The specter of Valentine’s Day is upon us again. Woo hoo. Valentine’s Day is one of those holidays I find inequitable, cruel, and nothing akin to the feelings I can have for other people, places, and things. Christmas spirit comes every year to everyone; it’s democratic. Deep magic can happen at Christmas to the poor and disenfranchised, the lonely and the lost: just ask Ebenezer Scrooge or the Grinch. Anyone can be moved – even saved – by carols, twinkling lights, good cheer, and elves of all shapes and sizes.
But, Valentine’s Day is much more subjective. If you are alone, you must be inadequate somehow. If you don’t get flowers, candy, or a card, your relationship must be passionless. If you have no parents or friends or lovers, there is no enchantment for you. If you just lost someone dear to illness or violence, Valentine’s Day is invasive, at best. Must we always be expected to appreciate someone else’s happiness without feeling the absence of our own? Romance is cyclical; I get it. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, etc. Better luck next year. Whatever.
Maybe it is the way Valentine’s Day brings the meaning of love under the spotlight that really bugs me. I am in love and someone loves me. I love my life-sized stuffed panda – my writer’s mascot – who guards me through the lonely hours at the computer. I love Coca-Cola. My son loves me and I love him. I love lamp. Forrest Gump knows what love is; I can’t seem to get my head around it.
I used to love Valentine’s Day. Every year in elementary school, we would bring a shoe box from home and spend an afternoon decorating it with paper hearts, lace doilies, and glittery stickers the teacher spread out on a large, low circular table in our classroom. We would finish by writing our first names on our valentine mailboxes in carefully scrawled block letters. If you were an unfortunate with a first name shared by others in the class, you would have to include the first initial of your last name after your first name, guaranteeing a little less allure for your vessel. Who wants to swear undying love and a giant Reese cup to Karen L. or Ted P.?
Every year, my mailbox would overfloweth. Every year, I was surprised by the fancy, ardent valentines I got from little boys who spent the rest of the year throwing sand in my face. Even on Valentine’s Day, it was routine for a small heart-shaped Whitman Sampler box from the drugstore to be whipped at my head by some little caveman in our homeroom. I was always stunned, but never very flattered. Even then, I had a cold heart to the random acts of love violence from little men. I never once got excited to make a valentine for a boy; I was much more excited about carefully opening the box of valentines my mom and I would choose for me to give my classmates and my teacher. I would spend hours sorting my colorful paper greetings from best to worst and my girlfriends accordingly. Most of the boys in my class would get the leftovers and undesirables. My teacher usually got assigned the biggest and prettiest card, the one-off different from all the other valentines in the box. From those simple beginnings of sorting and assigning, I think I gave myself a distorted view about love.
No one told me to sort the cards. No one told me to choose the box of cards that most expressed myself as a person. My mom and dad didn’t buy valentine cards or gifts for anyone but each other and us kids. My brother and sister were a lot older than me; they were experiencing the holiday inside the complicated rituals of teenagers. Other kids – including my son, Parker, decades later – were very quick and clear in their choices.
My son liked Batman, ergo the Batman cards were his choice. When we opened that inaugural set of Batman Valentines when Parker was in first grade, he read and methodically sorted the eight types of valentines included in the box into eight neat stacks. Then he shut his eyes and had me write each kid’s name on a valentine as he visualized his way around his classroom. His instructions for my inscribing were easy: pick the top valentine from each stack, 1-8, sign “from Parker”, then start over at the first stack again. Valentines, Go Fish – it was the same process for him.
By 2nd grade, we were like socialites with a seating chart. That year he liked Buzz Lightyear, so Toy Story cards were purchased in early January; let all the losers with bad parents get stuck with Strawberry Shortcake or Hot Wheels. This time, I was relegated to carefully gluing wrapped candy to the cards after Parker had arranged and signed them. All the girls got Jessie, Bo Peep, and Rex cards; all the boys got Buzz, Woody, and Mr. Potato Head. Slinky and Hamm seemed to be in the neutral gender zone, though I noticed Hamm was definitely dispersed to kids my son didn’t know very well. What did this mean? Was he a genius with Orwellian sensibilities – a super intuiter of potential swine? Was he a misogynist for assigning the wishy-washy character of Rex, the self-loathing dinosaur, to girls only? As the late afternoon wore on I discovered that in the space of a year, he had developed all kinds of methods for arranging and categorizing gender and likeability: “MOM! I don’t have enough Jessie cards for the brown haired girls. MOM! I don’t have enough ‘tato heads for the funny guys in my class. MOM! You can’t tape a pink sucker to that Buzz card.” Elementary school is a tough gig of being introduced to people and relationships. Whose brilliant idea was it to introduce a love holiday into the mix? No wonder adults are so mixed up about romance and intimacy.
Through my teenage years and early twenties, I spent Valentine’s Day with assorted boyfriends and love interests. Those were sometimes sweet and sometimes awkward occasions filled with sterling silver jewelry and musical cards, romantic picnics and surprise concert tickets, hot kisses and knee-weakening hand holding. But, it never felt like the days I had learned to anticipate from elementary school: no sudden revelations of love, no giant candy boxes from secret admirers, no new, immediate best friends. I spent a couple with girlfriends drinking fruity cocktails while swearing off males and romantic love of any kind. We didn’t mean it. We always ended those evenings swearing to do better next time: to notice deep flaws and intimacy issues as soon as they arose, to be better listeners and nurturers, to get sharper haircuts or different clothes so we would stop being deadbeat magnets, to trust our instincts, to play the field before getting too close, too fast. We broke hearts, too, don’t get me wrong. If the opposite of love is indifference, then we certainly were blithely arrogant and ignorant of many a potential, suitable mate and probably stood in our own way of finding intimacy and connection. After all of that structured, appointed build-up of romantic love as a kid in school, were we unreasonable to get more scared of intimacy and more dreadful of the big day where anticipation would meet its match?
I gave up on love and passion after having my heart broken before I was thirty. Until then, my one true love were my parents and I just didn’t have the same depth of feeling in friendship or romance for anyone else in life. I tried, but no one ever matched up to my family’s consistent support and care and it just didn’t seem like it was enough to commit myself to giving a huge bag of affection and constancy for the linty mints of others. Then my dad died and, soon enough after, my mom died and I kind of buried my heart alongside them. And all of those great childhood days like Valentine’s Day I tossed in, too.
It is said that you always find something when you aren’t looking. When I least expected or was even thinking about love, Cupid’s arrow struck me with someone I never would have bet would have been my soulmate. I had my first real Valentine’s Day in decades the first one we shared together. He brought balloons, breakfast, a singing bear, and a big red velvet box of candy into our bedroom and woke me up to tell me he loved me. It felt like elementary school all over again. He was handsome, funny, kind, intelligent, artistic, and sexy. I adored him and felt like I was the luckiest person alive; he made me feel engaged and hopeful again about love and everything else. I married him five years later. The distance between that first Valentine’s Day and our subsequent marriage was where we had to work out all of our childhood notions of romance and love. After that first Valentine’s Day, we didn’t celebrate another one. And, as this one comes around, I just don’t know what to think of romance or of love anymore.
Romance is fun. It is passionate and twirly and nervous and bubbly. It is discovery and listening and empathizing and feeling united in a depth of emotion. Romantic love is like existing in a parallel universe; everything seems shinier and prettier, fresher and perkier than it did the day before you were in love. Romance is surprising, exciting, sharing, and optimistic; romance is the question. It is the previews before the movie; it is the amuse bouche. Courting and wooing are meant to take time; the feelings building are to be savored. Rushing means you are filling a hole; taking time means matching levels of feeling to actions. Romance is also narcissistic; it can be hurtful and obtuse. Romance is sexual; it is quivering and hardening. It is sensual and it is exotic and it feels absolutely unique. It is chemical and it is physical. It is walking in the rain without needing an umbrella; it is riding a Ferris wheel without looking at the view. It is Chinese take-out with fortune cookies and chop sticks in the bag. It is consuming and it is urgent. Romance is castles and gestures and roses and rose colored glasses.
Romance is fantastic and every relationship should have a grand start with it or an early period of it, at least. Romance also finds its way back in love through growth and change. Since newness and unexplored territory is part of the seduction of romance, it can be reignited just by progressing as a human being. Insignificant change is not the same as evolution; romance blossoms into love with the strong catalyst of time and adaptation. Because, more than anything, romance is a promise of the future that delivers instantly – and fleetingly – in the present.
Love answers the question of romance. Love is the future that romance promised; it is the destination of chivalry and courting, but it is really just the beginning of a much longer, much more involved journey. Love is a Thanksgiving dinner and the nap afterward. Love is an invisible force that is felt like a constant hum in those sharing it. It is warm and liquid. It is the brass plaque on a park bench dedicated to beloved wife and mother. It is there in a lost job, an illness, a windfall, a new baby; love is unconditional. It is deep trust, deep affection, and deep knowing. Where romance is Christopher Columbus, love is Abraham Lincoln. Loving someone makes you a better person: a saint, an architect, a true friend. Love makes you kinder, more patient, more understanding, and more giving than you would be without it. It makes you want and believe that everything you are is and will be sublime. Love is supportive; it is protective, generous, nurturing, and constant. It encourages and, sometimes, carries. It cannot be chased, captured, kidnapped, bought, demanded, or taken; it has to be earned by preparing the heart, mind, and soul for its arrival. Two people can learn to love together; it’s a process that has no clear beginning and no end. Love is hard and it is painful. Love endures and love stays. Love is a miracle.
Some people may be falling in love this Valentine’s Day and others may be falling out. Some will be reaffirming the passion and romance that started a long union; others will be mourning the loss of their beloved because life can be inexplicable that way. Some will be looking for love in all the wrong places and others will be begging a Hallmark shop owner to stay open just five more minutes. Wherever you are this February 14th, Happy Valentine’s Day.
To my sweetest husband, especially, I love you. XO