In my Canadian childhood family, being shameful consumerists, we celebrated Valentine's Day as if it were an all-inclusive cultural ritual. We didn't reserve the holiday for lovers. My mother would bake a cake, sometimes in the shape of a heart. There would be small presents and cards. For years my ex-husband and I got valentines sent over, just in case we were missing out down under.
I grew up in a time when not everyone got a prize in pass the parcel and not every kid got a valentine on their desk at school on the big day. This was long before we worried about emotional trauma and back when we still believed that hard times built character.
In grade 9, I was an awkward accelerated 13-year-old and my best friend was fifteen, brilliant and looked like the Bionic Woman. She wasn't interested in boys or girls, and she found my concern about valentine cards and tiny hearts imprinted with slogans like "bee mine" endearing but also kind of pathetic.
That year I had blindly stumbled across some unexpected misogyny, and reeling from the brutality of some newly discovered rules for boys and girls, I became deeply preoccupied about those tiny candy hearts and what they meant.
Over the winter break, my sort-of-boyfriend Blair (We had kissed and hung out after school — who knew this heralded everlasting monogamy?) had gone to ski camp. While he was away, I had apparently "cheated" on him by kissing Trevor. People talked. Which people I didn't know, but what I was supposed to know was that I had performed the wrongest of wrongs. Blair came back from ski camp, and summarily dumped me. I was convinced to be ashamed.
This whole sorry situation meant that I was sure not to get a card or even a single tiny heart on my desk from either of them (Trevor might have been an exceptionally good kisser, but he was still under the spell of the patriarchy). Since no one else would risk giving a card to a slut, the day was looming pretty bleakly. I wanted desperately not to care, but instead I found that I cared desperately. Suddenly I found that this ritual I had made so much fun of was just terrible when I was left out of it.
I took a risk and shared this hurt with my best friend. Despite looking like Lindsay Wagner, she was a jock and terrifying to boys, so she too was sure to miss out on a token of teen affection. She didn't give a hoot, but she could see that I did. And since she loved me and was kind of emotionally a boy, she decided we needed more than a sloppy conversation. We needed a plan.
We decided to give cards to each other. We would make them anonymous, but passionately heated. We would spring for something more than tiny candy hearts. We would buy actual chocolate. I got her the tiny ladybug ones and she got me a gold-wrappered heart. That day, in spite of a stupid holiday and the shocking blow that kissing meant sexual ownership, I felt loved. I think I felt what you're supposed to feel on Valentine's Day. I felt special and warm.
This year, true to my upbringing, I'll be making a cake. Maybe a heart shaped one, maybe red velvet. There's something so extra about red cake. I'll buy a small present for my daughter and one for my lover. I won't send a valentine to my ex, but I will wish him love and happiness inside the quiet confines of my own heart. I'm sure the dog (who is going deaf and so often seems to feel left out of things) will get some leftovers, particularly if there's cream cheese icing.
Valentine's Day is a terrible day for many of us. It's a day that falsely separates the loved from the unloved, the partnered from the single, the cherished from the neglected. It doesn't really matter that it's a sham of a celebration, that it's commercial pap, that it's capitalism at its worst. It still has the power to induce pain and shame in those of us feeling alone. And like Christmas, it's those of us with painful memories of the day that are its most vocal opponents. It's easy to be indifferent to Valentine's Day when you feel loved.
So please don't be afraid to send love and even tiny presents on a day created and exploited to induce a sense of failure in those who feel unloved and unlovable. It feels so crappy to pretend you don't care when you do. Love is so often in short supply, much too endangered to risk giving it the brush off when we don't really mean it.
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