remember taking Valentines to school as an elementary age student for each one of my classmates. My wife has routinely purchased cards for our three grown daughters. And now Wendy has started giving heart-shaped Valentines to our two granddaughters.

Valentine’s Day is for everyone. Married or not, we all need to be reminded we are loved. Alone or sharing life with a significant other, we never tire of being told our lives matter to someone else. Never have we been more aware of that need for affirmation and encouragement than during the past 11 months.

The social distancing and separation from family and loved ones has taken an emotional toll. Lack of hugs and lack of smiles (hidden by face coverings) have drained our joy reservoir. While Zoom meetings and virtual family visits help bandage a bad situation, nothing can take the place of person-to-person encounters. All the same, when such are not possible, creative expressions of hope and love can keep us counting our blessings.

A couple weeks into the pandemic, I was walking in wooded park in our community. Out of nowhere, I saw a red rock that someone had painted with white letters. It was a creative call to obey COVID guidelines. It said, “Keep calm and social distance.” In the midst of dead leaves and brown twigs on a muddy path, this beautiful rock stood out in bold relief. Since I had my iPhone in my pocket, I snapped a photo of it.

A week or so later, I noticed another painted stone. It pictured a puppy with its face looking upward. I began purposely looking for more rocks on my regular walks. One day I saw a stone with a balloon on a string. Another intricately painted stone featured a delicate bird and the word “BREATHE.” These messages and images provided a much-needed invitation to think positively.

One day I encountered a painted rock that was so beautiful, I picked it up and carried it home. Seeing the word “HOPE” painted reminded me that the dark time we were living through as a nation would not last indefinitely.

For months, painted rocks with encouraging messages would appear without notice in different places. Sometimes they would be placed in the knothole of tree trunk. Sometimes they would be at the base of a resting bench. I began taking photos as a way of documenting the causes of my Kodak smiles. I wondered who the artist was. Was there more than one? What prompted them to begin their creative communications to passersby?

As the one-year anniversary of the pandemic drew near, I found another stone wedged in a hollow of a decaying tree. Its message was simple but profound. “You are loved!” Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, racial injustice, job insecurities, emotional despair and a politically-divided nation, if ever there was a Valentine’s Day to consider the fact that we are loved by God and others, this is it. If ever there was a time to be alert to signs of hope and messages of love in unexpected places, this is it.

Greg Asimakoupoulos is a Wenatchee native living on Mercer Island, where he is the Faith/Values columnist for the Mercer Island Reporter.