Last year on Valentine’s Day my husband took me out for a meal. We hired a sitter and walked downtown in the cold. I carried high heels in my bag and changed from sensible snow boots in the restaurant’s glass entryway. The bar was busy and the restaurant tables were full. We sipped beers and exchanged gifts. My husband handed me a velvet jewelry box and I glanced over my shoulder to see who was looking. I imagined patrons watching us and being sickened by the Valentine’s cheesiness. I wanted to scream: “We’re not just celebrating this stupid Hallmark holiday; I swear!” I opened the little box without rolling my eyes and promptly proceeded to lose one of the delicate, purple stones.
Apparently it’s trendy to hate Valentine’s Day. Wonky celebrities like Ashton Kutcher denounce February 14th and call for “365 days of romance.” In Massachusetts, haters can buy “break-up banana splits” and “bloody heart pizzas.” Hollywood’s romantic comedy machine even turned out a feature film called “I Hate Valentine’s Day.” The Catholic Church removed St. Valentine from the General Calendar in 1969. Though the true history of the valentine is hazy at best, the celebration of romantic love endures. At least on some level.
Americans have sent handmade Valentines since the early 18th century and this year we will spend an average of $126.00 on red and pink packages. The red and pink makes me cringe. I won’t wear heart-shaped jewelry and in my world fuzzy white teddy bears share brain space with waterboarding and Disney World. But here’s the kicker – I got married on Valentine’s Day. The date was an unhappy accident (we needed a three day weekend), but it has proven to be a lesson in serendipity. My husband likes to consider the annual onslaught of sappy sweets his personal anniversary reminder – there is little chance he’ll miss the milestone. And I have grown to love the irony of celebrating on the most commercial of holidays.
Valentine’s Day highlights the occasional and crazy intersection of popular culture and the human condition. Once every year, Hallmark promises to make romance simple: chocolates and cards and red balloons. We want love to be simple and unburdened. We want romance to be sparkly and to smell like roses. We work hard at the illusion; buying gifts and convincing ourselves that romantic gestures will make up for time and energy. But in reality it is complicated.
Poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that love is good, but difficult. His collection “Letters to a Young Poet” asserts that “for one human being to love another…is perhaps the most difficult task…the work for which all other work is merely preparation.” The kind of love that Rilke points to is sometimes hidden, slow to accommodate change, and often frustrating. It is the dark shadow of romance, reliant on the determined, thinking side of our brains. Like literature’s romantic irony, this sort of love is more rational than emotional, more about “calculation” than “sentiment,” and on Valentine’s Day this love is quiet and reflective (Handwerk). It is not teddy bears and chocolate boxes, but rather tears and subtle laughter. For me, it is children and diapers and commitment. It is in-laws and Turkey dinner, eulogies and theme parks. It is the quiet space between wakefulness and deep sleep: the space where you know the sound of dreams and the silence of conflict. It is endurance and careful consideration. It is love worth celebrating amid chaos – even amid consumer chaos.