In Defense of Valentine's Day
I hadn't gotten married yet when I was assigned to write about Valentine's Day for the first time. I had just gotten engaged, and was a month from getting married -- but I didn't know it, yet.
"An obligation is exactly what Valentine's Day has become to a lot of us," I wrote. "And it's not just an obligation to give a gift. For some of us who're single, it's a clear reminder that we've failed in our obligation to couple up.”
Photo by I Love Butter (Flickr).
I interviewed my friend Madison, 47, a psychologist, for the piece.
"Valentine's Day is a psychological aggression," the married mother of four told me. "One: it's a torture to singles. Two: it creates the illusion that relationships must always have the intensity of romances. Let me tell you something -- when you've been married twenty years, you're not going to be as excited about showing up at your wife's office with a bouquet of flowers and a poem the way you were excited about it when you were first dating."
I was wholly in agreement with her. My boyfriend and I had made a point to discuss our disdain in regard to the holiday and effectively banned it in our relationship. There would no pressure to make a mockery of our union by selecting a single day to commemorate it -- not with Valentine's and not with our anniversary, either.
These things were an affront to the obvious joy we experienced just being together, and flew in the face of personal and mutual efficiency. After all, that time we spent stressing about what to get each other could be better spent doing something else -- like working to move our personal success forward, and therefore our union. And the resources spent on gifts could be better suited to things we really wanted -- like the down payment on another home or another car. You can't have too many of those, you know.
Fast forward two years. You have a relationship that is fairly efficient. Everyone knows what to expect and when. The frills had been cut away. We were the bare bones and organs of love: no fat, no bullshit. I didn't tolerate dinner parties, so I often skipped Sunday dinner at his aunt's. He didn't "understand" my friends, so he passed on that. We made each other nuts traveling together, so we took separate planes. He worked better in the day and I worked best at night, so we cleaved our life together into shifts.
We made time to be together, of course. Breakfast before I went to bed and he went to work, dinner when he got home and I was getting ready to start writing. Sometimes I would curl up in bed with him until he fell asleep, then sneaked out of the room to go write. Sometimes he turned off his phone when we drove out to our second home in the desert. Little things to show it was important to have each other in our lives.
Crumbs. That's what it was. I'll be the first to admit it. We starved the living hell out of our relationship.
Toward the end of things, I couldn't believe how much we were fighting. In retrospect, I realize that fighting was the only way we could sustain interaction for any prolonged period. We may or may not really had issues with the things we were arguing about, but what we were actually doing was trying to get something, some kind of emotional response from each other and hold it there. Even if it was ugly and only there for a couple of hours.
We had no real emotion outside of that. Efficiency doesn't fare well with that warm fuzziness. Efficiency is cold, collected and always in control. You tell me about your day, I'll center you. I'll tell you about my day and you'll neutralize me. If one of us doesn't understand or really care, we'll nod and smile and use the time to make a mental list of things we each need to get done next.
As a result, the only way to really express ourselves emotionally was to go to war over perceived infractions of our cherished efficiency. I suppose screaming during orgasm is a more socially-acceptable form of emotional expression, but no desire can grow on a landscape so sterile. We were emaciated.
This is an extreme case, of course. What I want to illustrate is that from the get-go, we trained ourselves to believe that our partnership could make manifest these displays of appreciation on its own, that every day could be a celebration of how much we cherished one another.
Let me tell you something about real life: that's not how it works.
Valentine's Day may be a farce of a holiday, pushed by companies to force you to buy things you don't need, but you know what? It's a reminder -- not just for couples, but for everyone -- that relationships need feeding and in this fast-paced world, we need every reminder we can get.
A man I adore once told me that romance isn't innate, that it must be inspired. This shook me to my core and I still wrestle with the notion sometimes. Romance isn't simply born of the moment? But I am a fount of explosive emotions, incredible acts of devotion, a door of passion that opens into a roaring fire...
No, actually, I'm not. I mean, I am. But mostly, I am capable of incredible precision. Left to my devices, I will find the quickest, most effective way to do anything. I can streamline everything from an incredible workload to a relationship. That is what our culture values and what's been inculcated in me: put in as little as possible, get out as much as you can.
Well, I say: enough. Since my divorce, I've made the decision to welcome the complicated, clunky, and time-consuming, to cherish the frills and allow for real soul feeding. I will not indulge myself when work allows. I will put work on hold to satisfy my soul and fill it to overflowing.
This is a silly confession, but it's a big deal to me: I've canceled meetings and deferred things to share a moment. I've taken time off completely. Dropped off the map. I've stopped viewing things like holidays as a weight on my mind and started to see them as opportunities to fill the souls of those who matter.
This being an economic climate of doom, I doubt many of us were gifting the treasures of the world on one another, but that's not really the point. We can do without the commercialism. It's about cherishing what you have, celebrating those connections that enrich you, and giving them a proper place in your life -- and schedule.
I had a million things to do on Valentine's Day and when my friends called me to tell me they were all getting together, coupled and not, to grab crepes, I almost passed on it. You have so much to do, efficiency said. This column included.
And I decided, you know what? Screw it. It can wait. I want to be with the people who fill me. That's what it's about.
Sometimes, a holiday can be a good reminder.
If that doesn't summarize it well enough for you, I leave you with the words of Catherynne Valente, a poet at whose words my own tremble:
This world is a beautiful place, but it is also often dark, and cold, and unfeeling, and life slips by, not because it is short, but because it is so difficult to hold onto. Holidays, rituals, these things demarcate the time. They remind us of the sharpness of pleasure and the nearness of death. They tell us when the sun leaves, and when it comes back. They tell us to dance and they tell us to sleep. They tell us who we are, who we have been since we lived on the savannah and hoped to taste cheetah before we died. I know we're all punk rock rebels, but the paleolithic joy of fucking in the fields and dancing around a fire doesn't go away just because certain of us would like to think we're beyond that. This world needs more holidays, not less. More ritual, the gorgeous, flexible, non-dogmatic kind that isn't about religion but about ecstasy in the sheer humanness of our bodies and souls. More chances to reach out, to sing, to love, to bedeck ourselves in ritual colors and become splendid as the year turns around.
And no, I'm sorry. It doesn't work to say "make every day special." First of all, most of you know damn well that you don't shower your partner with gifts and adoration and that most precious of things: dedicated, mindful time every day of the year. Even the best relationship is not a 24/7 orgiastic festival of plenty and perfect moments. No human can sustain it. If every day is special, none of them are. If every day is special, specialness becomes monotony. What makes days special is the time between, the anticipation of the day, the planning, the surprises, coming together, cooking, playing, reveling in sheer time, watching the dedicated colors and rituals that wire our brain for pleasure spring up in the world to remind us that we live in it. The entire purpose of holidays is that they are a kind of otherworld we step into, full of special symbols, that informs and shapes everyday life -- and some of life, no matter how some bloggers would like to deny it in their Grinchitude, is always everyday.
We celebrate the harvest. We celebrate the spring. We celebrate birthdays and death-days and the beginning of the year and the end of the year. We celebrate our parents and labor and Presidents. What in the world is so terribly wrong with celebrating love? I know not all of us have partners, but it is a rare soul who is without love of any kind. What kind of shrunken, sour heart does it take to insist that everyone else stop delighting in ritual and love? So few of us post about the magic of holidays -- I think they're ashamed to. It's not cool to take unabashed pleasure in the silly and the soft-hearted.
Is that clear enough? Let's quit bitching and start loving. Love yourself, love your friends, love your family, love your crush, love your spouse, love your lover, love the old flame, love the hope for something to begin anew. Dare to give in to something that defies reason, that eats up time and resources with no purpose other than to give you just a tiny flicker of hope.
That's what it's really about, you know.
AV Flox is the editor of Sex and the 405 -- what your newspaper would look like if it had a sex section.