My Enchanté column from this week.
With Valentine’s Day looming, what is one to do if there is no special someone in the picture? How did we become so programmed to feel embarrassed if we’re single, or guilty if we are coupled but don’t spend enough coin on our romantic partner?
As I started to write this column, I kept humming This is Not a Love Song, Public Image Ltd’s 1983 post-punk critical four-and-a-half-minute visit to the world of love. If you don’t know the tune, just keep singing, “this is not a love song” over and over. That’s the framework for the piece.
So, starting in the cynic’s mode, I have to wonder, why do we bother celebrating Valentine’s Day? It’s got everything to do with sales, and little to do with true love. If I love someone, should I not show that every day?
The first known reference connecting Valentine’s Day and romance is credited to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules (1382). By the 15th century, lovers were exchanging poems and handmade cards, often sealed with red wax. During the late 19th century, commercial cards had become popular. The corporate world never looked back.
What will I be doing on Valentine’s Day? Possibly cynically watching some movie like Manhattan Murder Mystery or something equally Woody Allenesque. If I’m in a somewhat less cynical mood, the perfect Valentine’s movie would be The Wind Rises, Hayao Miyazaki‘s beautiful tribute to aeronautical engineer, Jiro Horikoshi. In many ways, the film’s full of love, especially that shared by Horikoshi and his beloved Naoko Satomi. The movie also features some of the most beautiful animation ever created.
Valentine’s Day is a time when many hopeful thoughts drift to marriage, with a desire of joining with a life-long partner. Some who are struck with Cupid’s arrow plan a big moment to propose. What bigger moment than February 14? And what better way than with a big sparkly rock? That’s where the diamond ring comes in. Not trying to ruin your moment if that’s what you have planned, but the sparkly rock things is another corporate-controlled plan.
Think diamond engagement rings have been popular forever? Nope. It was New York’s Tiffany & Co that introduced the humongous (or less so) diamond solitaire in 1886. But the idea didn’t skyrocket until the late 1930s when the De Beers diamond company carefully crafted one of the world’s most successful marketing campaigns. Ever hear the phrase “Diamonds are forever”? That came from the original De Beers campaign to lure buyers with the thought that the diamond equated everlasting love.
De Beers is also responsible for the idea that the proposer should spend one month’s income on an engagement ring. That was such a successful marketing ploy, that they later upped the ante to two months income. You can see why I’m a little cynical and skeptical of all the love we associate with Valentine’s Day. We’re programmed by sly marketers to buy stuff.
To quote another song: “What’s love got to do with it?”
Seriously, what does love have to do with any of this commercial nonsense? Am I being cynical or simply realistic? I’m not averse to love (or romance).
What are all the people who are single—by choice or otherwise, or just not into the whole consumer mentality supposed to do on February 14?
If love is truly about giving, not receiving, they you can share love in numerous ways on Valentine’s Day. Be a secret Cupid and leave a little something special on the desk of someone who needs cheering up. Maybe they’ve had a rough year. Or maybe they’ve been unlucky at love lately. Why not cheer up their day with something special? A book to read. A Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate. A single rose. A package of M&Ms. A cheery photograph.
How about smiles for strangers on the street (without being creepy about it)?
I recently experienced several situations of love, not the mushy romantic type, but the kind where a person truly gives of him/herself.
Amidst more than 80 mm of snow (almost 70 mm of it coming within less than 24 hours), I made my way around New York City during the recent mega-storm. I experienced the many communities of a city going through a difficult environmental moment.
One thing stuck out. Lots of smiles and laughter. People made snowmen in the middle of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, streets usually teaming with traffic. They tossed footballs on West 54th. New Yorkers are supremely resilient.
By noon, the Metro buses were shut down. As of 2:30, all non-essential vehicles were banned from the streets. By 4 p.m. the subway system was shutting down and Broadway went dark for the night.
On Pell Street in Chinatown, a location where the crowds are usually shoulder to shoulder and cars bumper to bumper, a young boy, alone in the middle of the street with his parents watching from a doorway nearby, lifted piles of snow on his little shovel and tossed them in the air, laughing with each batch of snow he sent skyward. His parents shivered, but with smiles on their faces. The family lived in that moment where love is lived. They smiled at me as I walked by.
On a subway platform, itself covered with snow blown from outside by howling winds, a tall man, a Samuel L. Jackson doppelganger (or maybe it was the real dude, New York’s like that), whistled Stand By Me. The ghost of Ben E. King lives. Within seconds, three young women snapped their fingers in time to the beat. Within another minute, all 15 people on the subway platform sang the song. At first I thought it was a flash mob, but I found myself joining in with what was simply a community coming together in a difficult moment. Love is found in community support.
Love is about giving. I recently witnessed it in the form of a young woman, still living in Goth or post-punk mode with beautiful hair in shades of jet black, blue and purple. Piercings filled her ears, lips, nose, cheek and eyelids. The razor blades attached to her leather jacket completed the look. Her partner was equally adorned.
With the snow up to my knees and 80 kph winds making the falling snow feel like sleet, I saw an elderly woman with a walker hobbling at the corner on the other side of a snow bank. There appeared to be no way she was going to make it across the street. I wanted to help her, but, before I could, the post-punk couple approached her. I don’t know what was said, but each of them took one of the elderly woman’s arms (the young woman also carried the walker and the woman’s bag of groceries) and helped her cross a four-lane street.
I stood and watched and realized the dampness in my eyes wasn’t from the snow pelting my face.
As they reached the far side of the street, the pair remained with the woman until she walked up to a door. The couple gave her a long hug and helped her up the steps. She was safe from the storm. She opened her purse and tried to give them something, but they gestured refusal and shook their heads. She waved at them as they walked away, then she closed the door, probably feeling quite cared for in that moment.
Forty-eight hours earlier I’d heard that a brutal storm was about to hit the east coast, but what I experienced over the day was love. No romance. Just love. I’ll take that any day.
So, on Valentine’s Day, if you want to express and feel love, be like the young couple who helped the elderly woman with her walker cross the street.
I’m trying to find a way to express mixed feelings about Valentine’s Day. I’m failing badly, so I’ll end with a quote from Jack Kerouac:
“One day I’ll find the right words, and they will be simple.”