Travel back with me, if you will, to the worst Valentine's Day of my life. (No, really, please, come with me. I hate to go there alone.)
I came home from work to the apartment I shared with my then-boyfriend, a person I could not have handpicked more ill-advisedly if I tried. He was fine (well, until the incident with that girl and all the yelling), I was fine, but together we were that radio that doesn't turn on when you put the batteries in the wrong way. We were positive and positive, negative and negative. Or something.
The first thing I saw when I walked in the door was a large (I'm thinking standard poster-sized) print hanging over our apartment fireplace: an image of two children dressed in Victorian grownup clothes, colorized blush on their cheeks. The little boy knelt down in front of the girl, handing her a rose.
My boyfriend stood there smiling, proud of himself, waiting for my reaction to his mall-bought Mona Lisa.
My reaction was that I hated it. I hated it so much I can't properly describe. I had seen these pictures before, on greeting cards and in the poster store. They creeped me out -- this is just my aesthetic taste, I'm sorry if anyone else loves them, just not for me -- and now one dominated the most prominent wall in my living space. I was also burnt out from working 70-hour weeks as a social worker, and I was over everything, pretty much. He had already complained about the restaurant I "made" us go to for dinner the weekend before. And how could this man I lived with who claimed to love me even if we couldn't really stand each other and needed to break up posthaste not know that I hated this picture and would never hang it on my beautiful plain over-the-fireplace wall in a million years?
Let's just say that I, a person with fairly loud body language and facial expressions, lacked the minimal filter I can usually manage. I don't remember what I said, maybe something akin to "Burble burble sad and upset words blarggggggggghhhhhhh," but it was enough to get me to the bedroom, where I broke down crying. He was at a loss at first, and then somewhere in this fine exchange he got angry. When I emerged from the bedroom at some point in that evening, he had gone to work. The print was taken down, re-rolled, and placed in a bag to return to the store.
Valentine's Day present fail, for both of us. Relationship fail, actually.
I felt badly about it, and truthfully I still do. It's one of those experiences that I look back on and wish I'd been more centered to respond, if not exactly positively, at least more calmly. But along with my own human frailties, I was responding in the context of a relationship that wasn't working on a much deeper level, and I interpreted his lack of understanding of what kind of picture I'd never hang on my wall in a million years to be a sign of that.
Valentine's Day can be a wondrous day of kisses not beginning with Kay and engagements and general giddiness of the American commercial variety, but it can be difficult even in a more functional relationship. You may know the drill: misty watercolored unmet expectations of frills and romance, trying to go out to dinner on one of the most crowded nights in the restaurant year, and, uh, maybe even being with the wrong guy? Somehow I accomplished all of those without even really trying too hard.
I've also had my share of miserable single February 14ths. Convinced the world was against me and my obvious unpartnered awesomeness, I wallowed. I drank the best wine I could afford and journaled furiously -- first on paper, then electronically -- about the injustice, oh the injustice, of being single on this most romantic of days. I may have worn black once or twice. There may have been a list of songs for the dreaded occasion.
And the best V-days, partnered up or single? Entirely random. One year my ex-boyfriend gussied up his living room and made me dinner and a mix CD. He danced even though he hated it and tried to be romantic because he cared. That was nice, and I was the happiest girl in... well, maybe the county, if not the larger geographic area. Another year a number of my best friends also happened to be single, and we went out to dinner to a very casual place and had a great time.
These days, single again? I love love, don't get me wrong, but I don't really do anything special for Valentine's Day, I'm well past the wallowing and group activities haven't come together in recent years. I am in the largely ambivalent camp about this holiday loosely based on a collection of saints named Valentine with a little bit of Cupid thrown in. Still, I know I can count on a few things:
- I will receive Valentine's cards and little presents from my parents and sometimes my sister. I'll pick up some cards for them this weekend, because the making of the cards lately? It just never gets done, and stressing myself out over that? So not a gesture of self-love.
- I will wear red, because I am my mother's daughter.
- At least one co-worker will put Valentine's cards in our mailboxes, and I'll tape it to my monitor until I get sick of looking at it, and appreciate that some people still take the time to make small gestures for others.
- Countless people in the blogosphere will post pictures of hearts -- their hands making hearts, candy hearts, heart-shaped somethings all over the place. I'll grumble about it but in my own slightly used, still functional heart I'll think it's nice. (But don't tell them that.)
So what can I give myself this year on Valentine's Day?
- I can go to yoga. I can take the time to be peacefully in the body I frequently abuse with too much work and a current training for a ten-mile race.
- I love the holiday sock displays at Target. I have a pair I got a couple of years ago with the conversation hearts on them, and even though I'm known to wear obnoxious socks at other times, there's really no better day to wear Valentine-themed socks than Valentine's Day, now is there? Instant mood lifter.
- I can be totally honest about the fact that I would love to be in love again, maybe, someday, without punishing myself now, this Valentine's Day, because I am not. If you're single, you totally deserve to eat on Valentine's Day, I swear. You're even allowed to go out, if you feel like it. Chances are there are people -- maybe even partnered people -- who are feeling lonely. If you feel like being alone, that's cool, and trust me, there were years where I really needed to pretend it wasn't happening and sleep through February 14. But if you don't feel like hibernating there may be options -- even if you have to go a little bit out of your comfort zone to identify them.
- I can give the gift to myself and everyone in my airspace of not bitching about Valentine's Day just because it's an easy target. As I've aged I find the anti-Valentine's Day sentiments worse than the ooey-gooey "Oh my sweetie is so awesome look at my flowers" photos. "Grah grah grah, commercial holiday, blahblahblah, hate darkness pain suck it Valentine's Day" is no more fun to listen to than any other negativity, so if I'm expected to participate in this because I'm single? No thanks, and you're welcome.
- I can try -- really try -- to focus on where the love is in my life and maybe show it more. I know, I know, but really. I have it. I may not have a boyfriend or a life partner or a person waiting at home to hang terrible pictures up over my mantel, but I am really quite rich in the friends and family department, and if that's what I have right now? Happy Valentine's Day to all of those people who wonder where I am when they don't hear from me, who pick up my pieces on occasion. May Cupid be at their beck and call, honestly.
- And writing this has inspired me that I may invite those who are willing and able to go out on a chilly February night over to my place for a drink. And even if I'm alone? There will indeed be Banfi Rosa Regale, a most beautiful Italian sparkling wine that goes perfectly with my favorite dark chocolate. I may even get the expensive sushi. St. Valentine may have been a martyr, but that's never worked for me.
Oh, and when I took the poster my ex-boyfriend bought me back to the store those many Valentine's Days ago? I picked out an Ansel Adams print that absolutely reflected my taste. Fiat Lux: Birds on a Beach, Evening is a view I love of sand and twilight that has hung in every bathroom in every apartment I've had since that relationship ended. I've looked at it every day I've been home for more than a decade and I probably should have updated my art by now. I just can't bring myself to get rid of a symbol of defining what was right for me in the midst of what was wrong, even if I couldn't do it as gracefully as I hope I would now.
The best Valentine's Day gifts -- to and from ourselves and others -- really do reflect the best and purest kinds of love, however that looks and feels for you. They are mostly free, and nothing we would ever want to exchange. I know this in my most singular and most partnered selves. I should try to remember it every day, but if I feel like celebrating it on February 14, I'm allowed. In fact, I'm better for it.