The Gift of Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day is Friday; a mere two days away.
I’ll be honest. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about that this year.
I’ve been decidedly single for several years now but the last Valentine’s Day that came along before I was not single was most definitely not a fun experience. For the second time in my life, I felt abandoned and humiliated and overlooked on the one day out of 365 designed to inspire feelings of adoration and love. That not-so-long-ago Valentine’s Day, the last one I spent before finding myself single after almost 10 years, I spent a good portion of the night making excuses in my head and heart for someone I loved. When confronted by a promise he’d made multiple times before, and specifically because he knew I had a painful past with this date via e-mail, late Valentine’s Day night, he caved and told me he’d see me after all. It didn’t leave me feeling confident or beautiful or loved, none of the things you spend the entire year hoping to feel on that particular day. In retrospect, that day was probably the beginning of the dragged-out end. No one wants to admit they’ve failed and even fewer souls want to face the possibility they have never been loved.
When Walgreens and Publix exchanged their Christmas decor for bright hearts and emotional Valentine’s Day cards, a great weariness descended on my heart. I started writing a blog post in my head. I didn’t know exactly what it would say but the title was going to be, “Goodbye, Valentine.” The weariness made me ill. I was tired of feeling like a second class soul and all the strength I possess was desperately trying to shout out for the first time since I can remember. I wanted to say something to the equivalent of, “I do not care that it is Valentine’s Day. Good riddance to thee, oh-dreaded-holiday-of-gloom.” I read articles with titles like, “10 GREAT things about being single!” and “If you’re married, you’re missing out.” With every word I read, my heart dropped a little further into my feet. Not only was I single, I apparently also lacked strength, as I didn’t really agree with anything other singles said. Being single isn’t all that great. When something fearful comes along, you don’t have a best friend who’s willing to open his arms and hold you through the nightmares and the tears. When you’re single, you have to rely on a security blanket like a pillow your 33 year old self named for comfort. When crisis strikes your house, you have to rely on the prayers and charity of people who don’t really know you instead of someone who’s going through it with you. People often comment on my strength. I don’t know why. Strength isn’t a choice; it’s Necessity’s child. Anyway, before I fall down a rabbit hole and lose the entire hopeful purpose of this post, my point is that reading the determinedly strong and cheerful resolve pieces written to encourage singles didn’t encourage me. Instead, it left me feeling even more alienated.
When I feel alienated or weird or sad, I attack it by pouring so much joy into the pot that, just like boiling water, the negative feelings evaporate. You don’t have a choice about what happens to you, but you do have a choice on how you are going to react to it.
Instead of allowing myself to focus on what I don’t have, I focused on all the love I am surrounded by. I started by creating a full day for Friday, a day that will be beautiful and sweet and fun as my girls and I celebrate a love that surpasses any I have ever known: that between a mother and her children. There will be sweets, adventures, gifts and fun. Preparing that day lifted weariness’s fog and spurred me into action. Suddenly, there were lots of things I could do to replace the fear of being alone on Valentine’s Day. For instance, I teach two classes at church and I decided to prepare a party for each. My Sunday morning class is 4 and 5 year olds, so they are quite young. We sang, we played a few extra games, everybody received a gift. The next thing to prepare was for my Stars class—the third and fourth grade girls I teach on Wednesdays. As I did with the Sunday morning kids, I created a simple, homemade Valentine’s Day card to go with their gifts. It was quite a simple design: it just read, “You make this world” and then had a palette of colors drawn in the middle of the card, followed by the big bubble-lettered word, “COLORFUL.” I colored in each bubble letter, then turned it over and wrote each child a personalized letter, which I have done for every class I have ever taught. From start to finish, it took me about 14 minutes to create one card. As I neared completion on the first card, I thought about stopping and using a copy machine to create identical versions of the card. Then, I reasoned in my head, I could still personalize it by writing the individual letters on the back. The kids wouldn’t care.
But I didn’t do it.
Instead, I kept reminding myself of how much a few of my teachers’ gifts meant to me over the years and how all of the gifts that meant the meant had been personal: a two page, hand-written letter in a time of need, a nomination, a recommendation letter that was out of this world, etc. So I kept working. For over two hours and thirty minutes, I wrote, drew and colored these cards. About mid-way through, a thought struck me: this is a gift, not a present. My brain instantly leaped onto another train of thought. A present is something you buy at the store because it happens to be a day of the year on which presents are expected. A present is something you purchase or make yourself because not giving a present on a specific day would hurt the feelings of someone you love or care about. A gift is something that represents how you feel about someone else; it’s supposed to make the recipient feel treasured and important and special. Not because money or time was spent on it, but because it came from your heart, because you put thought behind it. The greatest gift we’ve been given wasn’t bought at a store. It wasn’t something He made, either. Instead, His gift was one of sacrifice. He willingly subjected Himself to torture, to mockery, to death only because He sincerely loved both God and each one of us. His sacrifice made the gift unbearably precious, humbling and beautiful. But it was more than that, too. My pastor recently posted a quote on Facebook that said, “If all we needed was Jesus’s split blood, Herod could have done that when our Lord was still an infant. But instead He lived thirty-three years. The reason Jesus didn’t die as an infant was because we needed Him, all of Him.” A gift, then, isn’t about something that can be unwrapped, admired and put away. It’s not even about something that can be used. It makes no difference how much it costs, or how much it didn’t. It makes no difference if it was brought from a store, or if it was handmade. Neither is better in and of itself. What changes the value of a gift is how much thought and care went into it. What changes the value of a gift is how much it reflects, or doesn’t, our feelings for its recipient. Every year, in addition to some candy and a letter, I’ve been able to get the Stars some little trinket as a Valentine’s Day gift. It’s never very much, but it’s something, because I’ve always felt that even though the letters and cards are special, the Star herself wouldn’t necessarily like a letter as much as she would like a toy. I wanted to do both: I wanted to give the kids both something they’d like and a gift that would be meaningful, like a letter. But this year, I left it at some candy and the card that took me 14 minutes to create. I left it at that because, during those 14 minutes, I thought about why whichever child I was currently making a card for is special. I thought about how I’ve been lucky enough to watch these girls grow over the last five years, and what I would miss if she were not in my class. There are a few Stars who have been in my classes for the last couple of years who, for one reason or another, are not part of the class this year. I still think of those kids, and I still miss them. Because what makes Stars so special isn’t that it’s a full class; what makes Stars so special is that it is comprised of these girls.
Before I started this project, I’d been feeling disheartened and lonely. I have absolutely no idea what I would do if I believed someone I trusted and cared about wanted to wrap arms around me in a safe embrace. I have no idea what I would do if I was confronted with someone who truly needed and wanted to listen to me ramble about fictional characters and about how the girls and I went skating and fell down a hundred times because we’re just not very good on skates yet. In essence, a part of me looked at those hearts and read the sappy cards and wanted to believe…. in the happy-ever-after. Growing up, I used to believe that a knight in shining armor would come, sweep me off my feet with one kiss and the chemistry and heartfelt love would be enough to overcome ever obstacle I had ever faced. Now, I know myself too well. I’ll talk….. but I try to waltz a fine line between sharing the least amount of emotion while still opening up enough to matter. Love is not a fairy tale. Love is hard, hard work. It’s deliberately making yourself vulnerable in order to learn how to trust. It’s sharing the deepest parts of who you are with someone who can, at any time, decide he doesn’t want to see you ever again. Love is giving it 110% even though you might not ever be “enough.” Love is finding out that something is broken, and deciding to stay, anyway. Love is hearing that the world is crashing in an instant because a medical test revealed scary news and telling someone, “I don’t want to be strong anymore” knowing he’ll be strong for you and he won’t begrudge you for the unexpected emotional gift of bearing the weight of your tears he gave. Love is listening to verbal, and non-verbal cues, and respecting both. The fairy tales only tell one part of the story—the part where magic is in the air because you see him, and he sees you, and you both feel the same thing at the same time. In the fairy tales, they overcome obstacles so that they can be in each other’s presence because it’s being in each other’s presence that makes the world right. In the movies, the story always ends with the final kiss, the scene that tells the viewers they lived happily ever after. But we know that that’s not reality. The reality is that bills get in the way. Past scars start to bleed, and that gets in the way too. Unexpected developments like health issues or death or new dreams get in the way. And then, in the middle of all this 365 day reality, you come upon one day set aside to remember what started it all, one day to say, “hey: this crazy life hasn’t made me forget you. I love you.”
So you buy or, if you’re like me, make a present because gifts are the universal way to say you were thought of today.
But gifts are more than that.
Gifts have totally changed my life. A stranger held a door open and I remembered that there were good people in the world; that reminder made me hope things would get better. Letters. Phone calls. Flowers. A picture of a heart drawn with a red crayon in a child’s unsteady hand. A “Breathe-e hug” just because. A small voice asking, “Can we cuddle now?” An e-mail to say how are you? And, maybe, a card that took 14 minutes to make when there were a whole host of other things to be done. True gifts, you see, can be given by anyone because love can be offered by anyone. The specific tenets of a romantic relationship may not exist within the parameters of a platonic friendship, but whether you be my future spouse or a perfect stranger at the grocery store, you have the power to change my life by seeing me instead of the to-do list that’s running through your head. We think presents are special because they cost someone something: money, time, etc. Whatever the cost was, that was a sacrifice made for us. And yet, how many Valentine’s Day commercials or radio ads have you heard this year that showcased some frantic man who had forgotten the date and was rushing around trying to find that “perfect” last-minute gift for the love of his life? The commercialism has made it easy to forget why we give gifts at all, easy to forget that a woman who would make her husband sleep on the couch because he forgot the date might have forgotten herself what really constitutes a gift. Of course, folks who habitually forget important dates may have forgotten what’s really important and replaced those things with the world’s idea of success. My point is that a present is not a gift unless it’s deliberate and conscientious; if it is deliberate and conscientious, then there are no requirements to be met for it to be a “gift.”
I finished all the Valentine’s Day cards. I also finished the final touches on my daughters’ Valentine’s Day plans. We are going to enjoy every minute with each other; I’m going to say “yes” more than I say “no” because that’s a gift to their childhoods that they’ll remember when the world starts trying to tell them “no” all the time. We may do something crafty, we may take a day trip to Chattanooga. We may stay home and have a dance party or play silly games. My plans are fluid because the point isn’t to write something in stone; the point is to give. And I can’t do that if I don’t listen to them and take seriously what they say or imply. Valentine’s Day, you see, isn’t just about couples. It’s about the celebration of the universal emotion that ultimately connects us to each other: love. It isn’t really about couples. It’s about the one emotion that can make you reach higher than you’ve ever reached or make you believe in yourself just enough to try. It’s a day to celebrate the many different vehicles through which love travels; it may be a kiss, it may be a hug, it may be an intimate touch. It’s a day to recognize how our lives are enriched every, single day by those whose lives would truly mourn our deaths. It’s a day set aside to pay attention to the same acts of kindness that surround us from all sides every day. And it’s a day when we should be inspired, but not obligated, to do something kind for someone else. Maybe that’s to buy a diamond ring. Maybe it’s just to smile at the homeless man on the street. Or maybe it’s somewhere in between. Whatever it is we do to recognize the significance others play in our lives, the most important gift we can offer is one that will be remembered for the way it stirred our loved ones because it came from the heart.