Lessons in Love

tristan-and-isolde-by-todd-peterson-at-fine-art-america 

Tristan and Isolde by Todd Peterson at Fine Art America

 Pourquoi faut-il de cette façon? (Why must it be this way?)

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. After I picked up Brett from school, we went to Target to pick up a few things, including Valentine’s Day cards. Brett commented that he didn’t really like Valentine’s Day because it reminded him of how lonely he was.

That made me pause. I told him that when I was an undergrad, I always felt lonely on Valentine’s Day because although I was dating, there was no one special in my life. It was at that moment that I realized that Valentine’s Day is a complete non-holiday, perpetuated by the greeting card industry for couples, married and otherwise.

I know. I know. Valentine’s Day does have its roots dating back to the Roman Empire when the feast of Lupercalia occurred on the Ides of February, or February 15. Lupercalia was an ancient fertility ritual that was held around the time that birds began to mate. The festival was held in honor of the god Pan. Gifts were exchanged and couples would be paired. Our celebration today hearkens back more to the pagan holiday as we still celebrate with signs of Cupid or Eros as the symbol of the day.

According to the Christian legend, there was a Saint Valentine who went against the order of Emperor Claudius Gothicus and married young men to help to keep them from going to war. Valentine himself was sent to jail, and there he supposedly composed the first valentine to the jailer’s daughter.

Whatever it’s origins, the day has been totally exploited by greeting cards, pink teddy bears, and red hearts. Those of us who happen to be paired with someone feel an incredible sense of obligation to buy the perfect card and with it, the perfect gift to reflect our love. Those of us without a special someone are left feeling as if our lives are bereft of love and that no one will ever love us because no one gave us a gaudy pink teddy bear or mushy card that expressed his or her undying love.

I used to wait for my flowers or chocolate or both on Valentine’s day, measuring my love’s love for me by what I received on this day. Until the day of my epiphany. Truly. I mean, why is this day any different from any other?

The price of a dozen roses jumps $10 on this day, and falls back to normal just one day later. Isn’t that exploitative? Will that dozen roses prove that Corey loves me?

gustave-klimt-the-kiss-close-up
Gustave Klimt's "The Kiss" close-up

Corey and I say “I love you” to each other several times each day. Whenever we end a telephone conversation, we say it. If one of us is leaving the house, we say it. Before we close our eyes at night, we say it. And it isn’t just perfunctory; we mean it. Okay, sometimes it’s perfunctory. But when we sense that we are saying it just to say it, we back up, take a look at ourselves, and then say it as if we mean it with all of our hearts.

I don’t need roses for that. I don’t need a card for that. I love the cards that he chooses for me. As I have said, he always chooses well. But too many couples go way overboard for this holiday: diamonds, roses, chocolates, everything. What do they do the rest of the year? Do they say they love each other to each other and really mean it? Do they take care of one another without a second thought? Do they make each other feel loved through their actions and their words?

Roses are beautiful flowers, but they are not everlasting. Chocolate is wonderful; you know how I feel about chocolate, but once you eat it, it’s gone. Diamonds are spectacular, but I once knew a man who gave his wife a diamond anniversary ring and then left her two months later. These things are symbols.

I would rather have something that I know to be real and true every day than something that is just a symbol for a few days. I told Corey how I was feeling about this the other day, and he was completely shocked because I have always been such a romantic. The truth is that I am still a die-hard romantic, but I don’t want my romance dictated to me by a greeting card industry. Perhaps I am too cynical for my own good.

But when my son made that statement, it took me back to those years when I sat around feeling sorry for myself because no one was delivering flowers to me at work and how unloved I felt. And from that feeling I extended my sense of being unloved to my sense of self-worth. If I wasn’t worth loving, then perhaps I wasn’t worth anything at all. This is how the young mind works. It’s not logical, but these leaps in logic are not far-fetched for someone who already feels like an outsider.

And I know that I was not alone in feeling like that, and I am certain that people of all ages feel this way when Valentine’s Day rolls around and no cards are appearing on their desks or flowers are arriving at their doors. It shouldn’t be this way. We shouldn’t be consumed by the hype, but unfortunately we are.

That’s why I asked Corey, and he agreed, that we are going to boycott Valentine’s Day gift-giving from now on. We can still exchange cards, but the hunt for the perfect gift to show our love to one another seems superfluous and non-essential.

Some of the best presents Corey has ever given me were for no reason at all: a card put in my carryall for me to find later in the day, freshly-cut gardenias, planting a new mock orange beneath the bedroom window so that the smell will drift into the window, surprising me with tickets to see my favorite comedian. Unexpected tokens of affection. No prescribed holidays.

And so, the joint boycott of Valentine’s Day. We will continue to live our life together just fine without red teddy bears or sparkling glitter or overpriced roses, and I believe that regardless of what the commercials would have you believe, we will be just fine.

More later. Peace.

Say it and mean it: I’m proud of you

I wonder if we ever reach a point at which we feel that we have finally made our parents proud, that we have finally gotten enough A’s on our report cards, made enough touchdowns, earned enough certifications, learned enough skills, gotten enough degrees, painted enough masterpieces, won enough statues . . . or is it just a completely hopeless task? For me, I know that it will never be enough. I lost my father before I could redeem myself, and I know that with my mother, I will never quite pass muster.

This is not to say that my parents do/did not love me in their own way. But I remember standing at my father’s casket after almost everyone had left on that terrible night that they call “the viewing” and just keening (a word that my friend Kathleen gave to me years ago) and apologizing for not making him proud. It was an intensely personal moment, and one that I had not planned on, and I wish to god that everyone had left me alone until it had passed, but of course, my mother sent someone over to keep me from making a fool of myself, and so, it was left unresolved because it was an apology that I truly felt that I needed to make. My father never saw me dig myself out of the hole that I had fallen into. After my divorce, I went through a succession of short-lived jobs and he despaired that I would never find myself, but I did. I went back to school. He never had the chance to get to know my second husband, a man who stepped in and really was there for me and my children when we needed someone, a man I really think that my father would have respected and liked. My father never had the chance to see any of this. So much was left unresolved.

My mother, on the other hand, has been around for all of this, and still doesn’t quite know what to make of me. She still believes that I’m the same person I was ten years ago: lost, irresponsible, guided by my twofold grief. That I have changed she is unwilling to acknowledge for it is easier to believe otherwise. And so we have reached an uneasy existence: One in which I try to do my best by her with her many ailments and failing memory, and I promise myself not to be impatient when she makes remarks that could be construed as cutting. This is my only parent, I tell myself. I have no idea how many years I have left with her. She is not outwardly loving, and I remind myself that she is a child of the depression, that perhaps they did not have time to say “I love you” to one another in a family of 12 children, that hugs were probably sparse in a family in which the mother died young, that my own mother did not have a mother after 8, and was sent to live with sisters and so, while she was cared for, perhaps outward signs of affection were not passed out generously.

So I have to be content to know that deep in my heart, I am not a failure. I received many A’s on my report cards. I supervised a newsroom before I was 20. I finished graduate school at 21. I’ve done some pretty cool things in life. But that doesn’t stop the deep-seated insecurity that I carry with me to this day. Was my father proud of me? I hope so. The not knowing is a wound that pierces me. And this brings me to the second part of my entry: the fathers who are alive and have no concept of how they wound their children no matter how old they are.

I have tried to teach my children since an early age that they are all valuable people, yet I sense in each of them insecurities of different sorts: deep personal insecurities in one that come from a sense of abandonment, emotional insecurities in another because of a sense of not understanding the concepts of the give and take of love, and basic social insecurities in another because of a feeling of not understanding society and his place in it. Luckily, these insecurities can be worked on and there is still time for some parental love and understanding to help. Granted, motherly love can only go so far, and it is only a balm, not a curative, but if accepted, it can help. But in spite of it all, the one thing that we all give to each other freely are these three words: I love you. Each and every day. I’d like to think that that helps.

But what about the adults in my life who I see still hoping for recognition from their parents without ever getting close to acknowledgement? How much will it take for some parents to realize that their children are successful adults, living, working, and succeeding in a hard world that is actually not tied to their parents any more. The truly awful reality here is that some parents will not allow for that one moment of pride to slip between the overall facade of disappointment and bless their child with acceptance for being who they have become, choosing instead to hold onto the disappointment, whether that disappointment is leftover from a decade or even two decades ago. These individuals cannot let slip the noose of supposed injustice done to them, some wrong on some slate that has been tallied and memorized by only that person, while everyone else has moved on, happily ignorant through the years, thinking that yes, perhaps the purported love and forgiveness were genuine, not given with an unspoken caveat, i.e., yes, I forgive you, but only if you behave as I would have you behave.

Put that fatted calf back in the freezer. You haven’t lived up to my expectations yet. Well, sure, you’re a successful adult by everyone else’s standards. You’ve put yourself through school? Great! But it wasn’t the school I wanted you to go to. You own a house? Great! But it’s not where I want you to live. You’re married with children? Great! But it’s not to the person I chose for you, and those aren’t really your kids. You’ve expanded your horizons to learn about new ideas and concepts? That’s wonderful, but they aren’t in the approved curriculum. You’ve traveled to far away places and seen new things? My, my how you’ve grown, but was that really the best way to spend your money? You’ve become politically active? Well now, you know we don’t believe in voting for that party in this family. Actually, I don’t know who you are any more. I really think that you need to come home and spend more time with your real family. We have more work to do.

It’s been going on since Mars fought Jupiter. Since Antigone stood up for what she believed in. Those darned kids, always getting into trouble, not following the rules.  But seriously, I wonder how many of us have run out of time and let our pride get in the way and not said what we should have said. I swear it will never happen to me again. I will never stand before another coffin and realize that I haven’t said everything that I needed to say, as a child or a parent. Nothing is worth that moment of pain, that realization that that moment is never going to end.